Friday, June 23, 2017

Bokksu Premium (Unboxing and Service Review)

During my earlier years in the U.S., one of my friends kindly purchased me a three-month subscription to "Try the World." I am interested in cooking and even started a blog which I infrequently update about new recipes that I've tried so this was a great fit for my interests. I ended up buying my own subscription for a further year, but abandoned it when the service seemed to degrade somewhat and the selection became a bit repetitive on the theme boxes.

However, I did love the boxes and their presentation. They came in cleanly designed boxes with a card describing all of the contents and were full of beautifully packaged items. The experience was one of culture rather than simply a box full of food and it was the manner in which they were curated rather than gathered that made a difference. I mention this because Bokksu is either made by the same people or follows the same concept to a "t".

When rating Bokksu's service, I believe it's important to rate it as much as an experience as it is to look at the contents. When you get the simple cardboard outer box and open it to find a bright orange custom-made box with a wide white ribbon around it to make pulling it out of the outer box easy and elegant, you get a taste of Japan before you sample any of the food contained inside. It is a lush and gorgeous experience and feels like a classy gift. It is exactly the sort of thing you would experience in Japan in terms of the packaging and the presentation.

As is the case with "Try the World", you get a card telling you what all of the items are. Depending on your background, this can be considered a real aid in understanding what is in the box (if you can't read any Japanese and have limited experience) or it can just be a memento that you hold onto for the future to remind you of what you got in past boxes once the food is long gone. The card is professionally laid out and printed on firm card stock. Everything about Bokksu is a class act including the choice of items.

I will admit that I was going to wait to try another service until I'd completed the Oyatsu service's boxes including reviewing the food I got in them. However, I subscribed to Bokksu's mailings and they mentioned that they were doing a "summer citrus" box with a focus on yuzu. Yuzu is Asian citron, a lemon/grapefruit/orange hybrid sort of thing which is fragrant and less sour than it's Western equivalents. Since I adore yuzu-flavored anything, I couldn't resist getting a box while the yuzu getting was good.

Part of the Bokksu experience is that they curate the choices around a tea pairing. My box came with 3 packets of tea, 2 donuts, 3 "pies" (more on those when they are reviewed), 3 sembei, 2 daifuku, 3 rusks, a box of Pocky and a container of Calbee's salted snack straws. I will be reviewing all of these foods in future posts, but I'll say that the assortment was a solid one except for the Rusks which don't fit the theme at all as they are Earl-Grey-tea-flavored. They were a strange choice, but the rest were great.

For a one month purchase of a Bokksu Premium, this cost $39 and includes three-day shipping from the source. Mailings are made at regular intervals so you don't get it within three days of ordering, but within three days of when boxes are sent out. This means that, if they send chocolates which can melt, you'll get things quickly. This is different from some other subscription services which use much cheaper services like seamail or SAL to save money.

I will note that you can get a pretty decent discount on Bokksu if you buy a year's worth at once. They are only $33 per box if you pay for the whole year and I was sorely tempted as I really loved how this looks and I especially love the type of contents I got. The things I got in Bokksu were commonly distributed in my office as part of summer and winter gifts. Several are items often sold only as parts of gift boxes in department stores and you can't find them in average markets, convenience stores, or snack shops. As food boxes go, Bokksu is sending items that few other Japanese snack and food box services will give you. That is no small thing.

However, Bokksu is providing premium content at a premium price. If I'm to be utterly generous in my assessment of the cost of the included items if I were to buy them in Tokyo, it'd be topping out at $15. I'm likely estimating that pretty high so that means less than half of your cost for a $39 box is being spent on the included food. A whopping $24 would be going toward the labor and costs. As I said, this is a beautiful box with likely pricey packaging and the lovely card which I'm sure is not cheap to print, but even if you allow for $1-$2 for the box and a similar generous allowance for the card plus ribbon, that's about $20 for labor in assembling the box, crafting the card, and arranging the contents (by shopping or other means). It wouldn't take many subscribers for that to be a very cushy per hour rate.

Part of the problem with a premium box is that the bar is raised on content not only in terms of quality, but quantity. Like "Try the World", the amount of food you get in Bokksu is limited by their custom box size. You know you're never going to get more than they can cram in there and, though it's expertly packed to fit in as much as possible, I think I should get a bit more for the cost. If I could get a yearly subscription for an average of $25/box, I'd do it without hesitation. I'm very much on the fence for $33 and I'm absolutely not going to continue for a monthly fee of $39.

I should note that Bokksu also offers a "tasting" box for $19 as a single box purchase (that drops to $16 if you pay for a whole year at once) and I'm going to review that option in the future. It is more oriented toward small snacks and similar to the Oyatsu Dagashi box that I reviewed previously.

The web site for Bokksu is very well done and allows you a high degree of flexibility with your ordering. You can, for example, buy a one-box subscription and choose to skip as many months as you want. You can cancel or restart a subscription and you can change from monthly to other types of subscriptions with ease. I am always impressed when a service will let you cancel with ease from their web site rather than make it byzantine and difficult. To me, this is a sign of integrity. Bokksu goes one further by asking you why you are leaving so you can tell them what is wrong or right witht he service. This also gains them points in my book.

My conclusions about Bokksu are:

Service: Amazing
Value: (borderline) Inadequate (depends on subscription plan)
Experience: Amazing

Worth it? It's not worth it as a single box purchase. It's borderline worth it for an annual subscription rate depending on what sort of snacks you'd like to get and how much you value the elegance and curated experience. I expect that, once I have sampled a broader array of Japanese food boxes, I'll come back to Bokksu and take a good, hard look at the annual fees and contents and contemplate making them my main supplier of food for reviews. If their price per box dropped below $30, that'd be a lock for being "worth it" for me personally.

Note: I am not promoting Bokksu. They did not provide me with any free samples. I paid as anyone else would for my subscription. They don't know I'm a Japanese food blogger or that I would be posting about them. 

Friday, June 16, 2017

Maken Gummy (Cola flavor)

This gummy's packaging lets you know very well that it's made for kids, especially those who think they need to put up a peace sign any time a camera is pointed at them. That is something that I always associate with life in Japan and I can say that I haven't seen someone do that since returning to the U.S. No, instead of peace signs, I see duck faces and people sticking their tongues out or pulling idiot faces by treating their mouth like they were trying to form a balloon animal with it. I really miss the peace signs.

