Outside of Japan, sweet brands like Pocky and unusual flavored Kit Kats are often associated with Japanese snacks, but there are a wide range of other items to try that are more traditional yet still delicious. In this article we’ll introduce some of the most popular snack foods in Japan you can try at home for a fun tasting experience including:
- Rice crackers: includes senbei and okaki, puffy and crunchy snacks in savoury or sweet variations
- Wasabi snacks: bar snacks like wasabi coated roasted peas and potato chips
- Dagashi: nostalgic Japanese penny candies, popular with children
- Arare: small crunchy rice crackers, similar to okaki
- Kaki no Tane: typically spicy, seed-like rice crackers often sold in a mix with peanuts
- Karinto: deep-fried dough snack, traditionally covered in brown sugar
Two of the most popular types of rice crackers in Japan are senbei and okaki. Japanese senbei is a type of rice cracker that is made by baking rice flour dough with sugar and soy sauce. They can be sweet or savory in taste, baked or fried, and are mostly made with a type of non-glutinous Japanese short-grain rice called uruchimai. Senbei have a long history in Japan, dating as far back as the 8th century.
Modern-day senbei are said to have originated in Saitama prefecture during the Edo period, where they were baked or grilled over charcoal and brushed with soy sauce. The city of Soka in Saitama is still home to approximately 60 senbei producers and retailers and there is even a senbei-making experience visitors can try if you ever visit Soka, at the Soka Senbei Garden.
There are plenty of varieties of classic senbei flavors to try including soy sauce senbei, nori senbei flavored with Japanese seaweed, salted senbei, and chili pepper senbei. Sweet flavors include sarame senbei coated in sugar granules and sato senbei dusted in powdered sugar. Throughout Japan you can also find regional specialties, for example, in Osaka you can purchase okonomiyaki-flavored senbei, whilst the Fukuoka region produces a senbei called mentaiko, a spicy rice cracker featuring fish roe.
Okaki rice crackers are slightly different from senbei. They are made using sweet rice flour that is normally used for mochi and traditional Japanese confectionary and are usually smaller and puffier than senbei rice crackers.
Okaki was originally made as way of using leftover kagami mochi, a large round rice cake traditionally eaten on New Year’s Eve which turns hard after a few days. Families would smash the rice cake with a hammer to make pieces of okaki, a crunchy snack food. These days you can also buy okaki readily in Japanese supermarkets. It’s a popular snack to pair with drinking beer, with a variety of flavors available from soy sauce to shrimp.
Wasabi is a popular snack flavor in Japan and there are many types of treats you can try if you are a fan of this hot and spicy condiment. One of the best-selling wasabi snacks are wasabi peas, which are roasted green peas covered in a wasabi coating to create a hot and crunchy tasting product. Wasabi peas are often eaten as bar snacks and taste particularly good while drinking beer or sake!
According to Japanese wasabi food manufacturer Kinjirushi Co, the wasabi plant was originally used for medicinal purposes back in the Asuka period (538 to 710). It wasn’t until the Edo period (1603-1867) that wasabi was used as a food product when it first began being consumed as a seasoning for sushi before eventually adapted to being used in other products.
Research conducted by leading Japanese universities have found that consuming wasabi can have several health benefits including inhibiting cancer cells, relief from hay fever, anti-inflammatory, and detoxification effects eliminating toxic substances from the body.
Aside from wasabi peas, other popular kinds of wasabi snacks you can try include wasabi flavored potato chips, rice crackers, wasabi seaweed snacks, and even wasabi flavored Kit Kats!
Japanese dagashi are low-priced candies aimed at kids and are similar to penny candies or sweets that you can find in countries like the USA or UK. Dagashi are usually priced between 10 yen and 100 yen each and are easily recognizable for their colorful packaging featuring cute mascots, making them more appealing to children.
Typical examples of popular dagashi sweets include ramune soda flavored candy, candy cigarettes, Cheeto or cheese puff like snacks, corn puffs, milk-flavored candies, caramel cubes, and Big Katsu, a kind of breaded fish snack.
During Japan’s Showa period (1926-1989), kids would often visit dagashiya – specialist candy stores to pick out their favorite candies and socialize with friends, however these days there are only a few of these stores left as convenience stores grew in popularity and began selling these kinds of sweets. If you ever visit Tokyo there is a traditional dagashi stall called Kami-kawaguchiya near Kishibojin Shrine, which has been selling candy for more than 200 years since its original opening in 1781.
Another kind of popular rice cracker, arare are a smaller in size than senbei and okaki and have an airy and crunchy texture. Like okaki, they are made from mochi rice. They come in different shapes and sizes, in a variety of flavors both savory and sweet, and are often served at events such as tea ceremonies.
There are several different kinds of arare available to purchase in Japan, they are also traditionally sold and given as gifts during the annual Hina Matsuri festival, also known as Girls Day. Common flavors include salt and soy sauce, or arare wrapped in nori (seaweed).
Arare are a popular snack in Hawaii, where they were first introduced by Japanese immigrants in the early 1900s. In Hawaii arare are available to buy in cans and are also called mochi crunch or kakimochi, where they are often mixed with popcorn to create a popular snack.
Kaki no tane
Kaki no tane are another type of small rice cracker made from mochi rice whose name means ‘persimmon seed’ in English due to their orange seed-like appearance. A popular beer snack that is salty and spicy in taste, kaki no tane originated in Niigata prefecture during the 1920s and is now manufactured all over Japan and often sold in a mixture with peanuts called kakipi.
Like other types of rice crackers such as senbei or okaki, kaki no tane are also available to purchase in a variety of flavors in addition to their traditional spicy soy sauce taste. For example, in some parts of Japan you can find kaki no tane in wasabi flavor, spicy pepper, or even sweet varieties like milk and white chocolate. Some regions of Japan also produce kaki no tane mixed with a flavor associated with a typical famous local food, such as yuzu flavor in Shikoku or takoyaki flavor in Kansai.
One of the most popular manufacturers of kaki no tane in Japan is Kameda Seika, who specialize in rice snacks and have been producing kaki no tane since 1966. Their kaki no tane snacks have even been declared ‘space food’ by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to help remind astronauts of a taste of home when orbiting the earth!
Karinto is a popular sweet Japanese snack food made from wheat flour which is deep fried and traditionally covered in brown sugar. In addition to the original brown sugar karinto, other variations available to purchase include flavors such as honey, chocolate, and sweet potato.
The origins of karinto are not entirely known but it is believed they could have been around in Japan since the Nara period (710-794). We do know that they became particularly popular centuries later during Japan’s Edo period.
In Japan, karinto are so popular you can even find specialist karinto stores, such as Nishiki Horin in Tokyo’s Solamachi shopping complex next to the Tokyo Skytree building. The store specilaizes in unusual karinto flavors like yuzu, coffee, and burdock root, as well as seasonal versions including sakura (cherry blossom) flavor during springtime.