Just over a decade ago, a recently retired Kazuhiko Ochiai found he had some spare time on his hands. A former livestock researcher, Ochiai thought to try his hand at cheese-making. Fast forward to October 2019 and he's shot into the international spotlight — with a score of 82 points, his Brown Swiss cow's milk Mori no Cheese took a Super Gold at the World Cheese Awards, ranking 10th best in the world.

"I was really surprised and happy," says Ochiai, the president of Nasu no Mori cheese factory in Tochigi Prefecture. "I really didn't think I would receive something like that."

Given Japan isn't known for its dairy, "Japanese cheese" might sound like an oxymoron. Yet its market is maturing quickly: After the Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement came into effect last February, Japan was added to the list of countries permitted to export cheese to the EU. The country's subsequent premiere at the World Cheese Awards in Bergamo, Italy, was a success: Of the more than 40 entries from Japan, 15 took home prizes.