Ask the experts what makes a good cheese, and at some point the conversation is going to get down to grass. After all, cheese comes from milk, and the best milk comes from animals raised on grass.

“In Europe, especially in the mountains, there are meadows, flowers and grasses. It’s perfect” — for cheese, that is — says Rumiko Honma, owner of Fermier, a gourmet shop in Tokyo that sells more than 400 handmade varieties, most of them from Europe. While European brands still dominate the Japanese market for high quality cheese, though, an increasing number of domestic makers are also trying their hand at gourmet versions.

Fifty-eight-year-old Noriyuki Ikagawa of Chiba Prefecture’s Isumi City is one of them. Early one morning this past February, Noriyuki and his wife, Akiko, were preparing a green smorgasbord for their three Jersey cows: Momo, Mimi and month-old Nana. The cows live outside on pasture year-round, but since grass is sparse in winter, Ikagawa piled their trough with rice straw, hay, alfalfa and turnip thinnings from a nearby farm.

While the cows dug in contentedly, the couple settled in behind and started milking.

“The quality of the milk almost totally determines the taste of the cheese,” says Noriyuki. The two moved to Isumi’s Rokku district in 2007, after Noriyuki left his job at a Tokyo agricultural company to pursue a dream of owning a small farm in the countryside. Cheese came into the picture after Noriyuki’s former boss gave the couple a gift of two cows.

They decided cheese would be the best use for the relatively small amount of milk that the cows gave, and, having spent seven years in rural Switzerland in the 1990s, they chose a mild semisoft Swiss variety called Mutschli. Fortunately, their plan meshed well with Chiba’s lush countryside.

“When we first came here, we talked to a lot of farmers,” says Noriyuki. “Everyone thought of grass as the enemy, since weeds grow well year round. But I thought, ‘Isn’t there a way to use that grass? If I can do that, farming will definitely become more fun.’ ”

In 2008, the couple remodeled their bathroom into a cheese workshop, and Noriyuki headed to Switzerland to study cheese-making techniques with a farm family. By November, the couple had branded the first creamy yellow rounds of Mutschli under the name Satoyama no Cheese, and, with their first sale, they joined a small but growing band of artisanal cheese-makers who are starting to carve out a niche for high- quality domestic product in Japan.

“Artisanal cheese” refers to cheese made in small batches, largely by hand, using traditional methods, but the term “natural handmade” is more commonly used in Japan. Kaoru Yoshimura, of the Japan Dairy Council, estimates that there are about 100 makers producing natural handmade cheese in Japan, with 70 in Hokkaido. TV celebrity Tanaka Yoshikazu’s Hanabatake Bokujo is one particularly famous example.

More may be on the way. Yoshimura says that over the past three years about 100 people have attended the Dairy Council’s annual workshop on starting an artisanal cheese business. A market certainly exists. Demand for cheese of all sorts is booming in Japan, thanks to the recent wine craze and the increasing popularity of foreign foods.

The Japanese now consume more than 2 kg of cheese per person per year, up from 1.1 kg in 1990 and just about zero a century ago (but still a mere grating compared to the 24 kg per person per year consumed in France). And shopkeepers say more and more customers are going for stinkier, sharper, less familiar cheeses.

Nevertheless, processed varieties continue to dominate Japan’s cheese production, making up more than two-thirds of the 150,000 tons of cheese produced domestically in 2007. Mass-produced natural cheese, in particular mozzarella, Gouda and Camembert made up most of the remaining one-third (natural cheese contains living cultures; processed cheese is natural cheese that has been heated to halt ripening). Most high- quality natural cheeses are imported.

These statistics are evident in the cheese aisle at Tokyo’s National Azabu Supermarket, where the mostly foreign customer base fuels a vigorous trade. Among a sea of 300 cheeses from around the world, Japan is represented by several processed Kraft versions and one lone artisanal variety, a fresh mozzarella from Takanashi Farm. Dairy department manager Satoru Hasegawa says he’d like to sell more Japanese cheeses, if they were available.

The story is the same at Meidiya supermarket, Honma’s shop Fermier, and the cheese corners at the department stores Isetan, Matsuzakaya and Takashimaya. Each offers a respectable if pricey selection of imported artisanal cheeses, but a mere handful of domestic ones. That’s partly due to small-scale makers preferring to sell direct in order to maximize profits and partly as such makers are relatively few in number.

If quantity is still low, however, quality is anything but. Despite challenges, such as a ban on raw milk use, Japan has recently started turning out some world-class cheeses. A creamy cheese scented with cherry leaves made by Hokkaido’s Kyodogakusha Shintoku Farm won the gold medal at the 2004 and 2007 Mountain Cheese Olympics in Switzerland, where many competitors had centuries of history behind them. Japan’s legendary attention to detail, it seems, is making up for lack of experience in the precise world of cheese.

“Technical skills in Japan are excellent,” says Honma, who writes a column on Japanese cheese for Fermier’s monthly cheese newsletter.

The Ikagawa farm, however, is learning that there’s more to good cheese than precise measurements.

“Cheese is a living thing,” says Noriyuki. “You’ve got to work so the bacteria feel good. I feel like we’re raising it, more than making it.”

“It’s kind of like a baby,” adds Akiko, whose cheese has so far sold out in advance to neighbors, friends and people who saw a recent special about the couple on the Asahi TV program “Jinsei no Rakuen.” That’s a good start, but they hope to do more than simply make tasty cheese. Via good farming and good food, what they want to do is help revive Japan’s languishing countryside.

“When we lived in Switzerland, food and farming traditions were still valued and passed down in every town,” says Noriyuki. “There were a lot of small value-added facilities, such as butchers and cheese factories, and people in the community worked together. That culture is disappearing in Japan. There, everyone valued their own village.”

“We want to do that in Isumi, too,” says Akiko. Cheese may be the first delicious step toward achieving that goal.

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