A yatai, Japanese mobile food stand, selling baked potatoes near Harajuku Station, Tokyo.

Yatai: Tokyo’s Mobile Food Bars

The other day we heard the wailing of a somewhat sad melody floating through the air in Harajuku. “Baaaaaked potatoes,” cried the singer, “potatoes baked on hot pebbles!” We knew right away that a potato vendor was selling warm treats from his yatai, a Japanese mobile food stand. Quickly, we ran to buy some, only to learn that they had just sold out! And while we were watching the new batch being made, inhaling their pleasant aroma, we wondered about how exactly this works with all these traditional stalls selling food? That is why today, PingMag takes you on a tour of Tokyo’s food bars on wheels.

Written by Ryoko
Translated by Kevin Mcgue

Even without the baked potato theme song, we could have easily spotted this vendor by the red paper lantern gently swaying in the wind on the back of his truck. We learned that the vendor usually sets up shop around Akasaka, and was in Harajuku for the first time. The vendor was especially proud of his wood burning stove for baking sweet potatoes. Nowadays, many stands use gas ovens or – even microwaves – to bake potatoes! It is getting rarer to see wood burning stoves. But that is not the only reason the vendor is proud of his stove: he made the stove and the chimney system himself. “I’ve had this old stove for a long time,” he said with pride, “but it still works great, and the potatoes always come out soft and sweet.” Yummy!


Lots of freshly baked sweet potatoes!

The vendor stokes the fire…

… and while out walking his dog, this boy decided to stop for a hot potato.

Of course, we asked about the baked potato theme song that plays on a loop, announcing to customers all around that the potatoes are ready. Just who created this song? “Oh, I recorded it myself on my own tape recorder,” the vendor explained. “I remember thinking that I wanted that kind of feeling, and I just made up the words and the melody on the spot, but I couldn’t tell you exactly when and where I did it.” Interesting!

Do you want to hear his song?

Next we found a stand selling baked potatoes near Sasazuka Station in Shibuya. Unlike the vendor we met earlier, this one had all sorts of price signs posted all around his lively truck. He offered samples for tasting and all sorts of free extras. And we must say that the vendor’s bright pink hat and apron caught our eye! We asked him about his stand.
“I use a gas stove, which is fed by a gas tank outside the truck,” he said while keeping an eye on the cooking potatoes. “In principle, it is the same as cooking with a gas range and frying pan at home, but we add a layer of hot pebbles and cook the potatoes on top of them.” We asked about the theme song and learned that this dealer also recorded his own!

This vendor (with a pink hat and apron) also handwrote all of these signs himself.

Just like in a bakery, there are some little bite-sized samples for you to taste.

Maybe his pink hat and apron are this vendor’s clever trademark…

In search of more interesting food carts, we went to a part of Tokyo that never sleeps: Shinjuku. As we suspected, we found lots of stands around the station that operate long after the trains stop running. There seems to be lots of ramen, noodle soup, and oden stands with lots of businessmen, small groups of women and students stopping for a bite to eat before heading home. Laughter was pouring from one of the carts, so we stepped closer – and found the vendor having a good chat with his customers.

Spending the evening, having a chat with the vendor is half the pleasure.

Not all carts stand on level ground, but no one bothers.

Look closer – how did these tags get there?
This kind of blazing red curtain is standard in ramen shops and carts.

We explored the area a bit more and, near Shinjuku City Hall, we found some more. There was a vendor preparing to open up a cart serving both oden and ramen. Although he was busy with so many tasks, we got to ask him how a food cart is run.

A look behind the scenes: this mobile kitchen is crammed into a cart that can be towed by bicycle.

Oden cooking in broth…

… and ramen noodles waiting to be cooked.

“Making a food cart like this is rather simple,” the vendor explains. “The cart serves as the base, and the roof can be made from wood and plastic sheets. I am renting this cart, but I added the gas range, electricity and so on. I got the cooking utensils at a that specialised shop.”

The gas cooker is hidden inside the cart.

A generator to run the lights…

… and a gas tank to run the cooker.

