Food & Drink

The rapidly maturing market for Japan's artisanal cheeses

by Phoebe Amoroso

Contributing Writer

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.

Lactose tolerant: After the Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement passed in February 2019, imports of European cheese jumped 57 percent. | ROBB SATTERWHITE
Lactose tolerant: After the Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement passed in February 2019, imports of European cheese jumped 57 percent. | ROBB SATTERWHITE

Japan’s European debut comes at a fortuitous time. The past two years have seen a domestic cheese boom, with consumption rising to an all-time high of 352,930 tons in 2018, an increase of more than 18 percent in five years. Restaurants across Japan are tapping into the trend with Instagrammable offerings such as gooey raclettes. Cheese sweets are also on the rise, with Marunouchi-based My Captain Cheese Tokyo creating a souvenir “cheese chocolate burger” that debuted in April.

Due to, or in spite of, these weird and wacky creations, consumers are beginning to develop an interest in so-called natural cheese, which is made with natural ingredients and doesn’t contain emulsifiers or artificial colors.

“When I first started 10 years ago, there were very few people who understood what delicious cheese was,” Ochiai says. “But recently, (the number of) people who like slightly stronger cheese or washed-rind cheeses has increased. Japanese preferences have changed.”

A parallel trend is occurring on the production side. Artisan cheese workshops are popping up all over the country, from the main dairy-producing region of Hokkaido to subtropical Okinawa. What’s more, these workshops are moving away from purely copying European techniques and beginning to produce creative cheeses that break the mold.

Curd check: A judge samples Kazuhiko Ochiai's Brown Swiss cow's milk Mori no Cheese at the 2019 World Cheese Awards. | COURTESY OF MALORY LANE
Curd check: A judge samples Kazuhiko Ochiai’s Brown Swiss cow’s milk Mori no Cheese at the 2019 World Cheese Awards. | COURTESY OF MALORY LANE

According to Norio Masuda, executive director of the Cheese Professional Association, Japanese cheesemakers are in a unique position that gives them the freedom to bring new cheeses to market. “In Europe, there are a lot of traditions and there’s a kind of pride that these traditions have to be protected. But in Japan, there’s not that pride so they can keep moving forward and innovating. That way of thinking has recently spread.”

One way Japanese cheesemakers are innovating is by incorporating regional products into their cheeses. Typifying this trend is Fromages du Terroir in Ome, northwest Tokyo Prefecture. Kazuko Tsurumi opened the shop in 2014 after an interest in selling cheese led her to spend five years in France, where she witnessed the significance French producers attached to terroir. After studying at a specialist dairy school, she returned to Japan and began making cheese using local Tokyo ingredients. Her Fromage d’Ome is washed with Sawanoi sake from nearby Ozawa Shuzo brewery, while her Fromage Ivre “drunken cheese” uses blueberry or grape pulp from a local winery.

Incorporating local ingredients is just one way to make cheese “Japanese,” says Malory Lane, founder of Japan Cheese Co., which will begin exporting Japanese cheese to the U.S. this year. Another way, she suggests, citing Mirasaka Fromage in Hiroshima Prefecture, is for the cheese to “look Japanese,” such as Mirasaka’s JukushiKaki, an orange goat’s cheese delicately shaped like a persimmon.

Other producers, such as Chiyo Shibata, of Sen in Chiba Prefecture, incorporate terroir by specializing in Japanese bacteria and yeasts. For Ochiai, simply using raw milk from cows raised naturally in the area is a sufficient expression of regionality.

This hobby paid off: Cheesemaker Kazuhiko Ochiai poses with his award-winning Brown Swiss cow's milk Mori no Cheese. | COURTESY OF KAZUHIKO OCHIAI
This hobby paid off: Cheesemaker Kazuhiko Ochiai poses with his award-winning Brown Swiss cow’s milk Mori no Cheese. | COURTESY OF KAZUHIKO OCHIAI

However creative their approach, domestic cheesemakers still face challenges. The Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement may have given them access to an international platform, but that works two ways: lower tariffs saw imports of European cheeses jump 57 percent in April 2019. There are also concerns over a shortage of high-quality cheesemaking milk, as the majority of milk produced in Japan is low-fat.

Against this backdrop, the domestic market is getting increasingly crowded. “I think there are about 300 cheese workshops now across Japan,” Tsurumi says. “But five years ago, when I first started, there weren’t so many. With the cheese boom in 2019, I think they will continue to increase. I need to do something different or I feel it will be difficult to survive.”

Tsurumi runs a course where cheese enthusiasts, or people who have already begun making it themselves, can learn more about the craft. She is also considering establishing a cheese school, because industry insiders agree there’s still a need for deeper understanding of cheese among domestic consumers, who can be unsure of what to buy or how to best enjoy it.

As for the international market, this year’s World Cheese Awards have left Lane optimistic. “Japanese cheese won’t seem alien anymore — just like people learned to accept that there is a thing called Japanese whisky and then they learned to accept it is a thing of quality, that putting ‘Japanese’ in front of it actually gave it distinction.”

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