It would seem that food truck culture is really gaining worldwide acceptance. What started as fast food on wheels has reached gourmet proportions, and this trend has been picking up in Japan.
Of course, it would be false to assume that Japan has not always had a food truck culture--they just didn't look like the huge, elevated kitchen trucks that you see in the United States or elsewhere. No, the original Japanese food trucks were the hand drawn carts (called yatai in Japanese), and they were a staple in city life starting during the Edo period.
Back in those days, if you wanted sushi, you went to a food cart. If you were looking for a quick bowl of noodles, go to your noodle vendor parked down the street. And so on and so forth.
The trend of food carts continued through the Meiji and even the Showa era. When I was a kid, I distinctly remember being able to get a bowl of ramen at a food cart in the street or some oden on a cold evening (which was the premise for my favorite Shimura Ken skit--see below):
Of course, as cities and streets got more crowded (and more regulated), food carts started to go by the wayside. Over time, they gave way to Japanese food trucks, which are still quite a bit different from what you might expect back home.
Here are a few of my favorite Japanese food trucks that I've encountered:
As a child in the States, whenever I heard a truck playing music down the road, it meant ice cream was coming, and all the children would file out on the sidewalk to obtain a frozen treat. When I was a child in Japan, however, a musical truck meant something entirely different. Instead of popsicles, ice cream cones, ice cream sandwiches, and all other manners of frozen desserts, Japanese musical trucks give you a single option: stone roasted sweet potatoes. Pretty disappointing if you're a kid expecting ice cream actually, but as an adult, I have come to appreciate just how tasty, nutritious, and filling yaki-imo can be. They are soft, full of flavor, and pack just enough sweetness to make them a satisfying and guilt-free treat.
Yaki-imo trucks are out and about in autumn and winter. They are more typical in neighborhood areas than tourist spots, but there are plenty of trucks driving around the big cities as well. You'll know they're coming because of their signature warble: "Yaaaaaaki-imooooooooo...Ishi yaaaaaaaaaaki-imooooo." Just head outside and the truck will typically be a small pickup with the bed covered by a tarp to protect the potato roasters. Prices will vary from place to place, but you can expect to pay anywhere between 300 and 700 yen for 1-2 servings.
Japan has a special kind of affinity for pancakes, and that's probably because they are seen more as unique desserts than meals. The notion of bacon, eggs, and pancakes is foreign over here, where you're more likely to find fruit and whipped cream (or even ice cream) topping your flapjacks. As a sweet treat, pancake trucks have started to grow in popularity as an alternative to crepes. You can find all sorts of fun and delicious (mostly sweet) options, including chocolate and strawberry topped pancakes, fruit medleys, and seasonal varieties.
Pancake trucks are not ubiquitous (yet), but you can find Betty's Pancake almost every weekend at the Aoyama Farmer's Market in Tokyo (see below).
Want an alternative to Starbucks? How about something with tons more charm, character, and mobility? Coffee trucks are gaining ground in popularity, especially since they can make it to festivals, rest areas, farmers markets, or special events. Most offer a surprisingly robust menu of options, so it is not out of the question to find macchiatos, flat whites, americanos, lattes, all available out of the back of a little van. All the coffee is made-to-order (often hand-dripped), and in many instances, the coffee truck proprietors roast their own beans, so it makes for a unique and delicious tasting experience. It also doesn't hurt that most of the items on the menu are a few hundred yen cheaper than their Starbucks counterparts!
Coffee trucks are most common at markets, but you can also find them outside of shrines/temples, festivals, and outside office buildings (in major cities).
Curry is not the easiest option to eat when purchasing from a truck, but don't let that stop you from enjoying these incredible meals-on-wheels. I was honestly surprised the first time I ever tried curry out of a van, because I wasn't expecting much. Still, I wanted a hot meal and I figured that it would fill the hole in my belly. Little did I know that I would have some of the best curry I would eat in Japan. I don't know what they do in the back of those little vans, but whatever they put in the curry packs a memorable and delicious punch. Also, you can't beat the price. What would cost 1000-2000 yen in a brick-and-mortar restaurant costs anywhere from 300-800 yen here.
