Throughout the year, a wide variety of different festivals (called omatsuri in Japanese) are held across all regions of Japan, including celebratory days held at shrines and temples (en-nichi), firework displays in the summer and snow festivals in the winter. There are said to be hundreds of thousands of them each year, and the fun atmosphere attracts crowds of people.
As well as the festival events, people look forward to going around the rows of street stalls. There are various stalls that draw crowds of people, including some that sell masks and toys of popular cartoon characters, and others that sell potted flowers like morning glory and Chinese lantern plants.
There are even stalls where you can play games. "Yo-yo fishing" is a classic game where you use a hook on a paper string to try and catch water balloon yo-yos — part of the fun is seeing whether you can catch the balloon before the paper string gets wet and breaks. Other games enjoyed by everyone from kids to adults include "Super Ball Scoop," which involves using a scoop made of thin paper stretched over a frame to scoop floating rubber balls out of the water, and shooting games where you can win prizes like toys if you hit the target. It's easy to lose track of time when you're having so much fun!
Another fun thing about festivals is the food stalls. Not only does the food taste great, but there are many dishes that people only eat at festivals, with popular stalls often having long queues. Let's take a look at some of the most popular foods that you can find on street stalls at festivals in Japan.
Eating Treats on the Go
As you walk about the festival site, you can smell delicious aromas all around you. A lot of the food sold at festivals is designed so that you can walk around while holding it in one hand. For example, some classic foods found at Japanese festivals include takoyaki (octopus dumplings made by putting pieces of octopus into a flour batter and grilling in bite-sized balls) and yaki-ika (a whole squid on a stick that is coated in soy sauce and grilled until it smells great), both of which are light snacks that are easy to eat while you're walking. Hashimaki is also a popular dish where okonomiyaki (a dough baked like a pancake, with ingredients such as cabbage) is wrapped around disposable chopsticks, allowing it to be held in one hand.
Takoyaki (octopus dumplings) are put into traditional containers made of kyogi (a paper-thin sheet of wood) that is folded into the shape of a boat. Kyogi does not allow heat to pass through and absorbs just the right amount of moisture and oil, making it perfect for eating hot takoyaki outdoors. This container is still common today, as its slightly old-fashioned design really evokes the atmosphere of a festival, unlike the bowls we would normally use.
When it comes to dessert food stalls, chocolate bananas are a classic. A whole banana is peeled and stuck onto a chopstick, then coated with melted chocolate. The sweet flavor of the ripe banana and the chocolate are a perfect match, and the crunchy texture of the chocolate can be very addictive. Chocolate bananas originated in Japan, and were a big hit on street stalls in the 1960s, when they spread to stalls all over the country. These days they have evolved into a dessert that looks as good as it tastes thanks to the use of colored chocolate and toppings like chopped nuts and colorful candy decorations.
Local Street Food: Shining a Spotlight on Local Regions
From the north of Japan to the south, there are many unique and region-specific festivals, which is reflected types of street food available.
Ika-menchi (squid patty) made from local squid is popular at festivals held in the Tohoku region in the northern part of Japan. Ika-menchi is a home-cooked dish that has been passed down in this region. The dish is made by finely chopping squid tentacles with a kitchen knife, then mixing them with vegetables and flour, and deep-frying the batter. The mouthwatering flavor and smell of the squid, and its tender texture, make it a soul food that the locals here love.
At festivals in Aichi prefecture in the Chubu region, you can enjoy tamasen, which is fried eggs and noodles sandwiched between shrimp-flavored senbei crackers. It is said to have first been sold at penny-candy stores, which sold cheap candy and toys for children in the 1950s. It became popular as a snack that children could buy with their pocket money, and then developed into a street food.
At festival street stalls, the locals can enjoy familiar flavors from their region, and tourists get to try unusual regional flavors that they wouldn't normally eat.
Try Your Luck With Street Food and a Game
Game stalls that offer games like shooting and yo-yo fishing are popular at festivals, but you can also enjoy street food and games at the same time.
For example, winning a game of rock-paper-scissors at a fruit candy stall (which sells fruit on a stick, coated with syrup) may get you some extras. There are also food stalls that have pinball machines with numbers written in different places, where you can get extra treats depending on which number your ball ends up at.
These street stalls aren't just about buying and eating food — they also offer the chance to interact with other people. This makes them attractive not only to children but also to adults who want to recapture their childhood. Even if you're not hungry, you'll want to stop by for the fun!
Some of Japanese people's favorite foods are street food dishes that are only found at festivals, and rarely anywhere else. If you visit Japan, make sure you go to a festival and see for yourself how tasty and enjoyable Japanese street food is.