From Our Halloween N.Y. Times Files: In Japan, the Kit Kat Isn’t Just a Chocolate. It’s an Obsession.

From Our Halloween N.Y. Times Files: In Japan, the Kit Kat Isn’t Just a Chocolate. It’s an Obsession.

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By TEJAL RAO
The New York Times

From Our Halloween N.Y. Times Files: In Japan, the Kit Kat Isn’t Just a Chocolate. It’s an Obsession.


The seven-story Don Quijote megastore in the Shibuya district of Tokyo is open 24 hours a day, but it’s hard to say when it’s rush hour, because there’s always a rush. A labyrinth of aisles leads to one soaring, psychedelic display after another presided over by cartoon mascots, including the mascot of Don Quijote itself: an enthusiastic blue penguin named Donpen who points shoppers toward toy sushi kits and face masks soaked with snail excretions and rainbow gel pens and split-toe socks. The candy section is vast, with cookies and cakes printed with Gudetama, Sanrio’s lazy egg character, and shiny packages of dehydrated, caramelized squid. It’s one of the few places where an extensive array of Japan’s many Kit Kat flavors are for sale. Though the chocolate bar is sold in more than 100 countries, including China, Thailand, India, Russia and the United States, it’s one of Japan’s best-selling chocolate brands and has achieved such a distinctive place in the market that several people in Tokyo told me they thought the Kit Kat was a Japanese product.

A Kit Kat is composed of three layers of wafer and two layers of flavored cream filling, enrobed in chocolate to look like a long, skinny ingot. It connects to identical skinny ingots, and you can snap these apart from one another intact, using very little pressure, making practically no crumbs. The Kit Kat is a sweet, cheap, delicately crunchy artifact of the 20th century’s industrial chocolate conglomerate. In the United States, where it has been distributed by Hershey since 1970, it is drugstore candy. In Japan, you might find the Kit Kat at a drugstore, but here the Kit Kat has levels. The Kit Kat has range. It’s found in department stores and luxurious Kit Kat-devoted boutiques that resemble high-end shoe stores, a single ingot to a silky peel-away sheath, stacked in slim boxes and tucked inside ultrasmooth-opening drawers, which a well-dressed, multilingual sales clerk slides open for you as you browse. The Kit Kat, in Japan, pushes at every limit of its form: It is multicolored and multiflavored and sometimes as hard to find as a golden ticket in your foil wrapper. Flavors change constantly, with many appearing as limited-edition runs. They can be esoteric and so carefully tailored for a Japanese audience as to seem untranslatable to a global mass market, but the bars have fans all over the world. Kit Kat fixers buy up boxes and carry them back to devotees in the United States and Europe. All this helps the Kit Kat maintain a singular, cultlike status.

The Kit Kat first came to Japan in 1973, but the first 100 percent, truly on-brand Japanese Kit Kat arrived at the turn of the millennium, when the marketing department of Nestlé Japan, the manufacturer of Kit Kats in the country, decided to experiment with new flavors, sweetness levels and types of packaging in an effort to increase sales. Strawberry! A pinkish, fruity Kit Kat would have been a gamble almost anywhere else in the world, but in Japan, strawberry-flavored sweets were established beyond the status of novelties. The strawberry Kit Kat was covered in milk chocolate tinted by the addition of a finely ground powder of dehydrated strawberry juice. It was first introduced in Hokkaido — coincidentally and serendipitously — at the start of strawberry season. Since then, the company has released almost 400 more flavors, some of them available only in particular regions of the country, which tends to encourage a sense of rareness and collectibility. Bars flavored like Okinawan sweet potatoes, the starchy, deep purple Japanese tubers, are available in Kyushu and Okinawa. The adzuki bean-sandwich bars are associated with the city of Nagoya, where the sweet, toasted snack originated in a tea shop at the turn of the 20th century and slowly made its way to cafe menus in the area. Shizuoka, where gnarly rhizomes with heart-shaped leaves have been cultivated for centuries on the Pacific Ocean, is known for its wasabi-flavored bars.

