One of the earliest commercials I saw when arriving in Japan was a video where a slow pan was done around an object that looked exactly like the one pictured above on the left while what sounded like a chorus of children sang, "la, la, la, la, la, la, la" again and again to a tune I didn't recognize. When the camera reached the angle that showcased the product in the best way, a man said with super clear and somewhat slow enunciation "hi-yo-ko." (hee-yo-ko)
I didn't know what it was, nor did I know what "hiyoko" meant, but brand name recognition for this product was stamped into my brain through the distinctive and repetitive commercials. Occasionally, I'll see one of the commercials these days, but with not nearly the frequency that I once did.
Despite having been in Japan for a long time, I had never actually seen one of these cakes in person until now. My husband was given a little box with two of these cakes. If you haven't guessed by the shape of the cake, "hiyoko" means "chick". Despite the fact that they are wrapped in differently colored papers, both are the same. They are a thin shell of bland cake wrapped around a lump of white bean filling. The beans are very finely ground and mixed with sugar and flavorings. The texture of the beans is hard to describe, but it's a tiny bit dry yet quite pleasant. It's not at all what you'd expect from a bean and reminds me more of light sweet potato puree (without the flavor of sweet potatoes).
Our Peeps. (Image ripped off from Wikipedia - with respect)
The cakes are quite nice, fresh and tasty, but not spectacularly better than other bean cakes (and not as good as some of the best I've had). The company that makes these has been in business since 1912 and the student who gave these to my husband said they are the most famous white bean cakes in Japan. I imagine that their popularity is due more to the distinctive and cute shape rather than anything particularly different about the recipe. The Hiyoko site is covered with "I love Hiyoko" pictures, wallpapers, and commercials for download. I guess it's like the Japanese equivalent of Peeps minus all the tooth decay.