Friday, November 30, 2012

Bourbon Petit Tart Cookies

I was delighted to discover that Japanese markets tend to carry a portion of Bourbon's range of "petit" snacks. At present, there are 24 varieties in their line up, and I didn't count, but I believe about 10 of them are at Niijiya supermarkets for 99 cents a pack. Since they are sold for 80 yen in Japan, this makes them essentially the same price in both countries (at least at current exchange rates).

The bad news is that the available flavors are, for the most part, the most boring ones. While I'm hoping for the kinako wafers, they're giving me chocolate chip cookies and mini potato chips. The most exotic possibility when I last went there was shrimp crackers. Sure, these are fine things (except the shrimp crackers which are nowhere near fine), but I want something which I can't buy the American equivalent of in the local convenience store. Even the "jam cracker sandwiches" would do as a distraction from the more mundane options, but, alas, they're catering to the limited tastes of the pedestrian American palate (that's a joke, folks, so, please, unwad those undies before making comments).

Oh well, relative beggars can't be relatively choosey, and while they're not exactly exotic, these tart cookies did look like a nice tea time snack which could be eaten in modest portions. For those who aren't familiar with this line, both sweet and savory snacks are sold in small plastic sleeves. They are very tiny crackers or cookies that are a little bigger than an American quarter or a 100-yen coin. Each pack is 1.86 oz. (53 g.) and contains two servings (usually around 50-80 calories, these are 60 calories per serving). The packaging both makes it easy to share and to eat a little and set the rest aside, provided you're going to have a clip of some sort to clamp the top shut.

The cookies are like a cross between shortbread and a graham cracker both in taste and texture. While not as buttery or rich as shortbread, they have a somewhat earthier flavor and a very nice crunch which isn't too brittle. Of course, even if it was brittle, you can easily slip the whole cookie in your mouth so there an no worries about crumbs.

Since this is a "tart", there's a dollop of chocolate in the middle which is slightly firm and soft. This is where much of the interest comes from in terms of the flavor. The chocolate comes on sweet and mellow, then develops into a bittersweet taste and finally seems a bit strong. That assumes that you keep the tiny cookie on your tongue long enough to let the flavor do its thing. I'm not sure everyone has the patience for these and wouldn't be surprised if most people gobble them down in a munching frenzy. Trust me, I can empathize with the impulse, but these do have something going on and are worth giving your tongue a few extra seconds to appreciate the flavor.

While these cookies are not a "must have", they are nice enough for a snack that you keep around in your hand bag or office desk drawer. If you can exercise a little self-control, the small size should encourage sensible portions. If not, the most damage you can do is 120 calories for the whole thing. If you consider that most Oreo cookies are 75 calories for one cookie, this sure feels like a whole lot more cookie eating experience for your calories.

Note that Bourbon has a bear as its requisite cute mascot. You can download colorful wallpapers featuring it if you are so inclined. You can also view commercials featuring the Bourbon bear and lots of annoying music and infantile singing if that is the sort of thing that floats your boat. If not, perhaps you'll enjoy watching the animated bears gathering together all of their treats in some sort of pagan pastel bear ritual in which they finish by gnawing ineffectively at their snacks. There's a delay in loading (at least there was for me), but take advantage of it and turn off the sound before it crawls into your brain and starts scratching on your frontal lobe like nails on a blackboard.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Random Picture #138

One of the things that was quite uncommon in supermarkets in Japan, even relatively pedestrian ones like the Seiyu chain, was bargain tables. At the local Safeway (which I see as the American equivalent of Seiyu), there is always a shelf full of crap that didn't sell, is slightly damaged, or has seasonal items that didn't sell which are heavily discounted. Mostly, it's pretty crappy stuff, but I have gotten some great prices on a few things (bags of Peet's coffee for $4 when it is usually around $8-9).

The picture above was taken at Peacock supermarket around November during my last few years in Japan. Those sad specimens are Halloween treats that didn't sell next to some sweet potato KitKat minis. I should note that 30% off is a huge discount by Japanese standards, and it likely meant that these were near or past their expiration date. Peacock had such a discount table twice to my recollection and they were the only store that did this at all in my particular area. I believe that most stuff got shuttled off to dedicated discount shops like Tsurukame or simple returned to the manufacturer (or trashed).

