Thursday, February 09, 2006

Japanese Beverage Reviews

Some stuff that I wrote when I was back in Japan for a month this summer. I am not really this angry, I promise. I actually really like Japan. But it's good to maintain some perspective, right?

Top 5 overrated things about Japan:

1. J-Pop – Seriously, this is some of the worst music on the planet. Every country has their own version of this slop, but in Japan, if you are famous for one thing, it’s ok to try and be famous for a bunch of things. If you are a TV personality, then you might as well make an album too, right? Herein lies the problem. People with no musical talent are paired with big-name producers and songwriters to make something that is immediately marketable. Or worse, someone is marginally talented enough to be groomed into a Backstreet Boys-esque group that becomes popular, and then you have to see them hanging out with each other on TV for however long the forces that be decide will be the length of their disposable careers.

2. technology (esp. toilet seats) – it’s not that they really have anything that Europe or the United States doesn’t, it’s just that they feel the need to add technology to certain things that other people feel are fine the way they are. The toilet thing is a perfect example. I mean, does it really mean that much to have a heated toilet seat? Or a bidet attachment? Are you really getting that much more out of your bathroom experience? They can make the stuff, but it has long been said that there is not a going on in terms of conceptual development of technology. We all love our Hondas and Toyotas, but when was the last time you used a good piece of Japanese-developed software?

3. temples and shrines – Yes, they are big, and yes they are old, but because they are mysteriously empty, I feel like they are kind of a waste. Everybody (in theory) thinks they are sacred and that they should be there, but in reality these are not places that represent real beliefs of real people, things that would normally make them sacred. Only a very small percentage of the population really understands what they mean, let alone actually practices the philosophies related to these buildings. When do lots of people come out these places? When there is some kind of festival and there are lots of carts selling food outside of them. People like to get dressed up in their hakata and kimono and be seen at the temple, but in a pinch, this could really just as easily take place at the eki or somewhere, as long as that’s where the yatai get moved to.

4. how expensive it is – All you hear about in the United States is how a square watermelon costs $100 or whatever. If you want to eat exactly like you do in Texas or whatever, then yes, it is going to be expensive. But expensive here is normal. You don’t really hear very often of people complaining that they can’t do something because it is too expensive. Despite how expensive it is, people still eat all the time and talk on their cell phones all the time and pretty much do what they want to. The expense isn’t really making anyone leave the country or anything. If you don’t do all of the things that normal Japanese people do, (like actually not going out drinking all the time, or staying at capsule hotels, or eating out a lot) then you can actually save quite a bit of money, I am told. Whatever, I lived on 30,000 yen a month for food and travel for two years without ever really freaking out. Just don’t stop at every vending machine you see, and I think you will be ok.

5. rice paddies – see #11.

6. roujin mondai – I don’t know, it seems to me like there are plenty of kids hanging out here. And they shouldn’t have any reason to be killing themselves before their college entrance exams if their parents keep spoiling them the way they do now.

7. Hiroshima – The city itself is not much different than any other, except that it at one point had a nuclear bomb dropped on it. Aside from the Genbaku Dome(which was left that way on purpose), there is not a single place that shows evidence of damage. Hiroshima itself is actually a pretty interesting city, and I lived there for almost a year, but what I think is overrated is the notion of Hiroshima as symbolizing Hiroshima. The Hiroshima shiryoukan and heiwa kouen could be anywhere and it would still be the same, as far as I am concerned. How about a little bit of information on how the hell the city was rebuilt so fast. That would be of interest to me. That would represent a truly Japanese triumph over what is obviously a crushing defeat. Oh yeah, at the memorial, what about there being at least some kind of dialogue at all concerning the political climate in Japan which led to the bomb on Hiroshima. Not to be a dick, but there are two sides to every story, ya know. It certainly wasn't right, but it also wasn't just out of nowhere. Hiroshima should be known for it's okonomiyaki, not just it's history.

8. driving on the left side of the road – It took about fifteen minutes to get used to it. Except for the windshield wiper thing. That, I don’t think I will ever get used to.

9. Japanese women – I know some dudes in the US go on and on about how cute they are, and yes, they are statistically less ugly than American women (thanks to the fact that for the most part obesity is not an issue) but when it comes down to it, would you really want to? I would venture to say that most American men would not enjoy being in a real relationship with Japanese women. They might be cute, but for the most part, after the initial “yellow fever” (<- their wording, not mine) wears off, I don’t think they are the type of people that dudes would want to hang out with, unless you enjoy shopping for little dangly things to attach to your cell phone, covering your mouth when you laugh, or saying “oishii!” as if you and all your best friends at Mister Donuts have just recently discovered what eating is. Japanese women certainly are not all like this. But, a lot of them sure are.

10. how fast the Shinkansen is – Yeah, it is fast, but when they call it the Bullet Train in English, I expect some like StreetHawk type lights flashing so fast that you can’t make out what is going on. My main problem with it is that it doesn’t seem like it is going that fast. Because it runs on a track that is either cutting through the middle of a mountain or elevated above any cityscape or countryside, it is quite difficult to tell how fast you are going, unless you are driving the Shinkansen (which I doubt you are) or you are looking out the window directly below where the train is running, which is probably not very interesting.

