Sunday, April 29, 2012

Don't get crabby

A trip to Sapporo

I recommend a trip to Hokkaido at any time, but especially during the Sapporo Snow Festival. While Sapporo is a fairly big city, it feels far more laid-back than Tokyo, the streets are wide, and the subway isn’t crowded. Even during the snow festival, it was easy to get around, and the restaurants weren’t full. Hokkaido is famous for skiing in winter and in summer it’s a welcome escape from the humidity of mainland Japan. But most of all, it’s famous for food! Sapporo is omiyage heaven!

Sapporo Tokeidai, a clock tower built in the 1870s

Down in Susukino, frozen fish display

A sushi cake! Chirashi sushi full of Hokkaido specialties

So what are the meibutsu? Seafood, of course, especially salmon, sea urchin and crab. All over Susukino – the downtown part of Sapporo – you’ll find restaurants dedicated to crab, with giant crab sculptures to advertise their wares. The “tegani” (a hairy crab) signs are especially creepy. 

Curry is popular all over Japan and in Hokkaido, the specialty is "soup curry", a great way to keep warm. Rice is served separately, so you take a spoonful of rice and dip it into the curry ‘soup’. It’s not unlike Mulligatawny. Lamb is also popular in Hokkaido, but it has a bad image in Japan – perhaps people expect a strong, “mutton” flavour, so it tends to be disguised with lots of garlic, served Mongolian style as “Genghis Khan”.

Great packaging for Rakkyo Soup Curry

A famous supplier of crab and other seafood

Creepily realistic

I found this delicious salmon, wrapped in wakame seaweed and steamed, layered to look like sushi, from Rebun Island, one of the northern-most parts of Japan. It looks like a beautiful place, and I’d love to visit in summer. In winter, I imagine it’s bitterly cold. You can learn more about the place and their delicious seafood here:

Rebun Island salmon

Corn, potatoes, asparagus, melons, and butter, cream and chocolate are also famous products of Hokkaido, often combined! So you have miso flavour ramen with corn and butter, butter-flavour caramels, chocolate potato chips, chocolate-dipped corn crisps and chocolate beer (of course, Sapporo Beer is one of THE famous products!)

Milk caramel and butter caramel

One famous sweets companies is Royce, home of the most decadent hot chocolate, perfect for warming up on a cold day. But it's most famous product is chocolate potato chips. The combination of slightly crisp and salty with rich chocolate actually works.

Chocolate and potato chips - perfect

As I mentioned before, Marusei Butter Sand by Rokkatei is also a very popular take-home gift: rich rum and raisin butter cream, sandwiched between buttery cookies. 

The logo, incorporating the Marusei kanji and butter in katakana, is beautiful.

A trip to Otaru, about 30 mins by train, is really worth it. In winter, the view as the train speeds along the coast through the snow, is gorgeous. Make sure you stick around after sunset, when the canals and streets are lit with icy lanterns and candles. The town has an unusual, European feel, with historic buildings and warehouses. In Marchen Square you’ll find a big Rokkatei store (home of those delicious Butter Sand cookies and a whole lot of other sweets including freeze-dried strawberries coated in chocolate), also Kitakaro for cakes and LeTao for cheese cake (anyone who watches Saturday morning TV in Tokyo will know those commercials, “LeTao, tabetai!”). LeTao has a nice café upstairs – a good place to kill time and keep warm waiting for the sun to set.

Otaru Canal at night

The sign, slightly melted, outside LeTao

Finally, you can’t visit Sapporo without a trip to the Ishiya factory, home of Shiroi Koibito, made since 1976. “Shiroi Koibito Park” is set in a kitschy faux Tudor mansion, with an English garden, various eccentric collections of toys and paraphernalia, and of course, the factory, which smells amazing. You can watch those perfectly crisp sable biscuits meet white chocolate, though some crucial processes are hidden. Shiroi Koibito means “white lover”, a reference, I guess to the perfect ‘marriage’ of white chocolate and biscuit. Ishiya wasn’t happy when comedy company Yoshimoto Kogyo released Omoshiroi Koibito – “funny lover” – cookies in 2010. While it’s a funny idea, I can see why Ishiya complained – the packaging is remarkably similar.

Inside the factory

Shiroi Koibito - you can buy them at Narita Airport, too.

