Take a Look Inside Japan’s Booming Artisanal Cheese Scene
In 1964, when Japan hosted the Olympics for the first time ever, the French team was stuck with a dilemma: There was no cheese worthy of the name. The French government airlifted a whole cargo-load of cheese just to help the athletes feel at home.
When a new round of athletes arrive next July, they’ll have no such worries. Today Japan has a booming artisanal cheese scene, with more than 300 boutique producers producing a range of styles.
At least half of those are on the island of Hokkaido, the northernmost island of the country, though these cheesemakers can be found throughout Japan. Nozumu Miyajima was one of the island’s pioneers. After studying dairy science in Wisconsin, in 1978 he returned to Japan and settled in Tokachi, the southern, central part of the island. The farm he founded, Kyodo Gakusha Shintoku, is dedicated to providing jobs for people with mental or physical disabilities.
Early on, Miyajima raised Holsteins for milk production, but he began experimenting with cheese because the milk market was too volatile. Cheese, at least, didn’t go bad so quickly. In 1987, he became the first to import Brown Swiss cows to Japan; their milk is higher in protein, making it more suitable for cheese production. He started with Gouda and Camembert but began winning international awards in the 2000s with a cheese called Sakura. Instead of imitating European styles, it was a soft cheese made with cherry blossoms—a classic Japanese touch.
Under Miyajima’s influence, however, Tokachi’s cheesemakers have taken a European style of cheese, raclette, and made it their own. Miyajima made his first raclette 27 years ago. “The French raclette style was too strong for local restaurants,” Miyajima says. “So we calmed down the aroma to make a Japanese style.”
For the past few years, a group of eight cheesemakers, the Tokachi Raclette Collective, have been working together to standardize how local raclette is made, and since 2017 they have their own communal cellar where the cheeses from various farms can be aged together. A point of distinction is the use of moor water from local hot springs to wash the aging cheese. The water filters through the region’s soils, a mix of volcanic ash and lignite—stone made from compressed peat. As a result it’s alkaline but has significant amounts of humic acid.
“We think these two points affect the cheese,” says Koji Yanagidaira, the collective’s production control manager. “The humic acid may aid yeast reactions, and the alkalinity is important for bacterial activity. It gives the cheese an orange rind and a mellow flavor. It’s a clean, pure taste with an umami character as well as a slightly nutty flavor and smoky note.”
The collective has also applied for a Geographical Indication (GI) for its cheese, under the name Tokachi Raclette Moor Wash. Recognized by the World Trade Organization, GIs effectively trademark agricultural products that have a distinct character when made from a prescribed region; these are the rules that say that Champagne comes only from the area of France of the same name, for example. Japan created its GI system in 2015; this will be the first cheese to qualify and the world’s third such raclette alongside Raclette du Valais and Raclette de Savoie in Switzerland and France, respectively.
Prioritizing texture over aroma, as Tokachi raclette does, is a common practice among many Japanese cheesemakers. That’s especially true for goat cheeses; lamb and similar flavors, in meat or in cheese, aren’t popular in Japan. Ran Ran Farm focuses on goat cheese, with just 50 animals in the herd. Its chèvre is smooth, with the acidic tartness associated with the style, but little of the earthy notes one might find in a French example. Despite the farm’s size, Ran Ran’s cheese sells in some of the major department stores in Tokyo as well as locally.
Shinji Fujikawa, on the other hand, wanted to make fresh cheese, so fresh it needs a large, local customer base. “Fifteen years ago I tasted fresh mozzarella in Italy, and I wanted to make cheese like that in Tokyo,” Fujikawa says. “I decided I wanted to make cheese in front of the customers.”
His inspiration comes from bakers or in Japan, tofu makers, who rise early and sell their products the day they’re made. Milk arrives at his store, Cheese Stand, in the busy Shibuya neighborhood, at 3 a.m. each morning so he can be ready for the day’s business. He makes mozzarella, burrata, ricotta, and caciocavallo cheeses—all of which can be enjoyed without aging.
Fresh Japanese mozzarella is unlikely to make it abroad anytime soon, but Malory Lane, founder of the Japanese Cheese Co., will begin importing Kyodo Gakusha Shintoku’s Sakura to the U.S. in March; other cheeses will follow. Lane expects the cheeses to find homes both at artisanal cheese shops and in the growing numbers of Japanese restaurants, even if it doesn’t have a traditional role with sushi, ramen, and the like.
“I think the ones that have unique Japanese attributes are certainly the easiest to sell,” Lane says. “But there’s also a great appreciation for just delicious cheese. I’ve done tastings lately with a delicious blue cheese from Nagano, and while it doesn’t look any different from other, non-Japanese cheeses, it will do well.”
International recognition also helps; in November, Japan took home five gold medals in the World Cheese Awards in Bergamo, Italy, along with a number of lesser medals. Lane says an award like that can instantly sell out a half-year’s production for some cheesemakers.
At least one popular Japanese product may lend cheese a hand. “I think sake works really well with cheese, on pizza, or just cheeses by themselves,” says Nancy Cushman, co-owner of the restaurant group Cushman Concepts. She pairs sake with pizza at her restaurant Covina in New York City. While she recommends aged sakes with blue cheeses, and sparkling sake with lighter, fresher cheeses, ultimately cheese and sake work together because of the matching of amino acids. “Umami with umami,” she adds.
In Japan, population decline is hitting rural areas particularly hard. Artisanal, added-value products are more sustainable than agricultural commodities and can make the difference between a rural community thriving or fading from view—a point that Miyajima, Yanagidaira, and Lane all mentioned when I spoke with them. The success of these craft cheesemakers can make a real difference. “With these cheeses, you have the ability to reinvigorate a region,” Lane says. “I think it’s wonderful.”
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