Snacks are so relevant to daily life in Japan that they occupy most of the aisles of Japanese convenience stores or supermarkets. They’re usually arranged on the shelves according to whether they’re a popular mainstay, a limited-time special, or a new release. Dozens of novelty kits, cookies and chips pop up on conbini shelves every few weeks, and if they don’t perform well, they leave quickly, fueling fierce competition among snack makers across the country. As a result, ardent snack lovers have had an extremely rich selection in snack categories such as potato chips, while brands such as Calbee and Koikeya have remained at the forefront.
However, you don’t have to be in Japan to benefit from this game if you know what to look for. Growing up on the outskirts of Vancouver with a large Asian community, I was fortunate to have unlimited access to snacks from Japan, Hong Kong, Korea and beyond in the grocery aisle. With the recent popularity of Japanese snacks in North America, these snacks have become more accessible through dedicated online platforms and subscription services that deliver goodies directly to your front door. Whether you’re lucky enough to be close to a Japanese market or want to browse the vast selection online, these are worth stocking up on.
Calbee “Kata-Age” Chips, Lightly Salted
Calbee is as well-known in Japan as Lay’s is in North America, with leading snack food makers regularly at the top of the Japanese potato chip game. Thicker than classic Lay’s chips, these Calbee’s fan-favorite chips are sprinkled with salt and meticulously fried at low heat to achieve the firm crunch and curly sides of kettle chips.
Calbee Nori Shio Potato Chips
Nori and salt are a classic, balanced combination of sweet and salty flavors that appear in a variety of foods, including ramen bowls, rice balls, and seaweed salads. These seaweed chips from Calbee have been in production since 1976, and while other brands have developed their own seaweed salted chips, Calbee is still a top seller in this flavor.
Calbee Pizza Chips
Cheese is the real star of this flavor. Chips are coated with a mix of sharp cheddar and smooth Emmental cheese, plus each thick-cut ridged chip is studded with extra balls of melted cheese. Aided by generous amounts of garlic and herb seasoning, the subtle pizza flavor shines through, making it a huge hit in Japan and abroad.
Koikeya Karamucho Chili Seaweed Chips
These chips from Koikeya are thinly sliced and super crispy, sprinkled with a mixture of chile powder and seaweed flakes. The spice, though mild, hits the palate first, giving your tongue a slight tingling. Then the umami from the seaweed balances the heat.
ROYCE’ Potato Chips Chocolate Original
Delicately dipped in smooth milk chocolate on one side and seasoned with salt on the other, these sweet and savory thick-cut potato chips are Japan’s most popular ROYCE product. Made from potatoes grown in Hokkaido, they are crunchy and light in texture and are a particularly popular souvenir from Japan’s northernmost island.
Calbee Jagariko Fries
This iconic Japanese snack from Hokkaido comes in a convenient single-serving cup with a peel-off lid. The combination of potatoes and salt makes the classic version a local favorite, although potato chips seasoned with cheese, cod roe and salad dressing are all popular options. The potato fries are really small, so stock up.
Koikeya Karamucho Chili Fries
Tokyo-based snack maker Koikeya uses wordplay to market its spicy snack products. “Karamucho” combines karai (spicy in Japanese) and mucho (very in Spanish) for this paprika-sprinkled chip snack.
Koikeya Suppa Mucho Dried Plums
Suppa Mucho Potato Strips is an ode to the popular Japanese umeboshi dessert umeboshi. This classic Japanese flavor is rich and savory, complementing the sweetness of plums. These crispy chips are generously sprinkled with tart plum seasoning for a tangy, especially delightful treat.
Non-Crisps and Crunchy Snacks
Calbee Shrimp Chips
First created in 1964 by Calbee founder Takashi Matsuo, this wheat snack was inspired by his love for his mom’s shrimp tempura. Baked fries are now a classic and can be found on the shelves of Asian supermarkets in North America. In addition to still being the most popular original prawn crackers, these airy prawn crackers also offer tantalizing flavor options like mustard and hot garlic.
Tenya Japanese Rice Crackers
Made by one of Japan’s leading rice cracker brands, these rice crackers are deep-fried for a satisfying crunch and coated with a soy glaze that gives them their shiny golden appearance and subtle sweetness.
Tohato Caramel Corn
First introduced in Japan in 1971, these airy caramel corn puffs are one of Tohato’s best-selling snacks. To balance out its sweetness, the glazed taco is usually mixed with a handful of roasted peanuts, although the brand has an almond option as well. In addition to the original caramel nachos, Tohato offers seasonal flavors throughout the year, with past variations including melon, lemon and sweet potato.
Zhong Huimin A spontaneous traveler and adventurous eater, he reports on the travel and lifestyle verticals.
Michelle Min is a food and travel photographer based in San Francisco.