While in Okinawa: “smallest coffee shop in town”

The cafe was small – really small. True to its name, I suppose. I’d never been to a cafe the size of a walk-in closet before. I wondered about what kind of people frequent the “Smallest Coffee Shop in Town.” Locals, I’m sure… Maybe the owner’s close friends, friends of friends, wanderers stopping by to rest for a bit and share about how their weekends went.

There was no one there when I entered – I had to knock on the wall a few times, and then call out excuse me when, still, no one returned. I could hear jazz playing softly from a speaker somewhere near the back.

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A few chairs were lined up at the counter. I sat down at the one nearest me and waited. Kettles and coffee pots, stained and worn from use, sat on a gas stove against the wall.

It was a small space, but there was more than enough to look at; there were Okinawan hairbands for sale on a shelf beside me, jars of brown sugar crystals on the counter, stuffed rabbits sitting on the windowsill. I felt a little odd, sitting there alone, but comforted too. In a way, it made me feel like I was at a friend’s kitchen table, passing time while they finished preparing our meal.

A woman, who I assumed is the owner, eventually returned. She gave me a look when she saw me – I couldn’t tell what kind of look it was. Probably curiosity, or interest, or surprise maybe. Or, a mix of all three(?). She had crimped hair dyed light brown and was wearing a hat with a lace rim.

I greeted her good morning and asked for iced coffee. She poured her brew into a plastic take-out cup, handed me the cup and little cartons of creamer and sugar and charged 200 Yen. I hadn’t expected it to be so cheap – probably because I’d paid 600 for a cup of coffee at the cafe I’d gone to the day before, which was just down the street. The coffee was good too – strong, not bitter. I enjoyed it, and as I sipped my 200 yen cold brew I regretted that I wouldn’t have the chance to go back. But I’m grateful I stumbled upon it at least; it’s not everyday that I find a coffee shop – which happens to sell delicious, exceptionally priced coffee – that’s smaller than my bedroom.

Quality Dining at 7-11

A few weeks ago, I went to a local 7-11 to pick up tickets for a concert. (Oddly enough, in Japan it’s common to purchase tickets online and pick up the hard copies at a 7-11 – I don’t know why.)

After collecting my tickets, I decided to buy tea before heading home. But on my way to pick up a drink, my eyes happened to wander to the food section, as they always do…

Convenience stores always have ready-made meals available all day long, like rice balls wrapped in seaweed and bento boxes with meat and vegetables. When I first arrived in Japan, I was obsessed with the idea of convenience store food. I tried all the rice bowls, the fried fish and veggies – I practically lived off of convenience store food for two weeks! But after being in Japan for seven months now, I don’t find it very exciting – or appetizing – anymore.

But at this particular 7-11, the food on display was different: the options, the types of meals, the quality – I’d never seen anything like it before! I rarely give the food section at convenience stores a second glance, but I was so impressed by this display that I thought it was worthy of a photo shoot.

IMG_E8385IMG_E8391The shelves were stocked with just about every kind of hearty Japanese comfort food you could imagine –  soba, udon, curry, pork katsu, grilled marinated meats with a heaping side of rice… And all were a reasonable 400-500 yen, or $4-5.

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Yakisoba with a hearty sesame-flavored glaze.

There were plenty of “Western” inspired options too, like bowls of Neapolitan spaghetti with sliced ham, sausage, tomato sauce, and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese.

IMG_E8389My favorite thing about this display, though, was the abundance of meals catering to the health-conscious customer. While there were quite a few carb-heavy dishes, there were also just as many light and healthy dishes available too – like bowls of broth-based soups filled to the brim with steamed vegetables. IMG_E8388

IMG_E8386This Korean-inspired bowl with pork, tofu, kimchi proudly states that it has “1/2 serving of your daily recommended vegetables” – definitely not something you’d expect to find at a convenience store. IMG_E8392

And, of course, there were salads too – the healthiest of the bunch. But really, why buy a salad when you can buy a plate of spaghetti the size of your face?

Anyway, I think I’d still prefer my lunch to be made at home than from a convenience store refrigerator, but if I were in the mood for convenience store curry, I’d head to this 7-11 without a second thought.

