Around the world, chocolatiers are fascinating chocolate lovers by adding Japanese designs or flavors to their products. Some chocolates feature ukiyo-e images or recreate the shape of origami cranes. Yet others have a variety of flavors such as shiso leaves, ume or sansho pepper. These items evoke their creators' efforts and techniques to express Japanese beauty.
An increasing number of chocolates with Japanese twists have been hitting store shelves over the past three or four years, according to chocolate journalist Ayumi Ichikawa.
"With the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics approaching, there's a movement in Japan to look at our own culture anew," she said. "Social media services are also spreading, and these factors have brought new and photogenic designs into the spotlight."
Some of Ichikawa's recommendations are sold at Lien 1928, a patisserie at Hotel Gajoen Tokyo in Meguro Ward, Tokyo. The hotel is known for exhibiting about 700 Japanese-style paintings, including ceiling art. Inspired by these works, chief pastry chef Takeya Shono created a set of five pieces of chocolate featuring some of the hotel's ceiling paintings, priced at 2,400 yen (about $22).
The chocolates are made by placing three-color transfer sheets on a surface of bite-sized square bonbon chocolate to reproduce the original pictures depicting motifs such as cherry blossoms, a peacock and a woman in kimono.
Each of the five has a different flavor – the shiso-flavored one is especially peculiar. The herb is simmered in fresh cream and pureed before being mixed in the chocolate. The sumptuous piece of chocolate looks and tastes elegant, with the shiso's refreshing aroma spreading with every bite.
The shop also sells pieces that look like craftwork. For example, a pair of chocolates in the shape of origami cranes representing a couple is priced at 4,000 yen. Another pair in the shape of two temari balls is priced at 3,300 yen and needs to be preordered.
"These items are a perfect gift not just for people overseas, but also for those who have sophisticated tastes," Ichikawa said.
Hotel Gajoen Tokyo also sells a product called tamatebako, or a casket of sweets in two boxes made of chocolate for 20,000 yen, for which preorders are required. Shono was inspired by the history of the hotel, which is highly regarded for its luxurious exterior and furnishings. In the Showa era (1926-89), the hotel was referred to as Ryugu castle, a folkloric palace in the sea where a fisherman was given a tamatebako box as thanks for saving a turtle's life.
Gajoen's tamatebako includes macaroons decorated with Japanese patterns in the upper box, while the lower box contains baked sweets.
Another recommendation from Ichikawa is the Okada Museum Chocolate series, which features designs inspired by art held at the Okada Museum of Art in Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture. A set of eight pieces is priced at 4,800 yen.
One set is based on a mural on display at the entrance titled "Wind/Time." The original work by painter Kotaro Fukui measures 12 meters tall and 30 meters wide and depicts the wind and thunder gods. The chocolate pieces come in eight flavors, including sour cream and ume, and yuzu and wasabi.
"The pieces are made by master chocolatier Naoki Miura, who worked for the luxury brand Bulgari," Ichikawa said. "They have wonderful flavors, and his outstanding work always attracts attention in the industry."
Another set of eight pieces features the ukiyo-e masterpiece "Fukagawa in the Snow" by Kitagawa Utamaro, with the representation of pure white snow depicted on the chocolate's surface standing out. The pairing of flavors for the eight pieces are also distinctive, such as purple sweet potato with black sesame, Japanese chestnut with matsutake mushroom, and yuzu with fresh basil.
"Perhaps these chocolates can give you the feeling of rediscovering the splendor of Japan," Ichikawa said.