Sake, beer and milk in Japan

A superb parfait, with ice cream, at Cafe Don, Takayama (Gifu)

Confession first up: I’m not actually going to write about sake or beer, though I rate both highly in Japan. I used them as a hook to capture your attention with my headline, because I was unsure dairy products would do the trick!

Of course, anyone who has experienced the joy of dairy products in Japan, would dive in immediately. But, if not, you might mistakenly aussume that Japan is only about sushi and soy – and that your favourite milk coffee or icecream might have to be sacrificed if you visit Japan.

Indeed, a fellow blogger commented on my mention of parfaits in a recent story, saying that she thought dairy was less common in traditional Japan. That’s true to an extent, though diets have changed in Japan and dairy products are now readily available. If there isn’t a shop around with ice-creams, there is sure to be a vending machine with a big variety of them!

Icecream vending machine at Hida Furakawa railway station, Gifu

Dairy has, in fact, been around a long time in Japan – as far back as the Asuka period (592-710) when milk was recognised for its medicinal benefits. Cattle breeding was underway and dairy products were being produced by the Heian period (794-1185), and the industry moved into the taxation system.

At some point however, Japan’s dairy industry fell by the wayside, becoming popular again in the 15th century as Christianity was introduced to Japan. In the 18th century, Shogun Yoshimune created retail stores for milk.

According to the Japan Dairy Association, commercial dairy farming began in Japan in the late Meiji era, about 100 years ago. The Association has a lot more historical detail online about Japan’s dairy industry. But let’s get down to the important stuff – are you, as a traveller in JAPAN, be able to access excellent dairy products. Oh, YES!

Japan loves ice-cream – you’ll find a great variety at shops, in vending machines and on shinkansens! The bullet train ones, available from the trolleys that attendants push through carriages, are little buckets of the hardest ice-creams you are ever likely to encounter. A mini miner’s pick would not go astray! Waiting for them to soften is worth it. They are fabulous!

In Kanazawa, you can enjoy gold leaf ice cream! A lady with one kindly posed for my camera!

Parfaits also seem to be very much part of the National desert diet. They come in all forms – from simple ones that find their crunch from cornflakes scattered between rounds of icecream to more elaborate and beautifully structured ones with features such as coffee jelly, fruit, nuts and whipped cream. I have visions of cornflakes first arriving in Japan. “What are these, what do we do with them?” “Not sure, thow them into parfaits?”

At the end of a long day in Tokyo, I’m tucking into a coffee jelly parfait

Let us not forget milk rich chocolate. Japan makes great chocolate! Most famously, they embraced Britain’s Kit Kats, taking the humble chocolate bar to new heights. Today, you can access more than 400 varieties of Kit Kat in Japan, made at Nestle owned factories in Himeji and Kasumigaura. Kit Kats are seen as a symbol of good luck, and students often take a bar into their examinations to help ensure success. Well, that’s their excuse LOL! Kit Kats also have developed as a regional treat – with various regions of Japan having their own particular flavour of Kit Kat. So, if there is a particular type of Kit Kat you want, you might have to trek off to some remote little country region for it. Great for tourism! Kit Kats are a very popular tourist souvenir in Japan. When I asked my son last year what he wanted me to bring back from Japan, the reply was emphatically Kit Kats please!

Then there is Pocky, a biscuit stick partly dipped in chocolate cream, leaving the bottom part bare so that you don’t get chocolate onto your hands and can multi skill while enjoying one – so Japanese! Pocky was introduced by a Japanese company in the 1960’s as a sweet to share with others. These days the topping comes in a variety of flavours, and like Kit Kats, are sought out by tourists. They are so popular that they are now also exported to other countries, including Australia, but not in the variety of flavours you access in Japan. American actor Jeff Goldblum experienced his first one last year during a televised interview with Rolling Stone, instantly proclaiming that he loved it, and described pocky as “Almost Religious Ecstasy”.

You can do a factory tour in Kitamoto City, Saitama. It is in Japanese, but there is some English brochure support.

In Tokyo, you can have a go at making your own Kit Kat at KITKAT Chocolatory Shibuya Miyashita Park.

There’s also a little touch of Australia in dairy products in Japan. The Japanese chocolate company Meiji sources around 90% of its macadamias from Australia for its macadamia chocolate – a great favourite of mine that provided sustenance on a recent walk at Kamikochi .

My backpacked morning tea on a walk at Kamikochi, in the Japanese Alps. A little bit of Australia, covered in Japanese chocolate

And there’s more – Kikkoman released Japan’s first domestically-made mainstream macadamia milk a few years ago, using Australian macadamias. I haven’t tried that one yet, but I will watch out for it on my next trip!

Thank heavens, I do a lot of walking in Japan because I cannot dampen my enthusiasm for Japanese chocolate, ice-creams and other dairy products.