Jazz and ginger tea at Cafe Bazz Light

One of the (many) things I appreciate about Minoh is its abundance of well-decorated cafes. After finally crossing Salunpowaku off my bucket list, I made it a goal to visit every cafe in the area around my apartment – which doesn’t sound difficult, but you’d be surprised at just how many cafe’s can fit into one neighborhood in a tiny Japanese town.

My next stop was at Cafe Bazz Light, less than a five minute walk from Minoh station. The cafe is located on the bottom level of a tiny plaza behind a bike parking lot and is tricky to spot if you aren’t looking. My friend and I were actually planning on visiting the owl cafe (a cafe with live owls on display), which is located on the second floor of the same plaza. But, sadly, the owl cafe was about to close just as we arrived.

Spotting Cafe Bazz Light’s brightly lit windows on the bottom level, we decided to stop there instead for our daily dose of tea and coffee.

Stepping inside, we were welcomed by the owner, who sat at the front counter during our stay. We sat ourselves and took our time perusing the menu, which included meal sets and a long list of drinks.

My friend ordered a regular black coffee and I ordered ginger tea; our drinks arrived on a tray (which I’ve come to learn is typical of cafe’s in Japan) and came in lovely ceramic mugs stained army green.

The cafe was warm and cozy. And it smelled good – kind of woody and smoke-y, like a fireplace. With the heater on high, clippings from American newspapers pinned on the walls, and jazz music playing faintly in the background, I felt right at home. Out of all the cafe’s I’ve been to so far, I’ve felt most comfortable at Cafe Bazz Light. Though I have a long list of cafe’s left to visit, I’ll definitely go back to Cafe Bazz for the ambiance alone.

My fascination with wrinkly persimmons

It’s 柿 season in Japan!

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柿, pronounced “kaki” is the Japanese word for persimmons. If you’ve never seen one before, they’re perfectly round, the color of pumpkins, and have cute clover-shaped stems. Persimmons aren’t very common where I’m from in the States. I rarely saw persimmons in my local supermarket, and if I did, they were either expensive or of mediocre quality, or both. But in Japan, persimmons are everywhere – literally! Not only is there a section in every grocery store dedicated to persimmons, there are also persimmon trees in nearly every backyard and all along the streets, which means that there are persimmons on the ground sometimes too.

At first, I was shocked by the sudden explosion in persimmons. As I’d make my way through the produce section during my weekly trip to the grocery store and come face to face with yet another persimmon display, I found myself questioning the appeal. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the taste of persimmons, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to purchase a pack of six.

But everything changed when I tried my first 干し柿、or hoshigaki – dried Hachiya persimmons:

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I know what you’re thinking – ew, right? I know, I know. That’s what I thought too the first time I saw one. In comparison to their fresh counterparts, hoshigaki are shriveled and wrinkly and much less appealing in appearance. But what they lack in presentation, they make up for 10 fold in taste.

As dramatic as it sounds, when I say that my first bite of a hoshigaki was life-changing, I’m not exaggerating! It was unlike anything I’ve ever tasted before. The insides were nothing like a fruit at all – they were more the texture of softened jelly. The chewiness of the outer skin, in addition to the jelly-like insides, provided a unique and wholly satisfying bite. The hoshigaki itself was also incredibly sweet, like sucking on a spoonful of pure honey.

Unfortunately, hoshigaki are twice the price of regular persimmons – about $8 or $9 for four. Desperate for another succulent dried persimmon, but unwilling to cough up nearly 1000 yen, I wondered if I’d be able to make my own instead. I mean, leaving something out to dry can’t be too difficult, right?

Well, it turned out to be much harder and a lot more intensive than I thought – making hoshigaki requires care, effort, attention, and quite a bit of time. In fact, the process is so detailed and so intricate that I’d go as far to say that the act of making hoshigaki is an art.

Other articles online do a much better job at explaining the process than I can; I highly recommend reading this one if you’re interested in learning more. But in short, hoshigaki are made by hanging peeled Hachiya persimmons for about two weeks until they’ve shriveled and formed a white coating on the surface from natural sugars.