11. How crowded it is- it would be a lot less crowded if people swallowed their pride and just went ahead and imported rice from other countries like they do with practically every other agricultural product. It would be way cheaper and just as good, I’m sure. There is nothing that special about rice that is grown right next to someone’s house, a factory or a polluted river. And just think of what they could do with all of that new land that was once just rice fields! Think of all the awesome, beautiful new pachinko parlors that could be built. Think of all the awesome driving ranges that could be built. Hmmm.. Never mind, I guess rice paddies aren’t that bad.

Top Five most underrated things about Japan:

1. The smoking car on the Shinkansen – All it takes is one walk through this car to get a very definitive cross-section of the type of person I like to call Japanese Male Asshole. Just like 2 smoking cars of the 8 total cars on the Shinkansen I am riding right now, the Japanese Male Asshole makes up approximately 25% percent of the total population. The number is probably actually less than that, as not all of the people riding in the smoking cars on the Shinkansen are assholes, and not all of them are male either. Just most of them. Seriously. Most of them. There is some mysterious positive correlation between those who cannot go without smoking for two hours and the likelihood of them being assholes. What makes the smoking car on the Shinkansen so underrated is how easily it makes the task of assembling this breed of asshole into one convenient, observable place.

Japanese Beverage Reviews:

I noticed that this is one of the drinks that is only sold in Sapporo, and so being quite happy with the other genteihin that I had tried, Japan’s answer to Guarana, I decided to give this stuff a try. It tastes like something else, but I can’t remember what. Now I know. It tastes exactly like Ramunade, but since it is a clear orange in color, it makes you think that it is actually something else. Pretty unimpressive.

Kirin Guarana:
Japan’s answer to the Brazilian soft drink. There are some fun facts about the guarana bean on the bottle (I am often pleased at how informative Japanese packaging can be) and it says that the gurana bean has four times as much caffeine as a coffee bean. I did not know that! Like the Scandanavian free-trade version of this drink, Guarana Power, this stuff also tastes more like a sports drink than it does the Brazilian stuff. Not that that is a bad thing, it’s just different. A little bit more tart, a little bit more like chewable vitamins, which is actually kind of refreshing. According to the bottle, and according to the magazines that the put in the front pockets of the train seats on the touristy train destinations, this is only available in Hokkaido. In the magazine, they sold it in cases, either to be taken home, or to be sent to your house. It seems that they do this in many areas of Japan, that they will make something that is only to be sold in certain areas, so as to make the people who happen to be in that area feel special or something. It kind of reminds me of how people get excited when the McRib comes around again at McDonald’s.

Daizu no susume
I’m not really sure I get what this is. The commercial makes it seem like you are somehow getting the same nutrition from drinking this drink as you would from eating the soybeans found in natto or something. Anyway, this drink claims to give you some of the same stuff that soybeans have, but I couldn’t figure out what the katakana word for the stuff was. Seems shady to me. This drink has a limited lifespan, I am sure. Why? Despite its claims of health benefits, this drink tastes like a watered-down version of Fresca without the bubbles. Despite the fact that the ingredients list no artifical sweeteners (the drink is definitely flavored with regular, natural sweetener) it tastes like it is made with Nutra-sweet or even Saccharine. Definitely weird. Distinctly strange. I will try it one more time, although I am pretty sure my assessment was right the first time.

Pocari Sweat.
Is there really a difference? If you are reading this, you probably know what both of these taste like already. Aquarius claims to be developed out of sports science. What the hell are electrolytes? Now I know what the word for them is in Japanese.

Mugi cha
This seems to be the only brand of mugicha which is commercially available at most stores or at vending machines. And you know what? It’s ok, because this drink is glorious. By far the most refreshing Japanese summertime beverage. There is something they do to this stuff when they make it that you just can’t get at home using the bags. Maybe it is that the stuff doesn’t taste like bags. Have you ever noticed that, that the stuff tastes like you are sucking on the bag that it comes in sometimes? This stuff has the initial mugi-cha blast that you have come to expect from homemade mugi-cha, but then in the background there is another, dark, lurking flavor in the mix, which compromises the majority of the aftertaste. Long live this sugarless, glorious beverage!

Sky Time Yuzu
JAL’s exclusive in-flight drink.
When I saw that JAL had its own in-flight drink, I was immediately both doubtful and excited to try this delicacy. I had forgotten what yuzu was, although I could recall that it was one of those words in Japanese where you look it up, and the English definition is just the word again, but in italics. Sky Time Yuzu is quite possibly the most refreshing in-flight beverage I have ever tasted, replacing spicy tomato juice with ice as my favorite airplance drink (although not permanently, as this is only JAL’s in-flight drink, “A JAL exclusive” as their menu put it. Rarely does the word “exclusive” actually mean anything, but in this case, it seems that the only place you can enjoy this nectar of the gods is on their airplanes or through their in-flight catalog, at no small price, I might add). It is absolutely wonderful. Its first ingredient is grape juice, but even that is so wonderfully hikaeme that it defines the not-too-sugary aesthetic which is the essence of Japanese beverage deliciousness. There’s a strange kind of bite to the yuzu, as if at first you are drinking a beverage that is made out of catnip or some other familiar-but-not-usually consumed herb. This makes the drink both mysterious and familiar to me. I might actually break down and buy a case.

