Kiyomi is a former Canadian pharmacist whose curiosity and courage has brought her to a new life in Japan.
One of the fun things about living in Japan is seeing their yearly trends. Sometimes they are years behind, like in vegan food trends, and other times they are the originators, like in their employee-less shops. As we are still in the midst of the pandemic (however, hopefully near the end), some of the trends were born from the new normal we have been forced to live with. I’ll go through some of the current Japanese trends in entertainment, health, fashion and business, but mostly in food because that’s what stands out to me most. Food seems to speak to the whole country’s population, no matter the age or gender.
Last year’s Korean pop (K-pop) trend is still going strong, which is no surprise given how popular the boy group BTS has become is worldwide. With a best-selling album in Japan in 2021 (possibly the first overseas group to achieve this), they are still at the top of the charts this year with no sign of waning. Among the girl groups, Korean pop stars Twice (of which 3 members are Japanese), have been popular since they debuted in Japan in 2017, but are still coming out with hit singles. Although not quite as successful as BTS, they are still loved by K-pop enthusiasts. Twice has also recently made a breakthrough into the worldwide music scene.
The Japanese male group, Naniwa Danshi, who only debuted in November 2021, is also very popular at the moment, reaching the top of the charts with multiple singles. Every member has been making appearances on variety shows, and with their very boyish faces are popular with the high school girls.
The duo group, Yoasobi, also Japanese, has been very popular in the past year and still has several hits in the singles rankings. I often hear their debut song “Yoru ni Kakeru” over all types of media.
The past year’s popular drama was again one that originated in Korea. I’m sure you’ve heard of Ika Ge-mu, also more widely known as Squid Game, and it was just as popular in Japan as it was worldwide.
Every year there are new comedians that have breakthroughs that lead them to appear on TV daily. Lately, all-female groups have been on the rise, and this past year a notable foursome named Borujuku caught their big break.
Casual fashion has been the trend lately, and now, making a not-so-casual look more casual seems to be popular. How is this done? Just throw on a pair of sneakers with any outfit. Perhaps it was COVID that brought this about when people worked more from home and realized how uncomfortable their dress shoes really were.
One thing I’ve noticed (probably because I’m not too fond of this trend), is that lately I’ve often seen young men wearing pants that stop short, above the ankle. I can understand this when it’s summer and paired with some sandals or hidden ankle socks, but in these cases, it was a chilly season and the white socks were shown with intention. Whether it’s casual jeans or suit pants, I’ve seen it.
Environmentally Conscience Clothes
The word “sustainable” has become a trend in itself, and in the world of fashion has been coined “ethical fashion.” It is now popular to make clothes with fabrics that are made from plants such as bamboo (which grows very quickly and easily) or organic cotton, recycled materials like plastic, and upcycled materials like old kimonos. Of course, the term does not only refer to materials, but also the whole process which aims to reduce waste and the burden on the environment. There are many small independent companies that largely focus on providing sustainable fashion.
A widespread affordable chain store in Japan called Aoki came up with this term. They started the trend when people needed comfortable clothes to wear during work Zoom calls. Many jobs in Japan require people to wear suits, so it’s no surprise that these pajama suits, also known as telework or ouchi (home) suits, became popular. They allow one to be comfortable in their clothes at home while also appearing professional and ready to work.
In a culture where so many self-profess they're dieting even if they are considered normal weight, many people in Japan are continuously looking for ways to get to or maintain their ideal weight. These often become part of the new trends.
Dried Tofu noodles
Tofu-kan, also called To-kansu originated in China (where it is known as Dougan) and refers to long strands of dried tofu resembling noodles. They can be used in place of spaghetti in pasta dishes, in Chinese stir-fries, or be used in soups like ramen. They are becoming popular in Japan because of their low carb, high protein traits, and they don’t get soggy so you can take your time eating them when made like ramen.
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Although there aren’t many vegetarians in Japan, the vegan/vegetarian meal trend is on the rise. Once in a while, people want a break from consuming meats, or if they like meat, might want to focus their diet mainly on veggies. Soy meat products have the look, feel, and taste of meat so they are a good alternative. In the West, soy meats have gained a reputation for being ultra-processed and actually not healthy, but in Japan, this doesn't seem to be the case yet.
