Inside Pulse 12

Diehard GameFAN Presents: The Snack Box Review – Japan Crate’s Premium Crate, Round Two

For those who missed it, back in January I opted to take a look at the two largest providers of what are essentially random boxes full of Japanese Snacks, in Skoshbox and Japan Crate. Well, Japan Crate has been treating their product as something of a work-in-progress, trying to make good use of the fanbase to figure out what people want, and after polling its audience, the company opted to shift the contents of its boxes around a bit. With the new and improved Japan Crate having just debuted this month, the company reached out to us to see if we’d be interested in giving the new redesigned Japan Crate a review, and since I’ve generally been fairly happy with the service, I was happy to oblige. If nothing else, it’d be good to discuss what’s changed with how Japan Crate packs its boxes, and further, Japan Crate really does provide a good service, one I’m generally always interested in talking about.

For those who didn’t catch the review from last time, and didn’t click the link at the top, Japan Crate is a subscription service that provides subscribers with a crate, monthly, that specifically tries to focus on offering up Japanese candies of various sorts. This particular review looks at the Premium Crate, which is the largest of the lot, and includes two pounds of candy products, as well as a drink, so you can get the best possible sample of Japanese candy out there. Japan Crate, as a service, offers three tiers for customers to subscribe to, based on how much candy they think they’ll want in a month; they offer the Mini-box for $12 a month, which comes with 4-6 full sized candies, the Original for $25 a month, which comes with about 8-10 candies, and the Premium for $30 a month, which comes with 12-14 candies and a drink of some sort. The box contents are set monthly, and the website helpfully tracks how long you have until you’re no longer able to subscribe for a particular month, so if you’re on the fence, you’ll know how long you have to decide before a specific month’s crate is no longer available. With that in mind, let’s take a look at June’s Premium Crate and see what’s what.

Here’s the box in all its glory; the outside is decorated with the Japan Crate logo, as you can see, and the box is a bright, dynamic red, so it’s quite unmistakable. This design hasn’t changed in the six months I’ve been subscribed to the service, and given how dynamic and bold it is, I don’t blame the company for keeping it.

The inside of the crate. This isn’t as noticeable here, but there’s also some vaguely Japanese artwork along the inside of the crate, and in addition to the candy and such we’re going to talk about here, it also comes with a manga page (shown at the top) which explains new developments and contests from the company, while the other side outlines what you’re getting in your crate this month. It’s pretty well organized, and you’re given a full explanation of everything you got for the month up-front so you’re not left to guess what anything is before you eat it. This much hasn’t changed in the past six months, and it’s another reason I like the service as much as I do.

Here’s our first big difference from the last time we reviewed the Japan Crate: instead of coming with just a drink, after surveying their customers, they’ve opted to also include a Japanese novelty of some sort in the package. Skoshbox also started doing this thing recently, though in the case of the Skoshbox you have to pay an extra fee, and you might get literally anything, from chopsticks to duster mitts to white-out (seriously). Japan Crate’s first foray into this concept, on the other hand, skips the “here’s some novelties from Japan” concept and goes straight to “TOYS!” with the inclusion of a random Totoro figure (out of ten), and it’s probably a better choice so far. Totoro is a character people can probably recognize if they’re buying a box of Japanese snacks, and the idea of including random gashapon figures in the box is probably a better one, if only because it’s easier to figure out what I’m going to do with a Totoro figure than, say, a hedgehog dusting mitt.

The drink this time around is called “Kawaii Ramune,” and true to its name, it’s pretty cute, between its smaller size when compared to traditional Ramune and the colorful characters on the label. The flavor is that of traditional Ramune (that is, lemon-lime soda), and it’s always tasty. If you’re new to Japanese drinks, it’s a better choice than some prior offerings (Ginseng Ramune comes to mind), and honestly, it’s a good choice for the new and improved Japan Crate’s first outing.

The other significant change that’s been made to the contents of the Japan Crate on a monthly basis is a reduction on the DIY kits included in the box; while prior months have had three or four at a time, this month’s box only has two (specifically, one in the “Original” size and one in the “Premium” size), and to be honest, I’m glad the Japan Crate community voted to reduce the amount of DIY kits, because I am terrible at making them and usually just give them away. The first DIY kit this time around is a really basic one, thankfully, called “Magic Bubble Jelly DIY,” and its gimmick is pretty simple: add water to change the color and consistency of the candy, then eat it. Japanese grape candy tends to taste a lot more “real” than many US candies, and this one was no exception; while I feel like I messed it up, it still tasted pretty good, so it’s not a bad offering all in all.

