When I came to Japan, I was captivated by just how many flavors there were. I found myself buying every new kit kat I could get my hands on. (I later realized that this was getting to be a little expensive…)
Perhaps those of you who’ve just arrived in Japan haven’t yet had a chance to notice, but food in Japan is ever-changing. Lots of foods are seasonal — not just the fruits and vegetables, but the soda flavors, the noodle types, and, of course, the various snack flavors. Most often, foods will strive to match the popular seasonal motifs. In summer, you’ll see “yomogi” (an herb called ‘mugwort’) and melon. In Autumn, seasonal favorites such as chestnut will arrive. Winter will have all kinds of mandarin orange products. Spring has cherry blossom foods galore. Keep an eye out and you’ll notice the themes.
The changing flavors is an idea that really appeals to me. Besides the brilliance in marketing (the same food will never get boring), it’s fun to try the new and crazy flavors that are thought up in order to keep a continual supply of “new” flavor ideas. The kit kats really demonstrate this. Sometimes merely the packaging changes (roses on the box for mother’s day), but other times you could look in the conbini and see a new flavored kit kat (kiwi? chocolate orange?) The flavors of kit kat in Japan represent changes in seasons (cherry blossom kit kats, sweet potato kit kats). They also come in flavors that are traditionally “Japanese” (green tea kit kat, red bean kit kats).
Furthermore, if you travel around and look in omiyage (souvenir) shops, you’ll find new kit kats that are unique to a specific area. They play on the popularity of getting specific flavors from a certain region. If you’re in Hokkaido, you’d better pick up a Hokkaido Milk flavored kit kat, ’cause don’t think you’re gonna find the same thing back home. These extra-special kit kats are typically sold in large packs, requiring you to pay around 800 yen for more kit kats than you’d care to eat — but think of the bragging rights! (This marketing scheme appeals to people who feel the need to ‘collect them all’)
Have I paid $8 for soy sauce flavored kit kats? Yes. Was it my favorite flavor? Well, no. But it was fun to try so normal, yet so unusual. Kit kats aren’t the only product that have these kinds of seasonal changes. Keep an eye out, and you might just find an ordinary product in a very unusual flavor.
By observing something as simple as the changing kit kats, we can learn a lot about what’s important (at the moment) to the people of Japan. More than once I’ve learned something about Japanese culture from looking at a candy wrapper.