As Japanese families return to their hometowns for the traditional summer holidays, cries of “Atsui!” (“Hot enough for ya?!”) give way to feelings of natsukashii — a sense of nostalgia triggered by the sights, sounds and tastes of childhood. Festival fare such as yakisoba (fried noodles) and yakitori may dominate the summer culinary landscape, but for many Japanese — especially those of a certain age — the following foods and drinks recall the flavor of bygone days.
Eating the traditional confection known as anko dama can be a rewarding experience — literally. Anyone who finds a white bead hidden inside one of the tiny balls, which are made from red-bean paste dusted with kinako flour, can return it to the shop where they bought it and receive a present … of more anko dama. (The beads are edible in case you don’t find them.) Manufactured by Ueda Co. in the Arakawa Ward of Tokyo, anko dama are available at traditional dagashiya (snack shops) — the kind that are slowly disappearing from shōtengai shopping streets around the country.
A source of countless sticky fingers and satisfied smiles, the carbonated drink known as ramune has been a favorite summertime refreshment for more than 100 years. And what’s not to love? Not only does the beverage have a sweet-tart flavor, it comes in a funky bottle sealed by a marble that drops down and rattles around inside when you drink it. Introduced to Japan by an Englishman back in the 1870s, the original lemon-tinged version of ramune — the name is a take on “lemonade” — has been supplemented by more than a dozen other flavors, ranging from the mundane (melon) to the outre (curry, anyone?).
Along with Ultraman and the Tanokin Trio, many Japanese in their 30s and 40s have a special fondness for Fruiche. And that’s just what the marketing folks at House Foods Corp. were hoping for when they introduced the fruit-flavored gelatin dessert in 1976. Fruiche was branded as a dish that kids and parents can make together: The recipe calls for simply mixing the contents of a pouch with 200 ml of milk. Since then, House Foods has supplemented the original strawberry variety with flavors such as banana, grape and kiwi. According to the company’s PR department, Fruiche has been such a hit that if you were to stack all the boxes sold on top of one another, they’d stretch 155 km into the air — the height of 40 Mount Fujis.
On a recent episode of Fuji TV’s popular “Super News” program, the guest panelists were asked what image sprang to mind when they listened to a recording of ice tinkling in a glass. The answer, they all agreed, was a serving of Calpis on a hot summer’s day. Introduced as a liquid concentrate on July 7, 1919 — the day of the Tanabata star festival — Calpis is a white beverage made from cultured nonfat milk that’s manufactured according to a proprietary method. It’s long been celebrated for its health-boosting properties, but kids don’t care about that — for them, Calpis is what Mom serves when they come home parched after an afternoon of summer vacation play.
These days, the shelves of Japanese grocery stores groan under the weight of packaged curry products. But the granddaddy of them all — or grandmother, if you will — is Bon Curry. Introduced by Otsuka Foods Co. in 1968, the lineup has since been expanded into three varieties, dubbed Bon Curry, Bon Curry Gold and Bon Curry Neo. The original package featured a smiling housewife — smiling, one assumes, because the boil-in-the-bag pouches helped ease the household burden while hubby was slaving away at Japan Inc. The cheerful mom on the carton may be gone, but for Bon Curry’s 45th anniversary, Otsuka Foods has introduced a version whose entire package is microwavable — which should help the brand continue to stand out among all the imitators.
Caplico only looks like a summertime treat — the ice cream cone-shaped snack is actually a nonperishable treat featuring cookie-covered milk chocolate. Parents like it because even young children can eat it without making a mess — the same can’t be said of real ice cream cones — and kids love it because it’s something they can enjoy all year round. The product, which debuted in 1970, has proved so popular that manufacturer Glico has come out with bar-shaped versions, bite-sized varieties and even an actual ice cream cone for the freezer.
If you’re planning to attend the Hama Otsu Summer Festival on the shores of Lake Biwa, just east of Kyoto, you’d better bring your appetite. In addition to jazz concerts, fireworks and lots of attractions for the kids, the event includes the third annual Shiga B-kyu Gourmet Battle.
For laughably low prices, participants can tuck into inventive takes on regional dishes such as “burger-flavored” okonomiyaki, rice bowls topped with deep-fried local bass, Korean-style pancakes with clams and lots, lots more. The festival takes place the weekend of Aug. 3-4; visit www.b-shiga.com for details.
Steve Trautlein is a freelance journalist eating his way through Japan.