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Thais find sweet tooth for Japanese confectionery

BANGKOK -- Japanese sweets are becoming increasingly popular in Thailand as more Thai people have firsthand experience in Japan and social networks spread information quickly and easily.

"My daughter is a huge fan of Shiroi Koibito," said Chaluchorn Sukvirasthanon at a special sales event featuring Japanese confectionery at a department store in central Bangkok. The event runs from late April to mid-May. "Since this is a rare opportunity to buy it without going to Japan, I splurged on two packs," she said excitedly. Shiroi Koibito is a well-known Japanese cookie from Hokkaido, the northernmost island. A pack of 18 cookies, made and sold by Ishiya, is priced at 840 baht ($23.8), more than double the price in Japan. But that did not make her think twice.

Another popular brand is Tokyo Banana, a fluffy spongecake filled with custard cream, produced by Grapestone in Tokyo. Royce Confect's Nama Chocolate is a soft, fudge-like chocolate, and it is garnering lots of fans.

"The secret of making a hit in Thailand is using a texture that cannot be found here," said Shuhei Abe, manager of the business planning division at Jalux Asia, a local importer and sales agency of Japanese confectioneries. Royce's Nama Chocolate became a hit here because chocolate that smoothly melts in your mouth is difficult to manufacture in a country with high temperatures. It is also popular because it is from Hokkaido, Thais' favorite destination in Japan.

In line with the texture-based strategy, last December Jalux Asia introduced Omotcheese, a cross between a chewy rice cake and cheesecake. The product, made by Warakudo, also based in Hokkaido, has been rapidly growing in popularity. A pack of six Omotcheese cakes sells for 590 baht, or some 90% more expensive than in Japan. But daily shop sales have risen more than 10 times, the company said.

The craze for Japanese sweets is also boosting demand of products brought back from Japan as souvenirs. "Recently, someone came all the way [from Thailand] to our shop at the airport [in Japan] just to buy cartons of Omotcheese," a Warakudo official said.

Thai companies are now getting in on the trend. One is Siam Banana, which was developed by Ploypailin Srichalerm, a self-described "big fan" of Tokyo Banana. Based on her original recipe and manufacturing procedures, Ploypailin introduced the confectionery in January 2015. The price of an eight-pack starts at 220 baht, and a wide variety of flavors, such as mango and durian, are available. "I want to add more flavors using delicious Thai fruits," she said.

Siam Banana is now sold on flights by Thai Air Asia, a local budget airline. Along with locals, Chinese tourists are also buying the product.

Many Thais put great trust in products from Japan, evidenced by local companies using Japanese characters on their packaging of food and daily goods. The opportunity to cash in on this mindset may exist for smaller players, too.

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