The fantastic feast of festival food in Japan

The fantastic feast of festival food in Japan

TOKYO —

During the year of college I spent studying at Waseda University, I lived with a Japanese family in the suburbs of Tokyo. They were extremely hospitable and took great care of me, guiding me around the neighborhood and helping me improve my language skills.

Still, looking back, there’s one thing they did that I still can’t wrap my head around. One night we were headed to a local festival, and before we left, my host mom prepared a huge dinner, so that we wouldn’t get hungry and have to buy anything at the food stalls there.

Honestly, in my mind, buying munchies on-site was half the fun of going to those kinds of events. An additional decade of living in Japan has only strengthened my opinion on the matter, and as proof, here are 18 of Japan’s best festival foods.

Japanese website Gadget Tsushin recently polled 1,000 Japanese men and women, asking them to choose their favorite festival stalls from a list of over 50 choices. Before we dive in, a word of warning: If you’re not hungry now, you probably will be by the time this is over.

18. Imagawayaki (1.7 percent)

These disc-shaped cakes test best when served right off the grill. Inside you’ll find a generous dollop of anko, the sweet red bean paste that makes everything better (including rice cooker green tea pancakes).

16 (tie). Crepes (2 percent)

Really, you can find crepes in Japan anywhere teenage girls congregate, including malls and shopping streets like Harajuku’s Takeshita Street. The fact that they’re easy to hold and eat in one hand, without a table, makes them a popular pick at festivals, too.

16 (tie). Soft serve ice cream (2 percent)

The majority of Japanese festivals take place at night in the summer, so a cooling dessert like ice cream is always going to be in demand.

15. Steak skewers (2.2 percent)

On the other hand, if you’re looking for an entrée on a stick, this would be a better choice. In recent years, meaty skewer stands are becoming a more and more common site at festivals, with some offering pork, different cuts, and even your choice of marinade.

14. Corn on the cob (2.4 percent)

As popular in the festivals of Japan as it is in the heartland of America, Japanese corn on the cob is basted with a sweet soy-sauce glaze so good it’ll have you wondering why you ever even bothered putting butter on it.

13. Corn dogs (2.5 percent)

If you hail from the U.S., don’t be offended if you visit a festival in Japan and hear someone shout, “Oh, American dogs!” They’re not trying to pick a fight, they’re just using the local term for corn dogs.

12. Buttered potatoes (2.6 percent)

Similar to baked potatoes, jaga bataa, as they’re called in Japanese, can either be one large spud or a handful of smaller ones. Either way, they’re slathered in enough butter to make you giddy from the flavor overload even as all that cholesterol slows the blood flow to your heart.

11. Grilled squid (2.8 percent)

Also known as ikayaki, grilled squid has two strikes against it. First, if you’re not used to eating cephalopods, it can look kind of gross. Second, it’s incredibly chewy. But you know what, neither of those two things make it any less delicious, so close your eyes and gnash your teeth, because this is some good stuff.

9 (tie). Banana choco (2.9 percent)

The dessert formerly known as choco banana has experienced a surge in popularity just at the time vendors have given it a hip inverted name. With strawberry and melon-infused chocolate coatings, plus colorful crunchy sprinkles, the fact that it also contains a whole banana is a good way to justify eating this as an important part of a balanced diet.

9 (tie). Ramune (2.9 percent)

You can walk into just about any Japanese grocery store, at any time, and get a bottle of ramune, the fizzy soda that you open by pressing down on the glass marble in the bottle’s tip. Still, it’s been a staple of summer festivals in Japan for generations.

7 (tie). Frankfurters (3 percent)

They’re like American dogs, but naked.

7 (tie). Baby Castella (3 percent)

These are tiny bite-size versions of Castella, a type of cake adapted from those brought centuries ago by Portuguese traders and really the first Western-style dessert to gain a foothold in Japan. While they’re usually little spheres, some vendors sell them in the shape of popular children’s’ characters like Pokémon mascot/overlord of Yokohama Pikachu.

6. Candy apples (3.4 percent)

You can also find candy strawberries, but sweet, sticky candy apples are generally the bigger draw.

5. Cotton candy (3.5 percent)

Another one that’s as popular in Tokyo as Coney Island, although you’re much less likely to find it sold in bags decorated with PreCure and Doraemon in New York.

3 (tie). Okonomiyaki (4.1 percent)

Japan has always had plenty of okonomiyaki restaurants, but its popularity at festival food stalls has really taken off in the last couple of years. The whole cooking process for the crepes, which include cabbage, pork, and a sweet sauce, takes a bit of time to complete, so you’ll often see vendors cooking it up in batches, and you can see the various stages of progress going from right to left, in the above photo.

3 (tie). Shaved ice (4.1 percent)

Even when it’s not covered in whiskey, it’s hard to say no to a cup of cooling shaved ice. Strawberry, melon, and lemon are the most common flavors in Japan, and in recent years a lot of food stands have been letting customers pour as much of as many types of syrup onto their cup of ice as they like.

2. Takoyaki (10.7 percent)

This spherical dumplings, with a chunk of octopus inside, are consistently tasty and easy to eat, since you just stab them with a toothpick and pop them in your mouth. Watch out though, as they’re incredibly hot on the inside.

