Thursday, March 31, 2011

Fujiya Look Crispy Chocolate Snack Assort

When I was a child, I used to anthropomorphize everything. To those who didn't study General Psychology, or washed it all out of their brain with beer after taking the final exam, that means I used to assign human feelings and attributes to inanimate objects. To that end, I'd feel sad for things which were not popular or unwanted. I'd feel guilty when a toy didn't get played with, and this was before "Toy Story" put the notion into people's heads that toys lead animated and interesting lives when their owner isn't around.

Walking around the closest convenience store and its quake-induced-panic-buying decimated shelves, I looked at the sad sacks of unpurchased snacks and felt a little of that old sense of anthropomorphism. I felt bad for the Hello Kitty chocolate-covered puffs that resembled Styrofoam in the cutaway image, and for these bags of Look chocolates. What did they do to be left out of the disaster-induced-hoarding love? Meiji chocolate bars are definitely the teacher's pet of earthquake shoppers. Perhaps Fujiya doesn't inspire notions of soundness and shelf stability. I blame the Fujiya Girl with her lolling tongue and somewhat goggly eyes. Nobody wants to see that in a crisis.

Honestly, I don't know why these were left behind as I'd actually bought a package of the chocolate wafers that make up half of the bag before and liked them. For 100 yen ($1.24), this was a nice portion (18 pieces about the size of an American dime or one-yen coin) of candy for the price and, hey, chocolate! Each is individually wrapped and about a bite unless you're me and then it's two bites because you need a picture of the inside of the candy for your blog.

The main selling point for these is that they've got crispy innards under their layers of milk chocolate, and they do live up to that. The flavor of Fujiya chocolates is rather unique compared to other Japanese chocolates and one that I've come to recognize after sampling other offerings. It's hard to explain what that flavor is, but it's just a hint of a floral chemical taste. It's not offensive, but it is distinctive.

Yes, I had to bite them in half for a cutaway. The chocolate is too thick to cut through them with a knife. It makes for bad pictures, but tasty chocolates!

The candies themselves are pretty run of the mill decent quality consumer level chocolate covered wafer offerings in two varieties: "crepe" (22 calories) and "wafer" (24 calories). In terms of taste, the wafers, which have a tiny sugar wafer inside, have a little more sweetness because of the cream filling. The wafers themselves have a somewhat wheaty and earthy flavor which adds some distinction between the two candies. The "crepe" version has a mild waffle cone flavor going on. Both are mainly about the milk chocolate though.

I am not doing handsprings over these, but I liked them because I adore chocolate-covered crispy things and wafers in particular. I also love milk chocolate. This is not a unique offering or something for connoisseurs who want something that challenges or enlivens the palate. They are a decent pedestrian candy though, and I'd buy them again even if the shelves weren't picked over by quake panic shoppers.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Random Picture 56

I'm doing two pictures of beverages in a row as random pictures but this one rather stands apart from last week's picture. This curious display of shapely water bottles was on offer at a shop for people that aims mostly for consumers that are young enough to be my offspring called Village Vanguard. Each is 367 yen ($4.50) for what looks to be less than 500 ml. I'm wondering if even these, with their hyper-inflated prices, sold out during the great radiative water fear of the past week.

Personally, I like how the price tag seems to be censoring the front of Superman's tights. ;-)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Befco Camembert Cheese Kakimochi

Camembert cheese is one of the  most popular and common types of non-processed cheese in Japan. You can often buy it in little boxes for between 350-500 yen ($4.33-$6.17). In the most common offering, there's a little circular plastic tray protecting a small (100 gram/3.5 oz.) round of softish Camembert. You can buy these pretty much everywhere, including convenience stores. For foreign folks who find processed cheese to be the spawn of the devil, it's often the only option.

It's my best guess that Camembert is a popular "real" cheese because it's mild and fatty, two food attributes that are popular in Japan. I've read that pizza was originally unpopular in Japan because the cheese was too stringy, stinky and pungent. The fact that mature cheddar is much harder to find and more expensive would seem to support the notion that strong cheeses, though much more common than before, are still less favored than mild ones.

This sembei seeks to transfer a flavor which is incredibly mild to begin with to the exterior of a 24-calorie salted snack. The crackers are nicely crispy and the way they are scored gives them some convenient breaking points and provides a nice visual sense. The powder on the outside isn't voluminous, but it's still enough to have you rubbing your fingers to get it off. They smell slightly of pungent cheese, but the first bite is really more buttery than cheesy. Only toward the end of one cracker do you start to detect a cheesier flavor. It obviously needs to build up on the tongue and get some momentum before it takes on enough critical flavor mass to matter. The saltiness level also seems to take a few crackers to kick in. If you're a fan of pigging out, you're probably going to find these a lot more appealing than me, but I generally stop at two.

These were fine, and I'd even buy them again if they were a mere 69 yen (85 cents) for 12 decently sized crackers. I got these for that paltry sum at a discount snack shop along with the previously reviewed soy sauce flavor of the same type of cracker. However, the decision to buy them in that case would be based merely on the fact that these are serviceable salty snacks and not because the flavor really blew me away.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Samba Kisses Better

Samba Kisses Better has to be one of the worst names I've ever come across for a product. It's too long, not the least bit descriptive, and frankly sounds dumb. I have to wonder if the name  makes more sense in Denmark, the home of GEI Corporation and maker of this treat.  

Samba Kisses Better are currently being marketed rather aggressively in Japan. They aren't widely available in basic markets or convenience stores, but they are being sold at stands outside of major stations, in department stores, and at select shops. I have found them at National Azabu Supermarket in Hiroo, Village Vanguard in Koenji and at Okashi no Marche discount snack shop. They have a FaceBook page which details exactly where you can find them in Japan. Though the company originated in Denmark, they currently have a main office in Yokohama and are clearly situating themselves to be a bigger player in the Japanese confection market.

I've known about Samba Kisses Better for quite awhile, and have bought them at least 4 times as of writing this post. I never considered reviewing them because I didn't think they seemed "Japanese" enough, but the truth is that this product is not available worldwide and is being sold here more and more. If you live in Japan, you may have seen it on offer for between 350-400 yen ($4.33) per 6-pack, and not known what you were missing.

The exterior of a Samba Kisses Better is a wafer thin shell of moderately dark and every so slightly bittersweet chocolate surrounding a sweet, cloud-like filling of whipped egg whites and sugar. The interior is like the fluffiest, lightest, tastiest marshmallow you can imagine perched on a super thin wafer base. The slightly crispy shell of the chocolate makes a delightful contrast to the almost whipped cream-like interior, though it can be messy to eat as the high dome means you may get the cream on your nose when trying to bite into it. The base, incidentally, is not a hard wafer and really doesn't do much other that provide structure to keep this from collapsing when you eat it. That's okay because the chocolate and foamy filling do all of the heavy lifting on both the taste and texture front. Note that there is no nutritional information on the package, but I tracked down a page on the web (not GEI Corporation's) which claimed that these have 77 calories each. That sounds about right for the size and sweetness.

This is absolutely a hit with me because I love marshmallow and meringue and this is like the most glorious love child of those two elements ever. I can't imagine that anyone could make this style treat any better than this. If you like chocolate-covered marshmallows, then this is the caviar version of it and I strongly recommend tracking some down.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Variety Friday: Radioactive Food and Drink in Japan

One of many vending machines that are sold out of bottled water (the red tells you that it's empty). I imagine that there's not a drop of water to drink in any vending machine in Tokyo right now.

