Conveniently Eating In Japan

A fun, but often overlooked place to find tasty and affordable meals in Japan is at neighborhood convenience stores (7-Eleven, Lawsons and FamilyMart are the top three). Called konbini in Japan, these small markets are seemingly located just about everywhere and are easy to find. Besides the typical convenience store offerings of drinks, snacks, medicines and other items, convenience stores also have a large selection of freshly prepared foods at very reasonable prices. If you’re traveling in Japan on a budget, a meal from a convenience store can be had for $10 or less.

The biggest difference between the  foods found in Japanese convenience stores and those found in the U.S. is the quality and the variety. In Japan, prepared foods are for the most part stocked fresh every day because they have to be – go into a convenience store in the late afternoon or evening and your selection will be very limited as most everything in the that section will have already been purchased. The quality of the food is also much higher than what you’ll find in a U.S. convenience store.

Here are some of the best and tastiest items or meals (IMO) you can find at Japanese convenience stores:

Oden is a hearty and filling stew filled with various items such as potatoes, boiled eggs, fishcakes, and other items that are served in light dashi broth. It’s usually only available in cold weather. You’ll be charged by the number of items you select.

Karaage is fried chicken Japanese-style, with bite-sized pieces of tender thigh meat twice fried in a lightly-seasoned batter. You can buy it on its own or as part of a bento. Karaage and potato salad is my all-time favorite convenience store meal.

Potato salad all on its own can be a pretty tasty meal as well. Potato salad in Japan traditionally includes very thinly-sliced cucumber and carrot, and the potatoes are nearly fully mashed. It’s amazingly delicious.

Nikuman are Chinese-style steamed buns filled with savory pork and vegetables. They’re big enough on their own for a meal. Pizza- or curry-flavored buns are also popular. Nikuman are kept warm in a steamy case located next to the cash register.

Maybe the most popular food item in any store, onigiri are triangular Japanese rice balls wrapped with seaweed, but inside are different fillings, such as pickled plums, salmon, tuna salad, etc. They’re very popular and very convenient, and more filling than you might think. The plastic wrapper folds back to use as a holder.

Sandwiches range from ones Westerners can easily recognize to some many would find quite weird (like a hot dog roll filled with yakisoba noodles). Dessert sandwiches are now a thing, and are made with whipped cream and fresh fruit. YaYu had one on our last trip and proclaimed it extremely delicious.

Korokke (croquettes) are tasty and satisfying fried mashed potato cakes with other ingredients added which can include cheese, vegetables, seafood and so forth.

Gyoza are Chinese potstickers, typically sold in groups of five. They’re wildly popular in Japan, are found in any market, and can be eaten hot or cold (hot is better).

Convenience markets carry a huge array of bentos, too many to name here. They usually run around $7 or $8 dollars, but can cost more or less depending on the size of the bento and what’s included. Most come with rice, but some have noodles for the starch.

There are lots of higher end places to eat sushi in Japan, but the packages found in convenience stores are perfectly good if you are wanting it.

Yakisoba is fried noodles which are tossed with a Worchester-like sauce. They are usually fried with cabbage and onion, and sometimes have a small amount of protein like shrimp or chicken, but the noodles also available plain, like in the above photo. They’re always served with slivers of red pickled ginger called beni shoga. A small serving of yakisoba noodles is also sometimes included as a side dish in a bento.And of course, convenience stores are where you can pick up all sorts of snack items, Japanese candy (including KitKats!), and all sorts of amazing cold and hot drinks!

Convenience stores also always carry a big selection of ice cream treats, and what’s available will vary from store to store. They are affordable and always worth checking out!

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Postcard From: Summertime Japan

Parks are a popular place to stay cool during the summer

Even on the narrowest of streets, summer plants and flowers pass along a feeling of coolness.

Let’s be honest: Summertime in Tokyo can be HOT. And HUMID. And MISERABLE. I complain a lot about the heat and humidity here on Kaua’i, but it’s child’s play compared to what can be experienced during a Tokyo summer.

Mugi cha (wheat tea) was an acquired taste for me. I hated it at first but now find it more refreshing than regular iced tea (and it’s caffeine free).

