What’s a visit to Japan without the full experience of Japanese street food? It’s the rite of passage to a full immersion of the local culture! Some of these delicious treats have a history that dates back to the 20th century — how insane is that!
The most common place to find a sweet array of Japanese street food is during a festival. Hundreds of food stalls known as yatai (屋台) line to local streets and roadsides, offering anything and everything there is to offer during the season. From kakigori (カキ氷, a dessert consisting of shaved ice with flavoured syrup) in summer to grilled treats in winter, you won’t be satisfied until you’ve tried them all!
Affordable yet high-quality and delicious, what’s not to like about Japanese street food? The list is endless — takoyaki (タコ焼き) and yakiniku (焼肉) are, of course, the title holders for most famous Japanese street foods — but let’s take a look at the 10 most unique ones out there.
1. Taiyaki (鯛焼き)
For those with a sweet tooth, you definitely need to try this; the taiyaki (鯛焼き) is a fish-shaped waffle that is usually filled with flavourings like red bean paste, chocolate or custard. Take your pick based on what you fancy at the moment — or try them all!
Taiyaki are made in specially-manufactured molds shaped like fish. The exterior is crispy and made from a simple batter mix of flour, baking soda, sugar and salt — complementing perfectly with the smooth, soft interior filling.
This sweet Japanese street food is more common in Tokyo, but you’ll definitely see some yatai in other tourist attraction cities selling them. There’s a huge discussion about the proper way of eating taiyaki — is it heads first or tail? I personally go for the head!
2. Dango (団子)
If you like soft, chewy and sweet, this Japanese street food is made for you. Dango (団子) is a skewer of dumplings made from mochiko (もち粉), a type of rice flour, and often drowned in sweet sugar and shoyu (醤油) sauce.
Dango are served all year round — no season is attached to it. However, you do get seasonal-flavoured dango like the hanami (花見) dango, which is named after the cherry blossoms and is made to resemble the pink, white and green of the season’s scenery. You’ll typically get three to five dango on a stick.
There are also other types of dango depending on your preference for sweetness and filling level. For example, a sweet potato-filled dango might as well be a whole meal!
3. Senbei (煎餅)
You see this Japanese street food everywhere. You can buy senbei (煎餅) in-stores but the ones you get at a yatai are unbeatable — they’re cooked over a charcoal grill, giving a special kind of crispiness. Senbei can come in all kinds of shapes, sizes and flavors; typically they’re served savoury with soy sauce or salt seasoning, but you can also get them in sweet varieties as well.
Dense and crunchy senbei are common in Tokyo while lightly textured ones are more common in Kyoto because it’s made from mochigome (もち米) rice there. If you are in Nara and happen to have a few senbei with you, bring them to feed the sacred deers — they have grown to love this delicious local treat and might even bow to you for one!
4. Imagawayaki (今川焼き)
They look like mini pancakes — they might as well be. Imagawayaki (今川焼き) started out in Tokyo during the Edo era, and this sweet treat was named after a bridge that it was originally sold on. What a culturally rich treat, isn’t it?
Imagawayaki is made from a batter mix of flour, eggs, sugar and water. The mix is baked in disk-shaped molds that create golden and spongy bite-sized cakes. Normally, imagawayaki are filled with red bean paste, chocolate or custard — just like the taiyaki.
5. Yakiimo (焼き芋)
Travel back in time to olden Japan with this Japanese street food, the yakiimo (焼き芋). This autumn treat is sure to warm up your bellies and fill you with not only sweet potato goodness but also a blast of culture.
To make the yakiimo, Japanese sweet potatoes are baked carefully over a wood fire. They are then served in brown paper packets, sometimes in convenient bite sizes. Some even describe the soft skin of the yakiimo as caramel-like flavour.
6. Ikayaki (イカ焼き)
If you love takoyaki, take a step up and go for the ikayaki (イカ焼き)! Instead of getting cube-sized octopus bites, go all out and get a full squid, grilled over charcoal that gives the slimy meat a mouthwatering, chewy texture.
It may look like simple Japanese street food but when it’s made right, you’ll be surprised at how something so simple is so delicious. The skewered octopus is then topped off with a generous amount of soy sauce and a slice of lemon or lime to add on to the flavourful experience.
7. Yaki Tomorokoshi (焼きとうもろこし)
The Japanese love their corn — they appear on anything, from pizzas and pasta to bread. In summer, corn is in season, and that’s when this famous Japanese street food makes its appearance. Yaki tomorokoshi (焼きとうもろこし) is whole cobs of corn that are chargrilled over an open flame, sometimes with miso.
That’s not all there is to this treat; it’ll be brushed with a glaze of soy sauce, mirin and butter to give yaki tomorokoshi the mix of sweet and savoury depths in flavour. This Japanese street food can be a healthier alternative compared to the other fried and sugary options you find at other yatai.
Yaki tomorokoshi is often associated with Hokkaido, so that’s your best bet at seeing various yatai serving this snack. But because it’s become such a national street food, you’ll easily find this treat in any other city in Japan.
8. Shioyaki (塩焼き)
Don’t be deceived by the simplicity of how it looks; shioyaki (塩焼き) is actually quite a flavourful Japanese street food. It usually consists of fish that’s been marinated overnight in salt and grilled over flames the next day.
Usually, mackerel is used to create this dish as it’s one of the most common catches throughout the year. However, when there are seasonal catches of fish, the seasonal shioyaki make their way onto the yatai menu. An annual seasonal shioyaki is the tai no shioyaki (鯛の塩焼き) which is made of sea bream and can only be found at New Year festivals.
9. Nikuman (肉まん)
While you’ll get this all-year-round and even in convenience stores, nothing beats the ones at Japanese street festivals. This steamy dough with pork and onion filling called nikuman (肉まん) is usually served during the winter season to warm street folks right up.
These buns are pretty much the Japanese equivalent of the Chinese steamed buns called bao. Traditionally, the filling is meat but recently there have been tons of other kinds of fillings for these steamed buns — think red bean paste or even pizza toppings!
10. Candied Fruits
Last but definitely not least, one of the most unique Japanese street foods is candied fruits. This is without a doubt a street classic everywhere in Japan and you can find them in many fruit variations, all drenched generously with syrup.
The most common one is the ringo ame (リンゴ飴) which are candied apples. There are seasonal candied fruits as well, like the ichigo ame (イチゴ飴) which are candied strawberries that you’ll be able to taste at the peak of strawberry season in spring. If you’re lucky enough to spot a yatai selling mikan ame (ミカン飴), grab a stick because this candied mandarin is made of a fruit that’s native to Japan and quite rare.
Have these unique Japanese street foods got your mouth watering and belly rumbling yet? While there are only ten on the list, the world of Japanese street foods is huge and it’s nothing like anything you can imagine — you have to see it to believe it. So what are you waiting for? Get on planning a trip to Japan during the peak festive season for your ultimate foodie experience.