The unveiling of shop shelves studded with Valentine’s merchandise is so swift each year that you’d be forgiven if you were still in the Setsubun isle, or with fukubukuro in one hand, when you stumble upon the gangs of 2016 chocolate. The clever designs and tight collaborative efforts with many a familiar Japanese character, thank you Sanrio and Disney for those, jostle unashamedly for your attention. Somewhere between the Meiji chocolate bars and the Valentines appropriate heart-shaped moulds, I found a treasure chest of Japanese special edition goodness. From Gudetama, Sanrio’s well-received lazy egg character to the cult favourites of The Little Prince and Star Wars, there was very little left to the imagination. If in dire need of creating something with your own two hands, Japan’s chocolatiers have got you sorted with DIY chocolate sets that the kids could manage themselves this year.
It is well known in Japan that Valentines Day chocolates need not end with husbands, lovers or sons, but could extend as far as your office workers as well as between girlfriends. The debate of whether to gift male office workers is still on, with some offices prohibiting the exchange altogether. However, the likelihood that handmade chocolates of some sort, or dare I say a store-bought Tanuki chocolate pot, may very well appear on your desk if you are a Japanese salaryman. This is known as honmei choco. If you are the sort who likes to swap chocolates with your friends and buck the girl-to-guy exchange trend, it is said you gift tomochoco. Thanks to the Japanese system of White Day, men will have a month to return this thoughtful sentiment with a more extravagant ‘thank-you’ gift on March 15th where the onslaught by the confectionary giants emerge yet again to bring you candy gems and all things sugar and spice. Although the thought of what gift would trump a congenial Tanuki with a belly full of chocolate would undoubtably have me stumped.
Let's talk Japanese Valentine's trends in 2016. What chocolates are rocking the shelves this year in Japan is anyone's guess. The choices are endless and the chocolate so variable, but after a scan of the best of 2016 Japanese character chocolates and witnessing the ‘kawaii!’ cries from a handful of Japanese high school girls and housewives sifting through the good, the bad and the ugly of it, I feel qualified if not ready to make a bold declaration of what might kick off in Japan this year. Step aside chocolate DIY toolkit and chocolate body-paint of yesteryear, but Luke Sky Walker’s chocolate wands, white pistachio Yoda and milk salt Storm Trooper bars seems to have the ladies squealing in delight. Another popular choice and which had pride of place in store the store I visited was Gudetama. My heart too was lost in the gimmicky section of handmade chocolate Gudetama moulding sets and the boxed chocolate Japanese Yen and milk chocolate Japanese curry packs where drawing a fair bit of attention. Less popular but still with a cursory shake were the candy pills in life-like medicinal packs and the sake jars, Kirin beer still hold more wow-factor in 2016 than any Wonka bar or chocolate heart could deliver.
Should you find yourself passing through Japan during late January, or early February, don’t forget to pick up some of these Japanese-themed chocolates as souvenirs for your hungry friends and family. Also be sure to check your travel guides for Japanese department store chocolate fairs’ which are often held in the confectionary section on the basement level. My favourite Valentine’s fair to visit is ISETAN’s in Shinjuku, Tokyo which showcases many of the top chocolatiers works in novel shapes and forms. Not all chocolates sold are local brands, but I am a firm supporter of the Japanese brand Mary 1950 which has some be-speckled chocolate slabs encrusted with anything from cranberries to crispy rice puffs and never fail to leave my mouth watering. If you haven’t time to visit Hokkaido during your stay in Japan, really do find a way to eat your body weight in salty chocolate chips from Royce, you will not regret it!