Japan has more way-out KitKat flavours than in your wildest imaginings, and they’re a massive cultural phenomenon. Here’s an introduction – promised on the first day of my blog, and finally here! And over the coming weeks you’ll be able to enjoy – vicariously, through my tasting notes(!) – some of the delicious, but completely bonkers flavours.
If your appetite for food, travel or spectacle ever becomes jaded, get yourself to Japan and it will completely reawaken, just as quickly as if you’d been slapped sharply around the face.
Throughout my first trip in February, my senses were assaulted – in a very, very good way – by a whole riot of left-field experiences, sights and taste sensations. But expect to hear more from me on all that some other time. For today we’re taking a trip (in every sense) into one specific Nippon food-culture phenomenon – the surreal and sensational world of Japanese KitKats.
The standard KitKat was originally launched by the northern England sweetmaker Rowntrees (bought by Nestlé in 1988) over 80 years ago. Urban myth has it that it takes its name from London’s KitKat club in the 1920s.
KitKats are now sold in over 100 countries, having become – and remained – a bestseller in Britain within a couple of years of their introduction. Apparently, around 22 billion KitKat fingers are eaten globally every year (or 700 a second).
But however fond Brits are of a KitKat, that is as nothing compared with the Japanese, 6,000 miles away from where they originated. KitKats are an enormous phenomenon in Japan, where they inhabit a wholly unique dimension, simply not dreamed of elsewhere.
Japanese KitKat Flavours
If you thought the British peanut butter flavour KitKat – or the introduction of a chunky version – was avant-garde, then think again. In Japan, over 300 KitKat flavours have been created since they were first introduced there in 1973.
Some can be categorised neatly as alcohol, tea, or fruit-flavoured. But for me, the very best are the completely random Japanese KitKat flavours – clearly the product of a beautifully twisted, Willy Wonka-esque mind, and/or an evil-marketing genius. They epitomise everything that is freaky, colourful and wonderful about Japan.
When the Japanese have a KitKat that comes with cooking instructions (!) (pictured below, but on which please wait for more in my next KitKats post), then it shows up just how sadly restricted and pedestrian our KitKat options in the rest of the world really are!
Many Japanese KitKat flavours have been limited editions; many more are just sublimely bonkers. Some rare limited editions become collectors’ items. And some – which are marketed as very high-end, gift-boxed, premium editions – are only for sale at department store ‘KitKat Chocolatory’ counters. These seek to rival European gourmet chocolatiers such as Godiva, La Maison du Chocolat and Pierre Marcolini, which are also present in Japan.
Several KitKat variations pick up the flavour of a food specifically associated with a particular Japanese city or prefecture, and are mostly only available in that region. So for food lovers who also enjoy a bit of cultural kitsch (that’ll be me then), searching out the local KitKat flavours adds yet another dimension to the already overwhelmingly tantalising journey of taste and visual discovery that travelling around Japan brings.
On initial arrival in a city, the KitKat flavours in the train station kiosk can even serve as a preliminary signpost and jumping-off point for delving deeper into local cuisine highlights.
I used to be fond of a KitKat back in the day when eating sugar was allowed, and it was with a renewed childlike enthusiasm that I became mildly obsessional about sniffing out the different flavours available in each area of Japan I visited. Which is why you’ll be getting several more posts from me on this subject, along with my tasting notes – someone had to do it!
How did KitKats become a Japanese phenomenon?
The first KitKat was sold in Japan in 1973, since when it’s become one of the country’s best-selling chocolate brands.
In some large part, KitKat’s riotous explosion in Japan is down to its name sounding similar to the Japanese phrase in the Kyushu dialect “kitto katsu”, which roughly translated means “you’ll surely win”. So in Japan, a tradition has emerged of KitKats being given as good luck gifts. What good luck for KitKat’s marketing department!
Around 15 years ago, booming KitKat sales started to be noticed each January as people bought them as good-luck gifts for students taking university entrance exams. Many KitKat packets now have a space on the back for writing a personal “to” and “from” gift message. And quirky initiatives such as a KitKat croissant, a KitKat that can be used as a train ticket, and a Japanese restaurant selling KitKat sandwiches, have all helped to cement its place in Japanese culture.
Although it was hundreds of years ago when Dutch sailors originally brought chocolate to Japan, it was only during the American occupation after World War II that it took off. Being very sweet to Japanese tastes, compared to their traditional confectionery, chocolate is usually considered a treat and only eaten in small amounts. Nestlé have suggested that this Japanese relationship with chocolate – different to that in so many other countries – has helped provide fertile ground for the myriad flavour innovations, and its unique market-positioning as a beloved brand with several high-end options.
Patisserie Chef Yasumasa Takagi must also take much of the credit. He runs a high-end shop and cafe, Le Patissier Takagi, in the chichi Aoyama district of Tokyo. He is celebrated as a creator of luxury handmade confection, and has invented many of the most exotic KitKat flavours.
Takagi cites the biggest challenge as being how to make something artisan out of an industrial brand. To do so, he experiments with different combinations of cream and chocolate (the wafer tends to stay the same) and uses no colourings or artificial flavourings. If you’re buying a strawberry KitKat in Japan, then it will have real strawberry in it.
Passion-fruit flavour was Takagi’s first KitKat invention. He says that in all his work he aims to make people happy, surprise them, and evoke an emotional reaction. And that was definitely demonstrated for me when I was in London’s Japan Centre Store recently. I just happened to see a young Japanese woman’s face light up as she ran delightedly from her group of friends towards a bag of matcha green tea KitKats. She picked up the bag and clutched them to her heart as she said excitedly ‘my mother used to buy these for me’.
So the KitKats on sale in Japan have sort of become a local delicacy, and are certainly deeply embedded in the national psyche. They are such a cultural phenomenon that, what was described as the first dedicated KitKat shop in the world (although it’s actually a department store concession), opened in Tokyo in 2014.
These KitKat Chocolatory boutiques, under Chef Takagi’s supervision, have since opened in the basement food halls (known as ‘depachika’ – imagine the Japanese equivalent of Selfridge’s foodhall) in other country-wide flagship department stores such as Daimaru and Takashimaya.
The Chocolatory I visited in a Tokyo Daimaru branch had a longish queue of Japanese, looking to be spending significant sums on KitKats. But apparently many Chinese, Korean and European tourists (including this European tourist!) also wish now to buy them as novel take-home gifts.
Where do I buy them?
If you’re visiting Japan, you can find KitKat variations in almost every Japanese newspaper kiosk and confectionary aisle. And I saw a very good selection in duty free when I was flying home from Tokyo’s Narita airport.
If you want to try the high-end varieties and you’re in a big Japanese city, then head to the foodhall of large department stores such as Daimaru and Takashimaya. The KitKat Chocolatory also has an online store, which seems only to ship to addresses in Japan.
If you’re in the UK, then you can buy a limited range of Japanese KitKats from the Japan Centre in London’s Shaftesbury Avenue, or online from its website. They’ve also got them on Amazon, if you choose to use them.
They’re not terribly cheap in Japan, and so neither are they in the UK. Last week I saw raspberry flavour in the Japan Centre for £8 a bag for 12 double mini-sticks, and previously I’ve seen bags of matcha green tea flavour there at the same price. But eaten in the true Japanese way, as a small and unusual treat – one mini packet works out (with bizarre symmetry) at around 66 pence, 66 kcal and 6.6g of carbs. So it isn’t going to kill your wallet – or, indeed, your diet, if, as I do, you worry about such things. And you could always do something interesting with them – like serve them to guests as a cheeky garnish to a Matcha Green Tea Affogato – as I did.