The 7 most delicious Japanese street foods you simply must try

                by Joost Nusselder | Updated:  September 9, 2021

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The moment you arrive in Japan, your tastebuds start tingling. The smells, the tastes, and the traditions in this unique country are unforgettable. The first thing you will want to do is try some of the Japanese street foods.

If you’re visiting Japan for the first time, you might be overwhelmed by the variety of street food on offer.

Many roads are lined with yatai (small food stalls) selling a range of delicious items. I’ve spent some time in Japan tasting as many of the street food options available. I returned home a few pounds heavier, but very happy!

The 7 most delicious Japanese street foods you simply must try

And now I can’t wait to share my experiences with you. I’ve highlighted seven of my top favorite Japanese street food items below, plus some of the more common ingredients and garnishes used in Japanese cuisine.

They are the ‘must haves’ if you’re only going to be in Japan for a short space of time.

Of course, you MUST try some sushi in Japan. While sushi is served up in some of the world’s best restaurants today, it actually had humble beginnings as working-class street food in Japan.

According to reports, Japanese street vendors in the early 1800s began rolling vinegared rice into balls and topping it with a slice of fresh fish for people who were in a hurry to get to work.

Japan is known as the sushi capital of the world for good reason. But I’m not going to go into detail about sushi in this guide. I’m going to introduce you to some foods you may never have heard of, and haven’t had a chance to taste before.

My personal favorite is takoyaki – the delicious dough balls filled with diced octopus (or other seafood) are one of the reasons I fell in love with Japanese street food.

Find out what other tasty street foods are in store for your Japanese adventure below!

Why you need to try the local street food

Whenever I travel, I like to taste the local street food rather than head for familiar franchises. Street food gives you an authentic experience of what the citizens like to eat and the flavors that influence their everyday meals.

I find it fascinating to try out similar foods in different local regions to see how each small community has tweaked and modified the meal to suit their surroundings.

A good tip to find the best street food is to watch where the locals like to go. See which café’s or street vendors are frequented by residents. This is where you’ll find the most authentic, true flavors and street foods.

Sometimes tourists have concerns about trying street food due to hygiene reasons. But I can vouch for the fact that all of the Japanese street food that I’ve eaten has been carefully prepared, and of excellent quality.

Where’s the best place to find street food in Japan?

If you’re looking for authentic, delicious Japanese street food, then head for the local market, or plan your trip to coincide with a seasonal celebration.

Gion Matsuri is the biggest and most famous festival in Kyoto. It runs throughout the entire month of July and includes a parade of floats.

Thousands of locals attend the festival and there are loads of street food options to enjoy.

Just keep a lookout for signs telling you where you should and shouldn’t eat. Some festivals have designated areas where eating is allowed.

Japanese etiquette

Before you tuck into your various mouth-watering Japanese street foods, here are some quick top tips on Japanese food etiquette.

  1. Never rest your chopsticks on your dish. Make sure you place them on the specially-designed chopstick rest at your table.
  2. Leave your chair neat and tidy. When leaving your seat (even at a street-side café), make sure you leave your plate clean and neat. Don’t scrunch up your napkin and dump it on your plate. Fold it neatly, or toss it in the garbage yourself.
  3. It’s rude to raise your food above your mouth. Don’t hold your sushi roll or noodles up in the air for a ‘good Instagram shot’, or inspect your meal in public. Eat delicately and with respect for those who prepared it.
  4. Did you know that slurping is actually a sign of appreciation in Japan?! So when you’re enjoying your ramen, or miso soup, feel free to slurp away!
  5. Don’t waste your soy sauce! Only pour as much soy sauce as you think you will need into the small purpose-made bowl that most restaurants and cafés have on hand. If you run out, you can pour out a little bit more, but never over-pour or leave excess on your plate.

If you want more in-depth details, I’ve written a full guide on etiquette and table manners when eating Japanese food.

How to order food in Japanese

Japanese people are extremely polite, and respectful. Make sure that whenever you order your meal, you always end with ‘please’.

Remember that pointing isn’t polite, so if you don’t know how to pronounce the name of the food you want, gesture towards it with your whole hand.

When you enter a restaurant, or you are greeted by a food vendor, you will hear, “irasshaimase” which means ‘welcome’.

When ordering, say the name of the item, and end with ‘kudasai’ (please).

Also learn how to you say “thank you for the food” in Japanese!

Top 7 best Japanese street foods

Now you know how to be appreciative and respectful of Japanese culture, it’s time to start exploring popular street food!

Do you like deep-fried food, frozen food, soups, or barbecue-style food? There’s something for everyone!

Best Japanese street food overall: Takoyaki

Takoyaki is one of the street foods that you’ll most typically find in Osaka – where they originated.

The perfect street food snack, these little crispy dough balls are slightly soft on the inside and are usually stuffed with octopus and green onions.

