Japan: where’s the cheese?

Japan New Year's
New Year’s Prayers and Wishes at a Temple in Tokyo

If you are in Japan, have limited time and you’re eager to check as many tourist attraction boxes as you can, don’t go looking for Japanese cheese. It is pretty labor intensive and a bit frustrating at times. Even in the basement of the large department stores, those incredible cornucopias of carefully prepared and packaged foods that offer anything you can actually eat (and some things you should really stay away from, if you ask me); even there you will not normally find homegrown products. There is no shortage of raclette, of Roquefort or Parmigiano. But Japanese cheese, not so much.

Of course, there are very few places in Japan suitable for herds of cows and there just isn’t much culinary history that involves dairy. But the Japanese, to their enormous credit, are obsessive about good food, eager to try new things and open to experimenting. Which made the hunt for Japanese cheese in Tokyo more than a little interesting. On a side note: we did not starve because I managed to keep the cheese-sleuthing to a bearable level, so we had a lot of time to try many other things from the Japanese table, including the much-hyped-but-really-not-all-that-dangerous fugu (watch the entire episode of the Simpsons that explains the possible dangers of eating poorly prepared puffer fish – season 2, episode 11.)

One of the first cheese experiences we had was in a restaurant that was purportedly all about cheese – what could possibly go wrong? We were in for more than one surprise. First off, we showed up for lunch time and the cheese dish the restaurant focused on, fondue, was only served in the evening. I opted for the next best thing which, in my mind, really is only a distantly related cousin: cheesecake. Purists may even accuse me of cheating but hold your horses for a moment. The cheesecake I was served didn’t just look like a big slice of cartoon cheese with holes in all the right places, it actually had small pieces of cheese in it.

Japanese Cheesecake
Cheesecake with …cheese?

Keep an open mind, now. Surprisingly, it worked quite well. And let’s be honest: 10 years ago no one would have put caramel and salt together either. At the airport, we found another creative departure from established cheesy tradition: carefully wrapped sweet sandwich cookies with a thin layer of cheese between them, using different kinds of cheese: I picked Roquefort and Camembert. As far as I am concerned, the cookies were quite good, whereas the cheesecake with real cheese was more of an …interesting flavor.

We were in Tokyo over New Year’s and the one purveyor of Hokkaido cheese was out of town for the holiday, otherwise finding Japanese cheese would have in fact been a slam dunk. Mr. Konno, alas, was off on a little vacation: the Voice of Cheese was closed. Konno-san has dozens of cheeses from small producers in Hokkaido, among them the Sakura cheese that is matured on cherry leaves. The small wheels of this cheese resemble Camemberts and they are sold with a little pickled cherry on the top, which makes them look a bit like round Japanese flags. Sakura cheese won a medal at the mountain cheese Olympics some 15 years ago and it is pretty much the only Japanese cheese you would have ever heard of.

Japanese Cheese
Shimuzu Farm red rind cheese

I enjoyed the sweet taste of success in one of the last food basements I visited: a red rind cheese from the Shimuzu farm in the Japanese Alps and some raclette, which we would teppanyaki with friends later in the day. Both were carefully crafted copies of European cheeses, unfortunately without much in the way of an identifiable Japanese touch. Not that I really need an excuse to travel to Japan again – it is hands down one of my favorite countries in the world – but now I know to come back for Mr. Konno’s cheese, and to discover what else the Japanese have come up with when it comes to チーズ. Heck, I might even go to Hokkaido for some cheese and to share a hot pool with those mountain monkeys.

Teppanyaki
Teppanyaki – raclette cheese bottom left….
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