Left: original Shiroi Koibito. Right: "Omoshiroi Koibito"

Monday, April 16, 2012

Porky goodness

Pork cutlet sandwiches - a kind of meibutsu? Well, delicious, anyway!

One of the best things about travelling by train in Japan is getting a special bento lunch to eat on the journey. But for my money, the best lunch is katsu sando! A delicious fried pork cutlet (similar to schnitzel), with a thin layer of katsu sauce (basically barbecue sauce), sandwiched between soft, crust-less white bread.

And when you’re after katsu, there’s one place to go: Maisen! It’s tucked in the back streets near Omotesando hills, in a converted bath house. Maisen was founded in 1965 in Yurakucho and moved to the distinctive bathhouse building in 1978. The décor is still very Showa-cool. Although the restaurant is one of chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s favourites when he visits Tokyo, it’s definitely not posh! Tonkatsu is working class food: fried, filling and great with beer. You can make it easily at home – just dip your pork cutlet in egg and some panko before frying. And yet, at Maisen it’s perfectly crispy on the outside, not at all oily, and soft and juicy inside. They use “kurobuta”, black pig (a kind of Berkshire) from Kagoshima, hand raised by one Mr Okita. Shredded cabbage and rice is all you need to go with – and at Maisen you get unlimited refills of both (no free refills of the cutlets, unfortunately).

The restaurant sits on a corner

Cool display case

The restaurant is at 4-8-5 Jingumae. The easiest way to get there is to take the A2 exit from Omotesando station, walk down the hill a few steps and turn right at the big building site (you’ll see a sign for Gold’s Gym). Go along the street, past Royal Harvest and Gold’s Gym and turn left then first right. There’s a nice second hand kimono shop on your right. Walk a few more blocks and you’ll see the restaurant on your left  (incidentally, in the block behind Maisen, you’ll find Omotesando Koffee, which is set in an old house; the coffee is excellent).

So, the food is delicious, but don’t forget the graphic design! The Maisen logo is so simple and distinctive: They’ve combined the traditional Edo style mon – a family emblem – with funky 70’s mustard and brown shades and strong Helvetica type for the perfect retro packaging.

The distinctive packaging

Inside, a wet towel and the precious sandwiches...


There’s a little take-out booth at the restaurant, but you can also pick up Maisen’s delicious katsu sando at a lot of department stores and train stations. Prices start around 360 yen for a pack of 3 little sandwiches. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Raisin' hell

How do Japanese women stay so slim? If I ask my Japanese girl friends about their hobbies, most will say "sweets" (if you ask the average guy, he'll probably say 'drinking' or 'sleeping'). Luckily, Ogawaken Raisinwich cookies are not so easy to get, so those stylish girls can stay svelte.

I was first introduced to this style of snack - juicy, rum-soaked raisins in cream, sandwiched between buttery cookies - when my friend Makoto would bring back boxes of Hokkaido's famous Marusei Butter Sando by Rokkatei, on his regular trips to Hakodate. Sadly, he changed jobs and the omiyage supply dried up.

Marusei Butter Sando

But then, thanks to an acquaintance, I discovered Ogawaken Raisinwich last year. I think the Marusei Butter Sando is a little richer and more buttery... but I haven't been able to get them both at the same time to do a taste-test! According to the Japanese version of Wikipedia, Rokkatei's version was developed in 1977, when the Ogawaken Raisinwich was already very popular, but expensive. Rokkatei incorporated butter and white chocolate into the filling, which explains the heavier, richer taste.

Ogawaken started in 1905 as a western-style restaurant in Shimbashi. It's now a very popular patisserie, with another branch in Meguro. The Raisinwich was apparently invented about 40 years ago. They're very popular and only available at their two shops, so they often sell out by the late afternoon. The Shimbashi store is also a bit tricky to find, being hidden around the back of the Shimbashi Ekimae building. However, they recently updated their website in English with good maps!

The Shimbashi store

The cookies are crunchy and light, topped with flaked almonds. The raisins are very juicy and have a nice little rum kick. Apparently the raisins are from California and the butter is from Hokkaido. Because they're made with fresh cream and butter, they only keep for a week or less, but you'll have no trouble eating them quickly! I love the simple, graphic packaging, and of course, the taste.

Here's the website. Now I really want to do a taste comparison!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

OMG delicious chicken!

