During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, I lived abroad in Tokyo.
Arriving in late January, 2020 gave me a precious few weeks to experience the city fully as a tourist right before toilet paper went missing from the shelves, the borders closed, and the ensuing state of emergency was declared…twice.
Living in a foreign country during a global health crisis was certainly an unexpected experience but one I’m ultimately extremely grateful to have had. Even without getting to travel outside of Tokyo, there was a never-ending set of new tastes that were easily within reach by going to the local konbini (there are Family Marts and Lawson convenience stores around every corner).
Here is a list of 10 snacks I’d recommend trying in Tokyo. This is not a list of Japanese Kit Kats, Oreos, or Pocky flavors, but rather specialties you’re unlikely to find outside of the city (or Japan more generally). When travel is permitted again, I hope you get a chance to taste them!
Before coming to Japan, I had based my expectations for Taiyaki, a fish-shaped pastry, off what I had at Japantown pastry shops or Mitsuwa Japanese supermarket foodcourts in America. There, these desserts were essentially steaming-hot waffle red bean sandwiches, with a fluffy, chewy exterior.
Eating freshly made Taiyaki in Tokyo was nothing like that. The pancake batter is poured into hand-made molds and filled with anko red bean paste that’s made fresh daily at mom-and-pop stands. The exterior is much thinner and crispier than any I had before, yet they still have a satisfyingly chewy texture underneath. The red bean is far less sweet and has a varied consistency a la chunky peanut butter, with both smooth red bean paste as well as small bits of red bean to remind you of its origins.
2. Choco Monaka
These ice cream sandwiches are ubiquitous and are available year round, unlike many seasonal offerings. Its cube-shaped form factor encourages breaking off pieces for sharing; it has a crispy wafer coating, a thin layer of chocolate, vanilla ice cream, and a thicker slab of chocolate that cuts right through the middle.
Morinaga does not sell this product outside of Japan in an attempt to preserve the integrity of the monaka wafer, which has a signature “puri puri” texture (see promotional video below for more info).
As an ice cream sandwich, the vanilla/chocolate combination is instantly familiar and basic, but Morinaga’s commitment to maintaining the crisp texture of the wafer makes the staple iconic.
3. Seasonal Potato Chips
Unfortunately, if you find a snack you like, it’s very likely it will be gone in a matter of weeks because of how seasonal many flavors are. Limited edition snacks are everywhere, and the portion sizes are generally much smaller than in the states, so you’ll run out quickly unless you stock up.
At the Aeon close to my apartment (a popular mini market), they sold special edition Ippudo potato chips that captured the rich, meaty flavor of pork broth. In the early summer, you’ll find umeboshi (plums) potato chips, and even Pringles has flavors you can only find in Japan like takoyaki (grilled octopus).
4. Squid Snacks
There are sections of the grocery store dedicated to rice crackers and otsumami, salty snacks often paired with alcohol. It’s usually an entire side of one aisle, similar to cereal selection in the US (which is normally just a few shelves in Japan).
If you like seafood, I highly recommend the squid snacks, but not just the chewy dried squid common in Chinese grocery stores. There are a lot of crispy fried options that are delicious — super savory and meaty, and usually paired with a bit of acid (like the setouchi lemon snacks shown above) to cut through the grease.
5. Jelly Fruit Drinks from Vending Machines
DyDo is pretty much the junk food brand of vending machines, filled with discount options that are loaded with sugar. But just once, I recommend seeking out their fruit jelly drinks. They are usually in small cans (probably because of the insane amount of sugar in them) and must be shaken before opening to evenly distribute the jelly-like contents throughout the juice. It has a unique slippery texture, like jello that hasn’t been fully set. Think grass jelly, but much runnier. And sometimes they’re even carbonated!
6. Mochi Donut
Hear me out — Mister Donut glazed mochi donuts are pretty damn good. They look like baby rattles, like a set of donut holes arranged in a ring. Made with rice flour, they have a slightly chewy, bouncy texture that makes them feel lighter than your normal fried dough fare. If you want something less junk-food-like, Nico Donuts in Azabu-Juban has a variety of flavors, dusted in flavored sugar or glazed.
7. Aloe Yogurt
The combination of chewy, juicy aloe cubes in creamy, wet yogurt doesn’t sound at all appealing, but somehow it works. The Morinaga-branded aloe yogurt comes in a bunch of fruit flavors, but the original is probably the best. It’s very sweet, but yogurt tends to come in smaller packages than in the US, so I didn’t feel too bad consuming it. Another grocery store basic that I miss a lot.
Mugwort is a type of herb that is used to flavor some traditional Japanese desserts. It has a unique bitter, slightly medicinal flavor and lends desserts a vivid green color. I had it with shokupan from Nezo No Pan and mochi purchased in Yanaka, both of which were surprisingly delicious. I’d describe it as a mix of spinach with the pepperiness of parsley. If that doesn’t sound yummy to you, I’d still give it a try and see what you think!
9. Mitarashi Dango
I love mochi, but I had previously been limited to the types I could easily find from a local 99 Ranch or HMart supermarket, which typically consisted of chewy rice flour with sweet red bean filling. In local supermarkets and speciality confectionary stores in Japan, you can find mitarashi dango, which is a skewered mochi dessert coated with a savory sweet syrup consisting of soy, mirin, and sugar. The flavor was at first a bit of a shock to me since I was so accustomed to mochi in fully-sweet contexts, but I did grow to appreciate it!
10. Cream Puff from Hop Shu-Kuri-Mu
Hop Shu-Kuri-Mu is a little pastry shop in Azabu-Juban that has the most delicious baked cream puffs. They have a crispy, caramel coating that reminds me of a dessert version of the coating on dutch crunch bread, and you can buy them filled with pastry creme of classic flavors including matcha, vanilla, and chocolate. My favorite part was that the bottom of the cream puff is a caramelized edible wrapper. Of all snacks I had in Tokyo, this is the one I want to go back and have again.
If you are interested in reading reviews of any of these snacks (and more!), you can peruse my snack blog Tasty Snacking at your leisure. I haven’t been writing as many reviews recently because the snacks in the US simply pale in comparison, but there are years worth of reviews to check out nonetheless.