10 Upcoming Sakura-Themed Goodies to Get You Hyped for Cherry Blossom Season

Is it that time of year already?!

The other day, I stumbled across a Starbucks sakura latte in a Family Mart convenience store. It’s just one of the many exciting sakura-themed treats we’ll be experiencing for the approaching cherry blossoms, the pink flowers that bloom for just a few weeks in early spring.

People go crazy for it; they lay out picnic sheets, prepare a huge amount of food and beer, and have a great time under the falling petals. It’s enormous fun and I’ll be sure to attend at least one of these events, “hanami” in Japanese, in March.

To celebrate, here are ten upcoming (and current) goodies that various companies release for one of Japan’s most beloved seasons.

1. The Starbucks Sakura Latte

Starbucks is as well loved here as it is anywhere, and the huge American coffee chain has wasted no time in releasing its strawberry jelly treat. Served hot or cold, it’s recommended you only buy this if you really like sweet drinks.

2. Lipton’s Sakura Milk Tea

Don’t like coffee? How about tea?! Lipton’s is releasing a brand new Sakura-infused milk tea to celebrate the upcoming blossoms. You can read more about this on SoraNews.

3. Sakura Kit Kats

Kit Kats may have hailed from the town of York in England, but Japan has made them great. Gaining traction in Japan for their name, which sounds like “kitto katsu” (I’ll surely win) in Japanese and thus giving schoolchildren a boost when they buy them in exam season, Kit Kats now come in an enormous amount of different flavors, ranging from green tea and pumpkin to strawberry and sake.

It’s no surprise, then, that Kit Kats are bought by the bucketful when sakura season rolls around.

4. The Limited-Edition Sakura Pie at Lotteria

Lotteria is a fast-food place mostly selling burgers, similar to McDonald’s. In 2017, they brought out a limited-edition sakura pie for just 180 yen (about $2 USD). It was really delicious, and fans of this sweet treat are praying for a re-release.

5. Sakuramochi

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Sakuramochi have been around for decades; mochi is the word for rice cake, and this seasonal treat is soft rice filled with red bean paste and wrapped in a salted sakura leaf. It’s insanely more-ish and you can find them in supermarkets all over the country come cherry blossom time.

6. Sakura Milk

Perfect for kids and those who aren’t keen on coffee, this snack-sized treat adds a cherry blossom twist to normal milkshakes. I’ll definitely be grabbing one next time I visit Kaldi Coffee.

7. McDonald’s Sakura Teriyaki Egg Burger

Not keen on sweets? You won’t miss out! Every spring, McDonald’s comes up with a range of sakura-themed treats, determined not to be missed out. They have a whole menu of sakura stuff: drinks, burgers, and even fries sprinkled with special cherry blossom salt.

I’m hoping for a return of the sakura teriyaki egg burger. It sounds so bad it has to be good.

8. Lindt’s Sakura Menu

Lindt has shops all over the place in Japan, the sales of their pricy but high-quality cacao-filled treats boosting in February and March anyway due to Valentine’s Day and White Day, respectively. They continue to sell well by introducing their sakura-themed menu, imitating other cafes with blossom-infused drinks and selling their own sakura macarons.

9. Eitaro’s Sakura Jelly

This sakura-themed jelly is a frequent yearly release by Eitaro that dessert-lovers should keep an eye out for. It’s 300 yen for one piece, making it slightly pricier than some others on this list, but a great treat for fans of sakura-infused foods.

10. Sakura Coca Cola

Yet another international brand jumps on the cherry blossom bandwagon! With other Japan-exclusive flavours such as peach cola, it’s not much of a surprise that sakura coke is a thing, too. The fizzy drink is already pretty sweet, so it remains to be seen whether the blossom infusion will improve it or not.

Seasons and related foods change fast, so grab these sakura goodies while you can! Before we know it, it’ll be summer and we’ll all be fainting under the humidity again.

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Valentine’s Day JUST Ended And We’re Already Seeing This

It never stops with special events and festival goods spurring businesses to launch the latest and greatest relevantly-themed product.

Valentine’s Day in Japan involves women giving their loved ones and male coworkers chocolates. As you might expect, sales of this sugary treat skyrocket around late January and early February. I did my own share of choccy shopping and am eagerly awaiting reciprocal gifts on White Day.

That being said, Valentine’s Day JUST ended, and already I came across THIS.

