Sure, I was going to Tokyo for work, but my mind was focused on cream puffs specifically, the ones whose sublime vanilla-bean-flecked custard nestles in a cradle of chocolate choux. During a trip to Japan last year, I had eaten a not insignificant number of these pastries, and I relished the opportunity to reacquaint myself with their virtues. But when I sidled up to a Tokyo store's cream-puff section yes, there is a fridge shelf dedicated to this particular genre of baked goods in many Japanese groceries to my great distress, my favorite dessert was nowhere to be found. Like so many food and beverage products in Japan's relentless market, it had been cast aside for newer fads: I found chestnut cream puffs, pumpkin cream puffs and green-tea cream puffs. But none of my vanilla-and-chocolate morsels of delight.
No other country is as obsessed with novelty as Japan. While product launches in the U.S. are often the stuff of great fanfare and huge p.r. budgets New Coke, anyone? endless iterations on an edible theme are the norm in Japan. American beer drinkers partial to Budweiser basically face a binary choice: Bud or Bud Lite, although they might occasionally find such niche-market products as Bud Select or Bud Extra. By contrast, when a Japanese beer drinker goes to buy a can of Asahi at an average convenience store, he has to choose between Super Dry, Premium, Prime Time, Black, Stout, Orion Draft, Northern Style, Clear, Flavorful, Gubi Draft, New Draft 3 and Ginger Draft, among others. And that's just this month's selection. (See pictures of Japanese design's greatest hits.)
Ever since post-war Japan tied its economy to innovation, the quest for novelty has assumed frenzied proportions. Most Japanese TV ads for food and drinks incorporate the mantra shin hatsubai, which roughly translates as "new product for sale." Indeed, Japan is the world's speediest economy when it comes to bringing new products to market, according to a study of 31 nations published in the September/October issue of Marketing Science. (Norway was second, with the U.S. ranking sixth.) Even international brands target the insatiable Japanese market differently. Pepsi, for instance, has introduced Japan-only products such as Pepsi White (a cola and yogurt drink that's supposed to conjure up a white Christmas), Pepsi Max (a zero-calorie soda with a lemony zing) and Pepsi Ice Cucumber (a green-hued, summery concoction). Cheetos, meanwhile, has expanded its repertoire in Japan by adding a strawberry-chocolate flavor, a far cry from its usual cheese-based snacks.
But Japanese consumers' affections are notoriously fickle. The current appetite for vegetable-flavored, canned alcoholic cocktails is already showing signs of waning. And targeted marketing can take on ridiculous dimensions Nice On, for example, is an energy drink that's supposedly just for golfers. Then there's Man Fragrance gum, which purports to release beads of rose and menthol essence through human pores so the chewer can change the smell of sweat. (The gum might make a nice chaser to Kirin's recent hit, Fire Menthol Coffee.)
Indeed, the greatest danger to the consumer of the never-ending parade of new Japanese products is developing an attachment to any one snack or beverage. Chances are, you'll soon enough find yourself standing bereft in a convenience store, scanning the shelves for a product that's been replaced by a newer craze. Which currently includes foods boosted with a nutritional supplement derived from pig placenta. Somehow, I just can't imagine that in a cream puff.