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Saturday, Oct. 3, 2009

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Snap, crackle, Pocky! The stick that stirs the drink


Some people like to slam Japan as being non-innovative. The Japanese, these people say, can take anyone else's idea and make it better. Better cars, better cameras, better reality TV. And so on.

But when it comes to inventing things themselves, the contention goes, what do the Japanese got? Karaoke perhaps? Shuriken? Anyone for the endoscope?

But to me the power of Japanese ingenuity can be verified with a single word. A word that — when it comes to creativity — just sticks out. For what do other cultures have that can possibly beat . . . Pocky.

Yes, Pocky! Chocolate on a cookie stick manufactured by Ezaki Glico Corp. To hell with making a better mousetrap. The true inventive challenge is to make a better snack food and in this regard Pocky stands tall.

And who cares that Japan can make no claim on cookies, chocolate or sticks? For the same could be said of Edison and the electric light, right? Did Edison invent glass? Copper? Electricity? No, it was the combination that did it.

And who cares that when I first chanced upon Pocky back in 1976 I figured it for a Q-tip? And who cares that the spelling made me think of my greasy cousin with the skin condition?

For Pocky makes "cares" go away. Yummy. Cute. Easy to pick up and hard to put down. With the name derived from the faulty Romanization of the Japanese sound for a sharp, crisp "snap" — pokki!

Highbrow enough to be served chilled with champagne and lowbrow enough to feed to that cousin with the skin condition. Plus, romantic enough to munch from opposite ends with your girlfriend, a la the Lady and the Tramp with a noodle. A spear of fun and versatility. With varieties as numerous as . . .

"Um, so," I asked the PR guy at Glico. "Through the years just how many kinds of Pocky have you made?"

The man paused. And then pronounced, "It's impossible to count."

Wow. That's a lot of Pocky. Especially considering I can count pretty high. Plus I've heard computers can go even higher.

So we have Pocky more numerous than the stars. More plentiful than grains of sands. More abundant than the hairs on my head.

At least this last target is attainable. For the years have delivered, "Marble Pocky," "Mango Pocky," "Choco-Banana Pocky," "Mousse Pocky Tiramisu," "Pocky Honey," "Grape Pocky," "Kobe Wine Pocky," "Pocky Dessert Strawberry Shortcake," "Creamy Pocky Salty Caramel with French Milk," "Green Tea Pocky," "Pumpkin Pocky," "Pocky Crush Bitter Crunch,""Lemon Cheesecake Pocky," and . . .

Already we have exceeded my hair count. But the Pocky parade isn't even close to complete. There are indeed . . . "lots."

Yet when I first stumbled down the gangplank at old Haneda Airport, Pocky varieties numbered only two — chocolate and almond. But that very month Glico celebrated my arrival with "Pocky Strawberry," although I was hoping for something more like . . . "Dark Chocolate Fudge."

From the birth of Pocky Chocolate in Hiroshima in 1966 until the late '80s we basically lived in a three Pocky world — chocolate, almond and strawberry.

Then it happened — The Pocky Revolution. From each year onward Glico unveiled multiple new varieties, breathing color into the snack food universe the way sex and drugs fueled Rock and Roll.

Well, sort of. It's easy to get carried away with Pocky.

In any case, each autumn (and occasionally at other times) Glico adds to its Pocky arsenal, this year with new varieties under popular Pocky product lines like, Crushed Pocky, Men's Pocky, Ultra-Thin Pocky and Pocky Chocolate.

But stores do not possess enough shelving to stock all these goodies. Most Pocky flavors thus have limited runs. New editions are born and old Pockies are put to sleep. Only the best sellers endure.

Entering 2009, there were 13 continuing Pocky items in Japan. Glico companies overseas have different lineups, with Pocky in Europe known as "Mikado." Of course, scientists at other companies have cloned Pocky DNA to produce worthwhile stick snacks of their own. Yet in the battle of stick snacks, Pocky carries a large club.

With the largest being "Giant Pocky," with sticks almost one foot in length. Memo: Do not try "The Lady and the Tramp" routine with this Pocky. Or you'll be eating for an hour till your lips meet.

To honor Pocky and its salty cousin "Pretz," since 2007 Glico has trumpeted Nov. 11 as a day of special observance, with fun events aimed at 11:11 a.m., a clusterburst of elevens that also signifies the end of World War I.

But the motto here is perhaps, "Make money, not war." Glico figures consumers may have more of a yen for Pocky and Pretz if you stand them side-by-side.

Or you might cross them, like an X, as in X hits the spot.

Yet, no matter how you lay them down, one thing is certain.

Pocky sticks up. For good taste, fun and — without a doubt — Japanese innovation.



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