Visiting Japan in the summer requires a different mindset, but can be enjoyable and a chance to see and experience activities and foods that are not available other times of the year.

Traditional Japanese culture views the seasons a bit differently than in the West – they’re meant to be experienced, both the good and the bad, and not masked. That means in winter you should experience a little cold, and in summer you should experience hot. While air-conditioning abounds in stores or on trains and other public places, it is often not used in the home, or not as much as we would here in the U.S. It’s not just that it’s expensive to operate A/C, but summertime is hot, and the underlying belief is one should appreciate the hot of summer a bit. Also, too much air-conditioning is not considered healthy, especially for children.

The sound of furin is one of summer’s delights in Japan.

Homes in Japan often hang furin (small bells) outside or in doorways and windows during the summer. Made from glass or iron, the bells have a large paper strip attached to the the clapper. The paper moves in the slightest breeze and rings the bell to evoke a feeling of air moving, and thus coolness.

Dirty, polluted air is a thing of the past in summertime Tokyo (thank goodness).

Still, sometimes things can get to the point of being dangerously hot. On days when the temperatures climb to broiling, and the humidity is high, you will hear loudspeaker announcements throughout the city warning residents to stay inside and stay cool rather than risk heat stroke or exhaustion. One thing that has improved greatly since we lived there in the 1980s and early 1990s is that these days the air is clean(er). When we were there the combination of heat and pollution during the summer was awful, but these days blue skies can be seen almost all of the time (unless there’s a storm).

Cool biz outfits from Uniqlo

Following the 2011 tsunami, and the catastrophic loss of the Fukushima nuclear plant (which affected power to many areas of Japan, including Tokyo), the government began a major, nation-wide plan to lower energy use during the summer, called Cool Biz. Government and other offices raised their thermostats, and workers were encouraged to wear special lightweight, comfortable clothing instead of the usual heavier suits and ties for men, and stocking and suits for women. Although Cool Biz seems to be a permanent fixture (and there’s now Warm Biz standards for winter wear), it’s not mandatory and initially caused some awkward moments in protocol between Cool Biz and non-Cool Biz offices.

A traditional festival game for children: if they can snag a ball with a small hook they get a prize.

Bon odori is a popular summer festival, and they can range in size from small to huge. The central platform holds drummers and dancers, and attendees, both men and women, dance around the platform, typically in lightweight cotton summer kimono, call yukata.

Candles are floated down a river, or out to sea, at the end of bon odori, to escort the ancestors back.

The Gion Festival is a massive event held every summer in Kyoto, and is filled with lanterns, floats and portable shrines of all sizes.

Festivals (matsuri) abound during the summer months, from small street fairs to temple fairs to fireworks displays to giant events with crowds of people. I got to a point that just hearing the word festival sent waves of terror through me because of the crowds I knew I would encounter, but in reality the crowds were never unruly, and people were always polite, cordial and helpful. Bon odori season arrives in August, when Japanese families welcome back the spirits of their ancestors for a week, and celebrate with festivals and dancing, then end the celebration by floating candles down a river or out to sea. Many Japanese return to their home villages (furusato) during this time of the year, but it’s not difficult to find a bon odori festival in any city and join in the dancing and celebration.

My grandson contemplates the size of his kaki gori. It came with small pitchers of fresh strawberry syrup and cream to pour over the ice.

This banner, with the word ‘ice’ on it, lets you know kaki gori is available. The waves and small plovers in the design are traditional motifs, and evoke summer.

One of the joys of summer in Japan is kaki gori, or Japanese shave ice. It’s served at festivals, in stands throughout Japan, and even in fancier restaurants. Kaki gori is a mountain of fluffy shaved ice topped with fruit syrups, and is extremely cooling and refreshing. Japan also has the most amazing assortment of ice cream and frozen treats I’ve ever seen. You can stop into any supermarket or convenience store and find something that will refresh you.

Cold somen noodles over ice with dipping sauce are a cool summer treat.

Special foods are also available during the summer, such as cold somen noodles with dipping sauce, or chilled silken tofu with thinly sliced green onions, soy sauce and grated ginger. Summer foods are often served in glass bowls or dishes, some made to look like ice, to evoke a feeling of coolness.

