Fun dining at Japan's street food stalls

Published January 21st, 2016

My eighth amuse bouche arrived in a porcelain bowl that looked like it belonged in the British Museum. The "potage of Kyoto red carrot in the image of New Year's rising sun" was from a 17-course kaiseki menu – the haute cuisine of Japan, derived from the elaborate 16th Century rituals of the tea ceremony.

The highly formalised style has been an inspiration for the likes of Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adria. But with dinner at Hoshinoya in Kyoto costing ¥42,000 (around $A525), such sophisticated formality comes at a price. And in a country facing economic stagnation, it's a price that not everyone wants to pay.

大トロ、鯛雲丹 #kaiseki #japanesecuisine #food #foodlover #sashimi

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The kaiseki style is old-fashioned – deliberately so. Like the shojin ryori menu at the city's Kanga-an Temple.

Sitting at a low table, designed to make everyone equal, I ate a bowl of soy bean milk skin, and an imitation chestnut. The prickly exterior – made from buckwheat noodles coloured with green tea – gave way to a sweet potato interior.

I admired the artistry of the chef but I didn't want to eat the food. And, as course followed course, I started to feel trapped by the confines of this Zen banquet. I longed for the freedom of street food.

Street food has never flourished in Japan. The Japanese still see it as rude to eat on the go.

But that's starting to change. Sushi started as Tokyo street food, and the best places to eat it are still down by the city's Tsukiji fish market.

Fish market in Tokyo #japantrip #tokyo #fishmarket #tsukijifishmarket

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At one tiny stall, with four stools, I tried chirashi – 'scattered sushi'. It was the off-cuts of the sushi (mine arrived with salmon, tuna and salmon roe) artfully presented on a donburi. A Tokyo speciality, and – right on the doorstep of Tsukiji – the freshest leftovers I've ever tasted.

The best places for ramen – the delicious Japanese noodle dish – are also on the squares down by the fish market. Inoue, for instance, serves a light ramen based on chicken stock – a real treat to eat among the shoppers and market workers. If the weather's cold, head indoors for a heavier ramen at Menya Musashi – it's a proper sit-down do, studded with fat pieces of well-marinated pork belly.

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Under a nearby railway arch, and running along the pavement I had my Lost In Translation moment as a waiter tried to help me identify the skewered meat I was pointing at. "The bit of the bird that gets rid of the grit," he said.

Once I had banished the image from my mind, I ordered the gizzard. It was delicious. And only ¥100 ($A1.25) per skewer.

I followed it with chicken thigh and pig tongue. Washed down with a soup of radish, carrot and liver. At least I think that's what it was.

tiny alleys, even tinier bars #pissalley #shinjuku

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But, for me, the spiritual home of Tokyo street food is the maze of tiny 10-cover establishments down Piss Alley. The authorities don't like the name, and are trying to rebrand it Memory Lane – without much success.

To be honest, they would rather that Piss Alley didn't exist at all. They see street food as poor people's food, and a reminder of a time – straight after the Second World War – when Japan didn't have enough to eat.

Now that Tokyo has a reputation for high-end restaurant food – including shojin ryori and kaiseki – they don't want to go back. Mercifully, though, the good people of Japan have other ideas.

On a Friday night, Piss Alley is heaving. It's like a film set of tiny buildings, with staircases leading nowhere.

The place feels like it's painted nicotine brown (no-smoking laws don't seem to apply to Piss Alley), and then spritzed with a hot, savoury steam. It's beside the railway (at one point, there's a rusty ladder up to the main train track out of Tokyo) and the rumble of trains never goes away. Nor does the smell of fried food and sake, as salarymen eat and drink their fill.

There's Horaiya – an offal shop established in 1947. And Isuzu, which has been hiding behind its wall of beer kegs since 1948.

But next door (nobody spoke enough English to tell me the joint's name) they do a huge ball of tempura vegetables – called kakiage – laid to rest in a wonderful savoury broth. The ball was held together with a lot of flour, which is why they only needed to charge me ¥380 ($A4.75) for the privilege.

But it was so much better at soaking up the broth. And, as I found out, slurping on your broth is deemed good manners.

At Ebisu Yokocho, a version of Piss Alley is being reinvented for a new generation. Here, stalls are separated by curtains of plastic, and a cool crowd sit on crates and soap-boxes.

At Ebisu Yokocho they have attempted – and succeeded at – what retailers around the world are desperately trying to do. They have put street food indoors.

It is a lively food arcade, stuffed with tiny yatai food stalls. Each with its own atmosphere and decor.

Yakitori is next to kushikatsu. But it doesn't feel Disney. Expect to see this version of Japanese street food in a town near you sometime soon.

Japanese street food isn't all about Tokyo, however. Osaka has a strong street food culture, and the batter-based okonomiyaki pancakes are city specialities.

And in Kyoto, I found something of a bygone era about a sweet-potato seller. Even down to the hawker's cry – "ishi-yakiimo-ya" – announcing his arrival.

The sweet potato has held a special place in Japanese culture since it saved the country from famine in the mid-18th Century after the rice crop failed. The fact that in Kyoto it comes deep fried, and candied with a sweet-salty syrup certainly helps.

Nishiki is Kyoto's covered market, and home to its best street food. I found a baby octopus served on a lollipop stick.

And I tasted extraordinary mochi – soft, round, rice cakes – stuffed with red bean paste and grilled. They were somewhere between sweet and savoury, and a reminder of how different the Japanese palate is from our own. And I watched a proud biscuit maker wielding his waffle irons over hot coals like a Samurai warrior.

Japan's culture already fascinates the world – its street food has the capacity to do the same. If only the authorities can learn not to be so embarrassed by it.

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This article was written by Richard Johnson from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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