A visit to one of Japan's ubiquitous konbini (convenience stores) proves that Japanese food companies have an ability to constantly churn out flavorful innovations that rival even Willy Wonka. With a cultural affinity for all things seasonal, Japanese consumers can expect a nonstop rotation of limited edition varieties of their favorite foods: In spring, shopping carts bloom full of sakura pink packaging, while in fall you can expect a hearty harvest of chestnut and sweet potato flavored snacks. Of course, there are tons of beloved Japanese snacks that probably wouldn't fly off the shelves in America (unless you’re craving a bag of roasted squid threads or pickled plums). But you might be surprised by the only-in-Japan editions of the munchies you know and love—like these wacky junk food flavors you’d need a ticket to Tokyo to try.
What do you expect to find when you peel back the lid of an instant cup of ramen? Noodles, a few bits of dehydrated carrot or corn, plenty of MSG—but how about soft-shell turtle seasoning or imitation shark fin? These are a couple of the exotic ingredients in Nissin’s premium line, Cup Noodles Rich, which debuted in Japan last month. Japanese manufacturers reportedly create 600 new ramen flavors every year, ranging from the approachable (Cup Star’s approachable Sapporo Ichiban with real chunks of omelette or Cup Noodle's cheese curry) to the adventurous (Cup Noodle’s milk and seafood, clam, and white wine “vongole” or Mexican chili-cheese). Unfortunately, Nissin’s fried chicken and ramen mashup, Cup Noodle Karaage King, was only available to clog your arteries for a limited time last year.
Forget Cool Ranch: In Japan, Doritos has added flavors like chicken consomme (only available from October 5 to November 30, 2015) and buttery soy sauce to the standard nacho cheese lineup. For sophisticated tortilla chip aficionados, they’ve introduced the Doritos Royal collection specifically marketed to adults, including highbrow flavors like rich browned butter and ajillo garlic shrimp.
While the cheesiness of Cheetos seems untouchable—it’s right there in the name—that dangerously cheesy classic has gotten a makeover for the Japanese market, too. Japanese Cheetos also come in a light salt flavor or drizzled with soy sauce from the southern island of Kyushu, which is sweeter than the stuff Tokyoites like to dip their sushi in.
With America’s avocado craze, it’s almost unbelievable that the brand hasn’t brought their Japan-only avocado flavored Cheetos flavor stateside yet. Maybe that’s because the flavor didn’t survive in Japan, along with other discontinued varieties like Pepsi, Mountain Dew, and Strawberry Cheetos.
The most out-there Japanese Cheetos are definitely the bright yellow banana flavor, which were available for a limited time last year to promote the release of the Minions movie. But though the Japanese palate is adventurous, super spicy flavors tend to be less popular—so we probably won’t find Japanese tongues with that telltale Flamin’ Hot Cheetos red stain any time soon.
There are two kinds of pizza eaters: those who celebrate the union of Canadian bacon and pineapple, and those who vow to keep them forever apart. But for expats living in Japan, the pizza war gets even thicker—and it all comes down to whether you accept corn and mayonnaise as legitimate pizza toppings. Those are key ingredients on a Japanese pie, but at Japanese Domino’s, the toppings get even more divisive: Some of the chain’s most popular pies are the white-sauced drenched Crab Gratin and the Lasagna pizza with potato, parsley, and bolognese sauce. In spring, pepperoni is swapped with Sakura Shrimp. But if those toppings sound like pizza blasphemy, fans of stuffed crust might drool over Japanese Domino’s French pastry-inspired “Triple Mille-Feuille”: melted cheese oozing between three layers of crispy crust.
5. SOFT DRINKS
French brand Orangina knows that plain old orange would be too boring for Japan, so they’ve designed fizzy drinks for the market. While Blood Orangina is similar to a drink that exists in Europe, Lemongina was formulated specifically for the Japanese and had its world debut there in 2015. Vending machines across the country are also stocked with Pepsi Strong, a Salaryman-satisfying soda boosted with extra carbonation and caffeine. (Pepsi also once had a line of Salty Watermelon soda in Japan.)
Even Japanese Starbucks shakes things up every springtime with their much-anticipated Strawberry Sakura Frappuccinos and lattes—snapping a selfie with one of the chain’s flowery pink cups has practically become a rite of spring for stylish Japanese girls. (In March, Starbucks brought a very limited edition version of Strawberry Sakura to America.) And in a country so gaga for melons that they sometimes sell for thousands of dollars each, it’s no surprise that the coffee chain is winning Japanese hearts with last month’s limited-edition Cantaloupe Melon and Cream Frappuccino, which contains juicy fruit chunks and panna cotta.
7. ICE CREAM
The Japanese have shortened the name Baskin-Robbins to a simple and pronounceable “31,” and, in turn, the brand has put a Japanese spin on their classic 31 ice cream flavors. J-kids go nuts for their Popping Shower, a cool mint ice cream studded with Pop Rocks-like candy, and for more adult tastes there’s red adzuki bean and musk melon. Meanwhile, Haagen-Dazs milks its faux-European cache for all it's worth in Japan, with chic combos like rosehip-raspberry and lavender-blueberry that might require eating with one’s pinky out. Japanese consumers also scream for the brand’s banana milk and pumpkin scoops. Creative flavors are the name of Ben & Jerry’s game, so it should come as no surprise that they’ve whipped up custom Japan-friendly blends like black tea with chocolate flakes and Okinawan purple sweet potato. And just in case punny flavors like Cherry Garcia and Phish Food got lost in translation, their only-in-Japan Lemont.Fuji is a lemon base with Fuji apple chunks and cinnamon cookies mixed in—get it?
8. AND 9. OREOS AND RITZ CRACKERS
Japan's matcha green tea Oreos have been a hit since they were introduced in March. (The United States also has Oreos with green filling, but it's mint flavored.) Meanwhile, a vanilla cream center can be found between Ritz crackers in a box of the brand’s Japan-exclusive vanilla-flavored Ritz Bits sandwiches.
10. KIT KATS
In terms of novelty factor, though, Japanese Kit Kats make those two seem like a positive snooze. Because the candy bar’s name sounds like kitto katsu, which means “surely win” in Japanese, the chocolate has been embraced by Japanese students as a good-luck token for the nation’s infamously rigorous exams.
What really fuels Kit Kat mania, though, are the regional delicacies which can only be purchased in their respective locales, making them perfect gifts in a country where souvenir exchanging is a national pastime. Travelers can bring back flavors like Tokyo’s roasted soybean powder flavor, creamy apple from the Shinshu region, Hokkaido milk, and the Tohoku region’s specialty of mashed edamame.
Nestle has come up with more than 200 unique flavors of Kit Kats since 2000, making them variety-hungry Japan’s number one candy of choice. Some of the most unconventional flavors include wasabi, salted watermelon, lemon vinegar (serve chilled) and roasted sweet potato (which are supposed to be extra tasty when slightly melted in the toaster oven). But this year’s newest flavor is sake, with each bar coming in at a boozy .8 percent alcohol content—which just might make you say “Give me a break.”