Besides lots of rain and high humidity in June, the summer months also can bring typhoons.

June is the month for baiyu or tsuyu, the rainy season, when humidity is at its peak, and the rain can drag on for days. When we lived in Japan, even though we had air-conditioning and humidifiers going, the humidity was bad enough that things would still mold, including shoes, backpacks, and such. June really can be miserable, but other months during the summer, even with the heat and humidity, can be a wonderful time to visit Tokyo and the rest of Japan, and experience the delights of summertime Japan.

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Postcard From: The Fukurou-no-Sato Owl Cafe

If you had told me that one day I would hold an owl on my arm, and pet and ruffle its neck feathers, I would have secretly thought you were perhaps in need of some therapy. And yet, there I was earlier this year, holding a variety of owls on my arm, petting their heads, ruffling the feathers on their necks, and absolutely loving every minute of the experience.

The owls’ faces were very expressive, and they enjoyed being stroked and petted.

Animal cafes are BIG in Japan. Whether you want to interact with cats, dogs, rabbits, birds, goats, or heaven forbid, snakes, there’s a cafe where you can do that. Some are better than others – much better – where the animals are well-cared for versus just a commodity.

The cafe we visited only allows in a few people at a time, and reservations are required. On the day of our visit to the Fukurō-no-Sato (‘owl village’) Cafe we stopped by a little before noon, but the first available opening wasn’t until 4:00 p.m. that afternoon. At some of the more popular cat cafes there can be up to a two-day wait for an opening.

We were served green tea in these cute owl cups while we learned about the owls, and got ready to enter the owl room.

The Fukurō-no-Sato Owl Cafe in Harajuku is located on the fourth floor in a building just to the side of Takeshita-dori in Harajuku, and across from Harajuku station. We paid a fee (1500¥ per person, a little less than $45 for the three of us) when we made our reservation, and then reappeared at our appointed time and were served a cup of green tea in a charming owl cup along with some crackers (other beverages and snacks were available, but cost more). While we sipped and munched an employee came and spoke to us about the owls, the different types and their temperaments, how to handle them, which ones not to touch, and especially emphasized the importance of keeping the big owls away from the smallest ones because they could be seen as prey. We had been concerned about the overall treatment of the owls before we arrived, but it became apparent as we listened that the staff loved the birds and they were very well-cared for. Interaction with humans was as limited as possible, and the owls got ‘down time.’ The cafe is located very close to the Meiji-Jingu shrine, and apparently the owls are taken out several times a week to fly and hunt inside the grounds. We have learned since that other cafes do not treat their owls as well.

This owl looked like he was daring anyone to mess with his girl YaYu .

Brett gets to know a barn owl. He initially just wanted to watch the owls, but eventually decided to hold them and enjoyed the experience.

After the presentation, we sanitized our hands and were taken into the owl room where we spent around a half hour with the birds. It was honestly pretty darn thrilling! The owls ranged in size from over two feet tall (great horned owl) to tiny ones that were only around six inches tall (the little owls were not handled). What was very surprising was how light they all were, especially the big owls, but then again they would have to be light in order to fly.

We loved the expressions on the owls’ faces!

Was it worth the expense? In my opinion, yes – it was an experience unlike any I’d ever had before and am unlikely to have again, and I learned quite a bit. Although I believe that the best place for owls is in the wild, I felt the owls were respected and well cared for.

Animal cafes have opened recently in the United States, but for the most part they remain a quintessential Japanese experience, and can be a fun and interesting addition to a Japan visit (although you will never find me in a snake cafe!). I do recommend though that research should be done before choosing a cafe, as they are not all equal.

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Postcard From: Senso-ji

The entrance to Senso-ji temple is the Kaminarimon, or ‘Thunder Gate,’ with the first of three giant paper lanterns, famous throughout Japan. On either side of the gate are large wooden statues of fierce Buddhist gods, who protect the temple. On the right is the god of wind, and on the left the god of thunder. (Photo is from matcha.jp.com – it was too crowded the day we passed through to take a picture)

On our trip to Japan in March, on our list of places not to miss was Sensō-ji temple. WenYu, YaYu and I had been unable to see it when we visited Japan in 2015, so this time we were determined to go. Not only is the shrine itself a fascinating and imposing site, and the surrounding neighborhood interesting as well, but we also knew we would be sure to find ramen shops there, and YaYu was determined to have a bowl of authentic Japanese ramen before we headed for home.

