(EDITOR’S NOTE: Snackivanting highlights popular snack brands in other countries.)
I am writing this while sitting on a plane hurtling toward the United States from Tokyo. Below me, in the cargo hold, is a large suitcase with a neon pink name tag. Inside is a stack of boxes containing rows of small yellow cakes, individually wrapped in cellophane. No, not Twinkies. They’re Tokyo Bananas, the iconic food souvenir of Tokyo.
Japan has a tradition of gift-giving called omiyage, travel souvenirs given to friends, family, or co-workers back at home. The most popular are food gifts. If you’ve ever brought a box of salt water taffy from the beach to the folks at the office, you have given omiyage.
Omiyage is so common (and required) in Japanese culture that every airport and large train station has at least one store selling a range of food gifts – anything from regional-food-flavored Kit Kats to boxes of candy or cakes meticulously wrapped in thick paper decorated with colorful flowers and patterns. I am hypnotized by their beauty and frozen with indecision at the endless options. Omiyage are often unique to the city or prefecture they’re sold in, so you may not see them at the next stop in your journey.
One food gift stands out from the rest, in my opinion (I’m not the only one, judging by their popularity) – Tokyo Bananas. On my first trip to Tokyo in 2014, I kept seeing kiosks selling them, each with a line of customers that made me walk right past. Finally, I gave in to curiosity and bought a single cake. I was all aboard the obsession train.
WHAT ARE TOKYO BANANAS?
Tokyo Banana’s sponge cake is fluffy, delicate, and moist (stop the hate for this word – it’s cake-appropriate), and the banana custard cream filling is silky and obviously made with real bananas. That’s all there is to it, but the final product is greater than the sum of its parts. Tokyo Bananas are alt-reality Twinkies – refined, authentic, and with an imminent expiration date (more on that later).
Tokyo Bananas were introduced in 1991 and are the official omiyage of Tokyo. (It’s unclear who sanctions this title, but I’ll accept it at face value.) They were reportedly the first omiyage to feature their city in the name. They’ve grown in popularity, and seasonal and limited edition flavors have been added to the lineup, including lemon, caramel, yogurt, maple, sakura, coffee milk, and chocolate. Each sports a different pattern baked into the cakes, like zebra stripes, giraffe and leopard spots, otters, bears, and flowers. A new gluten-free version made with rice flour is a new addition.
Tokyo Banana has also collaborated to create Mickey Mouse-themed Tokyo Bananas (which were available at Tokyo Disneyland), along with Doraemon, Minions, and Pokemon characters. They’ve also spun-off into different food mediums. There are Tokyo Banana cookies, pastries, cheesecakes, Kit Kats, and last year McDonald’s Japan released Tokyo-Banana-flavored soft-serve waffle cones.
The COVID pandemic of 2020 and resulting travel restrictions put a major dent in Banana-business, so for the first time, they were rolled out in shops across the nation.
TOKYO BANANA WORLD
In December 2022, Tokyo Banana World opened – a flagship store in Tokyo Station, a major train hub with a large shopping area. One month later, I was there, stocking up on boxes of my beloved cakes, ogling the related cookies and pastries, and dodging thick crowds of people doing the same on their way to catch subways and bullet trains (shinkansen). The placement of the checkouts and line of customers made it difficult to move across the store, but I was dedicated.
I’d heard the store also had two treats that could only be purchased at that location (approx. $2.50 USD each). Both are hot, freshly-made doughnuts. (STOP IT.)
The first was a savory product briefly released in 2002 – Legendary Curry Bread, which is basically a savory doughnut filled with beef, pork, onions, heavy cream, and banana puree. Curry bread is a favorite Japanese food, but bananas aren’t usually on the ingredient list. Sorry, I didn’t try this one, mostly because we’d just eaten lunch and I was firmly in dessert mode.
The second store-exclusive – the Cream and Red Bean Paste Doughnut – was based on Japanese an-doughnuts with the addition of – you guessed it – banana. The one I ate, heated up to molten magma temperatures, was the most exquisite pain I’ve ever experienced. The outer shell was crunchy thanks to a fiantine coating, which I believe is a Japanese translation of feuilletine, crumbled dry crepes. The dough under the fiantine was soft but maintained its structure (I can’t abide baked goods that turn back to dough the moment you touch them).
Inside, the red bean paste hit me first…and scorched off a layer of palate skin. Now, red bean paste – I’m split on this staple of Asian desserts. Over time, I’ve grown to love the sweeter preparations of it, but I’m not always a fan of the more earthy versions. This doughnut had possibly the best red bean paste I’ve ever tasted. It was moderately sweet and had great flavor, but once the gorgeous milky banana cream registered, the red bean settled into an equal partnership. I barely croaked out, “It’s…so…hot…” before going in for another bite. They’re going on my list of best doughnuts in the world, right below Britt’s beachside doughnuts in North Carolina.
After wolfing down the fresh doughnut, I filled a shopping basket with eight (yes) Tokyo Banana boxes and headed home to New York.
HOW TO BUY TOKYO BANANA IN THE US?
I discovered in the past year that there are now (unofficial) ways of getting Tokyo Banana in the US. Yamibuy, a large online purveyor of Asian foods and other products, hosts third-party sellers who will ship Tokyo Banana boxes to my (and possibly your) eager hands, with a couple of caveats.
First, they cost a lot more. A box of eight original-flavor Tokyo Banana cost me ¥1,166 Japanese yen in Tokyo (approx $8.96 USD at current rates). The same box through 3rd party sellers on Yamibuy is $21.00 USD plus shipping. The other caveat is shelf life. Expiration dates printed on the box run about 1-2 weeks from the date of purchase. 3rd-party purchases are likely going to be nearly at or past the expiration dates, which isn’t recommended. But I have eaten many TBs well past the expiration dates (sometimes more than a month), and they were still tasty. Not quite like the ones I just hauled home from the source, but not bad! (Desperate junk foodies resort to desperate measures.)
Some vendors sell via Amazon, but in my experience, those have been even more expensive and more of an expiration date gamble. Check local shops that sell Asian snacks and sweets, as well. Sometimes they pop up there. And, of course, strong-arm anyone who’s going to Japan into bringing you back some from their travels.
And I live in hope that someday, I’ll be able to hop over to Grand Central and buy a box of Tokyo’s signature treat.