KitKat Krazy

Story by Mari Taketa. Photo by Mari Taketa

“Look to your left, please, for the cameras on the right,” the emcee instructed.

At an open-air press conference in Tokyo’s posh Roppongi Hills, nine-foot banners had unfurled to reveal a closely held secret: the latest KitKat flavor from Nestlé Japan, at 350 flavors and counting the world champion at selling the chocolate-covered wafer. Backdropped by giant images of plum sake KitKats, a sake brewer, a soccer star-turned-sake promoter and a Nestlé executive swiveled their heads and smiled as camera shutters clicked. “Now look to the center for the TV news cameras,” the emcee intoned. “And finally, to the right.” More snaps as fifty national daily newspapers, TV networks, food industry magazines and sports publications scrambled for their shots. I’m pretty sure I beat them all to the scoop. Minutes after posting the scene on my Facebook feed, there were 102 likes. Comments from friends back in Hawai‘i lit up my phone. “WOW.” “OMG!!” “How excited were you?” and “Can you bring some back??”

Hawai‘i is obsessed with Japanese KitKats—and I’m not talking about sweet-toothed adolescents. The most avid collectors I know are a 40-something marketing CEO and a retired US customs inspector. Posts on my feed show off people’s latest KitKat finds from Japan. I’ve traded them at the movies, a street food fair, in tony Bishop Street offices, the parking lot of a hot-dog shack and several times over dinner, where the shiny wrappers draw oohs of recognition from onlookers. For this subset of locals, Japanese KitKats are like dishes on a Zippy’s menu: Everyone can name their favorite. Tokyo banana, crème brûlée, Hokkaido melon with mascarpone cheese—the flavors change all the time.

It wasn’t always so. KitKats debuted in York, England, in 1937 as triple-layer wafer fingers sandwiched with cream and covered in milk chocolate—and stayed that way for generations, even as they spread across the globe (KitKats are now sold in at least eighty countries). Then two things happened: First, Nestlé Japan’s experiment at selling limited-edition Hokkaido strawberry KitKats in Hokkaido in 2000 drew a wave of enthusiasts to Japan’s far northern island; and second, someone hit on the idea of marketing the candy—whose Japanese name, Kitto-Katsu, is a fortuitous homonym meaning “you’ll definitely win”—as a good-luck charm for students taking Japan’s notorious university entrance exams.

The flavor craze took off like a bullet train out of Tokyo Station. Some you might expect: sake, sweet red bean azuki, yuzu. Some were weird, like soy sauce (a bestseller in 2010) and throat lozenge, which flopped. Some were high-end—hand-decorated, flecked with gold leaf and reserved for sale at KitKat’s upscale Chocolatory boutiques (the flagship store in Ginza, around the corner from Bulgari and Cartier, has a cafe where you can get a Chocolatory KitKat parfait). That most flavors were seasonal or sold only in locales whose souvenir foods they featured—like the catalytic Hokkaido strawberry KitKats—inflamed collectors’ appetites. And some flavors, like green tea and raspberry, made it to the shelves of some of the Japanese grocery chains in Hawai‘i.

Why this last bit matters becomes clear when you do a search for “American KitKat.” There’s milk chocolate, dark chocolate, white and California strawberry. That’s it. But then, suddenly, Japanese KitKats disappeared from grocery shelves around Honolulu. Imports had stopped, clerks said. Reaction on Facebook ranged from dismay (“What? Oh no!”) to offers of replenishment from friends headed to Japan. But I didn’t want sympathy; I wanted answers. I e-mailed Nestlé Japan for an interview and found out a press conference was scheduled for the day of my visit. The KitKat universe was with me.

Here’s what I learned, Hawai‘i fans: Chances of finding Japanese KitKats on local shelves again are slim, because while Nestlé owns the KitKat brand everywhere else in the world, in the United States it’s owned by rival Hershey. And if you’re headed to Japan, your best bets for scoring the newest flavors and biggest assortments, from high-end to supermarket bulk bags, are the eight Chocolatory stores, Mega Don Quijote in Shibuya and Shokoku Gotochi Plaza in the underground mall at Tokyo Station. You’re welcome. HH