Though the candy's fingers appear to be making a peace sign, it's actually scissors from a game of rock, paper, scissors (jan-ken-pon). If you look carefully at the packaging, you'll see that the main figure is a fist and surrounded by the "rock" and "scissors" illustrations. Also, the bottom is a parade of rock, paper, scissors hands. You can see that my intro was totally misplaced, but it did allow me to criticize the way young people in two different cultures take their pictures taken.

This is produced by a company called Sugimotoya. It specializes in the sort of boring candies that your grandmother either keeps in her purse for her own enjoyment or disappoints you with. I'm talking about hard candy, yokan, jelly candies, and gummies. Among their more dubious offerings are tomato and umeboshi (sour pickled plum) gummy candies. They also sell gummies which include vegetables like asparagus, carrots, and onions. I guess they want grandma to feel like she's giving you healthy treats. For a full catalog of the horror, you can go here and download one.

This is the perfectly molded plastic that held the floppy gummy. I'm guessing it was made by pouring the mixture directly into this mold than sealing the back with plastic.

When I peeled open the, frankly impressive, packaging, I was hit with a chemical smell which was not in the least bit appetizing. After laying the gummy down on the plate in order to get a picture of it, I discovered why this was packaged as it was. It adhered like glue to the plate and was hard to peel off to actually eat. That, combined with the scent, made me seriously concerned for what this might do once it hit my stomach, but I have to make sacrifices for this blog.

The gummy tastes very intensely of cheap cola flavor. It was as if someone took a generic store brand cola beverage and boiled it until it was distilled down into a nasty, super intense poor quality cola flavor. If you've ever had a really cheap off-brand cola that has gone flat, you'll have some notion of how this tasted. It was also oddly sweet and had a strange artificial taste due to the use of sorbitol.

This stuck to my lip a bit going in and it was very firm and chewy. Like Japanese marshmallows, it is quite rubbery and chewy. This was actually slightly worse though as it had a consistency closer to that of a gummy worm.

This was frankly a pretty terrible way to consume 46 calories, but I have never met a cola-flavored candy that I thought was decent, let alone good. It looks amazing and is perfectly formed, but your enjoyment ends the second it enters your mouth (provided that you can scrape it off any surface you place it on). This wasn't inedible, but it really wasn't enjoyable. I think I could have done better using this as a sticker on mirror in a public restroom and freaking people out. It certainly would have adhered well and is of a color that may make people wonder where such a curiosity came from.

Source: Oyatsucafe "Dagashi box" (part of a $15/month subscription box)

Friday, June 9, 2017

Crunky (mini) and Hello Kitty Choco Marshmallow

Last week, I talked about the Dagashi box that I purchased from Oyatsu Cafe and this week I'm going to start reviewing the contents. I'm beginning with the two tiniest items and I have to say it's good that I've already had a lot of experiences with them in the past or I wouldn't have enough of a taste on hand to do a proper review. Yes, I'm winging about how small these were. I've gotten bigger freebies at sample hand-outs at events in the U.S. and attached to tissue packets given away on the streets of Tokyo.

First, there is the itty-bitty, teeny-tiny Crunky that appears to have been designed to be left on the Lotte Hotels pillows en lieu of a mint. The candy inside is literally about the size of an Andes Candy so you can get two tiny bites before it's all gone. On the plus side, I was impressed with how Lotte shrunk the whole thing down and made it look perfectly like its older brother with all detail intact.

I didn't expect to be reviewing this item at all as I was sure that I'd already reviewed the standard issue Crunky bar in the past. However, a search of my archives revealed that I had overlooked this Japanese version of a Nestle's Crunch or Hershey's Krackle bar. I covered a ton of variations, but never the regular bar and though they all have the same crispy bits, all Crunky are not created equal.

To illustrate this, I'll tell you an anecdote from back when I was working at Japanese office, one of my more obnoxious coworkers, a would-be Lothario (or, as they're sometimes called in Japan, a Charisma Man) who looked like Bruce Willis's "Mini Me", asked another of my coworkers, a man who spent all day day-dreaming of his own aikido dojo, to pick him up a Crunky bar at the convenience store on the first floor of the building we were working in. Dojo-boy brought Charisma Man a box of "Crunky Kids". The "Kids" version are like a nugget type of Crunky with a shiny exterior and the shape of a square pellet. Upon receiving his box of Crunky bits, Charisma Man exclained, "Aw, I didn't want the kids!" What he was saying was that no spawn of Crunky is as good as the original.

Incidentally, I'm happy to say Dojo Man is now in charge of his own dojo and doing well in life. I don't know what happened to Charisma Man, but it's possible he's actually functioning as Bruce Willis's Mini Me for all I know. Chances are he is off somewhere battling an STD of some sort though as one of the things he loved to brag about was how he only had intimate relations with "nice clean girls" and therefore didn't need to wear a prophylactic. At any rate, he didn't get his regular Crunky that day, but I got mine (albeit a tiny one).

The main thing that separates a Crunky from it's American crunch bar brethern is that it uses malt puffs inside instead of relatively bland rice puffs. This gives it a greater flavor complexity as the malt brings a nice depth to the mix of somewhat coffee-like, sweet milk chocolate in the bar. The texture really is the thing and the Crunky is nice crunchy with soft chocolate that melts quickly in  your mouth and has a silky, rich mouth feel.

The only difference between this mini version and the standard bar seems to be the size of the puffs. Either the usual puffs have been chopped up a bit to fit the low profile of the bar, or they've got tiny little elves crafting miniature versions of them for this version. Either way, this is tasty and it was quite a(n extremely brief) walk down my taste memory lane.

When I opened the little marshmallow packet and looked at the nicely formed little wad of mallow, I was transported back to my memories of the Japanese version of a treat I love in the U.S. One of the things that rarely worked for me in Japan was the basic marshmallow. They seemed like they were all formulated and injected into molds and were quite rubbery and had a funny taste which I couldn't identify.

Though this little wad had a nice and potent tiny dollop of intense bittersweet chocolate in the middle, it doesn't escape the all-too-common weaknesses of other Japanese marshmallows. It is too firm and chewy and brings to mind a pencil eraser when you compress it between your fingers. It's sweet and has a decent flavor, but the texture is just all wrong.

