The –usually self-procalimed- experts say that if you want to see them in their full glory you need to go to Fukuoka’s Nakasu or Osaka’s Dotonbori; from the images I have seen I can understand why they say it but for me the simplest way is to wait for them to come to me, something that will inevitably happen in one of the countless festivals and fairs that take place almost every day in Tokyo. Two or three days before the festival, the streets around its spot will be filled with do-it-yourself stalls, often mobile, with colored tents and cooking equipment and from the festival’s eve all food ingredients available in Japan will start appearing on the equipment to get cooked in each “shop’s” special way and get presented with calls, jokes and any trick the owner/cook can think of to get the customers in.
The world of “yatai” (屋台) or “shop-stalls” cooking and serving food of the kind Americans call “soul food” was born during the Edo period to cover the need for fast and cheap food of the one million samurai, workers, artisans, merchants and travelers populating the streets of the world’s biggest city. Even Edo’s “Holy Trinity” –sushi, tempura and soba noodles- were mostly served by itinerant “bote-furi” (棒手振り) or “furi-uri” (振り売り) who carried their “shop” in a long bamboo pole on their shoulders; the modernization of the Meiji period put wheels on the shops but lessened their number but the hardships of the post-war reconstruction made them surface again. Today they have settled in something that, outside areas like the ones I mentioned before, appears whenever there is some traditional event and disappears a few days later.
The culinary choices of yatai are countless: roasted fish and shellfish and meat of all kinds and varieties, takoyaki octopus, huge whole grilled squid cut in rings, steamed potatoes with butter, okonomiyaki and Hiroshima-yaki pancakes, ramen and yakisoba noodles, Chinese nikuman buns, oden and nikomi soups, chicken skewered (yakitori) or deep fried (kara-age), sausages, pickled cucumbers and radishes, corn on the cob, roast chestnuts and for dessert, oban-yaki or castela cakes, bananas dipped in chocolate, caramelized apples and cotton candy are only some of them, each one cooked in a slightly different way from that of the next yatai but all unbelievably tasty, unexpectedly clean (all things considered) and many of them hard to find in regular restaurants –a whole ephemeral world living from festival to festival and offering Japan’s puzzle some of its most characteristic and vivid colors.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes on the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.