All the rumours about Tokyo being expensive are true, especially when it comes to entertainment. Unlike London, where museums are free (or practically so) and student discounts are as common as Burberry prints on chavs, Tokyo scores pretty poorly on affordable cultural activities. Even as a student, it’s not uncommon to shell out 1000 yen and upwards for an art exhibition. Student prices for a concert? Free entry to a jazz club? Absurd! (I rarely went, but I find myself sometimes wistfully thinking about Ronnie Scott’s free entry for uni students after 11pm.)
Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t find cheap entertainment in Tokyo. Exploring the various districts in this metropolis alone makes for great adventures that cost you only transportation fees – assuming you’re good (unlike me) and refrain from buying food and other nonsense.
I’m also rather partial to indulging my sadistic streak from time to time, and when the opportunity arose a few weeks ago… it turns out that some of the best entertainment in this city can be had for a mere 200 yen.
Enter takoyaki (octopus balls) caramels. Yes, you read that right. This is supposedly an Osaka limited edition candy, but I picked a box of these babies up at a Village Vanguard. If you’ve never visited one, know that they are basically chain bookstores with a Donki Hote-esque twist. They sell books, yes, but also all kinds of nonsense you never knew you needed or wanted, complete with handwritten annotations by the staff on most of the products. Toys, washi tape, instant Japanese curry (flavours included clam and ‘over-18’), CDs, masks, mugs… and at the Koenji store, at least, takoyaki caramels.
These were next to the cash register, along with other flavours – there were the usual suspects like milk and strawberry, but also matcha (which was delicious) and ‘Genghis Khan’. I should have gotten a pack of the latter flavour too, in the interest of journalistic integrity, but got distracted by the takoyaki because octopus ball flavour in a candy? Though if you can have bacon in desserts, I guess takoyaki flavour isn’t all that outlandish by extension. (For the record, most Japanese people find it really weird too, so this isn’t something that is necessarily proof of Japan’s ‘weirdness’.
Maybe just Osaka.)
But what does it taste like?
It’s, well, bizarre. Whoever concocted this managed to nail the flavours of takoyaki here. The whole package is very disconcerting – initially, you have a normal sweetness and the characteristic chew of a caramel. But keep going and you start tasting the sauce they slather all over takoyaki. Then, the benishoga (pickled red ginger) suddenly emerges, melding with the sauce – and all the while you have a chewy caramel and not a crunchy-soft octopus ball in your mouth. I mean, it really is just rather weird and kind of hilarious. Like that picture above, where this dude at the Sanjo festival in Asakusa decided to moon me when I was looking for photo ops.
But hang on a minute, you say. You’re eating this – surely this is masochistic rather than sadistic? Ah, but there are 18 caramels in a box. Ergo, we are now left with 17 more pieces to feed other unsuspecting souls.
Most of them were initially amazed or grossed out, but usually couldn’t help being curious and ate a piece. I derive great amusement from watching people react to ‘strange’ foods, so this was possibly the best investment I’d made all week. “Oh my god this is so weird”, “oh my god it tastes like takoyaki oh my god benishoga” and “it’s bad, but it’s not as bad as I expected” was the general consensus from the tastings.
The prize for funniest and most extreme reaction, however, goes to Momma V, whose curiosity (“Takoyaki caramel?!? I have to try this!”) left her with a bad taste in her mouth. Since pictures tell a better story than I do, here is a record of her reaction to the candy that day.
“Hm, it’s not so bad.”
“Oh my god.”
“What is this??!!”
“That’s disgusting! Ugh!”
“Yuck! Yuck!! Demon spawn!” (Okay, she didn’t actually say that… but she may as well have.)
As you can imagine, I was howling with laughter the entire time. When you’re in Tokyo, who needs an expensive concert when you have a box of takoyaki caramel?