Nippon-ya did a survey and this box of sweets was their most popular. I can see why that is the case if only based on the packaging. It has beautiful wrapping and wrappers. The fact that I even think about things like that shows just how much I became affected by the culture of style over substance while living in Japan. I was once like you, dear reader, and felt that this sort of business that makes things look pretty was wasteful. What really matters is what is inside, right? Right?
I don't know if Japan changed me or if age did, but I really was excited to try these based on the variety of content as well as the packaging. The main difference between what I bought in Japan and these are that they are very, very small. In fact, I was stunned at how tiny they are as they are about half the size of what I'd get in Japan.
If nothing else, the packages are fairly descriptive of the contents so you don't have the same problem you have when deciding which chocolates have whatever filling in a box of candy in the U.S.
Anko (red bean paste):
This is the most old-fashioned of options for mochi so I didn't expect it to have an aroma, and it did not. It's a classic pairing of flavorless, chewy mochi with red bean paste in the middle. Since these are small sweets, it's a little hard to know for sure, but I think this has tsubu an or coarse ("pebbly") bean paste in the middle. The mochi is nice and chewy and the powder on the outside makes it sweet before you taste the filling. The filling is earthy and slightly grainy. I noticed the "chew" on the mochi on this one was a bit tougher, but not in a bad way. It is just a bit thicker and less fine than in some other sweets. I liked this in the way that I like Reese's peanut butter cups. It's a classic, old-fashioned combo that hits familiar notes.
This one was very similar to the anko one except the filling is finer, slightly sweeter, and less earthy. The "beany" nature just whispers at you rather than announces itself firmly and definitively. This is more of a textural pleasure than anything else. I love the feeling of the bean paste on my tongue and the chew of the mochi. However, this was definitely the least impressive flavor-wise of the bunch.
It's hard to believe that the Japanese don't use artificial colors when you see something like this sakura mochi. It's a bordering on radioactive pink. It's the kind of thing that even the most twee princess might find a bit much for her tastes. Nonetheless, I hear you can do marvelous things with beet juice, and perhaps that, rather than fallout from Fukushima, is responsible for the coloration.
The first thing I did was give this a whiff expecting it to smell heavily of "cherry blossom". It didn't smell like anything, surprisingly. The flavor, on the other hand, was very intense. It was quite sweet and very floral. In fact, the taste bordered on "soapy." I'm betting it wasn't even all that sweet, but that cloying flavor upped the sense of it being more sugary than it was. Sakura isn't generally my favorite, but I did enjoy the Sakura Harajuku mochi. This was okay, but definitely hit more of the notes that make sakura something I tend not to seek out.
This was the only mochi with a scent. In fact, as soon as I cut open the package, I smelled the sesame seeds. It smells awesome and the seeds lend a wonderful nutty flavor to the sweet. It also gives it a nice crunchy exterior. The first bite was completely overwhelmed by the sesame flavor, but the second brought out the beans. This was far and away my favorite of the group, though I can't say that I disliked any of them.
In terms of this assortment, the main point that I noticed is that the Harajuku Mochi was softer and fresher in feel, or made differently. These had a more elastic chew. I'm inclined to believe that they are just a differently made mochi because they seemed quite fresh. Mochi that is going stale tends to get a bit hard and these were in no way hard, though one of them had a few cracks in the side (not from drying out, but from torsion).
I liked this, and I do not regret buying it at all. It's a solid group of old-fashioned flavor combinations, but I probably wouldn't order it again for several years. One of the things that I heard time and again while binge-watching "The Great British Bake-off" was that, if you do a classic, it has to be superb and perfect. These are solid, but they are not superb and perfect. That being said, since I hadn't had these types of sweets for a long time, I was really grateful to have them on hand for the duration of the box. It'll just take awhile for nostalgia to enter the equation again. I also think that these are close to ideal if you want to give someone a box of manju as a souvenir or gift.
Where I bought it: Nippon-ya (San Francisco)
Weight: 14.5 oz.
Price: I don't recall exactly, but I think it was $14.95