A chocolate covered rum ball at a Tokyo cafe — better than any I have tasted

Cakes are abundant in Japan – so many full of cream – some served with ice cream – so many spectacular creations! For something simplier, you can readily find fresh white bread sandwiches filled with cream and fruit! Decadence.

Ice cream at Nara! Minty chocolate with deer antlers

I was warned on my first trip to Japan not to mistake bakery goods with custard that might actually be a bean curd filling. I do check, but I can assure you there is plenty of real custard and cream available. And anyway, I have found that sweetened bean curd filling can taste quite nice!

A variety of yoghurts is readily available in convenience stores (Lawsons, 7-eleven etc), and in supermarkets. I can always find milk there as well. I tend to stock my accommodation fridge with yoghurts, fresh fruit and milk for cuppas and snacks.

Yoghurt with fruit as part of our Japanese breakfast in Tsumago
Cheese on toast – a regular cafe breakfast item in Japan


Cheese is becoming more popular – certainly there’s plenty of it on pizzas that you can access readily in cities and larger towns. We found a little corner shop in Kyoto that serves a Japanese meat and noddle dish, topped with three types of grated cheese – all for about $A10. MJ loved it!

A three cheese topped dish at a Japanese fast food cafe in Kyoto – MJ loved it!

Japan’s boutique cheese industry is growing, though you might have to look hard to access some of its better cheeses. Hokkaido, in particular, is known for its excellent cheese. Nagano, on the main island, is known for cow and goat cheeses. There is a Sakura (cherry blossom) cheese, a Camembert-style cheese ripened on top of cherry blossom leaves and served with pickled cherry blossoms. I haven’t come across it yet, but apparently it is extremely popular.

Here is a link to an article I found on some of the best artisan cheeses currently being produced in Japan.


A caramel coffee latte in Kyobashi, Tokyo

I do like to start my day in JAPAN with a latte – and certainly in the cities, I have no trouble finding them at a local cafe.

I usually shun hotel breakfast buffet rooms, in favour of a light breakfast – maybe a danish or croissant at a nearby cafe, accompanied by a latte. MJ usually orders egg on toast or cheese on toast!

Though most westerners think of tea as Japan’s favourite hot drink, they have been drinking coffee for a very long time. So, you do find quite a variety of coffee drinks there.

They don’t necessarily match my idea of some types of coffee. On a very hot day near Kyoto once, I ordered an iced coffee. I was expecting a chilly milky coffee, possibly with ice-cream in it.

But it turned out to be a tall glass of chilled drip coffee with ice blocks and a small sweetener sachet. As long as you expect the unexpected, you’ll be right.


Then there is cheesecake. They are very popular in Japan and are generally light, fluffy, airy and very delicious. My best experience of one was at the Hineno Art Museum & Café in Hida Furukawa in Gifu (Furukawa is a 15 minute train ride from Hida Takayama).

The cake itself was very nice, though not the best I have tasted. But the experience where we enjoyed it was exceptional. The small Hineno Art Museum and Cafe is in an old traditional wooden townhouse, with expertly crafted woodwork, tatami floors, and lattice doors and windows. You are surrounded by ancient Japanese paintings, ceramics, and makie lacquerware from the 16th through 20th centuries. You gaze out to a small interior Japanese garden courtyard, landscaped with trees, azaleas, stone lanterns and paths. Serenity plus!

The cheesecake and your cuppa are served using antique bone china, which, if my memory serves me correct, was over one hundred years old. Don’t drop your cup! Hineno Art Museum and cafe is only about 5 minutes walk from the railway station. There is an admission charge, plus the cost of what you order food/drink wise. I thought it was worth it.


Finally – but very definitely for me – there are Japanese puddings – PURIN! They are a custard pudding – a little like a crème caramel, but to my taste nicer. I am an unabashed lover of Purin, and would happily visit Japan just for a Purin tour of the whole country! Now that is something to aim for – a taste of purin from all the different regions of Japan! I have tried to make it at home, but haven’t quite got it right. Darn – I’ll just have to return to Japan!

My favourite pudding man at the Takyama markets in Gifu – he serves hot and cold ones
Purin in the Japanese Alps
Don’s cafe in Takayama make their own purin – superb!
Another desert treat in Japan , topped with chestnut cream – maybe I will leave you to discover it yourself! Worth the trip to Japan!


  1. I may have been the fellow blogger who raised the question, and if I was, my thanks for providing so much detail! Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised at how much Japanese eating habits have changed? I’m more curious still: have you noticed the same abundance in dairy products in rural areas in Japan as you did in more urban areas?


    • You were indeed. I thought others might have the same view, so I looked into it a bit more from a historical point of view, and had plenty of photos for a story. Thanks for inspiring another blog story. We tend to move out of the cities pretty quickly to explore more out of the way places, and we can always find dairy products. Ice-creams particularly are in ready supply. As I think I mentioned in the story, we always go to one of the convenience stores when we arrive in a place so I can stock up our accommodation fridge with real milk for our tea and coffee, yoghurts and fresh fruit packs for snacks.


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