Friday, January 29, 2010

Variety Friday: Setsubun Snacks

top shelf: Setsubun demon masks, second shelf: a variety of soy beans for the celebration

Though I've been in Japan a little over two decades, I have never taken much notice of the holiday Setsubun. This is in large part because I associate celebration of the day with kids and I neither have children nor close friends with them. The truth is that I have been vaguely aware of the holiday and some of its practices since the early years of my stay, but never really paid much attention until I started seeing Setsubun-themed candy in the past few weeks.

Setsubun includes a custom called mamemaki, which is where the head of household (usually the father of the family) puts on a demon mask and the children or other family members throw soybeans at him to drive away evil, draw luck, and purify the home. I say that I associate this holidays with children, because I have never known a Japanese adult who carried out mamemaki without kids. Childless adults don't usually perform this little role play. My guess is that most of them have far more interesting role plays involving long-celibate samurai and curious geisha or helpful gladiators and lost, grateful, and randy goddesses who have fallen to earth.

Though I'm sure Setsubun-themed foods have been around since long before I was born, I wasn't writing a snack blog prior to last year. This year, I decided to do a week's worth of Setsubun-related foods as a way of exploring the food culture end of the holiday. Setsubun is celebrated on February 3 so next week seemed like a good time to offer up those reviews. Some of the foods are modern candy with a Setsubun theme, and others are more traditional.

I could have easily done two weeks worth of Setsubun-related foods. While I was at one of my local markets today (Peacock), I saw that there was a wide variety of snacks covering both the purification end and the demon personification. One of the coolest was a package of big demon "feet" stick-less, lollipop-style hard candies. A bag full of big transparent yellow feet was hard to resist, but the price (358 yen or $3.93) and the prospect of all of the tooth decay from sucking on that many sugary feet put me off (though it does sound like a fetishist's dream). There were also demon "clubs" made out of what I'm guessing was some sort of carbohydrate backbone coated in a curious brown coating and nuts to make it look like a caveman-style bludgeoning device.

Since I couldn't possibly buy and consume everything, I made a few selections which I think may have broader application to my readers. By that I mean that these are foods which you may be able to find as imports or that might be available in Asian groceries (albeit from different manufacturers than the ones I sampled).

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Kokunaisan Yuzukawa Candied Yuzu

I've sampled plenty of yuzu treats up to this point, but haven't eaten anything which contains much more than a speck of real fruit. Considering my enthusiasm for all things yuzu thus far, I jumped at the chance to sample this candied yuzu when I found it at Seiyu supermarket for about 120 yen ($1.33).

For those who don't remember or know, yuzu is a Japanese citrus fruit which tastes like a cross between a lemon and a grapefruit. It has the sour notes of lemon and some of the bitter notes of grapefruit. This makes it ideal for candying. It's no surprise then that the second ingredient, after yuzu peel, is sugar. Despite this, this 35 gram (1.2 oz.) bag only has 124 calories, so you don't have to feel too guilty about eating it all in one go.

I don't know if this is supposed to be marketed as a health food or not, but I do believe it's supposed to be a nutritious snack. It has vitamin C added to it, which is fairly common in Japan for many snacks as both Calcium and C are not abundant in traditional Japanese cuisine. There is a fair number of little firm bits of candied rind in the bag. They don't smell like much individually, but the whole bag takes on their citrus scent.

Unsurprisingly, they taste like yuzu, which is to say a little bitter and a little sour. The bitterness is a bit more prominent than the sourness and the sweetness level is pretty spot-on. It's just enough to balance the harsher flavors. The texture is pretty much as you'd expect for this kind of thing. They're solid, but easy to bite through. They're not as chewy as dried fruit because of the candying.

I really liked these, though clearly they don't fall into the category of a candy or salty treat in terms of the pleasure one can extract from them. If you enjoy fruit snacks and want something different, I'd recommend giving this a try. I wouldn't hesitate to buy it again, though I have to say that I'd have to be in the right mood to eat it.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Glico 80-Calorie Monaka

I've often thought it would be interesting to create a blog devoted to low calorie, diet and health foods in Japan. Of course, I soon realized that such a blog could only update about once a week, if that, because there aren't many of such products. In America, people can create entire blogs devoted to low calorie, reduced fat, and healthy foods, but I'm hard-pressed to find anything in line with their review fodder except the odd zero calorie soft drink. I realize that eating "fake" foods in order to save calories isn't the best way to approach one's diet. However, I also think there is nothing wrong with the occasional indulgence that doesn't come with a hefty calorie price tag.

All of the ice cream in Japan is very rich and fatty. I rarely find a small cup of ice cream with less than 285 calories, and many are over 300. The only exception is Glico's line of 80-calorie ice milk treats. They sell small cups (110 ml.) of green tea, chocolate with chocolate pieces, rum raisin, and vanilla for 150 yen each ($1.69). These are difficult to find, but I can locate them at Natural Lawson's and one of the Family Mart convenience stores in range of my apartment. I have never seen them at local markets.

