Cacaoken: Craft Chocolate Making in The Japanese Countryside

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In stark contrast to Japan’s reputation as a progressive nation, the country’s handmade chocolate sector has been steadily expanding in recent years.

Onomichi, Kitakyushu, Niigata, and Iizuka are just some of the cities and locations in Japan that are home to some of the country’s most well-known chocolate factories, but the country as a whole has seen an incredible increase in the number of chocolate manufacturers opening up shop over the past five years. Although there is still a sizeable population in Osaka and Tokyo, this demographic is no longer the predominant one. The producers from far more remote sections of Japan now have the opportunity to shine and show off their products throughout the country as well as internationally thanks to the power of both social media and chocolate festivals.

One of these manufacturers is Cacaoken, which is a family-owned business with its headquarters in Iizuka. Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down and have a conversation with Yukari Nakano, one of the founders of Cacaoken, about the handmade chocolate culture in Japan as well as how the entrance of this culture changed Japan’s perspective of chocolate beyond the skyscrapers of Tokyo.

Iizuka is a tiny city located in one of the southernmost prefectures of Japan. It is located about an hour outside of Fukuoka City, and it provides a breathtaking background for the modest chocolate factory. This is more like the setting I would seek for while riding across Japan, from the mountains bursting up in the distance to the rice fields on either side of the highway. If I were searching for an award-winning chocolaterie, I wouldn’t be looking for a scene like this. Cacaoken is the only chocolate manufacturer in the city, so one would assume that their existence would be heavily recognized. However, their business is situated on a quiet side street just off the main drag, and it seems to be getting ready to relocate at any minute.

Because it’s a trailer, you should move in a more literal sense.

The little, bright red trailer may only be a few feet long, but it has enough space inside to store all of their inventory. Additionally, it is linked to a teeny-tiny room that has a restroom as well as their teeny-tiny chocolate factory. Surprisingly, as I came up to the business, there were two elderly guys seated at a tiny table in front of the shop. They welcomed me in English when I approached them. I didn’t give it much attention until after I’d done some shopping, snapped some photographs, and discovered that the lady working behind the counter couldn’t comprehend a word I’d said to her. At that point, I understood that it was a problem.

However, she seemed to be friendly, so I continued talking to her. I spoke with her through Japanese and hand gestures, and she answered me in Korean and body language. After that, she presented me with a cup of coffee, which I politely received with a little bow. What I hadn’t understood up until that point was that she was the last piece of the jigsaw, the third member of the Cacaoken family who contributes to the company’s vitality.

Her name is Fumiko, and she has a career in the chocolate industry.

Fumiko, together with her husband (Toshimi), whom I had welcomed outside, and her daughter (Yukari), whom I had met at an event many months before, are all contributing members to the expanding network of rural chocolate producers in Japan. Cacaoken, one of Japan’s most established chocolate manufacturers, is owned and operated by her family, and she is one of the few female chocolate producers in existence today. Back in 2012, while they were reading an article in a Japanese magazine about an American bean to bar chocolate manufacturer, the concept of manufacturing their own chocolate for the first time was introduced to them.

Their attention was sparked as a result of it.

Before Fumiko and Toshimi established their business in Iizuka, the two of them operated an industrial confectionery firm. Their daughter Yukari, who I interviewed, said that the family “knew about industrial chocolate, but we didn’t know about bean to bar chocolate.” I was referring to the process by which cocoa beans are transformed into bars of chocolate.

Therefore, when her parents eventually had the chance to try chocolate prepared from bean to bar by a tiny Japanese producer in Tokyo, they were instantly aware that they wanted to create a business of their very own. Because the tastes were so unusual and different from what they had been tasting for decades, they immediately realized that they had come upon something that was one of a kind. Yukari required a little more cajoling, but in the end she came around and joined in. As a result of her flawless command of the English language, the firm has appointed her to the role of spokeswoman for the majority of the chocolate exhibitions held all across Japan. She is also the driving force behind a recent partnership that they’ve been conducting with the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, which is running a special tasting menu through December 26th, 2018 that features their cacao sauce as an ingredient.

