The Best Snacks and Drinks to Buy at a Japanese Grocery Store
From hot-chili chips to canned coffee to ice cream sandwiches.
While the idea of sending your children off to do grocery shopping solo might raise some eyebrows in America, in Japan, it’s almost a rite of passage. Every morning, my mother would leave on the dining room table a list of things to buy at the Daiei grocery store on my way home from school. I relished these trips.
Every afternoon, I made a beeline from the train station to the supermarket (shopping list and cash in hand) and wandered the aisles looking for everything from Japanese milk bread to a la carte pork katsu cutlets. By the time I was in fourth grade, I knew the grocery store like the back of my hand and was on a first-name basis with the colorful cast of cashiers and stockers that ran it—my first brush with a found community.
Today, Japanese supermarkets have continued to remain my home away from home. Since moving to the United States, I’ve always acclimated myself to a new place by grocery shopping at the local Japanese supermarkets. For me, it doesn’t matter how far it is. I’ll drive or take the bus hours away for a taste of home.
To the uninitiated, Japanese supermarkets can be an overwhelming experience. But, as I learned when I was a kid, all it takes to navigate uncharted waters is some resourcefulness, patience, and outside help. Don’t know where to start? No worries, here’s a handy dandy list of my 10 favorite snacks and drinks to buy at the Japanese grocery store.
Our favorite Japanese snacks and drinks
Bisco cream biscuits
Probiotics are all the rage right now, but long before the health trend made its way into everything from skincare to kombucha, Japanese confectionary titan Riichi Ezaki in 1933 invented Bisco biscuit sandwiches—an Oreo-like sandwich with a lemony cream filling made from Hokkaido milk and lactic acid bacteria. These delicately sweet sandwiches practically melt in your mouth and have a lemony aftertaste.
And, they’re not just delicious: According to the manufacturer Glico, each serving comes with 1 million colony-forming units (CFU) of bacillus coagulans. If you’re looking for a snack with a side of gut health, this quintessential Japanese childhood snack is the option for you.
What do you get when you brew a tea with 13 different herbs and botanicals ranging from pearl barley to mugwort? You get Sokenbicha, a refreshing, nutty herbal tea sold by Coca-Cola Japan. This non-caffeinated tea might be an acquired taste to some, but it’s best served ice-cold with a savory snack or meal (try it with a rice ball!). It even famously has its own rap song.
Happy Turn rice crackers
Out of every snack on this list, Happy Turn rice crackers might be the most addictive. These oblong rice crackers are famously known in Japan for their patented buttery, salty-sweet “happy powder.” According to manufacturer Kameda Seika, Happy Turn rice crackers were named in hopes that happiness would “turn” around and come back to Japan in wake of the 1973 oil crisis. While I can’t tout it as a cure-all, Happy Turn rice crackers certainly bring a smile to my face every time I eat it.
Japan is known for a lot of dishes—ramen, sushi, and curry rice to name a few—but if I were to choose a national comfort food, it would be ochazuke, a simple dish made with leftover rice topped with anything ranging from grilled salmon to diced pickled plum, and doused in hot green tea. Thankfully, Japanese food company Nagatanien has made the whole process easy with these ochazuke soup packets, a best-selling Japanese pantry staple with dashi-imbued green tea seasoning, seaweed flakes, and rice cracker sticks. As a kid, I’d often fix myself ochazuke topped with creamy natto beans as an afterschool snack, but as an adult, ochazuke has become an all-day meal. I could eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner—ochazuke is my ride-or-die meal.
Karamucho potato chips
While Japanese grocery stores boast a diverse selection of potato chip flavors, I always find myself going back to the classics: Calbee’s seaweed-flavored potato chips and, my all-time favorite, Koikeya’s hot-chili Karamucho chips.These chips are somehow spicy, sweet, and savory all at once, with bursts of garlic, onion, BBQ, and chili flavors. Legend has it, Koikeya founder Kazuo Koike was inspired to make these chips in the 1960s after an eye-opening experience with Mexican food in the United States. To be fair, these chips are only spicy by Japanese standards, so expect something much milder than, say, a Hot Cheeto level of spice.
BOSS canned coffee
I’m not much of a coffee snob, but even I can tell that canned BOSS Coffee is in a league of its own. Sold in convenience stores and vending machines across Japan, BOSS Coffee is affordable, accessible, and delicious, with a silky smooth taste that can beat barista-made coffee. The secret to the taste is in the flash-brewing, in which the coffee is “brewed hot to maximize the taste, but chilled just as quickly to preserve flavor.” And, it all comes in a ready-to-drink can.
TL;DR: Boss Coffee is the stuff of miracles.—just ask Tommy Lee Jones.
Lotte Pie no Mi
Lotte’s Pie no Mi (“Fruit of Pie”) is another one of my all-time favorite Japanese confectionery snacks. As its name suggests, Pie no Mi is a bite-sized hexagonal puff pastry snack with a glazed sugar crust and a rich milk chocolate center. Basically, shrink a flaky chocolate croissant to a bite-sized pie and you have a Pie no Mi. According to Lotte, these bites owe their croissant-like flakiness to the 64 layers of puff pastry baked into them—a fun fact that becomes a trending topic once a blue moon.
Frozen yaki onigiri (grilled rice balls)
Don’t let the simplicity of it fool you: These frozen soy sauce-marinated grilled rice balls (aka yaki onigiri) are a top-tier snack, perfect to whip up if you’re tight on time. Pop one of these in the microwave for a minute or two and you’ll get a piping hot rice ball with a crisp outer layer of soy sauce marinated rice. Just be careful, these can get hot—I always cut up a strip of crisp seaweed to wrap the ball so I don’t burn my fingers.
Monaka ice cream
Monaka ice cream is Japan’s most popular ice cream, and for good reason. This particular ice cream sandwich uses slabs of milk chocolate and crisp wafer shells to encapsulate its vanilla ice cream. The result is a crisp ice cream sandwich that has a bite worthy of countless ASMR videos.
In Japan, dagashiyas are stores that specialize in cheap candies and snacks that can be bought with chump change. My favorite thing to buy at the dagashiya was fue ramune, which is a pack of soda-flavored candy whistles that come with a small toy. These candies come in the shape of Lifesavers and let out a high-pitched whistle when blown through—perfect for a karaoke party. When you’re done, pop one in your mouth to get a hit of that tart, Japanese-soda ramune flavor.
Where to shop for Japanese products
If you live in a major city in the United States, chances are you’ll have a Japanese market in your proximity, whether that be corporate-owned or family-run. The big three—Marukai, Mitsuwa, and Nijiya—have a broad presence nationwide, with a collective 35 stores from Hawaii to New Jersey.
While Marukai operates under two names in California and Hawaii—Marukai and Tokyo Central—both stores offer the same experience, look, and affordability. This is largely due to Japanese discount chain Don Quijote’s purchase of the company in 2013. If you live in Southern California, I highly recommend going to the massive Tokyo Central market in Gardena, which boasts the widest selection of Japanese products I’ve ever seen stateside, from everyday pantry staples to skincare.
Mitsuwa has the broadest nationwide presence with stores in five different states. I always opt for Mitsuwa for its convenience. Mitsuwa offers the classic Japanese supermarket experience and then some: some stores, such as the Santa Monica location, have a full-fledged Japanese food court inside, with everything from ramen to takoyaki.
From what I know, Nijiya markets often are humble in size but offer just as much as your regular Japanese supermarkets. You can find Nijiya markets in Northern and Southern California, as well as Oahu, Hawaii.