The most popular kind of Kit Kat in Japan is the mini — a bite-size package of two ingots — and Nestlé estimates that it sells about four million of these each day. In any given year, there are about 40 flavors available, including the core flavors — plain milk chocolate, strawberry, sake, wasabi, matcha, Tokyo Banana and a dark-chocolate variety called “sweetness for adults” — plus 20 to 30 rotating new ones. In August, Nestlé was preparing to release a shingen mochi Kit Kat, based on a traditional sweet made by the Japanese company Kikyouya, which involves three bite-size pieces of soft, squishy mochi packed with roasted soybean powder and a bottle of brown-sugar syrup, all assembled to taste. It seemed almost presumptuous for Nestlé to flavor a chocolate bar like shingen mochi, which is rooted in traditional Japanese confectionary, then stamp its brand on it and produce it en masse.

A sales clerk was restocking the Kit Kat display in Don Quijote when I asked her which were the most popular flavors. She shook her head. “They’re all popular,” she said. She gestured at the empty tunnels of matcha-, grape- and strawberry-flavored Kit Kats that she was filling as a small group of Chinese tourists carried armloads of glossy snack bags and boxes back to their shopping carts, undoing her work. An Australian father and son rushed by in a panic, their cart heaped with gifts to take back home. “Which one, Dad? Which one?” the child asked desperately, pointing to all the varieties. “It doesn’t matter,” the father shouted, as if the timer on a bomb were running out. “Just take one!”

The Kit Kat was first produced as a crisp, four-finger chocolate wafer bar in the 1930s, in Britain, by the chocolate manufacturer Rowntree’s. The company was named for Henry Isaac Rowntree, who bought a small grocery store in York that also operated a cocoa foundry. In the 1860s, the foundry was known for its finely ground rock cocoa, but the business grew quickly into candy- and chocolate-making. From the beginning, the Kit Kat was self-consciously packaged as a kind of workingman’s chocolate — as if the break of the bar could be aligned with the break the working class deserved from the monotony of their day. The Kit Kat was meant to be plain, unpretentious, cheerful. The stars of its commercials were often construction workers, cops or commuters taking five hard-earned minutes to enjoy a moment of sweetness in an otherwise bleak day.

In Japan, Kit Kats were first licensed by the Japanese sweets company Fujiya, which capitalized on the chocolate’s general association with Britain and the West. Early Japanese TV commercials for the candy drew on the chocolate bar’s British roots to promote it as a foreign product, depicting British soldiers breaking for a treat. But in 1988, Nestlé acquired Rowntree’s and took over manufacturing and sales in Japan, eventually changing strategies. Since 2010, sales in Japan have increased by about 50 percent. Japanese Kit Kats are now produced in two Nestlé-owned factories in Himeji and Kasumigaura.

There are three ways for a new Japanese Kit Kat flavor to make its way into the world. The classically trained pastry chef Yasumasa Takagi, a kind of Kit Kat maestro, was brought in by Nestlé as a collaborator in 2003, after the success of the strawberry Kit Kat. He may decide he wants to make a special bar and propose the new flavor to Nestlé — his first was passion fruit in 2005. The marketing team may also build a partnership with a brand, like Tokyo Banana, the locally famous cream-filled cakes on which the Kit Kat flavor is based, then ask a product-development team to experiment so they can bring a sample bar to the pitch meeting. Or the product-development teams themselves may feel inspired on a late night in the test kitchen after one too many cups of green tea and vending-machine sweets.

Only the fanciest bars are devised by Takagi, made with higher-grade chocolates and other ingredients, like dehydrated seasonal fruits, and sold in Kit Kat Chocolatory stores, the boutique-like shops for luxury versions of the bar. In some cases, they are decorated like plated desserts at a fine-dining restaurant, the Kit Kat logo entirely hidden by tiny, delicate, colorful crunchies, or individually wrapped like a gift — a single Kit Kat finger in a crinkly plastic wrapper, tucked inside a box. After Kohzoh Takaoka, now chief executive of Nestlé Japan, persuaded Takagi to work with the company, Takagi decided he wanted to make the bars more sophisticated, to play with the form and sweetness levels. He wanted, as he put it, to make Kit Kats for grown-ups, like the Chocolatory Sublime Bitter, a long, cigarillo-like bar of 66 percent dark chocolate, packaged in black and gold. (The marketing team uses the word “premiumization” to describe this part of Kit Kat’s strategy.) Now Takagi runs the brand’s Japanese Chocolatory shops, including the one where I met him, in a particularly posh part of the Ginza neighborhood in Tokyo.

