KITAGAWA, KOCHI PREF. – From the coast of Kochi Prefecture, the road to Tosa Kitagawa Noen winds into the hills, following routes originally carved out to carry lumber down to the sea. These days, the virgin cedar forests that once covered the Shikoku hinterland have been logged out and the main cash crop for this area is yuzu.
This small, aromatic citrus fruit, prized for the fragrant zest from its emerald-green peel as much as for its juice, is grown in such large quantities in Kochi that the prefecture accounts for more than 50 percent of all Japan’s yuzu production.
Tosa Kitagawa Noen, the largest of the plantations in this district, is also one of the few that produces yuzu for export. The farm’s proprietor, Masaya Tadokoro, is used to greeting visitors, even celebrity guests such as Hidetoshi Nakata.
While Nakata is still revered for his former exploits as a professional soccer player, these days he runs Japan Craft Sake Company. Among many other activities, he organizes the annual Craft Sake Week, and it’s in this capacity he’s come to inspect the trees.
By the time the main harvest season arrives late in the year, the fruit will be a rich golden-orange color. In midsummer they are still a deep green, almost camouflaged against the foliage, but they are already plumping up, firm and full of mouth-puckeringly tart juice.
The main market for the premium yuzu grown at Tosa Kitagawa No-en is high-end restaurants in Kyoto, Tokyo and, increasingly, around the world. But recently there has been an upturn in demand from much closer to home, thanks in large part to the efforts of Hamakawa Shoten, a family-run sake brewery in the eastern part of Kochi.
Best-known for its premium Bijofu brand, the brewery has created a range of fruit beverages by incorporating various kinds of citrus juice into its signature brew. Yuzu, needless to say, is the star of this lineup.
Using honey as a sweetener instead of sugar, the sake is blended directly into straight yuzu juice, avoiding the more aggressively sharp flavors from the peel and pulp. The result is well balanced, not too sweet, relatively light in alcohol (at just 7 to 8 percent by volume) and remarkably easy to knock back.
Not withstanding its name, Bijofu Yuzu liqueur, it is more an aperitif than after-dinner drink. It has an elegance that sets it apart from generic yuzushu, the term used for beverages that are made by infusing crushed yuzu in sake or, more commonly, with shōchū or “white liquor.”
Hamakawa Shoten’s premium sake is already starting to be appreciated well beyond the borders of Shikoku, and has even begun limited international exports. However, the Bijofu brand now looks set to become much better-known since its selection as the latest flavor in the ever-expanding portfolio of Japanese specialty KitKats.
Nestle Japan officially launched the new chocolate snack at the beginning of this month, under the name KitKat Mini Yuzushu Bijofu. It’s the third in its line of sake-inspired chocolates, following on the heels of the successful 2017 KitKat Mini Japanese Sake Masuizumi, featuring sake from Toyama Prefecture, and last year’s KitKat Mini Umeshu Tsuru-Ume, made with umeshu plum liqueur from Wakayama Prefecture. All three are available only at select tourist outlets and through Nestle’s online store.
Nakata has played a key role in developing this series. Besides adding some star power to the promotion, he sees his role as helping to put Kochi on the map and channeling a much-needed economic infusion to the area. He also understands the boost that his connection with Nestle gives his work with sake.
“KitKat is a brand that is known internationally,” Nakata says, “whereas many people see sake as being very locked in tradition. I hope this new KitKat can help to further spread the popularity of the sake industry.”