Archive for the ‘Food & drink’ Category

Autumn crop of pumpkin, purple potato and pear products

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

JT's new pear juice contains pulp with the distinctive flavour of Japanese pear

JT’s new juice contains pulp with the distinctive texture of Japanese pear

This autumn sees the shelves of convenience stores throughout Japan groaning under the weight of a bumper harvest of new flavor sensations. Here’s our round-up of this year’s crop:

Pumpkin is of course a classic autumnal flavor and true to form, this year Nestle has released a limited edition pumpkin-flavored Kit Kat for Halloween. Häagen-Dazs, too, has jumped aboard the pumpkin bandwagon by releasing pumpkin-flavored ice cream earlier this month along with a murasaki imo (purple potato) flavor. Purple potato has also popped up in Kinoko no Yama’s roster of seasonal flavors this year, along with maple and roasted chestnut.

According to Mainichi, crunchy Japanese pears (nashi), as opposed to the differently shaped and softer-textured European pears, are quite literally the flavor of the autumn months this year. Last month Japanese pear-flavored Fanta went on sale for a limited time only and beverage maker JT also brought out a pear juice with a pulpy texture that’s distinctive to the Japanese pear. In addition, Gari-Gari Kun’s pear-flavored ice pops have also proved so popular since their initial release in 2010 that this year they’re being sold in packs of seven.

As surely as the trees will soon be bare of leaves, many of the limited-edition items mentioned about will be sold out by the end of autumn, so those who don’t want to miss out on these novel nibbles and drinks ought to hurry.

Inside Nazo Tomo Cafe

Friday, August 16th, 2013

The other day we brought up the nazo toki (puzzle solving) trend that appears to be building even further with the appearance of Nazo Tomo Cafe in Daikanyama, Shibuya-ku’s Theatre Cybird. Though I’ve played “Professor Layton” and used to get a kick out of logic exercises as a kid, I can’t say I am “good” at puzzle solving, so it took some guts for me to walk into the quirky pop-up cafe.

I thought I would warm up with a “cup dessert,” a perilously sweet parfait-like affair with heart-shaped cake, generous amounts of whipped cream, marshmallows, cornflakes, etc., but my true warm-up was the puzzle that came with it.

nazo

Strawberry sauce cup dessert ¥500

The event is put on in collaboration with a romance sim mobile game for girls by Cybird (under the same company group that runs the theatre space) called “Ikemen Oukyū Mayonaka no Shinderera” (something like “Hottie Royal Palace: Midnight Cinderella” in English). In the cafe puzzle, you’re a princess 30 minutes before a ball and you’ve received a letter announcing a crime will occur. However, the message is in code, so you need to get hints from the game’s handsome young men to discover what the criminal is after.

coaster

Coaster prize featuring Leo from “Hottie Royal Palace: Midnight Cinderella”

Now is perhaps a good time to note that you can’t expect to do any of this without good working knowledge of Japanese. The code itself is written in katakana, but you need to be able to read and understand the instructions, too. And don’t waste precious puzzling time looking for furigana. Of course, even though my Japanese was cutting it, the other parts of my mind were embarrassingly dull. Luckily the staff are friendly and will give you further hints until you feel almost as if you solved it yourself — definitely the reason for the 100 percent pass rate compared to the actual missions, of which when I went most did not reach 20 percent.

After picking up my prize coaster, I decided to pass on the rest of the side mission in order to get down to the real business at hand. I wanted to get inside one of those “mission cubes”!

The main draw of Nazo Tomo Cafe is not the cafe at all, but the puzzles awaiting inside each of the six mission cubes. Participation costs ¥1,000. Having never played a Real Escape Game or solved any similar real-life puzzles, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but more in the mood for science fiction than murder or romance, I picked mission six, “Taimu Mashin 765~Mirai wo Sukue~” (“Time Machine 765: Save the future!”).

[Mild spoilers ahead]

Led up some stairs to a short hallway-like room, I was told not to touch anything until after the countdown started. All the puzzles are designed to be solved within 765 seconds (a number too close to na-mu-ko in Japanese, i.e. producer Namco, to be a coincidence), but I knew at first glance it would be impossible for me alone. After a short video explaining (in Japanese with Japanese captions) how the world would end as the culmination of a series of unfortunate events beginning with some guy stubbing his toe, I was faced with a seven-step brain teaser with no hints in sight. How would I push the button to save the planet from certain doom? One of the steps involved playing the Japanese word game “Shiritori,” an example of how cultural fluency can matter as much as the linguistic kind.

