Tag Archives: Japanese snacks

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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.



Demons out! Good luck in!

Oni mask for SetsubunToday is Setsubun (節分), which means nothing more thrilling than ‘seasonal division’, or ‘seasonal separation’ but is also known as the ‘bean-throwing festival’, which clearly sounds like far more fun.  For a couple of weeks now, my local convenience store has been selling bags of roasted soybeans as part of a kit, with a plastic mask of a rather fearsome-looking red-faced demon, like the one at the top of this post. Traditionally, the father in a family takes the part of the demon, and, wearing the mask, is chased out of the home by the other members of the family, hurling roasted soybeans at him and shouting, ‘Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!’ (鬼は外!福は内!), which translates to the title of this post, ‘Demons out! Good luck in!’ Apparently, this custom is not as common as it used to be, and people are more likely to go to a temple or shrine and watch a similar ceremony there instead. I don’t know about that, there have certainly been plenty of roasted soy beans and demon masks on sale in my neighbourhood.

As well as throwing the beans about, it is also a custom to eat some; either one for each year of your life, or one for each year of your life plus one. They have a nutty flavour (from being roasted, I suppose) and are a healthy snack, so I happily did that, but didn’t do any throwing about of the same. When I opened the small bag

Roasted soybeans for SetsubunI was initially concerned that there wouldn’t be enough beans for my age plus one, but there were plenty and it seems I have a couple of decades to go before that becomes an issue.

Another Setsubun custom that has made its way up from Kansai (west Japan, Osaka), is the eating of large makizushi, or rolled sushi, called ehomaki (恵方巻), or ‘direction of blessing roll’, and when I first lived in Japan I didn’t see them in Kanto (east Japan, Tokyo), but in the last few years they have been sold in supermarkets and convenience stores. The promotional effort is similar to the marketing used to sell strawberry shortcakes for Christmas, and my local convenience stores have been taking reservations for weeks. These rolls are traditionally eaten facing a certain direction, which I believe changes from year to year, and without stopping, while making a wish. Given the size of these things, it sounds like quite a challenge. On my way home this afternoon, even the local Indian restaurant had got in on the act, selling what looked like large tortillas filled with some kind of curry mixture.

Setsubun is not a national holiday, but since it is close to the lunar New Year celebrated in other parts of Asia, it feels to me like the first sign that spring is just around the corner. Most days it’s still quite cold in Tokyo, but yesterday was remarkably mild, the sun shines daily and I saw the first plum blossoms today. We’ve chased the demons out, ushered good luck in, and the blossoms are starting to open. It feels like we’re on the threshold of a new season.

November 11th: Pocky Day

To the rest of the world today is Remembrance Sunday or Veterans Day. I work in a girls’ school in Tokyo so I also know that to some it’s Pocky Day, since the date resembles sticks of Pocky (1111). If you have lived in Japan you are probably familiar with Pocky, the thin biscuit sticks covered with chocolate. Apparently it was first sold in 1966, and since then has been produced in a wide variety of flavours, some regional, some seasonal. At any time I think you can walk into a convenience store or supermarket and pick up half a dozen different varieties. To test my theory I went to my local Familymart yesterday and found seven, but only bought six because one looked unappealing.

Of course, the one available everywhere and all year round is the red box of Pocky at the top of this post. (I know it’s a bit wonky but I wanted to take my own photo and the shiny box made it a bit of a challenge.) The others readily available which I bought were Thin Pocky, Strawberry Pocky, Chocolate Bran Pocky, Winter Pocky and Almond Crush Pocky. The one I didn’t buy was Double Berry Pocky, and this one plus the Strawberry Pocky are extra appealing (I assume) because the stick is not a simple thin baton but heart-shaped, and on the box they are called ‘heartful’. I have seen cucumbers similarly shaped (cucumbers!) so clearly this makes for a Cuter Snack Experience. A few more heart-shaped stick food items and we’ll be able to call it a boom.

Pocky is apparently so-named because of the onomatopoeic ‘pokkin’ (ポッキン) which is the sound it makes when you bite it. Japanese has a great many of these words, probably topics for future posts, but for today I’ll stick with just this one. In the UK Pocky is marketed as Mikado, since Pocky is for some unfathomable reason not an acceptable name. When I first saw the adverts for Mikado in the UK I assumed it was a Pocky-imitator, and I was surprised to find out it is actually the real thing. I remember finding the advert ridiculous, with a young ‘office lady’ clambering on top of a photocopier to reach the forbidden snack and somehow setting off the machine to take unfortunate photos; I can’t imagine why anyone thought that was a good idea. And the name! Mikado. Because nothing quite says 21st-century deliciousness like . . . a 19th-century Gilbert & Sullivan comic opera.

Pocky is not the only stick-shaped fun you can find in a Japanese convenience store. Pretz is a savoury snack made by the same company (Glico) while Fran is a Pocky-imitator. Pocky itself is available in regular, mousse (thicker chocolate) and decorer (decorated, so even thicker) versions. I’ve never tried the jumbo sized ones, they have the appearance of giant breadsticks and the chocolate-to-biscuit ratio doesn’t look so promising. My personal favourites would be Coconut Pocky in summer, and Winter Pocky in (obviously) winter.

So, having done my research and written this post, I am left with 6 boxes of Pocky. If you’re in Japan you can easily take yourself off to your nearest convenience store and buy some, but if you’re not in Japan – would you like a box?