Forget Japanese Electronics -- Check Out Japanese Chocolate

The Japanese often have customs that seem unusual to Americans, and Japanese chocolate is no exception.

We don't often think of Japanese chocolate. Belgian, Swiss, French -- sure. Or Japanese fish, for example. But Japanese chocolate?

The Japanese chocolate obsession has a slightly unusual origin. On this side of the Pacific, we're used to thinking of Valentine's Day as a time for men to lavish affection on women -- or, in the words of my brother, "This thing's a lot more important to girls than guys, huh?" In Japan, however, Valentine's Day is a time for women to give chocolate to men. Not necessarily significant others, either: coworkers, friends, employers, what have you. And it's ALWAYS chocolate -- not a flower in sight.

Don't worry, though: there's a day when the men reciprocate. It comes after Valentine's Day, which seems about right: the men sit back and wait to see who gives them chocolate, then respond in kind. Takes the mystery out of the dating game, huh?

But as usual, the Japanese aren't content to simply adapt an American custom: they give it that twist that makes it all their own. Japanese chocolate has become a byword for unusual and strange chocolate shapes. Yes, shapes. After all, what says "I love you" like a set of socket wrenches crafted from cocoa beans?

Japanese chocolate often has unusual flavors, too -- and if you're not ready, they can catch you by surprise! For example, the Japanese have a habit of stuffing red bean paste (also known as anko) into their treats. It's surprising enough to bite into a donut and get a mouthful of beans -- can you imagine in your chocolate? (The beans, just in case you're starting to get worried about our Japanese friends, are sweet beans, not lentils. Just the same, the texture is hard to get used to).

So what are some of the most unusual shapes you'll find in a Japanese chocolate shop?

1. Bugs

For some reason, many Japanese chocolate creations feature insects. Some of them are at least cute (ladybugs, etc.) while others are frankly disturbing (beetle larvae, anyone?). Then again, we eat chocolate rabbits, so who are we to talk?

2. Chocolate Beer

This isn't actually a chocolate shape: it's a beer brewed with cocoa beans. And by all accounts, it's anything but sweet!

3. Sushi

The Japanese actually quite enjoy making things in sushi shapes -- everything from wind-up toys to erasers -- so it's no real surprise that Japanese chocolate comes in sushi shapes. You can get it in a bento box set complete with "soya sauce" (chocolate, of course) and pink chocolate ginger strips, with a side of green chocolate wasabi.

We might not think of Japan when we think chocolate, but as you can see, Japanese chocolate has a life and culture all its own!

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