[End mild spoilers]

Of course, once I had failed magnificently I thought of various ways I could have tried to proceed in a swifter, more orderly fashion, but so it goes. If nothing else, know that this is not a pencil-pushing game; you’ll be pacing your cube, manipulating objects and hopefully talking things through with your friends along the way.

That’s why it’s called “Puzzle Friend Cafe.” Even just two heads are better than one, so don’t be like me showing up alone. The staff will welcome you gladly (one of them confessed player numbers had decreased a bit since they opened on July 31), but you’ll have more fun, and more of a chance for success, with a pal or five (it seems up to six can play together). I paid once and received a free ticket to try another day, so maybe I’ll see if I can round up a posse for sometime next month; although the cafe closes briefly starting Aug. 25, round two runs Sept. 6-23.

Nazo toki trend goes mainstream

Wednesday, August 14th, 2013

The Nazo Tomo Cafe in Daikanyama

The Nazo Tomo Cafe in Daikanyama

A pop-up shop with a difference appeared on the fashionable streets of Shibuya last month. Open until Aug. 25, and again between Sept. 6 and Sept 23, the Nazo Tomo Cafe is a mystery waiting to be solved. Inside, for ¥1,000, customers can team up with strangers or friends to solve a puzzle of their choice. For us the appearance of this cafe is an indication that the trend for real-life puzzle games is really booming.

It all started back in 2008 when SCRAP introduced The Real Escape Game. A real-life version of popular escape games for the PC, players are trapped in a room and have to figure out clues in order to free themselves within a time limit. The idea of making these virtual rooms a physical reality was hugely popular and really took off in Japan. Indeed, SCRAP has even exported the game overseas, holding their first event in San Francisco last December.

Part of the success of the game could be due to the social aspect — players have to collaborate to escape in time. Indeed, as with paint balling, companies sign up employees to play as a team-building exercise. The idea of solving puzzles in a real-life, real-time setting has clearly taken off. Escape games are now held all over the country by a number of different companies. Different kinds of puzzle games have also begun to become popular (for example, games in which teams hunt for treasure) and amusement parks have become popular venues for these larger-scale events.

Sites like Nazo Toki provide information on upcoming events around the country. Indeed, the word nazo toki (puzzle solving) now appears to refer to the wider range of puzzle games that includes escape games. Nazo Tomo Cafe reflects this diversification and the games on offer vary to suit all tastes. Choices include diffusing a bomb or a murder mystery, as well as the classic room escape game.

Produced by Namco and managed by the Nazo Tomo website, Nazo Tomo Cafe has some impressive backing behind it — perhaps an indication that big name companies want to get in on the nazo toki trend. Check back soon for our hands-on report!

Recycled udon — a viable energy alternative or a sign of extreme extravagance?

Monday, August 12th, 2013

udon

Sanuki udon

Chiyoda Seisakusho in Kagawa Prefecture is exhibiting some of Japan’s waste-not spirit (mottainai!) by using leftover udon scraps to make electricity. Noodle power! But is this technique really as eco-friendly as it sounds?

Chiyoda was already making bio-ethanol out of scrapped udon, but there are dregs left over. The power plant project began from trying to think of a way to put those dregs to use. By fermenting them, plus uneaten udon collected from restaurants (1.5 tons, 1 ton respectively per day), methane gas is created, which can rotate a turbine. Chiyoda estimates it’ll be able to produce enough kilowatts to power 50 households in a year and that it’ll start selling power to Shikoku Electric Power Company as early as September. Additionally, since it got a waste disposal license, it can make extra money just by collecting the udon shop garbage.

All told, Chiyoda expects to make ¥12 million (about $124,572) per year. This, from an initial investment (at least, for the plant) of ¥80 million (about $830,480). If others are keen on replicating this feat, the company is also planning on taking orders for plants themselves beginning sometime this year.

While it may be possible to apply this idea to other starchy food items, such as potatoes or rice, udon is supposedly especially efficient.

Awesome, so villages in the future will live and run on udon! Not so fast. Critically thinking onlookers bring up some good points, the most obvious of which is:

“At first glance this seems eco-friendly, but aren’t we just making too much udon?”

This sentiment from a 2ch message board user also came up in the Aug. 8 episode of “Sukkiri!” a Japanese talk/variety show featuring commentator Terry Ito.

