The best selling chocolate bar in Japan is not a Japanese invention. It’s from the north of England and its name is KitKat. Since 2000 there have been more than 300 limited-edition and regional flavors of KitKat in Japan, where the chocolate bar has taken on a new meaning.
A Brief History of the KitKat in Japan
Japan saw its first KitKat in 1973, nearly 40 years after its launch in the UK. This was the traditional KitKat with two chocolate wafers wrapped in foil and covered with red packaging. Despite the Japanese market being famed for its difficulty to crack, the brands that manage to break through are rewarded by top sales. Examples include HMV, whose stores are closed worldwide except Japan and KFC, a fast-food chain that has taken over Christmases here.
The secret to KitKats original success is thanks in no small part to its name, KitKat, which bears a resemblance to the phrase “Kitto Katsu” which means “definitely win” in Japanese. Also, Japan has a gift-giving culture. Presenting a KitKat to friends, offspring or a fingernail-biting exam entrant gradually took on the meaning of good luck.
People would buy each other KitKats particularly before university entrance exams. In 2002, the company’s marketing team based in Kobe collaborated with Japan Post to create KitKats that were easy to post. They proved popular for entrants who lived far away or those who were stuck inside revising for the notoriously difficult entrance exams. The packaging of KitKats began to include a small space to write memos or even good luck messages for recipients.
From the 1990s, the first flavored KitKats started to be introduced worldwide, leading with the orange KitKat and the KitKat chunky. In 2004, a Japan special was launched. This matcha green tea delight was designed to appeal directly to the domestic market and came in a mini size.
KitKat Flavors, Japan Style
Unlike other countries, Japan does not have a first listing fee. So, for each new line that appears, there is no need to pay extra for the initial sales. This means that creating new flavors does not cost any extra on the sales front. Japanese people are especially receptive to fun flavors and seasonal produce — each city has its own special food — and KitKat has been able to tap into this craving.
Japan has become a KitKat destination over the past 20 years, with KitKats in every souvenir shop. Tourists flock to Don Quijote to pick up any funky flavor they can get their hands on.
Best Regional KitKats
For anyone who has traveled south to Okinawa, the purple sweet potato KitKat is a must. Not only is the flavor the same as sweet potato, but the mini bars are purple too.
For those who haven’t ventured far from Tokyo but still enjoy a bit of spice, there is wasabi flavor from Shizuoka which is also creamy.
Travelers to the northernmost island of Hokkaido, famed for its fruits and dairy, are treated to the Yubari melon (orange honeydew type) flavor. These delicious bars are melon flavored and yes — you guessed it — colored orange. Special variations even include mascarpone.
Best Japanese Specialty KitKats
The most interesting ones, however, are of course, the craziest ones. Nihonshu (Japanese rice wine) flavor, for instance, is up there at the top. Found in certain shops in Tokyo and beyond, this flavor has an almost mythical feel as its availability is so limited. White chocolate with 0.8 percent Nihonshu used in each bar, these are bought for the novelty as much as for the taste, of which there are varying reviews.
Miso Flavor is another ‘only in Japan’ type. Yes, it’s slightly salty. Yes, it contains 0.9 percent of miso powder. Yes, it has to be tasted to be believed. Another uber seasonal variety is the Cherry Blossom flavor, which is usually sold in March and April. Japanese Plum, meanwhile, is a personal favorite. Available between February and March, it has the perfect amount of sourness and creaminess to create a subtle flavor fusion.
There are then some KitKats that go above and beyond. Since 2005, patisserie Yasumasa Takagi has been crafting gourmet KitKats using beautiful ingredients. Takagi’s creations, alongside customizable KitKats and extremely limited flavors are available at the KitKat Chocolatory, a gourmet KitKat chain.
You’ll find green pistachio and raspberry, yellow yuzu and orange cocktail noir. The KitKat Chocolatory sees queues throughout the day, with customers eager to get their hands on a slice of gourmet KitKat.