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Friday, April 6, 2001


Koalas on the march against the Oreo invaders

Seth is an American who's been living in Tokyo for the past 13 years, but the one thing he cannot accept or forgive are wagashi (Japanese-style confections). Show him a simple manju (steamed cake filled with bean paste) and he's likely to turn blue and emit little whining sounds in the manner of someone who has just witnessed some very bad roadkill.

"I don't understand you people," he splutters. "We gave you Oreos and Snickers, which are all the sweets anyone really needs in life, and you still insist on stuffing yourselves with THAT!"

It's Seth's loss, really. Because "that" is one of the things that anchor the Japanese to Japan, keep our faith and heal our disappointments. OK, so the government is run by a klutz. The way to deal with it is to brew some koicha (tea made from finely crushed leaves), unwrap the sakuramochi (rice cakes dyed with cherry blossoms), and drown one's anxieties in bean paste, sugar and caffeine.

The great thing about wagashi are the names. The selections vary from season to season, from store to store. There's a lot of sensitivity and imagination at work here, which leads one to believe that Japanese confectioners are all romantics. They give sugar-coated senbei (thinly roasted rice cakes) appellations like hatsushimo (first frost) or unkai (sea of clouds). A confection of two small pancakes with bean paste in the middle is called dora-yaki (roasted Chinese gong). A cake made entirely from beans is called kanoko (deer-child). Other poetic titles include mizu nurumu (water loosening up after the long winter), kari no ne (call of geese), sugomori (nesting birds), kobai musume (red plum-blossom girl), wakakusa (young grass) and otometsubaki (virgin camellia). It's a totally different story when Japanese name Japanified versions of Western sweets. The regard for finesse or seasonal charm -- or even accuracy -- is thrown out the window. Especially guilty of this offense are the big chocolate manufacturers, all of whom seem intent on coming up with ever-new ways to combine chocolate and crackers.

The most familiar is Pocky, which I always thought was a great way to describe a disturbed state of mind (as in: "She had to enter an institution for pocky people.") and tried to introduce in conversations, but it never caught on. Ranking close behind Pocky are Kinokono Yama (Mushroom Mountain) and Takenoko no Sato (Country of Bamboo Shoots), both of which are shaped like their names -- perhaps to promote the fantasy that you're not getting some pumped-up junk item but something healthy and picked right from the soil.

Koala no Machi (Koalas on the March) -- crackers shaped like cute little koalas with sticky chocolate inside -- was a personal fave at 15, and the rumor was: If in the box you found a female koala with a ribbon on her head, this meant that you would soon find a boyfriend or lose your virginity, whichever came first.

Ice-cream is another interesting genre, spawning such names as Hakuba no Ojisama (Prince on a White Horse) for a brand of chocolate chip.

If you're up for the kind of stuff that moms are always warning against, try Gali-Gali-kun (Mr. Gnaw), a popsicle that takes hours to finish and can cause stomach cramps for two whole days; Mizore (Sticky Snow), a cup of ice shavings dyed in interesting phosphorescent colors; and everyone's favorite summertime treat, Kachiwari (Chip off a Block of Ice), which is ice water spiked with dye you drink from a plastic bag with a straw.

From the poetic to the whimsical to the punky-grungy, the world of Japanese sugar products is worth exploring. No way are we letting Oreos run the whole show.

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