Several months ago, one of my students caught a cold which was capped off with a lingering cough. When I mentioned to her that I'd also had colds which dissipated and left a cough behind, she asked me what I had done about it. I told her, "nothing". She then asked me, in total earnestness, how one could get better if one did not go to a doctor. After a moment of surprise, I said, "the human body can fix itself."

While my student was aware of the idea of an immune system and what it does, there's a deep sense among Japanese people that you need to have a doctor and medication "fix" you when you get sick. In some cases, obviously, this is true. Serious injuries or illnesses require medical intervention, but a human body with a healthy immune system can "right" many physical "wrongs" all on its own with a little time and with proper maintenance of said body (exercise, good nutrition, etc.).

Our bodies are bombarded by toxins, poisons, and biological threats like bacteria and viruses every moment of our lives. Yes, they are even dealing with radiation all of the time. Fans of bananas are actually putting more radioactive material in their bodies than consumers of other types of foods as bananas are higher in radiation than most comestibles. Fortunately, our bodies manage to process most damage, if there is any, from common forms of radiation.

As of March 22, there has been a new panic because of higher levels of radioactive particles in the Tokyo tap water. This was almost certainly the result of the first rain since the quake and resulting nuclear crisis in Fukushima. Those who know about the effects of such incidents expected this to happen. In fact, I knew full well what was coming and was hoping the rain would hold off a little longer in order to keep the next freak out at bay. The bottleneck in supply created by supply line issues, needs in disaster-stricken areas, panic-buying and hoarding was just starting to clear up and this sent everyone into a spin again.

The fear about the food and water supply is based in realistic concerns. After all, most of the serious health consequences related to Chernobyl were not related to radiation exposure in the area itself, but to consumption of tainted food and drink. However, that situation was dramatically different in that the effects of that disaster were hidden and people were exposed unnecessarily to radiation at high levels for a long period of time. In Japan, the authorities have a much higher standard to adhere to, and a different type of government. The chances that the food and drink would be allowed to be contaminated at a level that would threaten the health of the population are zero.

My conclusion about the danger has nothing to do with confidence in the Japanese government and their desire to "do the right thing". In fact, the Japanese have already shown in their history that they will cover up health threats if they think they can get away with it. The bottom line here is that "getting away with it" in this particular case is going to be nearly impossible. Not only do you have average citizens armed with Geiger counters reporting on radiation levels and access to the various social networks and outlets of the internet, but you also have international entities (world governments, the IAEA) watching intently. The fact that the U.S. Embassy, which isn't prone to spamming people, has been e-mailing me regularly about the developments is evidence of that. With so many eyes upon them, and with some of the threat directed at Tokyo, home of many foreign businesses and embassies as well as the capital and government offices and officials, the government can't afford to lie. They would be caught in any act of deceit within minutes of uttering such falsehoods and the price Japan would pay economically would be nothing short of catastrophic as no one would ever trust their products again nor the safety of coming to this country. They would make their goods and country (but not their people) the equivalent of international pariahs.

Much is being made about the fact that the amount of radioactive Iodine in tap water in Tokyo was over the limit Japan has set for infants and uncomfortably edging too close for comfort to the limit set for adults. Currently, Japan allows 300 becquerels per kilogram for adult consumption and 100 bq/kg for infants. The levels at one Tokyo water purification plant had reached 210 bq/kg, which sounds scarily close to the adult limit when you're already jittery about radiation. However, it's important to keep in mind that Japan has very strict limits, far stricter than most other regulatory bodies in other countries. The irony of this is that Japan set this low limit not to protect its own citizens from radiation, but rather to apply those standards to imported products from other countries. It's almost certainly the case that they never expected those standards to come back and bite them in the ass in their own backyard as I'm sure they felt they wouldn't suffer any sort of nuclear accidents due to their attention to safety. They just didn't figure on a 9.0 quake near enough to a reactor to put them in this position.

One part of all of this which has helped me cope is that I studied basic chemistry and have a rudimentary knowledge about radiation and radioactive particles. The Iodine-131 that is in the water has a half life of 8 days. That means that it will decay to half the current levels after a little over a week and then half again after that and so on. The danger is short-lived and bearable provided that a great deal more radiation isn't spewing out of the reactors through a prolonged period of time. If the crisis in Fukushima is resolved or at least continues to get no worse, the radiation levels will rapidly drop through time. The likelihood that overall radiation levels will shoot back up again is low considering that it's unlikely (though, not impossible) that TEPCO will lose control such that the situation is set back to square one.

As of the time this post has been written, the levels in Tokyo water have dropped back down to levels that are safe for infants after just one day as the rain has slowed down and the initial onslaught that the first rain brought has been dispersed. If you want to know when it's time to panic and run away, it will be when high levels of Cesium are found in the water or when atmospheric or Iodine levels in the water consistently go up for a prolonged period of time. Cesium has a half life of 32 years, and is a far greater concern. We're not there yet. My guess is that we'll never get there, but I do remain attentive to changes.

Saying that we are currently not exposed to any health threats is not the same as saying, "don't worry, be happy." Only a fool would be sanguine about the notion of consuming water or food with radioactive particles in it, but there is discomfort and concern and then there is overreacting. I'm not happy about radioactive water, but I'm also not happy that the tap water I drink used to have human waste in it and has been filtered and treated to make it safe to consume. I'm also not happy about pollution, pesticides, and chemicals in my food, water and air, but like the rest of the people of the world residing in advanced cultures I accept that the levels at which these things occur is not fatal and that the toxicity can be filtered out by the mechanisms that regularly protect my body.

We are poisoned by various substances everyday and the body recovers. Right now, I consider remaining in Tokyo similar to being in a starvation situation and eating slightly moldy bread for a few months to survive. It's not good for me and certainly places strain on my kidneys or liver for awhile, but it's not going to kill me. The radiation in the air and water is not good for me, but I believe it is at a level which the body can tolerate and recover from provided the exposure ends and a healthier environment returns. Obviously, it is important to track the progress of the situation, and if it carries on for a long period of time, even low level exposure should be cause for more serious concern and a reassessment of the prudence of remaining.

It's not a good thing to tax your body in this fashion, but it is part of what it copes with everyday in varying ways through a wide variety of experiences. Our bodies generally do quite well when one is relatively healthy and hearty. My decision to remain in Japan despite the problems we've been having are based on knowing the extremely low probability that I'll even be exposed to toxic levels of radiation in the food, water and air, let alone deadly ones. The bottom line is that I have confidence that unless my bodily systems are overwhelmed by the duration or quantity of radiation (which is not a point we're at yet by a long shot) that "the human body can fix itself."

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Sumo White Bean Cakes

My husband and I are sumo fans from our earliest days in Japan. In fact, that was how he learned a lot of his kanji (Chinese characters), and sumo characters are the ones I best recognize to this day. Though to non-sumo fans of any nationality (Japanese folks included), it may seem odd to find a couple of naked fat guys bumping into each other for about 20 seconds interesting as sport, I can promise you that it's far more sophisticated than it appears. It can't all be about overweight men slamming up against each other and emanating homoerotic undertones...

Actually, I'm not really one for making sumo jokes. In fact, I boycotted the Tokyo Metropolis magazine for nearly a decade for a horrible article on sumo written by someone who talked about "fat faggots" and generally displayed no understanding of the sport whatsoever. In the wake of so many scandals in sumo (fixed bouts or yaocho being the big one), it's hard to feel quite so strongly attached to it. Still, trust me when I say that it was once an incredible experience watching sumo. There were players whose skill and dignity were absolutely awesome, and I hope that one day there will be again.