I think that some people have remarked in the past that Japanese marshmallows are different because they don't use animal-based gelatin and instead use agar agar (from seaweed). That may indeed be the issue, but, if so, I'd rather eat hooves and bones and enjoy a soft, tasty marshmallow. Yes, I am a horrible, horrible person. And, yes, this is a sub-par marshmallow even for a kids' snack. I'd probably rate it a bit better keeping in mind that this is dagashi (kid's snacks), but it's actually not so different from all the other marshmallows I had in Japan. I did have some nice marshmallow snacks in Japan, but only if the marshmallow was a lesser component in the mix. The best thing about this marshmallow was the adorable package it came in.

Source for both products: Oyatsucafe "Dagashi box" (part of a $15/month subscription box)

Friday, June 2, 2017

Oyatsu Box Dagashi Edition (Unboxing & Service Review)

Back when I was still living in Japan, people who read this blog would occasionally ask me why I didn't start a business selling the snacks I wrote about. My answer was always that I'd done mail order before (Japanese KISS collectible items, mainly records), and it's generally not worth it for a low-value commodity like snacks. It was worth it for a high value commodity like recording collectibles because you can get some suckers to fork over $400 for a set of records which is really a pretty Japanese re-issue of music they already have.

At any rate, I am certain that, had I gone into the snack sales market, somebody "in the know" would do what I am about to do. That is, dissect the contents and the value and remark on how "worth it" it is. Before I get to that though, I'd like to say that I do understand the intangible value associated with the experience of getting these types of boxes. I currently subscribe to a quarterly subscription box from The Mysterious Package Company. It's the sort of thing which I do because it is a complete surprise and it represents enjoying the creative output of people both in the visual and literary sense.

These Japanese food boxes are part surprise, and part value of contents. Many services offer them. My intention is to shop around for what seems to be the best experience in terms of three factors:

Service: I measure this by speed, packaging sturdiness and design, response time to issues, presence of any problems, and packaging design/appearance (including how contents are arranged).

Value: This is where I look at how much each item would likely cost in Japan and how that compares to the price. I will also consider the shipping weight and expense as well as packaging costs.

Overall experience value: I would call this the overall "joy" factor. How happy am I after I open the box and survey the contents? How much fun or novelty is involved?

To be fair to the oyatsubox folks, they give you some idea of what to expect by posting the contents of past boxes on their web site. Before I orderd this, I knew it would largely consist of cheap children's snacks (or portions of multi-packs that had been broken up and distributed among multiple parties) because that is what "dagashi" means. Most of what they show from past boxes are items that would cost you 20-50 yen in Japan and mini snacks. The "Dagashi Box" subscription promises 8-12 snacks including a kit for making candy. My box had 9 items.

First of all, the concrete details. The box is sturdy enough and nicely printed with the company's name. It weighs 258 grams and was sent by the small packet rate by SAL, or so it seems based on the fact that it took a shade over 3 weeks to arrive. The company e-mails you when they ship and they ship subscriptions at the beginning of each month. I joined on April 22, 2017 and my box was shipped on May 2nd. It arrived on May 25. This is consistent with the 2-3 week time frame when using SAL. Assuming I'm right about the method of shipping, this cost 380 yen ($3.40) to ship. They say, "free shipping," but obviously somebody is paying and the cost is rolled into your subscription. I don't know what it costs for the company to have these small boxes printed up especially for them, but I'd be surprised if it was more than about 50 yen. It could easily be less.

In terms of service, the e-mail that told me when the box shipped was lost in a "promotions" tab in my gmail and I didn't find it so I contacted the company about this. They told me when the notification was sent and the date the package was sent. Their service was sufficiently prompt and polite. I will say that they have a tendency to send a lot of mailings relative to the duration of my relationship with them. They send promo coupons and advertising. It's not overbearing, but it was a little much.

Getting to the meat of things, however, the most expensive item in the box is likely the Neru Neru candy making kit. These sell for 100 yen. Everything else was definitely 20-50 yen in cost or less. A tiny mini Crunky was likely about 10 yen or less. My best guess of the total cost to the seller of all of the items in my box would be 300-400 yen (likely around 320-340 yen). That means that, if I want to be generous in my estimation, their out of pocket total was around 830 yen or $7.51. About half of your subscription fee goes to costs and about half goes to labor/profit. Of course, I'm assuming they pay retail for their snacks. They may pay wholesale.

I don't find this to be exorbitant given that I know what would have to go into making this happen. Somebody has to run the web site, maintain subscriptions, print shipping labels, assemble and pack boxes, shop for the items and sort them out, and then take the boxes to the post office or manage a pick-up with them. If they don't have a ton of subscribers, it's pretty labor-intensive for not much money. If they have a ton, then it's likely a pretty good money maker. And while I don't find it unreasonable, I will say that it's a far worse deal than if you have access to an Asian market as their mark-ups are generally no more than 50% and sometimes less. However, a market's selection would be much more restricted as well and not everyone has access to such stores.

In terms of the "joy" factor, I was pleased to see the box and relatively happy with the contents. Some of the items are ones I've had before. In fact, I reviewed the Apollo strawberry chocolate in the past, albeit in a different package. That was actually the only item I'd reviewed before, but I'd be stunned if I'd never sampled Caramel Corn or the Kokeiya corn snack during my time in a Japanese office when such snacks were regularly passed around. I will be reviewing the items in the box individually in future blog posts so I'm looking forward to that.

I can't help but think that my copious experience in Japan makes this less thrilling for me than it would be for someone who had only been there as a tourist or who had never been there at all. There is a sense of things being novel and really "cool" when you open up a package of colorful snacks with foreign characters on them that you can't understand which can't be re-experienced once you're familiar with them. I used to talk about this situationwith my students in Japan. They told me that it was interesting knowing Japan through my eyes because so much of it was so mundane to them that it was essentially invisible. Now that I'm back in the U.S. again, I understand all too well what they meant.

If I were not me, I think I'd be pretty happy with the experience of getting this for only $15 a month as a purchased "experience." That's a pretty cheap subscription rate for nearly any box you might be interested in and there are enough items to allow you to slowly consume a few items a week without running out before the next one. That being said, because this is dagashi, much of the thrill needs to be in the unusual nature as kid's snacks are notoriously not very good quality or especially tasty compared to those for the more general or adult markets. These are more vibrant and colorful, but the tastes are likely to be sweeter, saltier, and less complex than other snacks.

My only complaint is that including just one tiny Crunky and one Hello Kitty marshmallow seemed a bit too cheap. Given that these items are parts of multi-packs and likely cost so little, I think either including more of those types of items of another brand or type or putting in a couple of these snacks would have represented a more generous package without costing much more at all. It would also be better business sense in that it would allow the recipient the possibility to share these tiny snacks with others and possibly increase the chances that someone else might want to subscribe after having some small samples from a friend's box.

