2014 in Review and a Look at 2015

I did a post like this at the end of 2013. Let's see how things have changed in the past year.

My third year in Japan was certainly less exciting than the prior two.

I took two international trips, visiting three different countries: Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore. I had a fantastic time at all three places, especially focusing on local food in addition to checking out the sights. In Korea I got to go to six baseball games at six different stadiums in a week. Singapore's cuisine stands out as the best, though all three places have great dishes. And Hong Kong Disneyland was my first international Disney park; yes, I still haven't made it to Tokyo Disneyland or Disney Sea.

My summer was spent on the island of Shikoku, on my most active trip yet. I hiked a few mountains and spent most of the time outdoors. I even randomly came across a baseball museum while sightseeing near Okayama!

But other than my major vacations, I mostly fell into a weekly routine. Take the train to Akihabara, walk around for a little while and have a kebab don. Then, scoot over to Kanda, Takadanobaba, and finally Ikebukuro for a snack with a friend. I love to walk around Akiba, but I didn't take any day or overnight trips that I had planned on taking. I did get to Nagoya for a weekend.

I got on a bunch of new roller coasters this year, both in Japan and in the other countries I visited. I only saw one baseball game here in Japan, though.

I had hoped to be in the US for New Years, but the cards weren't in my favor.

Blogging was a strong point for me this year. I didn't get something posted every day like I had hoped, but I wrote 282 posts in 2014!

I didn't follow through with either of my 2014 resolutions. I think I might weigh a little bit more than I did one year ago. And I studied a lot of Japanese but I didn't attempt the JLPT test.

So what's going on in 2015?

I'm going to book a ticket as soon as possible to go back to the States at some point. I'm looking at June as a possibility, though it would be nice to spend the holidays with my family - if prices work out I might go around Christmas/New Years instead.

The other two or three long vacations will keep me in Japan. I'm looking at western Japan and/or Kyushu for Golden Week and Tohoku and/or Sapporo for summer vacation.

I would like to continue experiencing things in Japan. There are plenty of dishes to sample and several places to try traditional crafts. We'll have a new foreign teacher at our school soon who might be interested in doing some of this with me.

And I'll carry over my two resolutions from last year: lose some weight and pass the JLPT N5 exam.

Any thoughts?

A Meal Fit for a King... or Idol? Aikatsu and Pizza Hut

I split my birthday celebrations over a few days, because, well, I can! I went out with some friends about a week before, for my and a coworker's birthday.

My birthday fell on a Saturday, which is a workday for us English conversation teachers. My Saturday shift starts and ends earlier than the rest of the week, but I had to get home for a package delivery. So I decided to go all-out and grab a pizza. Or two.
 Once you get past the super-sugary-sweet cuteness of the idol girls on the box, you might notice that this is a Pizza Hut box. And if you look carefully, it should seem taller than usual. That's because inside the box is two pizzas, in a fairly clever box assembly.
 In addition to the two pizzas at a discount price, I got a pack of cards and a sheet of stickers for the aikatsu game. Aikatsu is a card-based video game where you collect outfits to dress your idol character as she performs in auditions and shows. Each card has a barcode on the back which the machine can read as you play.
The set came with one of two specific pairs of pizzas. Each of the pizzas was part of the "Four" series, which means I got sixteen slices of pizza with a total of eight different types of pizza. These are styles I usually wouldn't order, but they are still enjoyable.

The top pizza in this order had a cheesy pocket crust (not a cheese-filled crust, which Pizza Hut also sells). The bottom pizza was the standard pan pizza American pizza lovers will recognize. The cheesy crust was good when fresh, but it didn't hold up well as leftovers.

Yes, leftovers. These "medium" pizzas are smaller than US sizes, so four slices make a good meal. That means I had pizza for dinner four days straight!

As for the cards and stickers, they are nice additions to my collection of Japanese pop culture collection! Aikatsu is extremely popular with kids (and some adults too) though it might be losing popularity finally. The cards have had promotional tie-ins with magazines, food products, Pizza Hut (of course), and McDonalds!

