Kiyomi is a former Canadian pharmacist who is now living in Japan, where she enjoys being immersed in her Japanese roots.
In this past year, we saw former trends continue, resurface or become even more popular than the previous year. For example, although fruit sandwiches have been around for a while, with a little tweaking, they have once again become something to line up for. Tapioca drinks are continuing to draw in crowds of young people, and new shokupan specialty shops are still opening around town.
Of course, there are new trends as well, not only in the food category but also in entertainment, fashion and in health. Read on to find out what they are!
1. The Entertainment World
With all the hype over the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo this year, you can expect to see and hear anything related to it. One of those might be the song “Paprika” sung by a group called Foorin made up of children.
The song was specifically produced as part of an Olympic support project in 2018. In the past year, it has gained popularity all around Japan, over all age groups, and can be heard several times throughout the day on television or playing over the speakers in public places. I suspect it will stay this way until at least the Olympics are over.
This trend probably applies all over the world as it is an internet trend, similar to the Instagram trend (which is still going strong in Japan). Tik Tok is a social media network that makes creating, adding music, editing and sharing videos simple. Some people, similar to other popular social media networks such as YouTube, have made their fame starting from this app.
These are also called oto fechi, or sound fetish videos in Japan and are popular most among the highschool students and younger generations. ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, and the purpose of these videos, which you can find on YouTube, is to relax and calm the listener.
Although there is a video component, the main attraction is the sound. It's almost as if super sensitive microphones are used when filming these so that every crunch, drip, crack, pop, etc is heard.
For example, a video might merely show someone opening up and eating a bag of chips. The sound of the rustling bag and the first crunch of the chip in the mouth is all that’s heard. Or you might see ice being placed in a glass, water poured over and stirred. The “ping” sound of the ice hitting the glass and the sound of ice cubes coming in contact with each other may make some people feel calmer, similar to how a running river is often mixed with classical music for the same effect.
These shoes for women are sold at GU stores all over Japan. For those of you that haven’t heard of it, GU is the sister shop of the famous Uniqlo, but is even more affordable than the already reasonable chain.
The reason why marshmallow pumps became such a hit is that they come in all different styles, colours, designs, and most of all, they are comfortable due to the extra padding around the heels, toes and soles. Some are waterproof, but all are relatively affordable (about 25 USD per pair).
If you've ever seen somebody dressed in a traditional kimono, you may have noticed that the socks they wear separate the big toe from the rest of the toes. This makes it easier to slip on the zo-ri, the traditional footwear (which became flip-flops in the West). Tabi boots, shaped like the socks, came later.
There are several types and designs, one of which was worn as far back as the soldiers during wartime. Now they are mostly worn at festivals, or by workers such as farmers and gardeners. They are comfortable, durable and low cost.
Recently the boots have evolved into Tabi shoes, a new item of fashion which appears to be more popular with women as casual trendy footwear. They are being met with mixed reviews however, some saying they look like animal hooves.
Workman Store Fashion
It used to be that the Japanese were known for wearing high-end brands, or outrageous designs and new styles that would at times start new trends in the fashion world. Now, it seems that more and more people are leaning towards affordable prices and comfortable wear. Workman Store is the name of a chain store fitting into this category and thus has become a popular place to shop.
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Originally known as a store to support people who do hands-on labour work, such as construction workers, gardeners, those working outdoors or people needing extra protective clothing, it has grown a lot in the past year drawing in anyone, even without a particular need for protective outerwear. They have a large selection of casual, indoor and outdoor comfort clothes that are in-style, good quality and affordable.
Although this has been widely available in Western countries for quite some time now, it never really took off in Japan (aside from the Buddhist monks). People loved their fish and ate meat in small portions compared to the West. In recent years, the younger generation has made the consumption of meat skyrocket.
However, the Japanese do like to try new things and it seems like the vegetarian scene is getting more popular, just like the term “gluten-free” has become more commonly seen now. It’s not that they are turning vegetarian, but once in a while would like to balance a meat-heavy meal with a vegetarian one the next day. Others may feel that they do not eat enough veggies, or would sometimes like a veggie-centered meal (especially women).
There are more and more small independent restaurants focusing on vegetarian meals, often using tofu or soy products as a meat substitute. It may have something to do with the upcoming Olympics and the want to accommodate the vegetarians who come from all over the world to watch, but even convenience stores are now preparing to sell vegetarian products.
Fasting for Dieting (Danjiki)
While intermittent fasting has gained a lot of attention in the West, it hasn’t really caught on very much in Japan (perhaps because half the shows on TV feature people eating delicious-looking food, but that’s another topic for another day!).
The Puchi Danjiki (mini fasting) also known as the Ichinichi Danjiki (one-day fasting) diet is on the rise. This is where one day of the week is chosen to consume only liquids. Smoothies are allowed in place of meals, but only water, tea, or coffee is consumed at other times throughout the day. Then the next day’s breakfast and lunch consist of easy-on-the-stomach meals such as okayu (rice porridge), miso or tofu and soy-milk soups. Dinner can be eaten without restriction, but you may not want to shock your stomach and indulge in something as heavy as fried chicken.
