There's nothing like traveling to Japan to make you call into question things you assume to be routine. Hand soap in the bathrooms? Optional. Rare, even. But a flush system with more buttons than a universal remote control—par for the course. Likewise, handing someone your payment—which is often in change—during a transaction may perplex them; small trays are provided on retail counters and make sifting through the full fleet of denominational coins a snap. Other such observations include black shampoo, a sub sandwich wrapped in plastic and stuffed with noodles, and a $100 melon.
Although I could easily fill a book with all of the mysteries and delights I've encountered on my trip, I'll focus on a selection of Japanese snacks I've sampled that have surprised and satiated. I should note that most of these are from 7-11, which is a whole different experience in Japan than it is in then U.S. Fresh, cheap and even nutritious snacks are available by the dozen, and service is impeccable. I will also note that although many wholesome foods were available at 7-11, we did not opt for these much of the time, because well, we're on vacation!
Soft Boiled Egg Onigiri
Onigiri, which means "rice ball" in Japanese, has been one of my favorite things since my high school Japanese I teacher made them for us during class. They mainly consist of plain salted rice wrapped around some sort of filling, and then often wrapped in a layer of nori to keep them from drying out. They are shaped into triangles or circles making them both portable and adorable (like many things here). In Japan, Onigiri are everywhere, costing no more than ¥150 (less than $2.00), and available in a huge variety of flavors, like this soy flavored rice with half an egg nestled inside. Other flavors include roe, cooked salmon and pickled plum. Since neither of us know much Japanese the flavors were all a mystery until the first bite!
Like back home, donuts are a convenient store staple. But in Japan, they are also available in Matcha, or green tea flavor. They are all also mostly old fashioneds, which are incidentally my favorite donut.
Vending Machine Coffee Cans & Teas
Need a boost? There are mini cans of coffee, espresso and lattes at every corner, either in a vending machine or a corner shop.
There are enough varieties to keep you wired for days. There is also milk tea (black tea with milk), green tea hot or iced, banana flavored milk, matcha lattes and various vitamin and mineral booster shots.
Candy Cheese and Mushicake
There's no real rhyme or reason as to the American palette's tolerance for sweet cheese. There's strawberry cream cheese and cheese cake, even jam and Swiss sandwiches. But elusive as that line may be, neither my friend nor I could get into Mushicake, a rather large cheesecake sold at room temperature that tasted just a little too much like cheese to be a dessert.
There is also something called Candy Cheese that we still haven't tried yet.
"The Whipped Cream Taco"
I saw it one morning in Tokyo and couldn't get it out of my head. It looked like a piece of sponge cake neatly rolled around a waterfall of pure whipped cream. That's gotta be one of the least healthy things I've ever seen, I thought to myself. Still, two days later I bought it and took a bite. Inside was a surprise: a full banana! If you've ever been to Japan you know that fruit is extremely expensive. As such, although the food here is some of the best I've had in my life, we've been a bit produce deprived. We were excited that although it had arrived wrapped in chocolate sponge cake and slathered in whipped cream, we had an entire banana in our daily meal plan all for under a dollar. Unfortunately, the name was entirely in Japanese so we have dubbed it the whipped cream taco or sandwich.
Red Bean Pancake
While we're on the topic of sweets, we couldn't leave out one of our favorites, the red bean pancake. Red beans, or Adzuki beans, and red bean paste is a staple in Japanese desserts, adding a rich, sweet and nutty flavor to bread, pastry, mochi, and ice cream. One day we spotted two pancakes filled with what looked like an ethereal pale purple pastry cream. Upon tasting we concluded that the cream was lightly flavored with red beans. This pancake sandwich was delicious, and we never spotted it again! Of course we also don't know what it's called, so like the ramen shop on the corner, the street of our Airbnb and so many other scores of places and items we never learned or were unable to read the name of we'll simply have to remember it in photos and hope we find it again the next time we're in Japan, which we really hope is sooner rather than later.
If you'd like to learn more about Japanese food, including ramen and sushi classes, make sure to check out The Chopping Block's cooking class calendar which can offer insight into how to bring some of this beautiful and unique cuisine into your own kitchens.