I was surprised to find that they also carry a low-calorie monaka ice milk sandwich. It is also about 150 yen, but has only 82 ml. of ice milk. According to their web site, they offer green tea and vanilla versions of these monaka, but I've never seen them. The vanilla version has red beans on it instead of the chocolate coating that this one has. All of these are part of what Glico calls their "calorie control" line.

One thing that one has to keep in mind when eating these types of foods is that the bar has to be lowered relative to other types of ice cream and ice milk. The question isn't how this stacks up to full-fat ice cream, but how good it is as a cold confection for 80 calories. Keep in mind that the first ingredient is polydextrose, a form of soluble fiber used to replace sugar. It also contains artificial sweeteners and tofu. Some of the ingredients aren't listed, however. The chocolate and monaka are simply listed as "chocolate coating" and "monaka".

When you give it a sniff, the first thing you smell is the monaka and that is like a cake cone. The monaka is rather soft and has absorbed a bit of moisture. I don't know if it might have been crisper if it hadn't sat in my freezer for a week, but my guess is that it wouldn't. Monaka aren't exceptionally crisp even when fresh.

The ice milk has a bit of a generic dairy flavor, reminiscent of powdered milk but not in a bad way. The chocolate coating is very sparse, but there is enough of it to add flavor. If you look at the picture above, you can see that the coating is fragmented rather than a solid sheet like I got in the Morinaga Jumbo Monaka bar. Mainly, it tastes cold and sweet with some bittersweet chocolate flavor. The flavors are not strong and I really wish there was a vanilla component to the ice milk.

This was fairly enjoyable. I can say that it was definitely worth 80 calories, but it won't do if you've got a hankering for some real ice cream. It will do if you have a craving for a cold treat. I would buy this again, but I can't say that it really "wowed" me so much as simply pleasantly satisfied me.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Tabasco Tsunarare Snack

There is a class of souvenirs sold in Tokyo which is clearly designed for tourists only. They're cheesy and ugly, but people who visit heavy tourist spots like Asakusa must eat them up. If they didn't, I can't imagine things like black velvet wall hangings of women sauntering amongst the cherry blossoms wouldn't still be on offer.

While I'm largely immune to most of the cheesy souvenir stuff, I'm a bit of a sucker for things with sumo wrestler art on them. I'm also a huge fan of hot stuff. While perusing the sembei section of the local 99 yen shop, I was delighted to spy this bag of Tabasco rice-based snack with an old-fashioned sumo wrestler painting on it. That being said, it seems downright disrespectful to digitally cram a coiled piece of sembei in his mouth and shove a jumbo jug of Tabasco in the crook of his arm. The only part which doesn't seem weird is the Tabasco logo printed on his kesho mawashi (the apron-like deal hanging from his belt). Real sumo wrestlers sometimes have corporate logos on their kesho mawashi. Pepsi and McDonald's in particular have sent poor wrestlers parading around the ring with their corporate logos emblazoned on them.

This snack was made by a company called simply "Mama". It's a brand I've never encountered before and is located relatively close to Tokyo (in Chiba). They don't have a web presence and my searches didn't turn up anything about them besides the fact that they also make some cookies which have been talked about by a few Japanese bloggers with lukewarm responses.

I had a very curious experience with this snack. It smells mostly like rice crackers with a hint of frying oil. On the first bite, mostly I tasted the oil with only some Tabasco heat at the end. Color me disappointed. After eating about 1/3 of the bag (and stopping there as the entire bag has 428 calories), the heat and Tabasco flavor started to build up. I didn't think I was going to like them very much, but then I kept eating them.

I feel a bit torn about these. I clearly enjoyed them, but I wish they had a better depth of flavor. There are other flavorings listed on the bag including garlic, onion, and pork extract, but they don't shine through very strongly. I think these are a classic case of Japanese tastes being catered to and it falling a little short for my foreign taste buds. I want something more savory, but the Japanese tend to be happier with less intense flavors. I also think the noticeable hint of frying oil is actually something desirable for Japanese snack consumers.

While I wish someone had tossed in some tomato flavor or at least ramped up the Tabasco and perhaps some more meaty extracts, I did like these. I could see buying them again if I were in the mood for something hot and this looked like the best of limited options. This is a grudging "happy" rating, but I think it's fair, and the use of a sumo rating system never seemed more appropriate.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Yamagata Sakurambo (Cherry) KitKat

One of the things you can either love or hate about life in Japan are regional foods designed to be area-specific souvenirs. If you travel a fair amount, you can show your coworkers and friends that you thought enough of them to bring back something unique from the place that you visited. They can enjoy a treat which they know could not be purchased anywhere else.