Curry trucks are starting to become more and more popular, and you can find them near office buildings at lunch time during the week, as well as festivals, markets, and special events.
Wood-fire Pizza Truck
By far, this has been my favorite food "truck" of all time. Why? Because Uncle Ken said "Screw it, I'm just going to put a brick oven in the back of my tiny van so I can make woodfire pizza." I love that Uncle Ken lives on the wild side and doesn't mind an open flame just feet away from his gas tank. The man has guts, and I love that my pizza comes with the real risk of explosion. Seriously though, it is authentic woodfire pizza that tastes like it could have come from a decades-old pizzeria in Napoli. Instead, you can enjoy a made-to-order personal pizza at a fairly modest price on-the-go. Uncle Ken has many options available, but I recommend his margerita, which is always made with fresh ingredients and cooked to perfection.
Uncle Ken moves around Tokyo quite a bit, but you can typically find him in the Yoyogi Park / Aoyama Farmer's Market areas (see below).
The RJT Blueberry Truck is probably one of the quirkier food trucks I've come across in Tokyo. First, for the most part, it stays in one place: Ebisu Garden Place in Tokyo. Second, it is housed in an old school Citroen van that is a cool sight for motor enthusiasts regardless of the food its sells. Third, it plays up its links to Canada with red maple leaves all over the place (an odd sight for the middle of Tokyo). Fourth, it specializes in blueberries, so when I first chanced upon it, I wondered just how many options could be possible. The answer is a lot. Parfaits, smoothies, beer (even), seasonal options--the truck actually makes for a pretty great place to visit if you're looking for a snack for the morning, and afternoon pick me up, or something to start the wind-down for the evening. Since it's in Ebisu Garden Place, the costs of menu options are a little higher (nothing for less than 500 yen when I visited), but it will still beat the prices of any of the other places in the immediate vicinity.
Here is where you can find the RJT truck:
Where to Find Some Food Trucks in Tokyo:
UNU Farmer's Market
When I first started going to Aoyama Farmer's Market, there was one, maybe two food trucks camped out there. The Aoyama Farmer's Market takes place every weekend at the United Nations University right next to Omote-Sando station, and the space used to be relegated just to the area immediately in front of the university. However, the market's popularity grew and grew, as did the patronage of the food trucks which started coming in droves. Now, the market has expanded to the covered courtyard area at the entrance of the university complete with picnic tables and chairs. You can find anywhere from five to fifteen food trucks every weekend now, with fare ranging from coffee to curry to pancakes to craft beer to kebabs and others. Everything will be priced between 300 and 1500 yen, so you can stick with a single truck or make your rounds without breaking the bank.
This is my favorite place for food truck cuisine. Here's where to find it:
Commune 2nd is a fun and quirky place to visit that represents the opposite of most of the attractions that run along the main drag in Omote Sando. Whereas the Pradas, Guccis, Armanis, and other high end places attract ritzy elites, Commune 2nd (located just a stone's throw away) is supposed to be a community space where small vendors and cafes can flourish. While it used to have more mobile options, the wheels have gone on blocks for some of the food trucks as they have become more permanent fixtures there. That doesn't mean you can't still enjoy food from a caravan or the back of a truck--it just means that you can always find them in that one place. Food options there include burgers, seafood, pasta, and many others (along with lots of beer).
Commune 2nd is located about a 2 minute walk from Omote Sando station.
Yoyogi Park Event Area
Yoyogi Park is a great place to visit at any time of the week, but it is especially incredible on the weekends. Most weekends, there will be festivals taking place in the Yoyogi Koen Ibento Hiroba, or Yoyogi Park Event Area. Located right next to the Yoyogi National Stadium and NHK plaza, there is an ampitheater and event area which houses those festivals. Almost without fail, the events will have loads of food stalls and, you guessed it, food trucks! This is where my mate Uncle Ken hangs out most weekends, as well as lots of other great food truck options. Go for the eats, stay for the festival, I say!
Here is where you can find the Yoyogi Park Event Area:
So there you have it...
...your introduction to food trucks in Japan. If you enjoy delicious cuisine delivered with character and charm, I say zehi, find yourself a favorite food truck along your journeys over here.