American Retro and Flavor at the Toy Box Cafe, Koshigaya

Let's face it. Almost everything "American" (or otherwise foreign) in Japan is modified to suit local tastes. This is true in America, of course - sushi, tacos, and kung pao chicken are all Americanized in the States.

I haven't hopped back across the pond since arriving in Japan three years ago. I've managed to satiate my homesickness and cravings for American food by finding alternates or paying the price for imported goods. But sometimes you just gotta feel like you're back in America.

When it comes to an American menu, I think Toy Box just about does it as authentically as possible. The menu is truly American, full of nachos and burgers and tacos and even big banana splits! Okay, they slipped taco rice in there too.

And the decor is retro kitsch:

 I've only been to Toy Box Cafe twice in my three years here, but I've enjoyed it both times. The burgers are juicy and well-sized! And for my birthday this year I was treated to my first banana split in three years:
Toy Box isn't cheap. The burgers are 900-1500 yen, the nachos are 750 yen, and the banana split rings in at 850 yen. That might explain why I don't go so often - I just can't always afford that kind of a food bill.

The staff is really nice and I think they understand a good bit of English, which certainly helps! It may be off the beaten path for most, but it's still relatively accessible and a better place to get dinner after a day at nearby Koshigaya LakeTown shopping mall.

The website is in Japanese only, but the menu translates into English pretty smoothly. It's located about three minutes from the west exit of Shinkoshigaya Station on the Tobu SkyTree line; add another minute coming from Minamikoshigaya Station on the JR Musashino line.

Crazy Corn Chip: Beef Consomme Doritos

I found another one of those strange chip flavors recently.
 If you didn't bother reading the title, or the bag above, these are Beef Consomme flavored. Consomme is a strongly-flavored soup. In case you didn't know.
The chips have a strange color inside the bag, but are more orange outside. And as for the flavor, I don't think you can get much closer to a beef with vegetables flavor on a corn chip than this. They're pretty good, actually!

As always, each flavor in the Doritos Royal line lasts about one to two weeks before it disappears from shelves, to be replaced by something else. Recently, I also saw a taco-flavored chip and tried the "very spicy" taco flavor. Yes, two taco versions. The spicy flavor was just like a well-filled taco, with a decent kick.

More soon... once I get more photos organized and uploaded!

It's Cold

I'm not sure how accurate iPhone weather is. But it's still cold. 

Happy (early) Thanksgiving!

Being an American holiday, Thanksgiving is pretty much exclusive to the US. What's a Yankee supposed to do in Japan this time of year?

Turkey isn't exactly popular here, though I'm not sure why not. Subway has a turkey sandwich (the Subway shop in my area closed for renovations quite some time ago), and you can find the meat in stores, but not at all like back home. Stuffing? Forget about it. Cranberry sauce doesn't exist either.

I've read that there are some restaurants where you can get a Thanksgiving dinner, but it looks like the options in Tokyo start around 4000 yen. I can make due with a turkey sub, though there's one Thanksgiving dish I really miss.
Pumpkin pie isn't exactly popular in Japan. Pies in general can be tough to find, as Japan prefers cake. I've made my own pumpkin pie before, and I'll probably visit the import store to see if I can bake one here (my microwave oven can function as a regular oven too). But I saw the above piece of pumpkin pie at Starbucks and dropped over $4 for the small slice of goodness.

It has a lot of pumpkin flavor, and it's somewhat "chunky" in a homemade style, with a couple pieces of pumpkin (or other gourds) inside. The crust was pretty good, flaky but not too tender, with good buttery taste. The whipped cream is pretty heavy and tastes like it should.

Hopefully I can get the supplies (in other words, pumpkin filling and pie crust) necessary to make my own. Otherwise, I might have looked at my only piece of the pie this year - literally and figuratively!

Japanese Culture Enthusiasts

So you might have noticed that I've been quiet lately when it comes to the blog.

I'm not exactly sure what I've been doing. But instead of moping around and typing out my miniscule problems, I'll share a video I came across today from SNL.

