Sunday, July 17, 2016

Early Summer: The Season for Lemony Goodness

Something that I look forward to every summer in Japan, is lemon-flavored stuff. Every year around this time, stores put out lemon-flavored snacks, cakes, cold treats, drinks etc., and I like to hunt for them and enjoy them whenever possible. You can find lemon-flavored products everywhere, from convenience stores, to supermarkets, to vending machines.

OK, admittedly, there are some products that are available all-year round, but especially around this time of year, you tend to see stuff that is only available at the beginning of summer, and only for a limited time. Today, I'm going to post some pictures of snacks etc. that I've found and enjoyed so far.

Let me just start by saying that I just enjoy citrus flavored stuff in general. I mean, from back home, I really miss those Sunkist little sugar gels you know? They're round and soft and they melt in your mouth. You can have the pink and red Sunbursts; give me the orange and yellow ones. When I ate Runts, I used to eat the banana and apple ones first to leave behind just the orange and green ones, so I could enjoy just the orange and green alone. I'd do the same with any other snack, like Brite Crawlers, Skittles, Life Savers, you name it! My favorite Flintstones push-up was orange. I used to buy boxes and boxes of Lemon Heads.

That said, here is some of what I've seen this year so far.

So a couple of posts ago, I talked about daifuku, which is basically stuffed mochi. Last week, I found these Lemon Daifuku. There were three in a pack.

They were alright; the texture was as good as any other daifuku, but the center was a lemon filling. The lemon flavor was there, but there wasn't the sour punch I was expecting. Overall I was satisfied with my purchase.

Next up are these "Lemon Glaze Cake Hachimitsu Biscuits." (Hachimitsu = honey)

Lemon and honey are often a pair in Japan. During this time of year you'll find a lot of "hachimitsu lemon" stuff. The texture of these were like a soft, powdery snap. They have a nice outer coating of glaze, with a sour lemon punch inside. I really enjoyed these.

Next up is this individually packaged doughnut.

This was really enjoyable. It felt like I was enjoying a Krispy Kreme doughnut but with lemon frosting instead of plain honey glaze. Since the doughnut was packaged and sold in an air-conditioned convenience store, it was cold; the lemon flavor added a refreshing quality that I really enjoyed.

Next up is this "lemon nack." It caught my eye as I was strolling through my local supermarket.

I'm afraid that the only lemon flavoring on this cake was the thick outer glaze, and then the flavor wasn't even that strong. A common complaint I have about Japanese sweets is that they're a lot milder than they look. When I first had a chocolate glazed doughnut at a Mister Doughnut here, I was expecting it to be as chocolatey as chocolate glazed doughnuts are back home; big disappointment. It was as if I was eating a rubber-covered doughnut. The glaze had very little chocolate taste to it. My Japanese friends swear the chocolate is rich and almost unbearable. I can only imagine what a chocolate Hostess cupcake would do to them. Needless to say, this cake was a bit of a disappointment. Over all, it was "meh," as it felt like I was eating cake with yellow, flavorless frosting. The frosting almost tasted like just fat. I'd never get this again.

I forget where I bought this "Lemon Chiffon Cake."

On the outside, it looks almost exactly the same as the cake that I bought earlier, but this one is slightly bigger. The lemon taste was more palpable in the frosting on this one. The cake was soft and fluffy, and the overall taste was lemony goodness that I wouldn't mind paying for again.

The following is a pastry I found at a local bread shop.

Let me just tell you about Japanese bread shops. There's nothing quite like a Japanese bread shop where you can buy bread and pastries freshly made. Everything back in the states is pre-packaged and has been sitting on the shelf for a while. At a Japanese pan-ya-san (パン屋さん) or bakery, stuff is always fresh. You can tell you're walking right by one, because the warm smell of fresh-baked bread is in the air.

When I saw this lemon pastry was on sale, I just had to give it a try! The outer crust was flaky and crispy, and the filling was nice and sour. I had to go get another one! I asked the lady working the register and sure enough. this is a seasonal snack that won't be around for too long. I've got to come back here and enjoy it as much as I can. Who knows if it'll be back next year?

I bought this at my local supermarket.

Papico is a cold snack that is usually flavored with coffee and milk. The way you enjoy it is, you rip the top off, and you squeeze the frozen snack out and eat it. It's an improvement on the Bolis ice pops, if you asked me. (Anyone remember those?) Bolis were great, except there were always super frozen, and the end was so narrow, you had to keep chewing the ice through the plastic to break it up, and/or wait for it to melt. And then by the time you were almost finished, you had sucked out all the flavor, and all that was left in it was flavor-less ice you debated about sucking out further. The opening at the end of a Papico bottle is broad, and the Papico itself is of a viscous consistency, almost like Slurpee, allowing it to flow through the opening as it gets warmer.

