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9 Delicious Treats to Try at Japanese Summer Festivals

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. 

A young Japanese woman wearing a red yukata and a large pink flower accessory in her hair receives a plastic bag containing her okonomiyaki order from a stall vendor at a Japanese summer festival. It is already evening and her male companion can be seen next to her also wearing traditional Japanese summer festival garb.
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 /via Getty Images.

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.

Kakigōri (かき氷, かきごおり)

A young Japanese girl with a bob and fringe sits on a street kerb during a Japanese summer festival. She is wearing a jinbei and eating strawberry flavored kakigori with a straw with a scooped end. The kakigori stall can be seen in the background.
Nothing screams Japanese summer festival quite like Kakigōri /via Getty Images.

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)

Three red candy apples on wooden sticks. Two are wrapped in clear plastic and sitting on a flat white surface in the background. The other one is unwrapped and being held up towards the camera from the left of frame.
Candy apples or toffee apples are known as ‘Ringo-ame’ in Japan and are a popular Japanese summer festival treat /via Photo AC.

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)

A photo of a wata-ame (cotton candy) vendor at a Japanese festival. The photo has been taken from the point of view of the vendor. You can see an arm with a white long-sleeved protective garment and white gloves preparing pink cotton candy on a stick. In the background, a child can be seen waiting amongst the crowd for some.
‘Wata-ame’ or cotton candy (fairy floss) is a popular Japanese festival treat for kids /via Getty Images.

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)

A close-up of yakisoba being held up to the camera with some disposable wooden chopsticks. The red pickled ginger on top gives a pop of color, along with the green aonori seaweed.
Yakisoba is a staple food at Japanese festivals /via Getty Images.

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)

A paper take-out container with eight takoyaki covered in okonomiyaki sauce, aonori seaweed and bonito flakes sits on a black surface. Two toothpicks to eat them with are poked into one of the takoyaki (back-right).
Another Japanese festival favorite, takoyaki are easy to eat and share /via Getty Images.

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)

One okonomiyaki pancake on a hot plate at a Japanese summer festival. A hand can be seen putting on the final ingredient: a generous sprinkling of bonito flakes.
An okonomiyaki pancake getting its final ingredient: a generous sprinkling of bonito flakes /via Getty Images.

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)

A long iron plate with round indentations in it cooking baby castella at a Japanese summer festival. They are ready for eating and are being tossed from the iron plate into a container in front using a metal stick implement typically used for turning them on the iron plate.
If you like cake, you’ll love the bite-sized ‘baby castella’ /via Photo AC.

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)

A row of choco-bananas on wooden sticks at a Japanese summer festival stall. The ones closest to camera are regular milk chocolate with multi-colored sprinkles. Pink and blue versions of the same treat can be seen further down the row.
A row of choco-bananas at a Japanese summer festival /via Photo AC.

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.

Ramune (ラムネ)

Two young Japanese women wearing yukata clink two bottles of ramune together in a 'cheers' motion at a Japanese summer festival. One of their faces is out of frame, while the other smiles widely. Another woman in the group watches on, also smiling.
It wouldn’t be a Japanese summer festival without this classic summer drink /via Getty Images.

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?

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