Since I don't travel much in Japan anymore, I haven't been reviewing the regional KitKat variations. That being said, I live in Tokyo and haven't done the Tokyo-specific ones either, but that's because you don't see them just anywhere. Mainly, people get them at Narita airport. I didn't get these KitKats by traveling to Yamagata. I got them because Helen at La Vida Loca very generously bought them and sent them to me. Otherwise, well, I wouldn't be reviewing my very first Japanese regional KitKat in the history of this blog. Thank you so much, Helen!

Since this is my first experience with regional KitKats, I was impressed by the packaging. The boxes are set up so that you can easily open it and present the bars for people around the office to take. The box is also a nice size because it's compact and easy to carry in a briefcase or backpack. It neatly stores 12 mini bars. While most of the writing is in Japanese, there is English written on one side which says "Tohoku Limited" and " Japanese Cherry Flavor", so they are clearly designed for foreign tourists to buy as souvenirs as well as for domestic travelers.

The bars smell pleasantly of cherry and have a good mild cherry flavor with a bit of a hit of citric-acid-like bite at the end. It's not too sweet or flowery. The fact of the matter is that I like vaguely floral flavors in some fruit-flavored sweets and this strikes a good balance for my tastes in that regard. It's enough for interest, but not enough to make you think you're noshing on a bar of soap. While these bars were similar to the previous limited edition Sakurambo KitKats, they aren't exactly the same. I think the tart finish at the end of the non-Yamagata variety was a bit more intense and these are a little sweeter.

I would definitely recommend picking up a box of these if you find yourself in Yamagata. I think they'd make a beautiful and tasty souvenir for folks back home. The fact that Japan is associated with cherry blossoms and these are cherry flavor is icing on the cake.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Gokaku KitKat Mug Winner Pics

For anyone who'd like to see the happy winner with her mug, Rene has posted some pictures on her site.

Frankly, I'm shocked at how badly beat up the box was when it arrived. It was perfect and pristine when I sent it off (and brand new so it should have had the molecular integrity to hold up under normal postal stress). And I was glad that I went bonkers with the bubble wrap to protect the mug!

Variety Friday: Lotte "Sweet Stay" Hotel

Image captured from the Lotte City hotel web site.

Several weeks ago, I learned (via The Japan Times) that Lotte is opening a hotel. This in and of itself is not a shock since most Japanese companies are conglomerates with their hands in a lot of pies. Companies that make food often also have other types of related or greatly divergent businesses.

The hotel will be located in Kinshicho in Tokyo, and will not be far from Shibuya, the National Sumo Stadium (Ryogoku Kokugikan), and a Disney resort area. A web site for the hotel is located here. As far as I can tell, it is largely a pretty normal hotel with a few specialty rooms featuring Lotte's Koala's March cookie mascot. The site, what little there is at the time that I'm writing this, calls the hotel a "premium business hotel". There is something a bit odd in the pairing of the image of an elegantly appointed business hotel and cheesy use of cutesy Koala images in theme rooms. It's as if they couldn't decide if they want follow the Hilton hotels or the often tacky love hotels so they just decided to do a little of both.

According to the Nikkan Sports news, there is going to be a chocolate café ("Chocolate Factory Charlotte") and shop, a Korean restaurant and a room specifically advertised to provide a view of the Sumida fireworks. The sense is that the hotel is meant to attract women, though this flies in the face of the idea that it is supposed to be a "premium business hotel." Yes, there are business women in Japan, but there aren't that many of them and even fewer are involved in the types of work that requires travel.

Image pinched from My Com Journal.

Of course, this being a snack blog, I was interested in tracking down the Koala's March room and finding what it was supposed to look like. You have to comb Japanese news sites to see if Lotte's PR people released any images and I found one on the "My Com Journal" news site. (Note: When I wrote this post, the hotel's web site was just one page with one picture. Now, a full-fledged site is up with more pictures.) Frankly, it looks like the sort of room you'd put together for a 5-year-old to stay in and it appears to be designed for an adult and two children. There is a "common room" with a regular-looking bed and space and the Koala's room. The entire area is meant to accommodate three people. I don't think Lotte is offering these rooms as any more than a token publicity stunt as there are 213 rooms and only 2 of them have the Koala's March theme.

The odd thing about Lotte's entry into the hotel market in Japan is that this is their first one. They already have hotels in South Korea, but are late to the domestic market. The hotel will open on April 6, 2010. If my husband and I can make our way there, I think it'd be interesting to pay a visit to the café and the chocolate museum which are mentioned in the .pdf that Lotte offers with information on the shop itself.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Mister Donut Black Honey Soy Donut

Have you ever wondered why one particular variety of donut (or doughnut) is called "old-fashioned"? No, I hadn't really wondered about it either until I planned to write this post and started to do some research. Since the history of the donut can't be easily tracked. Let's face it, the concept of frying dough is one that could have occurred simultaneously all over the world once dough-making cuisine was common. It could have started with a clumsy pock-marked teen in a Dutch bakery in the 19th century who accidentally flung a bun ball into some oil nearby or it could have been a portly British fish and chip proprietor who ran out of things to fry.

