Last weekend, I went to the hagoita-ichi matsuri (festival) at Sensōji, in Tokyo. I love shrine and temple festivals for many reasons – and festival food is high on the list.
On normal days, the wide pathways in Japanese shrine and temple yards offer visitors plenty of space to walk and meditate.
At festivals, vendors line the paths. selling a wide assortment of treats. The savory, salty odors of grilling fish and meat perfume the air, along with the sweeter notes of freshly candied fruits and steaming buns.
I like to walk the entire festival at least once before indulging – I’ve learned the hard way that filling up early may result in overindulgence (or regrets!) when a late discovery reveals itself.
Some festival favorites appear year-round, while others are more seasonal. Takoyaki – fried octopus balls – are particularly ubiquitous. I’ve yet to see a festival (or a popular tourist spot) where they weren’t available.
Cold-weather festivals feature seasonal treats like yaki imo – roasted sweet potatoes – either whole or fried and dusted with a combination of salt and sugar.
Crispy outside, mealy inside, and hot enough to warm your hands and stomach on a winter day.
This time, I also encountered something I hadn’t seen before – cheese sticks wrapped in thin pastry and deep fried.
I couldn’t identify the type of cheese, but it was pale yellow and fairly mild (as I expected). The pastry wrapping offered a satisfying crunch, and on the whole I consider the experiment $3 well spent.
While festival foods are often not the most nutritious (and, strictly speaking, not on my post-cancer diet) they’re also fun and affordable ways to experience Japanese culture – and let’s face it, an occasional break from the diet isn’t the end of the world.
The diversity of Japanese festival foods also means there’s something to satisfy everyone, whether your taste runs to sweet or savory, crunchy or chewy, hot or cold.
I just recommend that you go to the festival hungry. You’ll need the room to experience all the delicious treats the matsuri has to offer!
Have you ever been to a shrine or temple matsuri (festival) in Japan? What do you think about sampling festival treats?