The Weird and Wonderful World of Japanese Street Food
Summer is around the corner. I can feel it on my skin. The hot, heavy air; the gentle sizzle you feel on your shoulders when you step outside. If you’ve never experienced a summer in the concrete jungle, you’re in for a ride. It’s like living in a world where the only climate is “sauna.” But I’m not here to tell you about the heat of the jungle. I am here to inform you of how the locals not only deal with it, but embrace it.
Natsumatsuri (夏祭り), or summer festivals, are usually held between the months of June and September, and they’re the most spectacular thing—treetops swaying in humid summer nights’ breeze, people young and old strolling about in nothing but yukata, crickets chirping their version of a lullaby, and the soft low light of the paper lanterns. The cool attitude towards strangers, which is so rampant in Tokyo, melts and everyone joins in the festivities—over food and drink, naturally. But what to eat?
- Takoyaki (たこ焼き) are stodgy octopus balls (not testicles) topped with mayo and takoyaki sauce (similar to Worcestershire sauce)
- Yakisoba (焼きそば): stir-fried noodles with chopped cabbage, carrots and bean sprouts and a Worcestershire-like sauce
- Ikayaki (いか焼き): grilled whole squid, often served with a slice of lemon
- Yakitoumorokoshi (焼きとうもろこし) is grilled sweet corn on the cob, often brushed with soy sauce
- Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き) is a savory pancake with sliced cabbage, bonito flakes and anything else under the sun; literally translated it means “cook to your choice”
- Ayu no shioyaki (鮎の塩焼き): the ayu, or sweetfish’s, tail and fins are doused in salt, then slow-cooked over a glowing charcoal barbecue
- Oobanyaki (大判焼き) or imagawayaki (今川焼き) is a waffle-like cake but with all sorts of fillings depending on the region
- Isobeyaki (磯辺焼き): mochi (pounded rice cake) brushed with soy sauce and wrapped in dried seaweed
- Kushiyaki (串焼き): anything grilled, baked or barbecued on a kushi, or stick
Then the fun stuff that kids will beg you for:
- Kakigori (かき氷): shaved ice with a syrup of your choice (standard flavors are strawberry, melon, lemon and something called “blue Hawaii”—don’t ask!)
- Ringoame (りんご飴), or apple candy, is a toffee apple/candied apple. In recent years they’ve branched out to all sorts of fruits, including grapes, strawberries, pineapples and mikan (tangerines).
- Wataame (綿あめ): cotton candy, which has been rated the most popular natsumatsuri treat for children
- Chocobanana (チョコバナナ) is a banana, obviously, on a stick, dipped in chocolate with chocolate sprinkles
- Furankufuruto (フランクフルト), or Frankfurt, refers not to the German city on the Main River but to the sausage on a stick, sold loaded with ketchup and mustard. Sometimes the mustard is replaced with karashi, the Japanese equivalent of mustard, except it has a surprisingly strong wasabi-like spiciness that will make your eyes water.
- Amerikandoggu (アメリカンドッグ), or American dog, which is known around the world as a corn dog. In Japan the traditional cornmeal around the sausage is made with HM or Hottokeki Mikkusu (hotcake mix), a popular pancake mix by Japanese confectionary company Morinaga.
- Anzuame (あんず飴) is a “loose” (for lack of a better word) candy that has different canned fruits dipped into it, then left on the ice to chill. Accompanying the candy is a small edible plate, made of a similar material to that of an ice cream cone.
- Bebikasutera (ベビーカステラ), or baby castella, are miniature, reconstructed versions of a traditional Japanese cake made with honey instead of sugar. And by reconstructed, I mean they can be in any shape or kyarakuta—the Japanese word for character. I often see Doraemon.
There are numerous local natsumatsuri foods that I didn’t get into. The ones listed above are just the standard ones you might find here in Kanto.
If you are new to Tokyo and have no way of knowing where the summer festivals are, just listen for the music and follow the paper lanterns—they’ll lead you to the natsumatsuri.
Photos by Ari Helminen, Dominic Alves, and Dick Thomas Johnson.
The Kumon correspondence course is a learning method that allows you to learn Japanese by self-learning and online reading lessons, at just ¥9,720 per month!