canned coffee field reports

little tokyo, los angeles, california

little tokyo is perhaps the preeminent bastion of japanese culture in america, as the largest japantown in the country (although there are not a whole lot of them to begin with). you would expect, as a result, that japan's most ingenious packaged beverage innovation would be amply represented within, which is why i snuck away from the job that brought me within LA's gravitational well to see what i could plunder in terms of canned coffee. i'd been there once before, many years ago, but that was back before i embarked on this foolish quest to consume and collect canned coffee so i really had no idea what the "scene" was like there. it was, in a word, a wasteland. grim, dismal. grismal. across four different stores (nijiya market, marukai market [which i strongly suspect is a subsidiary of japan's eclectic/eccentric/extensive discount retailer don quijote], daiso, and some supermarket calling itself "little tokyo market place" that gave off vague korean vibes), i was able to scrounge together a mere four new cans. in comparison, a random h-mart i went to because it happened to be near an in-n-out burger we stopped at had three. i guess i could be getting to the point where the collection is so large that it's difficult to find new cans, but each store had only three or four varieties to choose from as well. i guess the fact that i was still able to get at least one new can at each is pretty decent, all things considered. but i am beginning to think that the ebisu life store can never be topped, that that is where i peaked... (in canned coffee collecting)

"ebisu life store", flushing, queens, new york city

twenty-four hours before ending up in New Yizzle City (as the locals call it), i was shambling delirious through the Desert of the Real gazing at portal ruins (please interpret this as literally as you can). this spirit quest/ordeal came to an abrupt end when a good friend/business partner/former minecraft archnemesis of mine offered a way out: a last-minute invitation to work a gig in new york city, all travel expenses paid. all i had to do was beeline it across the mountains to the nearest major airport to make the flight.

i had been to new york city once before, in fact together with that very same good friend/business partner/former minecraft arch-nemesis. it was during winter break in 2019, the last trip i took before covid, one of those manic shoestring “trips of all time”. to give a taste, here’s how it started: red eye flight into JFK on which i didn’t sleep a wink, immediately riding the train into downtown around 5 am, trying to find the right bus at the port authority bus terminal (possibly the world’s largest and most intimidating bus station) to the extremely questionable but cheap hotel we booked in new jersey, getting off at the wrong stop and walking five miles fearing for my life through north bergen new jersey early in the morning to arrive at the howard “hojo” johnson hotel dug into the side of a ridge facing away from new york city towards an extremely busy narrow road and dismal industrial area. after i arrived we went right into the city and walked from wall street to central park, and that night i slept for something like 14 hours. good times.

here is a picture from wikipedia that captures the general vibe because all the ones i took were no goodthis time around, i arrived very late at new york city’s much-maligned laguardia airport and took the midnight shuttle to the airport hotel i was booked at. but the next morning, when i stepped out onto the street to get my bearings, i realized a horrible mistake had been made: i wasn’t in new york at all! i wasn’t even in america anymore! evidently i had been kidnapped and taken to china! cramped dense buildings plastered in chaotic colorful signage covered in chinese characters, hole in the wall shops and restaurants, sidewalks with hordes of asian people, not a word of english heard on the street, traffic honking, construction, delivery dudes zipping by on scooters, street vendors hawking herbs and phone cases, protestors decrying unspeakable distant crimes accompanied by voices on tinny speakers, a panoply of fishy odors issuing from supermarkets and restaurants, the sound of low-flying jet aircraft passing over every couple minutes. but then: an iconic blue NYPD car passes by, the shop squeezed between the herb merchant and supermarket selling odoriferous fish is actually Dunkin and over there is a Popeyes, and those stairs leading into the ground can only be the distinct entrance to the NYC subway. this is new york city’s flushing chinatown, apparently now the world’s largest. there are chinatowns in a lot of big US cities, but many of them are now just fossilized remnants that have become tourist destinations, the former foreign populations now long since integrated. flushing chinatown has no fancy ornamental gates or tourists; it’s a living, breathing, modern chinatown, where thousands of fresh chinese immigrants live, work, and play. it’s a fascinating place, as if part of a modern chinese city was copypasted right into new york.

