Wasabi, green tea and sake aren’t just foods in Japan, they’re also a few of the many versions of KitKats on offer.
While the wafer-and-chocolate snacks have been available in more than 300 flavors here for more than four decades, recent offerings, from custard pudding to ginger, have made the nation the go-to destination for picking up odd variations. They’re so popular among tourists that Nestle SA is building its first KitKat factory in 26 years to meet booming demand.
It’s no surprise, then, that Japan boasts the world’s second-largest consumption of KitKats. Nestle Japan will start operating a second factory in the city of Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, from August dedicated to making upscale, pricier versions of the snack.
That’s probably a safe bet, thanks to Japan’s tourism boom. Spending by visitors surged to a record ¥2.5 trillion ($22.5 billion) in the six months through June, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization. They’re also spending more on snacks, with candy consumption more than tripling over the past four years to ¥131 billion in 2016, according to the Environment Ministry.
“We have KitKat back in Germany, but it’s not the same,” said backpacker Matt Borscak, 34. “The cultural touch makes it interesting. I bought a few packs of the wasabi ones, and I can’t wait to shock my friends.”
A popular destination for fans of the snack is the KitKat Chocolatory in an underground shopping center connected to Tokyo Station, where Nestle sells high-end flavors that can fetch more than ¥1,500 per package. Boxes of gourmet seasonal flavors — raspberry and grapefruit — with some costing as much as ¥3,500, or more than 10 times the cost of a regular bag of KitKats, are stacked across a counter, wrapped in gold paper. On Tuesday, Nestle Japan opened its renovated Chocolatory flagship store in Ginza, Tokyo’s main shopping district.
“We take pride in our unique flavors and I think that makes Japan special in the KitKat world,” Takuya Hiramatsu, a spokesman for Nestle Japan, said in a telephone interview, noting that the company offers 30 flavors now. He cited matcha as a favorite of tourists and locals alike, with visitors also snapping up flavors like wasabi, sake and purple yam.
While KitKat chocolates debuted in the United Kingdom in 1935 and are an enduringly popular snack in North America and Europe, consumers in Japan embraced them in part because the product’s name sounds like the Japanese phrase kitto katsu (sure win). That has made them a popular gift for people about to sit for an examination or take on an important project. Packages adorned with phrases like “Do Your Best!” and “Believe in Yourself!” are popular during school entrance exam season.