He’s one of the few people in Japan who made it to adulthood without trying one of the country’s most popular festival foods.

Our Japanese-language reporter Seiji Nakazawa loves Japanese festivals. Always has. Ever since he was a little boy growing up in a rural part of Osaka Prefecture, he’s found the atmosphere of matsuri, as traditional festivals are called in Japanese, a refreshingly exciting change from the humdrum rhythm of everyday life.

So with the Sanja Matsuri, one of Tokyo’s oldest and biggest festivals, being held last weekend for the first time since the start of the pandemic, and not too far from Seiji’s apartment, Seiji was psyched to attend in person.

But as Seiji was getting swept up in the sights and sounds of the teams parading mikoshi (portable shrines) through the streets, his stomach started to growl, and that’s when he realized something: in his entire life, he’s never, not even once, eaten yakisoba (stir-fried noodles) from a festival food stall.

▼ Yakisoba

This is unusual, for a couple of reasons. First, even at modestly sized matsuri, you’ll usually find at least a few food stalls, and you can be pretty near certain that one of them will be selling yakisoba, since it’s one of the most broadly popular, easiest to make kinds of Japanese street food. It’s probably harder to find a matsuri where there isn’t a yakisoba stall.

So how come Seiji has never had matsuri yakisoba? For starters, he was a shy kid. Honestly, he’s kind of a shy adult, but especially in his childhood, Seiji felt really nervous talking to strangers, and with a lot of street food vendors being somewhat gruff, or at least brassy, middle-aged dudes, young Seiji always felt intimidated.

That’s not an unusual feeling for kids to have, but oftentimes they get over their trepidation by pooling their courage and going up to the stall together as a big group. This wasn’t something Seiji could do, though, since as a kid he didn’t have very many friends (again, shy guy). So what about when Seiji went to festivals with his parents? They were of the mindset that buying food stall yakisoba was a waste of money, since it was cheaper to make it at home.

So then what about when he got older and moved to Tokyo, where he was living by himself? In Seiji’s early days living in the city he was trying to make a living as a guitarist, a plan that didn’t pan out and left him in such dire financial straits that a pack of street food stir-fried noodles may as well have been a goblet of caviar, since they were both luxuries beyond his budget. Basically, all Seiji could afford to do was window shop at matsuri food stalls, appreciating the sights and smells but not buying anything for himself, and that mentality is something that was engrained in him for years after.

But Seiji’s in a better place economically now, and so a 500-yen (US$3.70) pack of noodles is something he can treat himself to without worry. So with his hunger snapping him out of his reminiscing, he walked over to the nearest yakisoba stand, plunked down a 500-yen coin, and ate his first pack of festival yakisoba.

And it was glorious.

As you can see, yakisoba isn’t anything gourmet. The noodles Seiji had were accompanied by strips of pork, some kinshi tamago (thin strips of egg), and a pinch of pickled ginger. Seasoned with a sauce both sweet and savory, though, and dashed with powdered nori seaweed, they were everything he wanted at that moment, especially with the noodles having just a touch of crispness to their tips after cooking on the stall’s large flattop grill. More than anything else, though, it was the atmosphere of eating in the open air, surrounded by people young and old, locals and visitors alike, who had all come to enjoy a local tradition, that made it an unforgettable eating experience for Seiji.

The portion was generously sized, too, and even though he noticed other yakisoba stalls selling theirs for 100 or 200 yen more than he’d paid for his, they didn’t look like bad deals either. The yakisoba was so good that he almost went back for seconds…

…but instead he decided to rectify another gap in his eating experience by going to a different stall and getting jaga butter, another popular Japanese street food Seiji had never tried from a matsuri stall until this day. Jaga means “potato,” and jaga butter is basically a smashed potato with butter or other creamy toppings, like the mentaiko (spicy cod roe) mayonnaise that the stall Seiji went to also offered.

Like with the yakisoba, eating the street stall jaga butter was a revelation for Seiji. It was delicious and filled him with both potato and joy. He wishes he could go back in time, grab his younger self by the shirt collar, and say “Hurry up and try the matsuri yakisoba and jaga butter!” Unfortunately, the SoraNews24 company time machine is still in the shop, so that’s not an option, but with summer being the prime festival season in Japan, you can bet that Seiji is going to be making up for lost time over the next few months.

Photos ©SoraNews24
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