Despite being a relatively recent Western import, Valentine’s Day in Japan is a big deal.
The celebration first became popular in the 1950s, when large department stores began selling chocolate products as gifts for women to give the special men in their lives. Gift-giving is an important part of Japanese culture, and in particular the gift of food—so much so that it’s an unspoken rule in Japan to bring back special snacks to give to your coworkers after going on a trip. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that Valentine’s Day in Japan has since spiralled into a full festive season, with gift displays springing up in department and convenience stores as early as January.
But don’t be deceived! As similar as this might sound to a regular Valentine’s Day, Japanese food culture brings a unique twist to the occasion. Every year, new Valentine’s Day food is released to take advantage of the season and attract new customers. Many of these snacks are only available for a short period, and launched at exclusive expos where shoppers can go hunting for the perfect gift. In the West, a Valentine’s day gift for foodies might include anything from a premium hot sauce to a date night at an expensive restaurant. In Japan, however, you’re more likely to buy your beloved foodie an exclusive, limited-edition Valentine’s Day snack from the crowded halls of a fancy department store.
Curious to learn more? Here are 5 uniquely Japanese Valentine’s Day gifts to get you started!
1. Nama Chocolate
Nama is a Japanese word meaning “raw,” but there’s nothing undercooked about this gift! Made with dark chocolate and fresh cream, nama chocolate is a kind of ganache similar to the filling you find inside chocolate truffles. The focus on simplicity and quality of ingredients make for an incredibly rich block of chocolate, with a smooth, fudgy texture.
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Because nama chocolate focuses on delivering a rich, creamy chocolate flavor, many people prefer to stick with the original. That said, matcha, or green tea nama chocolate is one of the most popular variations, introducing a slight bitterness to the chocolate and coloring the squares a gorgeous, vibrant green. Other common flavors include white chocolate, earl grey, and bitter chocolate. Whatever your preference, it’s hard to go past some of these beautiful gift sets, wrapped and themed for Valentine’s Day. Each box includes a small batch of delicious nama chocolate, just waiting to melt in your mouth!
2. Boozy Chocolate
Chocolate filled with alcohol is another well established Valentine’s Day favorite, and the perfect gift for chocolate lovers looking for something a little less cloying. Whether rum, cognac, or whiskey, the alcohol filling offsets the sweetness of these chocolates perfectly, lending an aura of sophistication to this classic Valentine’s gift. In Japan in particular, these chocolates often pack quite a punch, making them ideal for adult partners and friends.
Though typically sold as a box set featuring one specific spirit, during the Valentine’s season you can also find special gift sets with different alcohols in each chocolate. Best of all, plenty of these chocolates use uniquely Japanese beverages, like plum wine and various kinds of sake, making this the most delicious way by far to sample Japan’s various liquors!
3. Decorative Chocolate
If there’s one area Japanese food really excels, it’s in presentation. Valentine’s Day chocolates are no exception: every February, a new batch of visually stunning Japanese chocolates and candies hit the market. Motifs range from the elegant (an immaculately recreated rose) to the downright ridiculous (a detailed rendition of Godzilla)—but silly or serious, you’re sure to make an impression.
And while you might be tempted to think these chocolates are likely to taste better than they look, you’d be wrong. In fact, the opposite is true: more often than not, different colors also entail different flavors. For example, in this gorgeous array of chocolates designed to resemble the eight planets of the solar system (and ex-planet Pluto), each ball has a distinct, multifaceted flavor reflecting its coloring. It’s this kind of attention to detail that elevates decorative chocolate from a passing fad or a joke gift into a genuinely delicious and welcome treat.
4. Chocolate-Lite Options
But what if your significant other isn’t such a chocolate lover? Not to worry, Japan has you covered! With so much of the market dominated by chocolate, there’s real incentive for non-chocolatiers to find their own way into the Valentine’s Day buzz, and the end result—besides the expected assortment of cookies, cakes, and donuts—is some more surprising Valentine’s themed food. How surprising? Last year, for instance, you could have gifted your favorite foodie a slab of pink Valentine’s Day tofu!
Another startling Japanese Valentine’s Day option involves coating an existing snack food in a thin layer of chocolate. This means that among the Kit Kats, pralines, and peanut butter truffles arrayed in department stores in January, you’ll also find some more uncommon goods like chocolate yakisoba, chocolate potato chips, and ika choco: dried squid covered in melted chocolate. Only for the most adventurous foodie!
5. Strawberry Snacks
Valentine’s Day in Japan falls in the middle of one of Japan’s two strawberry seasons, so it’s no surprise that strawberry flavored snacks make for a popular romantic gift. In fact, strawberries are so strongly associated with Valentine’s Day in Japan that you can buy specially grown heart-shaped strawberries for the occasion!
In terms of Valentine’s Day gifts, popular options include strawberry-flavored varieties of classic Japanese chocolates like Kit Kats, Melty Kiss, and Kinoko no Yama chocolate biscuits. Even better, you can also find completely original strawberry snacks to gift your loved one, from actual strawberries dipped in white chocolate to sumptuous strawberry cakes and delicious, chewy strawberry mochi.
When it comes to Valentine’s Day gifts, Japan really has something for everyone. Whether you’re looking for a rich or a subtle flavor, a feast for the eyes or one for the tastebuds, a reliable classic or a one-of-a-kind experience—you can be certain there’s a Japanese treat that will be perfect.