In Japan, one of the easiest and cheapest convenience store snacks to eat on the go is the humble rice ball or onigiri. As the name suggests, rice is molded into a triangle or circle, stuffed with a variety of different fillings, and wrapped with a crispy seaweed sheet. It’s a great pick me up to enjoy at any time of day.
Some of my personal favorites are tuna mayonnaise, salmon, and seaweed, which you can find at any convenience store (or conbini as they’re commonly called) whether it’s FamilyMart, Lawson, or Seven-Eleven.
As I made the pilgrimage to check out each conbini, I picked out the most common varieties. Familiarize yourself with these so you don’t end up with natto (fermented soybeans) when you really want salmon!
Tuna and mayonnaise (ツナ マヨネーズ)
Flaked tuna mixed in with generous amounts of mayonnaise, you can find this flavor easily as the packaging uses katakana. From time to time, you might even see 具たっぷり written on the label which means it has a hearty amount of filling. I like this flavor the most because it’s simple and uses ingredients I’m already familiar with.
If you can’t get enough of the crunchy nori that’s usually wrapped around onigiri, why not eat a rice ball that’s filled with the stuff? Look for the character 昆布 which means seaweed.
Other common kanji you should expect to find are 北海道産 which means the seaweed is a product of Hokkaido. That means you know it’s good, as anything from Japan’s northernmost island is bound to be extra tasty. Hokkaido is known to have the freshest, highest quality ingredients especially when it comes to anything seafood-related.
One of my personal favorites, look out for salmon flavored onigiri by checking for 紅しゃけ which means red salmon. For those of you wondering, yes the salmon inside the rice ball is already cooked.
Spicy cod roe (明太子)
For those of you who are looking for a little more of a kick, try grabbing 明太子 or mentaiko (spicy cod roe). While it might be an acquired taste, it’s definitely worth trying once. When you first bite into it, you’ll feel the texture of the tiny cod roe balls with an immediate kick of spice that evens out well with the rice.
Pickled plum (紀州南高梅)
Looking for a more vegetarian-friendly option? Try out 紀州南高梅 or kishuunankobai (pickled plum) flavored rice balls. The initial strong, sour flavor might be a bit off-putting for some but it’s great once you get used to it. Down it with some mugicha (barley tea) for a quick meal on the go.
When in doubt, just refer to the photo on the packaging. Many conbini have English labels on their onigiri, but some smaller ones like New Days or Mini Stop don’t. Don’t forget to try out the new releases that sell for a limited amount of time like mushroom onigiri and you might even walk away with a new favorite.
Onigiri are awesome, but you can’t sustain yourself on rice balls alone! Check out our list of 10 Foods to Try in Japan (That Aren’t Sushi or Ramen).