“Japan is No. 1 in terms of sales and profits, compared with Nestlé’s other markets,” said Ryoji Maki, Nestlé Japan’s marketing manager at the time, who was dressed in a beautifully tailored suit and eating a tiny pudding cup. Nestlé did a market test after its strawberry flavor caught on in Hokkaido in 2000, to see how much production would be required for sales to go national. What it found was that the strawberry Kit Kat was especially popular among tourists, both Japanese tourists and those from abroad. Subsequent market tests suggested that Kit Kat had potential not just as a candy but as a kind of Japanese souvenir. The company looked to Kobe, Tokyo, Kyoto and other cities and wondered how to develop a chocolate for each that consumers might associate with the places themselves. Now Nestlé’s most recent flavors focus on regional Japanese products — maple-leaf-shaped cookies, plum wine, roasted tea.

There are also carefully chosen collaborations that capitalize on Japan’s culture of omiyage, which can be loosely defined as returning from travels with gifts for friends, family and colleagues. The Kikyou shingen mochi Kit Kat, which would go on sale in mid-October, would be sold right alongside the real Kikyou shingen mochi at souvenir shops and in service areas along the Chuo Expressway, a major four-lane road more than 200 miles long that passes through the mountainous regions of several prefectures, connecting Tokyo to Nagoya. With any luck, people would associate the Kit Kat with the traditional sweet and snap it up as a souvenir. But for this to be a success, for Kit Kat to expand into the souvenir market, consumers would have to believe that Kit Kat, originally a British product, was Japanese, and that although it was manufactured in a factory far away, it somehow represented the very essence of a region.

Before I could enter the Kasumigaura factory, northeast of Tokyo, I had to zip up an all-white coverall and place a white plastic skullcap under a hard white helmet, tucking in all of my hair. I had to wrap the exposed skin of my neck in a white scarf. I had to change out of my sneakers into the provided white slip-ons and take a fully clothed air shower with Takeshi Iwai, the factory’s production manager, in a sealed room the size of a linen closet. Afterward, side by side, we sticky-rolled our entire bodies for dust and lint and eyelashes and any other invisible debris that might still have been clinging to our clothes, to avoid contaminating the chocolate.

It smelled strongly of cocoa and toasted almonds on the other side of the doors. Iwai assured me that this scent changed daily, often more than once a day, according to what was being made. He also warned me not to run, because I might slip in my new shoes. Iwai studied microbiology at university and has been working for Nestlé since 2001; he has managed the Kasumigaura factory for the last three years. Wafers were the beginning of the line, the beginning of every single Kit Kat.

I stood mesmerized for a few minutes under an archway of uncut wafers, like edible golden window panes, which were being cooled by ambient air before they reached an actual cooler. I heard almost nothing Iwai said over the sharp clanging and drone of the machinery. The factory is large and open, loud and clean, its production lines totally transparent. But the wafers had been baked out of sight, most likely between engraved, molded plates. Now they looked like thin, delicate altar breads, floating above us. They formed a continuously moving line, the sheets traveling up and curving toward pumps of cream in the distance.

What makes a Kit Kat a Kit Kat? A Nestlé executive told me it was the shape of the connected pieces: those long, skinny ingots with their recognizable, ridge-like feet of chocolate surrounding each base. A few people said it was the logo itself, in big blocky letters, embossed on the top of each bar. But when I spoke with Takagi, the pastry chef, he didn’t hesitate. “The wafer,” he said. “The wafer!”

