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Exhibition charts the rise of chocolate

by Robbie Swinnerton

Attention all chocoholics! Here’s a way to satiate your sweet tooth without gaining a single gram. In fact you’re likely to work off plenty of calories as you explore “Chocolate: The Exhibition.”

This major show, which opens Nov. 3 at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo’s Ueno Park and was originally held at Chicago’s Field Museum, is much more than just a paean to the world’s favorite candy. It’s an opportunity to find out all about its history, how it is produced, and how it gets from the tree to your chocolate bar (and your waistline).

Once you have entered, via a gate made of chocolate shaped to evoke the museum building itself — though how they stop it from melting under the heat of the spotlights is a mystery worthy of a lost civilization — the exhibition unfolds through a series of different themed “zones” that take you from seed to sweet.

There’s a “rainforest” section, demonstrating the lush, humid, tropical conditions needed for growing the cacao tree, whose seeds contained in pods are the source of all chocolate. The second chamber traces the history of chocolate, how it has been consumed over the course of 4,000 years, by the Olmecs, the Mayans and then the Aztecs, and how it arrived in Europe after being brought to the Old World by the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century.

It took another couple of centuries before chocolate reached Japan’s shores, introduced by Dutch traders through Nagasaki, by which time it had been transformed from an intensely bitter preparation, consumed more as a stimulant than as a confection, to the sweetened product blended with milk — and all manner of other flavors now — that we know today. As we find out in Zone 3, it took until 1878 before it was actually produced here.

Other sections feature interactive displays on how chocolate is actually produced, marketed and consumed around the world; about the various kinds of chocolate; its health benefits — all those polyphenols and antioxidants (though only in dark chocolate); and its use by the artisan chocolatiers who have taken Tokyo by storm. And finally, as a souvenir, you can have personalized chocolate bars made up with your own photo on the label.

“Chocolate: The Exhibition” runs through Feb. 24, National Museum of Nature and Science, 7-20 Ueno Park, Taito-ku, Tokyo; (03) 5777-8600; www.kahaku.go.jp/english.