Located in the Asakusa district of Tokyo, Sensō-ji is the oldest temple in Tokyo. The temple is dedicated to Kannon (Guanyin), the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, and is the most visited religious site in the world, with over 30 million visitors annually. The original temple was constructed in 645 C.E., but was bombed and destroyed during World War II. It was rebuilt following the war and is a popular destination for both Japanese and foreign visitors. Entrance to the temple grounds is free.

The temple area was extremely crowded the day we visited, although we never found out why other than it was a nice spring day. It was difficult to take pictures as well as get through the crowd, and we missed getting to see the temple’s impressive five-story pagoda. Still, everyone visiting was polite and at times it seemed more like we were participating in a festival than visiting a religious shrine.

After passing through the Kaminarimon, we headed down Nakamise, “Center Street.” It’s a long, straight road lined with souvenir shops on either side. There are lots of fun things to look at, but we didn’t buy anything (mainly because it’s mostly geared to tourists and overpriced).

At the end of Nakamise is the Hōzōmon, or “Treasure House Gate.” It contains the second huge, distinctive paper lantern in the center, flanked on either side by two large black and gold lanterns. One the sides of the gate are two more of the large statues of gods -these two are Nio, the guardian deities of Buddha.

Hondō, the main temple hall, is straight ahead and across a paved courtyard after passing through the Hōzōmon.

We passed under a third giant lantern as we made our way into the main hall to view the altar. The lanterns at the temple are replaced around every 10 years.

The interior of the main hall is protected from visitors, but you can still view the main altar. There was a ceremony being performed while we were there, but we could only watch for a few moments as there were long lines waiting behind us for their turn to view the altar.

In the courtyard in front of the main hall is a giant brass urn where worshipers burn incense. The smoke from the incense is wafted over parts of the body that are ailing, while prayers are said.

Because of the crowds, we weren’t able to make it over to the pagoda, which is to the left of the main hall (photo courtesy of Wikipedia).

On the right side of the main hall courtyard visitors can catch a view of the Tokyo Skytree, the second tallest structure in the world. Completed in 2011, the tower is used primarily for broadcasting, but contains a restaurant and observation platform and is a very popular attraction in Tokyo.

Cherry blossoms at the temple were just getting ready to open.

The Asakusa neighborhood is ‘old Tokyo’ and there are many restaurants and shops in the area serving or selling traditional foods and folk crafts. At one ramen restaurant, in an old-style building, a statue of a peasant from the past can be seen perched on the roof with his umbrella.

We saw several people carrying ‘melonpan,’ or melon bread, so called because its shape is reminiscent of a cantaloupe. These large loaves of sweet bread could be enjoyed plain, or split and filled with whipped cream.

The little Inu Hariko figure I bought, my favorite Japanese folk character. He looks like a cat, but is actually a dog.

We walked back to the main road, to get back to the station, down a side road that had the backs of the Nakamise souvenir shops on one side. One of the things I remembered from past visits to Sensō-ji was a wonderful gelato shop at the end of this road, but when we got to the end we discovered the gelato place was no more. The small shop selling folk toys and paper that I remembered was still there though, and I bought myself a small Inu Hariko made of papier-mâché. Back on the main street we found a ramen restaurant, and after standing in line for a while were finally seated. YaYu and Brett both got ramen, and I ordered stir-fried pork and cabbage – delicious!

Our outing was an adventure, a very Japanese one with the crowds of people present, but well worth the effort. We were all glad we had gone, and hope to go back again next time we visit Japan so we can see the pagoda.