I have been to Japan's national stadium (kokugikan) in Ryogoku many times to watch sumo bouts, but I haven't gone lately. My husband attended a tournament with some friends and I asked that he bring me back one things, a box of bean cakes. Being the dutiful husband that he is, he delivered. The box comes gift-wrapped, as these are intended mainly as a souvenir that people who attend a day of sumo bring back to share with those who didn't go with them. The box lid has a sumo ring (dohyo) motif and some cut out wrestlers and a referee inside so you can play after you enjoy your bean cake. Since these are souvenirs, there is no nutrition information about them on the box.

The cakes themselves are made by one of the many companies in Japan that have no real presence or image, but acts in the service mainly of providing products for more high profile clients. I've lost the packaging, but I did investigate their web site and they only offer products for sale at the Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo, so, if you want these, you'll need to attend a tournament (which I recommend anyway) or ask someone who can attend one to pick you up a box (9 cakes for 2000 yen/$24.76), and, yes, you will want them to buy you one. These are terrific.

There are varieties of sweet bean "jam" in Japan, and the white kinds are finer and usually sweeter than the red ones. The flavor of these cakes quite sweet, but not cloyingly so, with a surprising and well-balanced taste of actual honey. The beans themselves mainly lend an almost fudgey texture and a nice heft, though you can taste them, too. Keep in mind that these beans don't taste like kidney beans, lima beans, etc. They aren't super "beany". So, don't be turned off by the presence of beans.

The outer shell is a soft but flexible cake which has a lovely baked smell. Sometimes white bean cakes are very dry and almost powdery, but there is none of that nonsense with these. I also personally believe these are a very "approachable" bean cake for Western palates. That is to say that the would not be considered too "weird" for fussy eaters who aren't open-minded about what they eat.

I wish I could offer an easier way to get your hands on these than to go to a day of sumo, but some things are pretty specialized. Since both are unique Japanese cultural experiences that I feel are worthwhile, I'd say time any trip to Tokyo such that you can see the sumo, and treat yourself to a box of these delicious cakes.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Random Picture 55

So, it's come to this. The idea that there is bottled water on the market shelves is so novel that I'm posting a picture of it. As of this posting, the situation at Japanese Tokyo markets is starting to improve. Though there are still large gaps in stock, and toilet paper is still a rare and valuable commodity, most food and drink is generally available in some quantities. It probably doesn't hurt that stores have started to restrict the quantity of items that are popular in the post-quake/nuclear-scare panic-buying and  hording. The signs in front of these say that each customer is limited to buying two 2-liter bottles of water and six 500-milliliter bottles. It's my hope that this means people are settling down a bit, and life is returning to normal.

Update: As of this afternoon, it was announced that levels of Iodine-131 in tap water in Tokyo was tested at a level which is unsafe for infants but within the safety margin for adults. This is almost certainly due to the fact that we had our first rainfall since the situation in Fukushima went sour. Radioactive particles in the atmosphere washed into the drinking water supply. The level was 210 Bq/kg  and the limit in Japan is 300 for adults (note that other regulatory entities and countries have higher limits than Japan). I expect this will set off a new round of panic-buying of bottled water and beverages as people will freak out over this news. :-p I was lucky to get this shot between rounds of panic purchasing.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Meiji Chip Chop

There's a scene in the Simpsons where Bart asks his father what a muppet is and his father says,"Well, it's not quite a mop, not quite a puppet, but man... So, to answer you question, I don't know." That is where I'm at mentally on how to classify Meiji's "Chip Chop" snack. It's not quite a chip, not quite a chop. So, I don't know.

I'm not sure what inspired the name of this product, but frankly, it comes across as vaguely racist to me for reasons I'm not entirely sure of. It could be that somewhere in the recesses of my twisted and sugar-addled brain (hey, I have to eat the Chip Chop to review it), I'm associating the name quite inappropriately with "chopsocky" movies, a term applied to Hong Kong martial arts movies which is generally considered racist. 

Getting to the Chip Chop and away from my febrile free associations, the best way I can describe this is a menage a trois between pie, cracker, and cookie. Meiji describes this as ultra-thin dough which has chocolate sandwiched between it. That's a good basic description of the process, but it doesn't account for the way the dough seems to be a little flaky like pie, but to not chip apart or crumble like most pie-based foods. It has the tensile properties of a cracker and the crunch and flavor of a crispy cookie.

The beauty in this is in both the rich chocolate flavor combined with a perfect sprinkling of salt and the crispy texture that makes you almost feel like you're eating a potato chip. The only thing that mars a nearly sublime snack experience is a bit of an odd taste which I associate with processed chocolate. I think it's the same thing which scares me away from crispy chocolate chip cookies as it's common in them. That being said, it didn't put me off of these at all and I am inclined to eat them again.

One 30-gram (about 1 oz.) bag of Chip Chop has 155 calories and is well worth it if you decide to forgo the potato chips in favor of something sweet. It is pretty much a trade-off nutritionally. I got these in my New Year's fukubukuro, so I'm not sure of the retail price but I'd be surprised if they weren't commonly available for 100-130 yen ($1.22-$1.60) for this size. I've seen larger bags than this on offer. 

If you're not put off by the possibility of a certain preserved flavor to your chocolate, I'd strongly recommend giving these a try even if you may have to get them a little more expensively via an importer. The combination of sweet and salty coupled with the satisfying texture is worth a little extra cost. 

Monday, March 21, 2011

Bourbon Petit Chili Tomato Crackers

In the wake of quake-buying frenzy, I've found that my snack options are somewhat limited. That is not to say that I don't have many options, but rather that they aren't quite as "limitless" under current conditions. At the moment, I'm at greater risk of not having something to wipe my behind with than running out of snack blog fodder. Frankly, for a country that is mad about washlets, I don't understand why they need so much toilet paper. Getting back to the point though, sembei or rice crackers tend to be pretty popular purchases right now as it is good for hoarding, but Bourbon recently released several additions and revamps to their line of "Petit" snacks and my local supermarket had refilled their supply on a day in which I was especially jonesing for salty snack goodness. I chose several interesting looking new specimens and revisited an old favorite, Cheese Rich arare.

The Bourbon Petit line offers sleeves of small snacks, usually around the diameter of a 100-yen coin or American quarter. They offer both sweet and savory options that sell for about 100 yen per package, though these were available for a mere 78 yen (96 cents) each. I love these snacks to pieces. I wish that a similar type of thing was sold back home because they are cheap, easy to handle and store, and provide a lot of flavor options. Most of the snacks whether savory or sweet come in around the 200 calorie range so you can eat it all without feeling it's a major pig-out, though usually half a sleeve is quite sufficient for me. If I were still working in an office, I'd want to keep a couple of these in my desk at any given time for snacking. In particular, I recommend the kinako wafers (which are sweet and delicious).

The chili tomato crackers package provides 38 itty bittycrackers and 192 calories. The crackers smell peculiarly fishy, but that could just be my confused olfactory senses as a result of allergies. The ingredients don't indicate anything fishy going on, but rather include cheese, chili, and tomato powders. The flavor is decidedly heavy on a tangy tomato flavor with extremely subdued chili notes. If you're a "chili wuss", these are definitely the cracker for you. The crackers are crispy and a bit hard and not as flaky or fine as some offerings. Ritz crackers, these are not, but that doesn't mean they're bad.

I enjoyed these because they were flavorful and I love tomato flavor. These have a slightly "ketchup" thing going on because they're also a little sweet, and I dislike ketchup in general but these were fine regardless. That being said, I could have used some spicier (read: hotter) chili flavoring and a little more salt. I would, however, buy them again despite these desires. These would be great as an accompaniment to certain types of soup or as a midday snack when you're in the mood for something savory. While not a "must have", these are certainly a "will enjoy".