The appeal of this diet seems to be a quick way to lose a few kilograms, but the people who recommend it don’t really talk about using it to lose more than that. For a lot of Japanese, a couple of kilograms may be enough; many women who say they’d like to diet are not even close to being obese and their goal is to lose only a little around the waist and thighs.
The Handy Fan
Summers seem to be getting hotter and hotter in Japan. With the high humidity, at the peak of the season there are many days where it will feel like it’s over 40 degrees celsius. This is why carrying around paper or cloth fans is so common here (the foldable and the ‘uchiwa’ style fans).
This past summer, there was a surge in the number of people using what is now known as the Handy Fan. It’s a mini version of a standing electric fan with a blade propeller. They are battery operated and are small enough to fit into a purse or small carry bag. I too fell victim to buying one and I’m so glad that I did. They really do cool you down faster than fanning yourself with paper.
The last couple of years have seen Korean food trends to be quite popular in Japan, however this past year I feel like Vietnamese food has come into the scene. There is the already famous Vietnamese noodle soup, Pho, and becoming more well-known this past year, Banh Mi (the sandwich using bread that takes origin from the French baguette).
The Japanese have already surpassed the cilantro boom, so it has already been established that there are many people who like this quite strong herb (in Japan you can find cilantro salads and mounds of cilantro in soups, way more than the typical usage as a garnish). It is fitting that both Pho and Banh Mi—which usually contain this herb—are becoming more and more prevalent. Also, the softness of the Vietnamese baguette may be more preferable to many Japanese compared to a harder baguette.
Known in the West as Bubble Tea or Boba, Tapioca drinks have once again become a huge hit in Japan. For a bit it looked like cheese tea was taking the reign, but in the end bubble tea came out on top.
It was first introduced years ago, except this time these drinks have a new and improved image that the Japanese have fallen for and for the past couple of years and which has kept this trend going.
The pearls have gotten chewier, and sweeter, some with different flavours such as kurozato (a type of brown sugar), and fruit. The young have even created a new verb—“tapiru”—meaning to go out and get a tapioca drink.
This may seem a little weird to those who have never been to Japan, but it is essentially fruit and whipped cream sandwiched between two pieces of white bread. Yes, sandwich bread, not cake. It makes a little more sense though if you’ve ever had Japanese sandwich bread which is denser, moister, and sweeter than that of the US or Canada. They achieve this by using more milk or cream, and margarine or butter. It actually goes well with fruits and sweetened cream. They also cut the crusts off so they look more like cakes. Fruit sandwiches have been around in Japan for a very long time, apparently ever since the Taisho period. And for years, they’ve been able to be purchased easily at grocery and convenience stores. However starting last year fruits sando (what they are called in Japanese) have been gaining in popularity again. The now sought after variety is often made by specialty fruit parlors that use top of the class fruits and big chunks of it, or even the whole fruit itself. They contain tokusei (specially made) whipped cream and/or custards, and use white bread that is either housemade or provided by a renowned bakery. I don’t know if I’d call it a dessert as it does not seem to be eaten as a dessert here. It seems to be more of a midday snack or breakfast item. Regardless, people are lining up in the morning before stores open their doors for business, and are willing to dish out a bit more money for these new gourmet fruits sandos.
Lemonade and Banana Juice
Lemonade became popular after the tapioca drinks did, and it was predicted that lemonade was going to be the next trendy drink. It actually never did surpass the bubble teas, but you will still see several lemonade stores around Japan.
I feel like banana juice has become even trendier than lemonade, but that could be because I’ve noticed it popping up on a lot of café menus. While banana juice is essentially just banana blended with milk, some specialty shops have searched far and wide for the right variety of banana, experimented with different storage methods, and found the perfect brand of milk to use. Some banana juices are more like milkshakes with ice cream, and others combine added ingredients such as chocolate or berries.
Hakkou Nabe (Fermented Foods Hot Pot)
Fermented foods have been quite popular in the last few years for all their health properties; amazake, shio koji and natto, to name a few. Every year there is a new trend for nabe or hot pot restaurants. This year’s trend is to add fermented foods to the broths, or to use them as toppings for the hot pot.
In addition to the ingredients just mentioned, you’ll also see cheese, miso, sake kasu (a by-product of the sake-making process), and kimchi. Along with vegetables and some meat or seafood, these hot pots are not only warming but are supposed to be good for you.
Although some of the benefits of the fermented foods are lost when heated, it seems that they retain a positive effect by providing the good gut bacteria with energy to thrive on.
The Japanese have always been very fond of curry. Although they have their own style of curry, you can also find many Indian or Nepalese restaurants around the country.
