I’ve been visiting so many festivals in Japan lately that I decided to make a post dedicated to Japanese festival food stands and all of the delicious treats you can find there. This is a pretty narrowed down post because I’m limiting it to vegetarian and vegan options, but there are also a range of vendors selling the classic favorites like yakitori (grilled chicken on a skewer, with either teriyaki or salt flavoring), karaage (deep fried chicken…but totally different from the stuff at KFC), and takoyaki (soft fluffy balls of grilled pancake-like batter, each with a little piece of octopus cooked into the centre, and topped with a thick Worcestershire-style sauce and mayonnaise).
Above is an imagawayaki stand. These are one of my favorites. Imagawayaki are made of a special batter that’s grilled into little cakes about the shape and size of a hockey puck, and then packed to overflowing with some sweet filling. The most popular fillings are custard cream, chocolate cream, or sweet red bean paste. There’s also another type of similar treat that’s very popular at Japanese fairs. These are called taiyaki, and they’re essentially the same except that they come in the shape of a fish. Lately, there’s been a trend of adding a twist onto the traditional taiyaki and replacing the usual batter with croissant dough. I haven’t tried it, but it sounds pretty incredible!
Choco banana are another popular treat at Japanese fairs. They’re bananas on a stick, coated in a layer of chocolate. You can get either dark chocolate, milk chocolate, or white chocolate. The white chocolate ones usually come in many different colours and flavours like strawberry or lemonade. The choco banana is then decorated with some sort of topping. They’re often dipped in candy sprinkles, and sometimes you can also find ones with cute little cookies or sweets stuck onto the sides of the chocolate shell.
A Japanese festival wouldn’t be complete without yakisoba. This dish is made of noodles fried up on a huge griddle together with cabbage, carrots, onions, and maybe a few other types of veggies. A bit of thinly sliced beef is often added in but it’s possible to find yakisoba without any meat. The toppings are very similar to those used for the takoyaki that I mentioned above – brown sauce, aonori, pickled pink ginger, and sometimes mayonnaise.
Dango are a very traditional food with a longstanding history in Japan. Unlike the other foods like choco banana and yakisoba, dango are not limited to being a cheap and convenient street food. Gourmet dango are also available at specialty sweet shops where they’re prepared with careful technique and high quality ingredients. The dango that I found at this cherry blossom festival were middle quality – they’re not the factory made pre-packaged ones sold daily at supermarkets, but they’re also not quite in the league of the artisanal dango that sell for about $8 to $10 per pack at traditional bakeries. The white dango in the photo here are the plain ones made out of pounded sticky rice, and the green ones have yomogi plant mixed in, giving the dango a pleasant green tea-like flavour.
In the picture above are little castella cakes. Just like dango, castella are not limited to festival food stands. At some fairs and festivals, you can find fancier stalls selling freshly made mini castella cakes. They bake them right there in front of you using cast iron molds to form the batter into the right shape. The most traditional form of castella are baked into large squares or rectangles, and a slice of castella with a cup of tea or coffee is a favorite treat at posh cafes here in Japan. Slices of castella or entire castella cakes can be bought at bakeries across the country. It’s one of those things that originally entered Japan as a foreign dessert but became so incredibly well loved here that it’s almost at the status of being a traditional Japanese sweet. A couple other desserts like this are baumkuchen, custard pudding (endearingly called purin here), and mont blanc – all originally European foods, but massively popular in Japan.
The last street food for the day was oyaki. This was a little bit more of a rare find because oyaki are a regional food, but there was one stall selling them fresh at the sakura festival last weekend. They are grilled cakes with various fillings inside. Savory oyaki contain meat or vegetables, while you can also find oyaki filled with other things like purple sweet potato or red bean jam. My choice was the kabocha oyaki – a grilled cake filled with pumpkin!