Japan, it turns out, is the most amazing place to snack.
We didn't know that about the country when we planned our trip. (Otherwise, hello, we would have gone years ago.)
Sure, we had great meals while we were there, with Yakitori, Oysters, and Pastries, and the Ramen, Sushi, and unexpected pancakes. But Japan is just the best for between-meal grazing -- whether it's elevenses, tea time or fourthmeal.
Snacks are everywhere in Japan. In larger cities, department store basements are almost universally full of amazing food halls with all sorts of delicious items. In train stations, the grab-and-go cuisine is legitimately great. Even at convenience stores -- actually, especially at convenience stores. Japanese convenience chains, including Lawson, Family Mart and 7-Eleven (which is so much nicer than in the U.S. -- trust us), all offer surprisingly delicious treats and fresh foods.
Here are 10 snacks we either especially enjoyed, or thought were crazy interesting -- along with a bonus one that we just couldn’t bring ourselves to eat.
1. Omelet on a stick
Japan doesn't have a street-food culture the same way that, say, Singapore or Thailand does. But one exception to that is the Outer Market at Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market, where you'll find small stalls selling all sorts of edible takeaways. We saw a lot of Japanese tourists lined up to by these omelets on sticks. We’re not honestly sure what’s on top – it tasted like some kind of sweet-onion sauce. But it was a delicious little bite with savory egg and a hint of sweetness.
2. Sweet melon breads
As we mentioned before, we ate our weight in pastries while in Japan. One snack we encountered a lot was this “melon bread.” The name comes from its appearance, not the taste. They’re light as air and deeply sweet, reminding us of King's Hawaiian bread.
3. Red chicken nuggets
Bitten Word reader Keith sent us a note with some Japan recommendations before our trip, in which he tipped us off to these spicy chicken nuggets that are sold at Lawson convenience stores. (Sidenote: while we spent lots of time in all sorts of convenience stores, Lawson was probably our favorite. Their selection and variety and sheer ubiquity were all outstanding. And their chocolate donuts were decidedly superior to 7-Eleven's. This is something we confirmed on multiple occasions.)
These chicken nuggets, which come in a few varieties, are a particular specialty of Lawson's. According to the recommendations from Keith, the spicy red nuggets are a David Chang favorite. We have to say, for convenience store nuggets, they were pretty darn good.
4. Iced coffee
One of the single best food surprises about Japan was iced coffee. It is everywhere. Every place that offers coffee also offers it iced. As frequent warm-weather iced-coffee drinkers, we loved it. Also? One of the few English phrases that seems to be universally understood in Japan is "iced coffee." It was fantastic.
But in addition to the endless coffeehouses, restaurants and convenience stores offering iced coffee, you can literally get it on almost any city street corner. That's because there are beverage vending machines absolutely everywhere in cities in Japan. Seriously -- speaking from our experience in Tokyo, Hiroshima and Kyoto -- if you're in a Japanese city, you are never more than a few hundred feet from a vending machine. That is hardly an exaggeration.
And every one of those vending machines offers iced coffee. And not the super-sweetened, half-filled-with-cream bottled coffees you can get here in the U.S. Honest-to-goodness plain, iced, black coffee -- just the way we like it. (You could also find sweetened versions, and versions with dairy. Everyone wins!)
Someone please make this happen in the U.S.!
5. Matcha donut
Matcha -- the slightly bitter Japanese green-tea flavor -- is definitely a thing in Japan, although we could never really decide decide how much of it is for tourists versus actually consumed and loved by natives. (Do actual Japanese people really eat those matcha Kit-Kats? Or are they just for tourists to bring home from Duty-Free?)
Still, we couldn’t resist buying matcha donuts at 7-Eleven. Pretty good. But really, what donut isn’t?
6. Brûlée pastry
We have no idea what this is. But we purchased it at a Family Mart (which, as we mentioned above, is a great convenience store -- actually a step up from that, almost more like a small grocery store.) This delicious treat was like an apple pastry with a crème brûlée-like topping, so thin and crisp that it delightfully shatters in your mouth. We highly encourage you to learn to make this at home and send us the recipe.
(Or better yet, just send us a box of them once you bake them.)
Another recommendation from Keith: We fell in love with Cheeza (another Lawson specialty), which Keith had described as being like “the best version of Cheez-Its ever” and he was so right. They were savory and addictive. We went through bags and bags.
8. Ice cream Pocky
You probably know Pocky -- those tasty little shortbread sticks dipped in chocolate. We've always loved them, and we were enamored with all the different versions available across Japan, along with other “stick candy” brands, like Toppo and Pretz. Together, they offered a seemingly endless variety of flavors -- from tomato to cantaloupe to matcha (of course) to a chocolate version rolled in crunchy sweet almonds.
One of the ones we tried was this ice cream-flavored Pocky, which did indeed taste like vanilla ice cream.
9. Pork dumplings
When we saw these pork dumplings for sale from a street-food vendor near a shrine we were visiting, we eagerly bought them. They were phenomenal – among the best pork dumplings in terms of flavor.
10. Yuzu ice cream
Based on our observations, ice cream is big in Japan. We didn't eat a whole lot of it, but we were enamored by this honey vanilla ice cream with a sweet yuzu sauce. We found this one inside the Nishiki food market in Kyoto.
So what’s the thing we couldn’t bring ourselves to eat?
These! We don’t know exactly what to call this device, so we’ll go with "stew cases." We saw them in many of the convenience stores we visited. They’re filled with all sorts of stewing meats and dumplings. We have no idea what’s really going on in there, but we do know that we couldn't bring ourselves to take something out of these open-air appliances. We're sure it would have been fine, but with so many other great snacking options, this one seemed like an unnecessary gamble.
That’s a wrap on snacks.
What about you? Have you been to Japan? Enjoyed the snacking as much as we did? Or is there a favorite nosh from another trip that sticks out in your mind? Let us know!