The Origins of KitKat and How It Came to Japan
KitKat’s history dates to the United Kingdom in 1935, when the York-based confectionery company Rowntree introduced the bar — originally called “Rowntree’s Chocolate Crisp” — as the perfect complement to a working man’s cup of tea. In 1937, the snack was renamed “Kit Kat Chocolate Crisp.”
In the 1950s, the bar arrived in Canada, South Africa, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand; in 1973, it finally made it to Japan. (The Swiss food and beverage giant Nestle acquired Rowntree in 1988. Eventually, Kit Kat became KitKat, and it is now sold in more than 100 countries. It is licensed by Hershey’s in the United States.)
Yet the story of how Japan made the snacking staple entirely its own begins in 1990, in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost main island, known for its skiing, hot springs and beer. KitKat’s marketing team believed the island’s souvenir shops — in fact, souvenir shops nationwide — could stand to diversify their snack offerings.
“Wherever you went, you could only find rice cakes,” said Takuya Hiramatsu, a spokesman for Nestle Japan. “But people got kind of bored with traditional rice cakes.”
The company introduced a strawberry-flavored KitKat exclusively in Hokkaido — and after it took off, tried more limited-edition varieties. The more they introduced, the more popular the bars became. The KitKat makers leveraged local products into exotic flavors.
In time, exotic and strange KitKats began appearing all over, including on Honshu, the nation’s largest island. There, in Shizuoka prefecture, the candy-makers offered Tamaruya-Honten brand wasabi KitKats; in the Kanto region, adzuki bean sandwich KitKats; in Hiroshima, KitKats flavored like momiji manju, a locally produced pastry made of rice and buckwheat.
“I lived in Hiroshima when I was young,” Maki said. “So I knew people in Hiroshima love momiji manju so much — that it’s a soul food. I wanted to develop a business with that.”
The snacks live up to their packaging in bold, bright colors. Citrus flavors have a sharp, acidic twang; “matcha green tea” has bitter overtones; “Shinshu apple” tastes a bit like cider. The wasabi variety tames the heat in favor of flavor.
“It’s wasabi plus sweetness, which would not work at all if not [for] an amazing bit of chocolate engineering on Nestle’s part,” wrote the Snacktaku snack blog in a 2013 review. “That trademark burn has been transformed from feeling to flavor. You do not feel the heat. You taste the heat.”
Nestle gives several reasons for KitKat’s success in Japan. Giving sweets as gifts is a national custom, and the country has deep pride in its local culinary traditions and industries.
Not least, the chocolate bar’s English name is a cognate — it sounds like kittokattsu, which means “you will surely win,” a sort of good luck blessing. Nestle leveraged the association into huge sales. In 2009, the company created “KitKat Mail,” a partnership with Japan’s postal service that allowed students to send KitKats as good luck charms before the country’s high-pressure January university entrance examination. Some KitKat wrappers contain blank spaces for students to scribble in heartwarming messages.
Ryoji Maki, KitKat’s marketing manager in Japan, left, and Nestle Japan spokesman Takuya Hiramatsu show off their wares. (Jonathan Kaiman / Los Angeles Times)
These Days, You Can Make Your Own KitKat
Just when we thought KitKat mania couldn’t go any farther, Nestle opened a made-to-order chocolate shop this October at Namba Station, in the Chuo ward of Osaka, on Japan‘s Honshu island.
The premium KitKat Chocolatory isn’t just any chocolate shop that you would travel to see.
Inside, you can build the KitKat of your dreams and watch it harden before your eyes thanks to a blast of liquid nitrogen.
Like a Willy Wonka Factory for KitKats, guests can use a touchscreen pad to make their dream candy, choosing from five types of chocolate for the base.
The chocolate options include basics such as milk chocolate alongside wildcard flavors such as matcha or a strawberry-flavored white chocolate.
The nine toppings are marshmallow, pineapple, cranberry, mango, green raisin, almond, cashew, macadamia, and shredded coconut. Each bar will set you back about US$6-9.
Can’t decide? Try the chef’s selection, where the chocolatier suggests the perfect toppings to pair with your base chocolate of choice — just like a wine pairing at a posh restaurant.
There are now more than 300 varieties, including cheesecake, wasabi, green tea, sushi, and yuzu. The brand also collaborated with Sanrio on a special Hello Kitty KitKat collection in 2006. Nestle intends to keep adding to its flavor roster – An all-natural pink KitKat made from “ruby” cocoa beans was released in 2018.