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Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2000

Valentine's in Japan, oh how sweet it is

Here's a fun fact to sweeten your life: The average Japanese consumes about 1.1 kg of chocolate per year.

Meanwhile your typical American gobbles down five times that amount -- which is still nothing compared to 10 kg snarfed away by your average Swiss or German.

Yet, the sugary hook on the modest Japanese figure is this: Sixty percent of the total consumption centers around one specific day.

And what day is that? No, not the Emperor's birthday! Nor even my birthday! But rather that single day of the year when every person in Japan willingly succumbs to chocomania -- Valentine's Day.

Every person, that is, but one. My wife, whose feelings toward chocolate roughly mirror my own outlook on Japanese bean paste: Blecch.

My wife blames her lifelong chocolate reluctance on her mother. Apparently as a small child my wife once asked where people go when they die and was informed they go to heaven. So . . . logically . . . my wife next asked about heaven. What was it like?

Her mother's fun but fatal response?

"Chocolate, chocolate and then more chocolate! With some bananas thrown in for effect!"

Consequently, my wife came to link chocolate with death. A morbid association that lingers still now, even despite having a husband who would rather eat chocolate than breathe.

For such a husband life in Japan has been rich. Especially during the choco-season of mid-February. For what starry-eyed bard could even dream of such a world! Where girls feel obligated to feed guys chocolate! And not just their own "special" guy, but any guy they happen to know! With each and every storefront bursting out with more cocoa goodies than the Milky Way holds Mars bars!

"But none of it counts!" my wife reminds me. "It's just giri-choco! The girls who give it aren't in love! They are just being kind!"

Who cares! Certainly not me, standing there with chocolate stuffed in every available opening, including mitts, pits, pockets, socks and mouth. All that matters is that it's now mine! All mine!

Talk about heaven! Especially back in the days when I was new to Japan and teaching at an all girls school -- a time when I was also yet technically available and still had more hair than fingers. Each year by the end of Valentine's Day I accumulated so much giri chocolate that I had to eat for two whole hours before my haul became light enough to carry home.

One creative young lady even presented me with a chocolate bust of my own head. True, I resembled a tilted Napoleon dunked in mud, but looks aren't everything. Lopsided or not, I still had that scrumptious chocolaty zing. Right down to my eyeballs, which I saved for last.

Some scientists say that we chocoholics are a form of drug addict. That there is an irresistible chemical in cocoa called phenylethlamine that stimulates the brain in a manner not unlike the rush one gets when falling in love.

Maybe this explains why Japanese girls are so eager to mainline their men folk with chocolate each year. Perhaps they hope to hook the guys on a feeling that the girls can later replace with romance. A sort of love potion in a wrapper.

The bad news is that too much phenylethlamine can give people the jitters. It can turn them into hyperactive dynamos, who work away like wide-eyed robots for hours and hours. Wouldn't it be something if the secret to fabled Japanese diligence was not a high supply of fighting spirit but instead a February overdose of chocolate!

Not that phenylethlamine affects me in these ways. The fact that after a chocolate binge I will back-flip all around the neighborhood kissing and hugging anything that moves is just a loose coincidence, I'm sure.

Yet, even that dizzy consequence is more desirable than the aftereffect I get from eating bean paste, which is to make me lick wallpaper till the taste goes away.

But your typical azuki bean is a wily critter and difficult to avoid. It will pop up hidden in pastry, ice cream, marshmallows and anywhere else where it is least expected. Given this sneaky tendency, one can but wonder . . . Can bean paste pizza, tacos and other azuki traps be far behind?

No, they can't. For the Japanese love azuki and other sweet beans much more than they do chocolate. In truth, for each mouthful of chocolate consumed in this country, there are two equivalent swallows of bean paste. Bean paste, in all of its many forms, is pumping lifeblood into Japan's thriving regional souvenir trade.

Unlike with chocolate, my wife has no eschatological views on beans. Neither is she so fond of them. When it comes to desserts, she is one of those fruit people. Meaning there is some sweet-toothed Japanese out there who is making up for her lack of consumption and actively pounding down the azuki. Perhaps to the frenetic pace of "99 bottles of beans on the wall."

As for making up for my wife's missed chocolate, that is a responsibility I shoulder all alone. In truth, I probably make up for her and several dozen other people. A tough job, but someone has to do it.

In fact, I almost feel I could kick that per capita 1.1 kg figure up a notch all by myself. For what is life without a worthwhile challenge? My motto? Anything a Swiss can eat, I can eat more of.

Ah, Valentine's Day. Ain't it sweet.

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