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What happened to street food in Japan?

In the UK, we have an undeniable love for Japanese food. And who can blame us? It’s notoriously nutritious and famed for fresh ingredients. But what do you know about Japanese street food? Japan is a country that balances traditional with ultra-modern, but is lagging behind in the street food scene, unlike many of its other Asian neighbours and renowned Japanese food blogger, Kanako Noda, believes that vegetarian street food is hard to come by in Japan. To find out why, we need to take a trip back in time.

  • The decline of the yatai

    In the 1950s, Japan’s cities were bustling with street food vendors, but when Japan was chosen to host the summer Olympics in 1964, Japanese cities worried that unregulated street food vendors (or “yatai” as they’re called in Japan), would reflect badly on the country’s image. It was a sad time for yatai owners in the North, as before the Olympics, Japan made the decision to remove them from the streets. Meanwhile, in the southern city of Fukuoka, yatai vendors lobbied aggressively to continue their beloved trade.

    Yatai vendors today

    In Fukuoka, the original Japanese street food markets still exist and today, the city’s oldest yatai have been operating for decades. But if yatai still continued to trade in other parts of Japan…why has street food only started to become popular again in the main cities?

  • Until more recently, street food was unwelcome in most of the bustling cities of Japan. And if you’re acquainted with Japanese culture, it’s easy to see why – the Japanese see it as rude to eat on the go, preferring to eat in a more reserved manner, the polar opposite of the big, bold world of street food. Sophisticated sushi bars sit very firmly in the nation’s comfort zone.

    But, with the tough economic climate in Japan, and with other cultures having an influence on the country, street food is on the rise in the cities of Kyoto and Tokyo. Sushi is offered as a street food dish now and the best places to eat it are down by Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market. And in Osaka, the batter-based okonomiyaki pancakes are considered a speciality.

  • Vegetarian street food still has a long way to go…

    We’re lucky to have an amazing choice of vegetarian street food vendors in the UK, but in Japan, vegetarian street food is a little harder to come by. We spoke to Kanako Noda, a Japanese food blogger, to get her take on vegetarian street food scene in Japan.

    Does vegetarian street food exist in Japan?

    Typical Japanese street food, such as Ramen, Okonomiyaki, Takoyaki, Oden or Yakitori, for example, can’t be vegetarian, or at least, Japanese people believe street food can’t be delicious without meat.

    So, do any vegetarian dishes exist on the street food scene?

    Most of my Western vegetarian friends have a terrible time eating in Japan: meat is seldom at the centre of a meal, but it’s virtually always in there in one form or another. And when it comes to street food – cheap and filling stuff, wow, it really is hard to think of any exceptions. Maybe, senbei (rice crackers), dango (rice ball with sweeten soy sauce) or kakigoori (Japanese style granita) could be interesting as vegetarian street food.

    It seems that the yatai in Japan is making a comeback, but there’s still a long road ahead of us until vegetarian cuisine will be made mainstream, in the country famed for sushi. We have however found some AWESOME UK vendors that are serving up vegetarian street food for you to try, check it out.

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