Snack Nation: Japan’s obsession with weird and wonderful pocket-money delights
Products in Japanese convenience stores come and go at a bewildering velocity. One day you find the greatest canned coffee of all time and then, a week later, it’s gone forever.
The existence of these products is often so brief they almost completely fail to enter our collective memories or get tangled in the branches of the Internet.
We step into the local convenience store -- or the one right across the street from that one -- and select the latest and oddest products we can find.
The results aren't always pretty, but the write-ups are crucial for capturing the ephemeral nature of Japan’s consumer culture.
The remaining question is why Japanese companies spend so much time and money developing products that are likely to disappear within a few weeks.
Cultural explanations point at the Japanese obsession with “seasonality.” More plausibly, convenience store shelf space is limited and, therefore, highly competitive.
This forces manufacturers to constantly offer something new and attention-grabbing to impress the convenience store higher-ups who make decisions about shelf-space allocation.
Regardless of the reasons, dozens of new products have been introduced into the marketplace just in the time it took to read this introduction. We’d better get tasting ...
Canned coffee still stands as one of Japan’s lasting contributions to human civilization.
Yet at this point, with the market so saturated by hundreds of concoctions available in every convenience store and vending machine across the land, Japanese manufacturers are at a loss over what to put in those miniature cans next.
The future, for now at least, seems to be tea.
Fuyu no Horoniga Latte
Kirin’s Gogo no Koucha (“Afternoon Tea”) line made the first move with its Espresso Tea series. Although the word “espresso” seemed to suggest a dense and thick portion of tea, packed to the brim with bitterness and caffeine jolt, the selections have until now been unusually sweet and milky.
Kirin, however, must have felt like the cold winter weather warranted the right time for a correction to the flawed formula, and so we get the new ¥120 Fuyu no Horoniga Latte -- a name meaning, “‘A slight bitterness for winter latte.”
The drink lowers the sweetness to get one step closer to the “espresso” part of “espresso tea.”
That being said, it’s still really, really sweet. And really, really creamy. In fact, the tea only works in winter if you want your tongue coated with a thin layer of dairy.
In summer, drinking this sort of thing would require a whole liter of water afterwards to wash it down.
Overall Fuyu no Horoniga Latte is a success -- easily the best of the Espresso Teas so far. Too bad it’s likely to disappear once spring is on the horizon.
Ayataka Maccha Latte
Since the Japanese firm Kirin was able to engineer English-style tea into small coffee cans, American company Coca-Cola is, ironically, the one to attempt similar things with green tea.
Not that you’d know the Ayataka line of green teas is from Coca-Cola. The can for its Maccha Latte (¥120) is covered so completely in kanji characters that you’d need a PhD in Japanese Literature to grasp its full verbose glory.
Generally speaking, Maccha is the thickest and frothiest of all green teas and, based on Starbucks and other coffee chains’ versions, works extremely well in the latte format.
Yet the Ayataka Maccha Latte has a much thinner flavor than you would expect -- especially when compared to Kirin Fuyu no Horoniga Latte. It also suffers from being intensely sweet and having out-of-place flowery notes.
The overall effect is pleasant but not particularly ... masculine. Women seem the best candidates to enjoy Ayakata Maccha Latte, but they’re usually not the gender you see quaffing down those little cans on the morning commute.
Clam Chowder Doritos
American snack maker Frito Lay tapped the nacho phenomenon to create its “extreme” and “zesty” Doritos. But why do Texans and Mexicans get to have all the fun with corn chips?
The innovative minds over at Frito Lay Japan took up this very question as they dreamed up a whole new world of gourmet Doritos.
Once freed from the cheesy nacho shackles, these flavor magicians looked to the polar opposite of Tex-Mex Cuisine -- the drab but sensible Puritan tastes of New England.
The end result: Doritos Clam Chowder Flavor (¥180). No one has ever requested such a thing but that’s because no one could have ever imagined it.
Upon tasting, the chips themselves are indeed more refined than normal. Instead of the low-rent cheese powder, the flavor is distributed subtly and smoothly across the triangle.
But does it taste like clam chowder? Yes, you better believe it. According to the ingredients, we can thank a little something called “clam essence powder.”
Personally, I’m not a clam chowder fan, but the subtlety of the flavor means that anyone can enjoy these chips.
The issue, however, remains: What do we gain by mixing clam chowder and corn chips?
My guess is that the relative unpopularity of Mexican food in Japan means that the tortilla chip needs new avenues of exploration to justify its existence.
Our guesses for what’s next? Put your money on Borscht Flavor Doritos and Goulash Flavor Doritos coming soon.
Japan divides its beverages into distinct groups, mostly based on containers. There’s an entire world of ¥100 fruit juices and dairy drinks that come in 500-milliliter paper boxes.
But there are also lots of iced teas in these paper containers, dominated by competing brands Lipton and Kirin’s Afternoon Tea.
And now Afternoon Tea has countered Lipton’s advances with perhaps the strangest of all -- Teagurt.
Teagurt is an iced tea flavored with peach yogurt. None of these three parts dominates the flavor. It tastes first like tea, then like peach juice, then like yoghurt.
That being said, the “tea” part of Teagurt definitely gets the short end of the stick. The overall effect is a mix of fruity sweetness with curdled sour milk. I would not recommend this for anyone needing to chug a refreshing iced tea.
I suspect Teagurt will disappear from shelves in the near future. Yet my mouth may never forget the flavor.
In the film "So I Married an Axe Murderer," Mike Myers' character proclaimed, "Most Scottish cuisine is based on a dare."
Suntory, with its Pepsi Azuki seasonal flavor, appears to be adopting a similar strategy in its marketing.
With lots of competition and stingy consumers, beverage companies have to work hard to weird out Snack Nation (aka Japan), otherwise no one will be bothered to try these short-lived konbini-friendly flavors. Pepsi this time dug into the vat of crazy ideas and pulled out “red beans.”
The strategy clearly works though, as I found myself at 9:30 a.m. buying a ¥140 bottle of Pepsi Azuki at the local 7-Eleven.
The verdict? Meh.
The color is a nice pinkish red, but a shade that seems more fitting for a diet strawberry soda. Real azuki would have a bit more brown thrown in the mix, but who in the world would want to drink a brown-colored soda? Besides Coke and Pepsi, I mean.
The soda itself is barely carbonated and is essentially flavorless on hitting the tongue. There’s a light sensation of generic sweetness, but no tang at all.
The entire extent of azuki-ness exists only in the aftertaste. Otherwise, it's just like a slightly flat, flavorless Pepsi with negligible levels of pizzazz.
So thanks to Pepsi Azuki, Pepsi has managed to market an unremarkable tepid soda that simulates the exact sensation of just having eaten anko bean paste -- followed by a jolt of caffeine.
It's like sampling treats on a shitamachi shotengai stroll and then suddenly getting punched in the back of the head.
Almost everything is sex-segregated in Japan. Guys don't go to sweets cafés and women rarely end up at Yoshinoya. So it makes perfect sense that there would eventually be a gum that suits the need of a specific gender.
Introducing Lotte's Glamatic chewing gum (¥100), which is aimed directly at the ladies.
With packaging that sparkles in pink with fruits, roses, crystals and butterflies, its tagline tells us the gum will "make-up your breath with perfume." If we believe the PR, this is the gum you pop into your mouth while stepping out the door into the night, dressed to the nines.
I tried out the flavor "Moonlit Night Berry" -- the one with the sexy black packaging. The taste is a generic deep raspberry, but there is a notably feminine "perfume" that lingers in the aftertaste, kind of like doing a shot of your grandmother's eau de toilette.