Japan Giveaway #2 Winner & Japan Giveaway #3: Ultimate KitKat Tasting Experience

The randomly selected winner of the Japanese Kitchen Set in Giveaway #2 is: UnwrittenLifeBlog – congratulations!! I will be contacting you by email this afternoon and will get your prize off to you as soon as possible. Once again, I want to thank everyone that entered for the lovely comments. I have the best readers, and wish I had a prize to give to everyone that entered.

I’ve saved what I think is a very fun prize for the last giveaway this week: the Ultimate KitKat Tasting Experience! Inside the red cloth pouch above are 13 different flavors of snack-size Japanese KitKats.

The flavors the winner of this giveaway will receive are:

Top Row: Shinshu Apple, Japanese Strawberry, Dark Chocolate, Rum Raisin, Okinawan Sweet Potato

Middle Row: Matcha (green tea), Wasabi, Cherry Blossom-Green Tea, Sake, Roasted Tea

Bottom Row: Strawberry Cheesecake, Melon, Raspberry

This giveaway will end on Wednesday, April 19, at midnight HST, with the winner announced the following day. The rules for this giveaway are the same as for the first two plus one new way to win an entry:

  • Comment on this page. You can comment every day until the giveaway, but just once a day. The more entries you have, the greater your chances of being chosen the winner! I will post the link a couple of extra times during the week. Commenting in another post will not count.
  • Subscribe to “The Occasional Nomads.” If you are already a subscriber, you will receive one extra entry. Please comment below and let me know that you are already a subscriber or that you just joined.
  • Post about the giveaway on your own blog, if you have one, and receive one additional entry.
  • There’s also an extra way to earn an extra entry this time: Guess which one is my favorite! I won’t answer in the comments, but if you guess right I’ll add an extra entry to your total.

The winner will be announced in the blog and also notified by email. You must respond by comment to the blog or to the email to receive your KitKat Tasting Experience (I will email you back to find out where to send them). Also, I can only mail to addresses in the U.S. and Canada.

Looking forward to hearing from you – you know you want to try them!

Giveaway Winner & Japan Giveaway #2: Japanese Kitchen Set

First, the randomly chosen winner of the bird cookies is Laurel – congratulations! I will contact you via email later today to get your address and will have the package off to you as soon as possible. I want to thank everyone that entered for all the many lovely comments – I wish I had cookies to send to everyone!

But, you have a chance to win again!

This week’s giveaway includes some fun (and useful) kitchen items from Japan:

  • Two hashioki. These blue & white chopstick rests are hyōtan (gourd) shaped. Hyōtan are a popular design motif in Japan – in the past the gourds were emptied and dried and used to carry sake. The hashioki can also be used as knife rests.
  • A set of four chopsticks (called “ohashi” in Japanese). Each chopstick has a different color and design: brown/sliced lotus root, blue/Mt. Fuji, red/hyōtan, green/mosquito coils (a sign of summer). The chopsticks could also be used as hair sticks or decorations.
  • A small floral tea caddy. The small red metal caddy (it’s just 3″ tall) has a tight seal, and could hold a few tea bags, some spices, or whatever you like!
  • A tenugui (Japanese cotton hand towel). The colorful cotton towel is printed with a design of koinoburi, Japanese carp kites. Koinoburi are displayed throughout Japan in early May, for the Children’s Day holiday (May 5). The tenugui can be machine washed, and becomes softer over time, or could be used as a wall hanging.

This giveaway will end at midnight HST on Wednesday, April 12, with the same rules for entry as last week’s giveaway:

  • Comment on this page. You can comment every day until the giveaway, but just once a day. The more entries you have, the greater your chances of being chosen the winner! I will post the link a couple of extra times during the week. Commenting in another post will not count.
  • Subscribe to “The Occasional Nomads.” If you are already a subscriber, you will receive one extra entry. Please comment below and let me know that you are already a subscriber or that you just joined.
  • Post about the giveaway on your own blog, if you have one, and receive one additional entry.

The winner will be announced in the blog and also notified by email. You must respond by comment to the blog or to the email to receive the kitchen set (I will email you back to find out where to send them). Also, I can only mail to addresses in the U.S. and Canada.

Postcard From: The Cup Noodles Museum

Welcome to the Cup Noodles Museum!