One of the the things about Japan is that quality and freshness mattered so much to consumers that they'd rather pay more for those qualities than score a bargain. This was something that I had both a positive and negative impression of. Often the willingness to pay more meant that goods made natively supported small business culture. The desire not to buy things that were old, even at a discount though, meant that there was more waste. As with all things, there was a yin and yang effect to the Japanese spending habits.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Raspberry and Green Tea Adult Sweetness KitKats

As I mentioned in a previous post, November is KitKat month at SakuraBox. If you're interested in wrapping your lips around a good sampling of Japanese KitKats (5 different ones - pretty much the current line-up of non-regional options in Japan), this is your chance. With the weather finally turning more autumnal, it's safe for them to break out the chocolate, and, boy howdy, they are doing it right.

The two minis that I'm reviewing today are part of the monthly candy box. As full disclosure, I should mention that they send me one of these boxes gratis. You can consider me bribed, or you can consider me grateful for their generosity. I consider me lucky that after years and years of never getting one thing for free for review purposes, I can finally catch a ride of the small gravy train that I'd seen many other bloggers hitch onto.

All of that being said, I should say that how I feel about the snacks SakuraBox sends me has nothing to do with them. I already reviewed their service, which is the thing that directly reflects on them. How I feel about the KitKats is all on the fine folks at Nestle Japan. Today, I'm going to review two of the "adult sweetness" line which I have not reviewed before. The theme of this line is these KitKats are not as sweet as the regular ones. Therefore, they hold the promise of not being as cloyingly sweet as some of the other ones, especially the ones made with white chocolate.

In the past, I have favorably reviewed the white chocolate and regular chocolate ones, so I had high expectations of these ones. Note that, among the regular offerings of KitKats at present, the adult sweetness ones are quite prominent. It's my guess that these are going over pretty well with the Japanese market. This is no surprise as one of the big points that Japanense folks who visit America whine about is that the food is too sweet for them.

The first bar I tried was the raspberry adult sweetness bar. I was really hoping that this wouldn't be painfully sweet, and, happily, it wasn't. It smelled very intensely of raspberry so I was concerned about some strong artificial flavoring, but it actually was on the subtle side. It was ever so slightly tart and had approachable raspberry flavor. The outside was very soft and the wafers were crispy and fresh. This was very tasty and I appreciated that those who formulated it didn't feel it necessary to make it an avalanche of intense berry flavor and went with something that felt more like raspberries mixed into white chocolate.

As for the other bar, I sort of think of green tea as "mundane" in terms of flavors. I guess only someone like me who lived in Japan and was spoiled by the plethora of green tea options would consider a green tea variety "mundane". Sometimes, it is easy to forget that not everyone has had access to such goodies and that, yes, this may be exotic for some folks. After the subdued sweetness of the raspberry bar, I was actually slightly concerned that the bitter green tea might not be sufficiently offset by sugary goodness.

Fortunately, there was no bitterness nor was it overly sweet. There was a nice pure green tea flavor that was mellowed not by sugar, but by milky notes from the white chocolate base. Like the other, the wafers were nice and crispy, but this was mixed with a slightly grainy, finely gritty (but not at all unpleasant) texture in the chocolate. I loved the contrasting textures, and was surprised at how present but not overbearing the green tea flavor was. 

I really liked both of these bars, but found the green tea to be slightly better because I enjoyed the strength of the flavor more. I would certainly recommend either of these for anyone interested in flavor depth. They are absolutely better than some of the overly sweet bars I've sampled in the past.

I have been keeping an eye on the KitKat site off and on since I left Japan, and I'm wondering if Nestle Japan is changing their approach to the market place. While they may be selling weird flavors on occasion, I haven't seen any regular bars that are very esoteric on their web site for quite some time. Either they're not advertising them (unlikely), I missed them (somewhat likely), or they've figured out that too many of the bizarro flavors were ending up in candy bargain bins so they're reducing the frequency of issuing them (more likely). If this is so, this is good news for those who actually enjoy eating them, but not so good news for those who are tickled by dreams of wasabi or ginger ale KitKats.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Coke and Pepsi Beverages Round-up (product info.)

 No, Pepsi is not coming out with yet another weird flavor. They are, however, encouraging people to join the dark side of the force. The timing, given that Disney recently bought the rights to the Star Wars franchise, seems rather ironic. Pepsi released an energy drink on October 23 which shows Darth Vader on the packaging and encourages people to join the dark side.