My plan is to see what Oyatsu Cafe has to offer for their other, more expensive box, the Oyatsu Box which promises 10-14 "full size" snacks and one vending machine toy ("gachapon") for $25. I changed over my subscription and should see that box some time in June. One of the nice things about the Oyatsu Cafe subscription access is that you can alter your type of subscription on the fly so you can switch off between types if you want to change from time to time for different experiences. You can also cancel from the account page if you'd like to stop. Their interface is clean and easy to work with and that's certainly a plus.

I can't rate services the same way I rate the snacks, so I'll just give my subjective evaluation on my three criteria.

Service: Excellent
Value: Adequate
Experience: Good

Worth it? Yes, but only if you are interested in kid's snacks for the novelty and colorful nature rather than for the quality of snacks.

Note: I am not promoting Oyatsubox. They did not provide me with any free samples. I paid as anyone else would for my subscription. They don't know I'm a Japanese food blogger or that I would be posting about them.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Osaka Sikasen Mochi Assort

Nippon-ya did a survey and this box of sweets was their most popular. I can see why that is the case if only based on the packaging. It has beautiful wrapping and wrappers. The fact that I even think about things like that shows just how much I became affected by the culture of style over substance while living in Japan. I was once like you, dear reader, and felt that this sort of business that makes things look pretty was wasteful. What really matters is what is inside, right? Right?

I don't know if Japan changed me or if age did, but I really was excited to try these based on the variety of content as well as the packaging. The main difference between what I bought in Japan and these are that they are very, very small. In fact, I was stunned at how tiny they are as they are about half the size of what I'd get in Japan.

If nothing else, the packages are fairly descriptive of the contents so you don't have the same problem you have when deciding which chocolates have whatever filling in a box of candy in the U.S.

Anko (red bean paste):

This is the most old-fashioned of options for mochi so I didn't expect it to have an aroma, and it did not.  It's a classic pairing of flavorless, chewy mochi with red bean paste in the middle. Since these are small sweets, it's a little hard to know for sure, but I think this has tsubu an or coarse ("pebbly") bean paste in the middle. The mochi is nice and chewy and the powder on the outside makes it sweet before you taste the filling. The filling is earthy and slightly grainy. I noticed the "chew" on the mochi on this one was a bit tougher, but not in a bad way. It is just a bit thicker and less fine than in some other sweets. I liked this in the way that I like Reese's peanut butter cups. It's a classic, old-fashioned combo that hits familiar notes.

Shiro an (white bean paste):

This one was very similar to the anko one except the filling is finer, slightly sweeter, and less earthy. The "beany" nature just whispers at you rather than announces itself firmly and definitively. This is more of a textural pleasure than anything else. I love the feeling of the bean paste on my tongue and the chew of the mochi. However, this was definitely the least impressive flavor-wise of the bunch.


It's hard to believe that the Japanese don't use artificial colors when you see something like this sakura mochi. It's a bordering on radioactive pink. It's the kind of thing that even the most twee princess might find a bit much for her tastes. Nonetheless, I hear you can do marvelous things with beet juice, and perhaps that, rather than fallout from Fukushima, is responsible for the coloration.

The first thing I did was give this a whiff expecting it to smell heavily of "cherry blossom". It didn't smell like anything, surprisingly. The flavor, on the other hand, was very intense. It was quite sweet and very floral. In fact, the taste bordered on "soapy." I'm betting it wasn't even all that sweet, but that cloying flavor upped the sense of it being more sugary than it was. Sakura isn't generally my favorite, but I did enjoy the Sakura Harajuku mochi. This was okay, but definitely hit more of the notes that make sakura something I tend not to seek out.


This was the only mochi with a scent. In fact, as soon as I cut open the package, I smelled the sesame seeds. It smells awesome and the seeds lend a wonderful nutty flavor to the sweet. It also gives it a nice crunchy exterior. The first bite was completely overwhelmed by the sesame flavor, but the second brought out the beans. This was far and away my favorite of the group, though I can't say that I disliked any of them.

In terms of this assortment, the main point that I noticed is that the Harajuku Mochi was softer and fresher in feel, or made differently. These had a more elastic chew. I'm inclined to believe that they are just a differently made mochi because they seemed quite fresh. Mochi that is going stale tends to get a bit hard and these were in no way hard, though one of them had a few cracks in the side (not from drying out, but from torsion).

I liked this, and I do not regret buying it at all. It's a solid group of old-fashioned flavor combinations, but I probably wouldn't order it again for several years. One of the things that I heard time and again while binge-watching "The Great British Bake-off" was that, if you do a classic, it has to be superb and perfect. These are solid, but they are not superb and perfect. That being said, since I hadn't had these types of sweets for a long time, I was really grateful to have them on hand for the duration of the box. It'll just take awhile for nostalgia to enter the equation again. I also think that these are close to ideal if you want to give someone a box of manju as a souvenir or gift.

Where I bought it: Nippon-ya (San Francisco)
Weight: 14.5 oz.
Price: I don't recall exactly, but I think it was $14.95

Friday, May 19, 2017

Surprise Find: Nasoya Shirataki Fettucine Pasta

Last week, I talked about things in Japanese food culture that taste like nothing. Coincidentally, I found the quintessential food that tastes like nothing - shirataki noodles made from konnyaku. The Japanese version of these are usually translucent and look like deep sea creatures spindly body parts or particularly disturbing worms. I had them a few times in stews when I lived in Japan and I found them creepy and disgusting both in texture and appearance. However, these noodles are what many Americans have often pined for; they are a food with almost zero calories.

Of course, most people who want to eat as much as they want without the pain of gaining weight are thinking about zero-calorie pizza or chocolate, not flavor-free noodles sold in a stinky briny solution that you have to drain and rinse off. This particular brand by Nasoya isn't the only variety out there, but I believe they are all sold in the refrigerated section of stores in bags of fluid. If you read the reviews for the product (and others like it) on Amazon, there are lots of complaints about the indescribably bad odor that comes off of them when you release them from their watery prison.

