Friday, April 28, 2017

Hina no Sudachi (white bean cakes)

I think my faithful readers will find that little has changed since I last blogged. I'm still using a crummy little digital camera and struggling to get shots that are bright enough and in focus. I still write posts that are too long. I still try to be funny and fail a lot of the time, and I still making typing errors that make me look like I don't understand basic grammar and spelling and fail to proofread.

Getting back into this blog will be nostalgic for all of  us. And, I don't mean the good kind of nostalgia like opening Christmas gifts when you were a kid and it all seemed so magical and wondrous because you hadn't yet learned that the fat guy who left gifts, ate your cookies, and drank your milk was your dad (or mom). I mean the kind of nostalgia that comes from a bad Thanksgiving meal full of relatives with political views you don't share and who feel its their responsibility to convert you to either their religion or their atheism. Somehow though, you feel like you need to keep coming back anyway.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the first item I'll be reviewing is Hina no Sudachi. This is a "steamed bun with bean jam using egg yolk," according to the package. If the ingredients list is any indication of quantity, and in the U.S., the first ingredient is supposed to make up the largest amount, egg yolks are the top ingredient followed by white beans. Oddly, I didn't find the interior of the cake to be as yellow as I'd expect nor as yellow as the store displays show (that's a Facebook link and won't work unless you have an account - a Yelp one of lesser quality is here). That is okay because I'm less interested in the color than the taste.

I will note that my husband and I both have a great fondness for this particular type of sweet. That is, we love the white bean ones with the cake-like shells and continue to reminisce about the ones we bought regularly in Japan like Kamome no Tamgo and Koganei Imo. In fact, these are the only types of Japanese sweets my husband actually likes. He may tolerate others to a limited extent, but he is happy to eat these because the bean filling is finer and not especially "beany" compared to red bean (adzuki) types.

This cake didn't have a high bar to vault over though as neither of us expected it to surpass our favorites. We just expected it to be a solid white bean cake option, and, it was. The external cake was tender, but not too moist and didn't crack or crumble. When I tasted the shell alone, it seemed to have a buttery flavor (which has to be fake or my imagination).  It is quite thin and separates easily from the filling if you cut the cake in half as I did.

When you see the inside, it is exactly what you'd want it to be. That is, it is moist and holds together so it doesn't have the powdery, dessicated texture that some snacks do. I wouldn't recommend cutting it unless you're splitting it with someone as it's better to have an intact shell to hold the filling. If the filling falls out, it stays in a moist (but not too wet) lump so it's easy to pick up and put back in.

The bean filling is sweet, though not especially so by American standards, and has a flavor which is hard define, but is still appealing. It's more of a generic "baked goods" taste, but it does seem to have a bit of what could be vanilla. The ingredients include artificial flavors as well as beta carotene (natural coloring). Though it seems a bit buttery, it contains cottonseed and soybean oil, but no cow-based fats. It was in the spectrum of what you'd find in a sweet, baked item and not the least bit beany (as expected).

I will note that I wasn't sure if this product was produced only for the American market (which would be weird, but I never saw this in Japan), and I did have issues finding it online. However, it is actually a product of Hokkaido and I found a blog that referenced it as part of a souvenir multi-pack. There's also a pointless 16-second video of one here. So, it's definitely sold in Japan, but my guess is that it is regional enough to not be easily found in Tokyo.

As I was gearing up to do my research, as I did so often in the past, I realized that I have never used a Windows PC to write my blog posts before and had no idea how to swap to Japanese language. I'm still not sure how to use it as well as how I once did on my old Mac Mini, but I'll get used to it. I'm definitely rusty and hope to get back to my previous level of highly inadequate and pathetic Japanese input and usage rather than remain at my current level of confusion.


Where I bought it: Nippon-ya (San Francisco branch) - can be mail-ordered from them
Weight: 23.8 oz.
Price: $15

The big question I have to ask myself is whether or not I'd buy this again. The answer is that I would, but not every single time I order from Nippon-ya. It's tasty, but it's not out-of-the-ballpark amazing. It's also the heaviest box of sweets in my current crop so there is a premium attached to buying it as opposed to trying something new so I'd be likely to order this once in awhile rather than as a staple. That's in no way saying it's not worth it, but just recognizing that this doesn't rise to the same level as our other white bean cake favorites.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Nippon-ya Mail Order

Display of Japanese sweets at Nippon-ya in San Francisco's Japantown

There are roughly two types of Japanese snacks. There is the loud, colorfully packaged stuff that is sold in consumer packaging. It is so shelf-stable that it'll likely survive the current administration's efforts to bring about a nuclear war. These are in contrast to delicate, classy, and unlikely to survive two months in your pantry treats that are beautifully packaged and often given as gifts.