Kagawa Prefecture, famous for Sanuki Udon, makes 47,080 tons of udon a year (which is almost double the second highest, Saitama). It also scraps 6,000 tons a year. “The fact that 6,000 tons get scrapped is shocking. Makes you wonder if it wouldn’t be better to reduce that amount,” Ito said.

A reporter for the TV show investigated one reason for the massive waste. In a noodle shop in Takamatsu he was served bukkake udon in 14.7 seconds. That speed means cooks are boiling noodles ahead of the moment an order comes in — a practice certainly not limited to Kagawa Prefecture, by the way — but if they are boiled for over 20 minutes they lose the consistency that customers expect and are tossed. Tossed!

“I know I’m harping on this, but couldn’t we control ourselves and get 6,000 down to 3,000? I really don’t like the idea that throwing it away becomes justifiable,” Ito said.

The bottom line seems to be that as long as we don’t use udon power plants as an excuse to waste udon, then everything is fine. Stretch your mottainai mindset a little further and instead of thinking of creative ways to re-purpose garbage, reduce the amount of garbage in the first place. That’s a technique we can all stand to emulate.

Next stop: French toast?

Tuesday, July 30th, 2013

So what is it with Japanese and “konamono sweets” (sweets made out of flour)?  Be it crepes, doughnuts, waffles or honey toast, they seem to move up and down the trend chart on a fairly regular basis.

French Toast

Prosciutto and pickles top this French toast at Yocco’s in Nakano.

Over the past few years, upmarket and imported pancakes have been a booming food trend in Japan. Some of the more famous outlets, such as the chic Australian chain bills or the more down-to-earth Hawaiian Eggs ’n Things, are still attracting long lines of pancake lovers. Perhaps the best illustration of pancake mania came this past May in the form of a mobile app called Minna no Pankeiki-bu (Everybody’s Pancake Club), which allowed users to locate the closest flapjack cafe.

While the usual syrup-and-butter variety is still a mainstay, variations far off that theme are emerging. Anyone up for pancakes covered in hiyashi chūka (cold Chinese noodles) or shirasu (baby fish and radish)? Anyone at all?

Keep in mind, there is a precedent here for this flour power: okonomiyaki, the savory pancake-like dish made popular in Kansai, has its origins in  an Edo Period item called sukesoyaki, which consisted on a pancakes and a sweet bean (anko) paste.

While it’s hard to say whether the days of the pancake renaissance are numbered, we couldn’t help but notice the rising popularity of another Western breakfast favorite: French toast.

The new trend is all about shokuji French toast —  it’s a meal, not a dessert.  While French toast isn’t new to Japan, “Haru and Haru” called itself  Tokyo’s first french toast cafe when it opened in May last year. Not long after that came Sarabeth’s, a breakfast restaurant from New York,  famous for “fat and fluffy” French toast.” A 30-minute wait to get in isn’t uncommon.

Lobros relaunched its cafes this past March as Yocco’s French Toast Café, with locations in Jiyugaoka, Kichijoiji and Nakano. Yocco’s serves both a sweet and savory versions, with emphasis on the latter. If you’re adventuresome, you might want to try with a tall glass of cauliflower juice.

In Tokyo’s Yurakucho, the Cafe Chou Chou serves daily non-sweet “pain perdu” (French toast in French). If you’re looking for savory French toast for less than ¥1,000, try Pain Petit Pas in Harajuku. For lunch it serves French toast topped with cured bacon and smoked salmon.

Will shokuji French toast rise the heights of the pancakes and crepes? It’s hard to say. We’ll keep our eye out for an app called Minna no furenchi-tosuto-bu . .  .  hope no one decides to combine them with hiyashi chūka?

The last of the McDonald’s Jewelry

Wednesday, July 24th, 2013

Since we enjoy finishing what we start, here is our report on the third Jewelry Quarter Pounder from McDonald’s, the Ruby Spark…

My favorite number!

My favorite number!

Given our past experiences getting the Gold Ring and the Black Diamond,  I figured I could saunter down to the neighborhood McD’s around 10:30 and pick up this new one-day-only premium burger, no sweat. In reality, it required a lot of sweat, because when I showed up an employee came and said if I was hoping to get the ¥1,000 burger that the line cut off with the guy directly in front of me.

Shock and despair clouded my mind as I raced for the nearest subway station. I could think of any number of McDonald’s locations, but which one would be sure to have the goods? If my local and not-terribly-major location was sold out, could the entire country have run out? In less than 10 minutes?