At any rate, I never did track down why one particular variety is called an "old fashioned" donut. I found searching on the keywords to be too frustrating and it turned up too many results so I did what any good blogger would do: I gave up and figured someone smarter and more tenacious than me would give me the answer eventually.

One thing I didn't need to research was the fact that Mister Donut Japan pulled most of their old fashioned donut line some time last year. In particular, they removed their glazed old fashioned which my husband really liked. On January 6, 2010, they brought it back along with some new friends including the tasty number that I'm reviewing today. The old favorites that came back are plain, glazed, and chocolate and the new ones are green tea, green tea with chocolate, coffee, coffee with chocolate, and black honey kinako (soy flour). At present, there's a sale and all of these donuts are 100 yen ($1.09) each. That's about as cheap as they tend to get in Japan.

There's a Mister Donut about 9 minutes from our apartment, so we got super fresh ones. From a basic donut perspective, you really couldn't get a nicer basic bit of fried dough. The outside was a little crispy and the inside tender. The top was a little moist on mine where the black honey glaze had sunk in a bit. Before biting in, I gave it a sniff and it smelled like a regular, fresh donut.

At first, the black honey soy donut was sweet, but not incredibly sweet with a mild molasses and sugar-glazed flavor. The kinako added just a hint of soy. The donut became cumulatively sweeter as I ate it and by the end only felt a bit too sweet for my tastes. I had it with coffee, so I wonder if it might be too much if you just ate it without a beverage. I did note that this was one of the more fattening donuts at 328 calories.

Frankly, I don't know what black honey is, but I'm wondering if the glaze has anything to do with honey. Even the basic glazed donuts (both raised and old-fashioned) are called "honey". I wonder if the use of the word honey is just a naming convention. At any rate, this tasted like a mild "black sugar" (molasses/brown sugar) donut with kinako powder sprinkled on it. The flavor combination is very good, though I could have done with a little less sweetness and a little more kinako. I'd definitely recommend trying this though, and would get it again.

Mister Donut is offering desktop pictures for download here. If you'd like to put a food cue on your computer screen that will cause you to want to eat donuts everyday, you'll want to download them.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Pure Plum Gummy

I love the line of Pure gummy candies. I've reviewed a few of them in the past, and have sampled a few that haven't made the blog. The introduction of an ume (plum) version intrigued me because I'm generally a fan of sour Japanese plums and thought there was good potential in the sweet and sour combination in Pure's gummy candy.

These Pure gummies are made similarly to all the other types. They are firm gummies that are slightly tough and covered in citric acid powder. They're both sweet and sour at the same time. With flavors like lemon, blueberry, orange, etc., this works very well. With plum, it didn't work quite so well. Strong plum flavor isn't pleasant. It's like over the top banana flavor in that way. There is a reason that you don't find many people spreading plum jam on their toast or drinking plum juice.

These were okay, and I enjoyed the same sour and sweet mixture that is used in all Pure gummies, but I simply didn't find the plum flavor very pleasant. There's nothing wrong with these, and someone else might find them more pleasant than I. I think I'll stick to more conventional flavors from now on.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Kameda Seika Special Soy Sauce Sembei

These days, the old sembei well has been running dry. Lately, it seems that the only things of interest that I haven't tried are those which are made with shrimp or has little dollops of fake cheese on it and an almond. I hate shrimp, and those little fake cheese ones scare me a little. They look like someone put hardened Cheez Whiz on them. My guess is that I'll get to those scary crackers eventually, but I decided to try some conventional soy sauce (shoyu) style sembei. Often, I shy away from the mainstream items because they seem less interesting than the limited edition products.

Strangely enough, this is a "limited edition" soy sauce sembei. According to the Kameda Seika web site, it'll be around for only 120 days. I'm guessing this is a spring flavor release. Loads of wasabi and pepper showed up in winter and I guess soy sauce is more of a warm weather thing when it comes to rice crackers.

This is promoted as an "original" and "special" sauce. Perhaps I should try it with lettuce, pickles, and onions on a sesame seed bun. Of course, "special sauce" can conjure up all sorts of far less savory associations, but I leave those for Marvo at The Impulsive Buy. He's the king of bodily fluid joke writing. And, I mean that in the best possible way.

In the past, I never cared much for soy sauce sembei because it always seemed too heavy on the salty sauce and too light on complex flavor. These sembei are quite a bit more complex than what I've experienced in the past. They do have that familiar baked rice cracker smell and taste that a lot of people dislike, but the crackers are crisp, fresh, and spicy. They even have a little heat in them that you can really sense by the end of a two-pack of crackers. The spices aren't detailed in the ingredients list (likely to prevent trade secrets from being revealed), but I'm pretty sure I detect garlic and Chinese red chili.

