I cannot speak for our European friends because I am yet to do any real cycling on the continent, but when cycling in the US it can be difficult to get the nutrition you want and need once on the road. There are naturally exceptions, but in the typical American gas station you’re most likely to find a few sad-looking hot dogs spinning under a heat lamp, perhaps a microwaveable hamburger and of course loads of over-salted junk food – true to my Southern roots, my personal favorite are the pork rinds. 😉
As a result, American cyclists tend to load up the back pockets with the nutritions they’ll need for the entire ride: perhaps some granola or Clif bars, a banana or two, and don’t forget the gel packs! It can be done but it’s not exactly convenient, and all that stuff definitely weighs you down at the start of the ride. Plus those Clif bars are expensive!
Those of us lucky enough to be able to enjoy the great cycling in Japan have access to plentiful sources of good nutrition while on the move. Japan’s convenience stores (called konbini/conbini for short) are ubiquitous, totaling over 50,000 locations spread throughout a small country. The largest chains are 7-Eleven, Lawson and Family Mart, but there are several others as well. They are typically open 24/7 so no matter how early you hit the road you’ll be able to stop in and carb up.
They are also excellent, offering a massive selection of services and products from banking, to bill payments to the focus of this post: a fantastic array of cyclist-friendly food options. Your first visit to a Japanese conbini can be overwhelming, so I’ll walk you through 10 of my favorite choices (in no particular order) to get your legs spinning.
The humble yokan is a traditional Japanese dessert (wagashi) made of sweetened asuki red beans condensed into a thick gelatin or paste. They’re cheap, typically around 80 yen, pocket-stuffable, indestructible and easy to both open and eat with one hand. The sugar’s good for a quick pop, and the dense beans give you a longer burn, plus a little protein side action.
Perhaps my favorite “dine-in” snack, daifuku mochi is another traditional Japanese confection made of anko, more condensed and sweetened red-bean paste, wrapped by a thick layer of mochi – rice starch starch “cake.” It’s kind of a PIA to eat while rolling, but it is stuffable. Just as in a yokan, the anko gives you some sugar and a little protein, and the mochi is incredibly dense calories that will burn for a while.
Sometimes simple is the best. In the Japanese summer when it’s +40C/100F with 85% humidity, these packages of high-quality, frozen fruit slices are a gift from the gods. There’s often a wide variety too: grapes, cantaloupe (generically “melon” in Japan), pineapple, you name it and you can probably find it.
Virtually all of the convenience store chains have a bakery operations attached to them. Every conbini typically has a large shelf of specialty breads, ranging from the sweet, such as “melon pan” (perhaps my favorite) to the dense and salty like yaki-soba (pan-fried noodles). Yep – noodles in a sweet BBQ sauce stuffed between two slices of bread. When you’re in the saddle I recommend avoiding selections that are loaded with mayonnaise and cheese if you plan on chasing any Strava KOMs…
clearly a dine-in option, unlike their American counterparts conbini sandwiches can be pretty good. You will also find a big selection here ranging from dessert items featuring fruit and a lot if whipped cream all the way to roast porkloin sandwhiches, my personal go-to for lean protein. There’s some great Engrish to be found here as well: you’ll often see it shortened to Ros-katsu sand. Don’t worry. It’s not really sand.
Rice Balls (Onigiri)
The Japanese classic – a ball of rice, wrapped with some seaweed and featuring a little sump’n sump’n in the middle. The classics are options like tuna, salmon or dried plumb but these days they’ve got all manner of whacky flavors to hook ’em while they’re young. Rice admittedly is not the best mid-ride snack, but onigiri are cheap, good for 100+ calories and as long as you’re not hammering you’ll be fine.
Japan took Haribo’s Gummi Bears and turned them into a high adventure that’s beyond compare. 😉 If you left the gel packs at home, or if you just can’t joke them down because they’re, you know, gross, gummi snacks are not a bad way to get a little sugar pop. At any conbini you will be spoiled for choice. They all have a gimmick, for example fruit-mimicking textures, super sour tastes, or even the secret of gummiberry juice. Their legend is growing…
Another decent conbini substitute for your cycling gel packs are the vitamin pouches typically sold from a small, refrigerated section near the register. Depending on what you need they offer different varieties for “energy,” “protein,” “minerals,” etc. and are priced at about 150 yen. They’re a bit bulky but will still fit in a back pocket, and as a side bonus, unlike gel packs these are usually palatable.
An item that’s well suited to the hot and humid Japanese summer are the “in” branded lemon-salt tablets. When it’s +40 and you’re sweating through +1L an hour, these are fantastically tasty way to get some sodium back in you. They’re available in both large and small packages, so you can keep a big bag at the house, or buy the little tiny pouches that slide neatly into a jersey pocket.
Speaking of summer heat, these are Japan’s version of Gatorade/Powerade depending on where your brand loyalties lay. As far as taste options go we’re spoiled for choice in the US – I don’t know what an Arctic Blitz tastes like, but I know that chugging something called Arctic Blitz will unleash my inner dudebro and make me feel like a true man. In Japan, all you get is “sports drink” and the largest brands are Aquarius, Pocari Sweat and the ever-so-cleverly-named Kirin Loves Sports. They all have a mysterious salty-sweet-citrus taste and feature and eery, incandescent glowing-blue color.
That should be enough to get you going, even if you rolled out with nothing in your pockets. If I’ve missed one of your favorites let us know on the Sporra sub-reddit or hit us up on Twitter.
See you on the road!