Sporadic Happiness (in Japan!)

(formerly) updated every Wednesday

#4 Japanese Christmas Cakes

How was everyone’s Christmas?  (For those who celebrated it).

(Photo from an advertisement for Loft, probably my favorite store in Japan EVER.  Post about that later).

Japan’s celebrates Christmas differently than in the US.  Instead of being a holiday you celebrate with family, it’s more of a couples holiday.  Kind of like an extra Valentine’s day.  As my boyfriend and I were walking around Yokohama on Christmas Day in the evening, it was almost all couples, with a smattering of families with young children.  I think Christmas Day itself is more celebrated than Christmas Eve here, but I could be wrong.  It’s also purely a commercial holiday, with absolutely no religious undertones.  Most families still get presents for their children I believe, but presents amongst other family members are not swapped around, and extended families don’t get together to celebrate.  Japan reserves that custom for New Years, which is generally spent over the span of several days (Jan 1st through 3rd).

There is one Christmas tradition that families as well as couples seem to have adopted that we don’t have in the US, and that’s the tradition of a Christmas Cake.  Now, I admit I don’t know how Christmas is celebrated in other countries, and I have the impression that some countries (like in Europe) might have a Christmas cake tradition too (developed from the yule log custom maybe).  Does anyone have anything to share on this subject?

Nevertheless, in the US, we eat all manner of goodies at Christmas (cookies, fruit cake, pies, other Christmas-themed desserts, etc) but we don’t eat cake per-say.  Okay maybe coffee cake.  But it really depends on your family and what they decide to get or make for dessert – the actual kind of dessert is not prescribed.

In Japan however, Christmas cakes are “a thing.”  Most people get one.  Many people reserve them from a local supermarket, convenience store, or sweets shop to be delivered or picked up.  Other people buy them in person at little stalls set up in various shopping centers slightly before and during Christmas.

My boyfriend and I, having lived in Japan for a few years and never having sampled a Japanese Christmas Cake, decided to get in on this tradition this year.

First off, we were pleasantly surprised when my adult English conversation class that I teach on Thursdays brought in 2 of these cakes to our end of semester Christmas party.

Here’s what they looked like.

As you might have noticed from the picture, Japanese Christmas cakes are rather small.  It would be considered a “small size” in this US, whereas it’s the normal size here.  And despite its size, each is rather pricey.  I don’t know how much those cakes above cost exactly, but they are pretty standardly 2800-3600 yen (roughly $28-36).  For one, single cake.  One of my adult students brought in the above TWO for us, spending easily over $50 just for dessert.

Here’s a closer look at the first one:

This is a pretty standard Japanese Christmas cake.  A sort of yellow sponge cake with (light) cream frosting and strawberries.  Besides the strawberries it’s actually not that sweet, more “refreshing.”  (The decorations on top however, are full of sugar).

Here’s a closer look at the second one:

This one was quite tasty actually.  Sometimes my boyfriend and I are disappointed with chocolate-flavored sweets found in Japan, as they don’t usually resemble chocolate all that strongly.  This one however was quite delicious and seemed to be spruced up with some sort of extra flavoring that added a bit of a rummy flavor.

Part of the reason these cakes are so expensive is because of the elaborate decorations on top.  Here’s a close-up of a Santa made out of sugar.
(He was delicious by the way).

Another reason the cakes are so expensive is because butter and cream are quite expensive.  Most of the butter comes from one area of Japan (Hokkaido) and a lot of the cream and dairy products come from there too, so there’s only so much supply, plus shipping costs on top of that.

Since my boyfriend and I each got just one slice of these, we were interested in getting our very own Christmas cake on Christmas day.

Being in Yokohama (near Tokyo) for the first half of our winter break, we found that the underground shopping center below the main Yokohama train station had lots of stalls set up selling these cakes.

After browsing a few, we landed upon this beauty:

A big part of its appeal was the price tag – 1000 yen.  That’s like $10 and is practically a steal when you consider the prices of the standard Christmas Cake.

Also, it had both cream (which I enjoy) and chocolate cake (which my boyfriend enjoys), and, to both our delights, chocolate shavings down the middle.  It didn’t have any fancy decorations on top (hence the cheapness) but we were plenty satisfied without them.

