Say it with Pocky

For a long time, KitKat has been marketing itself as a kind of lucky chocolate. February and March are the season for university entrance examinations in Japan and KitKat has used a play on words to imply that pairing your study time with its chocolate bars will bring certain success: kitto katsu, 屹度勝つ, you will undoubtedly win, or gain victory. You can see how this would appeal to an anxious high school senior, munching away on sustaining sugary snacks while they study for potentially the most important exams of their life.

In recent years there has been less pressure on high school students; with the declining birthrate there are fewer students, and the exam hell imprinted on the imaginations of people in the West is not necessarily an accurate portrayal of what every high school student goes through. Universities need to fill their places and in the autumn there is a system of early admission which assures many students of a place. Of course, the ones who want to go to prestigious universities and other students who have not yet secured a place still face the exam hell of February and March.

In past years I have seen combination packs of KitKats and a matching mug for sale in convenience stores, but this year I haven’t seen any. KitKat has moved into other auspicious times of the year; the post office sells specially-packaged bars with the animal of the next year on the box and an ‘otoshidama’ (お年玉) envelope for New Year money attached to the back.

With such rich pickings to be had in the auspicious chocolate market, if only you can carve your own niche, it’s really a wonder that it has taken Glico this long to market its Pocky varieties as more than just ‘stick to fun’. Of course, there are the many seasonal and regional variations, but until now Glico hasn’t messed with the Pocky name itself. But this spring, Glico has introduced a range of ten different named boxes, all with an eye to the Valentine chocolate market and beyond.

I don’t know how long these special boxes will be available, and not all the boxes have the special names. To find the originally-named boxes you have to poke along the shelf and past the regular boxes. Your reward will be the boxes below. Beneath each special name is a short phrase clarifying the message. Not all Pocky varieties have these special boxes, it’s confined to five varieties; the original red-box Pocky, thin Pocky, almond crush Pocky, heart-shaped strawberry Pocky and ‘adult milk’ (?) Pocky.

And now, with a drum roll, please, I’ll present these ten wonders, in reverse order, according to their awesomeness, having set myself up as the Pocky Authority:

#10: Okaecy

Okaecy

This is my least favourite. ‘Okaeshi’ (お返し) means a return gift, something you give to someone  after they have given you a gift. Under the name it says ‘おかえしです’, which simply means, ‘this is a return gift’.

#9: Lovecky

Lovecky

Going over-the-top with the heart-shaped, seasonal, specially-named strawberry-with-bits-in variety here, I’m putting Lovecky at #9, in large part because I’m not sure how Glico wants us to pronounce it. Under the name it says, ‘ai shitemasu’ (愛してます), or, I love you.

#8: Mamacky and Papacky

Mamacky           Papacky

In joint 8th place I’m putting the Mamacky and Papacky pair. I suppose these are aimed at the Mother’s Day and Father’s Day markets, but they’re some of the most difficult to find. Under Mamacky it says, ‘Mama, arigatou’ (ママ、ありがとう) or, thank you, Mum. Under Papacky it says (predictably), ‘Papa, arigatou’ (パパありがとう) or, thank you, Dad.

#6: Tomocky

Tomocky

Here is the pair to Lovecky, Tomocky. ‘Tomodachi’ (友達) is the Japanese word for ‘friend’ and under the name it says ‘kore kara mo, tomodachi’ (これからもともだち), from now on too, friends, or I suppose, let’s always be friends. I can see this one being quite a hit with high school girls.

#5: Thanky

Thanky

The first of the thin Pocky pair, Thanky. Under the name it says, ‘itsumo sankyuu desu’ (いつもサンキューです) or, thank you always. Probably one of the more popular ones, it would be nice to have this one available permanently, but I suspect it won’t happen.

#4: Yorocky

Yorocky

Here comes Thanky’s twin, Yorocky. Under the name is the phrase, ‘yoroshiku onegaishimasu’ (よろしくお願いします), one of the great untranslatables. My dictionary app offers the following; please remember me, please help me, please treat me well, I look forward to working with you. It’s a way of appealing to someone for their patronage, really, and while that might sound odd in English, it’s amazing how often there are opportunities to use it. Another that might be good to have around.

#3: Ganbacky

Ganbacky

Just as ‘yoroshiku onegaishimasu’ is a phrase for daily life, so is the wording on this box; ganbatte kudasai’ (がんばってください), or, please do your best or hang in there. You can use it to exhort someone in any endeavour. There’s also a version you can use to assure those around you of your intention to do your best; ganbarimasu, or 頑張ります. British fans of Takeshi’s Castle, an old Japanese series on repeat somewhere in the ether, will be familiar with this declaration, made by contestants before they attempt a challenge. Another Pocky there would probably be a permanent market for.

