The end of winter and the ascendancy of spring is generally considered a mighty good thing. However, there is a downside. In Japan, spring may mean cherry blossom (sakura) and the communal act of enjoying its transient beauty (hanami), but it also sounds the bell ending the sale of Meltykiss, an excellent brand of Japanese confectioneries (okashi) only available in the winter months.
But before I go on about all that, please watch the following video. It’s just over a minute long and the old-skool rave soundtrack is ace. I know. I made it.
Many, Many Meltykiss
Produced by Meiji, Japan’s largest chocolate manufacturer with a national market share of around 25%1, Meltykiss features a flagship line consisting of 56g boxes of 14 individually wrapped chocolate cubes available in a range of flavours and fillings. These tend to be adjusted annually but include such variants as premium chocolate, strawberry and green tea. Bolstering all this are various other formats and flavours, such as the 25g boxes of eight white chocolate concoctions shown in the video. However, just how common these are I can’t really say.
What I can state, though, is that for the 2019/20 season at least you could also purchase alcohol-infused variants sold in 60g units containing four individually-wrapped mini bars (appropriately enough). While I haven’t yet tried the whiskey-and-orange option, I am rather well acquainted with the rum-and-raisin persuasion as my marvellous mate Manami very kindly gave me some just before Covid closed the Japanese borders and I found myself ordered back to Blighty, where I’ve languished ever since.
Boozy Little Bonbons
But enough of all that because while there may be little at present to suggest that Japan will once more open the door anytime soon, I can nevertheless inform any sweet-toothed booze hounds out there that these particular treats weighed in with an alcohol-by-volume (ABV) content of 3.8%, making them the chocolate equivalent of a respectable session beer.
Indeed, while you’d probably need to bosh a lot to get sloshed and forget your pandemic-provoked travel woes, somebody somewhere has nonetheless deemed these boozy little bonbons strong enough to warrant a warning on the packaging. Not only should consumers refrain from driving after eating them, but they should also avoid giving them to children. How over-the-top or not such advice is remains to be seen but I’ve certainly never clocked anything like that on a British equivalent.
Oh, So Creamy
Or maybe I was just too trolleyed to notice. Either way, the Meltykiss brand is apparently made using milk from the northern island of Hokkaido, which is perhaps why all the variants I have tried (including the Slim Kiss ‘tablet’ variety) were delightfully creamy with an excellent mouth feel, viz an even, smooth and a grit-free texture that uniformly melted in the mouth. Hence the name, I guess.
Admittedly, I have yet to have the pleasure of trying any premium chocolate chappies. However, based on what I have experienced, I find myself agreeing with Manami that the strawberry ones are the best. Indeed, that is why they didn’t appear in the video. I’d already scoffed the lot prior to filming.
That said, I would definitely recommend the green tea ones as well. While essentially unheard of in the UK as a confectionery flavour, green tea is an okashi classic common to many a Japanese choco bar and the like. Perhaps a slightly acquired taste for some Western palates, it is nevertheless something I’ve grown to enjoy a lot, with the tea’s slightly bitter taste and hint of smokiness complementing the sweetness of the chocolate employed, whether it be a Kit Kat, a Pocky or, in this case, a merry little Meltykiss.
Meanwhile, when it comes to the rum-and-raisin mini bars, just open the plastics wrapper and your nose will fast fill with a big blast of booze fumes. Nevertheless, while fairly full-on flavour-wise for a Japanese confectionery, the taste on the tongue is actually very well tempered and not overpowering at all. In fact, while I love a pint at the bar, I generally don’t go for alcoholic chocolates but these get the thumbs-up big time. So, many thanks indeed, Manami! Saikou desu!
Boxes of Beauty
And from great taste to great packaging because as is the case with most okashi lines, the packaging employed for Meltykiss is excellent. Using high-grade double-printed paperboard boxes with debossed and reflective lettering, the packaging is visually distinctive without being tacky. It is also highly tactile with some nice rounded edges on the white chocolate variants. As such, a box of Meltykiss makes for a pleasant present for either yourself or someone else. Again, many thanks, Manami!
