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San Fran to Japan (in under an hour)

Chocolate tree stumps, green tea meringues, "yogurt scotch" candies, and mochi balls. I love them all!

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One of my favorite things about living in San Francisco is the diversity of its residents, and the interesting eating opportunities that exist as a result. Within the city’s 49 square miles, you’ll find folks from Mexico, China, Thailand, Russia, Italy, Brazil, Honduras, Samoa, and the Phillipines (just to name a few), and venturing to a different neighborhood can feel like you’re visiting a different country. The other day I took a field trip to San Francisco’s Japantown, where I picked up some fun items that you definitely won’t find at a regular ol’ supermarket. Things like:

Unique sweets. I have an undeniable sweet tooth, and Japanese snacks are right up my alley. I love all the interesting flavors and textures, like the tiny meringue cookies flavored with green tea and roasted soybeans, or the red bean-filled, black sesame-coated mochi ball I bought. Also, and just as importantly, the packaging is often inexplicable and charming. Take the Chelsea brand hard candies, the box for which looks like a holdout from 1973. I picked the “yogurt scotch” flavor, which sounds revolting, but after trying one, I think the “scotch” refers to butterscotch and not booze. (They taste a lot like pineapple Lifesavers.) And I couldn’t resist the lumberjack-themed chocolate/cookie treats, which are shaped like wee tree stumps. It had never occurred to me that lumberjacks even exist in Japan, but now that I think of it, why not?

Hard-to-find ingredients. The Nijiya supermarket is small, but I could spend hours in there if my wallet allowed it. The close-laid aisles contain everything you might need to make a Japanese meal; everything from frozen natto to shiso leaves to Kewpie brand mayonnaise (yes, really). They have dozens of seaweed specimens, a huge sake selection, and great prepared foods. But the most interesting thing I found was fresh soybeans – not just in the pod, but still on the stalk! I bought a bundle and can’t wait to steam them for movietime snacking.

Fake food items. You’ve probably seen the plastic udon and nigiri pieces in the windows of sushi joints, but it doesn’t stop there. At New People, (a brand new, bizarre center that combines a movie theater, a gift shop, a cafe, and several Harajuku boutiques), I found gold rings that looked like Swiss cheese, necklaces that looked like cream puffs, and candles that looked (and smelled) like Belgian waffles. And at a variety store across the street, I found a product called “Candy,” which, as far as I can tell, are mini scrubbers designed to clean the inside of water bottles, but for some reason are shaped like hard candies. (For those avoiding sugar, they also came in the shape of pea pods).

As I headed home, I felt energized and inspired; I got all the benefits of traveling to Japan, but without the jetlag or currency exchange. And just like a real vacation, I had plenty of souvenirs to enjoy once I got back.

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