Comforting street-food in Fukuoka
Yatai are small, outdoor food stands, opening at nightfall in Fukuoka’s streets on Kyushu Island. Every day, they serve cooked, simple, crowd-pleaser dishes, that Japanese people love. Eating at a yatai is an original and unique way to experience Japan as a tourist.
Fukuoka is known to be the last big city in Japan still welcoming yatai food stalls on its streets. Yatai were indeed an endangered species in the country over the last decades as they suffered from a bad reputation. The Japanese government was eager to promote a clean and smooth image of the country and implemented several policies to end the practice of yatai.
At the end of WWII, small itinerant fast food stalls developed in the streets despite being forbidden under the food restrictions imposed by U.S. occupation. The owners were immigrants from former Japanese colonies, and they were part of the black market, from which yatai’s bad reputation derived.
The perspective of the first Summer Olympic Games 🏅 in Tokyo in 1964 was one of the Japanese government’s incentives to act against those contested, noisy and non-hygienic eateries, which almost completely disappeared. Yatai essentially survived in Fukuoka as owners gathered and organized in a union. However, a law was passed in 1995 to forbid yatai transmission to anyone who is not related to the last owner, entailing the loss of the stall dedicated space. Nowadays, about a hundred of food stalls still exist, mainly in two areas of downtown Fukuoka.
Tenjin, the authentic soul of yatai
Tenjin district, located near Tenjin station, is home to a plenty of yatai thriving in a local, working-class atmosphere. It is best to stroll among them and stop at several different counters, following one’s appetite, taste each of their specialty dishes and get in touch with as many people as possible.
A yatai particularly stands proud in Tenjin district: it is Chez Rémy ("At Rémy's" レミさんち Remisanchi), a food stall owned by a French expatriate, who was the first to win an official yatai license in 2017 after a contest organized by Fukuoka City Council. The dishes are largely inspired from French classical recipes, such as snails, quiche or bouillabaisse, adapted to Japanese tastes. The place is quite popular, and one must patiently wait before sitting at the counter, especially on week-end nights.
Nearby, the southern end of small Nakasu island is the second place where visitors will find numerous food stalls in Fukuoka. The atmosphere is slightly less relaxed: rather than a touristic area, it is a more business-oriented district. Discussions with other guests turn short, as they essentially sit to eat quickly and leave the place for another guest.
How to enjoy a yatai in Fukuoka’s streets?
The good thing now is that yatai’s activity is regulated by the municipality, which is attached to maintaining this cultural and culinary heritage without disturbing the inhabitants. Therefore, food stall owners as well as customers must follow a clear code of conduct. Let’s review the good practices:
- A yatai only opens at night and is assigned a determined place, that it can occupy from 5 p.m. to 4 a.m. Opening days and hours are up to each owner and can be modified without prior notice according to the weather. It is thus impossible to make a reservation in advance.
- Taking away food or eating apart from the food stall is forbidden: the owner seats the guest, who must eat and drink at the yatai. Each guest must order at least one dish. Sharing plate is poorly looked upon.
- Yatai are forbidden to sell cold or raw food. The menu must be clearly displayed with detailed prices. Typical street food is served at yatai: ramen 🍜 noodles soup, oden hot pot, tempura fried vegetables or fish, okonomiyaki omelets, and marinated and grilled yakitori skewers, along with a cool beer.
- The space allocated to food stalls being small, seats are almost touching and there is rarely more than ten seats per yatai. It is thus recommended not to come in number or with big luggage.
- Last useful advice to travelers: there is no toilet 🚽 in a yatai so you may take any necessary measure before or after eating.
Spending an evening tasting food at several yatai is an incredible must-do in Japan, and especially pleasant when the weather is warm in midseason. A smile and a merry "kanpai!" to a neighboring guest are enough to enjoy the friendly atmosphere of Fukuoka’s streets.