The yatai: return of street food in Tokyo + amazing places to find the best!
Once prevalent in Japanese culture, street food vendors (or “yatai” as described locally) are starting to return in some parts of the country, including Tokyo.
The yatai can come in a variety of different forms, from fixed structures offering a few seats for diners, to stalls that could be carried around on the vendor’s shoulder.
It all dates back to the Meiji Period when the stalls were just small wooden carts built out of wood.
To understand why the yatai declined, we need to go back to the late 1950s.
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What Caused The Yatai To Decline?
In May 1959, the International Olympic Committee chose Tokyo to host the 1964 Summer Olympics.
With the eyes of the world soon to be watching, winning the bid instigated a ‘clean-up’ of the country’s image in the years of preparation that led up to the event.
Japan decided to regulate the yatai (or street food vendors) ahead of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
The authorities were worried about the potential health risks posed to tourists by consuming food from the yatai, concerned it would reflect poorly on the country’s image.
Where Did The Yatai Continue?
For those who lived in the southern city of Fukuoka, sitting on the shore of Japan’s Kyushu Island, the yatai was a sacred part of their culture.
The idea of the yatai being regulated quickly promoted furious backlash from locals.
Despite immense pressure and tightening regulations, Fukuoka’s yatai was able to continue, after owners managed to organize themselves into a trade union.
Several decades after the initial crackdown, in 1995, a new law was passed – banning the distribution of new yatai vending licenses.
These new government sanctions meant that the food stalls could only be inherited or passed down to the wives and children of the original license holders.
Also, if they were successfully passed down, the relative would only be allowed to run the yatai on a full-time basis, making it their sole source of income.
While not being completely banned, these new laws made it increasingly tricky for the yatai to continue operating from both a financial and legal perspective.
Why Is The Yatai Making A Comeback?
If we fast-forward to the present day, in Fukuoka, the original street food markets continue trading despite those sanctions decades ago.
Many of the yatai have passed down through the family generations, keeping the cultural tradition alive in the city.
In most of the bustling cities of Japan, street food wasn’t welcome until more recently. Street food culture is now on the rise in most of the busiest, bustling cities of Japan, such as Tokyo.
For a long time, the Japanese saw it as disrespectful and inappropriate to eat on-the-move.
Combined with the potential health risks that were highlighted ahead of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, it’s no surprise that street food struggled to find a secure place in the culture.
With the challenging economic climate in Japan, street food is finding its feet in cities like Tokyo.
This comes at a time when Japan is openly embracing and being influenced by other cultures across the globe.
You can be sure to find plenty of sushi now on offer as a street food dish. Have you ever been to eat down by Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market?
It’s worth visiting if you’re looking to get a taste of the Tokyo street food experience!
The Best Street Food Alleys in Tokyo
In this part of the guide, I bring you seven of the coolest, most awesome alleys in central Tokyo that offer some of the most incredible food you’ll find in Tokyo.
Technically this part is more about “food alleys” than “street food” alleys, mostly because in Tokyo (and Japan for that matter) you won’t really find alleys full of sprawling street food markets like much of SouthEast Asia.
It’s just not the Japanese way.
That’s not to say there are none, but they aren’t so vast the entire alley appears to be one large street food market.
You’ll find more street markets than you will street food shops.
But there are many alleys with some amazing izakaya and some are standing “bars” where you order, eat, and drink all while standing at a little window area outside the shop — kind of half in the alley.
Except during festivals
During festivals, especially in the summer, there are TONS of street food vendors — and it is exquisite.
It’s pricey. It seems like pretty much everything is at least ¥500, with a ¥600 price tag more common these days.
But I really do love the festival food in Japan.
From grilled beef short rib on a stick to fantastic, buttery Hokkaido baked potato (with a pan-grilled version also available) — there’s a lot to truly enjoy.
Okay enough about festival food, let’s dive into a few “food alleys” I think you’d really enjoy during your time in Tokyo.
Nakano Sun Mall
The Nakano Sun Mall is an “open-air” mall leading up the Nakano Broadway is not only full of delicious food stalls itself but if you cut down any of the little alleys along the main walk — you’re in for a full maze of treats.
This area of Nakano is absolutely LOADED with an incredible variety of izakaya and small mom and pop restaurants.
I call it a maze because once you’re off the main walkway of the Nakano Sun Mall you enter a labyrinth of alleyways.
And it seems like every 5-10 steps there is a new enticing shop that very well could be your favorite food during your entire stay in Tokyo.
Ebisu Yokocho is a covered alley filled with glowing akachochin (red paper lanterns) adorning a lively mix of pubs and food stalls.
Again, it’s not “street food” as you likely imagine from all those cool cooking shows on Netflix.
Rather, it’s amazing dinging experiences packed into an alleyway (or two).
Make sure to visit late, as most of the shops are closed until evening (start time — and are open all night into the wee hours of the morning.
Sake, shochu, and beer served with fantastic yakitori, oysters, ramen, and much, much more.
Even if you’re picky, there’s something here for you.
Shinjuku Golden Gai
Shinjuku Golden Gai is a lot like the Nakano Sun Mall recommendation. It’s a maze of remarkable little pubs and eateries that will wow your taste buds.
Shinjuku is a busier location than Nakano so you’ll quickly discover there are more shops here — along with more crowds.
Tourists are drawn here to for the global popularity of this area — so if you’re looking to avoid them, maybe head to the Nakano recommendation, there seem to be fewer tourists there.
Areas like this are the sort of thing that makes or breaks your trip to Japan. Golden Gai is a fantastic experience you won’t find anywhere else.
And if you’re into punk music, or just want a super cool unique experience, check out “The Hair of the Dog” bar. You won’t regret it.
This is the last area I’d like to point out.
You may have seen a whole bunch of “walking Tokyo” videos where they explore the Tsukiji Market and enjoy all sorts of “street food” and vendors selling seafood.
You may have also heard the Tsukiji Fish Market closed and moved operations somewhere else.
But… there’s more to the story.
The Tsukiji Fish Market may have moved, but the “outer market” area is very much still intact. And all those wonderful videos showing off incredible food are still relevant (mostly).
There has been a big shakeup of the little mom and pop shops in the area — many weren’t happy the inner market moved.
But that doesn’t make the Tsukiji Market area any less awesome to check out.
Okay, I know I said Tsukiji was the last one. But here are a few that will also show you a great time. 🙂
- Ueno Ameyoko Street – this isn’t completely a “street food” like experience, but there are several delicious vendors with some outside eating spots.
- Shimokitazawa – this area has a really nice string of music bars where you’ll find good drinks, friendly company, and of course — delicious food (plus good music too).
- Shibamata – if you want a break from the modern, urban bustle — and see some of the more traditional sides of Japan — check this area out. Lots of amazing shops, cobblestone streets, and old-Japan architecture.