Hokkaido Milk – Inside The World Of Japan’s Dairy Industry

Hokkaido milk is known across Japan for its excellent quality and delicious flavour, often considered the country’s best milk. Known for its smooth, creamy, slightly vanilla taste, Hokkaido milk is probably most known for Hokkaido 3.6 milk, a full-fat milk product. Milk from Japan’s northernmost home island is also used to make some special treats, such as soft serve, Cremia ice cream, butter (which is even added to ramen), and even milk beer called Bilk!

Hokkaido milk

Why Is Hokkaido Milk So Special?

Hokkaido produces more than half of all of Japan’s milk. 60% is sold as whole milk, and the rest used for everything from cheese, ice cream, the curious Bilk beer, and many more dairy products. The high quality of the milk is believed to be from the ideal farming conditions, with a cool climate, as well as fresh air and plenty of wide open pasture for the dairy cows to live.

Drawing of a japanese cow standing in a field in Hokkaido

History of dairy farming in Japan

Historically, Japan has never been a large-scale producer of milk. Dairy farms began to appear in Japan following the signing of the Treaty Of Peace And Amity in 1854. 220 years of Japanese isolationism was broken, and trade with countries such as the USA, the UK, Russia, and France began. The shipping ports of Shimoda and Hakodate, and later Yokohama, began to host larger numbers of foreign traders, consuls, officials, and sailors. And to accomodate their tastes in western food and drink, the first Japanese cattle farm was established in Ikusagawa, north of Hakodate.

Japan Eats Meat For The First Time In 12 Centuries

While setbacks such as inadequate fences and the occasional bear attack soon forced the farm to close, the seed was planted for the revolution of the dairy and beef industries. The Meiji government was intent on transforming all aspects of Japanese life, and while reforms were being made to government, the military, and society, something else was changing – diet. For the first time in nearly 12 centuries, Japan was eating meat.

While never truly banned, there was a long-held taboo since the introduction of Buddhism that eating beef and other meats should not occur out of respect for living beings. Protein came from fish, seafood and rice instead. And for practical reasons, the largely mountainous Japanese islands were not particularly suited to raising cattle.

Observing the tall statures and military strength of the western countries, the Meiji government began to believe that consuming meat and dairy was essential for strong physiques in the population, and wished to adopt western practices as much as possible. In 1872, Emperor Meiji ate beef for the first time to promote it across the country, to the consternation of Buddhist leaders. In 1876, Emperor Meiji toured Hokkaido, and was served milk, cheese and ice cream in Nanae.

Dairy farms took off from then on, especially in the open fields of Hokkaido. Yamakawa Farm Natural Milk Company opened in 1945, selling bottled milk. Post-WW2, the American occupation authorities introduced milk to school lunches, and milkmen dropped milk at people’s homes, just like in the USA. Camembert became a favourite national cheese. Since then, the Onuma and Nanae regions are known for its high-fat milk products.

Hokkaido Milk Products

While Hokkaido milk became well-known across Japan for its quality and taste, it also began producing many delicious milk products as well, some with a uniquely Japanese twist.

Hokkaido Cheese Tart

One of Hokkaido’s most celebrated dairy-based desserts is the Hokkaido cheese tart, or Hokkaido cheese cake. Light and fluffy, the cake is made from Hokkaido cream cheese, eggs, cream, sugar and flour, with an airy soufflΓ© texture. A popular treat, they can increasingly be found as franchises outside of Japan.

Hokkaido Soft Cream

One of Hokkaido’s most beloved ice creams is soft cream, the local name for soft serve. Known for its creamy texture from Hokkaido milk, it also comes in all kinds of flavours. For those visiting Hakodate, there is an entire street in the Motomachi neighbourhood dedicated to soft cream – Minatogaoka Street is packed with places selling this sweet treat!

Hakodate Squid ink ice cream

Cremia Soft Serve

One of the favourite soft serves in all of Japan, Cremia is instantly recognisable on posters for its elegant swirl pattern, and thin langue de chat ice cream cone. Cremia is made up of 25% Hokkaido fresh cream, and milk with a high fat content (12.5%). The taste is rich and amazing, with a soft, silky texture. Keep an eye out for the Cremia ‘ribbon’ posters in major cities!

A Christmas date in Kyoto

Milk beer (Bilk)

Perhaps Japan’s weirdest beer, Bilk (beer + milk) was born from an oversupply of milk in 2006. Abishiri brewery in Hokkaido responded to the problem by adding milk to beer before the fermentation process. The addition of the milk (30% of the total volume) gives it a sweet, fruity flavour and a cloudy look.

Drawing of a bottle and glass of Bilk, Japanese milk and beer combo

Hokkaido Butter Ramen (Kitano Megumi Ramen)

Ramen is already a warm, hearty dish, perfect for filling up on a cold winter’s day. But in Hokkaido, the creaminess level of the pork broth is amped up by serving bowls of ramen topped with a slice of Hokkaido butter. Known as kitano megumi ramen (blessing of the north ramen), this dish is rich and delicious, and a must-try food when visiting Hokkaido.

drawing of a bowl of ramen with a slice of butter melting in it

Marusei Butter Cookie Sandwich

Made by dessert company Rokkatei, the butter cookie sandwich is a crispy treats made by sandwiching Hokkaido butter, white chocolate, and raisins between two cookies. They are delicate, expensive treats ideal for gift-giving.

Drawing of hokkaido hakodate cookies

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Japan is relatively new to the dairy farming game, but in a century and a half has quickly established Hokkaido as one of the best milk producing areas of the region. Hokkaido produces a delicious, creamy milk that everyone should try when in Japan. Whether it be milk, Hokkaido cheese, the unusual milk beer, or even a bowl of rich ramen served with a slice of butter on top, trying Hokkaido milk and dairy products is something that is an unexpected but delightful food experience in Japan.


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