If I felt a little silly getting off the train after one stop, I felt even sillier sprinting through the station; just imagine what people would think of me if they knew I was rushing in order to buy a McDonald’s hamburger!

The humiliation paid off. I received a number in a rather convoluted line (some people had cups with numbers written on them, others had plastic cards like me; numbers were not necessarily called in order), while anyone who showed up even a few minutes later was out of luck.

Continue reading about the Ruby Spark →

Tweet Beat: #孤独のグルメ

Monday, July 22nd, 2013

The Twitter Japan blog releases a list of top hashtags for each week. Tweet Beat investigates the buzz behind the hashtag.

With eel, I don’t really feel like I want to eat it all that often, but sure enough, when I see Goro eating it, I get a bizarre craving.

The #夜食テロ (“late-night eating terror,” a nickname lovingly applied by those who fear for their metabolisms, and embraced by the show) is back! The third season of manga-turned-drama #孤独のグルメ (“The Solitary Gourmand”) premiered July 10 and got more buzz on Twitter than #ショムニ (“‘Shomuni’ 2013”), a manga-based sitcom about office ladies, returning after a 10-year hiatus. However, Goro’s enjoyment of various eel dishes in this episode did not engage Twitter users quite as much as either the Friday Roadshow broadcast of Studio Ghibli’s #平 狸合戦ぽんぽこ (aka #ぽんぽこ, “Pom Poko” as it’s known in English) or the premieres of summer anime #watamote (“No Matter How I Look At It, It’s You Guys’ Fault I’m Not Popular”) and #kaminomi (“The World Only God Knows: Goddesses).

As in Masayuki Kusumi and Jiro Taniguchi’s manga, Goro Inogashira (played by Yutaka Matsushige on TV) takes himself out for quiet meals when he’s not working and just eats whatever he feels like.

My wife seems to equate Yutaka Matsushige with yakuza or murderer roles, so while we’re watching “The Solitary Gourmand” she’s sitting next to me saying stuff like, “He must be hungry since he killed about three people today on no breakfast,” or “There must be a weapon built in to the tip of that umbrella and any minute now he’s gonna . . . ” So obnoxious.

The fun thing about the show is that Goro eats at real restaurants. Fans like eating along.

They’re lining up outside the Akabane eel restaurant that Goro went to yesterday.

Apparently, this week’s destination, Kawaei, was overrun after the episode aired. It was quickly booked up and has been selling out of its signature dishes quickly.

This is when it’s cool to be the other kind of “solitary gourmand” — the kind who cooks along.

これでいいのか、鰻のオムレツ。 #鰻 #うなぎ #孤独のグルメ

Is this good enough? Eel omelet. — @kojuroko

Pulsations (07.19.13)

Friday, July 19th, 2013

What’s in a Japanese Woman’s Purse? Let’s Look Inside! (from Tofugu): Phone, check. Day planner, check. Face-blotting paper, check. Shout-out to Tofogu’s intern, Rachel, for a great read on what lies in the depths of a Japanese woman’s bag.

On Getting by in Japan (Without Speaking Japanese) (from This Japanese Life): The author of this post wishes he could have read this upon arriving in Japan two months back. Plenty of helpful tips for the less fluent among us gaijin.

Japanese Tattoo Stockings (from Spoon & Tamago): Tattoo taboo is notrious in Japan, so several companies have rolled out a new variety of temporary ink. Designs of origami cranes, mirror frames and other images can give you the edgy look without the all the pain and shame.

Is Sushi ‘Healthy’? (from Just Hungry): A lunch set from your favorite sushi joint could cost you ¥1,000 and nearly as many calories.

Shigeru Ban Wins Competition to Design ‘Cite Musicale’ in Paris (from DesignBoom): Japanese architect Shigeru Ban just won the design competition for a revitalization project in southwest Paris. The compelling design is slated for completion in 2016.

SDF: Looking for a Few Good Women — to Date (from Japan Real Time): The nation’s Self-Defense Force has plenty of bachelors who are single and ready to mingle. Finding that man in uniform may not be so tough, after all.

Google Tour of Hashima Island (from Google Street View): A coal-mining facility for nearly a century, the haunting haikyo of Hashima was made famous with the release of last year’s mega-hit “Skyfall,” which used the island as locational inspiration for several scenes.

Visual Pulse

This vibrant music video for pop artist Cuushe’s “Airy Me” comes to life through 3,000 hand-drawn sketches. (Don’t watch if you’re disturbed by illustrated entrails.)

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