February 28, 2011 | Food and Drink | No Comments
Few things can both physically and metaphorically encompass the current cultural transformations and bewildering fusion of new and old styles present in modern-day Japan, especially while being incredibly delicious and covered in chocolate: meet the world of Japanese KitKats.
When thinking about the vast stash of both satiating and repugnant flavors presented to the Japanese consumer, I am reminded of former first lady of the United States, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, who once said, ”If life were predictable it would cease to be life, and be without flavor.” For 75 years, KitKats have been making life a little more interesting, especially in Japan.
The history of KitKat starts in England, York to be exact, where in 1936, Rowntree’s of York made their first KitKat under the name ‘Rowntree’s Chocolate Crisp’, a chocolate treat designed to be placed in the working man’s lunch, specifically to be eaten at ‘break’ time… After the rise and fall of World War 2, Rowntree’s perfected their recipe and popularity spread throughout all of Europe.
In the 1970s, Rowntree’s began expanding outside of Europe and signed on for distribution in Japan through the Fujita Company. The advertising line, “Have a Break, Have a KitKat” or “Gimme a Break” (in the US) was penned soon after and, if there was every a country that needed to embrace such a tagline, it is Japan.
In 1988, The Nestle Company bought the Rowntree’s Company and in 1996, began to experiment with KitKat Orange in the UK. Following KitKat Orange’s major success, mint and caramel flavors quickly hit store shelves.
In 2003, pressure from global diet trends, as well as competition from other chocolate companies (notably Cadbury’s Dairy Milk and Hershey (who oddly enough manufacture all of the KitKats in the US due to prior contracts with Rowntree), sales dropped and a struggling Nestle was forced to figure out a way to outduel the stiff competition. Their answer: to embrace the public’s curiosity and produce a plentiful array of variant flavors and limited edition KitKats and Japan, an insanely curious and extremely idiosyncratic nation, was fertile ground for the reception of such radical and, some might say, unbelievable flavors.
Here are some examples of past KitKat flavors seen in Japanese stores but recently discontinued:
- Aloe Yogurt
- Apple Vinegar
- Adzuki Red Bean
- Bretagne milk
- Black Sugar from Okinawa
- Blood Orange
- Café Latte
- Calpis (drink)
- Camembert cheese
- Caramel Pudding
- Caramel Macchiato
- Caramel and Salt
- Cola and Lemon Squash (drink)
- Cookies and Milk
- Cookie Plus
- Custard Pudding
- Earl Gray Tea
- Fruit Parfait
- Ginger Ale
- Grilled Corn (from Hokkaido)
- Iced Tea
- Jasmine tea
- Kinako (Brown Sugar/Soy Flour)
- Kobe Pudding
- Lemon Chocolate
- Lemon Vinegar
- Mango Pudding
- Mixed Juice
- Passion Fruit
- Plum Soda
- Ramune (drink)
- Raspberry Framboise
- Raspberry and Passion Fruit
- Royal Milk Tea
- Sakura (Cherry Blossom)
- Sour Orange
- Sports Drink
- Strawberry and Cranberry
- Strawberry Milk
- Sweet Potato
- Triple Berry
- Watermelon and Salt
- White Peach
- and finally, of all flavors, Whole Wheat
In addition, here are the flavors, many of which are limited varieties that, for the time being (as of February 2011), you can purchase online or in various places on the islands of Japan:
- Bitter almond
- Black Tea
- Blueberry Cheesecake (from Tochigi)
- Citrus Mix (from Shikoku)
- Cherry (from Yamagata)
- Daigaku-Imo (“College (Candied) Potatoes”)
- European cheese
- Houjicha (Roasted Tea from Kyoto)
- Le Lectier Pear (from Niigata)
- Matcha (Green Tea from Kyoto)
- ‘Melty’ Almond
- Mikan (Mandarin Orange)
- Okinama Beni-Imo (Okinawa Purple potato)
- ‘Otona’ Dark Chocolate for adults
- Otoshidama (crispy original sent as New Years gifts through Japanese Post Office)
- Sakura Mystery Mix
- Sakuracha (Cherry Blossom Tea)
- Shinshu Apple (from Nagano)
- Soy Sauce (from Tokyo)
- Strawberry (from Tochigi)
- Strawberry Cheesecake (from Yokohama)
- Strawberry Cake
- Sweet Baked Potato (from Kawagoe in Saitama)
- Sweet Tofu (Annin Dofu from Yokohama’s Chinatown)
- Wasabi (from Shizuoka)
- White chocolate
- Yawata Five Spice Japanese Red Pepper (from Nagano)
- Yubari Melon (from Hokkaido)
- Yuzu Citrus pepper (from Kyushuu)
- and “Zunda” Edamame (Soybean) flavor (from Yamagata and Fukushima)
There are constantly new flavors coming out so this list of close to 100 flavors is constantly growing.
KitKats are also varying in size in Japan from the large 1-piece KitKat Chunky (Big Kat in the US) to the half-finger-sized KitKat Petit.
Recently in Japan, KitKats have been packaged with CD singles featuring music from independent Japanese bands such as Yura Yura Teikoku. “KitKat Crispy Monogatari”, another limited edition double pack of KitKats included a mini book featuring short stories by popular contemporary Japanese authors such as Koji Suzuki. In addition to books and CDs, KitKat has loads of other merchandise, most recently, pentagon-shaped coffee (The Japanese word for pentagon is “gokaku” (??) and it is a pun that also means “good match” (??) in Japanese.) mugs were in stores. The package is geared at encouraging students by giving them a KitKat, some coffee, and a mug with a Japanese cherry blossom design – a motif reminiscent of a new school year and graduation, which always happens when the sakura are in bloom.
In a culture like Japan, brimming with otaku and the Pokemon-esque “gotta catch em` all” spirit, collecting the immense variety of Japanese KitKats is both an entertaining and delicious enterprise. They certainly do not make it easy and and collecting can quickly become an obsession, I know. When you find yourself stopping at every convenient store you come upon just to see if you can spot a new variety, you’ll know your hooked.
You might be asking yourself, “Where can I buy crazy Japanese KitKats?”
Well my friend, here are some places in and outside of Japan:
Places to buy in Japan:
- Train Station Omiyage (souvenir) stores, especially Tokyo Station – You can find limited varieties scattered about in the underground mall.
- Convenient stores (must check often) – 7/11 Family Mart, Lawson’s, Coco, etc.
- Highway rest areas
Places to buy online outside of Japan:
And finally, if you are interested in reading other people’s reviews of Japanese KitKats, you can check out the blogosphere, my favorite is Jen Ken’s – who happens to be from my hometown.
All photos courtesy of Chuck Clenney.