The newest type of curry to become popular in Japan is called "spice curry". It is basically curry that is made with a mix of several types of pungent spices (in addition to the mild ones), and is different from other curries because those spices give it a stronger aromatic flavour. It may be said that spice curry is actually more authentic compared to the first curries that were milder and more suited to the Japanese palate at the time.
One good place to look for the newest sweets trends in Japan are convenience stores. All of the chains are continuously trying to come up with new products, and you know if the products are doing well when they go viral on SNS, are mentioned on TV programs, or are continuously doing well on the shelves for an extended period of time.
The latest product stemmed from the Lawson group called the Baschee. That’s short for Basque-style cheesecake. It’s dense like a New York cheesecake, but is baked until the top is essentially burnt to the point where it is a dark brown colour and adds a touch of bitterness.
Not only have other convenience stores come out with their own versions of this cheesecake, there are also a handful Basque Cheesecake specialty stores around the country now.
Shokupan Specialty Stores
This trend, like the tapioca drinks, is one that is continuing strong from the previous year. Shokupan is basically a loaf of sandwich bread. The Japanese shokupan, as I mentioned earlier about the white bread, is very different compared to the kind you find in the West.
New stores that focus their sales solely on one or two types of shokupan are still opening around the country. These specialty shops claim to use selected domestic ingredients, and they put in a lot of time, trial and error to come up with their signature recipe.
The loaves can be at least 5 times more expensive than a regular loaf from the grocery store, but they are that popular and delicious that people will line up before baking times to get their hands on one for themselves or to be bought as small gifts. This year some shops are even making loaves called bidanmen where the sliced surface of the bread reveals a picture or design made with different colours of dough in the loaf!
Another reason why shokupan is so popular is that to-suto (toast) is trendy to make. Shokupan isn't just used for sandwiches and regular buttered toast, it's used as a base for almost any topping. To-suto is a thick slice of shokupan topped with things like bacon, ham, kimchi, pizza sauce, natto, eggs, mayonnaise or cheese, and put into a toaster oven. It's a great way to make a quick, light meal, and there are endless flavours and combinations.
It used to be that for special occasions, and especially Christmas, a whole cake was needed to help complete the celebration. However, the trend seems to have gone towards individual-sized cakes. This way, you can have a variety of options for everyone to choose.
The little cakes are cuter, and for the smaller families, there’s no worry about having to eat leftover cake for the next few days. One more important point this day in age is that the mini cakes make a great photo for Instagram.
6. Retro Stuff
In Japan, when you say retro, it usually refers to things from the Showa period. Retro games, café’s and foods are said to be “natsukashii”, meaning they bring about feelings of nostalgia. It seems to be a trend to now create new products to reflect the Showa era. One such popular item is the mini arcade game; it is exactly how it sounds, you can play Pac Man or Space Invaders on an arcade machine that is small enough to be placed on your coffee table.
Many of the old kissaten (Japanese coffee houses) don’t need to renovate because they already have a distinct Showa look that many customers are comfortable in. New cafe's are trying to recreate the old retro cafe look.
Retro pudding seems to be making a comeback. While the Japanese for years have enjoyed the soft, creamy and light puddings, the firmer showa puddings are becoming more desired these days. Also known as katame pudding, these ones retain their shape even while out of the mold.
Lastly, I’d like to mention some products that I wouldn’t say are hugely popular now, but over the past few years I’ve noticed the prevalence of them to be slowly on the rise. I’d say they have the potential for becoming a popular trend. The first is pulled pork. I’ve seen it on menus of several restaurants trying to recreate American-style dishes. The pork, flavoured mostly with BBQ sauce is often put between burger buns or toasted sliced bread.
Another potential trend is a pastry from France called a canelé. They look like mini bite-sized bundt cakes without the hole in the centre and are made with lots of eggs giving them a custard-like flavour. It is denser and more moist than an egg bread. These sweets are usually flavoured with vanilla and rum, but in Japan, there are canelé specialty shops that make a variety of flavours, including Japanese inspired ones such as matcha.
I have also seen a rise in boardgame cafés, where you can sip on a cup of coffee or tea while playing a game from the shop’s large selection of boardgames, both old and new, that are complete with easy-to-understand instructions.
Taiwanese sweets have often been popular in Japan, as you can see by the bubble tea and Taiwanese shaved ice desserts. The newest one making a presence is douhua, a tofu pudding commonly topped with sweet adzuki beans, mung beans and ginger syrup.
Another sweet that I’ve seen more is Ruby Chocolate, the relatively new variety of chocolate that is pink by nature. Many Japanese chocolatiers are using it to produce new chocolate truffles in order to lure in the customers. You may even catch convenience stores selling ruby chocolate products once in a while.
If you’re coming to Japan this year for travel or for the Olympics, look out for some of these trends. If it’s hot, buy yourself a cooling handy fan! I guarantee you won’t be out of place with one.