Sakura season is ages away! New Year’s Eve was just five minutes ago… wasn’t it?

Trust Starbucks to get ahead with cherry blossom themed drinks.

Buying branded coffee in convenience stores is way cheaper than going to the cafes themselves, and I picked this up for around 170 yen (closer to 600 in an actual Starbucks). I just had to grab this early treat to celebrate the yearly blossom of pink and white flowers millions across the country will enjoy and celebrate in March.

Chocolate and strawberry jelly; what could go wrong?

Verdict: it was revolting.

Shonan No Hoseki Illuminations Event in Enoshima, Japan

Enoshima is a gorgeous island near Kamakura where people go to take a break from the city, see some local shrines, and spend the day with their families. Right now in December, there is a lovely illumination event in Samuel Cocking Garden near Enoshima Shrine.

It cost 200 yen to inside and an extra 300 yen to go up the tower. The lights were impressive, and stepping into the area felt like walking into a new world.

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Illumination events appear all over the cities in Japan around December and January. Though not always festive, they are a public version of Christmas lights that people can enjoy this time of year.

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They certainly pushed the boat out at this garden. Together with the walk past the breathtaking Enoshima Shrine and with a nearby cafe selling french toast, coffee, and other goodies, it was a lovely evening out with friends.

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If you’d like to see this illumination, the event will run until February 17th, 2019. For more information about opening times, see the website below.

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A Hidden Gem in Kanagawa: Tamagawa Daishi Temple

Back in my tour guide days, I used to dread hearing the words “hidden gem.” Tourists claim to want to see unknown places that no one knows about, but if tourists went there, they wouldn’t be hidden. I know some of the popular places in Tokyo, but I wasn’t aware of many places that “no one knows about.”

However, today a friend took me to a temple in Futago-Tamagawa. Futago-Tamagawa, much like other places in Kanagawa Prefecture, has undergone a lot of development in recent years. Young people often visit for shopping and dining. But there is more to the area than department stores and restaurants.

After walking for around fifteen minutes after a delicious Korean lunch near the station, we reached a small temple called Tamagawa Daishi. Now, it didn’t look like much from the outside…

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But what made this very old temple special was that it was much, much bigger once you ventured underground.

Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take pictures on the inside, but here is an account of what we found.

After offering a five-yen coin, ringing the gong, and saying a quick prayer, we ventured inside. The temple was stuffed full of old treasures: ancient gongs, statues of various Buddhist gods blackened by time, and solid gold bells and things I didn’t recognise. Incense burned and the smell of wood filled the air.

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It cost 100 yen to go down into the underground. We signed our names, put on the provided slippers, and headed down there.

“Last time I was here, we got into trouble for screaming,” my friend told me. “The monk had to tell us off.”

Apparently, it was so dark down there they got freaked out and started shrieking. She wasn’t kidding; it was pitch-black and we had to walk slowly, hands sliding along the wall. I’m not sure what the point of a dark tunnel in a Japanese temple is, but it might give you the feeling of walking into another world.

After several minutes of feeling our way along in the dark, we reached this amazing underground room. Again, taking photographs was prohibited and I wasn’t about to disrespect the rules, but there was a long corridor full of the 88 monks of the temple from back then. Some of them had unlit candles or other treasures placed before them.

There were also statues of angels, one enormous stone statue of the monk who built the temple, and various models of the gods of fire. At one point, we came across a god who helped take unborn deceased children to the afterlife. A month ago I had a miscarriage, but instead of being upsetting, the statue of a god with smaller cherubs clinging to his robes filled me with wonder (though I did feel my eyes burning.)

My friend said later that she had forgotten about my misfortune when she had invited me, and apologised profusely. I told her it was fine; I had wanted to visit a temple with these statues anyway, so in a way, it was beautiful, if a little heartbreaking.

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Fortunately, we were allowed to take pictures outside.

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Then we headed to Musashi-Nakahara to see a small farm of pansies. The pansy is the symbol of Nakahara Ward and is popular to buy around December. Some of the arrangements in the picture below were being sold for 30,000 yen (About £206 GBP or $265 USD)!

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All in all, it was a great day and very different from what I usually do. If you’re in the area, Tamagawa Daishi is worth a visit for the vast array of authentic treasures that are hundreds of years old. It’s a little surreal to be in an underground temple surrounded by priceless artifacts from temple worship.

