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Sweet memories: 35 years of Japan's DIY chemistry-set candy Nerunerunerune

The "Fun Sushi Kit" DIY candy set completed in about 30 minutes is seen in Kita Ward, Osaka, on June 3, 2021. (Mainichi/Satoshi Hishida) =Click/tap photo for more images.

OSAKA -- Making and eating your own candy is fun, and for 35 years now, Japanese confection Nerunerunerune has been giving kids an easy way to experience just that. The do-it-yourself candy remains hugely popular with children to this day. But how did Kracie Holdings, a huge Tokyo-based firm and household name, come up with such an eccentric product?

    Nerunerunerune is a strange candy. If you add its two types of powder to water in a certain order and mix them, the solution's color and texture changes. You can eat the fluffy, creamy result with a spoon, or add toppings while you eat.

    But I can't have been the only kid whose parents refused to buy it for them because it was apparently "full of stuff that's bad for you." I recently got to try the grape flavor when my child shared it with me. The refreshing, soft cream and the accent from the crushed candy topping gave it a delicious flavor beyond what I'd imagined.

    Nerunerunerune, one of Kracie Holdings' educational candy products, is seen in Kita Ward, Osaka, on June 3, 2021. (Mainichi/Satoshi Hishida) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    Still, I thought, it doesn't seem right that just by mixing water with something, you can get all these color changes and thick textures. Perhaps there really is something bad in it after all?

    When I tentatively put the question to Rie Konagaya, 37, a member of the PR team at Kracie Holdings, she laughed and used the grape flavor as an example to explain.

    The powder that goes in first contains baking soda (sodium hydrogen carbonate) and anthocyanins extracted from red cabbage. Anthocyanins react to acidic and alkaline substances by changing color. When mixed in water, the alkaline baking soda makes it turn blue. Add powder containing citric acid, and the anthocyanins react again, taking on a reddish hue. The baking soda also reacts to the citric acid, making it swell into a soft material. Talking to Konagaya was almost like being in science class -- it turned out the talk of it being bad for you was untrue.

    I wanted to know though, why would a company like Kracie, with all its hit products, also have such a left-field candy concept among its offerings?

    Nerunerunerune's 1986 debut was apparently brought about by kids playing in a sandpit. "An employee at our food product research institute who was considering making a new product using powder had the idea for Nerunerunerune when they saw kids at a sandpit enjoying mixing the sand with water," Konagaya said.

    The product, which combines the yumminess of candy with materials kids love to play with, was a massive success. Its TV commercial fronted by a spellbinding witch also played a big part in making children aware of Nerunerunerune.

    Kracie Holdings' educational candy range is seen in Kita Ward, Osaka, on June 3, 2021. (Mainichi/Satoshi Hishida) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    It has also undergone numerous evolutions since, with 24 different varieties including Oekaki Gummi Land, in which kids can mix the three primary colors to make gummy sweets of varying colors and flavors, Tsukameru Fushigi Dama, which involves putting powder into water with another powder's solution to harden the liquid candy, and Pizza Party -- which really does taste like one.

    There's also a rich variance in the way they're made, with some kneaded, some stretched and others even microwaved. The miniature sweets, hamburgers and other items you can make with them are fun to look at, too.

    I tried the Fun Sushi Kit that offers the chance to make candy roe and tuna, among other sushi "neta" toppings. For the rice, I mix powder with water, and put a liquid in the trays for creating the candy facsimiles of tuna and eggs to harden them up. The roe comes from a liquified powder popped out with an eye dropper to make them into single balls. After about 30 minutes, I was done. They looked amazing, just like the real thing, and I felt so accomplished.

    Because there's nothing like it abroad, for years it has been a popular souvenir among inbound tourists. Nerunerunerune has also been featured on Japan Video Topics, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs YouTube channel promoting Japan's attractions to people at home and overseas. It's one part of the "cool Japan" initiative.

    To ensure kids can do it all themselves, the company hasn't just made efforts to streamline the building process -- the receptacles and the instruction booklets, too, have been given special attention. Safety is also taken seriously. The company checks that the ingredients won't get caught in young throats, and inspects its products from multiple angles.

    Creating the candy also gives children the opportunity to develop an interest in science, and to understand the primary colors. Completing a set after going through trial and error also builds confidence.

    In 2005, Kracie began expanding the product line and calling them a "DIY candy for kids" that would develop their creativity. The firm says it aims for children to cultivate their individuality, learn to enjoy making mistakes, and appreciate difference through making and eating the confections.

    Nerunerunerune has also seen use in educational settings. Kracie has started a "DIY candy classroom" in the hope it will help with introducing the products to science and integrated study classes for lower-year elementary school students. Kracie employees take on the teacher role to give lessons using Nerunerunerune.

    Konagaya, too, has been to schools with the program, and told me happily, "The children get a chance to do experiments using familiar candy, and you can see their eyes light up when they take part."

    During the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, demand for Nerunerunerune that could be enjoyed at home rose, and the product's sales rose by about 20% on the previous year. "It seems many people stayed home and had fun making them together," Konagaya said.

    It seems these candies haven't just made sweet experiences; they've also given families happy moments together.

    (Japanese original by Satoko Suizu, Osaka Editorial Production Center)

    In Photos: A look back at Nerunerunerune, Japan's educational candy phenomenon

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