Saturday, March 19, 2011

My quake experience

During the quake, people in Shinjuku leave their office buildings and stand in the street for fear of their buildings falling down with them still inside. (Click any picture for a larger version.)

Note: I wasn't going to write this, but I feel it's something that is worth putting out there. If I still wrote for my personal blogs, I'd put this there. As it is, I'm placing this here as a bookmark. It's not related to food, so those who aren't interested can just skip this until a food review comes up on Monday. 

About 6 years ago, I had just finished work on a Saturday afternoon and walked to the local subway station. As I stood on the platform, I felt a strange and somewhat intense shuddering under my feet. I didn't recognize it at the time, but it was a pretty strong earthquake that would leave me stranded in Kudanshita for three hours as the metro was checked for quake-related problems. Up until March 11, 2011, that was the worst quake I'd experienced in Japan and, being underground and therefore less shaken up, I didn't even immediately recognize what it was.

Everyone knows by now that the quake didn't do excessive damage to Tokyo. In the face of the horrendous tsunami damage in northeastern Japan, even talking about how it was in the big city seems disrespectful as it would feel as if one is elevating trivial suffering by the act of bothering to mention it. That being said, the experience is no less terrifying as you live it for not having suffered horrific consequences. As it is happening, you do not know when or how it will end. You only know fear.

I've talked to a lot of Japanese folks who are Tokyo bred and born, and all of them have said that they've lived through a lot of quakes, but this was the first time they were actually afraid. Many of them felt that this was "the big one" that everyone loves to say has been "overdue" for quite some time. All of them were worried that the buildings they were in would come down around them. Most of them dived under their desks or got out of their office buildings and into the clear. The fact that the buildings didn't fall down is a testimonial to how prepared Tokyo was for a strong quake, not an indication that this wasn't a serious amount of shaking with the potential for great damage.

When the quake hit, I was at home on a day in which I had no scheduled freelance work. I was doing what I often do with long stretches of free time; I was getting in some serious cooking for the next several days when I'd be greatly more active. I'd made 8 chocolate muffins and put them aside for cooling before removing them from their tins and was waiting for a loaf of whole wheat bread to finish in the bread machine. I was also thinking about getting down to business on my blogs and replenishing my post buffers.

The quake is talked about as if it were just one big shake that scared the bejeezus out of us and then pieces were picked up and those in Tokyo wiped their brows and felt relieved, but it wasn't quite like that. It started as a pretty low level quake, the sort which doesn't tend to alarm those who are old hands at living in Tokyo. It continued on and built up more and more over what felt like as long as a minute. That is an incredibly long time when the room is shaking hard. When the intensity started to ramp up, I did what I always do when a quake starts to feel strong, I walked to the front door, opened it, and stood in the doorway. Door frames are strong architecturally, and mine is not near any potential falling glass. Being there half in and half out of the apartment also provides me with two options to quickly act upon. I can either duck in or run out into the street.

The neighbor/landlord's house had a huge and heavy Japanese lawn ornament out front which toppled and shattered during the quake.

Since I grew up in Pennsylvania, where there are no earthquakes, I tend to react a little faster than most of the Tokyo natives. I stood there in the doorway watching my neighbor and landlady fussing with her laundry on the second floor balcony of their house. As the quake continued to grow in intensity, she scurried back into the house. Unlike most people who experienced this quake, I wasn't attending as much to what was happening inside my home because I was looking outside for indications that it was growing more serious. There's a metal roof which is part of a walkway above us for the second floor of our two-story building and I listened to it rattle. I watched the tree in front of the neighbors house start to whip and sway along with the power cables strung near it. I wondered if the cables might snap from the force.

When you watch a quake on T.V., you don't realize that it's an all-encompassing sensory experience, not merely objects moving about. It's palpable as well as visual and auditory. I felt the force of it move through my body. In fact, I put my hand against the opposite side of the door frame as I leaned against one side so that I could feel the movement more than see it. The extent to which the shock waves caused by the energy being expended in a quake can be felt is a much better indication of how powerful it is than watching objects, which have varying centers of gravity and mass, move. Feeling the movement of the framework of my apartment made it crystal clear how powerful the quake was. I could also feel it through the solid cement floor of the genkan (sunken entryway for shoes in Japanese homes).

After the quake, I walked into my apartment and typed a message on FaceBook about there just having been a huge quake in Tokyo. My hands were shaking so much that I had problems typing the words. In retrospect, after sending the message, I typed something about how it was "huge" by my standards, but others may feel it wasn't such a big deal. I wondered if I was being a big baby and overreacting.

Soon after sending that message, a strong aftershock hit and I stood in the doorway again. It didn't feel much smaller than the first prolonged tremor, and it also lasted a very long time, at least when you measure time by how terrified you are as it passes. By now, I was more attentive to what was happening all around me. I watched my refrigerator shake hard in its place, and was glad that the heaviest object in my home was wedged in so tight that it wouldn't probably fall even if the force was strong enough to take down the whole building. I wondered if my tray of chocolate muffins was going to fall from where it was sitting. I watched the neighbors laundry and house, and the tree and cables again. I looked up at the sky, which was beautiful, clear and blue, and thought about how this gorgeous day was carrying on in such opposition to what I was experiencing.

After the first aftershock, I worried about my husband's disposition. He works in a medium-sized (6 story) building in the business district of Shinjuku. He is on the 4th floor. I didn't think anything would have happened during the first quake because I think most buildings can take  quake abuse in Tokyo, but I wondered if the extended nature of the tremors might not be something all buildings could withstand. I did feel that he was probably safer than me since taller buildings are built to deal with quakes better than shorter ones, but he is the most valuable person in the world to me and I couldn't help but worry.

After the second round of shaking, I went outside to see what my neighbors were doing. In part, I wondered if this was as scary and atypical to those well-experienced in quakes as it was to me. If odd things were going on with them, then it was as "bad" as I felt it was. The old couple next to our apartment building had moved a stool out in front of their home and were sitting in the alley. Down the street, I could see other people standing in the road. I heard sirens going off. At that point, it was hard to know how others had weathered the storm from looking around the immediate area. It turned out that most, but not all people in Tokyo were okay, though an old meeting hall collapsed on the heads of school kids and their families in Kudanshita (killing 5 people) and fires were starting and soon to rage in Adachi-ku because of ruptured gas lines. 

Not too long after the second aftershock, another strong and prolonged one came and I was back in the doorway again. This time when I looked up at the sky, I saw a huge dark cloud rolling in. With this repeated strong shaking, and that change in the sky, I had a thought which I discovered was shared with one of my students. As we both saw that change in the sky and endured repeated hard shakes, we both wondered if this was the apocalypse. The sense of foreboding at this point was hard to ignore. After the third round, I wondered when and if it was ever going to stop, and I was worried that if Japan was shaking to pieces that my husband and I would each die alone and how the thought was unbearable. I became genuinely afraid that he may be harmed, or that I might be and he would be left alone and devastated.

Around this time, I turned on the television and this was when I started to see real time coverage of the post-quake effects. A live video feed showed  the tidal wave wash over parts of Iwate and carry away cars, sweep boats inland, and flood houses. Seeing this happen, all I could think was that I hoped that those people had time to get out, but I was pretty sure that there was no way that everyone would have managed. Watching footage of horrors as they have occurred in the past is different than watching it happen live. The sense of powerlessness in the face of nature doing what it does is very profound, and the intensity with which you empathize with the people is greatly ramped up. Those people aren't dead. Their fate is not a matter of history. They are about to die or dying and you're incapable of doing anything but watch it happen. Honestly, it felt almost like the most obscene form of rubber-necking. I don't think humans with their consciousness, intellect and particular nervous systems were meant to watch such things from a distance so great that they cannot do a single thing to help.