Oatmeal has been part of a regular diet in the West for so long, but in Japan, recent years have seen a huge rise in sales. Japan’s staple is rice, but increasingly, people are trying to find ways to healthify their beloved rice. While there's been mugi (barley) rice and multi-grain rice, where healthy grains are mixed with white rice before switching on the rice cooker, now people not only mix oatmeal into their rice but eat oatmeal instead of rice, saying that it is just as satisfying. Apparently, there are ways to make rolled oats fluff up like rice in the microwave. You take 30g of oatmeal, mix it with 50ml water, and let it sit for 1 min. Then you pop it in the microwave uncovered for 1 min (at 500-600W). Next, all you have to do is stir, incorporating air to make it fluffy. Using a combination of rolled oats and quick oats (rolled oats that have been slightly pulverized), is supposed to make it a bit closer to the texture of rice. People have shared their successful weight loss journeys using the “oatmeal diet.” I have seen recipes for oatmeal okonomiyaki (it is actually very good), oatmeal risotto, Korean oatmeal pancakes, and anything where rice or flour can be replaced by oatmeal. The way I know how popular oatmeal has become is just by glancing at the cereal shelf at my local grocery store; now I can find 3 or 4 different brands of oatmeal, whereas just a few years ago there was only one option.
Bread might be more popular in Japan than you think. If you’ve ever visited you would know that it can be found anywhere. Japan’s bakeries are unique, housing bread made with endless varieties and combinations of sweet or savoury fillings and toppings. Recently there has been a trend to make bread that is claimed to be more healthy. This is done by lowering the sugars/carbohydrates, and increasing fibre. The gluten-free trend you see in the West has not caught on, probably because the Japanese take pride in the moist and “mochi-mochi” (chewy) texture of their bread (although for those that really can't have gluten there are plenty of rice flour bread options). There are many strategies they use to make healthy and moist bread such as incorporating tofu, bran, whole wheat (but I have yet to find 100 percent whole wheat bread), barley, and replacing sugars with sugar alcohols like erythritol.
Covid definitely hit a lot of businesses hard and many shop owners were forced to come up with ways to improve their sales. Japan has always been well-known for their vending machines, both in numbers and contents, but this year saw a big increase in machines and variety. In some instances, vending machines were not sufficient and many self-serve shops were opened around the country. Another trend is return of the kissaten (old Japanese coffee shop) and has to do with the recent obsession with everything retro.
Although shops and restaurants were not forced to close in Japan during the pandemic, there were caps on the hours of operation (8pm at the latest), and they still did see a drop in customers as many did not want to venture outside their homes too often. Thus there were many original vending machines born. For example, a meat butcher sold frozen wagyu steaks (180g for 2200 yen) and hamburger patties (2 for 1600 yen) in a vacuum sealed pack (giving them a 3 month expiry date) from a vending machine. A yaki-imo, or roasted sweet potato shop made a deal with a country-wide grocery store chain to put a vending machine in many of their stores. It sold different types of sweet potato that could be bought cold or warm (300-500 yen per potato). A Japanese sweets store sold traditional sweets that are popular among the young these days such as warabi mochi and fruit daifuku. Frozen ramen and gyoza have also popped up in vending machines outside ramen shops. Sriracha has just started to gain attention in Japan and now there are several Sriracha vending machines all over Japan. Frozen bread that can be revived in the toaster oven to make it seem freshly baked is another example of a new vending machine. Prepared and packaged curries, edible insects (fried, chocolates, candies, drinks), and Covid test kits are some more interesting examples. Even barbequed unagi (eel), vending machines have been spotted. With touch-pay apps these days, vending machines have been made more convenient than ever.
Self-Serve Shops (Mujin Hanbai)
In another attempt to attract customers during the pandemic, many mujin hanbai or staff-less stores were opened. These decrease the likelihood of having contact with anyone else, and they are often open 24/7. In the past year, 40 mujin hanbai shops were opened in the Aichi prefecture alone. The most common type of shop specializes in gyoza, but there are also shops that sell meat, baniku (horse meat), frozen ramen, canned sweets, vegetables, etc. The thing I find amazing about these shops is that many work on the honor system. You choose your product and because the prices are rounded off it’s easy to drop the fee into a box without needing change. Some that are more high-tech work on a locker system so that when you pay, the corresponding locker opens and you can get your purchase that way.