Fanta Yuzu
Having had such a wonderful in-flight experience with yuzu drinks, when I saw this at the 7-11, I knew I had to give it a try. The yuzu flavor is certainly there, but it is only really noticeable if you sip the drink in small mouthfuls. Chugging this stuff will make it taste like you have a mouthful of orange soda or some other similarly drab fake-fruit carbonated beverage. While this soda also contains no fruit juice, I really must admit that they have captured the yuzu flavor quite well, although as I mentioned before, it is only noticeable when you are taking small sips. Like the rest of Fanta’s products, this stuff is too sweet for my palette. A good idea, but the execution is a little off. Certainly not much compared to the glorious Sky Time Yuzu, but that drink is in a league all its own. Although considering Fanta’s interpretation of the flavor of the grape, I would have to say that this is one of their more defining accomplishments.

Coca-cola Lemon
While the United States introduced Lime Coke this spring, it seems that Japan has decided to give lemon a try. It has kind of a fragrant vibe to it. Like Lime Coke, I have to wonder if this is really just Coke with lemon flavoring added, because it tastes more like a strange re-formulation of flavor that is supposed to somehow go well with the citrus fruit it is mixed with, lacking the original bitterness of Coca-Cola classic, tasting more like New Coke, or even worse, Pepsi.


Convenience store bentos:

THE ULTIMATE: Sing praises to the genius who gave us this: The zaru-soba plus three inari bento. Could there be a more beautiful, perfect bento? When I saw this, I thought that God Himself had read my mind and created a bento combination so perfect that it could only be sold in about one third of Japan’s convenience stores. The zaru soba section is exactly like any other, it’s got noodles, a packet of clear fishy-tasting stuff to splash over the noodles, chopped green onions, a bowl of tsuyu, a packet of wasabi, and a packet of slivered nori to put over the noodles. Awesome as it is. Nearly perfect in itself. Then, throw in three inari-zushi. Holy crap! In addition to taking over any residual hunger that might have been there after only eating the zaru soba, this presents you with what is quite possibly the world’s greatest food, INARI. I could go on for days about this stuff, but I’ll leave at that. This stuff is combini-shoku at its finest. It is foods like this which benefit the most from being combini-shoku-ized, because there really isn’t much that needs to be changed except the packaging. All of the ingredients in both dishes are served cold, so there is not really very much that can get messed up, unlike other combini-shoku items such as curry, etc. This convenience store food is a triumph for humanity, indeed. Bravo, Japan.

Hiyashi chukka
Another food that adapts well to the constraints of the convenience store food format. I am told that 7-11’s is the best. This is the first thing I wanted to eat when I got off the plane. My first purchase in Japan, and considering the circumstances, one of the most delicious.

Japanese Camp Sites (yes, there is camping in Japan):

Onuma higashi camp-jo
Even at Hokkaido campgrounds, it seems that the Japanese do everything small. The place itself is a pretty big field with a nice view of the lake. There is a nice, big restroom area and a covered area for cooking and grilling. The area was crowded with tents. People seemed to be finding it hard to avoid being tech. There were TV’s and cell phones throughout. My stay there the first night was interesting in that right across from me were two very chatty fellows who talked about camping for hours and hours. One guy was older (I heard him say that he was 45) and had biked into the area. The other guy looked to be a college student and played the role of the disciple in their conversation. They talked about how to camp on the cheap, and they kept dropping the names of other campers who they knew, as if there was this big scene of cross-country camping people, some of whom had seemed to achieve celebrity status. They cooked a meal together and then commented about every two minutes about how delicious it was. I kind of enjoyed evesdropping on the conversation all night long, although after a while I kind of wished that they would go to bed. These dudes got up early too, and talked a lot then as well. The college student guy was pretty quiet, but he kept the 45 year old going, he kept egging him on. He would talk about everything in a great deal of detail. He was a very “kuwashii” person, for sure. I was secretly jealous that I was not in on their posse that evening. They didn’t seem to know each other very well, it seemed that they had known of each other from the camping scene, but that they had not really spent any QT together until this evening. It was very interesting listening to their conversations. Really.
Note: the higashi camp-jo is not near the Onuma-koen eki. It is near an eki which only has about six or seven trains stopping at it every day, the name of which I was not able to read. It is pretty close to this train station, but it is an hour’s walk from the Onuma-koen eki, contrary to what is written in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Japan. Just so you know. The Guide has been right about everything else so far though, I must admit.