It feels like a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a fairytale where the passing of time is barely a suggestion, where an evening drifts to confusion and inebriated chaos. Where the food is, if not spectacular, certainly honest, drinks flow freely, and pandemic restrictions are enforced with the sternest of nods and the most ruthless of winks. A blur.
Fog clears, eyes flutter open and you wonder ‘what happened last night?’ Or, should we flirt with honesty, the early hours of this morning.
You return to the scene of the action and find… Nothing. Absolutely nothing. No cocktail bar. No food counter.
Nothing. Save a few marks on scuffed concrete. Marks that hint, but far from confirm, you might not have imagined it all.
Welcome to your first night in Fukuoka City on the Southern Island of Kyushu in Japan. Welcome to the magical world of Yatai – Japanese street stalls.
Yatai used to grace the streets of countless cities across Japan, and still exist in some, in one way or another. In the 40s these highly mobile stands surfaced to service the needs of citizens searching for hospitality in cities and towns devastated by war. A space where guests could relax. Get a good meal. Have something to drink that wouldn’t break the bank.
And a good meal certainly can be had. Piping hot ramen, fried veggies and skewered chicken cooked to perfection, along with freshly poured beer and mixed drinks.
But times have moved on from the heyday. Crushed by commercial pressure, recent Covid-19 drama, and ever-strict hygiene regulations, Fukuoka is the last true bastion of this amazing incarnation and typically Japanese version of street food.
And, in the opinion of the guy with two thumbs on this keyboard, long may it be so.
It would be a mistake to think of Yatai as flimsy food stalls. Ebichan, the cocktail ‘lounge’ we visited last night, with its high end cocktails and impressive selection of single-malts and rare spirits, takes three hours to set up and is there every night that it isn’t raining. The walls are solid, plastic curtains covering doors to keep out the worst of the weather. For the most part, Yatai resemble little garden sheds. The kind where a garage band would jam and drink to their heart's content, an escape from the world outside those four walls.
In the West it’s become fashionable for a chef to appear at another venue and call it a pop-up, but those using this term have clearly not been to Fukuoka. As far as I am concerned, Yatai are the true Kings of Pop(up). Like hospo vampires, they literally arise with the setting sun. And like Puck’s ass, they disappear sometime before the sun reappears dressed in its morning makeup.
Pop-up better than that and I’m all ears.
We return to the streets the following evening with a more temperate mindset, a somewhat suspicious stomach, and an inquisitive mind, to learn as much as we can from our previous night in the city. We head down to Tomochan, one of the most famous Yatai in the city, to find things well and truly underway. We were on the understanding it all kicked off at 7pm, but judging by the two at the end of the counter, the referee blew the whistle a few drinks ago.
We are lucky to secure the last spots in a venue that fits ten at an awkward Covid squeeze. Tomochan is an institution. Every night for the last forty-five years, typhoon evenings aside, this stall has sprung forth from the footpath. Always in the same spot. It takes roughly ninety minutes to set-up their kitchen and they are running all the way through until 2am.
From the look of the line that is already forming there isn’t much time for a staff break. I don’t eat pork, so after a couple of crisp beers and cleaning them out of chicken, to the relief of those waiting we head off in search of another Yatai. The line has reached eight deep, couples huddled together as the temperature drops and the breeze starts to cut.
A last glance at the two men at the far end of the counter, those still waiting for a spot will have their resolve tested. The men don’t appear to be going anywhere soon.
We chose streets with wide footpaths, footpaths that look like prime Yatai real estate space, pass a couple that are full, one that, to be honest, doesn’t look so welcoming and come across another we saw setting up earlier in the afternoon.
We pull up seats. Spiderwebs, ancient advertisements for alcohol and grease stains all adorn the walls. Somehow it doesn’t feel unhygienic, but more like ‘lived-in chic’ of consistent operation.
Four other patrons grace the counter. Two salarymen, one pouring for the other in deference, a mark of respect, testament to the stratification of office hierarchy (though neither needs more to drink in the opinion of this ex-bartender and the precepts of responsible service of alcohol). Two others, who could be called ‘blue collar’ in some countries, chatting quietly with the man behind the counter, displayed the self-restraint of seasoned drinkers — a self-restraint lacking from the boisterous men in suits.
One beer in, and some fried chicken down, the salarymen stagger off. The atmosphere relaxes. We are politely tolerated until the opportunity to strike conversation arises when a distracted owner gives my beer to the man to my right, who in turn offers to pour for me. “It tastes better when I serve.”
After the first sip I suspect this claim is dubious, but icebreaker questions of home countries and such sail by, and within moments a conversation ignites that wouldn’t sound out of place in any bar around the world.
The inevitable arises and you may have already been wondering. What do they do for toilets in a bar without plumbing? In the case of Ebichan, they have a relationship with a convenience store just down the street. Others are generally located near enough to public facilities to cover the need when it invariably arises. I’m happy to say, Japanese public toilets are generally more than adequate, and don’t seem to carry the negative stigma that such buildings do in some countries. In fact, they might even go as far as to have warmed toilet seats.
Our new friends lament the decline of Fukuoka’s Yatai culture.
“Fukuoka is a drinking city,” one says. “If there is no drinking in the town, it would be a total waste of space.” Perhaps that is an exaggeration, but there is definitely a kind of magic to these little stalls, a casual comfort that offers a street version of the mythical British pub, an extension of their living rooms for the locals, and a place for visitors to the city to meet its inhabitants.
We pass Tomochan on the way back to the hotel. The line is just as long, and the men at the end of the counter haven’t budged.
They clearly are in for the long haul. As are those waiting.