Chefs pour the batter into specially-made half-round molds and add the fillings. Once the first side is cooked, the balls are expertly flipped with chopsticks, and the other side is cooked through.

The balls are then topped with Japanese mayonnaise, drizzled with a savory Takoyaki sauce, and topped with dried seaweed flakes.

If you’re looking for more-ish umami flavors and ultimate satisfaction, you can’t get better than takoyaki.

Best BBQ Japanese street food: Yakitori

Meat on a stick never tasted this good! Yakitori is translated as yaki (grill) and tori (chicken) – grilled chicken.

While chicken is the primary meat that is grilled over charcoal on bamboo skewers, you can also get beef and vegetable yakitori skewers in Japan.

The chicken pieces are cut into small bite-sized chunks and brushed with a special sauce usually made of soy, mirin, and brown sugar.

Yakitori chefs often have little stands with grills set up in the streets or at markets in Japan. However, you can also get yakitori at restaurants where chefs prepare the food table-side.

The charcoal gives the meat a delicious smokey flavor, while the sweet and sour sauce adds a tang to the meat.

A must-try street food snack if you’re visiting Japan. This is also a great meal to recreate at home for friends. If you will be grilling it, this is the type of charcoal you should use.

The tastiest noodle soup you’ll ever eat: Ramen

Ramen is one of the most common foods available in Japan. You can get it on a street corner, or in a high-end restaurant. Ramen is both street food and a gourmet meal.

What exactly is ramen? This noodle soup is made up of a rich meat-based broth combined with a range of ingredients including green onions, pork slices, marinated egg, and even seaweed.

It is usually flavored with miso or soy. The flavors of ramen are carefully balanced, and each chef takes pride in creating a fragrant, flavorsome, satisfying meal.

If you travel around Japan, you will notice that each region actually has its own style of ramen. According to statistics, there are over 10,000 ramen shops in Tokyo alone!

The healthiest comfort street food: Yaki imo

The perfect winter warmer snack – a savory Japanese sweet potato. If you’re looking for a healthy snack that takes the edge off the winter chill and has that comfort-food flavor and satisfaction, then look no further than yaki imo.

These are slow-roasted Japanese sweet potatoes that are usually grilled over charcoal at low temperatures. The purple outer skins become slightly chewy, while the soft yellow inside becomes sweet and soft like mashed potato.

A very basic sprinkle of salt and pepper, and you’ve got a simply delicious snack that also includes a whole load of healthy vitamins and minerals.

Street vendors usually sell each sweet potato by weight, and they are typically available during the winter months – shortly after harvest.

This is another Japanese street food that you can make at home for your friends while you reminisce about your travels around this spectacular country. They will be blown away by what you can do with a simply-prepared sweet potato!

Another tasty vegetable-based street food is yaki tomorokoshi. A Japanese version of corn on the cob!

Street vendors boil the corn, and then roast it over coals so that it gets that delicious smoky flavor. The yaki tomorokoshi is then seasoned with miso and soya sauce.

You can often find yaki tomorokoshi at Japanese summer festivals.

The most refreshing Japanese street food: Kakigōri

Kakigōri is the most satisfying shaved ice street food dessert for hot summer days. Picture a snow cone, but with a much lighter, fluffier texture, topped with a flavored syrup or condensed milk.

The ice blocks are made of pure mineral water (some from natural springs), and carefully shaved to create the perfect kakigōri texture.

Originally, street vendors would use a hand crank to shave the ice, but these days they just use an electric shaver. But that doesn’t take away from the flavor or the texture.

The most more-ish Japanese savory pancake: Okonomiyaki

A pancake that’s different from anything you’ve ever eaten before! Instead of being a dessert, this savory pancake meal is cooked in a special flat-topped grill called a teppan.

These are the same grills used in teppanyaki restaurants. The propane-powered grills have a huge surface area, perfect for cooking delicious savory okonomiyaki.

The ‘pancakes’ are similar to a frittata mixed with a pancake, as they are made with wheat flour, shredded cabbage, and eggs.

Sometimes they also include some proteins in the filling, and they are topped off with the famous Japanese mayonnaise (kewpie mayo) or special okonomiyaki sauce.

Read more here for the best okonomiyaki toppings and fillings.

This is another popular Japanese street food that you can cook for your friends at home.

The most surprising Japanese street food: Kare pan

Curry is not the first flavor you think of when you imagine what Japanese street food tastes like! But Kare pan is just that.

An extremely popular street food snack which includes Japanese curry wrapped in dough, coated in panko breadcrumbs, and deep-fried.

For a completely different taste experience, this is must-try Japanese street food.

Learn more about Japanese curry and why it’s great for those who don’t like spicy food here.

BONUS: The most delicious Japanese street food desserts to try

Now, what’s dinner without dessert? Even on the street you might feel your sweet tooth talking after you have filled your belly with all the yummy savory options available.

So let’s look at some of the best Japanese street food desserts.

