Japanese guys have it pretty sweet when it comes to Valentine’s Day. Unlike their cousins overseas, they don’t have to worry about sending roses or booking a table at a fancy restaurant — or, for that matter, even marking their calendars for Feb. 14. Instead, the burden falls on their girlfriends to present them with thoughtful hon-mei choko (heartfelt chocolate).
No girlfriend? No problem. The tradition of giri choko (obligation chocolate) means that even single guys are apt to get some love from classmates or coworkers. And that’s not all — completists can enjoy tomo (friend) and jibun (oneself) chocolates.
So, ladies, here’s our wish list of V-Day presents from the world’s leading chocolatiers — most of them sold at limited-time-only counters in major department stores — plus some ideas for whipping up easy homemade treats for your special fella.
For Mr. Right
Choosing a Valentine’s gift for your boyfriend is not an occasion to think small. That’s why we’re starting this list with the Pastel Selection from bigwig Belgian chocolatier Pierre Marcolini. The sleek oval case holds a septet of citrus-infused caramel treats coated with white, dark or milk chocolate (¥2,415). Flavors include lime, yuzu, passion fruit and mango, and the centerpiece is a raspberry praline — just the thing to provide a sunny spark to your BF’s midwinter doldrums. Marcolini’s 2012 collection also features solid chocolate bars, truffles and cacao tea.
For a colleague
Meiji Corp. certainly knows chocolate — the food giant’s candy bars can be found on the shelves of supermarkets nationwide. For the more discerning cacao aficionado, the Meiji-owned 100% Chocolate Cafe in downtown Tokyo serves drinks and sweets made with beans sourced from around the world. Of particular note are the individual chocolate squares — 56 types in all — that sell for ¥200 each and are naturally flavored with ingredients ranging from mint to maple sugar. The strawberry-accented No. 39 (pronounced “san-kyu“) is the perfect “thank you” gift for coworkers on Valentine’s Day — literally. For a limited time, No. 39 is paired with the seasonally and numerically correct No. 214 (¥300), which is flavored with strawberry and champagne.
For a special friend
The Festa di San Valentino collection from high-end Italian confectioner Babbi is sure to be a hit with the kawaii crowd this season. The series includes 12 Valentine’s Day gift sets in all, including the Cuore, which features a trio of sweets inside a miniature red or black tote (¥945). Each tote holds a single cube of Vienessi — a Babbi original made with layers of wafers and vanilla cream, coated with bitter chocolate — and a pair of Cremini, which are squares of Gianduja chocolate laced with hazelnut and coffee cream. Want to impress a truly special friend? Then splurge for the Cuore Medio Rossi, which offers the three chocolates inside an impossibly cute heart-shaped tote (¥1,575).
If you’re dateless this Valentine’s Day, or if you just want to pick up a special gift for the big No. 1, check out the seasonal sweets from local-boy-made-good Sadaharu Aoki. The Tokyo-born patissier won a name for himself in the early aughts by adding unexpected Japanese flavors to traditional French pastries. He now enjoys superstar status among pastry chefs, operating several boutiques in France and Tokyo. For Valentine’s Day 2012, Aoki has created chocolate squares called Pave du Kyoto, which are made with cream from France and matcha from the renowned Nanzanen green-tea company in Aichi Prefecture (¥2,310 for a box of six). Though the sweets are available only at Sogo in Yokohama, Aoki offers other original Valentine’s Day creations at various department stores around the country (see www.sadaharuaoki.com/news/diary.cgi for details).
And cupcakes …
Veteran sweets-watchers in Japan can’t figure out why cupcakes are lacking in popularity here. Cupcakes, after all, are small, cute and infinitely variable — qualities that the Japanese admire in everything from their automobiles to their TV stars. Hoping to rectify the situation is Bella’s Cupcakes, an expat-run bakery whose mission is “to bring deliciously light and fluffy cupcakes to Tokyo.” Its special Valentine’s series features chocolate and “vanilla-chocolate” cupcakes with fondant decorations, heart sprinkles and wafer chocolate (¥2,400 for a box of six; ¥4,800 for 12). See www.bellas-tokyo.com for delivery info.
Go DIY this V-Day
Nothing says “I’ve busted my hump for you on Valentine’s Day” quite like homemade treats, and with foolproof cake and cookie mixes from the likes of Mujirushi Ryohin (Muji), Loft and Tokyu Hands, there’s no excuse for not donning an apron and firing up the stove.
One of the more offbeat offerings this season is Lolly Pop, which is a set of ganache-covered cookies on a stick (¥998 at Loft). The more-traditional Heart Chocolate Cakes from Muji come with all the necessary ingredients, plus illustrated instructions for the kanji-challenged among us (¥840). And for a true taste of home — for North Americans, at least — international grocery-store chain Seijo Ishii sells the unbeatable Betty Crocker Devil’s Food Cake mix for a cool ¥760.