Occasionally Papico comes in different flavors, but when I saw they had a lemon flavored one, I just had to try it! I've never seen this flavor before. This has got to be a seasonal thing that won't be around for long. I liked it so much I went to get a couple more. :-)

The following was an omiyage (お土産) that a friend brought over. (A friend came to visit me recently from Hiroshima.)

It's called "Lemon Jewlry," but it's a play on words. In Japanese "Jewelry" and "Jelly" can sound almost the same. (Compare ジェリー and ジュエリー) Perhaps they were aiming for a shiny, glistening image? My friend told me it had to be chilled for a few hours first, which I did. I actually enjoyed this. Real cold, real sour. I think it's safe to say that it tastes as good as it looks. My only complaint is the small portions it comes in. Open one, and it's basically over in a flash. But other than that, I really liked the sour flavor of it.

And this is C.C. Lemon.

Admittedly, this drink can be found at almost any time of the year, but it is especially enjoyable during the summer. The labeling on the can says there is 50 lemons' worth of vitamin C in the drink. A claim that I find hard to believe; even if true, the amount is ludicrous, as you just piss most of it out. That said, I really like this drink. It's fizzy, deliciously sour, and a cold can really hits the spot on a hot summer day.

I'm recalling my first exposure to Japanese pop music. Back when I was in my teens, a Japanese-American friend who knew I was into Japanese language and culture, lent me some 45 rpm records of Japanese music popular when she was young. I knew the music would be a bit dated, but at that point, any Japanese music was good, so I was excited to give them a listen. The first Japanese pop song I ever heard in my life was a song called "Remon no Kissu" (Lemon Kiss) by a group called "The Golden Half."

It may have been dated, but this was my first exposure to Japanese pop-culture, and I still remember it to this day.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Japanese Summer Treat: Ramune

Nothing has permeated Japanese pop culture quite like ramune.

What is ramune? (Pronounced something like "rah-muh-nay")

Ramune is a carbonated drink that is bottled and sold in Japan. It is usually bottled in a special bottle that has a marble floating around in its neck. The marble usually is stopping the bottle, and it must be forcibly pushed in to open it, after which it rolls around freely in the neck. The name "ramune" is the result of an attempt at transliterating the word "lemonade" into Japanese.

As an American who grew up drinking pink, non-carbonated lemonade, I couldn't quite figure out why anyone would think this drink would have anything to do with lemonade.

As I got to know more English-speakers in Japan, however, I found out that "lemonade" doesn't exactly mean the same thing in every English-speaking country.

My Brit friends tell me that when they hear "lemonade," they think of what Americans would call a Sprite. Apparently, for Brits, "lemonade" is a lemon-flavored, carbonated drink.

Perhaps this is where the Japanese got their idea for ramune?

At any rate it is what it is.

Ramune has become such a part of Japanese modern culture, so much that it's its own flavor.

Ramune is associated with the summer, as it's a common cold drink served as a refreshment in the hot summer heat.

Something I've noticed in Japan, is that when the Japanese love a flavor, they go all out making that flavor everything.

This has happened with ramune.

There's ramune meltaway candy, ramune KitKats, ramune ice cream, and as you may have seen  in my last post, ramune yatsuhashi.

 Ramune candies

 Ramune KitKat

 Ramune Soft Ice Cream

Ramune packaged ice cream

Ramune Yatsuhashi

 Ramune yatsuhashi unpackaged

There are probably other sweets and things that I failed to mention here. I'm quite sure I've seen ramune sweet bread and donuts before.

Some of my readers who play video games may have actually seen a ramune bottle and never even realized it.

If you played the game PikMin, in the level of the Forest Navel, you will have encountered a derelict ramune bottle near some Wolliwogs, where you find the Anti-Dioxin Filter. 

Is that a ramune bottle? Yes, yes it is.

You can see a ramune bottle in the second Pikmin short movie, starting at 1:13

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Yatsuhashi: The Kyoto Treat

This post was touched off by an omiyage (お土産) that a co-worker brought into work recently. He had to go out on a business trip to Kyoto and he brought yatsuhashi (八つ橋) back as a souvenir.

First off, let's talk about the Japanese custom of bringing back people souvenirs. When you go out on a trip, it's good form to bring back people you know some sort of gift, particularly some sort of specialty found in the area where you went. This is called "omiyage," and the kanji for it, "お土産," literally means "product of the earth," or "product of the land" you went to. This practice of bringing back gifts is not limited to family and/or close friends; at a Japanese workplace, if you go out on a business trip, you're kind of expected to bring everyone you're working with, some sort of gift. That gift doesn't have to be extravagant; it's usually a small packaged sweet or food. Typically what happens is, a person will buy a box of individually packed candies, crackers or cakes, with enough for the whole group.