Kissaten (aka kissa), or Japanese coffee shops have been slowly dying out as owners become elderly, shops become run down, and new modern cafés are replacing them. Although it’s true that many kissaten’s patrons are seniors, or people looking for a quick bite during their work break, recently the trendiness has attracted youth as well. It’s all part of the “retro fever” that is trendy in Japan now, so much so that many new shops are opening up with a purposeful retro feel. Red bench seats, manga and magazine racks, televisions, dark lighting and retro lampshades are just some of the characteristics that may be included. They are operated by younger generations, probably those that remember going to kissa with their grandparents or parents. Not only is the look retro, but often, so is the menu, with items such as melon cream sodas, custard puddings, coffee jellies, and katsu sandwiches.
It seems that Taiwan and South Korea have been having a big influence on food trends in Japan. Every year there are new ones and this year was no different. The winter season always brings about a new Japanese hot pot trend; this year’s correlates with that popular buzzword, sustainability. In the sweets category, although Italy has been a huge contributor to the trends, we can’t leave out the traditional Japanese sweets that seem to be making a comeback.
Tapioca drinks (the Japanese name for bubble tea), as well as the light and airy Taiwanese castella cake are still quite popular, but this year also saw the addition of Taiwanese hot pot, the gigantic fried da-ji-pai, and a rich savoury dish called ru-ro-han in Japan.
Hot pot is eaten regularly in Japan especially during the winter months, but the Japanese version is often cooked in a large clay pot (donabe), tends to be milder, uses seafood, chicken or pork, and is enjoyed in the home as a family meal. For the Taiwanese hot pot, most will search out a restaurant that serves it, and these days, it’s not difficult to find one. Lamb has become a lot more popular throughout Japan so one of the trendy Taiwanese hot pots involves dipping thin slices of lamb. The other feature is that often times, the pot is divided into two sections so that you can enjoy two different broths at one time. A frequently ordered broth is the mala. It’s a hot and spicy, bright red broth combining Sichaun pepper, chili and other spices. As a side note, the mala flavour is so big now, you might be able to find it in potato chips, fried chicken, meat-filled buns, rice crackers and even canned fish.
Da-ji-pai, is said to have come from the Taiwanese night markets. It is fried chicken that is bigger than the size of an adult’s face. Every shop has its own recipe but it is usually made by flattening a chicken breast, may be seasoned with spices such as five spice powder, garlic, soy sauce, and might have tapioca flour in the batter. I’m sure some of the trendiness comes from the sheer size and impact it has when posted on Instagram.
Ru-ro-han (Lu Rou Fan or braised pork belly) is a dish where pork belly is sliced into small pieces and cooked in a soy sauce-based, sweet and savoury sauce with accents of star anise. It’s reduced until it is thick and sticky, making it perfect for ladling over a bowl of steamed white rice.
Korean foods are still popular including the tounkaron (fat macaron), and the trend of adding melted cheese to traditional dishes, but the newest trend was made obvious by the number of specialty stores that opened up around the country. This is the year of the Korean fried chicken boom. One of the reasons for its popularity is the hugely watched Korean Drama “Ai no Fujichaku” (a.k.a “Crash Landing on You”) in 2020. The restaurant that appeared in it was BBQ Olive Chicken Café, and as the name suggests, their chicken is fried in olive oil which is said to make it super crispy. Right now they are operating about 20 shops in Japan. Other Korean fried chicken shops promote not only chicken but also the large variety of sauces and toppings to go with them. Another reason why these stores have taken off is that fried chicken is great for delivery, especially during Covid.
The next Korean trend that seems to be on the rise is chadorubakki (the Japanese way for saying chadol baegi), which is a BBQ staple in Korea. Paper-thin slices of beef brisket are put on the grill and are then wrapped with lettuce along with fillings such as kimchi and egg.