#2: Sukky

Sukky

Here is the runner-up, the fantastically-named Sukky. The message on the box is ‘anata ga suki desu’, あなたが好きです, or, I like you. A clear candidate for Valentine’s Day and maybe next month’s White Day. Clearly the genius here is in the name, which Glico must have thought looked cool but of course looks just plain wrong. I have bought a number of these to take back to the UK as gifts. Excellent.

And in 1st place . . . another drumroll please . . .

#1: Giricky

Giricky

Pipping Sukky, it’s original Pocky twin, to the post, ladies and gentlemen I give you Giricky. Disappointed? Maybe you don’t speak Japanese or don’t know about the particular traditions of Valentine’s Day in Japan.

In Japan, Valentine’s Day is the day that girls and women give chocolate to men; men reciprocate (if they want to!) a month later, on March 14th, White Day. Valentine chocolate can be divided into two categories. The first is honmei choco, or genuine feeling chocolate. This is traditionally homemade chocolate or cakes and cookies and is given to a boyfriend or father. The other category is giri choco, or obligation chocolate, and is given in massive quantities in workplaces. I read recently that the average amount spent on each ‘obligation chocolate’ gift is ¥500 to ¥1,000. Clearly, it can be an expensive day.

But now, Japanese women and girls have this genius option: Giricky. The message on the box is ‘giri choko desu’, 義理チョコです, or, THIS IS OBLIGATION CHOCOLATE.

I have no words for how much I love this. Every year I see women buying huge amounts of chocolate, spending all that money, and then at work I see my male colleagues looking increasingly pleased with themselves through the day as they fill a carrier bag with all the chocolate they receive, puffed up on the smugness of (apparently) being popular.

I am hoping that this year a lot of women have decided against spending that ¥500 to ¥1,000 and have instead nipped down to their nearest convenience store, spent ¥130 and bought up a good supply of these boxes. I am imagining men across Japan going to work tomorrow, happily anticipating a haul of chocolate and instead receiving boxes of (admittedly yummy) Pocky emblazoned with the message: THIS IS OBLIGATION CHOCOLATE.

Be under no illusions, men of Japan. This is OBLIGATION chocolate. Happy Valentine’s Day.

 

August 6th, every year

Sky at dusk

There are some dates that are not ordinary dates: March 11th, June 4th and two dates this week, August 6th and 9th. So much is written and said every year about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and every year it seems too much, and never enough.

It seems too much because it feels so overwhelming, the images are so iconic and so horrific. Interspersed with interviews with survivors, dignified and mildly-spoken elderly Japanese people who re-tell their stories of the hell they experienced. It is hard to know what to think, other than, make it stop.

And every year, nothing is ever enough, because the years pass and it doesn’t seem like we ever gain any clarity, we make no progress to making sure it can never happen again. I have no words of wisdom, I only have some snapshots of what I have heard from Japanese people over the years. In the absence of anything else, I offer them here:

About fifteen years ago some students made posters about their grandmothers in my class. Two students wrote about their grandmothers’ experiences of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. One wrote that her mother was outside Hiroshima that day, but went into the city in the days following the blast. She swore that she would never tell anyone what she had seen, because she didn’t want to pass on the horror, ‘but she did,’ wrote the student. She didn’t write any more, but I always wondered what her grandmother had told her.

Another wrote that her grandmother’s beloved brother was caught in the blast, but wasn’t killed that day. Instead, he died in her arms a week later, poisoned by radiation. ‘It broke her heart.’ Although she went on to marry and have children and grandchildren, there was always heartbreak because of the brother she had lost. Hers was a life put back around unimaginable grief.

There is a remarkable resilience in the human spirit. People live through horror and somehow put their lives back together around it. In China I have met people who lived through the Cultural Revolution, who were treated very badly, got sent down to the countryside, but then years later returned to the city, maybe had neighbours who were part of their persecution, and somehow manage to live with that.

When I first lived in Japan, I met a woman who had lived in China as a young child. I don’t know why her family was there, but her mother had died and as the Japanese retreated she and her father tried to get some money to get back to Japan. She stood by the side of the road, holding her mother’s beautiful kimono, begging strangers to give her a few coins for them.

I have a friend whose mother is from Hiroshima, and was a small child on that day seventy years ago. She was outside the city, but saw the flash when the bomb was detonated. It’s one of her earliest memories.

Mine is of my brother and our dog.

Hers is the flash of the atomic bomb.

What’s yours?

The meaning of pears

pearOne of the things people often mention about shopping in Japan is the ridiculous price of fruit and vegetables. Fruit, especially, has been elevated to an art form, with perfect, unblemished specimens being packaged and given as gifts. Sometimes fruit is supersized, sometimes grown into unexpected shapes; giant strawberries, square watermelons. If that sounds like fun and you have the budget for it, then Japan is your fruit paradise.

