Discover everything that Japanese food has to offer at one of the country’s colourful, dazzling, and delicious food festivals.
Of the many, many excellent reasons to put Japan at the very top of your dream destination list, the country’s incredible food scene ranks very highly. It may even be the number one factor depending on your culinary tastes and interests. If, like me, you’re a serious food lover then travelling to a country renowned for having some of the most delicious dishes and best places to eat in the whole world will feel like a dream come true. Japan is world famous for its food and were better to experience it than at a traditional or contemporary Japanese food festival? Let’s take a look at the best food festivals across Japan and how to visit them while exploring this incredible country with the JR Pass for unlimited rail travel.
Japan and Food
Food and Japan. Japan and food. A centuries old love affair. A worldwide phenomenon. A match made in heaven. However you describe it, Japanese food is one thing above all else… delicious! It’s also much more varied than just sushi and ramen. In fact, it may be one of the world’s most varied as well as tasty cuisines. We’ve written a great introduction to our starter guide to Japanese Food and Regional Dishes. From food markets and street food to Michelin-starred fine-dining restaurants, traditional Izakayas (where food and drink go hand in hand), world-famous sushi restaurants, and more, Japanese food covers every end of the culinary spectrum. If you’re visiting Japan then a food festival is a brilliant way to try a little bit of everything, sample regional dishes and local variations, or immerse yourself in the joys of one particular dish or ingredient cooked in different ways. Sushi. Ramen. Sashimi. Gyoza dumplings. Yakisoba noodles. Miso soup. Yakitori. Kobe beef. Tempura. Takoyaki. Okonomiyaki. The list goes on and on. I know my mouth is watering just thinking about all this food so let’s begin!
What Is A Food Festival?
Japan loves festivals, known as Matsuri, in Japan, as much as it loves food, which is really saying something! Japan is famous for its colourful, dazzling, historic, culturally significant, and sometimes outlandish, festivals. There are an estimated 300,000 festivals which take place right across Japan all year long, every year, attracting thousands upon thousands of attendees as well as millions of international visitors. These festivals were traditionally associated with local shrines and while many matsuri go back hundreds of years, Japan also has a huge number of more contemporary festivals covering a wide and diverse range of celebrations and themes, including agricultural festivals and showing appreciation to nature for the gift of food.
Naturally food plays a very big part in festivals, both traditional and contemporary, with stalls selling delicious food present at almost all of them. However, there are a number of festivals dedicated entirely to food and that’s our subject today. For more on Japan’s traditional festivals generally, read one of the following guides:
Top 10 Japanese Food Festivals
We can all agree that exploring a country’s food is a great way to get closer to the heart and soul of the place you’re visiting, and a food festival offers a chance to taste and sample a huge selection of dishes. They can also be dedicated to celebrating and elevating one very special and much loved dish, giving you the opportunity to enjoy one of the best versions of that meal you’ll ever enjoy. What’s not to love?! Here is our guide to the Top 10 food festivals to visit while you’re in Japan.
This traditional food festival and ceremony takes place across Japan at the beginning of the New Year and is a very special and unique experience for visitors. It is all about Mochi - a Japanese rice cake made of mochigome, a short-grain japonica glutinous rice. This gives the festival its name, Mochi Tsuki, and there is genuinely no other festival like it. Visitors use large mallets to pound mochi in large bowls. This takes place over a couple of days - the time it takes for the rice to be pounded into the correct consistency and it is then used to create a multitude of delicious mochi dishes. Mochitsuki events take place right across Japan each year between late January and early February. Wherever you’re visiting in Japan, you should be able to find a Mochitsuki festival nearby at this time of year. Rice is hugely important in Japan and the country is still home to many beautiful rice fields. Find out more in our guide to Japan’s Beautiful and Historic Rice Fields.
2. Meguro Kumin Matsuri
There is a wonderful story steeped in myth and legend behind this particular food festival, which is dedicated to the Sanma (Pacific saury) fish. The story goes that a travelling Japanese feudal lord on his way through Tokyo stopped to eat and having forgotten to pack food, was offered a grilled and salted fish by a local fisherman from the suburb of Meguro. He was amazed by how beautiful it was but could never replicate it once he returned home. Ever since then, Meguro has been famous for its Sanma fish and every year at the festival, the suburb gives 5,000 grilled and salted fish away to visitors.
3. Furusato Food Festival
Held each year in March inside the dome in Tokyo’s beautiful Yoyogi Park, the Furusato Food Festival features dishes from right across Japan. It is a perfect way to sample some of Japan’s finest foods in a gorgeously picturesque green space in the heart of Tokyo. There’s also music, performances, and paper float parades. You can read more about this fun-filled park in our guide to Yoyogi Park: The Green Getaway in the Metropolis.
4. Ramen Expo
Dedicated to the very best ramen from across Japan, the Ramen Expo takes place in Banpakukoen Expo Commemoration Park in Osaka, every December. Osaka has a reputation as Japan’s kitchen thanks to its reputation for seafood, but the ramen expo is rivalling even Sapporo’s famous ramen alley. Expo '70 Park and Expocity are located in Suita City around 15 km from Umeda in the centre of Osaka. To reach the park by public transport, first use your JRailPass to reach Osaka Station. From there use the Midosuji Subway Line of the Osaka Metro to get to Senri-Chuo Station. Then you’ll need to transfer over to the Osaka Monorail until reaching the Expo Memorial Park stop.