1. Yakisoba (14.5 percent)

And atop the throne of festival food, we find yakisoba, Japan’s favorite stir-fried noodle dish that also comes with cabbage, pork, carrots, and a few slices of pickled ginger. You could randomly pick a hundred yakisoba stands, and 99 of them would taste great, and since vendors can quickly cook up a huge pile of noodles and divide them up into orders as needed, the lines tend to move fast, and if you grab an extra pair of chopsticks, yakisoba is just about the perfect food to share with a friend.

Sources: Gadget Tsushin, Jin

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  • -1

    Yubaru

    The fantastic feast of festival food in Japan

    Sorry but where I am in Japan festival food is over-priced, hardly edible at times and better suited for people who are looking to eat something "greasy" to go with their over-priced warm beer.

    3 (tie). Shaved ice (4.1 percent)

    Learn something new every day, shaved ice is food!

  • 3

    Tokiyo

    Yubaru: I think the same can be said about festival/carnival food anywhere, it is what it is - you only live once, no need to be so bitter, loosen up!

  • 0

    Wakarimasen

    2 3 12 agree that it is a bit of a ripoff though. but for a good cause.

  • -2

    smithinjapan

    Definitely a rip off, especially for the 'bigger meat' skewers mentioned in the article, which are often very fatty and full of sinew, with no sauce or anything. Still, it's the atmosphere that makes it good. While I pass on almost all of the foods mentioned above (I sometimes go for the karaage), the stalls and games make the walk through the festival grounds a more fun one, especially at night when they are all lit up.

  • 2

    ReformedBasher

    Kakegori (and Ichigo Miruku - with condensed milk) are enemies of my waistline but great on a hot Summer's day. How fortunate there's a shop near the start/finish of my hiking route. Yum.

  • 2

    Himajin

    "Still, looking back, there’s one thing they did that I still can’t wrap my head around. One night we were headed to a local festival, and before we left, my host mom prepared a huge dinner, so that we wouldn’t get hungry and have to buy anything at the food stalls there."

    She's frugal. A whole family eating at those stalls can rack up quite a bill.

  • 1

    sensei258

    I stay away from festival food like takoyaki and okonomiyaki after realizing both the finished products and the ingredients have been sitting in the hot sun all day. I saw one stall leave all their bags of frozen chicken in the sun on the hot sidewalk to thaw. The buttered potatoes looked good, until I watched them scoop the butter out of a 5-gallon bucket. Love the corn on the cob, kakigori, and banana choco though.

  • 1

    ReformedBasher

    Kataki-senbei are good too. But be warned they are a little hard (opposite of soft).

    Good with coffee.

  • 0

    philly1

    She's frugal. A whole family eating at those stalls can rack up quite a bill.

    Right. I'm with host Mom and her strategy. You eat more economically, you don't waste time in line, you have less risk of food poisoning from mishandled food (as described by sensei258), you don't have to bother with inferior fast foods or risk getting spills on your clothes. That's true of most any festival or country fair anywhere. Of course, there is often some fundraising for worthy causes going on, but I prefer to make a direct donation and eat well elsewhere. But host Mom isn't a college student. That may account for her (and my) perspective on the subject.

  • 5

    jack o helen

    It all depends on which festivals you go to. I for one stay away from the big ones and hit the small local ones which have much better prices for foods. Many of the local ones are sponsored by local farms and supermarkets and so the vegetables served tend to be fresher and cheaper. Also, local festivals tend to have more manageable crowds. No long waits in line for foods. The bigger festivals tend to have the food stalls run by yakuza-looking people and are very overpriced.

  • 3

    Tahoochi

    It's definitely the atmosphere that makes festival food taste good. Kind of like when you're camping; coffee, bacon and eggs just seem to taste better when you're camping.

  • 3

    Stephen Knight

    Knowing what they serve at county fairs in the U.S. (deep-fried everything), a lot of this sounds almost healthy. Ika is my favorite, though.

  • -1

    Fox Sora Winters

    2,3,9,9 and 11 sound best to me. Never had Octopus before, but Takoyaki sounds nice all the same. Shaved ice sounds pretty awesome as well since I love pretty much anything cold. Ramune and Banana choco are right up my street as well. Ikayaki sounds like an... interesting experience. Never knew what Okonomiyaki and Yakisoba was until now. The descriptions of both killed my appetite unfortunately. Cabbage typically doesn't sit well with me. Ginger nauseates me as it is, so I dread to think what pickled ginger would do. Still, I've seen way worse at fairs before. Eyeballs anyone?

  • 0

    Raymond Chuang

    Actually, kakigori is a form of shaved ice, and for the first half of the 20th Century they were often served on little glass bowls called korikoppu. Of course, today kakigori is served at summer matsuri (festivals) on paper cones or paper cups.

  • 0

    Meguroman

    Most is absolute garbage. I don`t let my kids eat anything at the matsuri.

  • 0

    zichi

    We always celebrate Obon, a time to remember those family members who went before us. An experience I didn't have until coming to live in Japan, but I think it good to at least remember your ancestors and where you came from.

    Because of that, even though not a National Holiday, for two days we treat it like one especially when it comes to food. Today I made duck rice pancakes which we enjoyed with a very good red wine. Tomorrow I'll make roast duck legs with roast potatoes, whole corn and of course, a good red wine.

    I do believe the ancestors would have enjoyed it too!

  • 0

    Jason Lovelace

    One of the things I miss about being in Japan now that I'm in the States is the Festival Food, especially Yakisoba and Takoyaki. New Years' and Obon and Summer Festival were my favorites when I lived in Japan. With apologies to Yubaru, the food where I lived was always magnificent and not too highly priced.

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