Letting the Kit Kat Out of the Bag

Nestle seems to find a new Kit Kat flavor to toss out every few months, and I'm always there to give it a try.

I've seen but haven't tried a new baked Kit Kat flavor. I did get my hands on the mint-flavored Kit Kats, Worth every penny.

But this is Japan, so Nestle can do better. How about kinako?
 Kinako is a roasted soybean flour used in a bunch of Japanese recipes, most notably sprinkled on top of dango. Take a look at my post on Okayama's kibi dango snack to see it in use. And the mild, distinct flavor has been ported over to a Kit Kat snack.
 These aren't the usual long bars, though. Kit Kat sells little balls of awesomeness that still seem to have the wafers inside. The chocolate on the balls doesn't seem to melt as quickly as the bars, making them easier to eat. The mint Kit Kats I had were sold as balls, too. I like this flavor, but unlike the mint candies, I won't be buying multiple bags.
 Next up are a couple more flavored Kit Kats. Thankfully, Kit Kat has started selling smaller gift boxes to go along with the full-sized ones, for those of us who are interested in trying but not buying a full box.
 The orange pack has a citrus blend, with what looks to be lime, lemon, and orange. The purple one is sweet potato, a common snack in Japan during cooler months.
 The citrus flavor was really good. As you might expect, orange was the dominant flavor, but lemon came through as well.
 The sweet potato is a milder flavor. It really didn't stand out at all, which didn't make it bad, but certainly wasn't good, either.
 While we're talking about sweets, another snack I've seen recently is Baskin Robbins chocolates. These are birthday cake ice cream-flavored, with Pop Rocks-like candies inside to fizz on your tongue.
 You can see the candy and an inside view above. Technically, the flavor seems to be "Cool Popping Shower" and it lives up to that expectation fully. I really enjoyed these very sweet candies, individually wrapped to help them last a little longer. Just writing about them again makes me want to go get some ice cream!
 I've mentioned before that students will occasionally bring gifts for various reasons. This little rabbit on a piece of chocolate was really cute!
Finally, back to the processed sugars. I feel like I posted about this before, but Jelly Belly sold a cherry blossom flavored candy here this spring. Sakura flavor is really just a mild cherry flavor, and these were pretty good too. Then again, I always like Jelly Belly candies.

Cherries. That is all.

As promised:
That is all.

I've told you that Japan takes its fruit seriously. Watermelons can run well over $100 each, and really any piece of produce can be labeled as a local specialty and sold for outrageous prices.

The above cherries came from a student as a gift. I'm told these are very nice cherries, as far as their origin, and thus were quite pricey. I do agree that they were flavorful and sweet, and really enjoyable!

Okay, so let's do a little more than cherries.

If you want to know how insane fruit prices can be, a new record for a bunch of grapes was set this month at an auction. Take a guess how much a bunch of grapes cost:
With 26 "Ruby Roman" grapes on the vine, each about the size of a ping pong ball, the total cost was 1,000,000 yen. That's about $8,000. More than $300 per grape.

A pair of mangoes (that's a pair - two) sold for 300,000 yen (over $1000 per mango). And a pair of Yubari melons, similar to cantaloupes, sold for 1.5 million yen. $6000 for one melon.

I love my fruit, but at those prices, I should be getting a lifetime supply! Actually, given in-season prices for grapes in America, I think only about two of those Ruby Romans would cover my entire life's purchase of grapes.

Have you ever paid premium prices for premium foods?

Keep Cool This Summer With Ramune

I've written before about ramune, the Japanese soda that tastes a lot like Sprite. At it's core, that's what it is:
A sugary sweet clear soda. It comes in a bottle unlike any other, with a glass ball keeping the soda from spilling or going flat. Bottles of ramune are much smaller than the usual PET bottles of standard soda, but there is enough to give refreshment.

Ramune comes in a whole rainbow of colors with flavors to match, but until recently I've been stuck with only the regular flavor. My local 100 yen shop stocked the primary colors now that things have gotten hotter.
Green is melon. You'll find melon flavored candies year-round, and melon soda is always available in many restaurants. Bottled melon soda is more easily found in summer, but melon ramune (at least, this brand) is a little less sweet with a milder flavor. It was okay, but not something I'd drink regularly. I prefer regular melon soda, otherwise this would be good.
Next is the Blue Hawaii flavor. I guess Blue Hawaii is this year's yuzu (a lemon-like citrus fruit which was really popular last summer). I drank Blue Hawaii soda for the first time just a few weeks ago, and again the ramune version wasn't as sweet. But in this case that brought out the "blue" flavor, whatever that is. It reminds me a little bit of raspberry. Again, a tasty drink, but not one I'll chase after.
Finally, I went with the pink strawberry ramune. This wasn't overly sweet, but the mild strawberry flavor worked well and gave a nice balance. Of the four flavors here, strawberry might be my favorite, with the original lemon flavor coming in a close second.