HoshigakioutsideMost hoshigaki are made on farms, where they can be mass produced by the hundreds, but occasionally, I’ll find some hanging outside of someone’s home. Here’s a picture of a balcony I pass on the way to work every morning:

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Once I realized how difficult it is to make hoshigaki from scratch, I gave up on trying to attempt it myself. Splurging every so often on a pack at the store is much simpler than hanging them by a string on a bamboo rod from my balcony.

I have a strong feeling that hoshigaki won’t be available in stores when I return to the States, so I very well may end up needing to try drying persimmons from scratch in the future! For now, though, I’ll let the experienced farmers do the hard work for me.

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Frohe Weihnachten!

Up until this year, I’ve celebrated Christmas at home in the States with my family. It’s pretty similar ever year; we eat a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, and Pillsbury Doughboy biscuits, gather around the Christmas tree to talk about  Jesus’ birth, open up our presents one by one, and then spend the rest of the afternoon preparing enough turkey and Boursin mashed potatoes to feed a village (or two) – a classic, comforting, American-esque Christmas day.

And that’s how I expected to spend my Christmas every year… not at a German night market eating seasoned bratwurst and drinking mulled wine in the middle of Osaka, Japan.

But that’s what happened!

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One of the largest winter events in all of Osaka, this German-themed Christmas market is held every year from November 17th to December 25th under the Umeda Sky Building, where guests can wander among colorful, brightly lit stalls offering quintessential German fare, from seasoned Thuringian Bratwurst to a piping hot sauerkraut soup, to foaming mugs of Krombacher beer, to Haribo gummies.

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With such a wide range of appetizing German-inspired treats on display, it was difficult to choose what I wanted to eat – I totally would’ve bought every gingerbread cookie, bag of candied almonds, and imported wine available for purchase if I had the stomach (and the money) for it. Though, my pork-based soup and sausage were surprisingly satisfying, so I managed to abstain from buying up the whole market.

Alongside the food and drink stalls, there were also several offering all sorts of handcrafted items, such as toys, ornaments, cutlery, and intricate sculptures – imported straight from Germany, of course! (Or, at least I’d like to believe they were.)

IMG_E7857Though I was tempted to purchase an ornament or two, I couldn’t bring myself to dish out the equivalent of $25+ for a wooden Santa Clause the size of my thumb. Nonetheless, I still enjoyed browsing the wide variety of trinkets and Christmas-y knickknacks – and sneaking a few photos of them too.

I must admit that tinsel-decorated stalls selling hot wine on tap is difficult to beat, but I’d say that my favorite part of the market had to be the Christmas tree standing at the center of the market, complete with animated lights and a golden star on top. Being greeted and welcomed by a 50 foot tall Christmas tree as I sipped from my stomach-warming, cinnamon-scented beverage made the event all the more memorable.

And it was reassuring to know that there will always be a few things about Christmas that remain constant, no matter where I am in the world.

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In comparison to the last 20 years of my life, my Christmas experience this year was one-of-a-kind. I do have to say that I still very much prefer spending the holidays with my family (and I’d still choose roast turkey over sausage any day), but this is one Christmas that I know I’ll remember for a long, long time.

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A (long overdue) visit to Salunpowaku

When I found out that I’d be living in Minoh, the first thing I Googled while researching the city was “cute cafe’s.” (True story.) And Cafe Salunpowaku happened to be the top result.

Browsing past reviews on Cafe Salunpowaku – all of which were overwhelmingly positive – I discovered that the cafe not only prides itself on its use of all-natural, organic ingredients, but also specializes in gluten-free, vegan cuisine. Veganism isn’t as widespread in Japan as it is in the States; in fact, I’ve heard from a few ex-Vegans that practicing Veganism is nearly impossible in Japan. Gluten-free products, too, are extremely hard to come by in Japan. I couldn’t believe my luck – I’d stumbled upon perhaps one of the very few all natural, 100% vegan cafes in Osaka. And it just happened to be less than a minute away from Minoh station!