Each bag has 24 crackers and two crackers of about 7 cm. (2.8 in.) in diameter and have 35 calories. These are a bit on the strong side flavor-wise, so they are best consumed with a beverage and in small portions. I count this as a good thing as you can be satisfied with just two or four because they're so flavorful. I recommend them to anyone with a taste for salty and slightly hot sembei.

Monday, January 18, 2010

KitKat Purin (Big Bar)

The role that Japanese KitKats play in my life can be seen by looking at my bookmarks. Nestle Japan's KitKat page is the only manufacturer's web site that is bookmarked, and it's also so frequently accessed that I don't even keep it in a folder. For quick emergency KitKat access, I have to be able to select it from the drop-down menu at a moment's notice. Clearly, Japanese KitKats are far too important to my life and perhaps I should seek some sort of mental health assistance. That being said, if I need some medication, Jen at Jen's KitKat blog needs to be committed. ;-)

My husband picked this bar up at a Family Mart convenience store in Shinjuku and delivered it to my desk. The flavor is based on a form of flan or custard with a type of burnt sugar sauce that is popular in Japan called "purin". The flavor of this big bar mainly carries the caramel notes of the sauce, but also has a little of the sweetness and vanilla flavor of the pudding. Most of the flavor comes through as being sweeter than normal, but it a sugary, grainy way rather than in a throat-burning way. This is actually pretty common in these types of big KitKat bars.

This is my third big KitKat bar and all of the ones with a milk chocolate coating have had similar good points. They have fresh, crispy wafers in abundance and a flavorful chocolate coating which is enhanced just a little by the featured flavor. This one was no different, though I'm not sure I'd want to eat the whole bar at once. It's not only that it's 239 calories, but also that I wonder if the sweetness might be cumulatively too much if it is all eaten at once. In my case, I ate a quarter of it for sampling then stopped at that. I'll have more later if my husband doesn't get to it first.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Variety Friday: KitKat Mug Winner (and a word on a future contest)

I'd like to thank everyone who took the time to enter the contest. I really appreciate it and got some truly excellent entries. I wish I could send everyone a mug, and, if postage weren't an issue, I'd be tempted to at least send a few more out! That being said, the shipping for the prize is going to be $10-$12 so I can only afford to give away one.

It was really tough choosing a winner, but I ultimately decided to give the prize to The Rene Report's entry. I liked the way she presented reading my blog as a way of making good choices when buying expensive imported Japanese snacks and used her personal history to present some of her own information about her favorite Japanese snacks. Thanks, Rene, for your hard work and kind words!

I'd also like to make some "honorable mentions" of a few of the other entries. Tristan's blog entry which also included his history with life in Japan (and talk of being addicted to certain convenience stores, which I can identify with). Also, Ebidebby, who has her own fantastic snack review blog, gave me two clever and helpful plugs. I really appreciated all of the entries though, from the longest ones to the shortest ones.

There will be future contests, though I will make it considerably easier to enter in the future. At the moment, I'm working on something which will relate to the next contest and the prize winner will be chosen by a random number generator rather than by my whims.

Once again, I thank all of my very kind readers for supporting this blog!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Lotte Maple Custard Cake

Based on the choices I make for review, one might assume that Japan has little or no equivalent to Hostess cakes or Little Debbie. While it is certainly the case that there aren't nearly as many preserved cake options in Japan as there are in the U.S., there are often boxes of individually wrapped cakes with cream centers and various styles of icing on offer.

The reason I rarely review them (with a few exceptions including the Morinaga Kyorochan milk cake and Borden condensed milk cakes) is that I don't want to buy a box of six of them and find out I don't like them. Most of them cost around 270 yen ($2.97) and the cakes are small and fatty. Since I review so much junk, I decided awhile ago not to buy any of those big boxes of cakes and that I'd only review them if I could get them as individual portions. Enter this orphaned Lotte Maple Custard cake which I found at AM/PM for 60 yen (66 cents).

The cake smells like maple and has a distinctive cake smell which you encounter with all Japanese cakes of this type. The cake itself tastes like margarine and has a slightly oily texture and leaves a film on your fingers. I'll note that any type of cake like this which is not covered with icing or coating is like this in Japan. It's oddly dry and oily at the same time.

The filling is nicely sweet and has both a maple and caramel flavor. There isn't much of the custard filling and it can't really be tasted as much more than a sweet fatty feeling on the tongue. The maple notes are much more powerful than any custard notes.

