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Chocolate in Japan: From Valentine's Day Sweets to Flavored Treats

February 6, 2017

For those with a sweet tooth, Japan is a dream destination when it comes to chocolate. Whether you go to department stores to sample fine, artisanal chocolate, or head out to the nearest convenience store to choose from an array of delectable confections, there is certainly no shortage of the flavorful confectionary. Find out why chocolate is so popular in Japan.

Valentine's Day: The Art of Giving Chocolate

Valentine’s Day in Japan goes hand in hand with chocolate: giving, receiving and eating it is an important aspect of the holiday. However, according to the Japanese tradition, women are the ones offering the chocolate to men: generally, women can give chocolate to confess their feelings for a particular person, or simply offer it as a present to their significant other. But this is where things get interesting: not only are women giving the chocolate, but they’re also encouraged to give chocolate to men with whom they’re in platonic relationships with, including co-workers, bosses and male friends. All those types of gifts have different names depending on whom they give the chocolate to, which may be confusing for visitors to Japan! Here is a list of some types of chocolate gifts:

  • Honmei choco: literally means “true feelings chocolate” and is usually given to those the giver has genuine feelings for. It is often given to husbands, boyfriends and prospective romantic partners. Honmei choco is usually high quality, more expensive chocolate. Homemade chocolate is also a popular option, as it takes time and effort.
  • Giri choco: the “obligation chocolate” refers to the relatively inexpensive chocolate given to classmates, casual acquaintances and work colleagues - in other words, people the giver isn't romantically involved with. While giving giri choco is a bit of a duty, it can also express grateful feelings. No serious preparations are required, and some chocolate brands even sell assortments of giri choco for easy distribution.
  • Tomo choco: “tomo” is short for “tomodachi”, which means friend. As the name indicates, this type of chocolate is given to friends, usually female. It's a chance to share nice (often) homemade chocolates and enjoy them together.
  • Jibun choco: meaning “self chocolate”. This kind is the chocolate people buy or even make for themselves, and it's growing in popularity in recent years. Some often spend a lot of money to treat themselves to delicious chocolate!

While it may seem like a lot of work for women to remember to give chocolate to all the different people in their daily lives, there is a silver lining. It comes exactly a month later, on March 14th, also known as White Day in Japan, when men reciprocate. In general, men who received chocolate, even giri choco, give back chocolate or a gift - in line with the Japanese tradition of giving back a gift when receiving one.

Chocolate, Chocolate Everywhere!

Starting in early January, shortly after the New Year festivities, department stores, supermarkets and convenience stores start displaying Valentine’s Day-themed chocolate. Many department stores open special areas dedicated to chocolate, and offer a vast selection from all around the world, in various flavors. Hordes of shoppers crowding the sweets floor can be expected on the days leading up to the holiday, and queues can be quite long, so it’s best to get an early start. Regardless, it can be an interesting experience to be a part of this chocolate-related frenzy!

For those who choose the DIY path, variety stores and 100 yen shops (the equivalent of dollar stores) offer an array of tools and accessories to make your own chocolate, complete with heart-shaped molds, stickers, tape, sprinkles and other decorations to create kawaii (cute) packaging. Visitors to Japan usually marvel at the overwhelming options available, and it’s easy to get carried away, so watch your wallet! Needless to say, February is a great month in Japan for chocolate lovers.

The Rising Popularity of Chocolate in Japan

With all the popularity of chocolate in Japan, it can be surprising to find out that it’s a relatively recent occurrence. The Japanese chocolate industry boomed in the Meiji period (1868-1912), one whole century after it did in Europe. Back then, chocolate was viewed as a stylish and high-end sweet. After going through many technical improvements, Japan became a leading country in the chocolate industry. It now ranks 5th in the world in annual production.

Japanese chocolate has developed in its own way, boasting unique local flavors such as matcha (green tea) and kinako (roasted soybean flour). Some brands even experiment with seasonal flavors, such as sakura (cherry blossom flowers) for spring and even regional twists to match certain prefectures’ delicacies. They make for fun gifts and are popular souvenirs for tourists. Personally, I never go back home to Canada without a heavy supply of matcha-flavored chocolates, a favorite of many of my friends!

From Bean To Bar

"Bean to Bar", where a chocolate manufacturer begins by stocking and selecting the cacao "bean" and sees it through the entire process to the finished "bar", has become a popular concept in the industry worldwide. The interest in Bean to Bar has grown rapidly in Japan over the last few years, resulting in a proliferation of chocolate specialty shops. One of the pioneering shops is Minimal, which opened in December 2014, in Shibuya, Tokyo. Takatsugu Yamashita, the owner of the shop, says they make chocolate that reflects the Japanese identity.

Q. How is the “Japanese identity” reflected in your chocolate making?

When I had the idea of opening a specialty chocolate shop, I thought, what if re-imagining chocolate with Japanese concepts, made by Japanese, could change chocolate into something new? Then I came upon the idea to "make the most of your ingredients" which takes after a concept in Japanese cuisine. I believe Western cuisine is created by layering many different tastes, whereas utilizing the inherent taste of the ingredients is important in Japanese cuisine. I wanted to take this ethos, each fine ingredient from a different region, cooked to bring out its best qualities, and apply it to Bean to Bar chocolate making.

Q. How do you apply the "make the most of your ingredients" concept to chocolate making?

Our chocolate is made with only cacao and sugar - no other ingredients or flavoring agents are added. It is all about how we can bring out the best in the cacao bean's fragrance and taste. For instance, we have some chocolates using cacao beans from Vietnam. Vietnamese cacao beans were considered not the best quality because of their acidity. Trying to make the regular nutty-tasting chocolate with this acidity was a problem. The process of removing this acidity left the chocolate with an unsatisfactory taste. But we came up with a way to "make the most of our ingredients", bringing out the best in this Vietnamese bean and its unique acidity, through fermentation and grinding. As a result, we were able to represent a chocolate by transforming the acidic taste of the beans into a fruity, berry-like flavor.

Q. Do different techniques of fermentation and grinding change the taste of chocolate drastically?

Fermentation of the cacao beans is an important factor in determining the taste of chocolate. Japan has many fermented products, such as sake and miso. We are working together with fermentation research professionals, and exploring the best processes to bring out the fragrance and taste of cacao beans. Also, each year we actually visit cacao farms all around the world, and teach them the best fermentation techniques for their beans.

The grinding technique affects the taste, too. Traditional chocolate is thought to be best when it’s smooth and melts in your mouth, but ours has a crunchy texture, due to the fine particle residue from the cacao beans. There is a fragrance component in a cacao bean particle. When you grind the beans finely, it creates oxidation and heat which burns out the fragrance. To be able to enjoy the bean's fresh fragrance, we purposely grind it to leave a crunchy feel.

We choose the best method for each bean’s characteristics. The idea of "make the most of your ingredients" applies to fermentation, grinding technique, and every step of our chocolate making.

Minimal -Bean to Bar Chocolate-
Address: 2-1-9 Tomigaya, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
Tel: +81-3-6322-9998

Text: Vivian Morelli

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