By the way, ramune (rah-moo-nay) is a take on the word "lemonade" because the original flavor, like Sprite, is lemon.

If you're looking for a little more about ramune, here is my first post. Fuji mentioned he likes melon flavor... and since last year I've discovered that flavors like kimchi and octopus do exist. I found the company that makes them. And I will eventually have them in my belly. I just have to figure out how to order them...

Kurashiki's Bikan Historical Area

 If you want to see historical buildings in Japan, you have to get out of the big cities. With a few notable exceptions, the architecture of days gone by has, over time, been bulldozed and bombed out of existence. Several major cities have nearby collections, like the Tokyo Edo Architectural Museum and my favorite, Meiji Mura near Nagoya.
 You see, long before bombing during World War II, many of Japan's most important castles were knocked down during the Meiji Restoration. And especially in major cities, as municipalities grew in population smaller buildings made way to skyscrapers. Not to mention Japan's desire to improve and rebuild - houses and other structures generally have shorter lifespans. Why take an old, unsafe structure when you can have the most up-to-date earthquake-safe technology and fresh designs?
 The answer is to head over to the canal area about 10-15 minutes from Kurashiki Station. The beautiful, peaceful canal is lined with historic storehouses, formerly used to hold rice grown in the surrounding plains. Of course, during the Edo Period, this area would have been busy with barges and boats moving rice in and out.
 The buildings along the canal are mostly original storehouses, but there are several other more-modern buildings either matching the style or adding a little unique character showing the changing importance of Kurashiki. These buildings have been converted into museums, shops, and restaurants.
 The streets in the surrounding area hold plenty of other historic buildings, interesting shops, and tasty restaurants.
 Almost all of the museums and many stores in this area are closed on Monday. This will mean lighter crowds for photographers, but also less to do - Kurashiki is at most a single day trip for those taking in all the town has to offer. There are other things to do in the surrounding area, of course, and Kurashiki is just a few minutes from Okayama. Access the Bikan historical canal area from Kurashiki Station (not Shin-Kurashiki Station) by walking along the covered shopping arcade, and then just explore the area with a good map.

Don't forget to try the food and visit the museums!

Okayama (Kurashiki) Food (Part One)

Okayama doesn't have much along the lines of local cuisine, but visitors to Kurashiki should definitely plan on snacking a bit while they're there.
 The canal area offers plenty of places to pick up some treats hot off the grill, including these things. I don't know what they are and I haven't tried one yet, but they sell pretty well. What you actually see above is a model, but the edible ones look exactly the same.
 The region's most well-known food is kibi dango. Dango is a mildly sweet flour dumpling on a stick; kibi dango is darker than most I usually see and covered in powder.
The region is known for its grapes and peaches. On my first trip, I found grape juice for 100 yen per (smallish) cup. Delicious, especially on a hot day!

Be sure to keep your eyes open for shops selling fresh snacks like these both along the canal and on the back streets surrounding the canal! The kibi dango and grape juice were both from a store along the east side of the canal.

Tally Me Bananas: New Random Oreo Flavor!

Flavors just keep getting stranger and stranger.

Long-time readers of my blog know about the huge variety of Kit Kat flavors scattered around Japan. Actually, I don't know if there's a full list out there or not, but I'm curious what concoctions have been tried and which still exist. I think I've discovered all (or at least most) of the regional varieties, but there are also limited edition flavors. And there's a Kit Kat store in Ikebukuro I still haven't visited. Maybe I can do that next time I go into town.

Kit Kat isn't the only candy with strange flavors, because Pocky chocolate sticks, Pretz pretzel sticks, Fanta (yes, the sodas), and Haagen-Dazs  get in on the action. And then there is Oreo.

I love Oreos and milk. I brought two bags of Oreo cookies back from the States so I could enjoy the peanut butter and mint flavors not available here. I also saw birthday cake Oreos, something not available in Japan. Standard Oreos are easy to come by, perhaps a bit more expensive than the US but not by much. And Japan carries the chocolate creme version too.

But Japan gets its limited flavor Oreos, too. Matcha (green tea) flavor is very common, and I've seen strawberry. There are soft Oreos, in regular and green tea. And some Kit-Kat-like wafer cookie thing shows up from time to time.