My favourite flavours are the sharp bite of citrus and berries. Anything yuzu-flavoured will get my attention, lemon is always good, and raspberries and blackcurrants are wonderful. Growing up, we had raspberry canes in the garden, and since my father and brother didn’t like them the picking became mine and my mother’s job. Every summer we harvested over thirty kilos, filled the freezer with them, made jam and pies and summer puddings. My after-school routine towards the end of the summer term was to come home from school and go straight into the garden, fight my way under the green plastic netting (they were our raspberries, not the birds’) and pick the ripened fruit.

But there has always been one fruit that I just can’t bear. I don’t see the point of them, I don’t like anything about them: Pears.

I’m on retreat at the moment, and have spent the day joining the Daily Offices at the convent and sitting in the garden and orchard reading Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God. I’ve also been wandering round the garden, taking photos and soaking up the beauty of God’s creation.

Damsons

On my wanders round the garden I found a damson tree, which reminded me of the schoolhouse in Ellastone where we lived when I was just starting school. The school cook used to come into the garden in the morning and pick enough damsons to make damson crumble for school lunch. Even now, when my mother and I see damsons on sale we buy some and make compote and freeze it to brighten up yogurt on winter mornings.

Mulberry

But then I found pear trees, and sighed at the waste of orchard space. Why grow pears when you could have damsons? I considered the bounty of the orchard here; not only my beloved damsons but also plums, figs, apples, even an ancient mulberry tree. Pears. Why would anyone want pears?

Some people in Japan love pears. Of course, they enjoy the Japanese nashi pears, but what is given as gifts is known as La France, the rosy, pleasingly-shaped European pear. Apparently it’s also known as a butter pear. After living in Japan for a long time and hearing friends extol the deliciousness of this fruit I thought, maybe I’m wrong, maybe they really are as good as everyone tells me. I went to a supermarket, bought one, took it home and tried it. I discovered that I wasn’t wrong at all, they were as unpleasant as I remembered them. The texture is grainy, but slightly, unpleasantly soft. Or unyieldingly, unpleasantly dry and hard. The flavour is, to me, off. Slightly chemical. It works as old-fashioned pear drops, when I can think that this is a synthetic flavouring, the work of someone beavering about in a lab. But Mother Nature? No.

Several years ago, a senior student told me that her mother was going to send me some fruit as a thank-you gift. I was looking forward to my fruit gift, until it arrived and I discovered two magnificent La France pears in a specially padded gift box. I took them into school and gave them to a colleague, who was amazed I didn’t want them.

Going all the way back to my childhood, my brother and I used to spend every Sunday with our maternal grandparents, who lived near us. The routine was always the same. In the morning we went out somewhere; a park, a wood or the botanical gardens. If we went to a park we could take our bicycles. A wood meant it was probably autumn and we could kick our way through piles of fallen leaves. The botanical garden had two tropical houses, and in one a parrot, which sometimes spoke. To my primary-school-aged self it seemed worth it to stand in the steamy, smelly glasshouse, hoping to hear the parrot say a word or two. My grandfather was a very superstitious man, and absolutely hated birds. It’s only as I write this now that I realise he must have much preferred the wood or the park.

After our outing we went back to their house for lunch. We almost always had tinned baked beans with sausages. We always ate the tiny tinned sausages last. For dessert, there were two possibilities. One was jelly, with Carnation evaporated milk whisked into it to create air bubbles, a kind of mousse. My mother thinks she remembers her father working for the evaporated milk company at some point and there being a great amount of it at home. I always thought he had invented this concoction himself, whisking the jelly and milk together with a hand whisk and puffing his cheeks out with the effort. This was a great dessert, not your everyday pudding, nothing healthy, nothing luxurious. Sugar. An easy treat, a guilty pleasure.

But what my grandparents really loved to give us was pears. They both loved them, and there were always pears in their house. There was no escape. They had both grown up in very poor families, and had raised their only daughter during the Second World War. Poverty and wartime shaped their tastes. Even in their old age, when they could have had anything they wanted, their treats were flavoured with the things they had been deprived of earlier in life; butter, cream, sugar. And fresh fruit.

I remember hating the taste. I remember hating the texture, whichever end of the pear spectrum it was at, and with pears, it’s always the end of the spectrum. I also hated the way that at some point the top of the pear would break off and you had to eat the rest of it cupping it in your hand. Then I hated the stickiness. Every week, we ate pears, and our grandparents were happy, because they loved pears, and thought we did too.

Years later, when I was at secondary school and university, I discovered I loved baking. When we had been on holiday in France, my grandparents had enjoyed the fresh fruit tarts (butter, cream, sugar) and I found it was not difficult to make them. You made the different bits and then assembled it. I made them pear tarts sometimes and was happy, because they loved pears.

Today I was wandering round the orchard at the convent, and the raspberries, damsons and the pears led me down through decades of memories. I sat in the sunshine and read about Brother Lawrence, and how he did everything for the love of God.

Then I thought some more, and realised far more deeply than I ever had before, just what a gift a pear can be. They are the shape of gratitude and taste of love.