This is not a bad cake really. I split it with my husband so that I wouldn't be eating all 116 calories by myself. Both of us thought it was pretty good, but also that we wouldn't buy it again because the cake itself just wasn't doing much for us. Note that this cake is a limited edition for winter. If you're interested in it despite my less than glowing endorsement, you'll have to get it before the cherry blossoms start blooming.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Plus X Cube Citrus Soda Mint Gum

Lotte looked at gum and decided that it was time to bring it into the future. While most gums are in sticks or in little Chicklet-style rounded bricks, Lotte decided that a more sophisticated form would enhance the chewing experience. They have delivered gum in cube form. I'm sure that it got an exclusive in "Chewing" magazine when it was first introduced.

The "Cube" line of gum has been around for awhile, but I've ignored it mainly because most of the flavors haven't really tickled my fancy. This is mainly because they are pairings of citrus flavors with mint and I'm not a fan of things like "muscat mint", "cherry mint", and "apricot mint." When I was searching for gum to keep my throat moist during the dry winter in Tokyo, I came across this citrus soda mint with the hopes that the "mint" element wouldn't be too much to bear.

Besides being, cube-shaped, this gum is also very unusual because the pieces aren't individually wrapped. There are just 10 cubes tossed into the box. The odd thing is that there is a small pad of Post-It notes tucked into the flap under the top of the box. I'm not sure what the office supplies are for, but I suspect that they may be for wrapping up your used gum. Or, perhaps the notion of a "cube" extends to the "cubicle" and therefore relates to working. I rather doubt this though since most Japanese people work in what is called an "open office plan" and do not have partitions between their work spaces. They all just sit next to and across from each other.

The gum has a slightly crunchy exterior and hits you with a burst of "soda" (ramune) and lemony citrus flavor as you bite into the cube. This makes the gum seem sugary, but it's actually made with artificial sweeteners (including Sucralose). The pieces are quite small so some people may feel better chewing two at once. The mint element of it is fairly subdued but discernible. The initial strong flavor goes away at about the same time as the granular, gritty portion of the exterior starts to fade away and the flavor steadily mellows and fades away. I'd say the flavor lasts for about 10 minutes of chewing.

This is by far my favorite gum in Japan because I love the texture. The crunchy outside is very satisfying. It's almost like eating a piece of candy at first. I actually sampled one of the other flavors, apricot mint, because I was so pleased with the texture of this one, but the flavor combination really didn't do it for me. I hope that Lotte puts out more flavor variations, preferably some without mint. For now though, I'm more than happy to buy this again when I'm in need of gum.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Kameda Seika Wasabi Sembei

The inattentive eye probably will not pick up on this little detail, but the package above is open. I usually make an effort to take pictures of the packages before they are open, but I bought this while my husband was off in California visiting his family and he had my camera. I had to be careful about anything I bought during his absence due to not being able to get any snaps.

This wasabi sembei was actually one of the very few things I purchased while he was gone that was appropriate for this blog. I had planned to buy nothing while I was camera-less (and more woefully, husband-less), but I really had a hankering for some sembei and this looked pretty tasty. The generously sized (8 cm./3.2 in.) crackers are covered with little wasabi flakes. Each cracker is 58 calories.

The ingredients list is very long and includes a lot of different spices including various animal product extracts, garlic and onion powder, and, of course, wasabi. The crackers smell of garlic and that along with the wasabi is what hits you the strongest. The wasabi burns your tongue with a hard sting that dissipates fast. That makes it easier to go in for another round. The crackers are fresh and crispy with a very slightly oily exterior that keeps the wasabi flakes and other seasonings sticking to the cracker.

These are very good wasabi crackers and the only thing keeping me from giving them a "very happy" rating is that I wish they were just a little bit more savory and a little less intense on the wasabi. Of course, they are wasabi crackers so it makes sense that that would dominate, but the heat overwhelms the other flavors at times. When I was chewing, I mainly got the burn (and heat up the back of my nose) and the savory flavors tended to mainly linger on my tongue as an aftertaste. Still, all in a all a really good rice cracker which I'd recommend for fans of wasabi without reservation.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Dars Crea Hazelnut Chocolates

I'm going to go on the record and say that Dars is, hands down, the best consumer level chocolate in Japan. People can argue with me about it because tastes vary, but I have never sampled a variety of Dars which wasn't excellent. This particular variety though, is the best of the best. If I were going to let myself run wild, I'd pop in a DVD of a good old pirate movie like Captain Blood and buy two boxes of these and make myself sick.

Also, I'm going to go on record and say that I have no idea why these are called "Crea". If someone has an educated guess, I'd welcome opinions.

The basic concept of Dars is the same for all flavors. It's a smooth chocolate shell with a softer filling. "Smooth" in fact, is the best way to describe all Dars candies. They're exceptionally fine and this is like expensive Gianduja chocolates. I'd say this rivals the Gianduja from Godiva. For those who don't know, that's chocolate made with hazelnut paste.