If you go to the Amazon link, you'll also see that they sell for about $56 for a case of 12. That's $4.66 per bag for something which includes just two servings of noodles. It's a very steep price for something which is a component of a meal and not a meal unto itself. The reason that this is a "surprise find" for me is not only my (as mentioned in previous posts) rural isolation and limited grocery store options, but the price I paid for these. I found these at the local Grocery Outlet for 37 cents a bag.

Unlike the ginger rice crackers that I got for 50 cents, I did not lose my head and buy 24 of these. One reason was that there were only five bags in stock. Another was that I'd never tried these before and their expiration date was within four days of my purchase. Still, I bought three bags because, how bad could they be? The answer to that question is, "It depends on how you prepare them." My first two runs with the first bag were between so-so and not-so-good. My final one, in which I took my recently expired noodles from the last two bags and just tossed it all into one big dish, worked much, much better.

I should note that these are more troublesome than conventional pasta in some ways. First, you do have to drain them and rinse them well and the fluid inside carries a bouquet that will wilt any nearby foliage. I recommend just holding your nose and doing a fast dump and rinse. It doesn't last long. It's like getting a shot at the doctor. A short amount of unpleasantness then it's all over.

After you rinse and drain them, you need to boil them for 1-2 minutes. I actually tasted a noodle right out of the rinse (not right out of the bag, I'm not crazy or masochistic) and it seemed perfectly cooked and fine. I think the instructions to boil them is make sure you get all of the brine off and to get them hot so they dry out better. After the quick boil, you dry fry them in a pan to get them a bit drier. I used olive oil the second time for this and just cooking spray the first time. The purpose with this isn't to toast or cook the noodles, but to get them drier and less translucent. This is supposed to improve the texture so they're more like conventional pasta.

With my first two attempts, I took the pasta and just mixed other things in with it. The first was a butternut squash soup and freshly grated Parmesan cheese. This was okay, but not great. I felt the noodles texture a bit too keenly and they were super stretchy and a bit chewy compared to traditional pasta. The second time, I mixed in cheeses (cream chesse, Parmesan, mozzarella) and that was the worst. I also learned that these fettucine noodles seem to be designed for someone who prefers to spend more of the meal time twirling a fork than eating as they are miles long. In fact, if the scene in "Lady and the Tramp" were to be redone with these noodles, it'd take them about a year to eat up the noodle enough to meet in the middle. I vowed to cut them apart next time I ate them (and I took kitchen scissors to them as planned - I recommend this step).

These noodles really need a sauce to give them flavor. For my final preparation, I went all out and sauteed onions, garlic, bell pepper, mushrooms, and (hydrated and flavored) TVP in olive oil then added a jarred creamy tomato and roasted garlic sauce. I added the dry-fried noodles to this and it was indistinguishable from regular pasta.

The main benefits of this besides the super low calories and low carb count is that they are loaded with fiber. The main downside is that they aren't as versatile as regular pasta as they need something else to take on the flavor of. You couldn't just toss these in olive oil and Parmesan cheese to create a side dish. The biggest demerit though is that they are usually quite expensive. Nearly every vendor you can mail order these from sells them for $2.50 a bag (often much more) and you need to buy large amounts at once.

In terms of how I feel about these, I think that it's hard to get too excited about noodles in general, but I'd buy them again in a heartbeat provided that I could get a bargain on them (a dollar or less per bag). This would not be for any reason other than the fact that these are supremely healthy. While I wouldn't expect to get them for 37 cents a bag again, I'd probably pay as much as $2 each if I were in the serious mood for pasta, which I will admit is not very often for me as I'm not much of a noodle person. If you're on a special diet (low-carb, Keto, whatever) though, these can be quite a Godsend to vary your mundane eating options. I imagine the extra effort and the unpleasant odors associated with the noodles would be something that one could develop a tolerance for after a few weeks of eating mostly meat, cheese, non-starchy vegetables, and avocados.

Where I bought it: Grocery Outlet Bargain Market
Price: 37 cents/bag

Friday, May 12, 2017

Harajuku Mochi Chocolat Sakura

Natto is often considered to be the most unique and strange food experience when it comes to introducing Japanese cuisine to foreigners. It's stinky, sticky, and reminds you of mucous. While as a singular food, natto may indeed be one of the strangest things you can eat in Japan, there is a class of food that I discovered is a bit bigger and more broadly used than what I regard as its nearest Western cousin. That is a group of foods that, after processing, are fairly flavorless. 

My first experience with this came when I mentioned to a student that the chanko nabe (a sort of sumo wrestler's stew) that I'd had on my tour of a sumo stable had these weird little grey blocks with black specks in them that found distasteful in appearance. The student practically gushed about how wonderful konnyaku was and how much she loved it. She said it tasted so good and was really healthy. I told her I didn't eaten these little somewhat gelatinous blocks because the reminded me of frog's eggs and asked what they tasted like. She paused and said, "They don't taste like anything."

Such was my experience in Japan with certain foods. People would tell me something was fantastic, but it didn't taste like much of anything. That included jiggly blocks of pale tofu, konnyaku, and mochi. While we have bland foods in the U.S. (potatoes, rice), we don't have foods that are processed and end up flavorless with the exception of gelatin... at least not that I can think of. And, even if we do have such foods, we lack the same level of enthusiasm that I saw for them in Japan. 

Most of these foods are about their texture as well as the flavors that they can absorb from other ingredients. It took me awhile to come around to enjoying such foods, but it helps that I'm a texture junky. Mochi in particular is very much about how it stretches and the sort of chewy, softness it offers. Fresh mochi is amazing. Stale stuff is inedible. When you order shelf-stable sweets like this Harajuku Mochi Chocolate, there is always a risk that it'll be tough as you don't know how long it has been sitting around or how well it is packed. I'm pleased to say that this much have industrial strength oxygen absorber packets and is sealed well. 

The mochi comes in a square box with a little plastic two-pronged fork so you can stab the hands of people who try to eat your delicious, delicious mochi without piercing the skin and risking a lawsuit. Though there are ample numbers of pieces, they are quite small. Each is a little bigger than a quarter and fairly thin as mochi goes. The "chocolate" is a soft, creamy white substance that runs thinly through the center. When you eat it, it imparts sweetness, but there is too little to get a good sense of flavor or creaminess. 

Each bit of mochi is a soft little pillow that is somewhat chewy, but easy to bite into. Even after I'd opened the package and consumed the mochi over several weeks, they remained fresh to the last morsel. The first hit on your tongue is sweetness, perhaps from the coating which could be cornstarch mixed with powdered sugar. It could also just be that the filling is spread evenly enough and is sweet enough to leave a lasting impression.

