It goes without saying that when traveling to another country, especially one where the culture is different as Japan, that the food can and arguably should be an integral part of the experience. Getting advice from a hotel concierge or other local resident is always helpful. And of course, if you’re fortunate enough to have a friend or acquaintance who lives in the area, how great is that?
Above all of that though, perhaps the absolute best way to experience the culture any new destination is quite simple: eat like a local! One of the best ways to do that is as simple as going where the locals go. And one place you’re sure to find locals is a festival. It’s hard to even turn around without having a local festival for something somewhere nearly anytime during the year. Winter sees its share of snow and ice festivals, mostly in the Northern areas of Honshu and Hokkaido, where the grand-daddy of all winter festivals, the Sapporo Snow Festival, has been going strong for nearly 70 years! Spring and summer celebrate the blooming of tree blossoms of nearly every hue and give way to Yosakoi and fireworks during the heat of July and August.
With so many people attending so many festivals, they must be eating something! Here are five foods you’re bound to find at nearly any festival anywhere in Japan. Three savoury and two sweet, when you’re enjoying any of these foods, you’re truly eating like a local.
Japanese people certainly love their meat! Yakitori (meat skewers). Yakitori makes the perfect festival food because it’s automatically made for walking and eating. Depending on where you are, you’ll often find the local Wagyu beef included among the sticks of pork, chicken and sausages. Look for Japanese versions of what type of meat is on offer, 牛 = beef, 豚 = pork, 鳥 = chicken. Expect to pay ¥100-¥500 per skewer depending on the type and size of meat.
Yakisoba is perhaps the American corn dog of Japanese festivals. Meaning it’s absolutely everywhere. (Interestingly enough, there are fried, battered hot dogs on sticks in Japan…they’re called American Dogs) Yakisoba, stir-fried noodles with vegetables is simple and delicious, and so ubiquitous that it could be the number one grab-and -go food. It usually has meat, most often thinly sliced pork. It’s most often garnished with red pickled ginger and sprinkled with aonori flakes…think parsley, but much tastier. Yakisoba will usually be about ¥300-¥600 depending on portion size.
Perhaps the most well known and potential top all-time top festival food is takoyaki. It just doesn’t sound right to call them octopus balls, so just use the actual name of what it is. Savoury dumplings with vegetables and a chunk of boiled octopus, which is usually quite tender. Just watching the them being made is fun, as the cook spins the perfectly round balls of goodness to cook them uniformly. When served they have a traditional slather of a worcester-like takoyaki sauce, then Japanese mayo followed by katsuo-bushi (bonito fish) flakes and a sprinkle of aonori for color and a dash of that something-of-the sea flavor. Takoyaki is usually served 5-6 to a serving for about ¥500 and are probably the most popular to share with someone else. You can read more about these taste bombs on our previous takoyaki post.
Kakigori (shave ice)
You may think you’ve had shave-ice, but you haven’t had Japanese shave ice! Everyone’s had shave-ice, Hawaiian shave ice, American shave-ice, some kind of cold snowflakey concoction with sweet syrup poured over it. What takes Japanese shave-ice to the next level is the addition of condensed milk. Usually added to the center of the snowy treat, or sometimes used as the main part of the topping. Look for Japanese favorite flavors like ichigo (strawberry), melon and blue Hawaii. Good kakigori will be about ¥300-¥400 depending on size and variety of flavors available.
This delicious little treat is ubiquitous in Japanese culture as a symbol of good fortune. In the Edo Period, some fish like tai (sea bream) was expensive. So it was saved for special occasions, and was thought to bring good fortune or good luck when it was eaten. As time passed this morphed into a representation of that by casting iron grills in the image of tai fish. These intricate grills, (think giant waffle iron) hold the batter, which is then filled, usually with anko (Japanese traditional red bean paste) or a creamy custard. These are best eaten warm right off the grill. To keep up with demand, they are usually prepared ahead of time and reheated when you order. Be bold and try the anko! You’ll also find seasonal specialties in many areas, too. Taiyaki should be about ¥200/each.
With the exception of kakigori, you’ll usually find everything else all across the country regardless of season. Most of all be adventurous! If you see something that you think is interesting, give it a go! You may find your new favorite!
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