The candy on the right is called “Happy Paws Gummy,” and it’s essentially peach gummies shaped like kitty paws. You might think it’s one giant gummy from the shape and size of the package (I did, anyway) but it’s actually a package of small gummies, which makes them easy to share and enjoy in small doses. I generally don’t care much for gummies, but Japanese gummies have a different texture from US gummies, which makes them a bit more palatable for me personally, and the peach flavor is very subdued and just a little tart, which makes it pleasant and interesting.

Here we come to the last two items that are exclusive to the Premium box, and this is where the first problems with the experience come up. First up is “Chocolate Banana Pocky,” which should be at least vaguely familiar to anyone who likes Japanese culture. Pocky, in case you’re in the dark, is a Japanese snack where a biscuit stick is covered in a candy coating, and Japan sells an extensive variety of flavors of them. I’ve tried a few flavors that have been pretty interesting, between personal investigations and through Japan Crate, but this time around I balked a bit. Artificial banana flavoring tends to be one of my least favorite candy types, and as it turned out, this was no exception; the chocolate part is fine for a bit, but the banana part overwhelms it rapidly, and it’s honestly not something I’d ever need to eat again. J. Rose seemed to enjoy them well enough, though, so if you like banana candies you’ll probably enjoy this, and if you don’t, hey, this is something to share.

The item on the right is one you’ve probably heard about before: Green Tea Kit Kat. Japan loves their specialty flavors of Kit Kat, and the Green Tea flavor is one that’s become something of a semi-popular flavor in the US (so much so that I’ve seen it three other times in other boxes). It’s great, is the point here, but one thing that came up now that hasn’t come up prior is that, due to the seasonal change, the Kit Kat was almost completely melted. It might be of benefit to lay off of the chocolate or other candies that are more likely to melt for a few months, at least until summer passes, or else there will probably be a few more months of melted candies in people’s shipments.

Moving onto the contents of the Original size package, first up we have Chock Kinako Mochi DIY, the other DIY kit in the pack, and it’s also a water-requiring package, though it’s a little bit less of one. Basically you add water to the white discs to turn them into mush, then mix them up with the chocolate and dip, and eat. As DIY kits go, it’s pretty uncomplicated, and it tastes pretty good all in all, so it’s not a bad way to introduce people to the art of DIY before putting fish-shaping packages into their box.

The other pack is Kirby Blend-Blend Mix Gum, which is the first of several gum packs in this month’s box. Kirby apparently has a lot of candy in Japan, as this is the third time I’ve seen him on a candy pack in six months, but his products are actually pretty good so it’s always welcome. This time around is no exception; the package contains small gumballs that are different flavors, and you can mix the gumballs to get the flavor you want. The gum is pretty tasty and makes nice bubbles once you’ve got about three or four pieces together (because I’m a ten year old), and really, that’s all I want from my bubble gum, so high marks here.

Of the last two items that are part of the Original pack, the first is Pejoy Matcha Green Tea (Matcha is the common green tea flavor you’ll see in Japanese candy). Pejoy is, as the package says, “Pocky’s Friend,” and since we’re on the subject, let’s break this down a bit.

Glico makes three kinds of snack sticks that you’ll see a few times in these snack boxes, alongside some competing products. Pocky is candy-coated cracker sticks (see also Meiji’s Fran), Pejoy is hollow crackers with candy filling (see also Lotte’s Toppo) and Pretz is just flavored cracker sticks (and I’ve never seen anyone else do this, so far). I’ve seen four of the five in various different boxes over the past six months, so if you’ve ever been curious as to what these are, or you decide to sign up (and you really should), that should help you know what’s in the box before you open it. Good? Good.

This particular Pejoy is, as noted, Green Tea flavor, and it’s actually quite good. I’ve tried the Green Tea Pocky in the past and wasn’t impressed, but the Pejoy version is more subdued, and the cracker and green tea flavors mix well together. I’d recommend it over the Pocky listed above, if nothing else, and if you find that Pocky is a bit too sugary for you, Pejoy might not be a bad substitute if you still want candy somewhere in there.

The other item here is called, and I swear I’m not making this up, “Talking Puppy Chocolate.” The candy itself is fine; it’s essentially Japan’s answer to a Nestle Crunch, meaning that the chocolate has a different taste and texture, and the crunchies are a little smaller, but otherwise it’s a good product if you like Crunch bars. There’s a gimmick to this, however; each package comes with a card inside of a puppy with a black speech bubble over its head, and putting your finger over the bubble for a few seconds warms up the bubble enough to show the “speech” underneath. I can’t read kanji, alas, but I’m sure it’s very cute. That said, this was the other major victim of product melting due to the season, and while it was still edible, it needed to sit in the fridge for a good two hours to get to that point, so, again, I’m hopeful that future boxes will lay off the melty foods for a couple months.