Long lines formed in front of pay phones just after the quake since cell service was unreliable.

From this point on, my main thoughts were with my husband, and I was sincerely concerned that the shaking was going to just keep happening. Fortunately, he was able to leave his office and connect with his iPad to the internet at the McDonald's next to his office and e-mailed me that he was okay, and thanks to my posts on FaceBook, he knew I was okay as well. Soon after that, he managed to call me from a pay phone. One of the things that I hope is taken away from this experience is that NTT (Nippon Telephone and Telegraph) should stop taking down all of the land line and pay phones. After the quake, the cell phones were all jammed up, but the land lines worked. Long lines formed in front of the scant number of remaining phones as people tried to reach loved ones to see if they had come through unscathed. It is somewhat ironic to me that my husband and I, who have been repeatedly warned that we "need" a cell phone in case of an emergency, were able to communicate because we kept our land line rather than switched to a cell phone.

From this point on, things started to grow increasingly confused. My husband contacted me via Skype (again, on his iPad) to say he was leaving work and walking home from Shinjuku. As we were ironing out the details, I was shocked by the fact that the doorbell rang. I expected no one and couldn't imagine an errant newspaper salesman or Jehovah's Witness would show up at such a time. It turned out that it was my brother-in-law, who also lives and works in Tokyo. He just happened to ride his scooter to work that day and stopped by on the way home to check and see if his brother and I were okay. He also had left work because of the quake and said he felt bad abandoning his coworkers who had no way home, but he couldn't contact his wife and needed to get home to let her know he was okay. He showed me pictures of the chaos at his college which made it clear that I was luckier than most. In our apartment, only three vases fell down and a few boxes of crackers and other food fell from a kitchen shelf. Books and DVDs were dislodged and moved around, but didn't fall out. Being on the first floor has some benefits, and not being shaken so hard in a quake is one of them.

The foot traffic crowding the streets and headed in the opposite direction that I was going in made me feel like there was a mass exodus and I was going the wrong way.

I walked halfway to Shinjuku to meet up with my husband and did so against a tide of people going from the business and shopping districts toward the residential areas. Everyone was stranded and had to choose between staying in their offices until transportation resumed or finding an alternate way home. The buses were mobbed as the subways and trains were shut down. Lines for cabs were ridiculously long, but even if you could cram onto a bus or get a cab, the streets were blocked such that it'd take hours to get home. Most people could walk home in the time it would take a vehicle to reach.

A bus that was so crowded that only one more man could be crammed in at this particular stop.

The transportation issues have lasted for over a week, but were acute on the day of the quake. The subway didn't run at all until around 1:00 am, and the trains much later than that. It was very clear that, though relying on public transportation is great for the environment, there are serious issues when there is a natural disaster. Several of my acquaintances slept in their offices, a few had companies that got them a hotel room, and several walked home despite requiring 4 or 5 hours to do so. My husband and I have not moved from our aging apartment in part because it is only a 90-minute walk from his office. We had even talked before about what we would do if the day of "the big one" came. If we were out of communication, he would walk to me and I was to stay put knowing he was on his way. Since we could talk, I met him around halfway between our home and his work with great relief. The 40 or so minutes that I walked to meet him were the most oblivious time of my life. I just wanted to see him and the time flew as I walked down the street. Before I knew it, I'd walked by two subway stations and was nearing the third when we finally saw each other. It does pay to be relatively fit in Tokyo at times like this.

Since then, nothing has been "normal". No, we are not buried under tons of tsunami-induced rubble or digging our loved ones out of debris. For that, I am eternally grateful. I can't tell you how many times I've looked at pictures of quake devastation and thought of how lucky I am not to be in the shoes of one of those poor people. They are cold, hungry, and, in many cases, have lost everything. Some of them find loved ones and hold the hands of their still buried bodies as cameras coldly record what should be their private despair and grief and hold it out for the world to witness. In the face of their misery and devastation, I feel lucky that my worries are confined to having our income slashed by 30% this month because of canceled appointments and wondering if we're going to be able to locate toilet paper or milk when these things run out. It could have been so much worse.

Since this happened, I've grown much more panicky with any small quake. I wasn't sanguine before, but it's much scarier now. Because the big one started small and grew progressively larger, my heart starts racing with every aftershock. I wonder where it's going to go. I also have made bread and muffins twice since the quake (I bake a lot) and each time I've felt like this activity is related to quakes. Placing the trays of muffins aside to cool or seeing them sitting there makes me think of that quake and how I felt for the duration. I'm sure that eventually these associations will weaken and I'll stop thinking every little tremor is going to become a really big one, but for now, that fear is still with me as I'm sure it remains with many others.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Variety Friday: Post-Quake shopping

Aisles that usually contain bottled water, juice, tea, and soft drinks that I have never previously witnessed in any state except fully loaded are now empty at Seiyu supermarket.

People do things for different reasons and, in the wake of the Great Tohoku Earthquake, people in both affected and unaffected areas have been panic buying food and daily necessities. At first, this behavior was somewhat puzzling to me because a lot of what was initially bought up was the stuff of earthquake survival kits. The run on instant ramen, shelf stable food, and bottled water seemed a lot like people who were closing the barn door long after the horse had gone.

People stand in line to buy toilet paper and facial tissues from one of the few shops that had some in stock.

As I write this post, it has been 5 days since the big quake and the shopping has clearly turned into not only panic-buying, but hoarding. People are not only filling up earthquake survival rations that they should have bought before, but stockpiling food, water, and other supplies. A lot of people believe that this is motivated by the interruptions in the supply line that have occurred as a result of the various quake-related crises. It is true that roads have been closed and some shipping routes have been cut off because of the quake, but I don't think that is the main reason for this behavior.

An aisle that usually contains juice, yogurt, and soy milk is decimated.

My feeling is that people are shopping and hoarding in areas as far afield of the endangered and destroyed areas as Hiroshima (which was neither affected by the quake nor at risk of radiation from the Fukushima reactors) not because of fear of future famine or loss of supplies, but because of a sense of having no control. Since there is nothing that they can do to stop the continuous quakes and aftershocks, the constant bad news about the instability in the nuclear reactors, or the devastation in tsunami-stricken areas, they do something which makes them feel steels them against danger. It is ineffective, but the actions are not rational. They are an emotional palliative.

A display that used to contain chocolate bars, which have all been largely bought out.

I've been watching and paying attention to what has been happening in the stores since the start, and it began with bread products, rice, bottled water, instant noodle packages, and milk. Since then, it has expanded to toilet paper, fresh meat, and, yes, even snacks. Since I've been reviewing snacks and have been attentive to Japanese shopping habits for quite some time, I've got a good point of comparison. One of the things I have never seen in my shopping in Tokyo has been grannies buying 3-5 Meiji chocolate bars at a time. Lately, I've been seeing everyone snapping up multiple candy bars, boxes of cookies, and packages of salted snacks.

One might wonder how I can be sure that the empty aisles are not supply interruption issues and I can tell you for certain that most of it is not a lack of stock based on shopping patterns. The shelves are not entirely decimated for everything, even when such food or beverages are highly sought after. Early on, I noticed that 350 ml. bottles of Evian water which were sold for 147 yen ($1.82) were still in stock at Family Mart, but all of the 500 ml. bottles of less high status brands that sell for 100 yen ($1.24) were gone. Additionally, 88-yen ($1.09) pedestrian chocolate bars are flying off the shelves, but other similar plain chocolate offerings that are higher quality which are 288 yen each ($3.56) are staying put. People are only buying lots of things if they are cheap. If this was about raw demand, everything would be gone, not just the cheap stuff.