I found this at a local market for about 120 yen ($1.34) and it was worth every yen. You can probably find these at some places a bit cheaper though. Each little candy is 23 calories and the whole box (44 grams/1.5 oz.), with a dozen pieces, is 280 calories. If you're a fan of hazelnut (or Nutella), find this, buy as much as you can, and save them to comfort you on bad days.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Variety Friday: Starbucks Japan Fukubukuro

My husband buying the "lucky bag" and asking the shop attendant about the availability of such things.

Every year on New Year's Day, you can find a variety of shops in Japan selling "lucky bags" or something equivalent to what we call a grab bag in the United States. Readers who have been with me for a long time or who have read some of the archives may recall that last year I talked about a "fukubako", or "lucky box" which I bought at Mister Donut.

The main idea behind these things is that they are meant to be a bargain. The value of the items in total is supposed to exceed the amount you pay. I've always thought that these things were simply a way of unloading stuff that nobody wanted to buy and that couldn't be unloaded. After all, when that case of purple polka-dot tights isn't moving, you can stuff one in every "lucky bag" and claim that they're a 1000 yen (about $11) value. If your shop carries enough bum goods, you could easily stuff your bags with all of the craptacular inventory that won't move off your shelves and present the collection of embarrassing and distasteful items as "value".

The Mister Donut fukubukuro and fukubako are undeniably one of the best values for your money since you pay 2000 yen ($21.50) and get coupons which allow you to buy 20 donuts. The value of the donuts alone is at least 2000 yen, often more since many donuts are more than 100 yen. You also get a plethora of goodies ranging from kid's toys to dishware. Unfortunately, you also have to stuff yourself with donuts between January 1 and March 31 because the donut coupons run out at the end of March. For this reason, my husband and I decided to give a different shop our "lucky bag" money this year. Since we can never have too much coffee, we decided to try on Starbucks this time around.

Our local Starbucks is in a JR station and only had two of the cloth totes that constitute their "lucky bags" on display. They carry two varieties, one for 5000 yen ($54) and another for 3000 yen ($32) and the more expensive one was sold out. My husband asked how many of each they had on hand and the salesgirl told him they had 20 of the pricier ones and 30 of the cheaper ones. She also said that that was all they had period so we got the next to the last one for the season. Note that we arrived at 12:30 or so on January 1st so they did not last long.

As for the contents of the bag, they gave us three 70-gram (2.5 oz.) bags of ground coffee (Verona, House Blend, and Sumatra), two coupons in gift cards good for any drink of any size, a double-decker bento box, a very small and thin lap rug in a Starbucks cup cloth holder, and a small fair trade African woven cloth tote bag. The value would break down something like this:
  • 3 small bags of coffee: ~1000 yen
  • 2 drink coupons: a maximum of 1000 yen (biggest, most expensive drinks being purchased)
  • double-decker bento box: ~100 yen without the Starbucks motif, to be charitable, let's say 300 yen
  • African fair trade cloth tote bag : a maximum of 1000 yen
  • Starbucks cloth tote bag: a maximum of 1000 yen
  • lap blanket and mug: ~300 yen
Technically, the value of the goods exceeded the cost, but realistically, two tote bags, neither of which is large enough to really shop with are not of much use and both are overpriced as retail items. Their true value is closer to 500 yen each. I also think it's absurd to put another tote bag in the main tote as a means of adding value.

The Starbucks 3000-yen "lucky bag" was a big disappointment to us. We would have preferred more coffee, more coupons, or at least some reusable Starbucks cups to the silly lap rug, and second tote, or even the bento box. At least the bento box is arguably useful though. It's actually a pretty nice size and has chopsticks snapped into the top of the bottom box. The main thing is that my husband doesn't eat traditional Japanese bento lunches and I work from home so it's not of great utility to us personally.

I wouldn't recommend the lucky bags at Starbucks if you're looking to take part in the spirit of the season during New Year's and pick up a lucky bag. Next year, I'm thinking we'll pick up something at a different place. If you can eat a lot of donuts, the Mister Donut box is still the best bet.

Quick update: I found someone who posted about the 2010 Mister Donut fukubako if you'd like to see them (there appear to be two different ones), they're here and here. It's rather similar to last year's haul.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Contest Reminder (1 week left)

This is just a quick (and brief) reminder that the contest to win the Japanese KitKat 5-sided mug has one week left at this point. I've gotten some super entries so far, but there is time left for others to get a chance.

Details of how to enter the contest are here.

Thanks for reading!

Yuzukoshō Gourmet Cheetos

Cross-cultural differences are usually recognized mainly when they are broad and obvious like the fact that Japanese people bow and Americans shake hands. One of the reasons I continue to be interested in Japan (or other cultures for that matter) is that I want to know and understand the subtle differences. I think that the aggregate of those types of differences paints a more detailed and vivid portrait of a different culture than the most obvious differences.

