The appeal of yatai is easy enough to explain: eat great food while soaking up the urban atmosphere, rubbing shoulders with your common man while slurping yakisoba or ramen. The yatai as a fixture of urban Japan is a thing of the past, and you’ll struggle to find a similar setup in Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto—not so in Fukuoka, where the yatai scene is still going strong.
Any Japanese in their 50s or older probably have memories of grabbing a bowl of chuka soba at a yatai set up outside a train station or busy street corner. The tradition goes back further but the stalls and mobile kitchens boomed after the Second World War, leading to the first wave of the ramen renaissance that we’re still living through today. As the country set about getting back on its feet, the yatai were no longer a fit with the vision of the city fathers, who would rather the yatai owners hit the bricks, or matured into brick-and-mortar shops. Other cities wiped out the yatai and Fukuoka’s mobile kitchens have survived intermittent campaigns to shut them down. After tightening up rules for operators in the mid-1990s and the success of the yatai as a tourist destination, the city has done its best to keep the yatai going while also shifting them toward less troublesome locations.
There are several areas that host yatai, and the number and type of shops change from month to month and season to season. Dedicated blogs and entire volumes of books have been dedicated to the topic, but the best way is to simply choose a district and head there. You could do worse than to head to the Nakasu area, the grittiest and perhaps most authentic collection of yatai, not too far from a massive red-light district, and a great place to try hardcore local dishes like grilled tripe and Hakata ramen; the Watanabe-dori and Oyafuko-dori yatai areas attract salarymen slamming highballs after work; the Hakata Station yatai block collects some of the oldest mobile kitchens in town… But that’s just scraping the surface.
Hakata ramen is what built the yatai phenomenon in Fukuoka and elsewhere, when American wheat came pouring in after the war and returnees from occupied Taiwan, Manchuria and Korea came back with a hunger for cheap Chinese-style noodles. The thick pork broth and thin noodles can be had across the country, with many of the better Hakata shops operating branches in Osaka and Tokyo, but there’s nothing like slurping it at a yatai outside Hakata Station.
The old favorites are heavily represented in each yatai area, and it’s not hard to find decent ramen, oden, yakitori, yakisoba and gyoza, but the new jacks that snagged yatai licenses in recent years have helped diversify the typical menu. More than seven decades on from the explosion of post-war yatai slanging noodles and porridge to the hungry and broke, the atmosphere at the yatai is more like an open-air party.
Locals and anyone that’s spent time in Fukuoka will have their favorite spots, but the best option is to discover your own favorite. Take a chance, duck under the roof or behind the curtain, order what the stall owner recommends. Do as the locals do: take a seat confidently (local tradition suggests that taking the rightmost open seat is the best bet), make it quick because somebody else wants to sit down and you should be planning to sample other dishes, and stay off your phone but feel free to start a conversation with your yatai-mates.