You are no doubt familiar or even have a penchant for some of Japan’s famous cuisine: sushi, bento, and steaming bowls of ramen. But while exploring the varied neighborhoods of Tokyo, I couldn’t help but notice how much the Japanese like to snack. Everywhere we went, we found snacks – and lots of things I would have never imagined. (I was glad to have the mifi unit I mentioned previously, to document all our tasty snacks!)
Here’s a quick run down of some of the best Japanese snacks and Japanese treats you’ll find in Tokyo. Some of the best snacking can be found in Asakusa – the street in front of the Senso-ji temple is essentially a foodie free-for-all – but the area around Ikebukuro Station and in the shopping mall of Tokyo Midtown/Roppangi are good for finding snacks.
Yakitori is traditionally Japanese grilled chicken, freshly prepared and served on a skewer ready to eat – handy for those of you not feeling so confident with the chop sticks! At some food stalls you may find that there are several different types of yakitori, marked only in Japanese; these are usually different flavorings, such as a sake/soy sauce, salted, or skewers with peppers or other veggies. It’s all tasty, so just point and go for it.
For the ultimate comfort food, order up some fresh age-manju (a.k.a. “bean-jam buns”), which are essentially different types of fried dough with sweet bean paste in the center. Bean paste may sound awful, but it’s actually a Chinese ingredient used in many Japanese treats. The flavor is very distinctive, no matter what you get, but I definitely encourage you to try the sweet potato or pumpkin buns, so yummy! Big thanks to our Japanese tour guide at Viator for pointing us towards this one.
Tip: Japanese do love certain flavors, and you’ll see them not only in the buns, but potato chips, Kit Kats, ice cream, and everything in between. Most popular: green tea, cherry blossom, and sweet potato (e.g., taro).
One of the most versatile of Japanese snacks, senbei are rice crackers – you’ll see these both packaged, as well as being prepared fresh on grills, such as the one you see above. Sometimes they are flavored with soy sauce, or wrapped in a slice of seaweed; you can also find peanut or sugar. The freshly grilled ones are smaller, but you will also see them quite large as well. These are a nice souvenir snack for friends back home – buy a couple of fresh ones for now and pick up the packaged ones to take home.
Tip: It’s frowned upon to walk and eat in Japan, just like it is frowned upon to walk and smoke! When at a food stall, look around – you’ll probably notice an area where eaters are standing. Join them to avoid any awkward stares.
I can’t believe how GOOD the shave ice is in Tokyo – wait, we’re in Japan, not Hawaii, right? It turns out that shave ice is actually a Japanese invention – called Kakigōri – and was first made in the 1000’s by plantation workers, who migrated to places like Hawaii and took their traditional treats with them. Japanese shave ice is usually flavored with condensed milk and you’ll find every flavor, from strawberry to green tea. It’s so fluffy it almost floats (and it’s freaking huge), and you can even get it with some malty ice cream inside for an only-in-Japan experience.
If you see something that looks like a cross between a rice krispie treat and a rice cake, that’s Kaminari-okoshi. It is puffed rice snack, with other yummy ingredients like peanut or sesame, ginger or green tea, and of course, sugar. Most stalls selling it have samples out so you can try before you buy – helpful, since there’s no English signage!
This is a small, round pancake that reminds me of those mini-quiches you find at parties. They’re smaller in Tokyo but I am told in Osaka and other towns they serve them larger. The pancake part has a small bit of quid in the middle. They put a brown sweet sauce on top, and sprinkle them with seaweed (nori).
Imagawayaki (or Ōbanyaki)
Imagawayaki is everywhere, both in freshly prepared batches in the food stalls, or available prepackaged to take home to your hotel room or home for souvenirs. They’re waffle-like treats filled with sweet bean paste, but you’ll find them with a wide variety of flavors, from savory meats to vegetable to fruit. Sometimes they call it wheel cake because you’ll see stalls with a big round machine baking and filling the cakes.
If you like dim sum or you’re a fan of Chinese dumplings, you’ll immediately recognize chukaman, a steamed dumpling that is found not only in street stalls but even in your local 7-11 or other Japanese convenience stores. In fact, many of the convenience stores have their own signature ones, like FamilyMart’s “cream cheese man” – but they get even crazier, like chocolate or lasagna flavor! Mostly, though, these are filled with pork (“nikuman” is meat-filled) and best consumed piping hot.
The European word for korokke would be a “croquette.” If you aren’t familiar with that, it is essentially a fried ball of flour and breadcrumbs, with a searing hot meld of potato-based goo inside. You’ll find lots of fillings – curry, meat, seafood, veggies. There’s also a white sauce cream version that is popular in restaurants. Sometimes the ones at the street stall are more hashbrown shaped to make it easier to eat while standing up.
Tip: In most places in the world, seeing plastic food in a glass case outside a restaurant is usually a sign to run away as fast as you can. In Tokyo, plastic food in a glass case outside a restaurant is a sign that you are in Japan. It’s odd, but it’s everywhere.
Ok, so this is technically not a snack as you can have a full sit-down meal, but I like the snack-like nature of it, so I had to include it. Okonomiyaki, often called “Japanese pancakes,” is considered more of regional specialty of Osaka, but it was my favorite meal in Tokyo. You sit around a table with a large griddle in the middle and various concoctions are prepared – meat and cabbage, seafood, noodles – and an egg-based mixture is poured over the top. Common toppings are “Bull Dog” Sauce, which is brown and sweet, mayo (Kewpie) and aonori (seaweed). The griddle sears all the flavors together into a tasty package that does resemble a pancake – sort of. It’s yummy and a very fun, experiential meal! We ate at Sometaro, a very authentic, foreigner-friendly restaurant in Asakusa – take off your shoes when you enter!
Editorial Disclosure: Our travel was partially sponsored by All Nippon Airways and Viator. Thanks for your help in finding my way around town!