Japan’s inbound tourism shows no sign of slowing down and spending by foreign visitors is also on the rise. But what exactly are they splurging on?
One particular shopping draw is surely Nestle’s Kit Kat lineup. The British-born chocolate bar has become a tourist favorite thanks to a variety of only-in-Japan flavors — from mega-hit green tea to sake, strawberry cheesecake and even wasabi.
But Nestle Japan is dead serious about what some regard as wacky Kit Kat flavors. They have proven the company’s answer to Japan’s aging society and a way to survive its shrinking market, said Takuya Hiramatsu, an assistant manager at Nestle Japan’s marketing and communications division.
“For food-makers like us, Japan’s total food consumption will inevitably decline as a result of its aging population,” he said. “We have produced unique, premium Kit Kat flavors to deal with this problem for more than a decade.”
The number of foreign visitors last year topped 26.17 million in the 11 months through November, already passing 2016’s record 24.04 million, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization. Tourist spending between January and September 2017 increased to almost $29 billion, up 14.7 percent from the same period the year before, according to the Japan Tourism Agency.
The agency said that of all the money spent by inbound tourists in that period, shopping accounted for the largest share at 36.9 percent.
Nestle Japan’s history of offering a wide variety of flavored Kit Kats dates back to 2000, when it released strawberry as the first nonchocolate flavor. In 2002, it introduced a melon flavor exclusively in Hokkaido.
“After selling the melon flavor in Hokkaido, we found that people from other prefectures and foreign visitors actually came to Hokkaido just to buy our product. That was when we realized that unique Kit Kats with local flavors have potential as gifts,” Hiramatsu said.
Since then, more than 300 varieties have hit the shelves — ranging from custard pudding and apple to soy sauce and cough drop flavors. About 30 different kinds of Kit Kat are currently sold in Japan, including recently launched Tokyo Banana flavor, which the company produced in collaboration with the maker of the popular sponge cake.
Hiramatsu boasted that Japan is now the role model for the global Nestle group for transforming the everyday chocolate bar into a special souvenir. Kit Kat sales at its Japan branch increased 50 percent from 2010 to 2016, he said.
In August, the company opened a new Kit Kat factory in Hyogo Prefecture — its first in 26 years — to boost production of the premium lineup.
The company opened the Kit Kat Chocolatory outlet in the posh Ginza shopping district in February to promote luxury items not sold in supermarkets. They include the Moleson series, the first Kit Kat chocolate bars with crunchy toppings. The price of a Moleson is $4.77, or about five times the price of a regular Kit Kat bar.
Despite the pricey fare, the street-level store is attracting both Japanese customers and foreign tourists.
“It’s amazing. I had to come in,” said Ajia Fukumoto, who happened to pass by the store.
“I had this image that Kit Kat was something you got cheap at convenience stores. But it’s amazing to know they have a luxury outlet like this in Ginza,” said the 43-year-old self-employed man, who bought boxes of luxury Gateau Mignon Kit Kat for his relatives.
Naomi Babcock and her daughter, Kristen, from Los Angeles, said they came to the store looking for the sake-flavored Kit Kat as a gift for their neighbor.
“I have tried the green tea one before. And I liked them. It tasted just like matcha,” Kristen Babcock said.
But Kit Kat is not the only made-in-Japan product that attracts foreign tourists. Recently, more foreign visitors come to buy daily commodities like fruit jellies and face washes — ones that are also popular among Japanese customers, said Yu Onozawa, inbound support leader at Don Quijote Co. Surprisingly, soy sauces made for tamago kake gohan (a bowl of rice mixed with a fresh raw egg) have also gained popularity recently with South Korean visitors at its stores, he added.
Onozawa said Don Quijote has been offering assistance for duty-free customers, such as multilingual support using a computer tablet and free Wi-Fi.