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How to Eat Japanese Shabu-Shabu at Home

Now that winter is on its way, hotpot dishes such as sukiyaki, nabe, and shabu-shabu are regaining their popularity in Japan. People love to visit shabu-shabu restaurants to chow down on meat and vegetables in various flavours of sauces, along with a beer or two.

What is Shabu-Shabu?

Shabu-shabu consists of one large bowl of some kind of soup. This can be soy-sauce based, spicy, or tomato flavour; some restaurants offer a wider variety or special bowls with two kinds of sauce inside. Shabu-shabu is typically a social meal and is usually enjoyed as a group of two or more people sharing the large bowl of soup.

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Diners order ingredients to put into the soup themselves. The meat is cut thinly so it only needs to be dipped (and then “shabu-shabu’d” or moved around inside the soup to quickly cook it), then mixed briefly into sauce and eaten.

Shabu-Shabu Restaurant Prices

Going to a shabu-shabu restaurant will easily set you back a couple of thousand yen, and more if you plan on having some drinks as well. Red meat, in particular, is expensive in the land of the rising sun and it’s not uncommon for the majority of your bill to be towards a plate of beef.

Some eateries offer special all-you-can-eat deals or special lunchtime prices, but even then you’re looking at a minimum of 2000-3000 yen per person.

Well, we recently decided to buy the ingredients ourselves, and not only did it come out much cheaper, but just as delicious as any shabu-shabu restaurant! Here are some tips on eating this yummy Japanese dish at home, including typical prices, what you’ll need, and how to prepare it.

The Ingredients and Equipment

The priciest part of eating shabu-shabu at home is the equipment. You’ll need a nabe bowl and a gas-powered cooker to go with it. You also need a canister of gas, which you can buy for a couple of hundred yen at most supermarkets.

*Hint for shopping in Japan: check your local supermarket for a point card! Some supermarket offer discounts for point card holders, and some shops such as Foodium give bonus points for not using plastic bags. If you’re living in Japan, make use of the free points system for rewards and benefits.

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Ingredients (for a large meal for 2-3 people):

  • 200g thinly sliced beef. Ideally it should say しゃぶしゃぶ (shabu-shabu) on the packaging
  • 200g thinly sliced pork
  • 1 spring onion
  • 1 carrot
  • Chinese shiitake mushrooms
  • Enoki mushrooms
  • Half a head of lettuce
  • Ponzu sauce
  • Momen dofu (tofu). There are two kinds, and this kind is much better for hotspot dishes.
  • 200g Shirataki konyaku noodles

You’ll also need:

  • One large pair of serving chopsticks
  • One regular sized pair of chopsticks for each person. A fork or spoon will work as well.

Directions:

  • Mix 550ml of the ponzu sauce and 550ml water in the nabe bowl.
  • Chop the vegetables and tofu up into bite-sized but chunky pieces and arrange them on a plate (or two plates if needed)

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  • Prepare smaller bowls of sauces of your choice. This can be the ponzu sauce (add water if needed as it’s a little salty). Another great choice is sesame-based dressing which goes very well with pork.

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Once you’ve got everything ready, you can start adding the ingredients to the soup. Some things, such as carrot and tofu, need a couple of minutes to boil. Other things like lettuce and meat don’t need much time.

Add a bit of everything, and then “shabu-shabu” the meat. Use the serving chopsticks to dip the meat inside and mix it in the liquid. You’ll see it cook in the boiling soup right before your eyes! After around thirty seconds (or when it looks done) you can take it out and add it to the sauce. Some people like to eat it piping hot straight away, and others prefer to wait a bit.

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Pork goes well with the sesame dressing and beef suits the ponzu sauce better. The vegetables are delicious with both. You’ll find that this healthy dish is surprisingly filling!

It’s really easy to enjoy shabu-shabu at home for a fraction of the price you’d pay in a restaurant. The ingredients, plus the gas canisters, cost less than 1,500 yen each (two people) including some drinks! I recommend that everyone living in Japan tries a home hotpot at least once. If you feel confident in making this yummy dish at your place, you can even invite people over for a shabu-shabu party.

Like lots of Japanese food, shabu-shabu is both healthy and delicious. Why not give it a try?

Traditional and Affordable Japanese Food in the Middle of Nowhere

A group of my students sometimes take me out for lunch. They’re a sweet bunch who love English and like to treat me sometimes. I’m very lucky for that.