The drink is promoted with the fact that it contains 5 different energy boosters: royal jelly, Arginine, guarana extract, ginseng extract, and good old-fashioned caffeine. I'm not sure what Darth Vader has to do with legal stimulants, but it does allow them to make cool black packaging.

Note how distressed he looks? I'd be pretty freaked out, too, if women in giant food costumes were following me around.

Pepsi is also releasing a "Pepsi Special". It was released on November 9 and is supposed to reduce absorption of fat. Yeah. That'll work. Part of the advertising includes a commercial which has a woman dressed as a giant slice of pizza. I guess the whole idea is that you eat the pizza and drink the soda in order to not absorb all of the fat from your piece of pie. 

While Pepsi wants to boost you up, Coke wants to help you regulate your life. They are selling a Latin Biorhythm tea. Instead of ponying up the dough to license Darth Vader's image, they're using photos of a buxom Latin babe "playing", "eating", and "drinking", because these are the things that you need to do to have balance in your life, at least if you aren't in need of using the Force to get through your day.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Random Picture #137

One of the things that I did on a semi-regular basis when I was living in Japan was pick up a bag of frozen imagawayaki to keep in my freezer for breakfast or snacking. I liked the compact size and the fact that it was well-formulated such that it didn't suffer much (or at all) in quality for being a frozen food. In fact, I think that there were some ways in which it was superior to fresh versions.

Of course, that does depend on precisely how fresh it is. The picture above, taken in Asakusa, shows a man operating a machine to make these filled-pancake-style sweets. This shot was interesting not so much because it's a form of street food, but because it's so mechanized compared to the way that such things are usually made. All of those Borg-like tubes that plop batter and bean paste into molds represent a step up for the usual guy with a funnel and a spatula that is more common.

The entire set-up reminds me of the whole melding of the old (doing it by hand) with the new (but using modern equipment) that really is a tightly woven part of Japanese culture.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Furuta Green Tea Sequoia

There's a video my husband and I shot in 1995 which we made to show our family and friends what it was like to live there at the time. I don't remember who we sent it to, but part of it includes a trek around our local shopping street (shotengai) and the shops that were on offer at the time. I recently watched that video again for the first time in a very long time and I was shocked at how few of the shops survived to 2012. In fact, I'm pretty sure that only the biggest markets (e.g., Peacock, Seiyu, etc.) made it to the present day.

One of the sites caught on camera on that video were several girls eating green tea "soft cream" (soft serve) in a tea shop. On the video, my response to the idea of green tea flavored sweets was "yuck!" At that time, the thought of bitter, grassy green tea being mixed with sugar rubbed me completely the wrong way. I think there are still plenty of Western folks out there who feel the same way.

I think green tea seems stranger as a flavoring for sweets as compared to black tea (English tea) or coffee because you don't see people putting sugar and milk in green tea, but you do find people adding them to those beverages which Western folks regard as more mainstream. Sweet coffee is common. Sweet green tea is unheard of, at least in Japan.

As time has gone by, the notion of green tea sweets has grown on me, though it still hasn't blossomed into the sort of passion that I've seen others display. I sometimes like it, and sometimes don't care for it. A lot depends on the intensity and the flavor mix. Generally, green tea plus chocolate isn't as good as green tea chocolate, if you know what I mean. That is, if it's white chocolate which has green tea flavoring, it's not as dangerous to the taste buds as milk or dark chocolate with some green tea component.

You can imagine my concern when I started to unwrap this Sequoia wafer chocolate bar and saw that the bottom was what appeared to be semi-sweet chocolate. The top is olive green (and had bloomed a bit to boot, that's the white stuff on it) and the illustration tells us that there is green tea cream between the wafers.

A sniff revealed a discordant mix of chocolate and tea aromas. A bite revealed that it was indeed semi-sweet (or bittersweet) chocolate on the bottom. This meant that there was a turf war on my tongue for which bitter flavor got to dominate, the tea's or the chocolate's. Neither one. They kicked up a lot of dirt, made a mess, and it was a draw. I really didn't care for the mixture of these two flavors. Though there is ample sweetness on hand to off-set them, it just tasted "wrong" to me.