Moreover, the boxes used by the flagship line feature resealable lid flaps that utilise nicely integrated slots and catches. At the same time, the Slim Kiss tablets come packed in boxes with closures borne of a natty press-down tongue design. Although atypical of confectioneries in the West, this feature is fairly common in Japan, being used by other okashi brands, such as the corresponding formats of Crunky and Ghana from Lotte.
Pleasing Protection to Hand
Yep, as is the case with most if not all okashi, the Meltykiss packaging is well thought-out, highly ergonomic and suitably protective of the contents while making the line stand out on the shelves. Nevertheless, these are not high-end products per se. Generally retailing in convenience stores and supermarkets at around the one-to-two-pound mark, the Meltykiss brand falls within the standard Japanese confectionery price range and in so doing highlights another clear geographical difference between Japan and the UK.
In Britain, bog-standard brands get bog-standard packaging. In Japan, however, even run-of-the-mill items are generally presented in high-quality packagings endowed with numerous nice touches and an attention to detail that makes an otherwise rudimentary and utilitarian item a joy to behold and use. But then, this is the country that gave the world origami, the art of paper folding, so maybe this should not come as a major surprise.
The Significance of Seasonality
Whatever the case, the Meltykiss brand also embodies another big difference between Japan and the contemporary West: seasonality. While this is not unique to Japan (Cadbury’s Creme Eggs, for example, are only available between New Year’s Day and Easter in the UK), it is nonetheless something that is of far greater importance to not only the Japanese retail market, but also the Japanese psyche as a whole.
While this can be seen in numerous cultural and artistic practices, such as formal greetings in letters, festivals and even traditional architecture2, this seasonality is particularly apparent when it comes to Japanese food, both farm fresh and factory formed. In the West, modern agricultural techniques and global supply chains mean that otherwise seasonally-specific fruit and veg is available to purchase all year round.
Harmony and Order
In Japan, though, there is still a clear emphasis on the seasonal nature, and ergo the transient joys, beauty and virtues, of specific foods and foodstuffs. While this can range from eating oden in winter or takenoko (bamboo shoots) in spring, it is also very much in evidence when it comes to okashi, as demonstrated by the appearance of chestnut Kit Kats in the autumn, sakura sake ones in the spring and, indeed, Meltykiss in the winter. But that’s not all.
Rather than being borne of some technical or logistical inefficiency as a Westerner might assume, such a situation is actually quite deliberate, stemming instead from the cultural and philosophical importance ascribed to the divsions of the year and the rhythms of creation. A Brit might find a lack of strawberries to buy in December bothersome; a Japanese might see it as a sign of harmony prevailing within the natural order of things.
More Than Just WIGIG
Hand in hand with this is the Japanese love of limited-edition flavours and variants that sees manufacturers ever changing and tweaking their portfolios with short-lived products and limited-edition packagings that can instil a sense of freshness and even excitement in an otherwise dull shopping trip.
Now, I realise that this could all just be put down to the ‘scarcity effect’. Particularly associated in the UK with the German Aldi and Lidl discount supermarket chains, this idea is commonly referred to in retail theory as WIGIG, viz When It’s Gone, It’s Gone, and comes loaded with the implied assertion that you need to buy as much of an item as you can right now because the chance won’t come again. ‘Limited edition’, meanwhile, can not only imply scarcity and exclusivity, but also the justification for an inflated price tag.
However, while I’m not suggesting that such cynical psychic tricks are beyond the grasp of Japanese retailers, I do believe that there may well be something more at play here than merely the crafty manipulation of suggestible shoppers. Indeed, I can’t help thinking that the limited nature of the Meltykiss line’s availability can be traced back (at least in part) to another important and related Japanese concept: that of impermanence. Life, and everything within it, is fleeting at best. Like the beauty of the sakura that heralds the arrival of spring, it must be appreciated as and when it can be before allowing it to disappear and depart with dignity and grace.
