Rob Goss samples the incredible array of sweet and savoury treats available at various locations around the city. (Main image: Copyright: TCVB)
Japan doesn’t have much of a culture for eating while walking, but that doesn’t mean there’s no street food – just that people tend to stop to enjoy it. And whether sweet or savoury, light or laden with calories, there’s absolutely loads of it to stop for.
For street food full of colour and fun, head to the fashionable streets of Harajuku – indulgent crepe capital of Tokyo. Marion Crepes on the teen-fashion-focused Takeshita-dori Street is the most famous, having been here since the 1970s, and it doesn’t hold back on the portions. Freshly cooked to order on hot plates, the crepes can be filled with about 70 combinations of fruit, drizzled sauces, ice cream and whipped cream, and even be bulked up further with chunks of cheesecake or chocolate brownies. While Marion is an institution, other sweet street food trends come and go (and occasionally stick around) with incredible regularity in Harajuku, so part of the fun is that you never know what you might find – rainbow-coloured cheese toasties, panda- and pig-shaped ice creams and tapioca bubble tea spring to mind as fairly recent trends. One constant is that, whatever the food trend, it will be very Instagrammable.
Over in Asakusa in Taito-ku, the stall-lined approach to Senso-ji Temple is another hunting ground for snacks on the go. Called Nakamise-dori Street, it’s home to traditional stores such as Azuma, which specialises in kibi dango, dumplings made from rice flour and millet that get coated in soybean powder and served on a skewer. The result is a slightly sweet and moreishly chewy snack that goes perfectly with a Japanese tea. Another Nakamise-dori classic is Kokonoe’s age manju, stuffed with sweet red bean paste and then deep fried until it’s crispy on the outside but with a piping-hot soft inside. If that whets the appetite for more, elsewhere along Nakamise-dori are stalls selling traditional snacks like savoury senbei rice crackers and bite-size sponge cakes filled with sweet red bean paste.
You can’t talk about street food without mentioning Tokyo’s army of mobile street vendors. If you are shopping in Ginza and want lunch outdoors, stop by the Tokyo International Forum, as it’s not just a lovely bit of contemporary architecture – at least a dozen food trucks will usually be there, serving international and Japanese flavours. Most usually only run around lunchtime (roughly 11.30am to 2.30pm) on weekdays, but time it right and you could find coffee, roast beef sandwiches, rotisserie chicken, pizza, Indian curries, Okinawan taco rice bowls, organic bento lunch boxes and more, depending on the day. If you aren’t going to be in Ginza, every major business district will have a collection of lunch trucks somewhere to stumble upon.
The mobile stalls that set up at festivals are just as good, although they tend to follow a prescribed Japanese line-up. For starters, there’ll be yakisoba fried noodles, takoyaki (battered chunks of octopus), grilled squid, chargrilled yakitori chicken skewers and a kind of savoury pancake called okonomiyaki. For a sweet finish, expect candy floss, kakigori shaved ice and multi-coloured chocolate-covered bananas.