Thursday, June 21, 2012

Omiyage heaven!

Tokyo Skytree

So, I've already told you all about the fabulous, leopard print "Tokyo Banana Tree" omiyage, and there's little chance to go up to the top of Skytree for a while - it's booked out until at least July - but there's a lot more to see than just the tower. And to my friend Kathryn, I'm sorry I didn't wait to go there with you, but you went gallivanting all over Kochi and Korea! But I'll happily go back, any time!

The area around Skytree has been designed to attract tourists of course, but it's also in the middle of the old part of Tokyo, which hasn't changed much since the war, so there's a strong local flavour. A lot of local restaurants are now offering "Skytree" themed dishes - think towers of fried shrimp, towers of ice cream... towers of anything, really. There are some great guidebooks in Japanese designed to encourage people to explore the local area, and there are high hopes that people won't just go to the new shopping centre, but patronise the traditional shops as well. You can hire a bike at Solamachi or just walk around.

These shots are from a charming book called "Tokyo Skytree Sanpo Book" - sanpo meaning stroll.

One of the nice things about many Skytree souvenirs is the blend of traditional design with the new  Skytree image.

Towering shrimp at Kamimura soba

A Tower Danish - or should that be "Denish" from Narihira Kimuraya bakery

One of the locals.

Getting to the Skytree area is easy - take a train to Oshiage or "Skytree Station"and there are buses from Ueno station, but I really recommend walking from Asakusa and strolling through the back streets.

The shopping centre below the Skytree is called "Solamachi" or sky town. It has the usual stores like Zara, Diesel, Hello Kitty, Loft and a Disney Store, but the designers have also attempted to capture the local flavour. So you'll find specialties from around Japan, locally grown organic vegetables, local sake and many of the specialised crafts. In fact many of the stores have beautiful light fittings using "Edo Kiriko", the traditional cut glass of the area. I think they've attempted to go a bit deeper into the local history and culture than a lot of tourist traps, so hopefully the centre will have a positive impact on the area. It also means, if you're pressed for time, you can stock up on all the omiyage you need in one shopping trip!

I leave you with some photos of Solamachi...

The standard toys and boxed omiyage

Solamachi is also a shopping destination for locals to pick up select fresh foods.
Skytree looks best at night.

You can get unique "Edo" Be@rbricks and other toys at Medicom Toys

This store has famous packaged foods from around Japan

Kabuki themed cookies

A history of your favourite brands

The Tobu store has some nice smaller gifts and a Shiseido "Skytree" perfume. Apparently, Skytree smells like white flowers.

I was quite taken with this scarf / large handkerchief, with it's retro design and colours, showing the area and local festivals. 

This is a specialty from Kanazawa on the other side of Japan, but the hand painted "bean" paper boxes have  special scenes of Skytree and other local attractions.

Inside, you'll find delicious, crunchy soybeans coated in a salty or sugary crust.

The H.P. France store Tokyo October has a great selection of surreal items

Fashion brand Beams has a special self-serve yoghurt bar called Lemsons, with a bunch of vending machines so you can buy branded souvenirs without conversing with staff. 
Beware the self-serve ice cream bar! They charge around 300 yen for 100gms and it's so easy to pile up that cup with different flavours and goodies! This was almost 900 yen. Not a budget choice if you have kids!

Not such exciting product - a mix of local jams and cheese cakes with some Italian oils etc, but  "Cheese  Garden" is really popular and has a nice layout. Good looking cafe, too.

These cat shaped treats are from nearby Yanaka, which has become famous for its local cats.

Cube shapes profiteroles and towering cones.

Croquettes from Kobe - hopefully containing Kobe beef.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

This town is bananas!

Tokyo Banana

I’ve been looking for an excuse to eat and write about “Tokyo Banana”, for some time. It’s a really popular omiyage, but most of my friends in Tokyo have never tried it because it’s just that: something you buy for other people, not for yourself.

But the opening of Tokyo Skytree and its surrounding shopping mall “Solamachi”, proved irresistible. There’s a new, “only at Skytree” choco-banana flavour of the snack, and when I saw that it came in a leopard print, I had to try it.

So what is Tokyo Banana? It’s a small sponge cake, filled with banana custard. It was “born” in November 1991. As a souvenir I guess it’s popular because it says “Tokyo” on the box, bananas are a cute shape, the banana custard is actually nice and not fake-tasting and they’re super fresh – each box lasts for about a week. They’re also individually packaged, so they’re easy to share.

The original Tokyo Banana

Classic packaging. I like the spotted "bow ties" - gives the bananas a distinguished look.

I don’t really see the connection between “Tokyo” and “banana”, though I guess bananas have a slightly exotic connotation and perhaps if you came from a small town to see all the excitement of the big city, bananas might sum up the experience somehow. Bananas as a graphic device make me think of the Memphis design movement of the late 1980s, and the packaging for Tokyo Banana shares a certain ‘post modern’ spirit. 

A post modern design aesthetic
Last November, a caramel banana version was released to celebrate the 20th anniversary, but the new leopard print, “Tokyo Banana Tree,” is the one. I visited Solamachi just after Skytree opened on May 22, and even on a wet Monday night, it was teeming with people. It took a while to buy my precious leopard bananas, thanks to all the school kids on excursion, lining up to buy 4 or 5 boxes each.

New packaging


Well, I’m relieved to report it was worth the wait. The banana cakes are soft and springy, filled with choco-banana custard. The taste isn’t too sweet and cloying. The “leopard print” is actually a pattern of chocolate cake pressed into the pale yellow sponge. My husband thought the pattern was a little “kimochi warui” – creepy – as it made him think of mouldy bananas. But the taste was extremely fresh.

Inside: fresh choco banana cream!

The full name of this omiyage is “Tokyo Banana (mitsuketa)” or “I found Tokyo Banana!” Actually, it’s not so hard to find – major train stations like Tokyo, Ueno, Omiya and Shinjuku have stores, along with the airports, Tokyo Tower, Odaiba and now, Skytree. Prices start at 500 yen for a pack of 4 (but if you want the fancy box, you’ll need to buy a pack of 8 for 1,050 yen). The classic bananas are 50 yen cheaper.

Two years ago, real bananas were crazy expensive (or just plain impossible to find) in Tokyo, thanks to the Banana Diet, which was got a lot of coverage on TV. The idea was that you had a banana and a glass of lukewarm water for breakfast and then ate normally and you were supposed to lose weight. Well, bananas are back to100yen a bunch where I live, so I guess it didn’t work.

Somehow I think a Tokyo Banana diet wouldn’t work, either. Shame.