I originally planned to visit Salunpowaku the week I’d arrived in Minoh, but I’d slightly underestimated just how hectic getting adjusted to life in a brand new country would be. Salunpowaku slid down my list of priorities, as things like “figure out how to apply for a credit card” and “how to unlock bike without key??” took its place.

But after finally settling into my apartment, and after unlocking my bike, I finally found the time to make the long awaited trip to Salunpowaku.

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With the help of Google Maps, I found my way to the front of the cafe – a friendly sign with the menu (declaring its vegan and allergen-free meal options with pride) greeted me at the front entrance. I could easily tell from the sign that I’d arrived at the right place.

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My friend and I visited the cafe around 10am, so a little too early for lunch, unfortunately. We asked for their drink menu instead and were pleased to see a diverse selection of beverages available, from herbal teas to hand-drip coffee, to lattes steamed with organic, non-GMO soy milk.

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Upon the waiter’s recommendation, I ordered the 豆乳よもぎオレ, or the soy milk yomogi au lait. Yomogi is an herb made from the Japanese mug wort plant and is known for its distinct, vibrant green color. My friend ordered the strawberry black herb tea. Both of our drinks were brought to our table on little wooden trays with flowers painted on the surface, which I thought was a lovely touch!

At first, I didn’t want to taste my drink – it was too pretty to ruin! But I’m glad I did, because the flavor was even better than the appearance. Everything about the drink was perfectly balanced – the bitterness from the yomogi, the frothiness of the milk, even the temperature. There was a counter near the tables with little jars of brown sugar and syrup, but the drink was flavorful enough on its own to not need additional sweetener. Overall, the au lait was a light and refreshing mid-morning treat that I strongly debated ordering again.

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I ended up not ordering another, but I definitely plan to during my next visit. And I’ll be sure to go during lunch time, so I can sample their brown rice chickpea curry (which I could smell simmering in the kitchen, by the way, and it smelled incredible!).

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For anyone who happens to be in the Osaka area and is interested in visiting this cafe for a meal or a freshly brewed beverage, here’s the link to the address on Google Maps. I highly recommend Cafe Salunpowaku to all – vegan or not!

Where to find nachos in Minoh

The farewell dinner at my final JET orientation in Los Angeles was Mexican food – tacos, chips and salsa, and churros for dessert. Enjoy it now, the coordinator said to us, since you’ll probably be without Mexican cuisine for a while. And she was right; good Mexican food – or any Mexican food at that – is nearly impossible to come by in Japan.

But after feasting on fajitas at the Mexican fiesta in Umeda last month, my fellow JET’s and I made it a goal to find decent Mexican food in the area.

And that we did – with La Costa.

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About a 15 minute walk from my apartment and 3 minutes from the main train station, La Costa is the only restaurant in Minoh serving up authentic Mexican cuisine. Some of the popular menu items include soft tacos with handmade corn tortillas, chicken fajitas with stir-fried bell peppers straight off a grill, and piping hot nachos topped with plenty of jalapenos. I never thought I’d get so excited by the sight of melted cheese.

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The place is run by the owner and one waiter. The owner also happens to be the chef – he cooks every dish himself on order, so the food is always freshly prepared (and with impressive presentation).

And not only is La Costa’s food high in quality, taste, and authenticity, its interior is too. From the tables to the chairs to the posters on the wall, the decorations throughout this tiny establishment make a commendable effort to create an authentic dining experience.

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(We asked if they really do sell tacos for 99 cents on Tuesday – they said no.)

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Honestly, I’d go back to La Costa for the interior alone! (The food is an added plus.)

The prices are a bit expensive for the portion size, but considering that this is the only Mexican restaurant for miles and miles, I don’t mind splurging a bit. And I’m relieved to know that ready-to-use bottles of Cholula hot sauce are only a 15 minute stroll away.

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For directions to La Costa, click here.

To see more photos of La Costa’s food, (since that’s the best part about restaurant reviews right?) here’s the link to their Tabelog site.

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The freshest ice cream you can find in Osaka

I am a big fan of ice cream.

