Snacks On Snacks: A Needlessly Thorough Look At The Strange Food Of Japan Crate
One of the weirder new quirks of the gift-giving season over the past few years has been the rise of services that send you a big ol' box of stuff every month. It seems like there's one for almost every kind of geeky interest, from general nerd merch to video games to pro wrestling, and I have to admit that they make for a pretty solid holiday present. If nothing else, there's enough thrown into those monthly boxes that as long as you've picked the right genre, there's probably going to be something in there that your giftee is going to like.
The one that I've been most curious about is Japan Crate, a service that loads up a box with Japanese candies and other snacks every month, but despite my fascination with foreign snack foods (and the chance that I'll get some kind of Super Sentai branded potato chips), I've been a little reluctant to spend money without giving it a shot. Fortunately for me, Japan Crate offered to send over a couple of sample boxes, and that was how I ended up sitting down with my girlfriend and eating an entire box of Japanese candy all at once in about an hour.
I should note that this is probably not the way that Japan Crate would recommend that you enjoy their products and services, but, well, that's what happens when you're on a deadline.
So here's how it works: There are two different basic kinds of Crates, and the company sent over one of each: The original Japan Crate, loaded up with food that seems like it might've been grabbed at random from a Japanese convenience store, and the Dokidoki crate, which specializes in cute stuff like stuffed animals, My Neighbor Totoro pencil cases, and, in the case of the one that I got, a metal pendant of Pikachu dressed like Charizard, a piece of jewelry that I hope will one day become a family heirloom. The Dokidoki Crate (above) is a new addition to the Japan Crate lineup and it'll set you back $30 for each monthly delivery.
The regular Japan Crate has three different "sizes" at $12, $25 and $30, with the higher levels including everything you get from the previous level and some other stuff on top. I got December's Premium crate, which had a grand total of 12 snacks and a tiny Legend of Zelda figurine. For each one, Aidan and I sampled each kind of food and recorded our thoughts to see whether it was truly worth it.
MINI CRATE ITEMS
1: CHEESE, TONKATSU AND VEGGIE SALAD UMAIBO
Japan Crate Says: "This month we've included 3 different flavors of popular Umaibo Sticks: Tonkatsu (Pork Cutlet), Veggie Salad, and Cheese. Each one has a very unique and satisfying taste."
On the off chance that you needed a comics connection to justify this needlessly thorough review of Japanese snacks showing up on ComicsAlliance, here you go: snacks branded with Fujiko Fujiko's Doraemon, the classic and beloved anime and manga series. As for what Doraemon's trying to get you to eat, presumably through hijinx, well, it turns out that Umaibo is basically just a single giant cheeto.
Each package contains one and only one, and it's a little weird. "A Single Giant Cheeto" is the kind of thing you'd expect to see at a high priced surrealist restaurant that was attempting to subvert what we know about snack foods, and yet, here it was, with a picture of a robot cat from the future on it.
Chris's Verdict: Cheese was almost completely flavorless, but Tonkatsu was great, and Veggie Salad had some really interesting spices. 3.5 stars out of a possible 5.
Aidan's Verdict: A giant tonkatsu cheeto is tasty, but the Veggie Salad is mad gross. 3/5
2. BAD KID BEER
Japan Crate Says: "Not actually beer, but a magic powder that creates a creamy grape soda when mixed with water."
If we were judging solely on the name and packaging, Bad Kid Beer would be the single best thing in the box in a walk. American snacks have more-or-less moved away from stuff like candy cigarettes that are like training wheels for terrible habits, but it's good to know that in Japan, they still sell a powder that you pour into water to turn it into something that kind of looks like beer --- the kind of beer that bad kids would drink! Also, that mascot is fantastic.
Unfortunately, we also have to judge it on taste.
It does end up having a beer-like head on it, but "creamy" might be overselling things just a little bit. And the flavor, even in a relatively small amount of water, is pretty weak, and not quite as fizzy as advertised.
Chris's Verdict: If you've ever wondered what would happen if you poured a couple of Pixy Stix into a glass of water, this would be it. 2 out of 5
Aidan's Verdict: Points for the mascot, but I'd rather drink real beer. 1/5
3. AWA MOCO MOCO
Japan Crate Says: "Mix these powders with water to create fizzy, fun, drinkable creations."