Parfait

Did you know that parfait – a French dessert – is really popular street food in Japan?! There are many street food vendors who specialize in parfait as street food!

Parfaits are usually made up of ice cream plus a crispy textured treat (usually corn flakes), some whipped cream, and freshly chopped fruit.

In Japan, parfait has been taken to a new level. They include fantastically flavored ice cream like matcha green tea and various tasty treats including cookies and cake.

Parfait is served in a tall, elegant glass so you can see the colorful layers of the ingredients, and topped off with sprinkles, and other delicious decorations.

Wagashi

If you’d like to enjoy some afternoon tea and cake, then wagashi is the way to go. These delicate intricately formed little sweet treats are made from various plant-based ingredients and fruit.

These include mochi (rice cakes) and anko (bean paste). They are also traditionally served with green tea.

Don’t expect them to be overly sweet. Their flavors and textures are gently balanced and are perfect for a little afternoon treat.

You can get them from street vendors, or from specialist confectioners.

Taiyaki, imagawayaki & dorayaki

These are yet another food made on the traditional Japanese teppan grill. Like wagashi, taiyaki, imagawayaki, and dorayaki are not extremely sweet.

Taiyaki are traditionally fish-shaped treats created by adding dough to an iron mold and filling the inside with sweetened red bean paste. Dorayaki is made from sandwiching the red bean paste (anko) between two pancakes.

My personal favorite of the three is imagawayaki which is made of the same ingredients but is a more chunky ‘cake’ rather than a flat pancake-shaped dessert.

Now you know about the ‘must try’ Japanese street foods, and some of the most delicious Japanese desserts, which one do you think you’d like best?

Popular ingredients and garnishes used in Japanese cuisine

Soy sauce (shoku)

Soy sauce is made primarily from fermented soybeans, wheat, koji rice mold, and salt. The Japanese Kikkoman soy sauce (shoyu) is one of the most popular and is known around the world.

Soy sauce is used in numerous Japanese food dishes, and is also served in a small bowl together with sushi.

Rice wine (mirin)

Many Japanese recipes include rice wine (mirin), and it’s a common ingredient in stir-fries and marinades as well as glazes for fish and meats.

The sweet rice wine is similar to sake but has a lower alcohol content.

Fish flakes (bonito flakes or katsuobushi)

Paper-thin flakes of fish are often used as a garnish or sprinkled on top of dishes to add to the umami flavor. Bonito flakes have a smoky, slightly fishy flavor and are made from dried bonito fish.

They are commonly used as the flavoring for dashi stock which is what forms the base of many Japanese soups including miso soup.

Pickled ginger (gari)

Most commonly served with sushi and sashimi, pickled ginger is known as gari in Japan. It is not meant to be eaten together with the sushi, but rather after each piece as a palate cleanser.

Seaweed flakes (dried green laver or aonori)

Dried seaweed or laver is known as aonori in Japan.

The flakes are often sprinkled on top of fried foods, soups, rice balls, ramen, and other meals to add to the overall umami flavor of the dish. It is also rich in magnesium and calcium.

FAQs about Japanese street food

What are Japanese food stalls called?

Japanese street food stalls are called ‘yatai’. They are similar to the style of street food stalls you’ll see all around the world.

They are usually mobile, wooden carts that the street vendors set up in the early morning.

Is it safe to eat street food in Japan?

Yes. Japan has strict food sanitation laws, and the street vendors take pride in providing delicious, tasty, hygienic meals to all of their customers. Japanese street food is generally very safe to eat.

What do Japanese people eat for breakfast?

Instead of cold cereal, a traditional Japanese breakfast will include rice, miso soup, a little bit of grilled fish, and some soy sauce.

Egg dishes and fermented soybeans (natto) are also popular.

Is it rude to point at things & people in Japan?

Yes! Don’t point at your food, or objects, or people using one finger. Instead, wave your hand gently in the direction of the object or person you are referring to.

Can I cross my legs while sitting at a food stall or restaurant?

It is considered rude to cross your legs in Japan. Rather sit with your back straight, and your feet together. This is especially important in formal settings like business meetings.

What are the green sprinkles on takoyaki?

The green powder or sprinkles are made from dried seaweed. It is known as aonori in Japan, and is added to many different foods to add to the ‘umami’ flavor.

Is tipping rude in Japan?

Tipping is rude in Japan. You should never tip your restaurant waiter or a street food vendor. Japanese culture teaches that it is not necessary to reward good service with additional money – because good service is expected.

Do Japanese people eat sushi with their hands?

Yes, you will often see Japanese people eating sushi (and particularly nigiri sushi) with their hands.

Want to get some pictures of your delicious Japanese culinary finds online? Learn how to take better photos of your food for social media with these 8 best tips

Ever had trouble finding Japanese recipes that were easy to make?

We now have "cooking Japanese with ease", our full recipe book and video course with step-by-step tutorials on your favorite recipes.

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.