One of the highlights of Japanese summer is the summer festivals or Natsu-matsuri (夏祭り, なつまつり) that happen all over the country, and the row of food stalls called Yatai (屋台, やたい) you encounter at these festivals.
Many dress up in Yukata (浴衣, ゆかた), a traditional summer garment, with the little kids in their matching Jinbei (甚平, じんべい), similar attire that consists of a top and bottom, and go out in the evenings to enjoy the festivals.
During a Japanese summer festival, there is usually an Omikoshi (御神輿, おみこし), a type of portable Shinto shrine carried around the neighborhood by the local community members. There are also many Bon-odori (盆踊り, ぼんおどり) festivals which have locals joining traditional folk dances to welcome and mingle with the spirits of the deceased, and fireworks or Hanabi-taikai (花火大会, はなびたいかい) that are held throughout the country and may also have these food stalls.
Along with the food stalls, there are often non-food stalls available as well, such as stalls selling masks, shooting stalls, goldfish or rubber ball scooping stalls, and stalls where you fish out colourful water balloons from a kiddie pool. I clearly remember being a child at a Japanese summer festival, holding a 500 yen coin in my sweaty little hand and looking at the stalls trying to decide exactly which treat I wanted to get.
Japanese summer festivals have an incredible atmosphere and are a great place to try a variety of Japanese festival foods, from summer classics to all-year-round favorites. In this article, I would like to introduce some of the most common and beloved edible treats you can find at these yatai at Japanese summer festivals.
Table of Contents
Kakigōri (かき氷, かきごおり)
Kakigōri (かき氷, かきごおり) is shaved ice that comes with brightly colored syrup in different flavors. The most common flavors are strawberry (pink), melon (green), lemon (yellow) and blue Hawaii (blue). Sometimes they will also have matcha and mango flavors.
The ice is normally shaved through an ice shave machine, but sometimes you can still find stalls with vintage ice shaving machines using hand-operated wheels.
Ringo-ame (りんご飴, りんごあめ)
With its pop of color and cute appearance, Ringo-ame (りんご飴, りんごあめ), or candy apples, are a popular festival sweet. Small apples are put on a stick and covered in Mizu-ame (水飴, みずあめ), literal translation water candy – which is a clear and viscose sugar syrup, traditionally made out of a process in which malt is added to rice, converting starch into sugar syrup.
Often there are other fruits covered in Mizu-ame as well, such as Anzu-ame (あんず飴, candied apricots) and cherries, and are sold on top of a large block of ice to keep them chilled.
Wata-ame (綿飴, わたあめ)
There’s something magical about watching Wata-ame (綿飴, わたあめ) or cotton candy being made, as colorful clouds seem to appear out of nowhere.
These days cotton candy is often sold in semi-transparent bags with popular anime characters on them to entice the kids.
Yakisoba (焼きそば, やきそば)
When you start to get hungry, it is time to get some Yakisoba (焼きそば, やきそば)! A staple food at Japanese festivals, you can almost certainly find a yatai cooking and serving Yakisoba using a large iron plate.
Although the word “soba” is in the name, the dish does not use what we call soba today, which is made out of buckwheat. Instead, Chinese-style wheat noodles, much like in ramen is used, and is stir-fried along with sliced pork, cabbage, carrots, etc. and flavored with a Yakisoba brown sauce. It is served with Aonori and Beni-shōga (pickled red ginger).
Takoyaki (たこ焼き, たこやき)
Takoyaki is another savory yatai favorite and are basically pancakes in a ball shape with bits of octopus in them. They are cooked on an iron plate with equal-sized half sphere-shaped dents in them, and the person cooking the takoyaki will flip them midway through using a toothpick or metal skewer, creating the iconic spherical shape.
They are hot and with a pancake-like crust on the outside and gooey with octopus on the inside, and are served covered in Okonomiyaki sauce, bonito flakes and often mayonnaise. (You can opt out of mayo by saying “mayo-nēzu wa kekko desu” )
Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き, おこのみやき)
Okonomiyaki is also a popular savory yatai food that’s probably the most filling out of what is listed here. It is a style of Japanese savory pancakes and depending on the region you are from your Okonomiyaki can look different – in the Kanto area the batter is thick and uses yam; in Kansai it uses a thinner, more dashi-like batter; and with Hiroshima-style, which is popular at yatai, they come with yakisoba noodles, cabbage and a fried egg sandwiched in between the pancakes.
It is served with Okonomiyaki sauce, which is a brown sauce with a sweetness to it, Aonori, mayonnaise, and often bonito flakes.
Baby castella (ベビーカステラ)
Cute, round and spongy, baby castella (ベビーカステラ) are a bite-sized, mini version of the Japanese cake Kasutera, or Castella, which came to Japan in the 16th century through Portuguese merchants.
Normal Castella cakes come in a rectangular shape and have a yellow tinge to them. The baby castella are cooked on an iron plate much like the Takoyaki plate. Some baby castella recipes incorporate a filling like azuki red bean paste or cream, however, festival yatai largely offer the regular plain version.
Choco-banana (チョコバナナ) is basically exactly as the name implies, chocolate covered bananas on a stick. They often come with sprinkles, and are a favorite amongst kids.
A relatively newer addition to the yatai scene, but now considered a classic.
Sold along with the cans of cold beers and chu-hi, Ramune is a special sweet soda drink that is the hallmark of Japanese summer festivals. The name Ramune is written in Katakana (ラムネ), and originates from the English word ‘lemonade’.
It traditionally comes in a light blue or green tinged glass bottle with a glass marble, which you push in order to release the carbonation and to drink, but in recent years there are versions with a plastic PET bottle as well.
Have you ever attended a Japanese summer festival? What Japanese summer festival treat would you most like to try?
Pin me for later
Madoka Suganuma is a freelance qualitative market researcher and a cultural insights analyst based in Tokyo with an expertise in Food & Beverages.
Having split her time between Europe and Tokyo in her formative years, Madoka is on a mission to uncover and provide insight into Japanese culture and people. Madoka enjoys learning about different cultures through food and hopes that readers can have fun learning about Japanese food culture through Japanese Food Guide.