On the best of days, Sequoia's wafer-based chocolate bars can disappoint, but this was really more unpleasant than usual from my viewpoint. I think that my reaction was an extremely subjective one. This isn't a bad bar overall, and I'm sure some people will enjoy it, but it simply was not for me. I ended up throwing the rest away after eating a little less than half.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Ramune candy and kid's gum (round stuff)

This post is a review of three items that are unified in two ways. All of them are round and I got them all as part of the Sakura Box monthly candy box. Note for my readers, November is KitKat month and they're offering 5 unique KitKat flavors. I mention that not because they sent me free candy (though they did), but because I know many people are especially interested in Japanese KitKats.

This is part of the selection I received in the October candy box and these are the types of small things that are very common in the kid's snacks section in Japanese markets. I am familiar with all of these things, and I once had the little boxes of gum with fruit illustrations on them, but it was so long ago that my aging brain lost the memory. Well, it's either my age or the fact that one isn't exactly stowing away such memories as if they were precious and not to be forgotten. It is, after all, only bubble gum.

Marukawa Fusen gum (upper right in the picture) is one that I saw around for pretty much the duration of my 23 years in Japan. It was often sold in multi-packs that included all available flavors, but also as individual packs of one flavor. I also often saw enormous tubs of it as prizes in UFO Catcher machines. I'm not sure who would want such a huge amount of these little pellet-shaped bits of gum, but I guess someone out there really loves it, especially little kids.

 See? It is all round stuff!

The orange tastes a lot like Bayer's orange baby aspirin in the U.S., except with a bit more tartness and sweetness. The grape is your typical grape gum flavor. The melon is probably the weirdest one because it tastes strongly of quite sweet cantaloupe in the initial burst of flavor. In fact, it's rather too strong and my taste buds rebelled at first.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, all flavors of this gum have a very short half life on the flavor front. Within 5 minutes, pretty much all of the flavor is gone and you're left with some pleasantly soft and pliable bubble gum and a generic sweetness. Incidentally, I chewed all 4 little gum balls (each is about the size of a large pea) at once. I can't imagine that anyone would chew one at a time. As bubble gum goes, this is fine. It's nothing spectacular, but if you were a kid and wanted to stuff your maw full of a big wet blob of it and blow a bubble that would explode all over your face, this would do the trick.

The "tsuppai (sour) lemon" gum, which contains three larger gum balls but the wrapper said it was only 2 servings, is made by a company called "Meiji Gum". I should note that both Marukawa and Mei specialize in gum, which seems like an odd choice, but I guess it's what a lot of companies do in America as well. You just never think about someone saying to himself (it's usually a "him"), I think I'll start a chewing gum company. In the case of Marukawa, that was said in 1888, apparently. That's some forward thinking.

As promised, this is sour lemon gum. In fact, it was a bit too intense for me and I had to spit it out after a short chew. That doesn't mean it's bad. It just means I'm a sourness wuss, or that it didn't go over too great after chewing the sweet tiny little gum balls.

I give both types of gum an indifferent rating because they are pretty much just kid's gum in approachable flavors. The main benefit of them is that they have a good texture and carry an intense candy-like burst of flavor at the start. The main drawback is that the flavor doesn't last long and that once it drains away, you're left with sweetness (or sourness) and not much more.

 Finally, I tried the ramune candy which comes in the plastic blue-green soda bottle in the upper left of the picture at the top of this review. It is made by confectionery powerhouse, Morinaga. If you don't realize it, they're the folks that are delivering HiChew to the world. These are pressed powder candies like SweeTarts, but they are looser and softer than those American sweets. If you bite down on them, they quickly dissolve into a soft blobby bit in your mouth. If you let them dissolve on your tongue, they yield slowly and release the flavor of bubble gum. They're sweet, but not overbearingly so and have a fresh flavor which is hard to pin down.

I actually like powdered candies like this more than the average adult. I'm not sure that I'd keep a stash around the house, but when I happen to buy one or are given one, I enjoy them more than I might expect and that was certainly so with this ramune candy. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Random Picture #136

One of the stores near my home that I liked to take a look at each time I walked by, but rarely went into was Tsurukame. I'll admit that the prospect of going into it was a little intimidating to me, silly as that may sound. One of the reasons was that it was such a small place with extremely narrow aisles that I felt that I could get trapped in there by bargain-hunting grannies who would refuse to budge for the errant gaijin (foreigner) who decided to invade their territory. The other was that the place was so grubby-looking and seemed to be a dumping ground for food that couldn't be sold elsewhere. 

