With more circumstance than pomp, the Tokyo Olympics began on Friday with a toned-down opening ceremony that sought to set the mood for the games. And in a way, it has. A smaller Parade of Nations marched in front of empty stands, and a moment of silence acknowledged those lost in the past year (if not the full realities of the ongoing pandemic). The bumpy path to Tokyo 2020 has highlighted long-standing issues with the Olympics that often get lost among the stories of athletic prowess. For every athlete beating the odds to reach the games, there is another who had their body policed, or was denied the access and support they rely on to compete. For every glitzy new stadium, there are throngs of residents displaced by the rapid expansion required of the host city.
My father ran track and field in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, so I learned to love the mythology of the games before I learned almost anything else. Even as I approach this year’s Olympics with a hair less wide-eyed awe, I still can’t help but admire the lifelong path that brings athletes to the games: Years of training and sacrifice for a single moment in front of an audience of the entire world.
But this year in Tokyo, the stands are mostly empty, and I’m looking for another way to support these amazing competitors. As the author of a snacks-focused newsletter, I logically turned to snacks for the answer. Snacking is a fitting homage to Tokyo, the capital of a nation whose own snack culture is all-encompassing. Picking just one Japanese snack is as overwhelming as deciphering the NBC Olympics broadcast schedule. The best approach, I find, is trying as many as possible. Here then are a handful of my favorite snack standouts, as well as recommended sport pairings — a fitting way to honor the athletes of Tokyo 2020. Happy snacking.
Pair with Trampoline Gymnastics
If gummy candy ever surprises you, it usually comes from the flavor instead of the texture. These squares combine fluffy opaque gummy with smaller flavor-packed translucent bits. The white peach variety is fragrant and slightly floral without crossing into cloying sweetness. The bouncy flavor will send your tastebuds flying almost as high as the gymnasts stringing together combinations midair.
Pair with Individual Dressage
The innovation of Japanese Kit Kats knows no bounds, with flavors that draw inspiration from local Japanese ingredients like sake, adzuki beans, and even the matcha flavor that used to be rare but can now be found at Asian markets across the U.S. and even in the international aisle of some grocery stores. This is the first Kit Kat to use whole-grain flour to give the wafers a unique texture. And much like the incredibly fancy horses of dressage, whole grains like oats will do your body good (even if they are in a candy bar).
Pair with Surfing Shortboard
At the heart of Japan’s snack culture are konbini, convenience stores like Lawson, and 7/11. Built to serve customers on the move, the packaging of the products they carry often reflects that frantic energy. Coolish shakes are packaged in a pouch that softens in your hands to reach the ideal creamy consistency, no cup or straw required. Flavors range from classics like vanilla and Belgian chocolate to melon soda float. These can be hard to find in the states, but Klondike just launched pouch shakes that try to recreate the same experience. Because if you can rush into the terrifying abyss of the ocean with just a wetsuit and a surfboard, you don’t need a bowl and spoon for your frozen treats.
Pair with Skateboarding Park
If you are already a fan of ramune sodas — the ones that come in a glass bottle sealed with a fancy marble — this candy that shares the same name is right up your alley. They’re small pressed-sugar candies, similar in texture to Smarties (the American non-chocolate ones) or Sweetarts, with a fizzy bite. Even though they taste delicious, an energy drink candy without actual energy feels pretty similar to the promotional push behind skateboarding’s Olympic debut in a country that largely discourages skateboarding in public spaces.
Pair with Sport Climbing Bouldering
The Black Thunder bar started life as an underdog put out by a small confectionery and grew in popularity to become one of Japan’s most famous candy bars. Its rise to fame is for one reason: It is very good. Puffed rice and cookie crumbles come together with chocolate in a bar where no two bites are the same, but every bite is enjoyable. This special edition uses cultured butter to create a salty-sweet nod to the heavily French-inspired Japanese pastry culture. If I had to climb a mountain without ropes, I hope the uneven terrain would be a combination of cookie crumbles and puffed rice because I am not great with heights.
Pair with Canoe Slalom
It might seem excessive to make a potato-themed potato chip but these take a lot less effort than actual Hasselback potatoes with just as much flavor (even though the shape looks a bit more like an accordion than an artfully sliced potato). The chip is precision-engineered to deliver flavor in record time, like a canoe weaving through the slalom gates.
Pair with Fencing Individual Sabre
Lemon with salt is a popular summer flavor in Japan and you’ll find that it shows up in both sweet and savory applications. Pretz are Pocky’s savory cousin and the simple, thin sticks hold more flavor than the tiny size would lead you to believe. Grab one and shout “En garde!” as you challenge a fellow snacker to a bout.
Pair with Cycling Track Sprint
If you took the cheesy powder out of Cheetos and used their unbeatable crunch as a canvas for other flavors, you’d have the Calbee Grill-A-Corn line. Mala spice is a standout flavor because it has a warm, slow-building heat that seems negligible until you accidentally eat a whole bag and your mouth is on fire. The crunch works like a bike gaining momentum on the track: You can’t stop it.
Pair with 4×100 Track Relay
Tiny rice crackers that resemble persimmon seeds give this snack its name and unsalted peanuts are their complement. It’s a simple snack with a small price and a big payoff. You could eat them all day. They are so iconic that Starbucks created a special-edition Frappuccino to showcase their glories. The individual components seem similar but, like the individual runners in each leg of a relay, they each have different roles and skills that make this snack a winner.
Pair with Rugby Sevens
The time difference between Japan and the United States means that a few of the highest-profile events will be broadcast at hours that are not conducive to sleep. This canned coffee, a vending machine standby in Japan, is a good choice for a quick jolt of energy. You can drink it cold or warm it up by putting the can in a small heat-proof container and pouring in hot water until it is mostly submerged. It is powerful and versatile, like a rugby team on the hunt for a try.
Pair with Boxing
Calpis (or Calpico) concentrate is my secret weapon for making drinks, both non-alcoholic and spiked, at home. It is a sweet fermented yogurt beverage syrup similar to Yakult that tastes incredible mixed with seltzer or fruit juice and soju. It comes in limited-edition fruit flavors like grape and orange, but the original will always have a place in my heart because of its versatility. It is an absolute knockout, any way you drink it.
Pair with 3m Springboard Diving
There are no apples in this cider. Drinking Mitsuya feels like chugging ginger ale at 10,000 feet on a plane, and the flavor falls somewhere between a soda fountain Sprite and a citrus-flavored seltzer. It’s refreshing without being too heavy and once you try it, you’ll wish you had access to it every day. Like a good dive, it doesn’t make much of a splash, but that restraint is the real skill.
Pair with Modern Pentathalon
The name might give you pause but Pocari Sweat is a sports drink without frills. The mild grapefruit taste has a touch of salt and is formulated to match the electrolytes lost when you, as the name implies, sweat. I can’t vouch for the efficacy of that claim but I can say that Pocari Sweat is what you want to drink on a humid summer day when a Gatorade is too sugary. Or when you are competing in a sport that combines every athletic skill known to man.
Folu Akinkuotu is a home cook and author of Unsnackable, a weekly newsletter about the glory and agony of inaccessible international treats. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter searching for the golden ratio of selfies to snacks.