A FIELD OF FANCIES

Cream-puff heaven is open to all

by Yoko Hani

First it was Chinese dumplings that got the theme park treatment at Ikebukuro Gyoza Stadium in 2002. Then, last year, up popped Ice Cream City. So, what was to be this year’s gastronomic addition to the menu of attractions at Namco Namja Town in Sunshine City?

Well, courtesy of those imaginative folk at the entertainment company Namco Ltd., visitors to the building that towers over Ikebukuro in Tokyo’s northern Toshima Ward can now frolic to their stomach’s content in Tokyo Shukurimu Batake (Tokyo Chou Cream Field) — a theme park dedicated to cream puffs that shares space with its dumpling and ice-cream cousins in Namco Namja Town. (“Namja” puts a company-name twist on nanja, an informal way of saying nanda, meaning “what’s that?”)

But why cream puffs?

“Because,” says Namco promo staffer Yoko Ishizuka, “cream puffs are considered one of the three most popular sweets in this country, along with custard pudding and strawberry shortcake [sponge cake topped with cream and strawberries].”

Fermented soy beans

Amazingly, it turns out that there are so many kinds of cream puffs — commonly called shukurimu (chou cream), from the French, chou a la creme — in terms of shape, flavor and types of crust. And they’re a sweet treat loved by all, regardless of age and sex.

“People like chou creams so much that we could call them a national dessert,” Ishizuka says. “So why not have a theme park where you can try and compare the different flavors of cream puffs from across the country?”

In a shop called Cream Puff Museum at the theme park, visitors can feast their eyes and taste buds on popular cream puffs from around 100 shops nationwide — and some not so regular ones, like natto cream puffs (that contain fermented soy beans in the cream) and takoyaki cream puffs (that are made to look like the deep-fried octopus dumplings, but fortunately do not taste like the real thing).

What really takes the biscuit for many visitors to Chou Cream Field, though, is the fairy-tale design of this “town” of chou cream.

Covering 1,023-sq. meters of the floor space, the company has created an Italianesque alley, complete with chou cream trees and cream puff-shaped lanterns. As you stroll through this winding wonderland, the sweet and cheerful sound of “The Chou Cream Song” fills the air — along with the aroma of baking cream puffs wafting from six specially selected shops from Hokkaido, Chiba, Tokyo, Hyogo, Fukuoka and Nagasaki prefectures.

To buy fresh-baked cream puffs from some of the nation’s most popular shops, take a seat at a table under a cream-puff tree festooned with the fancies, and soak up the sugary sounds in the Tokyo Chou Cream Field is about as near to cream-puff heaven as you’re ever likely to get.

Naturally, young girls and small children with their moms make up a large share of the customers, but rough, tough cream puffs such as the green-tea flavored chou cream are also popular with men, according to Ishizuka.

But men, too, are far from immune to the delights of the cream puffs created by these top patisseries, with a whole host to choose from: some long and laden with bananas and caramel cream, dribbled with caramel and almonds; others with cocoa or vanilla crusts, bulging with rich custard cream. Big ones, small ones; soft ones and crispy ones — the cream-puff gourmet will want for nothing here.

But do customers eat two or three cream puffs at the same time in the park?

“Some people do,” Ishizuka says. “In regular shops, you usually don’t eat different chou creams at the same time. But you can do that here.”

And what do they do after enjoying the cream-puff world, washed down with a leisurely cup of tea? “Gyoza Stadium for dinner,” Ishizuka says smiling.

As unlikely a pastime as it may be to spend a day in an indoor amusement park eating sweets and gyoza, those people at Namco Ltd. have latched on to a happening trend. Food theme parks — ramen noodles and curry ones are already popular both in Tokyo and elsewhere — are now flavor of the month, it seems. At Namco Namja Town, certainly, visitor numbers are sweet music to the operator’s ears, with around 2.3 million people paying their 300 yen (200 yen for children) admission in 2003, compared with 1.1 million in 2001.

So, now we’ve got dumplings, ice cream and cream puffs. What’s next?