ethnography aside, i instantly recognized this as a prime opportunity to go hunt for some canned coffee. when we had some free time in the morning, i dragged my friend/etc. off to go search the streets. mostly we went into the myriad small supermarkets sprinkled about, the kinds of places where i’ve had luck before. but i guess canned coffee isn’t that popular yet with the chinese, because while there were plenty of bizarre beverages to be found in them, none of them seemed to be coffee. then, headed back towards the hotel, my friend (who was hunting for pokemon plushes) ducked into a store that seemed unusually neat and tidy for the area. this was the “ebisu life store”, which seems to be a a sort of japanese lifestyle store targeted at the chinese. along the walls inside, they had a bunch of big light-up signs advertising various noteworthy japanese brands they carried, and right there near the front of the store i spotted the immortal UCC coffee logo. i turned to my left and beheld a shelf bearing the most exquisite selection of canned coffee i have ever seen in the US.

i would have fallen to my knees in awe if i hadn’t been too busy grabbing a shopping basket and shoveling in as many cans as i thought i could afford/carry. they had something like over twenty different varieties, all japanese imports, and only ONE of which i had seen before. it was a veritable bonanza, like being in the canned coffee aisle at japanese supermarket or convenience store, and this expedition is sure to live on in legend. not sure how i'm going to top this one...

uwajimaya village seattle

i had high hopes for this expedition because i’m pretty sure this is supposed to be uwajimaya’s flagship store, located in the asian concession just south of downtown seattle (labelled more formally on google maps as the “seattle chinatown-international district”). the name bears the rustic, whimsical appellation of “village” but really it’s more of a “complex”: a city block-sized shopping center topped with a couple floors of apartments. the anchor tenant (a fancy term for “by far the largest and most important store”) is of course the uwajimaya supermarket, but there’s also a chase bank and a “food hall” in the back containing a lineup of restaurants. oddly, none of the restaurants in the hall seem to serve japanese food, besides a few dedicated to japanese deserts like taiyaki. in one corner there's a fairly large kinokuniya bookstore, a common partner-in-crime for japanese supermarkets in the US. the kinokuniya had a respectable selection of japanese manga running in a long row across the front wall, just to the left of the entrance. i appreciated how they relegated the english-translated manga to a cramped corner in an upper loft area with a low ceiling.

inside uwajimaya proper, there was a line of beverage fridges running along one of the back walls, and i immediately made a beeline for the one labelled "coffee”. it was mostly empty and so dismal that i didn’t even bother taking a picture. they had the staples like the most common UCC products and a few stranded pokka cans left in the back, but of course i already have all of those. the only saving grace was that i spotted a couple huge cans of asahi wonda black near the bottom, which i haven’t seen anywhere yet. this always seems to be an issue with uwajimaya, never having anything in stock.

as i resigned myself to leaving with just one new find, i turned around and spotted some shelves with unrefrigerated beverages, and one unit on the end seemed to be dedicated to coffee. although the shelves still had a lot of holes where products were out of stock, the overall selection was a lot more robust than the fridge. for starters, the bottom shelf had a full lineup of those vile little “mr brown” coffees that come in like a dozen different acrid artificial flavors. they are always in stock at every store i go to in search of canned coffee, probably because no one ever buys them. joining them as well was a good quantity of ito en “island coffee” from hawaii, which improves somewhat on the mr brown formula by watering it down and consequently serving it up in a larger can.

i led with the bad, so now here’s the good. they had some rarer classics like the legendary boss BLACK or the boss rainbow mountain blend, but unfortunately i already have those. however, there was a good selection of coffee that i haven’t seen before: “PEAK 3X strength coffee” in a tall stiff can, a pokka-sapporo black coffee in a can with a large screw-on lid (similar to the relax cocoa by the same company that i picked up at hmart chicago) and a dydo “demitasse” in a little blue can. then there was something really wild: “frizz coffee”, a CARBONATED espresso drink imported from italy. it came in a bunch of little glass soda bottles containing dark liquid like it was coca-cola or something, but luckily they also had a canned variant. it brings to mind the short-lived coffee-flavored “coca-cola blak” that i dimly recall from my childhood. it's interesting to me how uwajimaya will stock whacky stuff like that while still drawing the line at stocking korean canned coffees. i don't think i've ever seen a korean canned coffee at a japanese supermarket, but hmart on the other hand will sell you a full lineup of UCC plus rarer japanese canned coffees.

oh, and at uwajimaya that day they were doing a promotional event for the japanese sports drink “pocari sweat”, which enjoys a robust reputation among anglophones thanks to the namei feel as though it's ok to discuss because pocari sweat also comes in a canned variant. i have a full one in my room but i'm afraid to drink it because it's something like six years old now. after all, it’s a slightly cloudy transparent drink with a hint of salt in it that has "sweat" in the name, it will never not be funny. maybe they should have cut the name down to just “pocari” for sale abroad (like how “calpis soda” was renamed “calpico”), but the meme factor alone probably accounts for a good proportion of sales. i also have to admit that their logo looks quite aesthetic, something about that particular shade of blue hits just right.