The second bite is more floral and yields more cherry notes. On the back-end of a tasting, it can even leave a whisper of herb-like and slightly medicinal flavor, but not in a negative way. As mochi goes, this is fairly flavorful, sweet without being cloying. Of course, mochi often lacks a very strong flavor so saying it is "flavorful" isn't meant to convey that it's a flavor-blasted experience, but just that it is present.

In terms of how I liked this, I liked them very well and was happy to have tried them. That being said, I mainly chose these because it is spring and sakura is a seasonal flavor that won't be around in several months. I likely would not buy them again as I regard this more as a curiosity purchase than a standard snack that I'd like to have again. If you enjoy sakura's cherry and floral notes, then you likely will enjoy this more than me (and I did enjoy them). If not, you may want to try a flavor more akin to your tastes like chocolate or green tea.

Where I bought it: Nippon-ya (San Francisco)
Weight: 10.2 oz.
Price: $9.95

Friday, May 5, 2017

Suprise Find: Ginger Frosted Sembei

As I mentioned in my "I'm back" post, I now live in a very remote area. What is more, I also live in a small town (less than 10,000 people). There are very few local markets and I can charitably say that local tastes match local political views; they are very conservative. That means that the restaurants around me focus mostly on burgers, bad steak, pizza, pasta with heavy sauces, Americanized Mexican, and sandwiches. The most exotic place is a Thai restaurant and there is one American Chinese place which offers very pedestrian options.

I'm not mentioning this to criticize the local food scene because I know that one's taste in food is one of those things that is shaped by experience. People like what they like because it is what they grew up with and it's not like the people who live in rural areas made a conscious decision to have limited food options. If anything, we can blame their parents and grandparents. I certainly can say my parents have terrible taste in food and any restaurant scene that their patronage cultivated would be populated by places with leathery, over-cooked meat, canned vegetables, noodles, and potatoes. It would be even more grim than the reality I currently live in.

The reason that I mention the limits here is that any Japanese food I find at local markets outside of Pocky and some more common cooking ingredients (soy sauce, rice vinegar, etc.) are a suprise find. When I locate one of these finds, I'm stunned because I can't imagine the locals buying them. That leads me to today's shocking find of frosted ginger sembei.

I found these at Grocery Outlet Bargain Market. I've been told it's the west coast equivalent of Aldi's, but I can't verify that as I've never been in an Aldi's. The thing they are supposed to have in common is food at low prices because it was over-produced, unpopular, or is getting on in years. I'm guessing this sembei showed up because it was unpopular, but it's hard to know for sure.

The first shocker was that it was in a local market at all. The second was that it was being sold for 50 cents a bag. In the Bay Area, I had to pay $4-$6 per bag for this same brand of sembei. In Japan, this would cost the equivalent of $1.50-$2.00 for a bag. It was insanely cheap by any estimate. I bought 25 bags. I am not exaggerating. My pantry has stacks and stacks of these.

The difficulty in marketing these to the American market is explained somewhat by the description panel on the lower right panel of the bag. In particular, the fact that the manufacturer feels it is necessary to say, "no topping needed" is revealing. Americans see rice crackers as a savory item that needs a topping like a Quaker rice cake. Buyers have no idea what these are until after they've purchased them. In fact, when I bought them, the cashier looked perplexed at what they were. I'm guessing just me, and possibly the Japanese members of the taiko club a great many miles South of me, are the only customers and potential customers who know what these are.

What these are is a very, very tasty snack with a surface that makes you think of the moon with luscious sugary craters. They'd better be great if I'm going to drown myself in stacks of crispiness. They are light and somewhat sweet with enough ginger to whisper kindly at your tongue, but not to overwhelm. They snap without being too brittle and actually do melt in your mouth if you leave them in there long enough. It's easy to eat far too many at one sitting, but given that each large cracker is only 25 calories, it's hard to get fat on them. I've actually be fairly responsible with these and limit myself to one packet (two crackers) per day. I will likely have my stash for months at that rate, but they come with an enormous oxygen absorber packet so I'm betting they won't go stale. If they start to, I'll just have to watch a good movie and start consuming them by the bag-full so as not to waste my luxurious investment of $12.50.

I should note that I had confidence in these and how good they'd be because the company that mades them, Kameda, is one that I recognized from my time in Japan. In fact, I have reviewed no small number of their sembei in the past including one sweet variety made of chocolate. They rarely let me down and I was pleasantly surprised to see something from that company at a local market. While this clearly is packaged for the American market (since everything is in English), the rice crackers (sembei) themselves are precisely the same as what you'd get if you shopped in Tokyo. And, yes, I'd absolutely buy them again, even at a higher price.


Where I bought it: Grocery Outlet Bargain Market
Price: 50 cents/bag

Friday, April 28, 2017

Hina no Sudachi (white bean cakes)

I think my faithful readers will find that little has changed since I last blogged. I'm still using a crummy little digital camera and struggling to get shots that are bright enough and in focus. I still write posts that are too long. I still try to be funny and fail a lot of the time, and I still making typing errors that make me look like I don't understand basic grammar and spelling and fail to proofread.

Getting back into this blog will be nostalgic for all of  us. And, I don't mean the good kind of nostalgia like opening Christmas gifts when you were a kid and it all seemed so magical and wondrous because you hadn't yet learned that the fat guy who left gifts, ate your cookies, and drank your milk was your dad (or mom). I mean the kind of nostalgia that comes from a bad Thanksgiving meal full of relatives with political views you don't share and who feel its their responsibility to convert you to either their religion or their atheism. Somehow though, you feel like you need to keep coming back anyway.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the first item I'll be reviewing is Hina no Sudachi. This is a "steamed bun with bean jam using egg yolk," according to the package. If the ingredients list is any indication of quantity, and in the U.S., the first ingredient is supposed to make up the largest amount, egg yolks are the top ingredient followed by white beans. Oddly, I didn't find the interior of the cake to be as yellow as I'd expect nor as yellow as the store displays show (that's a Facebook link and won't work unless you have an account - a Yelp one of lesser quality is here). That is okay because I'm less interested in the color than the taste.

I will note that my husband and I both have a great fondness for this particular type of sweet. That is, we love the white bean ones with the cake-like shells and continue to reminisce about the ones we bought regularly in Japan like Kamome no Tamgo and Koganei Imo. In fact, these are the only types of Japanese sweets my husband actually likes. He may tolerate others to a limited extent, but he is happy to eat these because the bean filling is finer and not especially "beany" compared to red bean (adzuki) types.

