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Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Shades of green in search for homecoming gift


Special to The Japan Times

"There is a green hill far away, without a city wall," goes the Easter hymn, originally composed for children. The Easter holiday, which one is hardly aware of in Japan, figured in one of my trips back to the green hills of Ireland's north where, a long time ago, this hymn was written.

In Japan, the grass all dies off in winter and everything turns brown, which may be one reason why the arrival of spring seems so dramatic. The appearance of fresh growth transforms the whole landscape. Accordingly, there are many expressions to describe this.

Yet it is puzzling that the new aoba (green leaves) are considered the same color as the aozora (blue sky). It is a problem for translators: in one version of the 11th century epic masterpiece "The Tale of Genji" we find "blue trousers" and in another "green." Perhaps they were aquamarine.

In poetry, there are many shades of green, and the term banryoku is used in haiku: it might be rendered as "myriad green leaves," though ban literally means "ten thousand." And this green certainly is not blue. The same number is given for the daffodils in William Wordsworth's famous spring poem ("ten thousand saw I at a glance"), but nobody of course believes him.

Emerald Isle, blue china

A haiku-writing friend of mine, Ms. Aoyagi, has a small printing press company called Blue Willow, though to my mind willow trees are never blue, except of course on Willow-Pattern plates. In fact, the youthful aesthete Oscar Wilde once commented with a defeated sigh: "I can't live up to my blue china."

The immediate problem I faced, however, for my trip back to the Emerald Isle, Oscar Wilde's country of birth, was to find something suitable to take back as a present.

We have all had those unexpected moments when the gift from Japan, an expensive something or other made of paper or bamboo, is greeted with perplexity or disappointment.

My own mouth dropped when someone I gave a wind-chime to immediately removed the tanzaku (paper strip) hanging from the clapper, so that there was no possibility it would ever ring. Other friends showed no interest in the matching pair of tea-cups I presented to them, but varnished the hinoki (cypress) box the teacups were packaged in and put it on display.

This time, for a change, I thought I would take something ordinary, cheap and easier to like. So I decided to buy some KitKat chocolate bars, but not the standard variety that can be bought easily in any convenience store in Britain.

Instead, I would get the other kinds sold only in Japan: the fruit and berry flavors, the white chocolate with Hokkaido milk, the Yubari melon exclusive to Hokkaido.

The success of KitKat in Japan is not entirely fortuitous. It was marketed at first here not just in the usual red wrappers, but in little boxes designed to appeal to the teenagers and children who would be the biggest customers. By a stroke of good fortune for the company, however, the name itself had a special meaning that appealed to students taking important examinations: KitKat, in their pronunciation, sounded like kitto katsu (definitely win), meaning that they would surely succeed in the test.

Elusive bar of chocolate

I thought that when I explained all this, as an example of popular culture in Japan, my gift might seem at least a little novel. The fact that it could be eaten, too, ought to sweeten the response.

So I gathered bars of KitKat, and put them in the fridge. But there was one kind that eluded me, and that was the one I wanted most.

Six months before it had been everywhere, and now was nowhere to be seen. So clever is the marketing of KitKat, and so keenly attuned to the rapidly changing tastes of the young, that new varieties are constantly brought out, often for a limited season.

Their new chocolate brand this year, advertised in clouds of cherry blossom, is sakura-mochi, whose chocolate is, appropriately enough, pink. Also sweet, but rather more traditional, are the pink mochi (rice-cake) wrapped in a preserved leaf of sakura (cherry), which are associated with the arrival of spring.

But because I would be in Ireland for St. Patrick's Day (March 17), I wanted the ryoku-cha (green tea) KitKat, which had completely vanished. As Irish luck would have it, though, I found an obscure shop at the airport that still had several left, and bought the lot.



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