Fukuoka, Japan’s sixth-largest city by population, has more outdoor food stalls than the rest of the country.
These are called stalls yataisAnd they are an indelible part of what makes Fukuoka’s food scene so special.
Think of them as a kind of foodie Cinderella.
Yatai are assigned specific, highly coveted positions on major pedestrian routes.
However, they can operate only at night and must dismantle or remove their stalls completely before commuters flock to the footpaths in the morning. The only clue that Yatai may be a later embodiment is a water spout at ground level.
But at night, the city transforms. Carts and vans magically appear, serving everything from gyoza (in Fukuoka, these popular dumplings are served in small, bite-sized form) to ramen to meat skewers and the local chicken hotpot stew called oden. Served with ice-cold Asahi. Or Sapporo beer.
“Yatai is the best place to make friends,” says Nick Szasz, a Canadian-born and longtime Japan resident who runs the English-language website Yatai. fukuoka now, “Especially in the winter.”
Most carriages can only seat between 6-10 people, who are encouraged to sit together on shared benches or closely spaced stools. During cold weather, many passengers keep their benches warm by covering them with thick curtains, making the experience even more comfortable.
While the Japanese are sometimes known for polite formality, Szasz points out that it is considered good manners to converse with strangers while together in yatai. Some carts even have the option to purchase drinks for other diners – or the chef! – As a menu item.
If Fukuoka had gone in the other direction, yatai might have become a thing of the past. The loose, disjointed system of trains was unregulated and varied wildly in safety and quality.
Enter Soichiro Takashima, who has been mayor of Fukuoka since 2010. When elected, he was just 36 years old, the youngest mayor in Fukuoka’s history and one of the youngest mayors in all of Japan.
Japan has the world’s most “grey” population, with at least one in every 10 residents being gray. over 80 years of age,
But Fukuoka, the largest city on the island of Kyushu, is bucking that trend. Takashima’s administration has lured recent college graduates and young entrepreneurs from across the country with small business loans, affordable rents and co-working spaces.
One of the major initiatives taken by the mayor – who was re-elected for a fourth term in 2022 – was the overhaul of Yatai.
Although the city has always been filled with these food carts, Takashima’s administration formed a committee to regulate them and ensure that they would remain an important part of the city.
The committee established some ground rules for yatai, such as a maximum of 120 carts (96 are currently registered), a requirement to display prices in a visible location, and a ban on raw foods – so, if you want to try Fukuoka. To get the famous fresh sashimi, you have to go to the brick-and-mortar restaurant.
But rather than restricting the yatai community, the cleanup of the industry has given rise to a new, younger generation of yatai operators who are trying out new styles and flavors to bring the locals back.
At Tellas & Maiko, Kensuke Kubota – who trained at London’s Zuma before moving back to Japan – serves Italian-style bruschetta. MentaikoA spicy cod roe that is Fukuoka’s most ubiquitous condiment.
And the food isn’t the only attraction. Many carts have special designs or styles that give a sense of personality beyond what’s on the menu.
For example, the Telas & Mico is painted electric-blue, which stands out on the busy, crowded sidewalk of Nianjin Train Station. The owner of Yatai Keiji in the fashionable Akasaka neighborhood used to work as a carpenter for Shinto shrines, so he even made his car look like a shrine.
Some have stopped selling food altogether, and have become bars that serve yatai-hoppers looking for a last stop on the way home.
Fukuoka’s local tourism authority has created an English-language website Yatai Map and Tips,
The website notes that twenty-nine, despite all the new rules, can still be unpredictable – the owner may decide not to bother opening one night if the weather is bad, or the chef is sick.
But the element of surprise is one of the things that makes street food so much fun, and that goes double in Fukuoka.