I've been living in Japan for almost three years now, and this skit is pretty funny. I've met several people in America like this before coming to Japan, and seen several here in Tokyo while out during the weekends. Several students at the school I used to teach at wanted a Japanese foreign language class, just so they could understand Sailor Moon and Naruto.

And it also brings to mind the opposite - Japanese kids who are "American Culture Enthusiasts" - namely the "hip hop fashion" style that continues to be popular here. Just a couple hours ago, a teenager was standing around the station with baggy pants and an oversize jacket with logos and designs similar to what you'd see either on rap stars or on gang members.

In LA or New York (or many other places) he and others might actually get hurt being dressed that way, as many teens carry or wear colored bandannas that in the States identify which gang you belong to. I've seen girls with one pants leg rolled up - another sign of being in a gang.

And there are tons of stores in Tokyo where you can buy these clothes, from the malls to Harajuku and Shibuya to Ameyoko-cho near Ueno. (I know that hip hop fashion isn't always gang fashion and vice-versa, but for boys especially it tends to run together, and like JCE's in the US, Japanese kids don't always know the difference.)

I wouldn't call myself a Japanese Culture Enthusiast by any means. I enjoy real actual life in Japan, which isn't all that different from American life in many ways. But I do like to use a bit of Japanese from time to time (though I really don't know much), I find myself following Japanese customs (bowing, sort of, for example), and I've collected a large amount of Japanese cultural souvenirs. I prefer chopsticks in many cases and I've been moving toward more and more Japanese meals. But I've never thought of myself as Japanese.

I pose a question to my readers: is being a culture enthusiast, and trying to adopt another culture's styles and mannerisms, racist? Are the characters in the video ignorant?

Snacking with Spice: A Couple Halloween Leftovers

My last real post tossed more than a stomach's full of snacks and treats that you could give to Halloween trick-or-treaters. There were a few left over snacks and while at work last week I had a couple bags.
The first snack loosely translates as Pepper Seeds. They're chip-like snacks shaped like large seeds. As you might have guessed by the red bag and picture of a sport pepper on the front, they are spicy. The bag isn't that large, but the pieces are packed in pretty well so it took me a few snackings to finish it all off!

How about some habanero peppers? This evil-looking black bag houses tiny rings of fire. The actual snack isn't too spicy, but it does have a kick. The real power comes in that little red envelope attached to the bag.

Inside that envelope is spicy powder - very fine powder, which you can see on the picture of the snacks themselves. And while that powder isn't too spicy in my mouth or stomach, it's fine enough that it finds its way into your sinuses, and that's where the kick comes from. It's almost like sticking that powerfully spicy Chinese mustard directly into your nose. It's a good snack, but I wish that powder wasn't so powdery!

I'm Back! Soon...

I had planned to post a bit while I was on vacation. Originally, I was going to queue up a bunch of posts to go live over the last couple weeks. But I was just way too busy preparing for the trip. And I was hoping to post while I was touring around Asia, but there was no time.

So I'm back! I will give you details on the trip sometime this week, once I get settled back in. There are clothes everywhere and piles of stuff as I unpacked - and from grocery shopping tonight.

Meanwhile, here's a nice Chinese Chicken video for you. I went to Hong Kong and Singapore. My favorite dish from the trip was chicken rice from Singapore.
Yes. That's a real thing. An actual Chinese music video. You can't unsee that kind of thing.

31 Days of Halloween: Halloween Puke-tacular!

I did pretty well at work today running through several packages of candy. Sure, we didn't finish them - many of the Japanese staff members didn't even touch the stuff I shared! But I have a whole bunch to share with you below. And there's more. There's still so much more...
The above snack is very popular with the kids at my school. It used to be that every Friday evening between classes all the kids would have a different version of this snack and they'd share them all. I've seen at least a dozen types - mini potato chips like you see above, in all sorts of different flavors, cookies, crackers, you name it. And they're pretty cheap given the number of pieces inside. Then again, they're pretty small, a bit bigger than a quarter.