The first type are relatively easy to get your hands on as you can buy Japanese KitKats, umaibo, green tea, and, of course, Pocky, from Amazon easily. What Amazon may not sell you, eBay will or you can subscribe to a Japan box and get samples of such items. In fact, as this blog re-awakens, I will likely buy some of those subscription boxes myself both to test the value of the services and to review the included items. I hope to come at reviewing them from a unique perspective since I've had copious experience buying the types of items in the boxes in Tokyo and know the prices and selections well.

The second type of item are far trickier to buy. I had thought that the only way to get them was to live close enough to a specialty shop that carried them or a market which sold an inferior shelf-stable consumer version of such items. There are other options, but they tend to be prohibitively expensive. However, thanks to some research, I learned there is a far more reasonably priced possibility. That is doing mail order from San Francisco's Nippon-ya shop.

My first experience with Nippon-ya was when I lived in the Bay Area (which I hated and endured for three and a half years) and made several trips to "the city" (as the locals call it - if you want to really piss them off, call it "Frisco") to see what it had to offer. Besides a plethora of homeless people, human waste on the streets, and a lot of filthy, disintegrating areas interspersed with tidy, clean, tourist- and gentry-ready spots, it has a Japantown with a lot of cute and cool stores. 

During that initial visit, I picked up a mere two boxes of sweets because I was watching my wallet at the time. I still watch my wallet, especially in American cities because pickpocketing is a thing that is more likely to happen here than in Japan, but I can now indulge myself a bit more now and then. However, I no longer live within reasonable driving distance of San Francisco so I have a bit more money, but not the access. Fortunately, one of our Bay Area friends decided to visit us in our remote locale and happily agree to ferry some wagashi booty to me.

Rather unfortunately, Nippon-ya has no online mailing system nor is their Facebook page meticulously updated about new or current stock. They do serve Japanese products and often Japanese people so the up side is that they are super helpful and polite on the phone. I called them and they took note of what I wanted and made recommendations and answered questions about their stock. Mainly, I asked about flavors and types of snacks and, with their verbal assistance on the phone, Yelp's photos of their stock, and their Facebook page content, I created a specific list of six boxes of goodies for my friend to deliver. 

You might wonder what good this information does for you since you are unlikely to have a Bay Area friend willing to drive to your place with boxes of manju or whatnot, especially if you live in Florida or Oklahoma. It's not that there is anything wrong with those places, but, yeah, there are things wrong with those places, but rather that it's an incredibly long drive. You're in luck because Nippon-ya will take orders by phone and ship to you via UPS. This matters to me, too, because I want to make another order (or many other orders) in the future and can't expect my friend to do the 10-hour round trip to see me when I want more bean cakes or daifuku. 

The display of chestnut daifuku when I was in the store several years ago. You can guess the season I was there from the selection. Also, I reviewed this on this blog.

To help you make an order when you can't see what they have, I advise you to follow the same path as me and have a good look at what is pictured online (Yelp and Facebook, obviously) to give you a rough idea of what you might want to ask about. In addition to that, I suggest asking about seasonal flavors and to keep in mind what is likely to be available. You can review my blog for some of that information, but a brief thumbnail is:

spring: cherry blossom (sakura), green tea, strawberry, coffee
summer: Japanese citron (yuzu), melon
fall: sweet potato, chestnut, apple
winter: chocolate, white chocolate, mango

Some "classic" flavors tend to be available year-round. This mainly would be basic anko (bean paste) sweets including white, yellow, and red bean varieties of sweets that come in various wrappers (cake and mochi mainly). I was told that their "Harajuku Mochi" line is always available (though there are seasonal specialty flavors) and that Hina no Sudachi, which is the first item I'll be reviewing after this post, is also always available. Note that they also sell tea, various crackers, and cookies including gaufrettes. However, my orders will focus largely on non-European-derivative items as I want very "Japanese" items. I mention those options in case my readers have less specific interests.

Shipping is based strictly on the actual weight of the items. The representative who I spoke with said that they will assemble your order, take it to the UPS outlet in the same mall as them, and give you an exact quote. I weighed my boxes when I got them and will be including weights with my review information any time I review items from Nippon-ya. 

My packages totalled 5.5 lbs. which would have cost me a little over $8 if my UPS standard shipping chart reading wasn't incorrect (though I am most likely off by the weight of the packing materials). My best guess is that 6-10 boxes are likely not to cost more than $15 to ship, but I can comment on that more in the future when I make an actual mail order.

All in all, if they are true to their word about charging only what the weight of the packages require, you should be paying less than $2 per box in cases of larger orders (3-4 or more boxes) to have the sweets sent (depending on the item's size). Of course, you will always get better value from the shipping with larger orders. If you buy one box, you're likely to be paying a heavy premium for shipping. 