I mean, who isn’t, right? And that’s why there are tons of articles on where to find the best ice cream in Osaka – from the creamiest, the healthiest (whatever that means), even the tallest – because everyone in the area wants to know where to find the best scoop or swirl of frozen sweetened cream the region has to offer.

As I scanned lists of the most frequented ice cream shops, I noticed that every single one included a place called ‘Shiroichi.’ So of course, I had to see for myself why this one shop in particular always happened to be featured without fail.

This past weekend, I found an opportunity to take the 45 minute commute out to Shiroichi in Shinsaibashi, a neighborhood in Osaka popular with locals and foreigners alike. Arriving in Shinsaibashi, my friend and I walked along a main street lined with high-end brand name stores, and then meandered through several alleys of pubs and European-themed cafes before arriving at Shiroichi’s front entrance.

I was surprised at how tiny the shop itself is; there’s barely enough room for more than a few people to stand inside. I was glad to have arrived late, since anymore than 5 people waiting to order at a time would’ve led to a line overflowing outside.

Like the size of the shop, the menu is also small. There’s only one type of ice cream – 生アイス, or ‘fresh ice cream’ in English. I don’t even think it has a flavor. You can order a simple serving in cup or a cone for 420 Yen. Though the ice cream is good enough on its own without the help of toppings, there are also several options on the menu that include added ingredients, like coffee, milk, and soybean powder. My friend ordered 珈琲(加糖), or sweetened coffee in English – which is a serving of ice cream with iced cold brew poured over the top.

I had trouble deciding on what to pick for a while, but I ended up opting for the 黒蜜抹茶 (kuromitsu matcha), which came with Matcha powder, a scoop of sweet red bean paste, mochi rice balls, pumpkin seeds, and a drizzle of brown sugar syrup (kuromitsu) over the top. It totaled out to be 680 Yen.

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After my first bite, I could tell why Shiroichi receives such impressive ratings and reviews. According to its website, the store uses only wholesome, all-natural organic ingredients for both its ice cream and its added toppings. And I don’t doubt it – I could really taste the difference in flavor, texture, and quality. Rather than using cream and additives, the shop instead uses nonhomogenized milk with a high milkfat content, which gives the ice cream a much lighter and delicate texture. It wasn’t excessively creamy, and wasn’t too sweet either. All of the components were perfectly balanced, which made for a refreshing, and memorable, treat. 680 Yen is a lot for a serving of ice cream, but I’d say it was well worth the price.

There’s also a Shiroichi in Shibuya, Tokyo, which is a bit farther from me. (By about 7 hours.) But for those who happen to find themselves in Tokyo, I highly recommend stopping by the Shibuya location for a life-changing swirl of the freshest ice cream you’ll ever taste. Though, be warned – you may never be able to go back to generic, store-bought ice cream again.

 

 

Fajitas in Umeda

If you’d told me a month ago that I’d be eating tacos and watching a Mariachi Band in Japan, I wouldn’t have believed you. Yet, that’s exactly how I started out my weekend – at Fiesta Mexicana in the middle of Umeda, Osaka.

Fiesta Mexicana is an annual festival, usually held mid-September, where everyone is welcome to appreciate and enjoy authentic Mexican food, art, and entertainment. It started several years ago and has since become a permanent event, ‘envisioned as an opportunity for citizen-level exchange to deepen friendship between Japan and Mexico.

I arrived at the base of Umeda Sky Building where the festival was taking place around 7:30pm. The festival area was lively and inviting, full of people and energy and the sound of mariachi music playing cheerily in the background.

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I’ve never seen Mariachi performers before, so I have nothing to compare the show too, but I – and my fellow visiters in the crowd – really enjoyed it. While the Mariachi band and the traditional folk dancers made the trip out to the festival worthwhile, my favorite part of the night by far was the food.

While my friends stood in line for burritos, I wandered from booth to booth to see what other meals and appetizers were being served. Most venders were selling tacos and cheese quesadillas, but there were also booths selling pozole, elotes, tamales, tostadas and other popular Mexican dishes.