Basically the same idea as the Bad Kid Beer, just without the amazing name and mascot, and with melon flavor instead of the highly dubious "grape" that BKB brought us.
Chris's Verdict: Melon makes for an interesting flavor, but overall, it's pretty basic. 2/5
Aidans' Verdict: More flavorful and better than the Bad Kid Beer. 2/5
4. FUJIYA LOLLIPOP BAG
Japan Crate Says: "These traditional fruity lollipops are a favorite with Japanese children."
All right, look: This was just a straight up bag of lollipops.
It's probably the most disappointing thing in the crate. Not in terms of the actual candy --- the lollipops had a nice, strong flavor that was pretty tasty --- but let's be real here. If I'm paying thirty bucks a month for a box of Japanese candy, I want something that I can't get at the grocery store across the street. As good as these are, they're just lollipops. But on the bright side, we have learned today that some candies are universal.
Chris's Verdict: Better than your average Dum-Dum, but not so much better than it had to cross an ocean so I could eat it. 2/5
Aidan's Verdict: 4/5 for flavor, 1/5 for originality.
ORIGINAL CRATE ITEMS
5. CUTE TORORIN PARFAIT DIY
Japan Crate Says: "This thick, rich strawberry parfait comes witha pink candy topping and icing. Add your own candies and toppings to make it even more amazing!"
This, on the other hand, is maybe the best item in the box --- and it's also the most complicated. The theme for this month seemed to be "powders that you pour into drinks to make a different snack," but unlike Bad Kid Beer and Awa Moco Moco, the Tororin Parfait required ice cold milk and an additional five minutes in the fridge to set properly, and that's before you got to the toppings. They did, however, provide a super-cute plastic glass to do the mixing in, and folks? It's worth it.
It's basically just instant vanilla pudding, some strawberry syrup, and a cookie, but it's surprisingly tasty, and the presentation and the fun of mixing it together are top notch, even if you're not adding anything that's not in the package. It's exactly the kind of unusual, slightly bizarre and delicious snack that I want from something like Japan Crate, and came pretty close to justifying the entire project all by itself.
Chris's Verdict: This would be a great treat for a kid to find in a school lunch, assuming they could get their milk cold enough to make it work without a fridge. Love it. 5/5
Aidan's Verdict: Pretty standard vanilla pudding, but I'm loving the bunny-ear meringue cookie. Cute, creative, love it. 5/5
6. POCKY DEMITASSE
Japan Crate Says: "A new Pocky made from high-quality seasonal ingredients, this limited edition treat is only available for a short time in Japan."
If you're not familiar with Pocky, then go find someone wearing a t-shirt with Goku, Naruto or one of those Attack on Titans that the kids love so much these days, and there's probably a 30% chance that they'll have some on them. It's probably the most well-known Japanese snack in America, to the point where you can get it in two different flavors at Walmart --- and as we all know, availability at Walmart is the standard by which all Americanness must be judged.
Anyway, given that Pocky is a known quantity, I wasn't sure what to expect from a high-end version made with "seasonal ingredients," but you know what? The hype is real.
Really, this is just Pocky that's a little bit better than regular Pocky (and regular Pocky's already pretty good), but the step up is noticeable. If there weren't five more items on the list, I would've eaten the whole bag immediately.
Chris's Verdict: This is what we want Pocky to be. 5/5
Aidans' Verdict: The idea of "Fancy Pocky" speaks to the 15 year-old otaku in me." 5/5
7. MIXUUMI-CHI-YA RAW SPIRIT BLACK BEAN & SOY SAUCE SCONES
Japan Crate Says: "These scones combine grilled corn & black beans with a hint of soy sauce."
Okay, so right away, we have a problem: These are not, in any sense of the word, "scones." Once again, we're basically dealing with Cheetos here, although unlike the Umaibo's giant-sized take, we're back to the regular sized corn puffs. That was, I can assure you, the source of a lot of confusion during the taste test, and believe me when I say that these two were no help in figuring this mystery out:
But here's the good news: These were, hands down, the best savory snack in the box, to the point where I actually did end up eating the whole bag before moving onto the last third of the box. The flavor is incredible, and it's not something that there's much comparison for in the world of American chips.