This panic-buying and hoarding is having a bad effect on disaster recovery in Japan because food and fuel in particular are not available because they are being taken by people who are not in need. People are stockpiling while others are suffering in hard-hit areas. It has been said that the empty shelves themselves incite people to buy more because they inspire fear about availability. Today, I saw a woman snap up the last two-liter bottle of water out from under my husband's and my noses. We weren't going to buy it anyway, but the way she grabbed it had a sense of urgency. The store was limiting people to two bottles each, but their stock by 10:00 am was gone regardless.

Japanese pumpkins that are never more than 100 yen at this store (and were 88 yen each two days ago), are now on sale for 158 yen.

I've read some sources state that they are surprised that price gouging hasn't occurred as demand has skyrocketed. My cursory examination of the situation leads me to suspect that boosting prices might actually be a good thing as it may stop the hoarding. Since pricier items are left behind and regular or cheap items are snapped up, a little increasing of the prices might settle people back into more regular buying patterns. That being said, I have seen just the beginning of price boosting in my area. Some fresh vegetables and fruit have increased in price by 50% in the last few days. This may be coincidental (or related to actual supply line problems), but these changes have occurred at stores that I have (literally) years of experience shopping at.

I'm not sure when this behavior will end, but I think that it will carry on for awhile as the fear people feel from the nuclear plant problems will push them to act irrationally. People in Tokyo are not going outside or are not opening their windows for fear of radiation exposure, even though currently the levels are not dangerous. People are reacting as if they were in immediate danger even when they are not, and right now the only thing they can do is stay home and shop, so that's what they're doing.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Shiroi Fuusen Chocolate Cream Sembei

I've spoken before about how I'm rather dumb about packaging even though I really should know better. I'm about to reveal that I'm even stupider than people may suspect, though if you're thinking my I.Q. hovers around 80 or less, then perhaps not. Putting a picture of an enticing food on a package even though it isn't what I'm buying (like ice cream on a yogurt package) is one way to sucker me in. Another way is to put a pot of tea. As soon as the idea of consuming a sweet with tea is nearly irresistible to me. So, I bought this because of a piece of clip art that set off a food cue in my brain. Tea + sweet = buy!

Now that I have laid bare how easy it is to manipulate me into purchasing a product, I will try to mitigate that to some extent by saying that I probably would have tried these anyway because of their unusual look and composition. They are blindingly white crackers with a bittersweet chocolate filling. When I say, "blinding", I'm not kidding. When you die, this is the color of the light you're going to find yourself walking towards (unless you were "bad", then I have no idea what color light you'll be walking into).

I found these at Inageya supermarket for 168 yen for a bag of 21 individually wrapped crackers. Each is 16.7 calories, which is pretty good considering you're eating two crackers per serving with a smattering of filling. Note that "smatter" is not an exaggeration. There really isn't much, but that's okay.

When you remove the crackers and give them a sniff, you smell the chocolate filling. The crackers themselves are crispy and slightly salty but pretty much have no other flavor. The chocolate filling, when you encounter a higher concentration of it, is bittersweet and has a smooth, rich texture. However, there is so little of it and it sits largely in the center that only about one bite carries a significant chocolate impact. That bite is actually a very nice combination of salty and modestly sweet.

I'm slightly torn about these. I like them well enough when I get a solid combo of chocolate and lightly salted outer cracker and the textural mixture of the cool, creamy filling and crispy crackers is nice. There's also something a bit nifty about eating something that looks like an inverted Oreo cookie. Ultimately, I will finish the bag, but I can't see buying another. If there just were more filling so that the flavor was spread over more of the crackers, I think these would be a repeater.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Random Picture 54

There are parts of Tokyo which can be described as "Korean towns/districts" and my husband and I walked through one a few weeks back. We came across this food stand selling a type of pancake that it called "Jongno Hotoku" as well as something the Japanese call topoki (what the Koreans call "tteobokki", I believe). The topoki is a spicy  mix of rice tubes and what looks like a tomato-based sauce. The truth is that I've never had topoki, but I did once try a Korean salted snack based on it. The snack was slightly sweet and tasted like bell peppers.

The cheese pancake.

The jongno hotoku pancakes could be had in cheese, red bean or honey flavors. We tried the cheese and it had a somewhat chewy texture and tasted a bit like a conventional pancake. My feeling was that it was too bland, and needed some salt to bring out the flavors. It didn't help that the cheese that was used was processed and pretty flavorless. Still, it was only 200 yen ($2.40) and not a bad food stand snack. Next time, we'll probably try the honey version (my husband isn't a red bean fan).

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Situation Now in Tokyo

I'm not inclined to make posts about the earthquake, tsunami, or the nuclear situation because I'm not an authority on such matters, but I have been asked about what is really happening and have found that there is a massive amount of misinformation spreading in the West regarding how bad it is. One bit of grim irony is that those of us who are potentially in more immediate danger as we are within a few hundred miles of the reactors are spending more time reassuring people who are across the ocean than they are supporting us.

First of all, Tokyo is relatively safe at this time in regards to radiation exposure. There is more radiation than normal in the atmosphere, but as things currently stand, you would almost certainly receive more radiation from actually getting on a plane and flying home than you would by remaining in Tokyo. Radiation exposure is something that occurs in our lives all of the time but we never question it because it isn't occurring within the framework of a crisis. I've read that radiation levels at one point today in Tokyo were 100x "normal", but that if you go to a hot spring (onsen) and sit in the bath, you're receiving 200x the normal level of radiation from that experience.

So, looking at the information that is being spread isn't enough. You also have to view it in context. We get radiation by flying on planes, getting medical treatment, or scans at the airport. Normal radiation levels are very low so discussing how much greater the levels are without looking at total radiation exposure numbers is misleading and potentially inflammatory. One of the things which is very useful is not to simply read the news, but to access sources which will provide you with context.

One of my major sources, aside from the Japanese news, is to follow TimeOutTokyo on Twitter. There are also several other people on Twitter who are  not alarmist and are providing good contextual information. They include: gakuranman and martynwilliams. There are others who are tweeting good information, but these three are my major sources. They're all working very hard to be level, legible, and to do proper research such that whatever information comes out can be properly understood.

I strongly encourage people not to trust Western news sources like CNN or the Huffington Post. These sources are alarmist, inflammatory, and focusing intensely on only the worst situations and the worst case scenarios. Obviously, there has been devastation in some areas, largely from tsunami, and there is great danger in the area near the reactors in Fukushima, but those areas have been evacuated. The people who are at great risk right now are the 50 TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) employees who are remaining at the reactors trying to get the situation under control. These are the people who are risking their lives and all of the panic being displayed by people who are too far away to be meaningfully affected strikes me as disrespectful to these men (who I greatly fear may die from doing their job in the service of saving others).

If you are an ocean apart, there is virtually no chance you're going to be adversely affected by the crisis in Japan. Snopes has actually put up an article refuting some of the wild rumors about the radiation traveling over the Pacific. People who are on the West Coast of the U.S. who are buying Potassium Iodide tablets or considering evacuating are showing a level of paranoia and panic which is absurd.