But I was pretty surprised to find this last week:
Banana Oreos. Okay, so the US had banana split Oreos (I would have loved to try those) but I never expected this! As a child, my grandmother would occasionally make me milkshakes and they almost always included bananas and chocolate ice cream. Sure, other fruit might show up, but a banana chocolate milk shake was an awesome snack in the afternoon. I guess it was relatively healthy, too, what with real fruit and milk.

I can't eat bananas now - they give me massive stomach pains for an hour or so afterward - but I still enjoy the flavor. These Oreos definitely taste like bananas, although I'll stick with my regular Oreo cookies with a glass of milk.

Just for the record, what Oreo flavors have you seen in the US, Japan, or elsewhere? Here are the ones I know about (ones I've tried are *'d):
  • vanilla (standard)*
  • chocolate*
  • strawberry*
  • banana* (Japanese flavor)
  • green tea* (Japanese flavor)
  • birthday cake
  • peanut butter*
  • mint*
  • Dairy Queen Blizzard
  • banana split (banana and strawberry creme)
  • red velvet
  • candy corn?
  • fruit punch
  • caramel apple
  • gingerbread
  • Butterbeer (Harry Potter)
  • Creamsicle
  • Creme Brulee (Japanese flavor)
  • almond praline (Japanese flavor)
  • marshmallow crispy
  • rare cheese (Japanese flavor)
  • spring (yellow creme)
  • berry burst
  • watermelon
  • triple double neopolitan
  • rainbow sherbet ("Shure, Bert")
I'd love to try the rest! Just put them in a bubble envelope and send them my way...

Kurashiki's Ohara Museum of Art

 Japan has plenty of museums showcasing Western art, but Ohara was the first. Located in Kurashiki, this private museum has several buildings plus an additional building down the street.
 Photography isn't permitted inside the museum, but I feel the exhibits were worth every penny. The Main Gallery is in the Western building seen in the top photo, and has works by Picasso, Rodin, Pollock, and more. The collection is very diverse so it doesn't get monotonous.
 Several old Japanese warehouses are connected together to expand the collection. The Annex has works by Japanese artists. The Craft Art Gallery displays ceramics, woodblock prints, stencil dyeing, and other crafts. I saw works by top names in their fields, especially when it comes to ukiyoe and ceramics. There is a final building in this area housing Egyptian artifacts and Chinese antiques.
 This main museum area has a central courtyard with a small pond (note the flower picture below left) and a small garden near the Asiatic Art Gallery (the Asiatic Art Gallery is shown in the photo below right).
 Finally, about five minutes away in Ivy Square is another building housing the Kojima Museum. Kojima purchased a lot of the art in the Main Gallery for Ohara. This museum houses some of Kojima's own works, as well as lots of Islamic and Egyptian art.
All of Kurashiki's sights are located around the canal area, about a 10-15 minute walk from Kurashiki Station. The Ohara Museum is in the southern end of the area, just off the main street. Ivy Square, where you'll find the Kojima Museum, is at the northern end a couple short blocks from the canal.

The museums are open 9:00-17:00 (closed Mondays), and admission is 1300 yen including both the Ohara Museum and Kojima Museum. An English audio guide is available, though I didn't try it.

Random Kit Kat Flavor: Mint Chocolate!

You don't know me if you don't know the foods I absolutely love. Of course, there's popcorn. And cakes. And pretty much every form of spicy chicken on the planet - wings and kung pao especially. And then there's chocolate: give me peanut butter or give me mint, and I'm happy.
Peppermint is almost non-existent here, but you can find an increasing number of products with mint flavoring. This past week, I caught sight of mint flavored Kit Kats and I just had to try them!

Sorry, you don't get any pictures of what's inside. But the bag shows it all. The taste is very much like mint chocolate chip ice cream and was very refreshing on the hot, humid, busy day I consumed them all.

Now my local 100 yen shop needs to bring back that mint ice cream they had last summer!

Okayama: A Few Sights Around Town

 Okayama is one of a fairly long list of cities in Japan that are "designated" cities; these are cities with populations over 500,000 and who have applied for this designation. I don't know what being a designated city brings, but Okayama is the smallest on the list, with a population around 700,000.

It serves as the major transportation hub for western Honshu and for through connections to Shikoku. The surrounding plains are used for farming of multiple crops and the mountains are home to the area's famed peaches and muscat grapes. The city also serves several industries and is the headquarters for some major corporations. Historically, the town has been important due to its strategic position and agricultural development.

