Summertime in Japan has many different images; rainy season making the hydrangeas bloom, trips to the beach with friends, watching the fireflies come out at dusk. However, one of the most common scenes that comes to mind when thinking about summer is the soft glow of lanterns lining rows of food stalls, while friends and families mill around in colorful yukatas. One of the most anticipated summer activities, the festivals, both large and small, seem to happen almost every weekend across Japan. Most take place over the course of a weekend, filled with performances and fireworks. But today, we want to talk about the most important part of any festival...the food! Everyone that's been to a natsu matsuri (summer festival) has a favorite treat that adds to their experience. While the pandemic will change how festivals are held this summer, if at all, we hope today you can indulge in memories of past matsuri, or get excited for future ones! And if you're really craving something off this list (we know we are!), you can always find a recipe to try at home!
Karaage (fried chicken)
Always best when served straight from the fryer! You can either get this in a cup (good if you're sharing with friends) or on a stick. Most convenience stores in Japan will set up their own booth outside their store during a festival to serve their own products, including karaage.
These stir-fried noodles are common all year round, but during a festival, they're great if you want something a bit more filling. This is a great option if you're about to head down to the picnic area to watch fireworks!
This unique food (small bits of octopus in fried dough) has its origins as an Osaka street food, but is also enjoyed at festivals across Japan. Watching the vendor make the takoyaki is almost as enjoyable as eating it!
Kakigori (shaved ice)
Americans often think kakigori is the same as snow cones, but it's actually a little different! The ice flakes that are shaved off the block are normally finer, making the result light and fluffy! Normally you tell the vendor what flavor(s) of syrup you want, but sometimes there will be a self-serve booth where you can mix and match as many of the syrups as you like!
Castella sponge cake is a popular dessert in Japan, and you can often find a booth selling a mini version of it at festivals. Sometimes the vendor will offer to add red bean paste or custard cream in the middle. Fun fact: the special grill used to make takoyaki is also used for baby castella!
Ringo Ame (Candy Apple)
The same treat served at county fairs in America can also be found in
Japanese festivals! This is always a popular treat for kids. Usually, there will also be ichigo ame (candied strawberries) being sold next to it. Sometimes a food vendor will get creative and offer other versions of candied fruits for more adventurous eaters.
Fruits and Vegetables (Wait....what?!)
Yes, you can eat healthy at a festival! Cucumbers are in season during the summer, so it's very common to see a couple of vendors offering fresh cucumbers on sticks atop a mound of ice. After eating lots of fried, oily food, it's nice to grab one of these to refresh your palate.
Normally being sold atop the same mound of ice the cucumbers are on, pineapple is a sweeter option for a refreshing treat. Summer is also pineapple season, so there are usually a few stands offering freshly cut pineapple. You can ask for it to be cut up small in a cup, or have a whole wedge on a stick.
Jaga-bata (Butter Potato)
Baked potatoes might not be the first thing that comes to mind as festival food for Westerners, but they're quite common in Japan! Potatoes are usually steamed and prepared to order with lots of butter and salt. A filling option if you're unsure of other food options or have a picky child in your party.
We know we didn't cover everything a matsuri has to offer; there are so many options for festival food! Not to mention all of the special, trendy food items that come and go each year. Maybe we can talk about those another time....? See you next week!