In the West, this might seem like a nice gesture, but in Japan, omiyage is nothing short of an obligation! With its focus on Japanese snacks, the gift not only showcases the specialties of the region visited but also serves as a kind of apology or consolation prize for those who stayed behind to keep everything running.
Omiyage’s importance within Japanese society jumps out as soon as you set foot in the country—if you’ve ever been to Narita or Haneda airport, you’ve no doubt seen lavish multipacks of Japanese snacks and candy on offer in every store you pass. One of the most prominent and eye-catching is Tokyo Banana: a cute, banana-shaped treat sold in brilliant gold boxes that has dominated the region’s omiyage market for over three decades.
First launched in 1991 by Grapestone Co., Tokyo Banana was one of the first local omiyage to use the city’s name. The original variety of the treat, called “Miitsuketa!”, is a banana shaped sponge cake with a light custard filling that incorporates strained banana puree. The sponge is baked and then steamed for the optimal soft, fluffy texture, resulting in a deliciously delicate cake with a creamy, flavorful center. With such a winning combination, it’s no surprise that Tokyo Banana has evolved into one of the most popular Japanese omiyage to date, with around 4 billion yen in yearly sales in 2016. In 2019, the cake was even ranked Tokyo’s favorite souvenir—for the second year in a row!
As is the custom with omiyage, each Tokyo Banana is individually packaged, making them easy to distribute amongst friends. They’re also beautifully wrapped in eye-catching yellow gift boxes featuring Tokyo Banana’s familiar logo, a banana wearing a bow-tie. Most Tokyo Banana offerings come in sets of four, eight, twelve, or even sixteen cakes, so you can be sure there’s enough to go around. Even so, it’s not uncommon to see tourists buying as many as ten boxes at a time!
Like all the best Japanese snacks, Tokyo Banana comes in a variety of different flavors. Over its thirty-year lifespan, the company has released over 20 different varieties, including honey, milk coffee, caramel, and classic chocolate and banana combo. Each year, the line-up of available flavors changes as new varieties are rotated in and older ones retired—introducing a fun element of discovery to this classic banana-shaped treat! What’s more, some varieties, like Tokyo Banana’s honey flavor, can only be found at specific locations; others, like the almond milk cream flavor Tokyo Banana Star, are specific seasonal offerings. Either way, it feels like there’s always some new flavor to get excited about!
Alongside different cream fillings, different varieties of Tokyo Banana also feature new designs, like the maple-flavored Tokyo Banana Heart, where the sponge cake is patterned with pink and brown hearts, or the iconic choco-banana Tokyo Banana Tree, which features leopard spots made of cocoa. Within this year’s range, the honey Tokyo Banana and milk coffee Tokyo Banana Racco opt for cute little character silhouettes: a bear and honeypot design for the honey variety and an adorable sea otter for the milk coffee flavor.
Even cuter are Tokyo Banana’s collaboration varieties, like the Pokemon-themed Pikachu and Eevee sponge cakes launched late last year. The collaboration features six distinct decorative patterns for each Pokemon, depicting either Pikachu or Eevee with a range of different poses and expressions. While the Pikachu variety is purely cosmetic, using Tokyo Banana’s original Miitsuketa! flavor as its base, the Eevee range has a new banana custard cream filling infused with caramel macchiato inspired by Eevee’s luscious brown fur. The collaboration has been made a permanent addition to Tokyo Banana’s specialty store in Tokyo Station, alongside a limited rollout at 7-Eleven convenience stores for Pokemon lovers across Japan.
Although most famous for their banana custard cream sponge cakes, it’s worth noting that Tokyo Banana also sells a number of other Japanese candy and cakes, most riffing off the banana theme. Their range extends to flavored Castella sponge cakes—another classic Japanese wagashi—a so-called “cookie sandwich” with banana chocolate filling between two thin cookie layers, a banana-shaped cheesecake, and—bucking the trend!—a strawberry-shaped sponge cake with a rich strawberry cream filling.
One of the company’s more recent offerings, the Sugar Butter Sand Tree, departs from the fruit theme entirely. As with the cookie sandwich, this treat uses two rectangular biscuits to trap a delicious, white chocolate cream paste within. The biscuits are made of various cereals, sprinkled with sugar and butter, and baked, resulting in a light, crispy texture.
Popular with locals and tourists alike, Tokyo Banana is a classic staple of Japanese snack food and the official omiyage of Tokyo. With its beautiful packaging, adorable designs, and deliciously sweet, soft flavorings, Tokyo Banana makes a great gift and an even better indulgence—just be careful one doesn’t turn into the other!
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