JAPAN - Old-fashioned dagashi-ya penny candy stores that children used to frequent for cheap dagashi confections and the small toys included in some items are making a comeback at shopping centers, appealing to adults who remember them fondly and young people attracted by their old-fashioned atmosphere.
Kenichi Hatsumi, a freelance writer familiar with the life of children in the Showa era (1926-1989), is an expert on dagashi-ya. Now 47, he began going to such stores before he entered kindergarten.
Although dagashi-ya have closed one after another mainly due to the declining number of children, new ones aimed at adults have been opening at shopping centers and elsewhere, according to Hatsumi. He particularly recommends Haikara Yokocho at the Yokohama World Porters shopping facility in Naka Ward, Yokohama. The store sells about 500 types of products, including many dagashi snacks that have been manufactured since around the mid-1950s.
"The store sells toys that remind me of my childhood days, such as an eraser in the shape of a 'super car,'" Hatsumi said. "We can also draw the same type of lots we drew in the past [to win a good toy]. The atmosphere makes me feel like I've wandered into a back alley in an old town."
Asked what dagashi he is particularly attached to, Hatsumi named sosu sembei (crackers seasoned with thick brown sauce), which was sold by many confectionery companies. The standard sosu sembei in Shibuya, Tokyo, where Hatsumi was raised, was recognizable by the red panda illustration on its package and sold by the Isuzu Seika confectionary company.
Hatsumi said as a boy it was a feast for him and other local children to spread Ume Jam (plum jam) sold by the Umenohana Hompo confectionery company on the cracker before eating it.
"It tastes a bit too salty when I eat it now. But it was probably good for us children, since we sweated a lot when playing," he said.
Another popular product is Morocco Yogul, sold by Sanyo Seika. It weighs a little less than six grams and comes in a very small yogurt-like cup. "You can't eat its small contents in a bite. That's the point," Hatsumi said. "Eating it with a small spoon little by little - it made us feel it was a good buy."
Those who get thirsty can try powdered juice that bubbles when the powder is mixed with water in a glass. It disappeared from households in the 1960s, Hatsumi said, but thrives at dagashi-ya stores through the American Cola and Fresh Soda sold by Matsuyama Seika, for example.
Dagashi-ya taught children how to use money and other elements of the grown-up world. It was also a chaotic world that sold fishy products that capitalised on various fads.
"Modern dagashi-ya for adults present that same chaotic, energetic atmosphere to us," Hatsumi said. "It's a place where we can forget about our daily life, which lacks a playful atmosphere, and feel refreshed."
Adults can enjoy alcohol with dagashi at Dagashi Bars - there are four such chain bars in Tokyo. An unlimited amount of dagashi is offered to customers who pay ¥500 (S$5.83), plus tax, for appetizers and order at least one drink.
"Yotchan Ika (a product made of squid) goes well with beer. Chocolate-flavored ones are good for wine and brandy," said Takuya Kuronuma, manager of the chain's Ningyocho outlet.
Toys ever popular
Toys sold at dagashi-ya stores are called dagangu. Some of the toys sold today are almost completely unchanged from decades ago.
Most eye-catching for men is probably the ready-to-assemble aircraft sold by Tsubame Gangu Seisakusho, made of styrene foam and designed to fly with a rubber band. Women especially like the polyballoon, a product from Ishihara Polychemical Kogyo, which lets users make balloons by blowing air through a straw into a small glob of vinyl resin.
Bell Ganka's Pyonpyon Kaeru (Jumping frog) attracts both children and adults, as it comically jumps when air is pumped in through a hand-operated device.