We usually decide ourselves if or when we want a snack, when we’re peckish or a little restless between meals, to raid the fridge or get that pretty cupcake in the window. It’s a flexible and totally optional act. But did you know the Japanese have a stipulated time for snacking? Leave it to them to be all ordered and organized!
Known as oyatsu おやつ or kanshoku 間食 (literally, timed meal), it has graver and deeper origins than apparent. Oyatsu may also be written as 御八つ, which means the 8th period of the day (this translates to 2-4pm as one period is 2 hours). During the Heian Era, provisions were given to especially those living in rural areas for them to withstand the intense labor conditions. Agriculture was the main driver of the economy at that time, and farmers only ate two main meals of breakfast and dinner. This changed and manifested in the Edo era as 3 fixed meals plus snack time. During summer when the day was longer, supplementary snacks called chanoko 茶の子, literally “kid of tea time”, were eaten before breakfast.
During winter, labor continued after dark and yashoku 夜食, supper or midnight snacks, became an indispensable habit. It was also during snack time that the folk could catch up on the sekenbanashi 世間話, better known as “water cooler talk” or “the village grapevine”.
Originally eaten during the 8th period of the day, or 2-4pm, oyatsu has changed in modern contexts to be anything other than the 3 main meals. It became metaphorically known as “3 o’clock” or o-sanji お三時 not only because it was between 2 and 4pm, but word has it also because of a marketing campaign by Bunmeido 文明堂 for castella, or sponge cakes. In the commercial, the catchline could be roughly translated to “First comes Castella, second comes the phone, in the time of 3 o’clock”. At that time, the phone was an avant-garde means of exchanging fodder for gossip.
From past till present, snacks tend to be fruit, sweets or heavy carbohydrate-filled items such as confectionary (okashi お菓子) or rice balls (おにぎり onigiri). Based off the Portuguese alfenim confectionary, a painted boiled candy molded into fish or fruit shapes called kinkatou 金華糖 was popular amongst children but is rarely seen nowadays.
「Cha ni shiyou 茶にしよう」 is a figurative phrase for “let’s have a coffee break or tea time.” Tea and senbei, especially among the older generation, is a very common sight in Japan.
Senbei 煎餅 are rice crackers that have been around for a long time, and come in an assortment of flavors such as nori seaweed, sugar and soy tare glaze.
Even though they taste best fresh off the grill, the packs from convenience stores offer great variety and taste great too! Speaking of which, the conbini is the ultimate epitome of Japanese snack food heaven; it has everything from potato sticks to pocky, bentos to onigiri, soft serve ice creams to corn dogs, as well as any kind of okashi you could dream of!