Chris's Verdict: Love it. 5/5
Aidan's Verdict: These are not scones, but they're super great! Very flavorful. 4/5
8. NAGA-I SAWAGUMI ORANGE
Japan Crate Says: "It's long enough to share with friends, but tasty enough to eat by yourself ^_^"
You know those candy orange slices? This is basically that, but in the form of a good-sized piece of "gummy tape" that's a little softer, chewier, and more flavorful than the usual American counterpart. Otherwise, it's not spectacular, but we do have another example of a pretty cool mascot. Seriously, check this dude out.
He seems pretty chill.
Chris's Verdict: Good, but once again, it's nothing that I don't feel like I could get without having it brought over from Japan. 3/6
Aidan's Verdict: Love the li'l orange dude. It's softer than I thought it would be! 5/5
PREMIUM CRATE ITEMS
9. HIA SHUWA COLA
Japan Crate Says: "A cola flavored adventure with 3 different levels: Fizzy, soothing, and gummy."
This was a weird one. As advertised, there were three different kinds of hard candy involved --- a dozen or so pieces in all --- but rather than all being cola flavored, they each had their own distinct taste. One was fruity, one had a carbonated fizz to the center, and the other --- the one that I'm guessing was advertised as "soothing" --- had a brisk, cooling taste to it.
There were not, however, any gummies involved, and while the idea of a cola-flavored hard candy made me think I was getting something like a gummy cola bottle, these were certainly a little more intense.
Chris's Verdict: Interesting variety, but a pretty standard, slightly gimmicky hard candy. 2.5/5
Aidan's Verdict: The soothing/cooling one was unexpected and fun! 4/5
10. CELIO LIFEGUARD DRINK
Japan Crate Says: "This 'Super Life' drink contains 7+ vitamins and amino acids and brings quite a jolt with it."
I'll admit that I was hoping from the start that there would be something in the Japan Crate that included Japan's stereotypically amazing appropriation of English phrases, and sure enough, Original Bionic Drink Lifeguard was here to provide. The major selling point, according to the can at least, was that it also includes royal jelly, but otherwise, it's a pretty standard energy drink.
Beyond that, this is apparently a feature of the Premium Crate --- it's the only level that includes an actual drink along with the other snacks.
Chris's Verdict: The honey taste gives it a smoother finish than the average energy drink, but it's not quite different enough to be worth it. 2.5/5
Aidan's Verdict: This is literally just Red Bull in a Surge can. 1/5
11. PACHISHUWA DYNAMITE MELON SODA
And finally, we have this monstrosity. Until I checked out the handy guide that's included to explain everything, I had no idea what this was. The pouch felt like one of those individually packaged pickles that you get at a gas station, and once we opened it up, it wasn't exactly clear what we were supposed to do with it:
Real talk: That does not look like something that goes in your mouth.
Eventually, with the guidebook's explanation that this was something you could "drink straight from the bottle," I cut it open with a pair of scissors and squeezed it into my mouth, and let me tell you, it was a uniquely unpleasant experience. The actual taste wasn't terrible, but it was basically room-temperature melon-flavored jelly that I was squeezing out of a pouch directly into my mouth, and that consistency made it feel like I was just shotgunning a slime gland from a D&D monster, which is not as fun as roleplaying games have led me to believe.
Chris's Verdict: Maybe the worst and most baffling presentation that we've seen so far. 1/5
Aidan's Verdict: I cannot imagine this is so ubiquitous in Japan as to need no instructions on the package. -7/5
So that's everything, and in the end, we're left with the question of whether or not the Japan Crate is worth trying out, and I think we both agreed that it was. There's enough variety that even just trying everything can be an event --- and even the one thing we hated the most, the Melon Soda, was so ridiculously weird that trying to figure out how we were supposed to eat it was a certain kind of fun --- and all told, the good snacks outweighed the bad.
The one big problem is that, at lest for this batch, there's a huge gap in quality between the contents of the $12 Mini Crate and the $25 Original Crate. Admittedly, the Original's twice as expensive, but the things that both of us liked the best by far came from that one --- and once you're already at that point, it's easy to get to the point of just tacking on another five bucks to get everything. As a result, the cheapest option --- which is also the easiest one to give as a gift --- doesn't really seem like a real alternative to the more expensive boxes.
Either way, it's definitely a pretty fun time if you like snacks, and if, like me, you're in a place where international foods can be pretty hard to come by, it's definitely a gift that's worth checking out.