The above flavor is "Potewasa" (wasabi flavored potato chips). The wasabi is noticeable but not overwhelming. My coworker and I ate the entire package by the end of the day. Well, almost the entire package. I really would like to try a full spread of flavors sometime!
Dried ramen is back. This is mini chicken ramen, and like the other ramen package I had before, it looks and tastes just like you'd expect ramen noodles to taste. Except they're crunchy and dry. A great little snack, though like a bag full of broken potato chips or pretzels, they can get messy.
I've been waiting a long time to try these. Dorachoco is their name, as you can see if you look closely at the yellow edges of the package, or if you can read kana.
They're two small pancake sandwiches with chocolate "cream" inside. The texture and such was great, but the chocolate seemed a bit off. Then again, they did expire a week ago. Maybe they're better fresh.
Here is more chewing candy, this time in soda flavor. I can't remember the candy these are similar to in the US, given their size. I suppose you could say they're like giant Skittles, and I love Skittles.
The mini packages come with five pieces of only one flavor. Each candy is about the size of a couple Starburst candies. As promised, they are chewy, again like Skittles. The "soda" flavor you see here tastes more like the generic bubble gum that I've sampled lately than a cola or other common soda. They're good, but I'd like to find larger bags of these with multiple flavors (and at a better price).
Here is a candy jewel. That's what the kanji on the front translates to. It's as big as a larger gumball you'd find in the States, individually wrapped.
This one is cola flavored, and despite the strange coating on the outside it isn't sour or super-sweet. It's just like a jawbreaker, with a tart cola flavor (more like Coca-Cola than Pepsi). This was pretty good and lasted quite a long time!
Moving back to the snacks from the sweets, here is Tamanegi-san, or Mr. Onion. These little puff balls are just like cheese puff snacks in the US, but with an onion flavor. It's certainly noticeable, and they're pretty tasty, though I'd suggest not eating these before going on a date.
Remember those squid things I couldn't stand a few days ago? Well, as I mentioned, there is a variety of different flavors and styles. This is the "ethnic flavor" dried cod. Or at least that's what I was told at work - it is fish, though I'm not sure what fish it is.
Unlike the other Yotchan product I tried, this one is not overwhelming when it comes to flavor. It's like a fish jerky, and it's not that bad-tasting. On the other hand, I'm not so sure the processed fish parts used to make it is healthy. I had a few of these chewy pieces today, and since nobody else seemed interested in trying them I'll end up having a few more tomorrow.

Despite eating so many kinds of junk food today, I didn't eat much of any particular item, just sampling a few of them. So I didn't OD on Halloween treats. And there are more snacks to come.
Until next time...

31 Days of Halloween: Good News, Everyone!

So, remember that big problem I was talking about before? It finally cleared up, three weeks later, Wednesday evening. Needless to say, I'm in a much better place now!
I'm still busy preparing for next week, and I'm about to Skype my mom (hopefully my computer will cooperate this time). So time is short. But I have some sweet candies to go with the sweet news on All Hallows Eve Eve.
These are Konpeito/konpeitou. It's named after the Portuguese candy confeito, a type of sugar candy. According to Wikipedia, which is always super-trustworthy, it used to be a very rare and expensive candy in Japan, because of the difficulty in obtaining refined sugar. Apparently it takes over a week to make them, due to the slow process of coating them.
This little package is quite tasty, though. I've had them before, so I knew I was in for a treat. It's similar to American rock candy or other semi-hard/crunchy sugar candies. If I was handing out trick-or-treat candy, I'd probably choose these to go with some chocolate!
Speaking of chocolate, this style of candy should look familiar, as I had a similar package of chocolate balls earlier this month. Each candy is supposed to represent some form of good luck. Where the previous package had chocolate balls, this has ramune-flavored candies. Ramune is essentially another sugar product, with the original flavor being lemon-lime. These little balls didn't have any specific notable flavors, but they were pretty good too! There are other ramune candies out there, but I haven't picked any up yet.