5. Miyajima Oyster Festival
The vibrant port of Miyajima near Hiroshima is the place to be each February if you’re a lover of oysters. Freshly caught in the waters around Miyajima, these delicious oysters - served in a wide range of ways including traditionally as well as grilled and tempura battered - are a true seafood delicacy.
6. The Nukupaku Festival
Meat lovers take note! This is the festival for you. At the Nukupaku Festival in Fukuoka, meat of every variety is prepared using a multitude of cooking methods and techniques to create a veritable cornucopia of meat-based delights from grilled, sliced, sauteed, barbequed meats, and much more, alongside a rich variety of sauces, dips, and sides. This festival takes place every March. You can reach Fukuoka on the Nagasaki Shinkansen - one of Japan’s latest and most state of the art bullet trains. It’s good news for JR Pass users too as the entire Nagasaki Shinkansen route is included without any additional cost or limitations.
7. Takaoka Nabe Festival
Nabe is a Japanese hotpot dish that is associated with winter and is often found in the northern Hokkaido region where coldest temperatures and snowy scenes are more commonplace. The dish is popular across Japan however and this particular festival actually takes place in November in Toyama Prefecture, Takaoka City, which is also famous for its nabe.
8. Hokkaido Food Festival
Interestingly this festival brings the food of Hokkaido to Tokyo. Known as the Hokkai Shokudo, this four day festival celebrates the food and drink of Japan’s northernmost island which is renowned for its produce and speciality regional dishes. Look out for this festival in December in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park.
9. Sake Spring Festival
Ah, Sake. Arguably Japan’s most famous drink and certainly one of the country’s favourites alongside beer. Sake is, of course, Japanese rice wine. This delicious and unique drink certainly deserves a festival of its own. Located in beautiful Kyoto, the cultural heart of Japan, you’ll find 150 varieties of sake to dry as well as a wide range of food dishes to enjoy alongside Japan’s most famous drink. It is held every year in April at Mt. Taihei Miyoshi Shrine, Kyoto.
10. Sapporo Beer Festival
Wow! This is a big festival in every sense. Yes, it’s a beer festival, but it also features copious amounts of food to enjoy with your beverages and vice versa. It’s also literally huge, taking place in Sapporo’s Odori Park, which is the size of 12 city blocks unbelievably. And to top it off, the festival lasts for eight whole weeks! Wow! Sapporo in the northern city of Hokkaido is famous for its ramen alley and for its love of beer while the whole island is renowned for its unique regional dishes to match the beautiful snowy climate and colder temperatures. Saying that, while Sapporo is famous for its snow festival, this beer festival actually takes place in summer (July-August specifically), which makes it even more appealing considering its largely outdoors. To reach Sapporo from Tokyo using your Japan Rail Pass, take the JR Tohoku/Hokkaido Shinkansen from Tokyo to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto and transfer to the Hokuto limited express to Sapporo.
Where To Find Japanese Food
The short answer to the above question is - Japan of course! The second (equally short) answer is - pretty much everywhere in Japan. Of course, there are some specific cities and regions in Japan that are particularly famous for their food. Here’s a list with links to blogs we’ve written about them for more information and how to get there with the Japan Rail Pass.
Nishiki Market: The kitchen of Kyoto
Known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen” this narrow 5-block street market is home to over 100 small shops and stands selling all kinds of (street-) food and kitchen related items.
Kuromon Ichiba is the largest public market hall in Osaka, open daily for shopping and features some of the best street food in Kansai.
The Toyosu Market may have only opened on October 11, 2018, but there’s a great deal more to its history than just that. This huge market complex was constructed after years of planning to replace the ageing yet insanely popular Tsukiji Market.
Osaka’s historic entertainment district – is as famous for its neon lights as it is for its food. Japan is generally considered to be one of the world’s number one destinations for food lovers and Osaka is known as the country’s ‘kitchen’ thanks to its incredible regional cuisine and street food.
Home to some of Hokkaido’s regional varieties, Sapporo is a popular destination for ramen lovers including at this time of year for the winter festivities. Ganso Sapporo Yokocho is regarded by many as the original ‘ramen alley’ and was visited by the late American chef Anthony Bourdain who braved the snow to eat at the famous Aji No Karyu restaurant.
Japan’s incredible food is such an attraction that we have written a number of blog posts in the past on this subject, many of which we would highly recommend reading if you’re a food lover planning a trip to Japan. Here’s a selection:
- Want to read more about a particular dish? Read our standalone guides to Sushi and Ramen to find out more.
- Did you know that Japan has the tastiest train food in the world? Read our Guide to Ekiben: The best bento box for on the train for everything you need to know.
- Want to read a short history of Japan and food? Our Introduction to Japanese Food and Regional Dishes offers a great mini history to get you up to speed.
- Street food or Michelin-starred fine dining? Japan has both and we have guides to both. Click the links to read our comprehensive guides.
- Don’t forget to visit a traditional Japanese Izakaya too - we highly recommend them. A form of Japanese gastropub, eating at an izakaya is something every traveller to Japan should do if they have the chance.
- One last recommendation for foodies travelling to Japan - read our guide to Japanese Table Manners and Etiquette. While Japanese etiquette is definitely nothing to be scared of, it’s always good to be respectful of traditions and customs when you’re visiting another country and we can help you do just that.