This is probably not a museum many visitors to Japan know about, let alone would consider visiting on a trip to Japan, but we had a two-fold reason for checking out the Nissin Foods Cup Noodles Museum in Yokohama this time: 1) YaYu loves cup noodles, and 2) I taught English conversation at Nissin Foods from 1981-1983. Our son and grandson decided to join us on our visit to the museum last week, which turned out to be a good thing – without our son along we would have gone to the wrong station!

Cup noodles are a big deal in Japan, and come in an amazing array of flavors these days – there are whole aisles in markets dedicated to them. But, a whole museum devoted to cup noodles? As it turns out, instant and cup noodles are more than a quick and convenient meal in Japan – they are also an inexpensive and easy way to provide nourishment all over the world, especially following a disaster, something I had never considered. Momofuku Ando’s invention has proven to be far more than a convenience food, and has been truly life-saving in some cases.

The Cup Noodles museum is located next to Yokohama harbor, an eight-minute walk from Minatomirai station.

Not everything is as it seems!

The purpose of the museum is not only to tell the story of cup noodles, but to help stir creativity and curiosity in children, and show the power of creativity, invention, and determination in finding ways to achieve your goals and dreams. Ando’s motto, “Never give up!” is repeated throughout the museum.

I loved this interactive exhibit: When you touch the item on the wall, a picture of the item appears above it as well as the thing that inspired it, encouraging children to think creatively. The steam shovel, for example, was inspired by a bird (crane).

One of the beautiful sculptures in the museum. I looked closely and still couldn’t figure out what’s holding it up.

The museum has two interactive areas that cost a bit extra to experience: the Cup Noodle Factory, where you can make your own “custom” cup noodles, and the Chicken Ramen Factory, where you make your own instant ramen noodles from scratch and then oil-dry them to take home to prepare later. The Chicken Ramen Factory looked like a lot of fun – everyone from adult to child was wearing a souvenir head scarf and apron while they worked – but there was a long wait for an opening, so we decided to go to the Cup Noodle Factory. Upon entry to the “factory” we paid our 300¥ admission by purchasing a noodle cup. We were then directed to a table to write the date on our cup (the finished product is good for a month) and decorate our cups with our own design. There were also “menus” at each table with all the choices available to create our own cup noodles. We could chose one of four broth flavors, and any combination of four from 16 dehydrated ingredients. After we were done with our drawings we were sent to the “building area” where we presented our cup, and a cheerful employee created our custom cup noodles. Each cup was then given a lid and sealed in plastic, just like you’d find it in a store, and finally placed into an inflated plastic carrying pouch so that it didn’t get destroyed on the way home. The whole thing was a very Japanese experience and a lot of fun, but Brett and I donated our noodles to YaYu, who was happy to receive them.

The many dehydrated selections to add to your custom noodles

My noodles are done! I chose a seafood broth, and added crab, garlic chips, green beans and green onions.

The noodle cups are lidded and then sealed in plastic.

YaYu and her inflated cup noodles protection bag!

After making our noodles we toured the rest of the museum, and also spent a while out on the museum’s back deck taking in a spectacular view of Yokohama harbor. We enjoyed all the exhibits (our son translated for us), which include several sculptures. I especially liked the Instant Noodles History Cube, a room filled with all the varieties of noodles created from 1958 to the present. Part of the room was dedicated to all the many varieties available in countries all over the world. Cup noodles can be found on every continent but Antartica!

Inventor Momofuku Ando invented “oil drying” for ramen noodles, and in 1958 the first instant ramen was introduced in Japan. It was an immediate hit.

So many varieties of cup noodles these days!

Cup noodles are popular all over the world – these are noodles from Russian and Spain. The U.S. sells the largest variety of Nissin instant noodles outside of Japan.

After our visit to the museum, our son and grandson headed to a large amusement park located across the street from the museum (the huge roller coaster there is named “Vanish” because at one point it disappears underground – no thanks!) while Brett, YaYu and I headed over to Yokohama’s Chinatown, just four more stops down on the train. We met up later at Minatomirai station at Mr. Donut for a snack and then went to the Takashimaya department store to find Hato Sabure.

