Hooked On Cheese: International Artisan Cheeses – Next Stop: Japan

The vast majority of artisan cheese is made in Europe and the United States; last year, the two regions produced 81.7% of the world's cheese. But while the rest of the world may contribute less in terms of quantity, some unexpected countries are currently playing a crucial role in the global artisan cheese renaissance. This series profiles a few of these nations and celebrates the dairies that are putting their countries on the (cheese) map. Find part one, on the cheeses of India, here.

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Japan imports more cheese than any other country in the world. Though cheese isn't a staple of Japanese cooking – far from it – it has steadily become more in demand over the past ten years for a few reasons. Growing wine consumption amongst Japanese consumers has prompted increased interest in cheese. In addition, cheese is now widely recognized as a healthy, protein-rich food, thus it's become quite common as a snack item. There's also the trend of palate development worldwide; as the Japanese have become familiar with western foods, the demand for unique artisan cheeses has skyrocketed.

While Japan imports 5 times the amount of cheese it produces, Japanese dairies still churn out over a million pounds of cheese each year. The Japanese artisan cheese scene is growing exponentially, particularly in Hokkaido province, where the climate and geography are ideal for dairy farming.

The most famous cheese in Japan is Sakura (cherry blossom) cheese, a Camembert-style cheese that is matured on top of cherry blossom leaves, then garnished with pickled cherry blossoms. Sakura has been recognized both inside and outside Japan, winning gold medals in the Mountain Cheese Olympics in Switzerland. Kyodo Gakusha Shintoku Farm, the Hokkaido diary that produces Sakura, also makes Shintoko, a seasonally produced, multi-award-winning Gruyère-type cheese that is aged for over 10 months for a rich, complex flavor.

Furano Cheese Factory is yet another Hokkaido-based dairy; they offer tours of the factory and sampling seminars. They are best known for their incredibly unique varieties, such as black cheese colored by squid ink and Furano Wine Cheddar, a wine-infused cheese made from local Furano Wine.

Bocca is a Hokkaido dairy that emphasizes their respect for their land and the importance of the health of their entirely grass-fed herd. (They also have a fantastic English language website!). They produce milk, yogurt, and other products, but they're best known for their Caciocavallo cheese, an Italian-style stretched-curd cheese that has become extremely popular in Japanese supermarkets.

As these cheeses become more and more beloved – and as they continue attracting the attention and admiration of cheesemakers worldwide – it's only a matter of time before they make their way across the Pacific.

You can follow Raymond's cheese adventures on Facebook, Twitter, and his website. Additional reporting by Madeleine James.