All of that being said, I found the selection of food outside fascinating because it wasn't your typical fare. It was also a reflection of what didn't tend to work in the greater marketplace because you'd see food that was relegated to the bargain bin because it didn't sell well enough. Eventually, I lost my inhibitions and went inside to find that much of what was inside wasn't any cheaper than what was at other stores. All of the interesting and super cheap stuff was piled outside in boxes and bins. Walking buy was an education in the market, as well as a certain demographic.

The picture above was one of the huge piles of cast off foodstuffs that was on display. These are "fluffy" tuna sandwiches. They are like the Smuckers "Uncrustables" that are marketed in the U.S. That is, they are pressed together and sealed at the edges with a smattering of filling and designed to be relatively shelf-stable. They are also pretty disgusting and appeal to lazy people. Since these were being sold for 73 yen (about 92 cents), they clearly didn't light fires. These are called "raku (luck) fuwa (fluffy) packs" and the company that makes them is Kobeya. Kobeya makes a broad range of products, including these sandwiches in tuna mayonnaise (on sale above), ham and mayo, egg salad, and beef curry. Personally, I would not trust anything made with mayonnaise that was not kept refrigerated, but this is not uncommon to see in convenience stores in Japan. Perhaps they know better about food bacteria than me, or they have some uber-preservative, but I'm guessing no one ever got botulism from one of these so they must be safe... if only they were also tasty.

Monday, November 12, 2012

V Select Soft Sembei (Salt flavor)

You can tell someone has spent a long time in Japan when... okay, I swore I'd never start a sentence like that because I hate when people talk like that. They mention things like you start to bow while talking on the phone or you gaze at, hold, and handle any business card you are given like it is a priceless family heirloom, blah, blah... For me, well, I'm afraid that there are residual things which show how long I was in Japan, but they are a little unusual. One is that, after more than 6 months in the U.S., I still am moving to the far edge of the sidewalk (the left side, of course, not the right as most Americans do) when I see a bicycle as I expect to have to let it pass me. For those who aren't in the U.S., I'll say that bikes aren't supposed to and generally do not ride on sidewalks at all here so it's a thoroughly misplaced response. Another is that I continue to be appalled that people wear shoes in their homes because it really does make the floors utterly filthy (truly, it does). Finally, I talk about "salt" as if it were actually a flavor rather than a seasoning, as is the case with these sembei.

In Japan, they don't talk about things like "plain" potato chips. They say they are "salt taste" or "salt flavor". The same goes for this sembei, which is, after all, the equivalent of a potato chip in Japanese culture. The front of the bag even says "salt flavor" on it in the little green box. So, I have some residual tendencies that I either need to get over or accept as ingrained parts of my personality. These are, "plain" sembei in American parlance. Incidentally, I struggle similarly when offering tea to guests. I ask them if they'd like it "straight", as if it were some sort of alcoholic beverage that one could take with a mixer or straight up. The first time I asked a guest how she's like her tea and she said, "plain", I was strangely surprised at that.

There was a time when I would have never welcomed "plain" sembei into my life. That's before I left Japan and have found myself hopelessly sentimental about many of my experiences there. My husband and I went to Nijiya Japanese market and he talked with a fellow who was putting out samples of fish cakes and choux cream (er, cream puffs) about how we patronized their establishment because it was so "natsukashii" (sentimental). As I perused aisle after aisle of over-priced snacks and food, my eyes were drawn to this because it was a mere $1.29 for 102 grams/3.5 oz./20 crackers. This priced it squarely at the same point as similar crackers at my former local Lawson 100. There's nothing more sentimental than cheap snack fodder, especially for someone who has been writing about such things for 4 years!

The company that makes these, "V-Select", let's us know that the "V" stands for "valor". There are three major lines, and "select" translates to "cheap". You'd think that they'd say the "V" stood for "value" in such a case, but I guess they wouldn't want to apply that so liberally to their "organic" or "quality" lines. This is actually a store brand in Japan for a market chain called, yes, "Valor". Their web site isn't very forthcoming about products, but the line includes things like jam and pork products. Unsurprisingly, store brands are no more exciting in Japan than they are in America. They just have different writing on them.

As for the sembei themselves, they are called "soft", but in Japan that means they are light and airy rather than dense and harder. These are still very, very crispy. There's really nothing "soft" about them. This mainly means they are easier on your teeth and less brittle. It's the difference between a cheese puff or ball and a Cheeto.