Wafers are an art form within the food industry. And although plenty of companies make decent wafers, there is something about the Nestlé wafer, Takagi said, that is quite extraordinary. Not that he knew exactly what it was. The wafer was the corporate secret, the heavily guarded soul of the Kit Kat. But like many lightweight, low-fat industrial wafers, the Kit Kat wafer is, very likely, mostly air and gelatinized wheat flour. It is crisp but not brittle. Crunchy but not dense. It is fragile but still satisfying to bite into. It is totally and alarmingly dry to the touch, like packing material. But after it has been touched with a little saliva, it doesn’t even need to be chewed, and you can swallow it with no effort. Plain, the wafer is almost but not entirely tasteless. It has a very gentle sort of toastiness, barely there, but with an almost bready flavor. A sort of toast ghost. Not that it matters. A wafer’s highest purpose is the nuance of its crunch.

When a wafer doesn’t meet standards — when it is cracked, broken, improperly embossed — it is tossed into a tall plastic bin next to the factory line. The company recycles these substandard wafers as local animal feed. “This is the countryside, so we have farms,” Iwai said with a shrug. The good wafers — smooth, intact, deeply and evenly embossed — move along the line. They are covered with cream, then sandwiched with another wafer and more cream. The arms of a huge, gentle machine with extraordinary fine-tuned motor functions do all the work of building the Kit Kat, smoothing the cream and pressing the wafer on top of it, then pass the large, sheet-cake-size sandwiches along a slow conveyor belt through a massive cooler. After they’re cut, four sheets at a time, the Kit Kats begin to look familiar, like ladyfingers.

On the molding line, the chocolate depositor fills empty Kit Kat molds with tempered chocolate, and the fingers are dropped in and covered with more chocolate. A scraper removes excess chocolate and smooths the surface. When the chocolate is cooled, the bars are popped out and whipped through a wrapping machine. On my visit, the mostly automated factory was making several types of Kit Kat, including chestnut — a seasonal flavor for the fall — made with white chocolate and a mix of chestnut purées from Europe and Japan. The production line was a barely interrupted blur of white, like dotted lines rushing by on the highway, becoming indistinguishable from one another.

I learned that Kit Kats were slightly, subtly different all over the world. In Britain, Nestlé uses milk crumb, a sweetened, dehydrated milk product, to make the bars. In the United States, Hershey uses nonfat milk and milk fat, while in Japan, the factories work with whole-milk powder. In Japan, Nestlé buys most of its cacao beans from West Africa. In the United States, a mix of beans from West Africa and Latin America is favored.

Almost everything changes, but the wafers? The wafers never change. The wafers have a fixed standard that needs to be maintained, and deviations are not acceptable. Standing beneath the fresh, moving wafers, I asked Iwai if I could hold one, as if it were a newborn, and I did not expect him to let me. But he reached into the line and pulled one out, passing it toward me with two hands. The breeze created by his movements seemed to curve the wafer inward with pressure, but it didn’t break. What I wanted to know was if this wafer, the one in my hands, would pass Nestlé’s standards, but Iwai wouldn’t share many details about that. All I knew was that the wafer was huge, golden, marked with square cups and totally weightless. That if it hadn’t been still warm from the oven, I wouldn’t have known it was there. That if this was the soul of a Kit Kat, then holding the soul of a Kit Kat was like holding nothing at all.

Kikyouya, originally a small, family-run sweet shop that specialized in kintsuba, a Japanese sweet filled with red-bean paste, has been making shingen mochi since the late 1960s. A single package of Kikyou shingen mochi is complex, but it’s also small — small enough to fit in your palm — and contained in a flexible plastic box that’s wrapped in a soft sheet of pretty, floral-printed plastic and sealed with a topknot. It’s messy to eat, or at least it can be, but the clever packaging considers this: The wrapping itself doubles as a tiny tablecloth to prevent stains and spills. Before I knew this, I ate shingen mochi in my hotel room, as Tokyo was being soaked by the outermost edges of a passing typhoon. With my first bite, I sent a little cloud of roasted soybean powder into the air and coughed with surprise. The rice cakes were soft, chewy, delicious. And where the brown-sugar syrup trapped the powder, it turned into a gorgeous caramel sludge. I couldn’t quite imagine how a sweet like this, one defined by such varied textures, and by such a distinct form, could ever be transformed into a chocolate bar.