So, tomorrow is Halloween! Hopefully I can get together a good post to finish off the treats, and the other tricks I picked up to try!

31 Days of Halloween: Taffy that isn't Laffy

I've been on the hunt for American flavor lately. I just picked up a bag of Butterfinger candies and a box of Mac and Cheese, I enjoyed plenty of pretzels at the Halloween party, I had pizza for dinner last night, and I have some chips and salsa now (thank you - you know who you are!).

Sitting in my candy basket, unbeknownst to me, were a couple pieces of candy much like American taffy.
On top, in the black bag, is Colorful Gaburi Chew. The bottom bag is just normal Gaburi Chew. I don't know what Gaburi means, other than Gabriel, which might be the character you see on the package.
The brown log came from the white bag, and is cola flavored. It's very taffy-like, though unlike good taffy in America it isn't very stretchy or gooey - it's a bit more firm. This makes it much easier to eat, though. The flavor is spot on cola, though, there's no denying that!
The black package has a mystery flavor. And it still is a mystery. Seriously, I have no idea what it was. It was kind of Sprite-like - lemon-lime-ish. But it was pretty good.

These were good treats! I might have to buy some more of these soon.

31 Days of Halloween: Strike One - Squid Snacks

We had our Halloween party at work Saturday night. All next week, I'll be changing into my costume during kids classes, and back into my shirt and tie for the adult classes. I'm going to be like a female pop star, going through so many wardrobe changes so fast!

Unlike female pop stars, I can enjoy snacks without having to worry about remaining super-skinny. And I'm not using makeup or wearing skirts.

Today's two tiny treats aren't sweets. but they're still just the right size for Halloween packages. Actually, at the party yesterday we had tiny packages of pretzels for giving out on Halloween. And I suppose these might be the traditional Japanese equivalents.
Mochi. That's the only word I can make out on the front of this package. The picture at the bottom shows part of the process of mochi making, and I'm going to assume that whatever these are called, they are made from mochi. However, my experience with mochi has been as a sweet, sticky, soft snack, usually filled with something like red bean paste or actual strawberries!
These look similar to rice cracker snacks I've talked about in the past. They're pretty small, and lightly covered with some grainy crystal similar to salt or sugar. They have a hint of sweetness, so the flavor on the outside could be sugar. It's highly possible that it's made from fried mochi. The taste is very mild, and is just a crunchy snack.
The second snack is quite exotic. This is White Cut Yocchan. It's made with seafood (mostly squid) and fish jelly. There are other styles, all containing dry seafood products, most with added fish jelly.
The pieces inside are small, thin squares. The squid gives it a crunch or chewiness that isn't so bad, but they're soaked in vinegar that gives it an aroma and a taste that you won't forget. If you like vinegar with your fish, give this a try. But I don't, and for that reason I couldn't eat more than one.

Oddly enough, this is the first snack I've had this month that I didn't like. But then again, I've been avoiding some of the scarier snacks until now. I guess that's the horror of Halloween... and Halloween trick or treat bags!

31 Days of Halloween: It's Black, and White

The overwhelming majority of Japanese sweets and candies come in small packages. I guess that has its good points - with small packages, you can eat everything and not feel too guilty. There's nothing to store and spill and it won't go bad. But that smaller piece in an individual package means you pay more per ounce, or gram, or liter, or however you want to measure it. A chocolate piece twice as voluminous as one you see below wouldn't (or at least shouldn't) cost twice as much, because many of the manufacturing costs wouldn't increase at the same rate - payroll costs to man the machines wouldn't really increase, for example. The machines wouldn't necessarily need to be doubled in size or quantity, depending on how the company churns out its goods. But I guess that digs into their profit margin.

I like bigger candies and snacks because I feel like I get more for my money - and in America, that's how things work. Here, though, there is no "bulk" discount for many things.

