As an American or European, it can be easy to have distorted ideas of the world when it comes to cheese. I remember at one point, I didn’t even realize that most East Asian cuisines are basically cheese-free.
But if you go spend some time in Japan, you’ll certainly notice differences in cheese availability, quality, and cost. In today’s post, we’re going to discuss 11 common questions about cheese in Japan, and their answers!
1. How Popular Is Cheese In Japan?
Cheese is less popular in Japan than in Europe and the United States, as it is not a big part of traditional Japanese cuisine. However, cheese has grown in popularity in Japan in recent years. One survey found that around 6% of people in Japan now eat cheese every day.
That 6% figure comes from a survey from the Mitsubishi Research Institute (MRI). The survey asked 30,000 Japanese people how often they eat cheese.
The most common answer to the MRI survey (23% of respondents) was “two to three times per month.” As an American, I can assure you—that’s much less cheese than the average American eats!
But just because cheese consumption is lower in Japan, that doesn’t mean Japanese dislike it. Most Japanese people do seem to like cheese, if you ask them.
2. Is It Hard to Find Cheese in Japan?
Most grocery stores in Japan have some cheese, so it is easy to find. However, the selection is usually smaller than in the West. There are specialty import stores like Kaldi offering a wider range of cheeses, particularly in Tokyo. But many kinds of cheese are expensive in Japan.
We’ll cover more about the cost of cheese in Japan below. But first, let’s discuss what’s even available to find most places in Japan.
First, foreigners are often frustrated by how small the packages of cheese typically are in Japan. I’ve heard multiple expats complain about their tiny “salt-shaker” worth of parmesan cheese—or packages that come with just a few slices of cheese.
Another issue is geography. Outside of Tokyo and the bigger cities, it can be a bit harder to find various kinds of cheese, as import shops are less common. So you’ll be left to manage with the tiny cheese section in the grocery store.
Costco is said to be a good place to buy cheese as an expat in Japan, due to both the selection and the container sizes.
3. How Is Cheese Eaten in Japan?
In Japan, cheese is eaten on pizza, cheeseburgers, pasta, crackers, and bread—mostly the same ways as in Western countries. Some Japanese people also use cheese in stews or in ramen dishes.
Of course, you don’t see cheese in most traditional Japanese dishes. Ramen is an occasional exception. (There are some sushi restaurants that include cream cheese, but I understand that’s not really authentic to “real” Japanese cuisine.)
As in other parts of the world, cheese is commonly paired with wine in Japan. Interestingly, wine consumption has been rising along with cheese consumption in Japan in recent years.
- Do Japanese Put Cheese in Ramen? Ramen is not traditionally made with cheese in Japan, but it is sometimes done. In fact, out of all traditional Japanese dishes, ramen is one of the few where cheese may be added. However, it seems more common to make ramen with cheese in Korea. (source)
4. What Kinds of Cheese Are Popular In Japan?
A lot of cheese used in Japan is processed cheese. The more mild taste seems to have more appeal than strong, stinky cheeses. However, consumption of natural cheese is growing in recent years.
Mozzarella cheese is common in Japan, as it’s used for pizza (as it is elsewhere in the world). And parmesan cheese is often available for pasta.
Cheddar blocks are common, but they are smaller and more expensive than you’ll find in the U.S. You can also often find small blocks colby or gouda.
Cream cheese is occasionally used in Japanese, including in baked goods. But as covered above, the phenomenon of “cream cheese sushi” (or the “Philadelphia Roll”) is mostly an American thing, from what I understand.
From what I’ve been able to gather, blue cheese and brie can be found in Japan, but they are not the most popular. Gorgonzola and camembert cheese seem to be a bit more popular. And ricotta cheese can be quite hard to find in Japan.
Many high-quality foreign cheeses can be found at import shops in Japan, such as Kaldi. (Japan is one of the largest importers of cheese in the world, partially due to the small amounts produced locally.)
5. What Is Sakura Cheese?
Sakura cheese, meaning “Cherry Blossom Cheese,” is a soft cheese made in Hokkaidō, Japan. It is a camembert style cheese, white and moist, with a delicately sweet and acidic flavor. It is decorated with pickled cherry blossom flowers and often paired with sake.
Sakura cheese is the first Japanese cheese that has earned significant acclaim. It won a gold medal in the “Mountain Cheese Olympics” in Switzerland in the “soft cheese” category.