All of this being said, I am not an expert on anything regarding these issues, but I have digested information as it has been offered and have been the beneficiary of good efforts on the part of rational people who labor despite the stress we all feel to keep calm and be mature and logical. I can also tell you that I lived in western Pennsylvania during the Three Mile Island crisis in 1979 there and that the distance I lived from there was slightly closer (about 10 miles/16 km.) than the distance I currently am from the Fukushima reactors. Obviously, the circumstances are not exactly the same, but they have similarities. I have suffered no ill effects from whatever exposure occurred at that time and I've had 32 years for something to develop. I think that, unless something catastrophic occurs, there is little chance that those of us far from the reactors will suffer from the limited exposure we're experiencing.

The truth of the matter is that those outside of the most tsunami devastated areas and who are not close to the reactors are currently not in danger of anything besides our own fear and panic consuming us. Right now, that really is "the enemy" (to reference a cliche). That being said, I'm stressed daily because my life is currently far from normal. Though my blog posts continue to go up as usual, that is only because I post from a buffer of posts written at least a week ago on the snack blog and from a two-month buffer on the 1000 Things blog. This is actually the first post I have composed since the quake. The other posts are just going up on schedule from work I did before the crisis.

Frankly, at the moment, we're all dealing with stressful but non-lethal consequences. My husband hasn't worked since the quake and I've lost a week's worth of freelance work. If we don't work, we don't get paid. There have been aftershocks going on, some quite strong, and there have been  other earthquakes with different epicenters (two in the last 16 hours). Under normal circumstances, these would be troubling, but we're all dealing with a sort of post-traumatic stress because the big earthquake started slow and built up over a long time so even small quakes bring back the fear that another very bad experience may be coming. Beyond that, and I plan to post about this on Friday, people are hoarding and panic-buying so there are constant reminders that we're in a state of fear and crisis when one ventures out to any shop. Public transportation is slowly returning to normal service levels, but still disrupted. Every time there is a strong aftershock or a new quake, I worry that normality is being pushed further away. So, I am stressed, but safe.

In no way am I fishing for sympathy about my circumstances as I think compared to people who have really suffered (and there have been many who lost homes, were injured, lost family, and endured far greater trauma), what I'm dealing with is trivial. I mention these things in order to provide context for the following request: I beg my readers not to send me e-mail or comment on other posts trying to "refute" what I say or point out other news sources that offer alternative views. There is too much information out there and much of it is bad and I do not have the energy to deal with all of it. I'm making this post because I've essentially been asked enough times to say something that I've decided that I will. I don't want to get into pointless debates with people about anything I have asserted here because I'm not in a place emotionally to tolerate it. I have to focus all of my energy on dealing with everything that keeps coming my way and hand-holding family and friends who mean well but are constantly being spooked by misinformation broadcast abroad.

I'm closing comments on this post only, but please don't interpret that as a snub of my kind readers who have shown such concern for me. I sincerely appreciate the people who care about my well-being and have expressed such kind sentiments, but right now I have to close the door on possible argumentative and alarmist voices because I have enough to handle.

Update: There are also good posts on the situation on AltJapan. They are under "Should I Stay or Should I Go."

Tokyo Strawberry Chocolate Daifuku

My husband and I took a trip to Odaiba, an artificial island in Tokyo bay, several weeks back. With a country as small as Japan, you'd think they'd be busily building up as many artificial islands as they can to expand their territory, but this is the only one (so far, and that I personally know of). That being said, with a birth rate of 1.4 per children per couple, I guess they don't really need to worry about things becoming crowded any time soon.

The Odaiba area is known as a popular shopping and tourist spot for the younger set, but I dragged my 46-year-old bones out there and tried not to look too out of place as both an "old lady" and a foreigner (no quotes necessary on that one). It's known for it's architecture and views, but it should also be known as a place in which you have to pay to walk into a lot of buildings. The Fuji Media building, which has a spherical structure on about the 9th or 10th floor, charges 500 yen ($6.04) just to go up there and visit a shop. Similarly, the Joypolis, a gaming center, also charges 500 yen to get in. The charges wouldn't be so bad except that once you get into these places, you have to pay for anything that goes on or is acquired. It's essentially being asked to pay to walk in the door and then pay more. I guess you can get high school kids to do that, but not this old duck.

There is a shopping and restaurant complex there called "Aqua City" which had no less than 3 branches of the same souvenir shop. They carried the requisite "Hello Kitty" crap as well as lots of "Tokyo Banana" snacks. Ultimately though, we settled on the pictured box of strawberry chocolate daifuku as our souvenir treat for the area. Note that though I do not review every Japanese sweet souvenir that we buy, I do buy something on the traditional end of the spectrum every time I go somewhere of note. This is part of how I cap the experience.

Though food-based souvenirs that one procures in the area one visits are common, I honestly do not believe these are in any way unique to Odaiba. In fact, a few weekends back, my husband and I were strolling through a game center in Shinjuku and found that one of the UFO Catchers (a claw game) had this very sweet in it as a prize. So, in terms of where you can get this, I imagine that they can be found in many different places, but rather unpredictably so. We paid 650 yen ($7.85) for our box of about 18 small (about the size of a quarter or 100-yen coin). If you're really skilled at claw games, you might be able to get a box of them for about 100 yen ($1.20).

For those who don't know what daifuku is, it's a mochi (pounded rice cake) ball with a filling stuffed in it. The mochi is usually bland, soft and a little chewy and the filling ranges from various sweetened beans to custard to ice cream. These ones were very, very soft and had a great texture both in the velvety chocolate filling and the rice cake. Though they smell like strawberry, the strongest element is the pleasantly chocolatey interior. I'm not a big fan of the strawberry chocolate combination (these were my husband's souvenir choice) but it works here because neither is incredibly potent and the strawberry is so weak overall as not to compete with the rich chocolate filling. The only "bad point" about them was that they were liberally covered in a flour-like substance that immediately fell all over my shirt when I ate one.

These were delightful, and we even served them to a guest and she really liked them as well. They are an excellent souvenir and have surprising longevity for something which really needs to be kept fresh (since mochi gets hard when it goes stale). It took us three weeks to finish the box and the last was as good as the first.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Befco Soy Sauce Kakimochi

People love to build lists of "you know you've been in Japan too long", and I always find them to be attempts to be a little too cute and clever, not to mention sometimes insincere. That being said, I have definitely witnessed some peculiar and authentic "you've been here too long" behaviors. One of them is when foreigners who are speaking Japanese on the telephone and they actually start bowing near the end of the call. Yeah. They do that, but I don't.

For me, I think that one thing that is an indication that I've been here "too long" when I have gone from thinking soy sauce rice crackers are too common and pedestrian to be worth my attention. Since I grew up in the rural northeast, rice crackers unless they were the type of pressed puffed rice cereal discs sold by Quaker, were not something I encountered. I first experienced them in Japan and I've been here long enough to see them as "old hat".

Considering my expression of the yawn factor of soy sauce flavored rice crackers, one may wonder how I came to review them. The answer would be that I am cheap. Several types of Befco rice crackers were on offer for a mere 69 yen (84 cents) at Okashi no Marche snack shops. This is between 50-70% of the usual price. I'm guessing that this is because they are close to their expiration date at the end of April. I've noticed that Okashi no Marche has the lowest prices among all of the snack shops in my area, but that's because they seem to be a repository for some of the more mature cases of snacks. That's okay though because most of the expiration dates are conservative anyway.

There are 12 individually wrapped largish crackers in the bag and they are flavored with soy sauce and nori. They taste rather savory and have a familiar cooked soy sauce flavor. They are neither too intense nor too bland and are unsalted but carry enough salt in the sauce. Two of the ingredients are coloring agents (caramel coloring and annatto), which I guess goes to show that brushing soy sauce on crackers isn't sufficient to paint them brown enough to make them visually appealing to customers. The texture of these is light and crispy. They're hard and slightly brittle in a way that makes them a nice substitute for chips. At 17.5 calories per cracker, they're a little less fattening than chips.

