Snacking is so intertwined with daily life in Japan that snacks take up the majority of aisles in Japanese convenience stores, or conbini. They’re often arranged on shelves according to whether they’re popular mainstays, limited-time specials, or new releases. Dozens of new Kit Kats, cookies, and chips appear on conbini shelves every few weeks and leave just as quickly if they don’t perform well, which drives fierce competition between the nation’s snack-food manufacturers. As a result, enthusiastic snackers are met with an overwhelming abundance of options in snack-food categories as narrow as chips, with brands like Calbee and Koikeya consistently remaining on top.
But you don’t have to be in Japan to benefit from this competition, if you know what to look for. Growing up in the suburbs of Vancouver where there’s a large Asian community, I was blessed with seemingly unlimited access to snacks from Japan, Hong Kong, Korea, and beyond in the aisles of the grocery stores. And with the recent surge in popularity of Japanese snacks in North America, these treats have become even more accessible through dedicated online platforms and subscription services that deliver goodies right to your front door. Whether you’re lucky enough to be in close proximity to a Japanese market or want to browse the vast selection online, these are all the chips worth stocking up on.
Calbee “Kata-Age” Potato Chips, Light Salt
Calbee is as recognizable in Japan as Lay’s is in North America, and the leading snack-food manufacturer regularly comes out on top in the Japanese chip game. Thicker than the classic Lay’s potato chip, this fan favorite from Calbee is sprinkled with salt and carefully fried at a low temperature to achieve the hard crunch and curling of sides characteristic of a kettle chip.
Calbee Nori Shio Potato Chips
Nori and shio is a classic, well-balanced sweet-and-salty flavor combination that shows up in a variety of foods, including ramen bowls, rice balls, and seaweed salads. These nori shio chips by Calbee have been in production since 1976, and though other brands have since developed their own takes on seaweed salted chips, Calbee remains the top seller of this flavor.
Calbee Pizza Potato Chips
Cheese is the real star of this flavor. Potato chips are coated in a blend of sharp cheddar and smooth Emmental cheeses, plus, each thick-cut ridged chip is studded with additional melted globs of cheese. The subtle pizza flavor shines through with the help of generous garlic-and-herbs seasoning, making it a hit in Japan and abroad.
Koikeya Karamucho Hot Chili Seaweed Chips
These chips from Koikeya are thin-cut and ultra crispy, sprinkled with a blend of chile powder and seaweed flakes. The spice, though mild, hits the palate first, leaving your tongue with a slight tingle. Then the umami from the seaweed balances the heat.
ROYCE’ Potatochip Chocolate Original
With one side delicately dipped in smooth milk chocolate and the other seasoned with salt, these sweet and savory thick-cut potato chips are the most popular ROYCE’ product in Japan. Crispy and light in texture yet decadent in taste, they’re crafted from Hokkaido-grown potatoes, making this an especially popular souvenir from Japan’s northernmost island.
Calbee Jagariko Potato Sticks
This iconic Japanese snack from Hokkaido comes in a convenient single-serve cup with a peel-off lid. The combination of potato and salt make the classic version the local favorite, though potato sticks delicately seasoned with cheese, cod roe butter, and salad flavoring are all popular options. Serving sizes for potato sticks are admittedly small, so stock up.
Koikeya Karamucho Hot Chili Potato Sticks
Tokyo-based snack food manufacturer Koikeya uses a play on words to market its spicy snack products. “Karamucho” combines karai, the Japanese word for spicy, with mucho, the Spanish word for very, for this chile-dusted potato stick snack.
Koikeya Suppa Mucho Sour Plum Umeboshi Sticks
Suppa Mucho potato sticks are an ode to the popular Japanese pickled plum snack known as umeboshi. This classic Japanese flavor is intensely tangy and salty, balanced by the sweetness of the plum. Generously dusted in sour plum flavoring, these crispy chips boast a bold taste, making for a particularly delightful treat.
Non-potato chips and crunchy snacks
Calbee Shrimp Chips
First created in 1964 by Calbee founder Takashi Matsuo, this wheat-based snack was inspired by his love for his mom’s shrimp tempura. The baked chip is now a classic, and ubiquitous on the shelves of Asian supermarkets across North America. Aside from the original, which remains the most popular selection, these airy shrimp chips also come in enticing flavor options like wasabi and hot garlic.
Amanoya Japanese Rice Crackers
Manufactured by one of Japan’s leading rice cracker brands, these rice crackers are deep-fried to achieve a satisfying crunch and coated with a soy glaze, giving them a shiny golden appearance and subtle sweetness.
Tohato Caramel Corn
These airy caramel corn puffs were first introduced in Japan in 1971, and are one of Tohato’s best-selling treats. To balance its sweetness, the glazed corn curls are typically combined with a handful of roasted peanuts, though the brand has also put out an almond option. And along with the original caramel corn chips, Tohato releases seasonal flavors throughout the year, with past variations including melon, lemon, and sweet potato.
Vivian Chung is a spontaneous traveler and adventurous eater who covers stories in the travel and lifestyle verticals.
Michelle Min is a food and travel photographer based in San Francisco.