Today we took a taxi somewhere in Kanagawa from Mizonokuchi, waited in an elevator, and suddenly came upon this traditional restaurant where the staff members wore kimonos and a scent of soy sauce based cooking filled the air.

We all ordered the special set lunch, which had several delicious courses including a dessert.

1. Sweet Cod, Egg, And Daikon Radish

This was yummy. The fish was sweet, boneless, and easy to eat. The daikon was crunchy and refreshing.

2. Sashimi

Next was maguro sashimi (raw fish) with some vegetables and soy sauce for dipping. As a huge fan of maguro (tuna), this was a great bonus! There was just enough to get your appetite going.

3. Tomato Sukiyaki

Sukiyaki is a special hotpot dish. It bubbled on its own mini stove while we are everything else. We took bits out to mix with the half-boiled egg. Sukiyaki isn’t usually served with tomatoes in it but it was delicious.

4. Chawan Mushi

Chawan mushi is sort of like soup but thicker. It has the consistency of soft boiled egg and inside I found a mushroom and a single soy bean!

5. Tempura

We also had tempura, which is deep fried vegetables and prawn. Tempura is a popular dish in Japan and this one, served with sauce and grated radish, did not disappoint.

6. Rice and Soup

There was also miso soup and “Mugi rice” with barley and bits of plum inside, making for a healthier option than just plain white rice. It was an excellent palette cleanser. At the back you can also see “tsukemono” or pickled vegetables.

7. “Azuki” Red Bean Dessert And Green Tea Served with Coffee

We chose coffee as an after-meal drink, and it was served at the same time as the green tea and dessert, which was unusual. As per many Japanese desserts, this sweet bean treat was very sweet so that the bitter taste of the green tea complements it.

I was very full and satisfied afterwards! Can you believe all this food cost just 2000 yen? If you go for dinner, the price will probably double, but going for lunch means you’ll get a real bargain.

(I’m going to check on the restaurant’s name). It’s about a ten-minute walk from Miyamaedaira Station on the Den en Toshi line, which is a bit of a trek if you’re staying in Tokyo. Going here was an inexpensive way to enjoy real Japanese food, so if you find yourself in Kanagawa, give it a try for lunch!

Taiwan Festival in Ueno Park

It’s rainy season at the moment so the weather consists of thick clouds and the odd shower. I didn’t want to sit in the house all day though so we went to Ueno Park, about half an hour away from our house by subway, to the Taiwan Festival.

It was actually surprisingly busy, but most places in Tokyo are at the weekend. There was merry music and an exotic, sweet smell of Chinese cooking in the couple of rows of stalls.

We started with a drink. Ken got some Taiwanese beer and I bought some mango juice. 500 yen felt like a bit of a stretch but it was thick, not too sweet, and very refreshing.

Ken got all excited so we went to get some food as well. Due to the sweet sauces they use, although it was a chicken and rice dish, it tasted very different to Japanese food. We sat on the damp steps of the park and people-watched while we ate. It wasn’t the most glamorous day out but I was full of happiness because I was with my favourite person.

We went to get some dumplings too but upon getting to the front of the line we saw the guy emptying a bag of frozen ones onto the grill! They weren’t fresh, so Ken got some noodles instead and slurped them while I drank a matcha tapioca milk drink. We listened to some taiko drumming, lined up to throw away our trash (which would probably never happen in other countries) and wandered back.

There are a lot of cool little shrines and things in Ueno Park, and we found ourselves at Hanazono Inari Shrine. It’s a cute row of torii gates and apparently a place to visit to strengthen your relationship, whether its friendship, family, or romantic.

We walked down hand in hand down this path and rang the bell to make a wish. Then, overcome by lethargy from food and the drizzling weather, took the long train home.

Little adventures like these are everywhere in Tokyo if you know where to find them by doing some research first. I happened to find the Taiwan Festival on Tokyo Cheapo, one of my favourite sites for finding events in this great city.

Though it was a little far, it was a nice date. Festivals are always done well in Japan so be sure to check one out when you visit… so long as you don’t mind the crowds.

Japanese Alcoholic Strawberry Milkshake

When I arrived at my homestay family’s house on Friday, my ‘Papa’ said to me, “You’d like to drink, right?” Well, I’m not one to turn down kindness, so he promptly bought me a load of stuff. I tried to say no but darn it, he’s persistent 🙂

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Because they live in the countryside, their supermarkets and such tend to be much bigger than in Tokyo since land is less expensive. I was surprised to see a bunch of drinks I’d never heard of before.