The one decoration it did have wished us a nice day.  How sweet!

This cake tasted heavenly too.  It was a decent size for just two people – we spread out the eating of it over two days too.  Below is a picture of the cake compared to my boyfriend’s hand.  Admittedly, he’s tall, so his hands are a bit large, but even so, it’s still a modest size cake.

Now Christmas Cake season has ended.  I was disappointed that they weren’t selling all the unsold cakes at discounted prices the next day…if so I would have gladly snapped up another one.  I wonder what they do with those extra cakes?  I sure hope they don’t throw them out.

If you’re interested in seeing further examples of the Japanese Christmas Cake tradition, try searching クリスマスケーキ (Japanese for “Christmas Cake”) on google, you’ll be able to see lots more pretty examples of these pricey delicacies.

Anyone else had the experience of getting to eat one of these before?  Or have you eaten a Christmas cake in another country?  Tell us about your Christmas dessert traditions!

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#2 Japanese grocery store evening discounts

Ever since I started this blog (just 2 days ago) I’ve had an ever growing list of things I want to make posts about.  So perhaps this will get updated more often than twice a month after all!

Japanese grocery stores are really small compared to some of the megaliths that exist in the US.  But everything you need (provided you like Japanese food) is there.

Most stores have a pre-made food section, with food made at the store (in the back somewhere) available to customers in styrofoam trays with plastic wrap over them.  I rely on this section a lot when I’m stressed or tired or just don’t feel like cooking anything.  It’s basically all kinds of Japanese side dishes (fish, vegetable mixes with flavor added, rice in trays with toppings, rice balls with fish or vegetables inside, rolled sushi, actual sushi with fish on top, fried chicken, fried seafood, Chinese vegetable mix…the list goes on and on).  Basically I often buy one or two of these and eat them with whatever amount of rice I have left over from my lunch at school (they always serve more rice than I can eat so I take it home in a bento box aka tupperware like box).

Besides Japanese grocery stores being cute and novel and providing pre-made food for me, I like them for another very important reason.

Evening (or late afternoon) discounts:

After a certain time of day (which can be different for different grocery stores), the grocery store clerks start walking around the store and inspecting the goods.  If there’s something that’s going to expire today, they slap a discount sticker on it.  Better to sell something at a discounted price than not sell it at all, right?

My island grocery store starts this discount at 4pm, which is perfect for me because I get off work at 4pm.  So by the time I get to the grocery store (actually just a 5 minute walk from the middle school I teach at) the stickers are already on things.  Now, my store does this discount at 4pm because it closes at 6:30 pm.  (PS If you think that’s early, I have a lot more facts for you on that topic that you wouldn’t believe).  I think other stores in cities might do it at later times if they’re open later.

The discount stickers come in 3 kinds:

Half off.  These are by far my favorite (who doesn’t love buying something at half price?)

A certain amount off.  The one displayed here is 30 yen off.  (30 cents ish).  By the way, the sticker on the left hand side says that this was hand-made at the store.

A certain percent off.  The 2 indicates “20 percent.”

With these lovely discounts, I was able to buy all this (plus juice and olive oil which aren’t included in the picture) for about $11

If you’re curious what some of these things are…

I’ll go clockwise from the strawberries.  (You recognized that one right?).  To it’s right is one of my side dishes today – crushed tofu plus various vegetables mixed in and some flavor added.  Then there’s sliced bread with raisins in it (3 pieces – bread here comes pre-sliced in thick pieces, and has anywhere from 3-6 slices per bag).  Next is another side dish I will eat with my rice.  It’s a layer of deep fried tofu on the outside with bits of vegetables mixed in, and the center is somewhat hallowish.  It’s soft.  The last thing is 2 slices of chocolate roll-cake.  Do you know what a roll cake is?  Because actually I don’t think I knew before coming to Japan.  But actually, Little Debbies Ho Hos seem to look like they were based on the concept of a roll cake.

Ho Hos.

Roll cake.

Actually, searching for these pictures on the internet made me realize that it looks like the proper English term for these are “cake rolls.”  Which makes sense.  But the Japanese say roll cake (ロールケーキ).  But don’t fret.  This isn’t the first time the Japanese have messed with the English language.  Oo, I feel another post coming on!