usually they lean heavily on the “science” in order to sell pocari sweat, branding it as an “ion supply drink” and bombarding you with graphs and charts about how it's the optimal hydration formulation blah blah blah. i find it funny that it’s even made by a pharma company, otsuka pharmaceutical co., ltd. (which also makes the iconic CalorieMate bars). in the US, however, they seem to have a good idea of who their most loyal audience might be, because in addition to emphasizing all the usual science stuff, they also picked up hatsune miku as a mascot. they had a bunch of cardboard standees and banners with miku in a pocari-themed outfit, with the slogan “nechusho no no!” (nechusho = 熱中症 = heatstroke). there was even a photo area where you could take a picture with a miku cosplayer, although unfortunately not dressed in the pocari outfit. they had promotional pocari goods too of course: if you bought a six-pack of pocari you could choose between a pocari sweat athletic towel or a pocari miku drawstring bag, and if you bought a case of pocari (24 half liter bottles for like $50), you could choose between a beautiful pocari sweat 1 liter thermos or a big pocari miku tote bag.

i would like to say a few words in my defense beforehand: i am a very serious player of the korean dance game pump it up, during which hydration is very important. i have been stealing little gatorades from my brother for the past couple of weeks that he intended on using for some diet he never carried through with, however they are almost out so i’m going to have to find something new. additionally, i’ve been having a lot of issues with sweat dripping down my face while playing, something which a towel could definitely help with. and did i mention before that the pocari sweat name is funny and the logo looks aesthetic? while i do admit that when i first tried pocari sweat on my first trip to japan i wasn’t a big fan of the taste, it has grown on me since then.

so i ended up picking up not only the six pack of pocari sweat, but also the full case of 24 in order to get both the towel and the thermos. the staff were so impressed by my commitment that they threw in the pocari miku drawstring bag as well. naturally i also went in and took a picture with miku while holding the pocari case. now i am basically going to be a brand ambassador for pocari sweat when i play pump it up. i guess miku and i finally have something in common.

hmart chicago

hmart chicago is just a few blocks west of the sears willis tower, nestled into the corner of a huge highway interchange. in fact i'd spotted its modest sign from said interchange before, scarcely believing that there could be an hmart there of all places. but now i finally had an opportunity to visit it, blending in poorly with the hip urban office workers on lunch break from their jobs at trendy companies in nearby towers.

i was a bit apprehensive at first about the selection, since it was by far the smallest hmart i've been to. it was also the newest, with slick and shiny modern interior design catering to the hip urbanites. a big difference from the decaying behemoths i was used to, although even so they managed to pack shelves high and tight along with retaining many hmart staples everyone knows and loves like a few tanks filled with live seafood.

as i probed the store for the drinks cooler, i passed some staff stocking shelves speaking spanish. this caught me off guard because the hmart back home is staffed and frequented almost exclusively by koreans. it is a korean supermarket, after all. but at this hmart it seemed like every employee there was hispanic, except for an old korean dude at the register in one of the food court restaurants. i peeked behind him and saw that he was taking the orders back to a trio of suspiciously latin-looking lads in the kitchen. there didn't seem to be any korean customers either, and i wondered briefly if perhaps this modern mini-hmart was some kind of cynical ploy to extract money from hip urbanites who, as we all know, are always keen to spend money on novelty ethnic foods. the real hmart, meanwhile, would be hidden somewhere way out in the suburbs, and that's where all the chicago koreans hang out while laughing about how easily they bamboozled the hip urbanites.

in any case, as long as they had a good canned coffee selection at this hmart, i couldn't complain. capping off the back end of the first aisle of shelves, there it was: a big drink cooler labelled "coffee and drinks". my, what an exquisite selection.

on the left, nestled between rows of kombucha and other barely-potable fluid concoctions, a full shelf of cantata, including a magnificent BLUE cantata can containing cold brew that i have yet to see anywhere else.

on the right, a line of maxim t.o.p to complete the lineup of korean canned coffee offerings. up above, a taiwanese selection, with a couple mr. browns (mysteriously omnipresent despite their acrid artifical taste) along with some far more promising options. then, a modest japanese section, including the small but iconic boss coffee BLACK, a staple in japan but quite rare over here.

overall, there's probably no better place to go if you're a canned coffee connoisseur cruising central chicago. i left quite satisfied, carrying six new cans which you'll be able to see soon over on the can collection page.