Finally we come to the contents of the Mini box, and this is honestly a really interesting assortment of stuff. First up, we have Ramune Marble Gum, and as the name implies, it’s a bag full of small gumballs that taste like Ramune soda. As with the Kirby gum above, the gum is tasty and makes for easy bubbles after a couple gumballs, making it a good product all around. It’s a little more sugary than the Ramune soda, having both here for easy comparison, but it’s also not carbonated, and since Ramune soda is fairly heavy on the carbonation, it’s a good alternative for those who like Ramune flavor, but not the burping that comes with drinking it.

The other item is a White Chocolate Big Bar Z, and as with most Big Bar Z products, it’s essentially a large cookie wafer; think of it as a Kit Kat with no chocolate on it that’s about the size of a banana and you have the right idea. Big Bar Z seems like a food that’s good for a quick fill-up or sugar rush, rather than a food that you’re meant to really savor and enjoy, and this one is no different: it tastes like vanilla, basically, and it’s unexciting, but it’s a good quick snack that’s pretty good at giving you a quick boost. Honestly, all of the Big Bar Z’s I’ve seen so far (about three) have been this way, and it’s a fine novelty, but you likely won’t want to buy a bunch for yourself or anything.

Coming up to the final three items in the box, first up we get one of the odd instances where Japan Crate has opted to include not a candy, but a snack food; this happens every once in a while, and while candy enthusiasts might be bummed out, the contrast is interesting, especially since snack foods can often be even weirder than the candy. Case in point, this month’s snack food is “Snow Pea Chips,” which is literally a snack chip shaped and flavored like snow peas. It’s surprisingly tasty if you can get past the oddity of the product, and while I wouldn’t expect that it’d be for everyone, I found the taste to be quite enjoyable, especially given how off-the-wall the concept is.

The second product, marked by the dude holding his finger in the air, is called Little Gang Grape, and as you’d guess, it’s a grape bubble gum. What you might not guess is that it’s essentially a Pop Rocks style product as well; when you pour some of the gum into your mouth, it fizzes a bit and crunches like Pop Rocks before breaking down into grape chewing gum. As chewing gum goes, it’s essentially a one-and-done product, in that you basically need to use the whole pouch to get a decent amount of gum, but it’s interesting, if nothing else, and tastes pretty good, so it’s not a bad pick.

The final product, Red Potion/Black Potion, is another chewing gum, this time with the descriptor that it’ll show you how you chew gum because it’s the sort of gum that stains your tongue. Insofar as the staining goes, I didn’t honestly notice, but it’s a cola-flavored gum (which is a lot more common in Japan than in the US for some reason), and it’s quite tasty and functional as a chewing gum. There’s a bit much of it, given that it’s not resealable like the gumballs, but that aside it’s a fun enough novelty, and most Japanese cola gums taste pretty good, so high marks overall.

Japan Crate still hasn’t gotten their store up and running, though you can find most of what they provide through Asian Food Grocer if you’re so inclined. The company has been dealing with shortages and shipment issues, due to some sort of tariff problems (from what I’ve gathered) that they’ve only recently sorted out, so they may well get that storefront online one of these days. Here’s hoping.

Overall, I like the new changes Japan Crate has made to their boxes, and if you were leery of subscribing, I’d say it’s worthwhile to give it another look. The new novelty pack-in they’re offering is a neat idea, and it’s sure to be a fun thing for those of you out there who like to collect the odd Japanese knick-knacks, since you’ll get a new one each month. Further, for those who, like me, couldn’t really appreciate the high volume of DIY kits the box came with each month, Japan Crate has reduced the overall volume of them that are packed in per month, which means more straight-up candy and snacks, making for an easier to appreciate experience. I really do hope that the company takes it to heart that the warmer months are going to melt some of their offerings and lays off the melty snacks for a couple months until the weather cools off a bit, but beyond that, all of the changes that Japan Crate has made have generally been for the better. If you’re even a little bit curious about Japanese snack food, there’s no better time to give Japan Crate a shot, and I strongly recommend it; the company listens to its customers, generally chooses good snacks each month, and gives you a lot of candy for your buck that you won’t see anywhere else.