Another word for locally produced specialty is "meibutsu," or "名物." If you ever visit Japan and meet locals, they'll want to know where you're from, and what is the "meibutsu" where you live. It maybe a learning experience; you may be forced to look up your home town, state or province to find out what exactly it is that your area is famous for. In my case, I'm from a little town called "Salinas" in the state of California. It's not really famous for anything; the only shit that ever came out of that town was John Steinbeck. That and lettuce. If you ever visit Salinas, as you approach it along Highway 101, it's nothing but fields of produce as far as the eye can see. We also have an incredible crime rate; Salinas is also famous, or shall I say, infamous for its out-of-control gang activity.

But I digress; let's stick to the topic at hand.

When it comes to Japanese confectionery, in my view, the Japanese are fond of three things; "mochi" (餅), a sticky concoction made of pounded rice, "an" (餡), sweet bean paste made from adzuki beans, and "kinako" (黄粉), a kind of flour made from roasted soybeans. Japanese sweets often include one of these things, and a lot of the time, are actually some sort of mixture of all three.

Perhaps the most famous of all Japanese confectionery is "daifuku" (大福), which consists of mounds of mochi stuffed with an.

White and pink daifuku stuffed with an

Daifuku are traditionally stuffed with an, but now you can find different fillings, such as strawberries, chocolate, ice cream, etc.

Which brings us to Yatsuhashi (八つ橋), the specialty treat of Kyoto.

This quite possibly the most Kyoto-esque thing you can get someone, which immediately tells a Japanese receiver of it that you've been to Kyoto.

In my opinion, yatsuhashi are nothing more than elegant, dainty, over-stylized daifuku.

Yatsuhashi mochi

Mochi is rolled out and cut into small sheets, and then stuffed with an.

Sweet bean paste, AKA "an."

The sheets are then folded into neat little triangles and arranged ornately.

Pat them with kinako, and you have yatsuhashi.

My co-worker thinks like I do.

He could have brought back the most run-of-the-mill yatsuhashi he could find. But instead, he chose to bring back a box which included out-of-the-ordinary flavors.

 Not shown here is the package of normal, mochi-and-an yatsuhashi. But if you can read the katakana and kanji, you would see that the blue package reads "ramune" (a Japanese carbonated drink), the yellow one reads "choko banana," and the green one says "matcha," or "powdered tea." (You can find Green Tea everything too.)

Of all of these, the ramune yatsuhashi called my attention.

How very peculiar!

A very traditional Japanese sweet that tastes like a soft-drink! I thought I had to give it a try.

The mochi had a blue tinge to it to hint at the ramune. The an was also somehow flavored.

I'm afraid I forgot to take a picture showing the filling, but it looks like any other yatsuhashi.

This one, though, was surprisingly refreshing.

Very appropriate, since the Japanese idea of a cold refreshing drink in the hot summer sun is a cold, dripping bottle of ramune.

For those of you who don't know, "ramune," is a Japanese soft-drink that usually comes in a strange bottle with a marble stuck in it.

I tried the choko banana yatsuhashi too.

Could it be that Kyoto-ites are trying to compete with Tokyo's banana?

Incidentally, if Kyoto's sweet is yatsuhashi, Tokyo's sweet is Tokyo Banana. If you're on a train and you see someone with a bag with the above logo on it, you'll know they're coming back from a trip to Tokyo.

Until the next time! :-)

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Tanabata 2016

 The Tanabata bamboo frond at my apartment complex

It is now the evening of Tanabata. It is a clear night, which means that the Cowherd and the Weaver will be meeting tonight. Once the evening ends, they shall part once again to their respective sides of the River of Heaven, until next year. Surely they will cherish each other's embrace, taking in as much of each other as they can. May their night be filled with love and tenderness.

Everywhere you go, you get a feeling that Tanabata in the air.

Even Google got into the spirit.

The latest ANA ad on my news feed also chimed in on the season.

You can hear the song of Tanabata at the grocery store, decorated with bamboo fronds, where they sell Tanabata-themed snacks.

Children bring home Tanabata crafts they made at school for their parents.

My son brought home a bamboo frond his kindergarten gave him, as well as some decorations he made. At home, I sat with him and made more decorations for our Tanabata bamboo frond, including gold and silver "amanogawa" (River of Heaven), chains and ladders, all made out of origami paper. We wrote our wishes on tanzaku, and hung them on the bamboo as well.

Happy Tanabata! :-)