This cake didn't have a high bar to vault over though as neither of us expected it to surpass our favorites. We just expected it to be a solid white bean cake option, and, it was. The external cake was tender, but not too moist and didn't crack or crumble. When I tasted the shell alone, it seemed to have a buttery flavor (which has to be fake or my imagination).  It is quite thin and separates easily from the filling if you cut the cake in half as I did.

When you see the inside, it is exactly what you'd want it to be. That is, it is moist and holds together so it doesn't have the powdery, dessicated texture that some snacks do. I wouldn't recommend cutting it unless you're splitting it with someone as it's better to have an intact shell to hold the filling. If the filling falls out, it stays in a moist (but not too wet) lump so it's easy to pick up and put back in.

The bean filling is sweet, though not especially so by American standards, and has a flavor which is hard define, but is still appealing. It's more of a generic "baked goods" taste, but it does seem to have a bit of what could be vanilla. The ingredients include artificial flavors as well as beta carotene (natural coloring). Though it seems a bit buttery, it contains cottonseed and soybean oil, but no cow-based fats. It was in the spectrum of what you'd find in a sweet, baked item and not the least bit beany (as expected).

I will note that I wasn't sure if this product was produced only for the American market (which would be weird, but I never saw this in Japan), and I did have issues finding it online. However, it is actually a product of Hokkaido and I found a blog that referenced it as part of a souvenir multi-pack. There's also a pointless 16-second video of one here. So, it's definitely sold in Japan, but my guess is that it is regional enough to not be easily found in Tokyo.

As I was gearing up to do my research, as I did so often in the past, I realized that I have never used a Windows PC to write my blog posts before and had no idea how to swap to Japanese language. I'm still not sure how to use it as well as how I once did on my old Mac Mini, but I'll get used to it. I'm definitely rusty and hope to get back to my previous level of highly inadequate and pathetic Japanese input and usage rather than remain at my current level of confusion.


Where I bought it: Nippon-ya (San Francisco branch) - can be mail-ordered from them
Weight: 23.8 oz.
Price: $15

The big question I have to ask myself is whether or not I'd buy this again. The answer is that I would, but not every single time I order from Nippon-ya. It's tasty, but it's not out-of-the-ballpark amazing. It's also the heaviest box of sweets in my current crop so there is a premium attached to buying it as opposed to trying something new so I'd be likely to order this once in awhile rather than as a staple. That's in no way saying it's not worth it, but just recognizing that this doesn't rise to the same level as our other white bean cake favorites.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Nippon-ya Mail Order

Display of Japanese sweets at Nippon-ya in San Francisco's Japantown

There are roughly two types of Japanese snacks. There is the loud, colorfully packaged stuff that is sold in consumer packaging. It is so shelf-stable that it'll likely survive the current administration's efforts to bring about a nuclear war. These are in contrast to delicate, classy, and unlikely to survive two months in your pantry treats that are beautifully packaged and often given as gifts.

The first type are relatively easy to get your hands on as you can buy Japanese KitKats, umaibo, green tea, and, of course, Pocky, from Amazon easily. What Amazon may not sell you, eBay will or you can subscribe to a Japan box and get samples of such items. In fact, as this blog re-awakens, I will likely buy some of those subscription boxes myself both to test the value of the services and to review the included items. I hope to come at reviewing them from a unique perspective since I've had copious experience buying the types of items in the boxes in Tokyo and know the prices and selections well.

The second type of item are far trickier to buy. I had thought that the only way to get them was to live close enough to a specialty shop that carried them or a market which sold an inferior shelf-stable consumer version of such items. There are other options, but they tend to be prohibitively expensive. However, thanks to some research, I learned there is a far more reasonably priced possibility. That is doing mail order from San Francisco's Nippon-ya shop.

My first experience with Nippon-ya was when I lived in the Bay Area (which I hated and endured for three and a half years) and made several trips to "the city" (as the locals call it - if you want to really piss them off, call it "Frisco") to see what it had to offer. Besides a plethora of homeless people, human waste on the streets, and a lot of filthy, disintegrating areas interspersed with tidy, clean, tourist- and gentry-ready spots, it has a Japantown with a lot of cute and cool stores. 

During that initial visit, I picked up a mere two boxes of sweets because I was watching my wallet at the time. I still watch my wallet, especially in American cities because pickpocketing is a thing that is more likely to happen here than in Japan, but I can now indulge myself a bit more now and then. However, I no longer live within reasonable driving distance of San Francisco so I have a bit more money, but not the access. Fortunately, one of our Bay Area friends decided to visit us in our remote locale and happily agree to ferry some wagashi booty to me.

Rather unfortunately, Nippon-ya has no online mailing system nor is their Facebook page meticulously updated about new or current stock. They do serve Japanese products and often Japanese people so the up side is that they are super helpful and polite on the phone. I called them and they took note of what I wanted and made recommendations and answered questions about their stock. Mainly, I asked about flavors and types of snacks and, with their verbal assistance on the phone, Yelp's photos of their stock, and their Facebook page content, I created a specific list of six boxes of goodies for my friend to deliver. 

You might wonder what good this information does for you since you are unlikely to have a Bay Area friend willing to drive to your place with boxes of manju or whatnot, especially if you live in Florida or Oklahoma. It's not that there is anything wrong with those places, but, yeah, there are things wrong with those places, but rather that it's an incredibly long drive. You're in luck because Nippon-ya will take orders by phone and ship to you via UPS. This matters to me, too, because I want to make another order (or many other orders) in the future and can't expect my friend to do the 10-hour round trip to see me when I want more bean cakes or daifuku. 

The display of chestnut daifuku when I was in the store several years ago. You can guess the season I was there from the selection. Also, I reviewed this on this blog.

To help you make an order when you can't see what they have, I advise you to follow the same path as me and have a good look at what is pictured online (Yelp and Facebook, obviously) to give you a rough idea of what you might want to ask about. In addition to that, I suggest asking about seasonal flavors and to keep in mind what is likely to be available. You can review my blog for some of that information, but a brief thumbnail is:

spring: cherry blossom (sakura), green tea, strawberry, coffee
summer: Japanese citron (yuzu), melon
fall: sweet potato, chestnut, apple
winter: chocolate, white chocolate, mango

Some "classic" flavors tend to be available year-round. This mainly would be basic anko (bean paste) sweets including white, yellow, and red bean varieties of sweets that come in various wrappers (cake and mochi mainly). I was told that their "Harajuku Mochi" line is always available (though there are seasonal specialty flavors) and that Hina no Sudachi, which is the first item I'll be reviewing after this post, is also always available. Note that they also sell tea, various crackers, and cookies including gaufrettes. However, my orders will focus largely on non-European-derivative items as I want very "Japanese" items. I mention those options in case my readers have less specific interests.