Cacaoken at the Salon du Chocolat Osaka in 2018

At the Osaka Salon du Chocolat, which is one of those chocolate exhibits held in Japan, is when I first met her and tried some of her chocolate. Her extensive collection of goods, which includes cacao fruit wine, honey with cocoa nibs, and a line of bars and bonbons, all feature an unusually eclectic mix of cultural influences. It was the combination of Japanese, Vietnamese, and American influences that piqued my interest to the point where I decided to fly to Fukuoka a few months later in order to see her business. Imagine my astonishment when I found out that the setup is an astonishingly modest size. The unexpected arrival of the store can surprise you if you’ve only ever spent your time in Tokyo’s elegantly decorated cafés. In such case, you might be taken aback by the shop’s offerings.

“When we first began producing chocolate a few years ago, there were only maybe 10 to 20 manufacturers in Japan; today there are a hundred or more” [all around the nation]. “When we first started making chocolate in Japan, there were only maybe 10 to 20 producers in Japan.”

Bean to bar chocolate made its way out of the metropolis and into the countryside in the same manner that single origin drip coffee and upscale cafés suddenly started appearing even in the middle of Japan’s rural areas. The Nakano family opened their little chocolate factory in 2014, but only a few years before, a huge corporation made a significant effort to educate the general public on the concept of “genuine chocolate,” which is defined as chocolate that is created from beans to bars. According to Yukari’s calculations, only roughly ten percent of the general public is familiar with the concept behind the term “bean to bar.”

Craft chocolate became popular in Japan about the same time as mass-produced “bean to bar” chocolate did in 2016, thus it was a good time to start collecting it.

It was only a matter of time before consumers began seeking for non-corporate bean-to-bar choices, which is when home makers really started emerging out of the woodwork. Homemade chocolate is a growing trend.

A post shared by Max Gandy | Chocolate Travel ? (@damecacao) on Sep 25, 2018 at 6:50am PDT

This widespread misuse of the notion of “bean to bar” may perhaps have been the incentive for the rapid multiplication of home chocolate producers, and it seems that at least some of the credit goes to the effect that the United States has had on Japan. When this event occurred, many individuals in Japan had the epiphany that not only is there better chocolate available, but they also had the ability to manufacture it themselves. In addition to that, publications such as periodicals and well-liked television series began discussing the process of making chocolate approximately two years ago. Their shows concentrated on the taste profiles of various bean origins rather than on the particular processes of manufacturing chocolate or tempering it, as had been done in earlier chocolate-focused episodes.

Yukari saw a significant change from the prior fixation on European chocolatiers and tastes as early as the previous year. This trend continued throughout the year. Bean to bar, which originates in Japan, as well as Japanese chocolatiers and ingredients, are attracting an increasing amount of interest from consumers. Then makes the observation that “now I believe bean to bar chocolate is not that difficult to start making,” and she goes on to explain why. She explained that this was just in regard to the availability of the necessary equipment, but she went on to point out that the production of chocolate may be rather a solitary endeavor. When opposed to being a chocolatier, which is a more mainstream career option, it has a tendency to draw in some oddball characters.

However, a new chocolatier has to think about the kind of company they want to run before they open their store. In contrast to chocolate bars, which are much simpler to carry, they are required to offer bonbons in a fresh condition and, if possible, directly to the consumer. Since of this, they will often open up shop in a major city because they understand that a lack of local clients would result in the loss of revenue.

If, on the other hand, you like a more reclusive lifestyle or if you have a specific interest that you want to combine with chocolate, it makes more sense to establish your business in a location with lower rent. You may quietly refine your profession while incurring just a moderate amount of additional financial burden, and you can gradually educate the people that surrounds you. Consider the living situation of the Nakano family, for example. They have parked their modest trailer in what is essentially a parking lot, which is situated just off the main road in a rather small city. The trailer is readily accessible by public transit. However, over the years, they have established a name for themselves by selling their products at chocolate festivals all across Japan. As a result, they are now able to offer their products directly to consumers as well as in retail stores located all throughout the nation.