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Though I had quite a bit of trouble deciding which booth to choose, I eventually decided to order from a stand selling a dinner set for 1000 Yen, which came with chipotle-seasoned chicken thigh straight off a flaming grill, a side of fajitas, pinto beans, and two flour tortillas. And yes, it was just as delicious as it sounds.

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After ordering, my friends and I gathered at a table by the stage, watched a performer sing a ballad in Japanese, sipped on tequila cocktails, and ate our Mexican food with a pair of wooden chopsticks. Multiple times throughout the night, I couldn’t help thinking to myself how peculiar the whole experience was. Though I would never have imagined myself in a situation as strange as that, it’s definitely been one of my favorites so far. If I happen to be in Osaka next September, Fiesta Mexicana is an event I plan on returning to without a doubt – for the ambience, the exceptional performances, and the perfectly grilled chicken.

Where to Find a Whole Cheesecake for 685 Yen

You’ve probably heard a little bit about “Japanese cheesecake.” It’s a huge hit right now – or at least it was a few months ago when I saw an INSIDER YouTube video featuring a dessert stand in Japan selling a special kind of fresh cheesecake, known for its signature jiggle. I’d never seen a cheesecake like that before – I knew I had to try it. So I added the featured dessert stand to my ever-increasing While in Osaka bucket list. And I finally got the chance to cross the destination off the list!

The stand is called Rikuro Ojisan no mise Namba (りくろーおじさんの店 なんば本店), which roughly translates to Mr. Rikuro`s shop in Namba. Rikuro Ojisan is actually a chain, but the INSIDER video happened to feature the Namba location, so of course I had to go to that one. Luckily for me, the commute to Namba from Minoh is pretty straightforward – a train to Umeda, a subway ride to Namba station. And the shop itself is only about a five minute walk from the station`s west exit.

After navigating our way through the district’s hectic streets, lined with shops and restaurants, we arrived. The renowned sweets stand wasn’t difficult to spot, what with the classic red flags stamped with the outline of Rikuro-san’s smiling face marking the front entrance.

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Fortunately, the line out front wasn’t as long as I’d thought it would be. Service was fast, cheesecakes were piling up fresh from the ovens – my friends and I only had to wait our turn for a few minutes at most. There were a wide array of dessert and pastry options besides cheesecake to choose from too, as well as an extensive drink menu, but we decided to stick with just the cheesecake that had lured us all the way there in the first place.

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Rikuro’s 人気No.1 (Most Popular)

Between me and my four friends, we decided to split one cheesecake – which turned out to be way more than enough. (We barely even finished half.) In fact, I bet one could easily feed up to ten people. They’re that big, like the size of my head kind of big. And​ the best part is that one cheesecake – one WHOLE cheesecake – is only 685¥! (About $6.26.) Yeah, I’m serious. No, I don’t get it either.

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The five of us gathered around a tiny table at the stand’s limited seating area. We were given a butter knife, tiny plastic spoons, and plates for sharing. We took the cheesecake out from its box and stared at it and poked it and shook it to see if it actually jiggled. (It did.) After posting obligatory Snapchat videos and taking several close-up shots for Instagram, we were finally ready to slice up the cake and see for ourselves whether its taste was as appetizing as its appearance…

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Sadly, it wasn’t.

To my – and my friends’ -​disappointment, the first bite of Rikuro-san’s cheesecake left much to be desired.

First, the flavor itself was overwhelmingly egg-y. It honestly tasted like scrambled eggs with a dash of sugar mixed in. It also left a strange aftertaste on the back of my tongue that I can’t quite put into words. The texture was alright, but it was a little grainy at first – not smooth, like I’d typically expect cheesecake to be. The addition of raisins also didn’t seem to work all that well either – though, I’m not that big a fan of raisins in general, so I’m probably biased.

On the plus side, the cake wasn’t ​overwhelmingly rich or heavy, so I didn’t feel sick after eating a slice, as is usually the case with a much smaller slice of cheesecakes I’ve had in the States.

Overall, I think the cheesecake’s reasonably low price makes the cake a worthwhile try, but I’m not sure I approve of Rikuro’s twist on this classic dessert…

Maybe I`ll try out the pudding next time instead.