Shipping is based strictly on the actual weight of the items. The representative who I spoke with said that they will assemble your order, take it to the UPS outlet in the same mall as them, and give you an exact quote. I weighed my boxes when I got them and will be including weights with my review information any time I review items from Nippon-ya. 

My packages totalled 5.5 lbs. which would have cost me a little over $8 if my UPS standard shipping chart reading wasn't incorrect (though I am most likely off by the weight of the packing materials). My best guess is that 6-10 boxes are likely not to cost more than $15 to ship, but I can comment on that more in the future when I make an actual mail order.

All in all, if they are true to their word about charging only what the weight of the packages require, you should be paying less than $2 per box in cases of larger orders (3-4 or more boxes) to have the sweets sent (depending on the item's size). Of course, you will always get better value from the shipping with larger orders. If you buy one box, you're likely to be paying a heavy premium for shipping. 

Beyond the shipping costs, there is, of course, the matter of the items themselves. Most of them cost between $9 and $16 per box. The prices are incredibly reasonable and many of them are not much more expensive than what you'd pay in Japan. The "Harajuku Mochi" is $9 for a 16-piece box. The pieces are small, but that's a very good price compared to Japanese markets in the U.S. The Hina no Sudachi, which is one the of the biggest and heaviest items as the cakes are bigger than standard mochi sweets, includes 15 pieces and is $15. Again, this is not too far off of prices I'd expect to pay in Tokyo for a similar sweet in a standard shop. 

That being said, you could likely get cheaper options at places like Niki no Kashi (a discount sweets shop in Ueno), but most of us aren't in a position to hop a train and head to Ueno. The price of a plane ticket would make even discount sweets less than a bargain. My best guess is buying these types of items (though not these exact ones) would cost between $6-$12 in a discount shop. So, if you're actually in Japan, these may still seem pricey to you, but they seem very reasonable to me from where I am with my access and experience trying to buy in shops here in the U.S.

So, unlike when I was reviewing before and buying in Tokyo, my readers should be able to get their hands on whatever I am reviewing from now on. If the Nippon-ya items interest you, you can contact them either by Facebook messages or calling them. They are very helpful and polite so you won't be disappointed. Also, if more people order from them by mail, I think they may eventually be incentivized to make a web mail order site and the process will get easier.

Note: I am not endorsing Nippon-ya, and have no financial connection to them. I paid for my products and am talking about them here to offer information on a resource for readers.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Back, at least for awhile...

Why is he so sad when he has a beer? (Maneki neko statue at a Japanese grocery in San Francisco's Japantown)

It's been two years and eight months since I walked away from my Japan blogs. I'm not sure that I am back "for good" or on nearly as consistent a basis as before, but I am sure that there are some experiences I want to share both with any of my readers who may check in from time to time and for the sake of my deeply exploring and remembering my own experiences. I continue to believe that my writing, photographing, and talking in detail helps me remember and be more present with even the smallest of experiences.

Before I get to the purpose of this particular post, I'll say that my life has been very chaotic since returning to the U.S. and one of the reasons I think I'm ready to come back to writing here is that things finally settled down about a year and a half ago. I'm very poor at making long stories short. In fact, my greatest strength and weakness is at making short stories longer than necessary, but I'll try not to belabor my short history since leaving Japan.

My husband and I moved seven times in the five years that we have been back in the United States. This was after having lived in Tokyo for 23 years and not having moved once. We aren't the sort of people who are comfortable with such upheaval and it was very stressful. We also found our support systems limited for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that I have no family and few friends on the West Coast to assist in things like moving. Since I was born in the Northeast, this is no shock. What few friends I had from a brief stint of living in the Bay Area from 1988-1989 had largely moved or (sadly) passed away.

During our five years back, we have not only experienced what people call "reverse culture shock," but also the sense that we'd dropped out of time for over two decades and popped back up into a new "America." While we rode the wave of change in Japan, we were oblivious to how Americans had changed, and boy howdy, had they changed. What is more, it was not pretty from our perspective. This difficulty was coupled with the loss of our Japanese working life and a great deal of economic upheaval which left investing in such trivialities as Japanese snacks a very stressful endeavor. I rarely made enough money from blogging to cover the cost of my snacks in Japan, and they are greatly more expensive here in the U.S. Buying such things only compounded my sense that we were blowing our hard-earned savings to no economic advantage and I found it hard to enjoy the expeiences.

Fortunately, my husband's career change is now complete and our situation is stabilized. I am now in a position to indulge a bit and consider finding new avenues to access an old love - Japanese food. I also feel that I'm now in a similar position to a lot of my readers in this regard as many of them have no access to local shops for Japanese food either. That being said, there are definitely more trivial Japanese food items in stores than expected, even in relatively isolated and rural places. Speaking of which, I am now living in a very remote place in Northern California. Few people have less access than me so, if I can find ways to buy Japanese treats from where I am and share them, almost anyone can have the foods I am reviewing.

So, I am back for a bit, and I have a pile of things to review, though I'm not likely to ever review with the same frequency I once did so expect things to be sporadic. If you have an RSS reader (I use Feedly now that Google Reader has gone the way of the dodo), I'd suggest subscribing to get notifications of new posts without having to check back for new content. My hope is to got into a scheduled situation again at some point (maybe posting once a week on the same day), but I'm not sure yet how that will go. I have also re-enabled commenting on this blog and I'm leaving it wide open now, but if my stalkers decide that's an invitation to harrass me again (because they hate me, but can't help but hang on my every word), then I may have to narrow privileges. We'll see how it goes.

Please note that cleaning up the blog will take awhile. I've got to review a lot of links that are dead and delete them from the sidebars. I'll also have to tweak formatting over time. I'm not as young as I used to be and I seem to be busier than ever despite being a homemaker now (you wouldn't believe how much and what I cook now, but we also now live in a house instead of an apartment which means more work caring for it). Be patient. I'm getting really old now. ;-)