A small portion of the amusement park across the street from the museum. Our grandson refused to ride either the ferris wheel or the roller coaster – smart boy! There were some other rides that scared me just to look at them.

The entrance to Yokohama’s Chinatown.

The Cup Noodle Museum might not be on everyone’s list of “must-see” places in Japan, but it was a unique and interesting place to visit, even if you don’t care for cup noodles. I’d go again!

Japan Giveaway #1: Keep Entering!

(the broken cookie in front is one of ours)

Once is never enough!

You can leave more than one comment on the Giveaway post to increase your chances of winning. The Giveaway is open until midnight HST on April 5.

If you haven’t entered, what are you waiting for? The bird cookies are delicious!!

Treating Ourselves Well in Japan

Strawberries are in season here, so patisseries all over are filled will strawberry shortcakes as well as other delights right now.

It’s not the first thing you think of about Japan, but one thing done very, very well here are sweets and other treats. It’s not hard to find incredible desserts here, as well as tasty cookies, crepes, cakes, and other delights. Starbucks Japan does flavors you can’t find back in the U.S. Best of all is that portion sizes are smaller than are found back in the States, and treats here contain far less sugar than American sweets while remaining incredibly tasty. Add both of those to the amount of walking that’s done here, and it’s OK to indulge once in a while.

Here are some of the treats we’ve been enjoying:

Raisin sandwich cookies, filled with a sweet creme and raisins, are one of my all-time favorite Japanese sweets, but while they were very popular years ago these days they’re somewhat harder to find. So, when we discovered some at the Daimaru department store in Tokyo Station this week, we bought a box of five. For three evenings I enjoyed one with a cup of coffee after dinner (Brett and YaYu had the other two). The cookies were quite small, about 1.5″ x 2.5″ in size, but just as delicious as I remembered them.

Bird cookies! We bought a simple bag with 10 of the delicious, Kamakura-made Hato Sabure for Brett and YaYu to enjoy, as well as a couple of smaller gift packs to send to Meiling and WenYu after we get home. I had a bite of Brett’s crisp, buttery cookie (and it was wonderful), but otherwise I’m planning to avoid them, or will at least try because I could easily eat the entire package without blinking an eye.

Our son suggested an afternoon break at Mr. Donut while we were in Yokohama on Wednesday. Donuts in Japan are smaller than what you find in the U.S., and far less sweet, but still very, very tasty. I was hoping for a green tea donut, but they didn’t have any at the shop we visited so I chose a blueberry and cream filled donut instead (delicious!). Our grandson had one of the pink and white ones seen in the middle of the case, a strawberry creme-filled ring, and Brett and our son both had ones with chocolate. Mr. Donut also sells savory donuts, but they kind of scare me.

While we were in Yokohama we visited Chinatown, and stopped at a bakery to pick up five of the area’s famous almond cookies to enjoy later. They are only minimally sweet, but so good. Just looking at this cookie in the wrapper has me rethinking my resolve to avoid carbohydrates.

Starbucks Japan has introduced a new spring Frappuccino flavor: Sunshine Mandarin-Mango, with coconut and mango puree on the top. Can I just say it was amazing (and I don’t even care all that much for Frappuccinos)? YaYu tried one the other day, and after Brett and I each had a small sip we all decided that we wanted one at Narita for our last Japan treat before we board the plane to come home. They’re that good.

All the above treats came from the food section of a Muji Lifestyle store (where I could easily drop some serious money – it’s like a Japanese IKEA that also carries clothing). The very affordable, and all-natural, snacks we purchased, which include a variety of cakes, cookies and miniature chocolate-filled cream puffs, are all for YaYu’s school lunches. YaYu bought her own big bag of savory snacks there as well to share with her friends. The cake flavors above include lemon, chocolate, strawberry, banana, sweet potato, orange and cherry blossom.

And, no trip to Tokyo is complete without having a fabulous crepe on Takeshita Street in Harajuku. Yes, I indulged. There are several shops selling crepes, but my favorite is Angel Heart Crepes, a small shop that offers nearly 100 different varieties of filled crepes in every flavor combo imaginable, with some including an entire slice of cheesecake.