Since these are plain ("salt") sembei, they have a very clean baked rice flavor which I used to find pretty obnoxious in my early days in Japan, but now I'm not only nostalgic about it, but enjoy it. The saltiness level is just enough to add interest, but not so much as to make you drink glass after glass of liquid to compensate. The flavor has depth and is subtle, but is not boring, at least not if your taste buds haven't been flavor-blasted into oblivion such that you can no longer detect gentler flavors. Incidentally, that does happen to people.

All nerve endings or senses get saturated and loose sensitivity. If you read sex advice columnist Dan Savage, he'll tell you that this works for certain very sensitive areas of the body as well and he advises men in particular not to use a death grip on certain parts of their anatomy during certain types of activities or they will lose sensitivity and find it hard to enjoy other types of activities (this isn't an adult-content blog so you'll have to fill in the details with your fevered imaginations). The same goes for the tongue, and I don't mean when talking about the types of things Mr. Savage talks about. I mean in regards to detecting flavors of things. If you're the type of person who has been employing the equivalent of a "death grip" on your taste buds, rice crackers like this are going to bore you into a deep slumber.

Fortunately for me, years and years of blandness in Japan and judicious protection of my palate since coming to the U.S. allows me to taste a plain rice crackers subtle pleasures. To me, this sembei not only tastes pretty good, but it taste like Japan. At 50 calories per two (palm-size) cracker packet, this satisfies a craving for a salty, crispy snack quite nicely. I'd recommend them to anyone who hasn't wrecked their ability to taste, and advise those who have to stay clear.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Regional Japanese KitKats (product info.)

All images are taken from Nestle Japan's web site.

Nestle Japan announced its newest in its vast line of regional KitKats on October 9, 2012. This one is for Tokyo and it is rum raisin. The blurb on their site for this says that it has a sense of sophistication and luxury, and that image is suitable for Tokyo. You know that's the truth because of the elegant snifter of rum that is part of the illustration on the box. I'm guessing that if they put a drunken pirate with a mug of grog on it, they'd believe it was a little less classy. This seems to be replacing the soy sauce Tokyo regional flavor, which has been around for donkey's years. However, I imagine the soy sauce variety will find its way back into the rotation at some point.

Regional Japanese KitKats are the holy grail for many aficionados of bizarre flavors. Part of the reason for this is that they're supposed to be something you only can get by visiting the region that it is introduced in. As I've said before, this is not always so. They are sold in Ameyokocho at Niki no Kashi as well as at Narita airport. The truth is that they are not reliably available anywhere, not even in the regions they're sold at. It's not like you can walk into any convenience store in Tokyo or train station kiosk and find this Tokyo regional variety in Tokyo. You always have to be at a shop that carries specialty or souvenir items. Such places are often at the major train stations of the areas.

Le Lectier (Niigata specialty)

Many of the regional KitKats are sold in boxes with 12 mini bars for 840 yen ($10.52). Just to refresh people's memories about them, they are marketed primarily for people to buy and give to others as a souvenir of an area they are vacationing in or doing business at. They are not really designed for the average snacker to take home and eat on her own. In my opinion, based on my knowledge of Japanese culture and tastes, the strange flavors are not meant to be the sort of thing you crave again and again in the future. They are novelties, much like cactus candy and venison jerky.

Though the regional varieties are supposed to be special, many of them have been issued as regular KitKats as temporary flavors (and you can buy most of them through Amazon Japan). The KitKat zunda (above) was issued as a regular bar after the earthquake on March 11, 2011 and continues to be available in the regional format. Similarly, the blueberry cheesecake KitKat (pictured after the 1st paragraph), was issued in several incarnations while I was in Japan (single finger, regular bar) and continues to be a Koshinetsu regional variety. The apple KitKat is also a regional issue (Shinshu), but was once a short-term flavor for a standard-size bar. My point is that, if you can't get a regional flavor, you don't have to really sweat it because chances are you will have or have had access to it at one point or another as a regular bar.

For those who need fewer souvenir bars, there is also a smaller box available for some flavors in some regions. Those boxes are 350 yen and include 5 mini bars. The one pictured above is hojicha flavor, of which there was (and may still be) a larger box available at one time. The wasabi KitKat that I reviewed came in one of these smaller boxes. However, there is absolutely no difference between the versions as sold in the various incarnations in terms of flavor.

