Japan may have the image of a country where dairy produce is hard to find, but this is seldom a concern in Hokkaido, Japan’s largest and northernmost prefecture.
The abundance of fresh dairy means that it is readily available almost anywhere you go and Hokkaido milk has found its way into a variety of local products. Today we’ll introduce our top pick of Hokkaido’s delicious dairy goods!
Why is Hokkaido Milk Famous?
For the most part, Japan’s hot and humid climate is not suited to the production and preservation of milk. Studies have shown that when a cow experiences heat stress, she produces less milk and needless to say, hotter temperatures mean that milk spoils faster.
On the other hand, Hokkaido is much cooler and far less humid. This not only makes it easier to keep milk fresh, but it means cows produce a greater yield. Plus, the availability of wide open spaces for cows in Hokkaido to graze as they please affords them a stress-free life, making their milk all the more delicious!
It’s this rich taste and freshness that has made Hokkaido’s milk so famous domestically and why it is well worth a try during your visit.
Top 10 Hokkaido Dairy Products
1. Hokkaido Milk
Have I said it enough, yet? Hokkaido milk is delicious!
If you are really keen to try Hokkaido’s dairy, nothing beats buying a carton of milk itself. I recommend buying a carton that has come from as close to where you are as possible. For example, if you are staying in Furano, look out for Furano-made Milk.
If you are in the Tokachi region (around Obihiro city) then you are in the mecca of Hokkaido milk production… so you could buy just about any carton of milk and find it’s delicious! It’s great just on its own, but when used to make a Hokkaido milk tea or coffee, you’ll really start to appreciate how tasty and versatile it is.
2. Ice Cream
Japan has something of a love affair with ice cream. Every region seems to have its own take on this cooling treat!
Hokkaido is no exception– you can find a whole host of flavored ice cream here, from melon to lavender! It's one of the must-try foods in Hokkaido.
However, added flavors can disguise the natural taste of the dairy so, if available, try a “plain” or “milk” flavor ice cream at least once during your visit.
Taking the crown for this is, hands-down, Biei Farm in the idyllic hill town of Biei. The cows here live a stress-free life, making their milk delicious– so much so that Biei Farm’s ice cream, which is a blend of three cows’ milk, has no added sweetener, preservatives… or, well, anything! All you taste is the natural goodness of fresh milk.
Dare I say that this is the best ice cream you will try in Hokkaido, or perhaps even your whole life?
3. Hard Cheese
As Japan’s cheese industry is relatively new, hard cheeses that can be eaten after a short maturation period are the most common in Hokkaido. Raclette cheeses, gouda and cheddar-like varieties are common.
It seems that almost every locale in Hokkaido has its own cheese. If you spot some on your travels, do pick some up and give it a try! It is on the expensive side, but at least it is small enough to consume in one sitting either alone or with your travel companion!
4. Soft Cheese
Perhaps it is due to the concentrated “umami” burst in more runny cheeses, but soft cheese is a hit in Japan. Even in Tokyo, you can find camembert for sale at convenience stores.
Hokkaido cheesemakers have tapped into this, with many of their top sellers being soft cheeses. Soft cheese is also quick and easy to produce, making it a popular activity for visitors to Hokkaido.
Soft cheeses are almost unbelievably easy to find in Hokkaido! For example, just by taking a stroll to my local convenience store, I found delicious, Hokkaido-made ricotta for an extremely affordable price. It's my new favorite toast topping!
5. Cheese Tarts
Japan’s love for soft cheese has spilled over into quite the creative treat. Across Hokkaido, you’ll find various bakeries selling something called a “cheese tart”.
Hokkaido’s cheese tarts are an airy, cheesecake-like filling piped into a small pastry shell and then baked. Rather than being baked all the way through, however, they are cooked to a consistency where the cheese inside remains runny at room temperature. When cut open, the cheese spills out onto your plate in an appealing dollop!
