All Japan Natural Cheese Contest 2009

The winner in 2009, "Mattone Rosso" of Uraken-Yufuin Cheese Factory, is a washed cheese. Yufuin is in a southern island Kyushu.
On the last Friday "All Japan Natural Cheese Contest 2009" was held in Tokyo and 52 cheese producers participated in the contest with their 113 kinds of cheese. According to the explanation of the organizer, Japan Dairy Council, this event started in 1997 with the aim to improve the natural cheese manufacturing technique suitable for the Japanese climate and geographical conditions, to promote the production of home made natural cheese which fits the taste of Japanese people and to create a cheese culture characteristic to Japan.

There are various kinds of cheese promotion events in Japan, but they are mostly organized by large producers, importers, wholesalers and retailers and exporting countries. The special characteristic of the All Japan Natural Cheese Contest is that it is the only occasion for domestic cheese producers, ranging from big dairy companies such as Meiji, Morinaga and Yukijirushi to small one man cheese manufacturers, to show their ability to the public.

Milk is a novel nutrition for the Japanese people. Though milk and dairy farming were introduced to Japan from the Asian continent in the ancient time and milk and cheese were used for medical purposes, they were forgotten during the course of time. Milk consumption restarted in the late 19th century when Japan opened its door to the world and dairy products were brought to Japan from the West.
Development of cheese consumption in Japan
YearConsumption (gramm / person*year)
While the grand prix winner was from the southern island Kyushu, the majority of participants and price winners were from Hokkaido. The semi-hard type cheese "Tsurui silver label" was the runners-up and produced by a commune-managed company in East Hokkaido. The same company won the grand prix at the previous contest in 2007 with its "Tsurui gold label".

Miyajima-san also won with his Shintoko cheese "Judges' special Prize", one of the five major prizes of the contest. However, his stock of Shintoko cheese has already sold out and we have to wait for the next season if we want to buy one. Of course, I enjoyed the last pieces of Shintoko with glasses of red wine during the reception of the contest.
Shintoko packed for retailing
At the beginning milk was drunk as nutritious supplements and from that time onward drinking milk was and is the core of dairy products consumption in Japan. Still now about half of the 8 million tons raw-milk production in Japan is consumed as drinking milk. Cheese production began as early as 1875, but cheese consumption increased only very slowly. In 1900 per-capita annual consumption of cheese was mere 0,9g. Even after the WWII only 3g cheese was consumed in 1950. An impetus was given to the cheese consumption when cheese was introduced to school meals in 1963. The total consumption exceeded 200,000t in 1995 and reached 280,000 in 2005.

However, it is still premature to say that cheese has been fully integrated into the Japanese culinary culture. While many Europeans consume cheese more or less 20kg annually, Japanese people consume only 2.2kg in 2006. Most popular ways of cheese consumption are pizza and cheese cake and it is not popular yet to eat cut natural cheese. Japanese cheese consumption began with processed cheese, because many Japanese people could not stand the unfamiliar smell of cheese. Though the consumption of natural cheese exceeded that of processed cheese in 1985, home consumption still mostly consists of processed cheese.

In the Japanese cheese market, domestic product has only about 20% share. Japan is a big cheese importer and its imported cheese (2.27 million tones in 2008) is mostly used either for producing processed cheese or for making pizza and cake. Only a small portion of imported natural cheese, and in particular high quality products, comes directly into the consumer market.

But, the demand for good quality natural cheese is expanding as the Westernization of food culture is progressing. Therefore, large dairy companies see this as a good business chance and expand their cheese production capacities. On the other hand, many individuals including dairy farmers and ambitious young people want to try their fotune in cheese making. Now, there are some 140 small cheese factories in Japan, including Miyajima-san's Kyodogakusha-Shintoku, and they are competing with one another and with large producers. Therefore, it is very natural, that they have strong wishes to increase the frequency of the Natural Cheese Contests, which now take place only biennially, so that they could demonstrate their cheese quality every year.

As a consumer, I do not find sufficient conditions yet for selling Japanese natural cheese. The price of Japanese natural cheese is extremely high, if consumption should be stimulated. The average price of popular kinds of cheese such as Camembert and Mozzarella is about 10 US dollar per 100g, which is almost prohibitive. Cheese of good and small Japanese factories is practically not available in ordinary shops, except for their own local shops. Even internet shops are very few. Even if we expand the scope to imported cheese, we cannot find a selection of natural cheese in ordinary supermarkets. Therefore, the promotion of natural cheese in general must be pursued first.

The quality of Japanese natural cheese is already good enough, though I want more variety and in particular the increase of more characteristic types of hard cheese. What are mostly needed are price reduction, production increase and good marketing.

I brought home several pieces of cheese. Petite Plaisir of Kyodogakusha-Shintoku (left) looks like Camembert, but has riper and fuller taste. Chevre cheese (right) is made by Kazenotani Farm tastes super with maple syrup sauce.