In my experience, some of the regional KitKats also showed up in UFO Catcher games, though it tended to be something which was quite unpredictable. The yubari melon (cantaloupe) version seemed to be especially popular as a prize as I saw it several times over a long span of time. I wonder if it was chosen because it was especially desirable or sold poorly. My guess is that it was the former. This particular variety, I should note, breaks the general pattern of the way the regional KitKats are presented. It has 4 bars for 580 yen ($7.26).

I did not try every regional KitKat, but I tried a fair number of them. Frankly, I was rarely blown away, but I found most interesting and enjoyable enough to finish the box. The very best one and the only one I could say I'd actively want to buy again was the Golden Citrus blend. The rest were mere curiosities, some pleasant and some less so. The citrus blend is currently one of the few varieties which is on offer in both the standard 12-pack (pictured in the linked to review) and a 5-pack (pictured above).

Yatushashi KitKats 

The tricky question is how to get your hands on these if you are not in Japan. This is definitely a difficult one. Some online sellers, such as the Asian Food Grocer, occasionally carry limited edition flavored KitKats, but not the regional ones. You can get a regional flavor when it is issued as a regular bar if you get lucky. Rakuten also occasionally sells some KitKat specialties, but right now most appear to be sold out. You can get a Japanese KitKat ball marker from them for an exorbitant price, but that's a bit off the topic.

"Adzuki sandwich" KitKats ("Ogura Toast" from the Tokai region)

Frankly, what I would recommend to anyone who wants these  is to try and set up a food exchange with an ex-pat living in Japan or a Japanese person looking for a penpal and a cultural exchange. Many people pine for certain specialty foods from back home and may be willing to do a care package exchange and some Japanese folks are happy just to make a friend in another country or to practice their English.

Kobe pudding (purin) in a special souvenir box representing housing in a historical district (ijinkan) in that area. Note that this flavor was once issued as a big bar and a mini, albeit in milk chocolate rather than white.  

I know that there are some Americans who will send you Japanese snack packs in exchange for Reese's peanut butter cups, licorice, and Cap'n Crunch (all of which are hard to come by in Japan). As for how to find such folks, well, that's another issue entirely. You'll have to try out forums for foreigners in Japan and see if anyone has an interest. The main difficulty in such exchanges is that you cannot send anything via seamail from the U.S. anymore so postage rates are a huge chunk of change. You would need to negotiate an exchange value that incorporates that disadvantage (or both agree to pop for airmail across the board).

Beniimo (purple potato) KitKat representing Kyushu-Okinawa. Love this box design! Though I never tried this particular variation on sweet potato, I did sample two other sweet potato KitKats. 

From my point of view, and I know that I've had years of experience and am quite jaded, I don't think it's worth the trouble. Yes, it is a little thrilling and cool at first to try these things, but after awhile, the weird KitKat flavors all sort of blend together. In terms of long-term enjoyment, I'd recommend going to Cost Plus World Market and finding their British or Canadian bars (hazelnut, orange), and just having those. What they lack in freaky coolness, they make up for in flavor staying power.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Random Picture #135

No, this picture is not a representation of "Christmas creep" in Japan, though, frankly, it's a little more understandable if they experience it than Americans do. They don't have Thanksgiving between Halloween and Christmas so there is no other holiday stopping them from jumping in with both feet into "the most wonderful time of the year".

This is a picture from my time in Japan of some holiday items in a the Queen's Isetan bakery. This particular bakery was about 12 minutes on foot from my former apartment and many days my husband and I would walk there with hopes and expectations only to have them dashed. Queen's Isetan made lovely bread, but most of their pastries suffered from a terminal case of "breadiness". That is, there was a lot of bread, and very little of anything else the pastry's description promised. These cubes are supposed to have vanilla cream and the snowmen are supposed to have chocolate. What they tended to have was the merest hint of filling a whole lot of stuff that'd make nice toast. Still, the snowmen are cutely corpulent, and the cubes have a symmetrical beauty. Looks should count for something, too, after all.

Monday, November 5, 2012

KitKat Vanilla Ice Cream

With little chunks of ice and a waffle cone with a few scoops of vanilla ice cream on the package, it will surprise no one to learn that this is a summer leftover KitKat. It was introduced on June 25, but according to Nestle Japan's web site, it's still on the roster. On the one hand, thanks to climate change, we appear to be finding that we're generally giving autumn a miss and living in a prolonged summer, so those who continue to sweat into the early autumn may find the illusion of a cooling treat appealing. On the other, seasonal flavors in Japan are something all the natives and non-natives alike look forward to. I'd be saying, "bring on the sweet potato and chestnut", but right now the newest mini variety is a white chocolate "adult sweetness KitKat". I guess Nestle Japan isn't in the fall spirit yet.