Plugging a Spiritual Void
In the want-want world of the West, there is an existential terror within many a mind, a fear that we will all die and this is somehow wrong and unnatural, a very bad thing to be feared or, better still, ignored like the proverbial elephant in the room. In a desperate bid to stave off the sliding sands of the Reaper’s hour glass, there has thus developed an irrational cultural desire to fill this spiritual void with material trinkets in a vain bid to give life a sense of permanency that it simply does not have. Buy a big car and a giant TV. You’ll feel so much better.
In Japan, where the culture has long been shaped by the ever-present threat of typhoons, earthquakes and, to a lesser extent, volcanoes (the venerated Mt Fuji itself is an active volcano, albeit one that hasn’t erupted since 1707), there seems to be a greater acceptance of the ephemeral nature of life. That is not to say that people there are flippant about death nor that they are devoid of all materialistic mores, but there is a difference nonetheless and one that is evident in, for example, respective approaches to architecture.
Buildings to Boot
With the exception of short-term speculative structures (such as the gaudy glass-and-steel carbuncles currently cluttering the London skyline or the ugly new boxes destroying the Cornish countryside), Western architecture has typically sought to imbue a sense of stability, of the building and its owner(s) lasting for centuries if not eternity. Just think of such bastions as the Bank of England or St Paul’s Cathedral.
These sturdy edifices, along with so many other neo-Classical constructions, embody the notion of permanence. Not so traditional Japanese architecture, with its predominant use of degradable wood, paper and tatami. Even the Grand Shrine of Ise, which dates back two millennia, is rebuilt every 20 years in line with Shintoist ideas of death, renewal and, yeah, you got it, impermanence.
The Meltykiss Manifesto
Moreover, at the very heart of Japanese aesthetics are the writings of Yoshida Kenkō (1284–1350), a Buddhist monk who, among other things, stressed the importance of impermanence and how true beauty often only comes about when an item, such as a scroll, is just about to fall apart. This impermanence, while deemed negative in the West, is wholeheartedly embraced by Kenkō, who in his Essays on Idleness, states (as translated by Donald Keene3):
If a man were never to fade away like the dews of Adashino, never to vanish like the smoke over Toribeyama, but lingered on forever in this world, how things would lose their power over us! The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.
Certainly, in the context of limited editions, there is often the implied or stated notion in the West that ‘you have to collect them all’. While there are most definitely obsessive collectors in Japan (such as among the otaku fraternity, for instance), Kenkō would no doubt see such a desire as misguided and foolish. After all, in his view, “leaving something incomplete makes it interesting and gives one the feeling that there is room for growth”4. So maybe it’s good that I haven’t yet tried the premium chocolate Meltykiss yet.
A Meltykiss by Any Other Name
Who knows? But all that said, the thing I like most about these excellent chocolates is not their taste, texture, packaging nor even their seasonality and sense of impermanence. Rather, it’s their name. Meltykiss. What a concept!
Yep, I gather it’s a reference to snowflakes (a key graphical element of the line’s branding). I also get the idea of the chocolates ‘kissing’ your lips before melting in your mouth. But for me, I just keep thinking of what a literal melty kiss would entail. Lipstick on your collar? Molten mouth parts dribbling down your front more like.
And on that note, here’s the Crystals with a kiss-tastic all-girl Wall-of-Sound classic from 1963 (not to mention one of the greatest tracking shots in cinema history).
Notes and Credits
1) Yep, Meiji is quite a large company, achieving 2020 net group sales of around ¥1.25tr (£8.23bn; $11.42bn; food 84%; pharmaceuticals 16%). I had a walk round one of their factories in Saitama once and it was, er, big to say the least.
2) See, for example, ‘Kisetsu: The Japanese Sense of the Seasons’ in The Japanese Mind, ed Roger J Davies and Osamu Ikeno, (Tokyo: Tuttle, 2002), pp 153-158.
3) Donald Keene, Essays in Idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), p 7.
4) Ibid, p 70.
Words and pictures © Ignatius Rake.