Colored lights, boisterous crowds, some shopping, and a whole lot of eating: the night market is a “must-go, must-see, must-eat“ stop on many an itinerary in East and Southeast Asia. Repeat tourists in the region might expect to find a night market or two on their trip to Japan; unfortunately for fans of Japanese snacks and streetfood, there is no perfect equivalent to the Thai or Taiwanese night market. Fear not, though, fair reader! There are places you can go to get your open-air goods at lit-up stalls. We’ll be outlining some below, but if this is an important part of your trip to Japan, we recommend booking around festivals: they give off night market energy, and increase one’s likelihood of encountering nighttime snacks and games on long temple roads. At any time of the year, however, you can catch some of the spirit of the night market (and some serious Japanese snacks!) on meandering narrow alleyways called yokocho.
So...annual festivals, alleyways, and temple grounds are Japan’s response to the question “Night market?” Yes! But this hasn’t always been the case. Street vendors called yatai were once ubiquitous in the world of Japanese snacks. Before the yatai were food stalls parked outside Buddhist temples as early as the 400s. It was at these locations that the weary traveller could stop for some nourishment.
Even today, you’ll find soft serve and beverage stalls in the large grounds of famous temples and shrines, often along the road from torii (the often red “gate” marking visitors’ passage from the secular to spiritual world) to the temple. When the sakura are in bloom, you can find a night market outside Kyoto’s Hirano Shrine. In July, a can find Japanese snacks under the glow of the paper lanterns at the nearby Yasaka Shrine, home to Gion Matsuri—one of the country’s largest and most famous festivals. In light of the pandemic, however, it might be wise to visit Yasaka Shrine in order to humble oneself before Susano-no-Mikoto, the chaotic deity tied to the harvest, disease, and dangerous seas.
If you aren’t particular about the “night” in “night market,” visit Tokyo’s famous Senso-ji in the evening and wander through Nakamise Dori, where rows of lit stalls proffer trinkets, baubles, and, of course, food. Beyond the temple gate is Asakusa, a neighborhood known from the mid-1700s through the early 1900s as the pleasure quarter in what was then called the city of Edo. Revellers of those times could refuel between the cinema and theater well into the wee hours.
Asakusa remains an excellent location to wander yokocho, the aforementioned alleyways packed with little watering holes and vendors of Japanese snacks. On Koenchi, an alleyway just outside Senso-ji, midnight diners can pull up an outdoor seat and grab a beer with their yakitori (skewered, barbecued chicken). An eagle-eyed visitor might even find a sweet cake in the shape of the lucky sea bream: taiyaki! Japanese snacks from a yatai or festival stall might be sweet (think kakigori—shaved ice—or skewered strawberries in a hardened simple syrup, a variation of the Chinese dish tanghulu). Yatai also serve up bowls of yakisoba (akin to a pan-fried ramen), gyoza (“potstickers”), and karaage (Japanese fried chicken), among others.
Having lingered among the temple vendors of today and of yore, stopped briefly for two festivals, and breezed through one Tokyo yokocho, we now stumble across the yatai once more. This is the pushcart-style street vendor of Japanese snacks upon which the modern festival stall is based! The popularity of yatai has waxed and waned: since the 1600s. After decades of decline, yatai came back in full force in the years immediately following World War II, when American occupational forces flooded the food- and kitchen-scarce country with more wheat than anyone knew what to do with. (This resulted in the rise of a nearly-forgotten Chinese noodle, eventually called “ramen.”) Because the distribution and use of food rations was strictly regulated, yatai selling black market goods (like ramen) benefitted from being able to pick up at a moment’s notice and disappear into the night.
Today, visitors intent on experiencing a Japanese “night market” will find hundreds of yatai in Fukuoka City. “Yatai” today often look more like vans and serve more international fare, like Indian curries. In Fukuoka, however, they tend to look more like their traditional forebears. Unlike the specialist carts of the past, these yatai tend to serve more extensive menus, but often from the more traditional Japanese and formerly-occupied neighboring cuisines. Should you decide to put “night market” on your schedule while visiting, we recommend treating your market like a meal. Pick your destination first, then enjoy whichever Japanese version suits your taste!