Tomoko Ohashi was the lead developer on the Kikyou shingen mochi Kit Kat. Ohashi, a soft-spoken woman from Mito in Ibaraki Prefecture, ate shingen mochi when someone brought it for her as a souvenir from Yamanashi, the prefecture where it’s still made today, and she knew how beloved it was. What she didn’t know was how the mochi texture could translate into a chocolate bar. “I was also very worried about replicating the flavor,” she said, standing in the test kitchen of the factory in Kasumigaura, wearing the factory’s all-white uniform with its white hoodie pulled tightly across her hairline.

The kitchen didn’t look like a lab. It was more like a real pastry kitchen, full of dehydrated fruit powders and matcha organized in tubs, chocolate molds and serrated knives and a marble counter for tempering chocolate. The challenge with shingen mochi, Ohashi said, was finding the balance between the soybean powder and the syrup. Because the sweet is so adaptable, everyone who eats it calibrates it obsessively, adjusting the ingredients so it tastes the way they like.

Ohashi started work on the new flavor last September, and she finished it in May. In tests, she would make about 50 pieces of four to five different versions by hand, tempering chocolate on the marble table, and then taste them side by side, looking for the right balance of soybean powder to sugar syrup. The rice was the shingen mochi itself, but it couldn’t play such a big part in the chocolate bar. “There’s no device or machine for putting a rice cake in a Kit Kat,” Ohashi said sadly. She knew, from the start, that it wouldn’t be possible to replicate the texture of fresh mochi — tender, almost slippery in the mouth — in a chocolate bar. She did, to be true to the mochi, end up putting sticky rice in the Kit Kat’s cream filling. Did the sticky rice in the Kit Kat help to mimic the mochi texture? “No,” Ohashi said, bursting into laughter because she had made an uncomfortable kind of peace with what she could and could not do within the boundaries of her form. “Actually not at all.”

After all the testing, Ohashi concentrated all the flavorings in the cream filling: the sticky rice as well as soybean powder and brown-sugar syrup. The bars went on sale on Oct. 15, with packages of nine selling for 780 yen, or about $7. Standing in the test kitchen, I unwrapped the new flavored Kit Kat and broke into it with a crack. The bar was a mini, two tiny connected ingots. They were ivory, eggshell, the off-white color of a rich lady’s kitchen, and the fine cream filling inside appeared a light brown.

Just a few days earlier, I had made a pilgrimage to Kikyouya’s factory in Yamanashi, where workers wrapped thousands of pieces of fresh shingen mochi by hand each day, to see exactly what Nestlé was trying to capture. On my way, I stopped for lunch at a small noodle restaurant and sat by the window, eating a pile of salted plums. I could see busloads of tourists filing out in the parking lot, their floppy hats secured with strings, their shirts wet with sweat. They were fruit hunters. Yamanashi is green, dense with red pine and white oak forest and beautifully kept orchards that cut deep into its slopes. Fruit hunters pay to eat as much ripe, seasonal fruit as they like in a short span of time. Say, 30 minutes of thin-skinned peaches, or fat pink grapes, or strawberries, warmed from the sun, dipped into pools of sweetened condensed milk.

Unlike apple-picking in the fall in the United States, the fruit doesn’t really function as a souvenir, carried home in baskets to commemorate an idyllic, well-documented visit to the countryside. Fruit hunters travel to eat the fruit on site, right off the trees, in their allotted time. When the concept was explained to me, I thought the time limit seemed embarrassing. But seeing the fruit hunters of Yamanashi, I realized that it wasn’t embarrassing at all. It was practical, it was beautiful and it acknowledged that souvenirs were, like memories, at best only approximations of the moments they represented. That it was, in fact, completely impossible to remove a taste from its origin without changing it in the process.

“How is it?” Ohashi wanted to know. The Kikyou shingen mochi Kit Kat was smooth to the touch, shiny. It had a brilliant, crumbless snap, which gave way to a pure white chocolate and caramel flavor and a lightly savory note. It was sweet, it was good. It was in balance. And it recalled fresh Kikyou shingen mochi, vaguely, like a memory gone soft around the edges.

Tejal Rao is an Eat columnist for the magazine and the California restaurant critic for The Times. She has won two James Beard Foundation awards for restaurant criticism.