If you think sushi, ramen and udon are all that Japanese cuisine has to offer, think again. Street food culture is fairly abundant, especially in open food markets and stalls that pop up around various temple festivals throughout the year. Some of the very best snacks are delicious riffs on everyday Japanese staples like rice, seafood and noodles, and many are connected with specific cities, telling a tale of the area’s unique food history.
So, begin your street food adventure by sampling some of these favorites described below. It’s an affordable and mouthwatering way to taste the unique and varied flavors Japan has to offer.
An omelet-like pancake with as many varied toppings as a pizza, okonomiyaki translates to “whatever you like grilled” in Japanese. It’s typically made with a batter containing flour and eggs, with mix-ins like cabbage, scallions, seafood or meats. The snack comes from the south of Japan, namely the cities of Osaka and Hiroshima, where it is served with fried noodles. Throughout the country, you’ll find restaurants (like the famous Micchan Fukuya shop in Hiroshima) and stalls preparing the savory dish on a hot griddle and serving it up with an array of condiments, from Japanese mayonnaise and okonomi sauce, a richer, sweeter version of Worcestershire sauce, to salty, umami-flavored bonito flakes.
Translated directly as “octopus fry,” takoyaki is a festival staple in Japan. The Osaka comfort food consists of a round ball of fluffy dough filled with diced octopus and topped off with savory takoyaki sauce, another rendition of Worcestershire sauce. It’s served piping hot, often in a wooden, boat-shaped dish, and can be found in restaurants, food trucks and convenience stores around Japan. If you happen to be in Osaka, why not go on a takoyaki crawl and sample some of the best the city has to offer?
Senbei is a traditional Japanese rice cracker that was first introduced to Japan from China centuries ago during the Tang Dynasty. Originally made with potatoes, senbei evolved over time to be made with toasted rice as its main ingredient and salty soy sauce as seasoning. Today, the crackers can be found in a variety of flavors, from curry and seaweed to red pepper, as is common with other Japanese snacks (we’re looking at you, wasabi chocolate bars). Street vendors often toast them over an open flame, brushing them with soy sauce to create a warm and oh-so-addictive savory snack.
Perhaps you’ve never considered squid to be a fast food, but in Japan the grilled sea creature (ika means squid and yaki translates to “cooked over a flame”) can be picked up from a festival market stand and eaten in its entirety, or in parts, on a skewer. The tentacled delicacy is doused with soy sauce and a variety of seasonings — and really hits the spot when paired with a cold beer or sake.
This fish-shaped cake is arguably the most aesthetically pleasing of the Japanese snack offerings. With its waffle-like flavor, taiyaki is traditionally filled with sweet red bean paste (anko), while more modern interpretations swap that hidden ingredient with cheese, custard, chocolate and even ice cream. For some of the best taiyaki in Tokyo, check out the century-old shop Yanagiya in the Ningyocho neighborhood, which efficiently feeds its long lines of loyal, pastry-loving customers.