Unfortunately, as they need to be stored frozen, they are not the best souvenir. If you wish to try one, I recommend heading to a Kinotoya in Sapporo. Kinotoya is a bakery and dairy goods chain that have made a name for themselves with their tasty cheese tarts. You can even watch the baking process from behind a window at a few of their establishments.
True butter, made from 100% animal fat, is quite hard to come by outside of Hokkaido. Many of the spreads found in supermarkets in Honshu and further south are closer to margarine.
In Hokkaido, however, butter is everywhere and in many forms. Of course, it is not the most suitcase-friendly of goods, so I instead recommend that you stay a night at a small, family-run Hokkaido accommodation and sample a homemade breakfast. It is very likely that as part of the lineup on the table, you’ll be served some delicious Hokkaido butter!
Connected to the above is caramel, which of course is made from butter and sugar. It didn’t take long for entrepreneurial Hokkaido confectioners to put two and two together and start using local butter to make delicious caramels!
"Nama-Caramel", made by Hanabatake Ranch, is a popular Hokkaido souvenir. But this caramel has a twist… branded as “Nama-Caramel”, it is made with a secret technique perfected by their artisans. The technique has resulted in a caramel that melts as soon as it hits your tongue.
You can also find small boxes of Hokkaido butter caramel at supermarkets and convenience stores across the region. Some even come in flavours original to Hokkaido, like melon or hascup (a sweet-sour honeysuckle berry).
8. Marusei Butter Sandwich
Don’t be alarmed by the name, this entry is not simply two slices of buttered bread slapped together! This is a decadent sandwich cookie with an irresistible filling of creamy, slightly sweetened butter and rum-soaked raisins.
Since their release in 1977, these sweets have shot to popularity and are constantly touted as one of Hokkaido’s most popular souvenirs. They are widely available across Hokkaido and you can find them at airports, major train stations, and most souvenir shops in the region.
9. Purin (Creme Caramel)
Creme caramel, or “purin” (a Japanization of “pudding”), is a national favorite. Its main ingredients are eggs and milk and of course, Hokkaido has no shortage of these. There are plenty of delicious creme caramels to enjoy across Hokkaido. Some come in very sweetly-shaped containers, like old milk bottles or milk canisters!
10. Shokupan (Japanese milk bread)
You might dismiss bread as a dairy product, but in Japan, milk is often added to bread to give it sweetness. This creates a soft white bread known domestically as “shokupan”, literally “bread for eating”.
As you may expect, Hokkaido’s rich milk being added to bread makes it particularly popular. Hokkaido milk bread is known for its natural sweetness and pleasing squishy texture.
There are hundreds of bakeries across Hokkaido that sell shokupan. While it’s easy to pick some up to nibble on your road trip, we again suggest a stay at a locally-run accommodation in Hokkaido where toast made with Hokkaido milk bread will undoubtedly be part of the breakfast spread. It’s perfectly paired with Hokkaido butter, of course!
Japan and Dairy
For centuries, Japan was a Buddhist country and the principles of Buddhism forbade the consumption of large animals or their byproducts. It wasn’t until the Meiji Restoration in the late 1800s that dairy production began on a commercial level, but it really took off to the standards we know today during Japan’s postwar period. This is why, in traditional Japanese cooking at least, dairy is seldom used.
On the other hand, the modern Japanese pantry often finds a use for dairy. Milk is commonly added to coffees and black teas, cheese is making more of an appearance in bento boxes while butter is increasingly being creatively paired with soy sauce and miso to double down on the umami in a recipe. Japanese kids are given a carton of milk in school. Ice cream and “purin” are among the nation’s favorite desserts.
While dairy produce is still not widely available across the country, it is just getting started and the trend is only expected to continue.
A Cheesy Last Line
If, in the words of John Cleese, you are a lover of cheesy comestibles, then Hokkaido is a must for your Japan itinerary. Not only is the dairy produce delicious, but the industry is just getting started. It is quite a privilege to be witness to the birth of something that, someday, is sure to sweep the world by storm.
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