I don't know if this is strictly a  meibutsu, but it was definitely omiyage. A very kind visitor brought us Hinepon chicken from Kobe. Hinepon is a restaurant in Kobe's Nishi-ku, specialising in the MOST delicious charcoal chicken.

They use hinedori, which is an older, free-range chicken - too old to lay eggs, but full of wonderful flavour. As I'm almost an old chook myself, it's nice to know we have some value. The chicken is barbecued over high grade charcoal, then sliced paper thin. You can buy it in 200g vacuum packs for 630 yen, but one pack will NOT be enough! 

All you need to so is arrange it on a plate with chopped schallots and add a drizzle of ponzu if you want. Heaven.

The restaurant looks great, if a little out-of-the way. You can also order the chicken online. Here's the website:

Monday, April 9, 2012


Just down the coast from Kamakura is Enoshima. An island accessed by a long bridge, it’s dedicated to Benzaiten, the goddess of music and entertainment. You can climb a lot of stairs to the top, or you can cheat and take the escalators (350 yen). You still have to walk back down, though. In winter, you can see Mt Fuji easily and it looks striking at sunset. It’s a lovely placed to stroll and a popular date spot for Tokyo-ites, but we are here for food! The meibutsu of Enoshima is Shirasu.

It was my first time to try shirasu, a tiny white fish, like whitebait. So I chickened out and got the boiled version on rice. I’m told they’re better raw, served separate to the rice, with a variety of condiments. I was pretty happy with my boiled version, which was mild and tasty, with a topping of nori, shiso and pickled ginger. Pour a little soy sauce on and enjoy. I’m definitely no shirasu connoisseur, but my husband swears the Enoshima versions are a bit disappointing, and the best is found in a small restaurant near Tsujido station, on the opposite side to Terrace Mall. 

Don’t confuse shirasu with shirako. Shirako (literally “white children”) is fish milt; ie, sperm. I don’t know why it doesn’t bother me to eat fish eggs, but the idea of fish sperm makes me shudder. Shirako looks like a mass of white brains or intestines. Enough said.

Update: that small restaurant near Tsujido is called Iseya. They have a website with very cute English. Apparently, the dishes are "politely burnt" and the handmade dishes are "made by much effort". And it's cheap - the shirasu or "raw young sardines" are only 600yen.  I can't wait to go! Here's the website:

Sunday, April 8, 2012


How did I get through a whole post on Kamakura without mentioning ham? Kamakura, being a favourite vacation spot for expats, got into the ham industry quite early. The Tomioka company has been making ham products since 1874. Kamakura ham was on the menu at the Imperial Hotel Tokyo on the occasion of the Graf Zeppelin cruising over Tokyo in 1929, thanks to their refrigeration surviving the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. There’s also Kamakura Ham, which started in 1887. Kamakura is quite the place for ham!

Unfortunately, I forgot to buy any of these famed ham products, which my husband thought terribly remiss (should I mention that these hams are expensive? Around 2,500 yen for 400g. You can get the slices and sausages in a lot of supermarkets across Japan though). He had to make do with the Hato Sable biscuits, which he happily said reminded him of his childhood. Phew!

I leave you with some nostalgic images of ham:

A day in Kamakura

A little long, bear with me... there's a lot to see! 

One of the pleasures of living near Tokyo is the ease of escape. Take the Yokosuka line from Tokyo Station or the Shonan Shinjuku line from Shinjuku station and within an hour you can experience the laid-back, beachy atmosphere. As a former capital of Japan, Kamakura has its share of historic temples and sights, but it’s also famous for food! A stroll (necessarily slow thanks to the constant crowds) along Komachi street is essential for sampling sembei and sweets.

First stop: Hase station to visit Hase Dera and the Daibutsu. The 3 car Enoden electric train has a nice nostalgic atmosphere as it rockets along a single line. Hase Dera has a beautiful garden all year round. We saw cherry blossoms this time, but in June / July, it has a spectacular display of iris flowers. 

As soon as you finish at Hase Dera, you should go back to the main street, cross over and turn left towards the Daibutsu (that’s “Big Budda”). Look for the oversized purple ice cream models. The popular flavour here is Murasaki imo, or purple potato. Slightly bland and sweet, it’s a nice refreshment for a hot day, but the real news here is the “Murasaki imo korokke” or purple potato fritter. Now, I don’t know that Kamakura can really claim the purple potato as a unique local specialty, but these fritters – so crisp on the outside, and soft and hot inside, are worth a trip. They cost about 150 yen each and sell out in the afternoon.