I failed to get a picture of an amazing dessert YaYu bought the other day: a strawberry and whipped cream “sandwich,” with the “bread” made from angel food cake. The sandwich was packaged and looked just like any regular sandwich you’d find for sale at a deli or supermarket. When YaYu saw what it actually was, she said she had to try it and it did not disappoint. Only in Japan.

And, of course there are the KitKats. We visited a KitKat “chocolatory” at Tokyo Station earlier in the week and found four new “Tokyo-only” flavors: strawberry-maple, pistachio-raspberry, butter (yes, butter!), and green tea-kinako (roasted soy flour). We’re not sure what to expect from that one, but will give it a try. We found some dark chocolate KitKats at the Daiso store in Harajuku, but will wait to look for more flavors at Narita, where souvenir shops offer lots of different flavors for travelers to take home with them.

The Walk To Our Son’s Condo

The New Sanno Hotel, where we’re staying while we’re here in Japan, is just a 15 minute walk from our son’s condo in the NishiAzabu neighborhood. We have two choices of how to get ourselves from the hotel to his place: a) turn right out of the front of the hotel and walk along a busy four-lane thoroughfare lined with shops, restaurants and other businesses, or b) turn left out of the hotel and then take the next left onto a narrow residential street that takes us the “back way.”

Both options are quintessentially Japanese, but we always choose the second one, and this is the walk we take each day.

While most of the area is residential, there are also a few businesses along the way. There are also several vending machines interspersed on the road, most selling either hot or cold drinks, or cigarettes.

The street is very clean. There is absolutely no trash, and the sidewalk is swept the entire way. Japanese are master recyclers, and on trash days bags are neatly set out in designated areas with each type of trash/recycling separated for pick up. If there is a large pile of trash, the bags are covered with netting so they don’t spill out into the street.

Occasionally we see an old house among the new. The land the house sits on is extremely valuable, worth millions of dollars. Building a new house would also cost millions, so the owners tend to hold on to their old house as long as possible and then sell the land to a developer.

More older-style homes, probably from the 1970s and 1980s, with a new high-rise condo going up in the background. Almost every house and condo has plantings in the front, or at least some potted plants.

We pass a small neighborhood Shinto shrine on the way. This is one of the things I love about Japan, finding a very traditional shrine or Buddhist temple mixed in with modern homes and condos. Local festivals and services are held at the shrine throughout the year.

Halfway to our son’s condo is the National Azabu supermarket. The neighborhood contains many embassies, so there are lots of foreigners living in the area, and National Azabu carries a wide selection of “foreign” foods, although you will pay dearly for them. A container of Fage yogurt that costs around $4 back in the U.S. is approximately $19 here, and a western-style beef roast, if you must have it, will cost you your firstborn.

A studio apartment in the neighborhood can start at $2000/month, and prices go up from there. Many of the apartments in the neighborhood are larger than a typical Japanese residence, to suit Western tastes, and have amenities like dishwashers, ranges with ovens and such, things not typically found in Japanese homes but that appeal to foreigners. We saw an ad for a 683 sq. foot 1-bedroom condo (new construction) that was selling for $1.25 million dollars!

A sculpture adorns a corner of an apartment building along the way.

Our son’s condo is just nine stories tall, but all units open into an inner courtyard, which is a feature our son and his wife wanted after the big earthquake in 2011. A mixture of foreigners and Japanese live in the building, and there is rarely ever a unit available for rent. An apartment/condo building will always have balconies; a commercial building won’t.

I have yet to go to any residence in Japan, whether it’s a house, condo, or high-rise apartment, that doesn’t have an intercom system used to announce your presence, whether you’re family or a tradesperson. Modern intercoms, like at our son’s condo, also have video capability, so you can see who is asking to be let in.

Everyone takes off their shoes in the genkan before stepping up into a Japanese home. When you take your shoes off, you turn them to point out so that all you have to do is slip them on to leave (we fail miserably at this). All homes have a spacious shoe closet built next to the genkan.

What no photo can capture is how safe the neighborhood is. Cars watch out for people walking. You can walk alone at night and not worry about being accosted. You can leave your umbrella or your bicycle outside a store and it will be there when you come out.