And speaking of history, the area is also home to one of Japan's biggest fables. Momotaro, or Peach Boy, has appeared in books, films, and other works. The story basically goes like this:
Momotaro came to Earth inside a giant peach, which was found by an old, childless woman. The woman was washing clothes in the river when the peach floated by; she and her husband discovered the boy when they opened the peach to eat it.
Years later, as an adult, Momotaro leaves his parents to fight a group of demons or ogres inhabiting a nearby island. Much like Dorothy on her trip to the Emerald City, Momotaro befriends several creatures (namely, a talking dog, monkey, and pheasant) along the way who agree to help him on his quest.
Arriving at the island, Momotaro and his companions battle their way into the ogres' fort cave and force a surrender. Of course, everyone lives happily ever after.
The demon island (Onigashima) considered to be the one Momotaro visited is Megijima, near Takamatsu on Shikoku Island. I visited Megijima before coming to Okayama.
While Momotaro can be found all over town and in my photos below, let's start with this water fountain just outside Okayama Station's East Exit.
 Momotaro can be found on top of some Japan Post mailboxes in a cartoon form.
 A more lifelike statue is situated outside Okayama Station, showing Momotaro with his companion dog, pheasant, and monkey.
 If you take the tram for part of the journey between the train station and Okayama Castle, you'll use a pedestrian underpass to get through the large intersection. This underpass is also used for those walking the entire way. There's a nice open-air fountain with a statue of a woman sitting naked on a log. You'll also pass through a small park with more statues and a small stage. I saw some teenagers practicing dancing on it during my second visit to Okayama.
 Again continuing the trip to Okayama Castle, you'll follow part of the river. The castle can be seen in the distance, with Korakuen Garden on the left across the bridge.
 Look down! Some manhole covers show Momotaro, again with his companions.
Last, but not least, I did use the tram for at least one journey. And the inside of the train was well-decorated with these cat decals for some promotion. But more interesting is the series of bells with tags on them; I'm not sure what they're for or how permanent they are/were, but each tag carries a handwritten message of some kind.

Okayama isn't known for any specific local cuisine, with one exception. So dining options in town are the standards - this is a good place to try Japanese curry, gyudon (beef bowl), ramen or other noodles, and so on. As I mentioned before, the area produces a lot of agricultural goods, so you can find expensive peaches and grapes in the souvenir stores. And for those looking for local food, give kibi dango a shot - it's a chewy, mildly sweet snack or desert sold on sticks. But I recommend getting this in Kurashiki.

Korakuen, Okayama: Beautiful Photos from one of Japan's Top Three Gardens

 Korakuen is listed as one of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan, in addition to Kenrokuen and Kairakuen. And it's definitely worthy of that distinction.
 Like most Japanese gardens, it's laid out in a series of little scenes.
 And again, like most gardens, there's a large central pond and a hill to use as a lookout point.
 And yet again, like other Japanese landscape gardens, you'll find tea houses. But this one has a nice foot soaking pond.
 Korakuen is much larger than other gardens, and it actually is its own island in the middle of a river. So the views are more expansive and the immersive effect is better.
 The larger area means this garden can have large lawns and some groves. There are rice and tea fields, an archery range, and a crane aviary too.

 A tea house.

 There's a small shrine.

 Another tea house.

 The foot soaking pavilion.

 Okayama Castle is the only building I remember being able to see outside the garden, and it serves as a nice background.

 The garden used to be an entertaining place for the local feudal lord and his guests.
It was mostly overcast during my visit, but even without much shadow contrast, the garden is very beautiful. I wasn't able to return on my last visit, but I'd love to spend time on a sunny day getting even more great shots.

There are several museums located in the vicinity of Okayama Castle and Korakuen Garden. I didn't visit any of these, but fans of art or looking for a bit of a history lesson might find something of interest here. (I would like to check out a couple of them at some point,) This is Japan Guide's list of Okayama museums with important details.

Korakuen Garden is just across the river from Okayama Castle. Walk about 30 minutes straight east from Okayama Station, or take a 5-minute tram ride to Shiroshita, from where the garden and castle are an additional 10-15 minute walk. The closest entrance to the pedestrian bridge is the smaller south gate (seen in the first photo above) to the right, but the main gate is a short walk to the left after crossing the bridge. The Prefectural Museum is located beside the main gate.

The garden is open 7:30-18:00 from March 20 through September and 8:00-17:00 other times. Admission is 400 yen, but most people will want the combo ticket for 560 that includes Okayama Castle (not available when the castle has special exhibitions).