While California Rolls have never really taken off in Japan, the Korean kinpa (or gimbap) rolls have been popping up a lot more in grocery and convenience stores everywhere. The year 2020 is actually when we started to see kinpa shops, but they have become even more popular lately. Part of the kinpa trend also includes making them at home. With not being able to leave the house much during the pandemic, and with people wanting to share everything on social media, DIY kinpa seems to be perfect for both situations. Although it looks similar to the Japanese futomaki, the salt and sesame oil seasoned rice is a good base to go with almost any filling. Leftovers can be used up and given a twist just by making it into a kinpa roll. Putting cheese into them also seems to be a delicious trend. One can get so creative with them.
A popular trend on social media that is slowly making its way to shops and bakeries is the Korean manurupan. Supposedly something that is easy to find in food stalls in South Korea, this bread is a version of garlic bread. A round bread roll is slit with a criss cross from above, filled with a sweetened cream cheese, dunked in garlic butter, topped with more cheese and then baked until the cheese becomes creamy and soft. This one probably won’t make the healthy bread cut.
When I visited Seoul in 2019, I came back with honey butter almonds because they were being sold everywhere and it seemed like a good souvenir. Now this honey butter flavour is so popular in Japan you can find it anywhere. It's not only on almonds, but other varieties of nuts, on potato chips, popcorn, corn puff snacks, crackers and so on, and may even be mixed with other flavours. Similar products of multiple brands can also be found.
Hot Pot Trends
Nabe, as explained before, is a popular dish to both order in restaurants and to cook at home. Every year there are new trends and this year one of them is the marugoto hot pot, meaning “whole”. Ingredients are added just as they are, without chopping, such as a whole chicken, whole tomatoes, etc. One place where the idea of this nabe came from is that trendy word again, “sustainable". When ingredients are used whole it can reduce food waste. In addition, to make the nabe even more environmentally friendly, parts of veggies and fish that are leftover from preparation of other meals can be used to make nice broths.
The other trend is the rich broth hot pot. Think of the soup you get when you order a good bowl of ramen. It may be cloudy from pork or chicken bones, may have miso, but it is never watered down and usually tastes pretty concentrated, enough to impart a lot of flavour to the noodles. This trend probably is not the healthiest, but it also comes from the sustainable movement to prevent food loss. The rich broth in these nabe are so packed with umami they can be enjoyed until the last drop. This is not done by simply drinking it, but by adding the “shime”, which is rice or noodles, when all you have left of the hot pot is the broth.
Truffle Flavoured Everything
So many restaurants are using truffle or truffle oil to season their dishes now. It's not only used in sauces for pastas and steaks, I've seen it in hamburgers, as accents for sushi, various donburi (rice bowls), in ramen, omuraisu (omlette and rice dish) and sandwiches. Truffle sauces, salts, oils and dressings can be found in regular grocery stores. Unless you're eating a dish covered in slices of truffle, many of these products are affordable. You can even find truffle flavoured snacks in the convenient stores such as nuts, instant ramen, popcorn, cheese, crackers, rice crackers and potato chips.
As I mentioned previously, bakeries are quite popular in Japan. The newest trend seems to be cube bread. It’s not a new concept but this year these small, personal-sized cubes are being made cuter and more photogenic than ever. Each bread has 8 corners, and who doesn’t like to bite into corners? They can be filled in abundance with any sweet or savoury concoction, from sweet bean pastes, creams and custards to curries, stews, and cheese.
There is no question that the number one food trend in the past year was the Maritozzo. It can be found everywhere, in convenience stores, bakeries and grocery stores. Maritozzo originated in Italy and is a brioche bun filled with so much cream that it looks like Pac-Man eating a huge dollop of cream (which also makes it very Instagram-worthy). The Japanese have turned it into something of their own, using different types of buns and different flavours of creams, but where ever you buy them from, the cream always looks like it is bursting out.
Another Italian sweet, although it hasn’t reached the level of trendiness as the Maritozzo, is Cassata. In Italy there seems to be different versions, but in Japan it's usually a frozen ricotta and cream cheese cream cake topped with dried fruit and nuts.
Some people are predicting that the “next Maritozzo” will be Sfogliatella, the crispy multi-layered pastry with a sweet ricotta cheese filling, a signature of Napoli. I sure hope this one becomes popular!
