Photoessay: The Yatai of Fukuoka

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During the day, you sometimes come across one or two of these food carts hiding dormant and parked in an alleyway, shuttered up and slumbering. Lights off, boarded up, you have no real idea as to their purpose. However, as night falls, Fukuoka’s traditional food carts start to emerge from their various hiding places, spread their wings, awnings, seats, sidewalk tables, makeshift walls/ partitions, lights, signs (in effect being a complete portable mini-restaurant around a counter-cum-kitchen) and cooking paraphanelia, and more attractively, their fragrant smells. Most of them congregate by the river under some trees in a stretch that’s bounded by Hakata Canal City on one side, and the seedier red light district on the other. I suppose they cater to the shoppers before they go home, and the punters before they go out.

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There used to be hundreds more of these carts throughout the city, but since no new licenses have been issued in many, many years, the number is dwindling; it seems that the younger generation have not much interest in the hard work required to run a food cart anymore (licenses are usually passed down within the family(. I can’t understand why, seeing as they’re all doing a roaring trade, and a fairly light meal will cost you easily JPY2,000-3,000 ($20-30) before you include beer and sake. Given the speed of turnaround and relatively long operating hours, I calculated that a popular one of these guys must turn over close to a million dollars a year. Not bad for selling hawker food!

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I had two experiences here – firstly, eating various forms of yakitori and oden; the former is various types of things on skewers, grilled over charcoal flames, and the latter is a sort of stew with radish, fried tofu, fishballs, eggs, and some of the hardier leafy vegetables, simmered in an excellent radish and katsuo-based broth. It’s the perfect thing for a cold evening, especially if you’re eating it outdoors. And eating it with a form of local mustard is a Kyushu thing, apparently; unusual, though surprisingly refreshing. It seems the majority of the yatai serve either some variation or combination of oden, yakitori, or ramen (a Kyushu speciality). I’m told there are others, but I didn’t have the time or inclination to go hunting for them.

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Oden components, gently warmed in various compartments of broth. The longer it boils, the deeper the flavor.

The other one was shooting with the D-Lux 6 at night; the fast lens made it surprisingly usable, and only in the very darkest situations did I feel like I was running out of shooting envelope. (I tried to keep things at ISO 400 and below to avoid too much noise penalty.) I was also carrying the Hasselblad, but that would have been a completely futile exercise – nothing faster than f2.8, and I wasn’t carrying any fast film (or even anything particularly pushable), either. MT

The Leica D-Lux-6 is available here from B&H or Amazon
The Panasonic LX7 is available here from B&H or Amazon.


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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

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My reward after the photography (and after consumption).


  1. I have the LX7 and to say your skill with the camera is better than mine is an understatement. I need to get back to taking pictures to improve.

  2. Thank you Ming. Worth a flight to Japan all by themselves. How domyou compare them with the market stalls in hong kong? I adored those…

    • The Yatai actually have fairly similar offerings – either open (a kind of stew), ramen, or yakitori. There’s far more variety in Hong Kong and South East Asian stalls.

  3. Jorge Balarin says:

    Thanks for the photos and the information. I’m going to the next japanese restaurant right now.

  4. Great shots Ming! I had the pleasure of visiting the Yatai in Fukuoka in March as well. They were one of my favorite parts of the city!

  5. Wonderful pictures! I have tried Leica D-Lux 6, but like you said: it’s a lot of noise almost at any setting and need correction.

    • Thanks. Yes, only ISO 80 is clean – but the good news is that you can use it most of the time since the lens is very fast.

  6. Thanks Ming,

    I really enjoyed reading this and viewing the fantastic accompanying photos. I can almost taste the food! Time for an early lunch. 🙂

  7. You have to watch out for yatai. Some of the owners openly smoke over the food. This is even more true of the yatai you find at festivals. Either they’re not subject to food hygiene inspections, or they don’t care 🙂

  8. Nice shots with the V-Lux 6 !

  9. SK Saito says:

    Nice shots. Miss Japan. I had one of the first D Lux made way back when. With the wider focal lengths, do you see barrel distortion with the D Lux 6?

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