Japan is famous for its street food culture, with street vendors (yatai) serving both sweet and savory noms that are usually based off of food that has been passed along from centuries prior. In larger cities you can find shopping districts, which consists of one super long covered block lined with hundreds of vendors on either side. Eat your way from one end to the other and you can pretty much completely avoid stepping into a restaurant...ever. Street vendors will also make their rounds at the hundreds of thousands of festivals and events all over the country. Here are some of our favorites that we were able to get our grubby hands on.
Yakitori is skewered chicken, using a bamboo or wooden stick, which is grilled over a charcoal fire. There are plenty of restaurants that specialize in yakitori and offer more exotic menu items such as chicken liver, chicken heart, and chicken skin. If you're in Kyoto, I would highly recommend Yasohachi (八十八) (directions here) in Pontocho Alley.
The best yakitori we had, by far, was on a random street cart on the side of the Meguro River. It was grilled up by this nonchalant dude and slathered with a savory sauce to top it off.
This little guy garners quite the line. Taiyaki is a fish-shaped cake (made with regular batter) stuffed to the brim with sweet red bean paste. The dough is slightly salty which gives the snack a nice balance of flavors.
Some vendors will offer various varieties, such as matcha dough, sweet potato filling, custard filling, dipped in ice cream...the list goes on and on. There's even a cronut version of the Teriyaki, if you dare.
3. Pancake Pies
While we were rummaging through the hipster neighborhood of Shimokitazawa of Tokyo, we stumbled upon Flipper's, which boasted a line around the corner. While not technically street food, there was a take-out window where we grabbed some of their pancake pies (which comes in plain cream, lemon cream cheese, or chocolate). These guys are like ice cream sandwiches, but replace the ice cream with cream and cookies with crispy pancakes.
Typically, Flipper's is known for their fluffy, melt-in-your-mouth kiseki pancakes, topped with the shop's original maple butter cream. You can also choose to add on fresh fruit or choose from a savory breakfast option. However, these are only an option for staying customers, so if you want to grab that Instagram-able plate of goodness, get ready to wait.
Dango is Japanese dumpling made with rice flour which is steamed and boiled. It comes in a variety of types and the one you'll most likely recognize is the Hanami dango, which comes in three colors and is also that peculiar emoji you don't quite get. 🍡
The skewer pictured to the right is the Mitarashi Dango, which is dipped in a sugared soy sauce, making it strangely both savory and sweet at the same time.
It was so tasty that the top ball didn't even make it to the photo and was already making a home in Jeremy's hungry belly.
5. Animal Doughnuts
Literally translated to animal doughnuts, "doubutsu doonatsu" (どうぶつドーナツ) might be the cutest thing you eat in Japan, and that's saying something. Jeremy helped himself to an owl (the beak was an almond) and our friend Dennis treated himself to the most adorable pig you've ever seen in your life (photo here).
Stop by Floresta Nature Doughnuts in Kyoto's Shinkyogoku Shopping District (they have locations all over Japan) and get your hands on one. They're almost too cute to eat. Almost.
Walking through the streets of Nara, you can hear street vendors yelling "Yaki-imo, ishi-yaki-imo!" from their portable wood burning stoves. In more modern, non-touristy neighborhoods, you'll see vendors ditching the stoves for trucks.
Yaki Imo are charcoal roasted Japanese sweet potatoes which differ from American sweet potatoes, featuring a maroon skin, a creamy, yellow interior, and a slightly sweeter taste. Their history dates back to the 18th century (read more here) and brings out all the nostalgic feels for traditional Japanese winters.
Keep in mind that they weigh the potato and will charge you by the gram.
7. Soft Serve
In the more touristy areas of Japan, you can't turn a corner and not see a street vendor or small shop selling green tea soft serve.
As tempting as green tea was (and trust me, we got some later), we had to try the black sesame ice cream. Other flavors included white peach, vanilla, and soda.
Whatever sort of cravings we had were 100% satisfied.
8. Grilled Squid (IIkayaki)
So many things on sticks! As you walk through Kyoto's Shinkyogoku Shopping District, you'll be overwhelmed by vendor after vendor after vendor of delicious foods on sticks. The best vendors will freshly gill your meat for you, hence the steaming smoke protruding from the tip.
Jeremy is a squid kind of guy, so he had to go for the skewered squid legs. These were well-seasoned, albeit a bit overcooked, but if these don't tickle your fancy (because they definitely don't tickle mine), help yourself to some octopus or chicken instead.
9. Soybean Yuba Doughnut
This was the perfect, quick, tasty snack to keep us going as we explored the beautiful town of Arashiyama, home to the infamous bamboo garden and Tenryu-ji temple.
Soybean yuba doughnuts are warm, light, and have just the right amount of tastiness to keep you energetic, light, and spritely, without weighing you down and giving you the urge to lay down on the clean, Japanese streets for a nap.
Yatsuhashi is known as one of many Japanese souvenir sweets (土産菓子) and is made of glutinous rice flour (part of the mochi family), sugar, and cinnamon. It's typically wrapped around some sweet, red bean paste but they come in all types of flavor.
Most shops selling Yatsuhashi will give out free samples so you can taste them all before you make your final selection to take home (or just enjoy the freebies).
Hands down, one of my Top 5 favorite Japanese foods. Karaage is Japanese fried chicken and it's better than any fried chicken you've had in America. What's the difference?
The pieces of chicken are first marinated in soy sauce, ginger, and garlic, and then covered in potato starch and fried. You guys, it's perfectly crispy and then perfectly juicy.
I'm pretty sure we had about 20 servings of these during our trip. We could've used more.
12. Little Dough Bites
So we have no clue what the hell these are called, but they're little, sweet bites of dough baked in a cast iron mold, which produces tons of these all in one go.
This is one of those snacks you grab right before you head on a long train ride, which is exactly what we did as we departed Nara to head back to Kyoto.
13. Choco Banana
And finally, this is exactly what it looks like. It's a chocolate-covered banana covered in sprinkles.
We were too immature and we immediately started taking photos like this instead of grabbing the shot we needed...so here you are.
Dennis, if you're reading this, be thankful there isn't a close-up of your banana mid-mouth too.
Our stomachs couldn't take anymore, unfortunately, but we know the list of Japanese street foods goes on and on and on.
What are some of your favorites that didn't make our list?
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