Fukuoka: Why the yatai capital of Japan is a must-visit destination for foodies

By Lilit Marcus of CNN

Fukuoka, Japan's sixth largest city by population, has more open-air food stalls than the rest of the country combined.

These stalls are called yatais, and they're an indelible part of what makes Fukuoka's food scene so special.

Think of them as a sort of foodie Cinderella.

Yatais are assigned specific, highly coveted spots at major pedestrian thoroughfares.

A row of yatais at a busy spot along the Naka River in Fukuoka.
A row of yatais at a busy spot along the Naka River in Fukuoka. Photo credit: AsiaDreamPhoto/Alamy Stock Photo

However, they can only operate at night and must completely dismantle or remove their stalls before morning commuters begin swarming the sidewalks. The only clue that a yatai might materialize later is a ground-level water spigot.

But at night, the city transforms. Carts and vans seem to appear by magic, serving everything from gyoza (in Fukuoka, these popular dumplings are served in mini, bite-size form) to ramen to meat skewers to a local chicken hotpot stew called oden, paired with ice-cold Asahi or Sapporo beers.

"Yatai is the best place to make friends," says Nick Szasz, a Canadian-born longtime resident of Japan who runs the English-language website Fukuoka Now. "Especially in the winter."

Most carts can only fit between 6-10 people, who are encouraged to squeeze in together on shared benches or closely crammed stools. During the cold season, many yatais keep customers warm by enclosing their benches in thick curtains, making the experience even more cozy.

While the Japanese sometimes have a reputation for polite formality, Szasz explains that it's considered good manners to chitchat with strangers while crammed in together at a yatai. Some carts even have the option to buy drinks for other diners - or the chef! - as a menu item.

From disorder to regulation

Had Fukuoka gone in another direction, yatai might have become a thing of the past. The loose, unaffiliated system of carts was unregulated and varied wildly in safety and quality.

Enter Sōichirō Takashima, who has been the mayor of Fukuoka since 2010. When elected, he was just 36, the youngest mayor in Fukuoka's history and one of the youngest in all of Japan.

Japan has the "grayest" population in the world, with at least one in 10 residents over the age of 80.

But Fukuoka, the largest city on the island of Kyushu, is bucking that trend. Takashima's administration has wooed recent college graduates and young entrepreneurs from around the country with small-business loans, affordable rent and co-working spaces.

One of the big initiatives pushed by the mayor - who was re-elected to a fourth term in 2022 - was an overhaul of the yatais.

Though the city has always been dotted with these food carts, Takashima's administration set up a committee to regulate them and make sure they'd remain a vital part of the city.

The committee established some baseline rules for yatais, such as a maximum of 120 carts (there are currently 96 registered), a requirement that prices be displayed in an obvious place, and a ban on raw foods - so, if you want to try Fukuoka's famously fresh sashimi, you'll need to head to a brick-and-mortar restaurant.

But rather than restrict the yatai community, the industry clean-up has led to a new, younger generation of yatai operators who are trying out new styles and flavours to keep locals coming back.

A vendor prepares local Hakata-style pork broth ramen at a Fukuoka yatai.
A vendor prepares local Hakata-style pork broth ramen at a Fukuoka yatai. Photo credit: Hemis/Alamy Stock Photo

At Telas & Mico, Kensuke Kubota - who trained at London's Zuma before moving back to Japan - serves Italian-style bruschetta topped with mentaiko, a spicy cod roe that is Fukuoka's most ubiquitous condiment.

And food isn't the only draw. Many carts have special designs or styles that give a sense of personality beyond what's on the menu.

Telas & Mico, for example, is painted an electric-blue colour that stands out on the busy, crowded sidewalk by the Nianjin train station. The proprietor of Yatai Keiji in the fashionable Akasaka neighbourhood used to work as a carpenter for Shinto shrines, so he made his cart look like a shrine too.

Some have even stopped selling food entirely, becoming bars that cater to yatai-hoppers looking for a final stop on the way home.

Fukuoka's local tourism authority has made an English-language website with yatai maps and tips.

The website notes that yatais, despite all the new rules, can still be unpredictable - an owner may decide not to bother opening one night if there's bad weather, or if a chef is ill.

But the element of surprise is one of the things that makes street food so much fun, and that goes double in Fukuoka.