I've been resisting the urge to write about local Asian/Japanese markets because I know that most of my readers cannot access the same places that I can. Of course, that was true when I lived in Japan as well, and it didn't stop me from writing about such places there. My mind is a strange and inconsistent place at times.
Nijiya is a small chain of markets that almost exclusively carries Japanese items with the odd American item thrown in to fill a niche. There are ten of them, and all but one are located in California. I am fortunate in that two are relatively close and two others are within a reasonable driving distance. Each is a little different and seems to cater to slightly varying tastes among their consumers.
The prices at Nijiya are more expensive than those in Japan, of course. This is to be expected since imports are always costlier than domestic items. When I lived in Japan, imports from other countries cost more there as well. Generally, the prices I see there are in line with the retail prices (not the common sale prices, which are lower than retail) in Tokyo, plus perhaps 10%-20% in some cases. One example of this is the bags of mini KitKats. They are $6-7 at Nijiya (unless on sale or special), and the retail price in Japan is 500 yen and you can get them on sale for as little as 250 yen if you're lucky (and if they're near the end of their life cycle).
The snack selection is always my main interest at Nijiya, of course, though they do carry a wide variety of other items like personal care goods, cooking items, fresh fruit and vegetables, and canned and jarred items. There is also a frozen section (which includes taiyaki and imagawayaki and Japanese frozen treats like ice pops and ice cream) and some "fresh" items like "roll cake" (Swiss cake roll), steam cake, and cream puffs. The more reasonably priced (close to Japanese prices) items tend to be made by Japanese companies (like Shirakiku) for the U.S. market rather than imported from Japan.
Each of the Nijiya branches is a different size. The one that I visit most often is in Mountain View and they have hand-made cream puffs (chou cream) and often have tiny little samples in plastic cups. They also carry a selection of manju made fresh at a confectioner. They also usually carry a lot of souvenir boxes of cookies, sembei, and Japanese sweets (often appropriate for the season) at prices that are too rich for my blood.
The smallest one that I occasionally visit is in Japan Town in San Jose. Due to their size limits, their selection tends to be more limited. The reason that I've decided to write a bit about Nijiya is that I had an opportunity to speak with the woman in charge of ordering snacks at the San Jose branch and was able to ask her a few questions. The woman's name was Maki, and she was very accommodating with requests. She also didn't freak out when I was taking pictures of the displays. In fact, that was how she started talking to me. She said it was the first time she'd seen someone shopping with a camera and that's when I told her that I had this blog.
Maki speaks Japanese fluently and has a Japanese name, but she looks like a grey-eyed, pale-skinned, light-brown-haired "foreigner". She looks more like she grew up in Germany or Minnesota despite her name. She told me that her grandmother was Japanese and that is how she got the Japanese name. Her appearance has caused her some issues on the job. She said that sometimes Japanese customers will come in and approach one of the Asian-looking employees expecting them to speak Japanese. When these employees, who are of Philippine or Chinese descent, summon her to handle the customer's requests, the customers say, "no, no, no!" They hear with their eyes, not their ears.
I asked Maki some questions about the selection at Nijiya. Obviously, they order what sells the most and I asked her why they didn't carry Tirol Premium chocolates anymore as the last time I got one there as in late 2012. She said they just didn't sell. My guess is that most people did not know what they were as they don't have enough press to be popular and well-known by American consumers. Since they are sometimes interesting flavors, and sell for about 50 cents (such a cheap little morsel), I was disappointed to hear that. She asked if I'd want to buy an entire box, but the truth is that I can't really promise that. I don't know if she can order them just so I can pick up a few, but it'd be nice if she could.
I was interested in what sort of snacks sold the best there and, unsurprisingly, it is green tea KitKats. She said that young kids came in and asked for them. They are good, mind you, but the selection of KitKats is so boring these days, especially considering the only flavors I tend to see are "adult sweetness" versions - usually white, semi-sweet, green tea, and strawberry. Since I am interested in trying the baked KitKats, I asked Maki about those and she said she's trying hard to order them in, but there are hang-ups with bringing in any new product. The main issue she said is that there are sometimes additives or chemicals which are not allowed in the U.S. I found this surprising because American candy seems to have more artificial crap in it than Japanese stuff (especially dyes). However, I'm sure each country has its list of acceptable and unacceptable ingredients.
Finally, I asked Maki what flavors she liked best. She wanted me to clarify if I wanted to know about sweet or savory and I asked for both. Her favorite savory variety is yuzu koshoo and I was delighted because that is one of my biggest loves as well. She pointed out some Calbee chips that were yuzu koshoo which I had missed, though, there was only one bag left. Maki said there were more in the back, but she didn't have room to put them out yet.
As for her favorite sweet snack, she pointed to the Earl Grey MeltyKiss/blend. Though I can't say it's my favorite sweet, I did review it favorably and am generally a big fan of the MeltyKiss/Blend line. It's far superior to the more popular Pocky and KitKat options.
If you're in the area, I'd highly recommend stopping by the Nijiya markets. They've got a great selection of items and, though they are more expensive than you'd get in Tokyo, they're still massively cheaper than a plane ride there. ;-) To follow what is new and interesting, you can connect with them via Facebook. The page for the San Jose branch is here. If you visit, say "hi" to Maki.