In recent years, I hadn’t really gone out of my way to celebrate Valentine’s Day any differently than in the way that I was accustomed to. Although shopping for the perfect gift can be a major pain, I had grown so reliant on boxed chocolates and candy arrangements that to even consider an alternative was out of the question. That was until I had a bit of a chat with one of Smith’s School of English Kyobashi’s students. She’d introduced a cooking school that was offering a special discounted baking class just in time for Valentine’s Day. One of the major differences with the way that Japan celebrates Valentine’s Day – as opposed to Canada – is that a good portion of the candies, cakes, and chocolates that get distributed are homemade! Imagine my surprise when I heard that! Homemade chocolates? The idea had never crossed my mind! So I was kind of surprised to hear about ABC Cooking School offering a special cake baking class just for the sake of Valentine’s Day. So, it was with great excitement that I signed up myself and another teacher at Smith’s for that limited time offer course.
ABC Cooking School and my first baking lesson
The ABC Cooking School that I chose was located in Umeda, above the hard-to-miss bright yellow Pokemon store in Umeda Center Building. We were both very eager to get into the baking so we arrived slightly early. Although the staff at the cooking school were a bit shocked and nervous to see two non-Japanese women stroll on in, they recovered nicely in order to greet us. They revealed that only one lady in the entire place spoke English so they were worried that we might not enjoy ourselves. But we reassured them that between the two of us, we would do our best to communicate in Japanese and have a great time. We were led upstairs to the second floor where all the baking and bread kneading was taking place. I was surprised at the size of the school, especially considering that they have so many locations. The first floor was dedicated solely to cooking full meals like lasagna, Japanese hamburgers with rice and a soup based sauce, and Chinese fried noodles with beef. Everything looked and smelled delicious. The second floor was divided into two sections. We were led to the cake baking section but left a clear view of the students in the opposite side of the floor whacking the lumpy bits out of their bread dough.
One of my biggest worries about the cake baking was whether or not I would be able to measure the ingredients accurately. A lot of the common measurements in Japan are different from the ones that I’ve been accustomed to using in Canada. The only other time I’d heard of the measurement ‘cc’ was when a doctor was discussing medications. However, in Japan, cc’s is the common measurement for liquid materials so the necessity of learning the conversion process is something I now feel strongly about. When we sat down at the counter to listen to the baking instructor introduce both herself and the cake that we’d elected to create, we noticed that there were a few funny looking shapes sitting on the counter. As the instructor continued to speak, describing what we would be doing, she pointed to the flat stick of butter that was already cut and at room temperature. The flour, sugar, and other ingredients were not far off, also within hand’s reach and premeasured. How convenient! When we got to the mixing part, I was really thankful that we’d managed to skip the measuring because I seem to be all thumbs in the kitchen. Most of the time, I’m a disaster just waiting to happen. The electric mixer took a while to get the hang of, as did the correct way of folding in the melted chocolate, but we eventually ended up with what looked and smelled like a chocolate cake mix. After pouring it evenly into 2 heart shaped cardboard molds, we popped them into the oven to bake while the instructor gave us a guided tour of the facilities. One of the great things about ABC Cooking School is that you get to eat what you make, and that’s what most people were doing by this time. In fact, nearly everyone on the first floor was already settling down to an oriental feast that stirred our appetites. About twenty minutes later, we were back at the counter slicing up our heart shaped chocolate cakes, pouring some more melted chocolate into the center of it, adding some white powder, gold flakes, and nuts for decoration. And just like that, dessert was ready for take-out!
Since we had booked this baking class 2 weeks before Valentine’s Day the only thing we could do with the cakes was eat them. And that’s exactly what I did with mine as soon as it got home. The only problem with that was not having anything to give on Valentine’s Day. The instructor had been nice enough to give me the recipe for the chocolate cake in order to sneak it into my regular cooking menu. But, she’d also included a recipe for chocolates. As I mentioned earlier, I had never ever considered making my own chocolates before coming to Japan. But seeing the flocks of women crowding around the chocolate-making kits in such stores as the Loft forced me to challenge myself. If that many people were determined to make their own chocolates and had the confidence to risk some trial and error, I thought that I might as well join them.