What does this have to do with something as pedestrian as Cheetos? Well, this bag of Yuzukoshō (a fermented spicy seasoning made with Japanese citrus fruit like a lemon and chili peppers) salted corn snack has as a selling point that it contains 100% dark meat pork extract. It fascinates me that this point is so appealing that it's put on the front of the bag in fairly prominent letters. The Japanese clearly value the origin of their pork extracts more than I do.

My husband quickly grabbed these Cheetos, a 70 gram (2.5 oz.) bag, at our local 99 yen store while snapping up other interesting-looking goodies. He didn't pay much attention to what it said. The skewers of grilled meat pictured on the package suckered him in. If he had known it was yuzu and chili, he wouldn't have bought it.

When you open the bag, the strongest scent is of the chili, but also black pepper. The Cheetos look to be liberally sprinkled with it. The flavor is very intense in four layers. There is the sourness of the yuzu, the heat of the pepper and chili, salt, and also sugar. The mix of sweet and salty with sour is actually quite nice, but the sweetness component (which is actually the sweetener Stevia) is amped up a bit too high for my tastes. In general, I like very strong flavors, but this tastes a bit too close to a spice bomb for me. My husband also felt the flavor was too "sharp". These would probably be better if the flavors were at about 70% of their current intensity.

In the end, we'll eat the whole bag (386 calories) because they're not bad at all. I'm guessing they'd be better with a drink of some sort close and hand or as an accompaniment to food so that you could give your taste buds a rest.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Pom Juice Hi-Chew

My main exposure to the word "pom" comes from watching the Bruces sketch in Monty Python's flying circus where Terry Jones is introduced as a "pommy bastard" to the Australian yokels. Yes, you may conclude that I am a gigantic geek for this, but what would one expect from someone who writes a blog about Japanese junk food?

Given the meaning of this word in England, I wondered why the Japanese have named an orange juice "Pom". The truth is that the romanization of the Japanese characters (ポンジュス) used to be and can be read as "Pon", but it was changed to "Pom" at some point because the name is based on pomelo, a type of citrus fruit. One thing I learned from my research into this candy is that tangelos, which I used to eat in the U.S., are a hybrid of tangerine and pomelo.

At any rate, Pom juice has been around for about 40 years, but I've rarely seen it or drunk it. It's a 100% fruit juice made by a company named Ehime Inryo. This candy is a collaboration between that company and the better-known food producer, Morinaga. My husband found this at "New Days" convenience store for about 100 yen ($1.10). He couldn't recall if this was one of the many New Days exclusives, but I haven't seen it in any other, convenience stores, markets or snack shops.

There are 12 pieces at 19 calories apiece in the package. They smell a lot like children's orange baby aspirin to me, without the medicinal edge. The taste to me was pure tasty, but sweet, orange juice. My husband thought it tasted more like an orange Creamsicle, but I didn't detect any of the vanilla ice cream flavors that he seemed to taste. This had the same texture as all Hi-Chew, like chewing gum that melts away in your mouth.

I thought this was an excellent Hi-Chew, though I'm not a fanatic about these types of candies no matter how good the variety is. I'd definitely eat this again and my husband really liked it so it gets a happy sumo rating despite the fact that I'm unlikely to purchase it for myself again.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Love Mode Ginger Zero

This soft drink has been around for awhile, but I've been too cheap to pay 147 yen for it. When it finally showed up in the local 99 yen shop, I took the plunge. This is one of those absurdly named and oddly designed items which is almost certainly going to be all potatoes and no meat, all style and no substance, and whatever else you want to add which conveys the idea that it looks exciting on the outside and is going to be boring on the inside.

I figure that any drink that is trying so hard to look exciting has to have little going for it. Beyond the bling-like design of the name on the front of the label, there is a sexually suggestive leather zipper on the side of the bottle which runs along the perforation on the plastic sleeve where you tear it and remove it. Also, pink ginger ale? Pink? For those who don't know, pink is generally seen as a color associated with sex in Japan. I think this is intentional design to try and make this drink look, well, sexier.

I didn't take a shot of the drink in a glass because you can see through the bottle. Suntory promotes this as being "sweet and dry". This is actually truth in promotion. It's a little sweeter than Canada Dry ginger ale and has a dry finish. It's made with a cocktail of artificial sweeteners including acesulfame K, Sucralose, and aspartame. Unlike most of the diet drinks I've tried in Japan, you can't detect the sweeteners so obviously. Note that I am accustomed to diet sodas and may not be able to taste them as clearly as someone who doesn't tend to drink them so often.

My response to this is a bit mixed. I think it's a good sugar-free ginger ale blend, but the ginger part is somewhat subdued. I actually liked it better as a stand-alone drink than Diet Canada Dry ginger ale and if they were both the same price and I had a choice and I didn't want to mix it with something (and I sometimes mix with orange juice), I'd go for this. I wish it weren't pink though. I keep thinking it should be tropical punch when I drank it.