You can usually buy individual cans for around 100 yen each. I saw this really interesting-looking strawberry milk… with alcohol in it. It’s called いちご&ミルクハイ or “Ichigo & Milk Hai.”

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Since strawberry milkshakes strike me as something children would be more likely to drink, I thought this was fascinating. So what would it taste like? Well, I just tried it. I poured it into a glass to check out the consistency. It was actually thinner than a regular shake, but I was still hit with a powerful scent of… well, what you’d expect a strawberry milkshake to smell like.

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It actually tastes exactly like a milkshake! You can hardly tell there’s alcohol in it at all. At 3%, it was never going to taste strong. You could easily give this to someone who is unaware it’s alcoholic and for them to not notice.

Papa said that it’s sort of an “initiation” drink for those who’ve turned 20 (the legal drinking age in Japan) because it’s nomiyasui or goes down easily. Other 3% alcohol beverages like this include the Horoyoi range and things like mango or orange ‘hai’s.

Anyway, that’s the Ichigo & Milk Hai for you! Think you’ll give it a try?

Delicious Monja-Yaki in the Heart of Asakusa

My boyfriend grew up in Asakusa, East Tokyo. Since it’s almost an hour away by train from our house in Meguro Ward, we don’t go there very often. When he was in high school, he’d climb over the fence and dash off to the local monja-yaki place, where he’s good friends with the owner. She’d let him sleep, smoke, and even drink beer there when he was fed up with school. She’s been like a cool aunt to him for years.

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We went to that restaurant together about two years ago when we first started going out. This time, I walked in and she grabbed my hand, saying “I remember you. Welcome back!” We also met one of Ken’s old friends and her two children, and ate delicious food (and got very drunk).

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So what is monja-yaki?

Monja-Yaki

Japan enthusiasts might have heard of okonomiyaki – the savoury pancake from Osaka that is a tasty and popular street food. Monja-yaki is Tokyo’s version: ingredients mixed together before they’re fried on a large grill. Okonomiyaki was also served here as well as other foodie bits. We started with sausages and cabbage, nom nom.

Monja works by mixing up all the ingredients in a bowl.

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I don’t know all of what was in there, but monja typically contains cabbage, meat, spring onions, beansprouts, and other things. Water, flour, and soy sauce are added so that you can pour it onto the plate.

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Put the ingredients in a circle then pour the watery part in the middle. It’ll all start to bubble and boil.

After that, you use a little scoopy thing to grab some, press it to the plate to cook it almost to burning, and shovel it into your mouth. It isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing dish, but it’s absolutely packed with flavour. My mouth’s watering just remembering it.

We ate some other things, including the heavenly buta kimchi (pork and Korean spicy cabbage), some weird fish cakes, and scallops. I’d never had scallops before and put the whole, chewy thing in my mouth, which took about eight years to swallow. Won’t be trying that again.

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Food always seems to be better when made by an old dear who’s been doing it for years. The monja-yaki was mind-blowingly good and it was a lot of fun eating and drinking with good people in my favourite city.

The restaurant is super local; I didn’t see any tourists, and we had to walk through residential areas for ages before we reached it. The owner is awesome – would you believe that she is 82 years old?

If you visit Tokyo, do try monjayaki. It’s one of the city’s best dishes! You can often get both monja and okonomiyaki at the same restaurant, so try them both and see which you like the most. They’re both delicious and are both cooked in the same way, but are quite different.

Video Games, Music, and Ramen in Tokyo

There’s a ramen restaurant near our house. Because of its location, it’s almost unknown, but it’s really trendy. It’s somewhere between a bar and a restaurant and has a theme that’s sort of a mix between music and surfing.

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This time, the owner got out his old SNES console and asked us if we wanted to have a go. Food and games?? I’d just spent the past nine hours on the PlayStation 4 but nobody needed to know.

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He set it up and we had enormous fun playing Super Mario, Tetris, and Street Fighter 2.

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On top of that, we of course got to eat yummy ramen! I like this place because although there isn’t as much variety as other ramen restaurants, the guy can make killer tonkotsu (pork) ramen.

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We also had some gyoza dumplings and it was yummy. What a nice evening!

If you find yourself in Meguro, definitely give this place a try. It is right next to Kushi-Katsu Tanaka and it’s called Iki. Here’s the location on Google Maps.