My fond Valentine’s card memories
Now – in Japan – chocolates are all the rage, but I remember how popular exchanging Valentine’s Day cards was during my elementary school years. There was nothing more important than filling up the little paper boxes that the teacher would attach to the front of every student’s desk. Afterwards, it became a competition to see who had received the most cards so counting them became a tradition in and of itself. Another vital point in the card giving/receiving tradition was to aim for the most popular and expensive cards. At the time, most students were only happy to receive Valentine’s Cards with their favorite cartoon character printed on them. That included heart-shaped cards with He-Man, She-Ra, The Real Ghostbusters, Rainbow Brite, Thundercats, and My Little Pony – to name a few. Anything other than that had to have been extremely colorful or well drawn in order to be graciously accepted without any complaints. In junior high school, the cards became a bit more sophisticated, not necessarily advertising for the most popular cartoon or TV series of the season. Along with the cards came the idea of secret admirers and chocolate/candy giving. The school would organize a secret application to be filled out where you could write a note to someone that you had a crush on, pay 50 cents, and have that note plus a heart shaped chocolate delivered to that special student on Valentine’s Day. Since it was anonymous, there really wasn’t any risk involved so this quickly became a profitable trend. Not long after that, the students were soon going out to the shopping malls to buy their own boxed chocolates and red roses to give to their high school sweethearts. Although the act of giving presents, especially chocolates, on Valentine’s Day is now mutually acceptable, when I was younger the focus was on the males doing most of the gift giving. The females would just sit back and anticipate receiving a box of twelve long stemmed roses, or a box of chocolates wrapped in red paper or foil.
Chocolates – honmei and giri-choco
Valentine’s Day in Japan is somewhat alien to me. There isn’t any tradition of exchanging cards or searching for your secret admirer after receiving a present with no name or return address. Instead, the focus is on chocolates – many, many chocolates. And, as I mentioned before, if you’re giving these chocolates to someone that you love or are rather fond of they really should be homemade. At least this is what I’ve been told because it’s become a Japanese custom to pour your unexpressed emotions into a batch of cocoa powder covered chocolate truffles. These chocolates are always made by the woman and given to her spouse, boyfriend, or to someone that she is romantically interested in. Giving homemade chocolates to the man that you have your heart set on is commonly seen as a perfectly acceptable method of confessing your true feelings for him. It kind of reminds me of the old saying that ‘food is the way to a man’s heart’. So these chocolates given to men that women are romantically inclined towards is referred to as ‘honmei’ (favorite or favored person).
There is another type of chocolates that are given to men on Valentine’s Day, but these ones have nothing to do with love. ‘Giri-choco’ (obligation chocolates) find their way into the stomachs of male co-workers, bosses, friends, and any other male associate that you wish to pay your gratitude to. However, any men receiving these giri-choco have to be careful because they need to be repaid on White Day (the reverse of Valentine’s Day, where the men must give chocolates to the women). As opposed to honmei chocolates, giri-choco are almost always bought, leaving the homemade ones for only special recipients. I spoke to quite a few students at Smith’s School of English Kyobashi who were going to give, or had already given giri-choco to their male co-workers. I learnt that it’s an unspoken custom for the newest female member of the office to organize the giri-choco buying, something that many women dread the responsibility of. There are so many different types and brands of chocolates to choose from in Japan that making such a decision is never easy.
As for the men who receive these giri-choco, most of them seem to be quite happy with upholding this very important tradition. It sometimes becomes a bit of a competition to see who will receive the most chocolates. The Japanese people, being as polite and considerate as they are, ensure that nobody is forgotten on Valentine’s Day. Whereas the gift giving in Canada is very selective, sometimes eliminating some people and overlooking others, such oversights are avoided in Japan. Usually, if a woman were intending to give chocolates to a man in the workplace that she might be interested in, she would prepare a separate batch to cover the remainder of men in that office. When one of my friends told me that she’d actually done that once, I found it difficult to believe at first. Wouldn’t the man that she was interested in feel jealous? But no, it’s a common understanding that every man in the workplace receives a fair portion of chocolates.
Hearing stories like my friend’s really inspired me to just go ahead with my chocolate making. I tend to procrastinate a lot when it comes to cooking so I brought a chocolate expert with me to the Loft one day to select my chocolate making ingredients. Oddly enough, the friend that I chose to accompany me was a man and not a woman. He’s also from Canada and continues to shock the Japanese ladies on Valentine’s Day by giving them homemade chocolates instead of receiving them! It’s a good thing that I had him along too because I selected chocolates that he told me would be weak in flavor and weren’t made of pure cocoa. So, with his help, I picked up a solid bag of pure cocoa chocolate, some cream, and glittery foil paper to shape the chocolates in. After verifying the chocolate melting instructions, and being warned twice not to burn the mixture, I set off home to make chocolates. So long as you don’t burn the chocolate as you’re melting it, you really can’t do too much damage… either that or I got lucky. The worst that could probably happen is that the chocolate doesn’t mix properly with the cream and ends up looking like a calico cat. And the reason why I know this is because I had a couple come out looking like that. But after slaving over the stove for nearly half an hour, slowly melting the chocolate, and then very slowly and messily pouring it into the individual glittery foil, I wound up with two platefuls of chocolates. And after having tasted them, I can honestly say that the best tasting chocolates are the ones that you make yourself. Or perhaps that’s my pride speaking. Either way, I definitely appreciated celebrating Valentine’s Day in the Japanese way this year, as did my husband I’m sure. All those chocolates sure did disappear fast!