Visiting the Daibutsu, you find that Japanese Buddhists aren’t too precious about their deities. You can get Budda shaped wasanbon sweets (along with other local shapes like flowers and the Enoden train). Wasanbon is a super-fine powdered sugar that can be pressed into shapes. To be honest the basic flavour is just…sweet. But they look so pretty and they literally melt in the mouth.

You can even get a Daibutsu lollipop!

I think Kamakura is most beautiful in rainy season, around the middle of June, before the summer heat sets in. It's famous for Hydrangeas, called Ajisai in Japanese. You can buy these little bouquets of candies everywhere around Kamakura, shaped and coloured to evoke these popular flowers:

Back in Kamakura proper, you can’t miss the packaging for Hato Sable biscuits. It seems like everyone is carrying a distinctive bright yellow bag with a graphic dove. 

Produced by Toshimaya company, the Hato Sable (or Sabure, as it’s written in katakana) has a long history. The store opened around Meiji 30 (1897) and it’s a good example of how Japan was opening up to the world. At that time, according to the company’s website, a foreign visitor gave the founder, Hisajiro, a biscuit as big as his hand, with an image of Joan of Arc. The founder didn’t want to imitate the biscuit but decided to somehow evoke the taste, which after some research and experimenting, he realised was down to the butter content. 

He experimented with the balance of ingredients and one day tried out a prototype on a friend who had just returned from Europe. The friend remarked that it tasted just like a sable biscuit he had tried in France. The word “sable” sounded like the Japanese name Saburo, which is a twist on the name Hisajiro (by re-ordering the kanji). And the Japanese love nothing more than a clever play on words. The store was very close to Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine, where Hisajiro often went. He noticed that kids were delighted by the many pigeons around the shrine and he was inspired to shape the biscuits like the birds (doves and pigeons are the same in Japanese – just different colours of the same bird). And so, the Hato Sabure was born, and it’s been a hugely popular souvenir ever since.

Prices start at 450 yen for a pack of 5. They are BIG – about the size of an adult hand – and crunchy and buttery. The main store is on the road leading to Hachimangu shrine and there’s a shop right in front of Kamakura station. You can also buy them in major department stores in Yokohama and Tokyo I've seen them in Sogo Yokohama, at Tokyo Station (Daimaru, I think) and the ever-crowded Food Stage of Tokyu Dept Store at Shibuya Station. If you can’t get enough of the “Hato” experience, they have a café with a huge variety of sweets called “Hatokoji” or literally “80 Lane” just off Komachi street to the right.

Sorry, I warned you it was a long post! Thanks for hanging on till the end.

Next up: Enoshima.

Friday, April 6, 2012


My husband had a business trip to Osaka. As a joke, I asked him to bring back some okonomiyaki, the famous local 'savoury pancake'. And he did. At Shin-Osaka station, he bought an okonomiyaki kit from Chibo, a popular okonomiyaki restaurant near Nambu. Inside, there were 2 vac-packed okonomiyaki, plus the sauce, mayo, nori and katsuoboushi, ready to go. The instructions said you could microwave them, but I think a minute in the microwave then a quick go in the non-stick frypan gave a slightly crisper, more authentic result. It was delicious! But not quite the same as making one fresh on a hotplate in some smoky little restaurant with a nama beer or two.
Here's the pack:

The inside contents, and the finished product:

Thursday, April 5, 2012

what are meibutsu?

Meibutsu are local specialties. Most cities have their own special foods and crafts, but Japan has raised this to an art form. While some, like elaborate carvings from Kamakura and Pawlonia furniture from Saitama can be very expensive, I'm focussing on what are basically "omiyage": the gifts you bring back from a trip for co-workers and family members. But real meibutsu are more than just souvenirs. They should be locally grown or made - something unique to that place, with a sense of history and a story. Well, that's how I define them. New tourist spots like Skytree near Oshiage are inventing new souvenirs, but whether they become "meibutsu" will depend on time. Stamping a picture of a tower on a cookie does not make it special! 
So, this blog is an excuse for me to try lots of yummy things and photograph them on my travels, but it's also very much about the packaging and design and the stories behind them. Why Tokyo Banana snacks? What are yatsuhashi? Let's find out. What's your favourite meibutsu?