Since most of the new KitKat flavors are a crushing disappointment, I have been unwilling to invest in buying them despite having more reasonably priced access than most via Nijiya Japanese market. I'm particularly reluctant to pop for the $7 price tag on the standard large size bag of minis when I have a strong feeling that they'll taste like overly sweet disappointment. The only reason I went for this was that it is a smaller than usual bag of minis. With only 4 small bars and at a price tag of only $2.19 (175 yen), I figured that the chances that I'd be suffering buyer's remorse was relatively low.

I'm using my KFC Christmas plate for white food because they photograph better on a dark background, and this is all I have in my puny selection of dishes at present.

The bar does smell a bit like vanilla. Fake vanilla is, after all, a pretty potent scent. The bars have a very sugary, slightly gritty texture in addition to the trademark wafer crispness. The white chocolate coating is soft and yielding with no snap of its own. The first bite carries with it a potent, but not overbearing, vanilla flavor coupled with something which is reminiscent of frozen dairy confections. Subsequent bites, however, reveal an odd fake flavor which becomes increasingly reminiscent of powdered milk and the cheapest ice cream in the store. At the end of the second finger of the mini, it was potent enough to overwhelm the experience.

This is not a bad bar, but it's not an especially noteworthy one either. It is, like most of these white chocolate bars, extremely sweet. While I don't regret picking up this 4-pack for the price I did, I'm glad that I didn't buy a bigger bag as it'd feel like a huge waste of money. As it is, I sampled a bar, my husband will likely eat one, and a craving for super sweet candy will see us through the other two. However, I would not buy this again, and unless you truly enjoy artificial flavoring, powdered milk, and very sweet white chocolate, I would not recommend this to my readers.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Tolteca Japanese Peanuts (Regular)

On my other blog, I mentioned that there are lot of things in Japan which are labeled as "American" which an actual America would not recognize as part of their culture. This includes, but is certainly not limited to, "American coffee", which is what the Japanese call anemically watered down and weak brew. My experience with American coffee is that it is utterly rank and disgusting (cheap supermarket stuff sold in big cans) or fairly good (coffee house stuff like Peet's). It is generally not weak, though I wouldn't be surprised if some places are selling a puny distillation in order to save money, especially places with low prices and bottomless cups.

I figured that it is only fair that, if I'm going to point out all of the stuff that is labeled as American which is not actually American, I should also recognize that there are things in the U.S. which are labeled as Japanese which are not recognizable as being so. When I saw these "Japanese peanuts" in a local liquor store (no, I wasn't getting loaded, my husband wanted a beer to drink with dinner), I knew that this was a chance to even the score. I lived in Japan for 23 years and never saw a peanut that looked like these, and I see them for sale all over the place in California stores.

Word is that these were invented by a Japanese immigrant in Mexico, but I could not verify the truth of that story. I can say that these appear to be of Hispanic origin and are sold in areas which carry a lot of Mexican food. They're also usually pretty cheap. I bought this 4 oz. (113.4 g.) bag for $1.29 (104 yen).

When I opened the bag, they smelled vaguely of peanuts. Though the ingredients list includes soy sauce, I didn't really smell that component. It seems that the shell masks some of the nut scent, but not all of it. The outside of each peanut is coated with a smooth, super crunchy shell. It doesn't taste particularly salty or strong, but there is about the tiniest whisper of soy sauce, sugar, and flour (wheat an rice) flavor there. Frankly, I had hoped for a stronger flavor on the coating.

It seems that the coating on this particular brand and variety of Japanese peanuts mainly lends texture. You get a pretty good solid crunch and a bit of a shattered mess if you don't pop it into your mouth all at once. While there was certainly nothing so "wrong" about these, I wasn't compelled to think I'd want to buy them again. In fact, I'd strongly prefer regular peanuts if for no other reason than they'd be saltier than this and not offer so much in the way of useless carbohydrates. That being said, there are spicy "Japanese peanut" varieties out there which I believe may hold greater promise. If these weren't invented by a Japanese immigrant, then I imagine that they are "Japanese" mainly because they incorporate soy sauce and rice flour. The only thing I found particularly Japanese about them was that they were bland, and the Japanese tend not to like very strong flavors.