Beyond the shipping costs, there is, of course, the matter of the items themselves. Most of them cost between $9 and $16 per box. The prices are incredibly reasonable and many of them are not much more expensive than what you'd pay in Japan. The "Harajuku Mochi" is $9 for a 16-piece box. The pieces are small, but that's a very good price compared to Japanese markets in the U.S. The Hina no Sudachi, which is one the of the biggest and heaviest items as the cakes are bigger than standard mochi sweets, includes 15 pieces and is $15. Again, this is not too far off of prices I'd expect to pay in Tokyo for a similar sweet in a standard shop. 

That being said, you could likely get cheaper options at places like Niki no Kashi (a discount sweets shop in Ueno), but most of us aren't in a position to hop a train and head to Ueno. The price of a plane ticket would make even discount sweets less than a bargain. My best guess is buying these types of items (though not these exact ones) would cost between $6-$12 in a discount shop. So, if you're actually in Japan, these may still seem pricey to you, but they seem very reasonable to me from where I am with my access and experience trying to buy in shops here in the U.S.

So, unlike when I was reviewing before and buying in Tokyo, my readers should be able to get their hands on whatever I am reviewing from now on. If the Nippon-ya items interest you, you can contact them either by Facebook messages or calling them. They are very helpful and polite so you won't be disappointed. Also, if more people order from them by mail, I think they may eventually be incentivized to make a web mail order site and the process will get easier.

Note: I am not endorsing Nippon-ya, and have no financial connection to them. I paid for my products and am talking about them here to offer information on a resource for readers.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Back, at least for awhile...

Why is he so sad when he has a beer? (Maneki neko statue at a Japanese grocery in San Francisco's Japantown)

It's been two years and eight months since I walked away from my Japan blogs. I'm not sure that I am back "for good" or on nearly as consistent a basis as before, but I am sure that there are some experiences I want to share both with any of my readers who may check in from time to time and for the sake of my deeply exploring and remembering my own experiences. I continue to believe that my writing, photographing, and talking in detail helps me remember and be more present with even the smallest of experiences.

Before I get to the purpose of this particular post, I'll say that my life has been very chaotic since returning to the U.S. and one of the reasons I think I'm ready to come back to writing here is that things finally settled down about a year and a half ago. I'm very poor at making long stories short. In fact, my greatest strength and weakness is at making short stories longer than necessary, but I'll try not to belabor my short history since leaving Japan.

My husband and I moved seven times in the five years that we have been back in the United States. This was after having lived in Tokyo for 23 years and not having moved once. We aren't the sort of people who are comfortable with such upheaval and it was very stressful. We also found our support systems limited for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that I have no family and few friends on the West Coast to assist in things like moving. Since I was born in the Northeast, this is no shock. What few friends I had from a brief stint of living in the Bay Area from 1988-1989 had largely moved or (sadly) passed away.

During our five years back, we have not only experienced what people call "reverse culture shock," but also the sense that we'd dropped out of time for over two decades and popped back up into a new "America." While we rode the wave of change in Japan, we were oblivious to how Americans had changed, and boy howdy, had they changed. What is more, it was not pretty from our perspective. This difficulty was coupled with the loss of our Japanese working life and a great deal of economic upheaval which left investing in such trivialities as Japanese snacks a very stressful endeavor. I rarely made enough money from blogging to cover the cost of my snacks in Japan, and they are greatly more expensive here in the U.S. Buying such things only compounded my sense that we were blowing our hard-earned savings to no economic advantage and I found it hard to enjoy the expeiences.

Fortunately, my husband's career change is now complete and our situation is stabilized. I am now in a position to indulge a bit and consider finding new avenues to access an old love - Japanese food. I also feel that I'm now in a similar position to a lot of my readers in this regard as many of them have no access to local shops for Japanese food either. That being said, there are definitely more trivial Japanese food items in stores than expected, even in relatively isolated and rural places. Speaking of which, I am now living in a very remote place in Northern California. Few people have less access than me so, if I can find ways to buy Japanese treats from where I am and share them, almost anyone can have the foods I am reviewing.

So, I am back for a bit, and I have a pile of things to review, though I'm not likely to ever review with the same frequency I once did so expect things to be sporadic. If you have an RSS reader (I use Feedly now that Google Reader has gone the way of the dodo), I'd suggest subscribing to get notifications of new posts without having to check back for new content. My hope is to got into a scheduled situation again at some point (maybe posting once a week on the same day), but I'm not sure yet how that will go. I have also re-enabled commenting on this blog and I'm leaving it wide open now, but if my stalkers decide that's an invitation to harrass me again (because they hate me, but can't help but hang on my every word), then I may have to narrow privileges. We'll see how it goes.

Please note that cleaning up the blog will take awhile. I've got to review a lot of links that are dead and delete them from the sidebars. I'll also have to tweak formatting over time. I'm not as young as I used to be and I seem to be busier than ever despite being a homemaker now (you wouldn't believe how much and what I cook now, but we also now live in a house instead of an apartment which means more work caring for it). Be patient. I'm getting really old now. ;-)