A few weeks ago, in a fit of COVID lockdown boredom, my husband ordered an assortment of Kit Kat candy bars from Japan. If you didn’t know, there are over 300 flavors of Kit Kats in Japan, and many are limited edition to keep up consumer interest. As an American, I’m absolutely jealous of the variety. Why do they get all the good stuff when I have to suffer through boring white chocolate “cookies and cream” flavors?
The story of Kit Kats in Japan is one of weird linguistic coincidences and interesting marketing strategies. First, the language part: a common Japanese phrase is Kitto Katsu, which roughly translates to “you will surely win.” Family members often say this to students during exam time as a good luck omen. The candy bar’s name has been marketed as a shortened version of the phrase, prompting families to send Kit Kat bars to nervous test takers. (In fact, the candy bar wrappers have a space on the back to write a little note of encouragement.) It is similar to the American usage of the Greek word, Kudos, sent along with a sugary granola bar to say congratulations.
Second, the marketing part: under Japanese law, Kit Kat’s parent company is not required to submit a new flavor of candy bar as a “new” product, rather they can market it just as a Kit Kat. In the U.S, a new flavor of an existing product would have to go through a lengthy verification process that would prohibit the speedy production of any specialty flavor. This distinction in Japanese regulations means that Kit Kat can quickly make new flavors. Additionally, the company chooses to distribute in regions which causes a perception of scarcity. People in Hokkaido Prefecture, for instance, have different short-run varieties of Kit Kats than people in Tokyo or Yamaguchi Prefectures. This scarcity encourages people in different regions to send family members their prefecture’s regional variety through the mail (lending yet another use for the small space on the back for a quick note.)
In short, Kit Kats in Japan are the culmination of marketing and cultural goldmines, and I am here for it.
We placed our order and patiently waited for the package to clear customs. It arrived yesterday in a simple cardboard box adorned with two cryptic stickers… I assume the first one means “no explosives” but the second? I’m not sure what a jack o’ lantern has to do with food shipping safety, but I’m certainly intrigued.
We dumped out the contents and assessed the bounty: Salt Lemon, Cheesecake, Green Tea, Hokkaido Melon with Mascarpone Cheese. Citrus Mint, Peach, Sweet Potato, and Mango. The magic and wonder! And, more importantly, where to start?!
Since the packages were small “fun size” portions, we cut each into quarters. This is the standard size for Japanese candy, and is about half the size of a standard U.S candy bar. There were a few duplicates although the packaging was different. An enclosed guide assured us that there were at least six limited edition flavors included in our order.
The tasty treasures
All in all, the fruity ones were very delicious and sweet. The white chocolate base held the fruit flavors well, and the simple vanilla wafer cookies did not interfere with the overall taste. We especially enjoyed the citrus and lemon flavored varieties for the same reasons — the sweet-to-tart balance was perfect and refreshing. The addition of salt was also a nice touch that was noticeable and not overwhelming.
We very much enjoyed the Matcha green tea. Again, the creaminess of white chocolate carried the flavor well so it was almost like a sweet tea latte. (Apparently, the green tea variety is poised for wider distribution so keep your eyes open for the tourist-friendly version… there are actually three distinct green tea flavors in Japan!) The dark chocolate and the Autumn Chestnut flavors were also very coffee-like and sweetly satisfying. We don’t have a lot of familiarity with chestnuts in the US because of a devastating blight that wiped out millions of trees, so it was nice to taste something that was more familiar to Asian and European consumers.
What did we hate, you ask?
The cheesecake flavor was widely rejected. It reminded me of an overly sweetened powdered milk and seemed uninspiring. It missed the tanginess that cream cheese offers to cheesecake. We also did NOT enjoy the Hojicha Roasted Green Tea flavor. It reminded my husband of nori, I thought it tasted slightly acrid and bitter. We decided the sweetness of the chocolate was not a good combination with the dry chalkiness of the roasted tea. Since our family’s cultural relevancy does not include this type of tea, we hold no nostalgia to the flavor. To each their own!
With so many seasonal flavor options, we have decided to order another assortment in the summer. Stay tuned for updates!