“I have a ten kilo gas tank to run the cooker,” says the vendor, “and a generator to supply electricity.” Everything is completely mobile! And this vendor runs his food cart every day of the year except in rainy season. So every day, he opens his shop around 4 in the afternoon, and keeps running until 9 in the evening. Sometimes he runs it as late as the early morning, depending on how busy he is.

The cart seen from the side. It looks terribly heavy with all the gear, but the vendor tows it with his bicycle back and forth every day!
This cute little food cart sells octopus meat fried in balls of batter.
The nostalgic glow of a red paper lantern at a food cart adds a homely atmo. Cheers!

Thanks to all of the vendors who kindly helped! Be sure to try their fare!

  • http://... Hern42

    I love these sweet potatoes!!!
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/hern42/2297451408/

    That is something I’ll miss after leaving Japan.

  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous

    What about the water they cook and clean with?

  • plue

    ONAKA SUITAAAAAAAAAAAAa

  • http://dailydesignspot.blogspot.com dailydesignspot

    this is fantastic and inspiring.. i have wanted to start up a SMALL mobile food biz for quite some time now and i love to see and meet people that are doing.. espeically small enough to pull with a bike! not sure if my skinny legs could pull it off.. haha.. in any event thank you so much and if you have any more information/photos/ thoughts.. please contact me.. have a beautiful day!

  • http://zitronensaft.blogspot.com Julio

    If I ever visit Tokyio, eating at one of these bars will be on my To-Do list!

  • http://www.plushism.etsy.com nico

    Yummy! We must trust “Mobile food”.

  • zeroKelvin

    I. LOVE. THIS. SITE!!! It never ceases to capture my interest in Japanese culture. Just wanted to say thank you for entertaining my curiosity.

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    Delicious ^^ One of the cars pass nearby my house sometimes and they include amaimo.

  • http://www.bloomize.com clara

    Wish I could spot one next time.

  • http://www.dendoo.co.cc dendoo

    pingmag how i love thee, this is just too cool! most people would be turned off by the through of eating from places like this but man it looks like a great experience.

  • http://ima-chan.blogspot.com Ima

    I’ve just been to tokyo on vacation and sadly i didnt see ANY mobile food vendors.. hopefully next time.. amazing article.. i have a question though, is this legal in Japan? to stop somewhere and sell from your truck or whatever?

  • http://www.karllam.com astromonkey

    nostalgic sounds from my days living in tokyo but i also remember how annoying it was when i was trying to get some sleep late in the evening.

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  • Modesty Blaise

    If you want to eat at a a yatai, forget Tokyo and head to Fukuoka instead – to the Hakata district: home of the yatai. They serve the original Hakata ramen (there are different types of ramen for different areas of Japan). Head to the area around Canal city where the yatai are lined up by the canal – mmmm lovely. Just don’t find yourslef down that way around 2-3pm when you see can the yatai owners setting up as you’ll also find them chopping up the pork bones they use to make the stock and the smell is horrendous!!

  • ad

    one of the yatai’s in that very same hakata district ripped us off!

    we ordered 2 bowls of oden, 2 bowls of ramen and one platter of yakitori (about 7 sticks – meat, skin, gizzard, heart etc)

    that cost us 5000+ yen!!

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/47011467N00/2200799666/ _steve w

    Food vendor’s tokyo—
    this photo makes me smile…
    authenticity—fake rust

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/47011467@N00/2200799666/

  • http://xmanoel.net xmanoel

    Here in Spain (in Madrid at least) there is also the tradition to sell on the streets sweet potatoes on winter.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/73273765@N00/110196450/
    (A non very descriptive picture if somebody is curious about that)

  • Mary

    “ONAKA SUITAAAAAAAAAAAAa”

    LMAO… what a memory! I can hear it now!!

    My favorite was nuclear-hot takoyaki in the dead of winter. The first four were heavenly, the last four a battle between my full stomach and my desire not to waste food. God bless Kansai.

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  • Ken G. Ishizuka

    Hey, Bring these to New York I would love to sit and eat some really good ramen,oden, squid fried, or potatoes….It would be great.

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