It’s funny how when you mention Japan and food in the same sentence, there only seems to be two options. You can take the fabulous gourmet-cheering, sushi-adoring, heavenly-graced and experimenting Michelin-guided way. Or, you can choose the back alley into the world of eyeball-abusing, crazed up, disgustingly weird nastiness that freak the shit out of most people, make them turn away and return their breakfast to nature.
But that’s Japan-- nothing is entirely black or white, right or wrong, delicious or disgusting– and the limits for what you might encounter as the hottest new snack in your local cornershop are a bit wider than in downtown Copenhagen.
Being the typical Scandinavian and spending most of the year in windy, rainy darkness, I have a natural craving for sweets and chocolates to fill me with the inner sunshine I never get from the outside. Therefore, moving to Tokyo was quite a shock. I expected to shower myself in quirky flavoured caramels, go bonkers in exquisite luxury chocolate and explore large underground candy caverns beneath Shibuya. I knew Tokyo was off the hook in the consumer category and my hopes were high.
Instead all I saw on the convenience store shelves were Snickers and Kit Kats (with a wide selection of weird flavours, but as our Japanese Junk expert Yoko already pointed out in several reviews: they all taste like soap, not chocolate). Compared to a normal 7/11 in Copenhagen where half the store consists of shelves with candy, these shelves were stuffed too-- but with chemical diet drinks, fake grainless bread, fluffy tasteless cake and loads of alcohol.
So no Candy Wonderland. But what do the Japanese chew on then when they need a little break from their busy meat-eating schedule? Well... more meat, it seems. The shops are busting with a wide assortment of meat snacks; finely sliced beef stems, chili infused pork bites, a whole dried octopus vacuum wrapped in clear plastic (great gift for your mum), a bag of little pink squid arms, long dried sausages and so on.
I was not surprised though. The Japanese really love their meat. My Swedish friend who lived in Tokyo had given up on being a vegetarian. He would simply not get a clear answer at restaurants when he asked whether the dish had meat in it. Things like bouillon, meat broth, chicken skin, fish, etc. are not considered meat in the same sense as Europeans do. So he caved in and gave it up. His stomach exploded for the next 3 weeks, but eventually he understood the Japanese lesson; Eat our meat or leave the island.
The other day I found these three bags in my kitchen cabinet, sent to me by Japanese friends with bad senses of humour. Yoko and I discussed these treats in depth. Whether they are too old or too weird to be eaten, I will let you readers judge the food by its wrapping.
Anders: Yotchan is a snack brand selling little bags with sliced meats. It says ”katto” which could be a pun/double meaning for ”meat that has been cut” or Katto which derives from katsu which means winning in Japanese. So, meat snacks for winners! This Yotchan guy confuses me though. He sells beef but wears an octopus' butt on his head. The bag contains 6 slices of dried steak from a cow that probably died in the 1970’s, instantly frozen and preserved in big tubes deep beneath Harajuku Station.
Yoko: Yeah, I don't know why it features "Katto" so big, like the idea of squid being cut is a huge feature. Oh well, I suppose it's simple pleasures for the main consumers of this product who are mostly likely drunk on lots of shochu and stopping into the nearest Lawson or 7-11 to top off the evening with some barf-inducing snacks. Next to the giant word "Katto" is some copy that says "A snack for adults" and "Sour UP!" I think these strips are marinated in vinegar and the sour quotient is a big part of winning the hearts of potential customers. The Japanese have a talent for the English language and often use "noun UP!" for copy that offers a benefit. For example, lots of make-up boasts the copy "Image UP!" meaning your style will improve. I'm sold!
I like how Yotchan is wearing a squid cap while wearing a suit! His hat looks like a penis, but at least it looks like he's using protection.
Anders: This contains some weird, red meat bricks and I can’t seem to discover what kind of animal that gave up its body. It looks like Yotchan is pulling something... an octopus arm? A cow tongue? A horse penis? (well, they ARE long and red if you wonder)
Yoko: Oh my god! It's the cap again, but this time, it's more like a Smurf hat and he's got a matching white body suit. My Japanese husband enlightens me on the fact that this type is the "Original Yotchan" and that all Yotchan products are (supposedly) made out of squid. (Anders, it would have been nice if this was horse penis). I do have a soft spot for this guy because we share the same nickname – one of my ex-coworkers back in Japan dubbed me Yotchan the first week I was there.
Anders: This bag depicts a happy octopus with the cutest eyes that just escaped a deep sea urn relic, now on its way into the world, full of dreams and hopes. Too bad that danger lurks in the shape of you when you rip open this bag and eat up the poor thing. I’m not sure what the little red man is doing here. Warning the octopus of the impending horror? Pointing the consumer to the food source?
Yoko: Just to reassure you that those cute eyes don't fool you into thinking that this creature is actually real, they include the black fine print on the bottom of the package that asserts "This is a simulated image." The clay pot in the background baffles me – is it covering the octopus in vinegar? I also like how there's a personified octopus on the left side of the main octopus in overalls. It seems like he's pointing to the actual product that peaks through the circular transparent window of the package.
Anders: Phew, I’m so glad I didn’t have to eat these. But on a wild guess they would probably taste dry, salty, kinda slimey and very old. Not what I consider a fine couch companion when watching my new Daria DVD box-set.
The candy situation is improving in Japan however. As the Western influence washes over the island kingdom with its healthy gifts of XXL sized junkfood servings, Starbucks quality coffee and of course, Lady Gaga, the selection of Western but also Japanese produced candy is growing. Here’s to more adventures in the Japanese sugar section.
*Anders is based in Copenhagen where he draws kids books and refuses to cook unless he has guests.