“I believe the first year, second year it’s extremely tough to sell to the local people,” she chuckles. “It’s really difficult to sell to the local people.” “However, if you ask them to contrast the flavor of the two chocolates, they will quickly and readily comprehend the difference between the two. Therefore, the client won’t have any trouble learning how to use this.”

As a result of the fact that the Nakanos now employ cacao that is obtained from Ghana, Peru, Haiti, and Vietnam, they have access to a highly distinct contrast of taste profiles. However, in addition to this, they produce a number of candies that feature Japanese regional flavors and components, such as their nib-speckled raw sugar squares or their shiso milk chocolate, and they place a strong emphasis not only on producing these candies but also on discussing their histories.

They construct a white chocolate with 40% cocoa content, which is unusual in East Asia, but they make dark chocolate using the American technique of just two ingredients, which is used by the majority of Japanese manufacturers. They combine the white and dark chocolates to the proper ratio in order to manufacture their milk chocolate, and the majority of the beans they use are Vietnamese beans that they get directly from farmers. Cacaoken makes a concerted effort to set itself apart from other manufacturers, despite the fact that a Japanese importer is responsible for bringing in their other sources.

They have made it their purpose to not only teach the people in their local community about chocolate, but also to extend the learning overseas in order to promote connection at the source of their cacao, which is in the southern part of Vietnam. There is nothing inherently wrong with purchasing cacao from an importer, which is what the vast majority of Japanese manufacturers do; but, the Nakanos have a different vision for how their future will unfold. They continue to draw inspiration from the Vietnamese farmers with whom they collaborate in order to grow their company and provide new value on a daily basis. Any person who owns a small company will tell you that there is more to it than just producing the goods and selling it.

The goal is to educate young children about the process of creating chocolate as well as about various cultures. It’s seeing the joy spread over an adult’s face when they rediscover something they once loved. Sharing one’s love for one’s community as well as one’s love of food is an experience that cannot be put a price on.

Figuring out how to be a chocolate maker on a small scale while still making money for yourself and people who rely on you is such a one-of-a-kind challenge. Chocolate making is an expensive endeavor. On a daily basis, the family probably struggles with and is also fascinated by the same issues. How do you go about creating items that are interesting? How are you going to sell those items with the limited resources you have? Is it really feasible to build a consumer base based just on educational efforts? However, even when things are difficult, there is always something more to accomplish and more that they are capable of doing.

Cacaoken is thrilled to have the chance to not only manufacture delicious chocolate but also teach their community on the process of making chocolate and expose them to the culture of other countries via the medium of chocolate and cacao. They strive to tell the tales of the areas from where they obtain their beans, and they use chocolate as their medium of choice in order to do so. In the same way that they celebrate the culture of Japan via their chocolate, they also seek to share those stories.

When I first met Fumiko, she was getting ready to deliver a workshop on chocolate production to middle school students at a nearby school. The program would entail sampling and comparing different chocolates. She is responsible for a significant amount of the local education work despite the fact that she does not speak English. But she also has great ideas for their store in Fukuoka, while Toshimi is continuing to grow the influence of their café in Vietnam. Together, they are moving both places into the future using a variety of technology that they are not quite ready to disclose just yet.

Let’s just say that the Nakanos have a clear vision of the future, and that it’s chock full of connections.

Visit this page of the family’s website to place an order for any of the chocolate bars or cacao items that they sell, and Cocoa Runners will ship your purchase anywhere in the world (when in stock). The buffet at the Tokyo Imperial Hotel, which features their chocolate sauce, will be available until the 26th of December, 2018.

Cacaoken Locations

Address in Japan: 17-79 Higashitokuzen, Iizuka-shi, Fukuoka-ken 820-0032, Japan

Address in Vietnam: Vietnam, Lâm Đồng, Thành phố Đà Lạt, ラムドン