A reoccurring theme this year is sweets with lots and lots of cream. An old Japanese snack has been revamped and is considered trendy again. I talked about it in my 2020 Trends article, but it is still popular. Although it looks like dessert, I won’t call it that because I don’t get the sense that the Japanese consider it a dessert. It’s more of something you may have for a snack, or even in place of a light lunch. The fruits sando (what the Japanese call it) is comprised of whipped cream and fruit sandwiched between two pieces of white bread. It works because Japanese sandwich bread is sweet and moist with lots of added milk, and margarine or butter. The newest trendy fruits sando are bulging with cream and the fruits are placed in a such a way that when cut in half you get a pretty cross section perfect for Instagram. One trend is to keep the fruits as whole as possible (or at least in large pieces), and another is to strategically place the fruits to reveal a flower image when the sandwich is sliced in half.
This is a drink that was associated with Japanese coffee shops and cafés, especially the older ones. It used to be that when you ordered a cream soda it would be a bright green, melon flavoured soda with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a cherry on top. Why is it that it has become trendy again? One reason is that it coincides with another trend mentioned previously, the retro kissa boom where nostalgic menu items from old Japanese coffee shops are wanted by people looking to experience them again. For the youngsters, the new cream soda trend is all about how pretty they look. Cream soda shops and cafés have found ways to make cream sodas look pretty, with colour gradients, edible flowers, or nicely cut fruits placed carefully inside the cups or on top of the ice cream to produce a decorative drink. Just imagine a soda that starts with a light purple hue on the bottom, gradually turns clear in the middle and then becomes bright blue on top. Wouldn’t that make a great photo for social media especially when paired with a sunset or other breathtaking scene in the background?
Yaki-imo, or sweet potato that has been roasted at a low temperature for several hours, is an old time favourite for many. It is so soft and sweet that you’d think sugar has been added when in actuality the long roasting process is what has caused the potato’s sugars to become syrup-like. Previously they could be bought from small places such as festival food stalls, a loud and musical yaki-imo truck around the neighbourhood much like an ice cream truck in the West, or in grocery stores. Recently, many new yaki-imo stores have opened up throughout the country. They sell all different varieties of sweet potatoes, each with a different flavour and texture profile. Many of them also come up with their own desserts and snacks using sweet potatoes such as chips, ice creams, pastes for a cakes and creams, muffins, etc.
This is a traditional Japanese sweet made by pounding a mix of steamed white rice and mochi rice, rolling it into a ball and coating it with a layer of sweet red bean paste. For a while it was known as a sweet that only the older people liked as young people steered towards new or Western sweets, but recently there has been a movement to try to bring ohagi back and it’s working. Shops that specialize in making ohagi are quite popular now. They are taking the traditional ohagi to new levels with flavours besides anko (red bean paste),such as rose+lychee, lemon+red bean, miso+soba and matcha+seaweed to name a few. Originally ohagi can be quite large in size (you’d only eat one per serving), but these new ones are small enough that you can try more than one flavour at one time; tea/snack time just got more interesting!
This trend is yet another one that came about because of the pandemic. A patisserie had the idea to sell their cakes and parfaits 24/7 using a vending machine. In clear can-shaped containers with a peel-off aluminum can top, they carefully layered fruits, cakes and creams. It’s cute and is perfect for photos for Instagram, so the idea took off and now you can find these canned cakes in every big city. Some shops don’t even put them in a vending machine, but sell them in-shop because of how popular they are.
It’s not a huge trend yet, but there is lots of buzz around this very sweet delicacy. In the past couple of years pistachio has been very popular in Japan. There have been pistachio pastries, ice creams, sweets and even pistachio drinks. The newest popular pistachio item might just be the baklava, layers of thin filo pastry lined with lots of butter and a crushed pistachio filling. The baked product is soaked with a super sweet syrup. We’ll see how far this trend goes in Japan, or if they will somehow make it less sweet to cater to the tastes of the Japanese.
Although this year will likely be another your trip to Japan will be postponed, I hope this article gave you a taste of what you may have seen. It’s amazing how some of the ideas and trends adopted are because of the pandemic, but I sure hope this year will be the last of it!