STREETS OF EATS

Fukuoka’s ‘Asian’ flavor

by Stephanie Gartelman

FUKUOKA — B day Fukuoka shows a sleek, modern face to the world, but when the sun goes down its complexion changes to something more timeless and intriguing as nearly 200 wooden yatai (food stalls) are towed into its downtown area.

The tightly shut yatai unfold like origami as vendors bustle about with stools, pots, pans, food and crockery. Finally, colorful noren curtains are hung out and the night’s trade begins. By 9 p.m. a mixed bag of office workers, laborers, tourists and local residents are crammed snugly inside, eating and drinking, and at most yatai the conversations and the comings and goings will continue until around 4 a.m.

One of Fukuoka’s most famous attractions, yatai’s appeal lies in their friendly owners and the unexpected good vibes that can quickly develop between 10 strangers crammed into these alfresco diners not much bigger than a phone booth. They’re bohemian but not seedy; the food’s humble yet tasty; and at 450 yen to 700 yen for most dishes, prices are moderate though not dirt cheap.

Yatai came into their own here after World War II to meet a desperate need for work, and quick cheap meals, after thousands of people lost their homes and businesses during the Allied air raids of 1945. At first serving mostly zosui (rice porridge), today Fukuoka’s yatai dish up popular eats such as pork-broth Hakata ramen and grilled beef tripe.

With yatai having disappeared from the streets of many cities in Japan, this Kyushu city now reportedly has around a fifth of the national total — which helps give it an “Asian” flavor popular with its many Taiwanese and Korean visitors.

But staying on the streets has been tough for Fukuoka’s yatai vendors too. “Twenty years ago, the only place where you get a late-night beer or a bite to eat was at a yatai,” says Yoshinobu Ando, head of central Fukuoka’s Yatai Association. “Now there are hundreds of alternatives — and at least 50 fewer yatai than there were then.”

Lacking air conditioning in summer and windblown in winter, yatai are more of a novelty than a necessity. They are even openly disliked by some people, who associate them with rip-offs and poor hygiene, and regard them as unpleasant reminders of a less affluent past. During the 1990s, complaints about trash, overpricing, rowdiness and sidewalk congestion escalated, and in 1995 the city’s administrators decided to phase them out.

That decision, however, sparked such an outcry that the government had to think again. “While 75 percent of Fukuokans said that problems existed, 80 percent thought yatai benefited the city overall, especially in terms of tourism, and wanted them to stay,” says Reiko Tatsuda from the city hall’s Tourism Section, referring to a 1996 survey of almost 1,000 residents.

The city finally ruled that yatai could stay, provided that owners stuck to stringent rules imposed last July, such as leaving 2 meters of sidewalk free and displaying all prices. A thorough monitoring system was also established in April, requiring operators to use metered water and electricity — and pay a monthly road-use fee to the city’s Public Works Division. There have only been a handful of complaints about yatai since. But though standards may now have been ensured, a more serious threat to the long-term future of the yatai may be other new rules halting the issue of any new permits — and stipulating that the booths may only be handed on to direct relatives.

“These stalls are definitive of Fukuoka,” says Ryo Hirayama at the Public Works Division. “To make sure they stay, we will work hard to improve their image and their customers’ behavior.” Across from City Hall, it’s nearly dark as Ando and his wife, Yoshiko, toss niratama (chive omelets) above leaping flames for five early customers at the Maruyoshi yatai he’s run for 21 years. “We just come here to get cozy with Ando-san!” the men joked in chorus — an indication that along with the food and drink, it’s the vendors themselves, and the relaxed ambience they foster, that keeps their customers coming back for more.

For more information call Central Fukuoka’s Yatai Association at (092) 751-3490.

For starters

* Don’t go in a big group — most yatai have seating for around 10 people only.

* Check the prices before you order.

* Start with orders easy for the vendor to prepare, such as oden or yakitori.

* Order more filling dishes such as niratama or ramen toward the end of the meal.

* Order what other customers are ordering if you want to be served quickly at busy times (that is, around 10 p.m.).

* Go at different times to enjoy different moods. Things are more lighthearted between 7 p.m. and 11 p.m., while anything can happen between midnight and 3 a.m.

* Don’t believe that queues mean a yatai serves tastier food. They’re basically all good, even if the Japanese media sometimes create hype about a particular one. Follow your nose and go somewhere you think looks friendly.

* Don’t linger at a busy yatai if other customers are waiting.

* Enjoy making unlikely friends. Take extra meishi if you have to!

* Keep the peace — remember that right now, the future of yatai in Fukuoka depends on their reputation.

Main courses

* Kokutai-doro, Watanabe-dori and Oyafuko-dori: The heart of Fukuoka’s downtown area. You’re as likely to sit next to immaculately groomed businessmen as you are to a group of bleach-haired students. A vast choice of different dishes is available, from European stews to Fukuoka classics.

* Nagahama: A much-photographed street with 15 yatai, located near Fukuoka’s largest dock area, a 10-minute walk from downtown. Popular with tourists. Mostly ramen and oden on the menu.

* Nakasu: A large, neon-lit nightlife district, with yatai situated along the banks of the Naka River and on nearby streets. Be especially careful to check prices before ordering here. Most serve ramen, oden and yakitori.

* Hakata Station: Fukuoka’s most established businesses are here, making for less action but a more relaxed meal. Again, expect ramen, oden and yakitori.