Anyway, size complaints aside, here are a couple small packages to sweeten my tooth just that much more.
Here is Sakupan Black. That's one evil looking panda. The package pictures one of the various designs you can find.
And here's the piece itself. It's about 1.5" in diameter, and about 1/4" thick. There's a cookie of sorts inside the chocolate coating, which makes this an inverted oreo cookie of sorts. It could have been white to match the panda, but it's black and semi-sweet. A tasty candy!
Chibi Thunder is half white chocolate, and half white chocolate mixed with a cookie-like crunchy biscuit. It's a cousin of Black Thunder, a similar snack that uses regular chocolate.
The white chocolate gives the bottom a strange color. I like white chocolate, but I'm not sure this works so well.There was another Black Thunder snack in a blue wrapper which was delicious, but I haven't seen it since. The original Black Thunder is very good too!

31 Days of Halloween: Pass (on) the Cheese, Please

I'm a meat man. When I list my favorite foods, animals top the list: burgers, chicken wings, hot dogs. Really, if it's made with chicken, I'm interested. Beef and pork is certainly welcome too!

Yes, I do love corn, peas, and carrots. Broccoli is tasty, and white Japanese radishes are a tasty snack. But rarely do I have a meal without a piece of meat. I just haven't found something appealing enough. Sure, breakfast might be a bowl of cereal or a stack of pancakes, but usually it's a tuna, ham, or egg sandwich.

So a meat snack has gotta end up in this food post marathon. Beef jerky is available here, and given the cost in the US it's not much more expensive here. But it looks like these little sticks of meat are much more popular. That's probably due to their size and packaging - they're quick snacks with a wrapper that also holds the rest of the snack until the last bite, keeping hands off the food.

Below is a longer-sized version of pencil calpas. It's a little thicker than a pencil, and a bit shorter. There are short versions (about 2 inches long) that sell for about 8-10 cents each. Also available is cheese, both in the longer length seen below and shorter lengths to go along with the sausage.

Calpas is a Russian-style sausage, usually lightly juicy with lots of pepper or other spices to give it a bunch of flavor. There are larger versions found in convenience stores and supermarkets. One online poster mentioned that some of them are covered in a second plastic skin, so be aware of that.
The smaller calpas snacks like the one above are decent, though the larger sticks are better for adults. The cheese has never been that good. You can see the dates of expiration or sell-by dates - they aren't meant to last a long time - but even fresh the cheese tastes a little dry and like other Japanese cheeses doesn't have much flavor.

The tiny meat sticks are great if you're craving some meat flavor but want just something small to cut that craving. But avoid the cheese. Or give them to kids at Halloween...

31 Days of Halloween: Potato Cheeseburger?

As far as starches go, rice is still number one in Japan. But even this country knows rice cakes just aren't that tasty of a snack. Sure, you can have senbei, which are similar to rice cakes (but oh so much better) but if you want flavor that involves something more than soy sauce you have to leave the traditional snacks aisle and find the massive potato chip section.

Sure, you can find the usual salty, oily potato chips just like Lay's makes back in the States. But it's the random flavors that really stand out. If you look back through my posts, you'll see some interesting Doritos flavors, and I've seen plenty of other chips with really exotic flavors - at least for my tastes. Most chips are potato here - there are a few corn snacks but I think corn is fairly expensive to import. The cheapest bags of tortilla chips are about $3-4 each, a sad truth for someone who loves salsa and nachos.

But that's for another day. Let's look at a couple small packages with "Potato Fry" snacks!
Yes, potato fry. French fries are called fried potatoes here, and switching the words around means you end up with something that's almost a potato chip. You see butter flavor on the left, and cheeseburger on the right.
Which one is which? Inside each package are four large round chips. They're just a little thicker than potato chips, and much larger. I'd say they're about four inches in diameter.

The flavors for both are noticeable, and pretty accurate. The butter flavored chips taste like a baked potato. The cheeseburger flavor tastes like a cheeseburger - meat, cheese, tomato, lettuce, and even some spice that tastes like a burger sauce.

At about 30 yen each, they're an inexpensive way to have a snack. You won't fill yourself up on one or even three or four, but for kids it's a nice way to tide them over until dinner. And at this price, they're an easy thing to toss into a trick-or-treat bag!