Sakura cheese is seasonal, as it is tied to the blooming of the cherry blossoms in Japan. This happens around April or May in most parts of Japan.
6. Do They Make Cheese In Japan?
Japan does produce its own cheese, particularly in Hokkaido in the north of Japan, where the climate is cooler. However, local production is far below demand. Therefore, Japan is one of the biggest cheese importers in the world.
The history of cheesemaking in Japan really started in Hokkaido in the 1800s. More on that history below—but Hokkaido is still the source of most of Japan’s local dairy production.
There are a few big cheese producers in Japan—such as the Megmilk Snow Brand—but there are also many artisan cheesemakers. You can get more of a peek into this world by checking out the Cheese Professional Association in Japan.
7. What Is the History of Cheese in Japan?
Mongolian cheeses were brought to Japan from Korea and China hundreds of years ago. But it’s only in the last 150 years that dairy has become a mainstream food offering in Japan.
The birth of the dairy industry in Japan was actually prompted by the government initially. This happened shortly after the Meiji Revolution in 1868.
Dairy and meat were part of Japan’s effort to modernize and borrow culturally from Europe. Specifically, Japanese leadership thought dairy and meat were responsible for the size and strength of Europe’s soldiers.
The Meiji government oversaw the launch of multiple dairies in Hokkaido, Japan, around 1876. Early cheese products in Japan were mild and made to resemble more traditional Japanese foods. Today, many diverse cheeses are sold.
8. How Much Does Cheese Cost In Japan?
Cheese can be as much as four times more expensive in Japan than in the West. It is common to see small blocks of cheese for 500 yen or more (~$4 USD). Much of Japan’s cheese supply is imported, causing it to cost more than countries where more is made locally.
In some cases, the cost of cheese in Japan is even more than four times inflated when you consider that you’re getting a smaller amount of cheese.
However, there are some decent cheese deals if you look around. Two good places to buy cheese affordably in Japan are the following:
- Kaldi – This is one of the more popular import shops in Japan, with many cheeses on offer. Not awful prices.
- Costco – You may be familiar with Costco from back home. Bulk stuff, good cheese selection, and decent prices.
9. What Is Candy Cheese?
“Candy cheese” is a Japanese snack consisting of small, bite-size pieces of cheese. Contrary to its name, it is not made of sugar or any other typical candy ingredients. It is simply bite-size cheese, made to be eaten by hand (like candy).
Candy cheese can be found in convenience stores around Tokyo and elsewhere in Japan. The cheese pieces are wrapped to look like candy. It may have been a marketing idea to appeal to kids.
In any case, don’t expect something sweet and sugary when you buy “candy cheese.” It’s just little pieces of cheese.
10. Do Other Asian Cuisines Use Cheese?
East Asian cuisines—like Korean and Chinese—do not traditionally use much cheese. However, South Asian countries like India do make heavy use of cheese and other dairy products. India has developed its own cheeses, such as paneer, which are quite different from European cheeses.
There are several reasons that may have contributed to the lack of cheese in East Asian cuisines. They range from climate issues to coincidental historical occurrences. Several of these are explored in this Thrillist article.
But the reality is that soy has largely filled the same niche in East Asian cuisine that meat and dairy have filled in Western cuisines. And so, in the same way that tofu is not extremely common in the U.S., cheese is not extremely common in East Asia.
Another interesting factor for why Asian cuisines have less dairy is lactose intolerance.
Most humans naturally lose the ability to digest lactose after infancy. But over the course of history, European populations that relied on dairy developed the ability to tolerate lactose as adults.
Most Asian populations have not gone through that seem evolution. So today, Asian populations have much higher rates of lactose intolerance compared to populations of European descent. (source)
Still, we see that cheese consumption is on the rise in East Asia, including in Japan. And that trend is likely continue, as studies show cheese is chemically addictive—it’s hard to quit once you start!
11. Why Is Cheese In Japan So Bad?
Cheese options in Japan are not just overpriced—often, the quality seems worse than in the West, too. Why is that? Is it because the cheese is often imported? Or is it because of some difference in the Japanese palate when it comes to cheese?
Honestly, I’m not sure. But I just wanted to acknowledge: Very often, foreigners in Japan complain of cheese that is “flavorless” or “bland.”
The quality of cheese seems notably lower in Japan, despite the price tag being higher. Unfortunately, I don’t have much to offer you besides consolation, and to let you know that you’re not alone!