I liked these just fine, though I'll be honest and say that soy sauce isn't really my top choice of flavors. It's not that I dislike it or anything, but rather that it's not the bee's knees for me. If I saw these for full price, I wouldn't get them, but if I had a chance to get them for such a low price again, I'd pick them up.

Friday, March 11, 2011

After the Quake (I'm OK)

A liquor shop which we walked by after the quake. It smelled intensely of beer because of broken bottles. They were trying to clean it up and pushing liquor soaked water out the door in addition to discarding damaged bottles and their boxes in a pile in front of the store.

First of all, thanks to the folks who have expressed concern about my well-being after the quake. As I type this, we're still experiencing aftershocks and I'm developing some post-traumatic stress. The quakes were strong, long, and scary, but my husband and I are okay. Things fell from shelves in our apartment, and my husband's work canceled the rest of the day's work because of the transportation disruption, but so far things are okay and I hope we have seen the last of it (save the aftershocks which seem endless). The hardest hit areas were coastal ones due to tsunami and some areas with fires. Fortunately, Tokyo seemed pretty well prepared for this and was far enough from the epicenter that damage wasn't as bad as it might have been.

I am truly grateful to those who felt concern for my well-being. I'm sure that all of us are hoping the best for those who have been harmed and that the damage and deaths are at a minimum. I feel deeply for those who have seen some pretty devastating damage and sad at seeing the news coverage of the hard-hit areas. I hope all of my readers who live in Japan have been as lucky as me and have also come out unscathed.

Variety Friday: UFO Catcher Snack Prizes

Boxes of Oreo mini-packs and Ritz crackers as prizes and shrimp-flavored salted snacks on the right. (Click any picture to see a bigger one.)

For those who know it by another name, a "UFO Catcher" is often called a "claw crane" or "claw game" in English-speaking countries. It may be know by a great many names according to Wikipedia, but I have to say that the Japanese name is a bigger curiosity and a more creative choice. Incidentally, we say, "U-F-O" and the Japanese say "yoo-foe" (like a two-syllable word rather than individual letters). I hear Japanese folks use this word most often in reference to a popular line of ramen rather than the games I'm going to write about today.

Bags of 45 Tirol candies. This size Tirol is usually 10 yen per candy (10 unit packs for 100 yen).

I've always been curious as to why claw game are called UFO Catchers in Japan and one web site states that this is because the claw mechanism resembles an alien craft. This makes as much sense as anything I could conjecture, so let's just agree that they're right and move right along to the snack prizes that are supposed to be the focus of this post. (Yeah, yeah, move along grandma and get to the point....)

Large tubs of gum. These are full of tiny boxes of pea-size pellet-style gumballs that are marketed at children. I see them for about 10-yen a box in some kid's snack sections.

The truth is that my husband and I had little experience with these machines up until I developed an odd hankering for a debuneko (fatty cat) plush toy. Neither of us thought we could handle the machines but one day he decided to give it a shot, and he threw in a 500 yen ($6.12) coin for 6 tries. Oddly enough, he scored 3 (smallish) prizes and an interest in these machines was born. My involvement extends to watching him win things and then enjoying the prizes. He is learning the ropes and testing his skills.

The UFO Catcher KitKat prize box with plastic loop attached.

Not too long ago, my husband found himself waiting an overly long time for an order of yakitori to go and he decided to explore the UFO Catchers and decided to try his hand at one of the machines that offered boxes of KitKat minis as a prize. That machines was rather different than many which have plush toys as prizes because you have to grab them by plastic loops. Many of the snack boxes themselves are too big, heavy, or awkwardly shaped to be grasped by standard claws. My guess is that only places with specialized machines to accommodate the particular larger size of a prize do not have loops for grabbing.

If you view the box on end from the "bottom", it is designed to resemble a KitKat finger, which is rather nifty.

My husband had to take several tries just to get the plastic loop off of a rubber ball that it was lying on. He put in 500 yen for 6 attempts, and had to put in 200 more yen to finish the job. The KitKat box contains a bag of minis which can be had on sale for 200 yen, but is commonly sold for 260 yen. The bag of minis is in no way special or different from what you can buy at the average market.

The bag of KitKat minis that was crammed in the box.

Unless you stumble across a machine which has the object you desire in an advantageous position, you're almost certainly not going to get value for the money you put into the game. Mainly, the object being in a good position happens because someone before you tried to get it and failed enough times to give up. Note that I've encountered people at a local game shop rearranging the prizes so that they are in a more difficult position so you have to catch them at just the right time or they'll be tidied up by people whose job it is to convince you to put more money in the machine.

In my research, I turned up a blogger who claimed that you can ask the attendants to reposition things for you to improve your chances of winning or getting the prize you want, but I find this hard to accept as a general condition at all game centers. The blogger's contention was that you're supposed to be able to win the prizes and they "want" you to get them. This flies soundly in the face of all of the times when I've watched prizes that were close to the edge or lying at advantageous angles being tidied up so that they lay flat and are harder to get. If they want you to win, they aren't going to do this. That being said, as certain prizes run low and are close to being swapped out, I've also seen the remaining ones placed at an angle which makes getting them a cake-walk. And, I've had luck with certain game centers (Adores) when a prize we wanted was out of reach at the back of the machine. When they moved them forward, they put them in a really easy to get position. However, this is unlikely to happen with food prizes since they're all pretty much the same.

The main good point of the snack food prizes is that the boxes that the objects come in are uniquely designed (and you get to enjoy the joy of victory or the agony of defeat from playing the game). You can't really get the same type of packaging elsewhere and since they are so large, they could be considered ideal for sharing with friends or coworkers.

Karamucho spicy potato chips in large poster-size tubes. I'm sure that they're crammed full of 3-5 smaller snack-size chips and not a big bag.

The main market for these is young adults, particularly junior high school, high school, and college students. You don't tend to find UFO Catchers which offer these large and unique containers of snacks in the small game centers which tend to cater to kids, families and those who are casual players. And note that people of all ages will occasionally stop by small centers and give these games a try. There's one in my neighborhood which I witness all types of people playing on occasion. The ones that offer small stuffed toys are especially popular with women who look to be 25-35 years of age. You only tend to find machines with snack prizes in very large game centers. None of the ones at the two smallish places in range of my neighborhood offer food prizes.

A UFO Catcher with individual sizes of ice cream in a refrigerated bin.

One of the more interesting machines I found in a large game center was at Sega's Joypolis in Odaiba. It was selling ice cream in small sizes. You could have a try for an average of 50 yen per attempt. Depending on what you got, this could be good value since Haagen Daas individual containers cost about 300 yen ($3.67) in many places. However, I'm not sure how easy it is to snag one. The interesting point is not the potential value, but rather the fact that these are clearly designed to be a type of snack vending machine for the kids who are taking advantage of the attractions in Joypolis. In addition to the ice cream prizes, there were also games with individual packages of Hi-Chew. Unlike the machines in other game centers, which offer large volumes as prizes, those ones specifically were offering very small amounts.

I don't have any experience with these games back home so it could be that the food prizes I'm talking about are in no way unique to Japan. I did do a search on prizes for such games and all of the strange ones, including live lobsters, lead back to Japanese (or Asian) UFO Catchers. Claw games that seemed for the American market mainly focused on stuffed toys. The only candy claw games were tiny little mini games that looked like they were to be sold for home or party use. I would welcome comments about differences or similarities, particularly in regard to food prizes, in these types of games in other countries.