Hokkaido is famous for fish, shellfish, râmen (especially famous in Sapporo and Asahikawa), maybe even cheese (Hokkaido’s famous camembert sold in a tin box), and that is about it. This represents more or less the whole inventory of the island’s food produce, or at least, that is what most Japanese would say if they were questioned on the subject. However, this list is not complete. Of course there are many other agricultural products (such as wine) that are grown successfully and contribute to the region’s reputation but there is one quite unexpected product that is growing in popularity throughout the archipelago and abroad, and that is chocolate. Hokkaido is becoming a mini version of Switzerland thanks to a chocolate called Royce’. The first time you hear its name, you immediately think it must be a foreign business developed locally to satisfy the demand of gourmets in the region. Royce’ does not sound very Japanese. “In fact, it’s the founder’s name read backwards,” explains Imai Akiko, who is in charge of the company’s public relations.
It was Yamazaki Yasuhiro (Rohisu when the characters are read in reverse) who founded the company in 1983, in the area surrounding Sapporo. “At that time, nobody made milk chocolate in Hokkaido, although the region is well-known for its milk,” says Imai. Yamazaki Yasuhiro had just left his job in a machine-tool factory, and was looking for an idea to start his own business. That is when he came up with the idea of a chocolate factory. His first workshop was fewer than 200 square metres. “I remember I used to make everything from scratch. I didn’t have the means to pay for a machine. My only tools were standard kitchen implements. That’s when I used to make chocolate bars in the shape of cows. They had quite a lot of success with tourists,” remembers Yamazaki Yasuhiro. Then he started making “nama chocolate” (made with crème fraîche). Nowadays it is still one of the Royce’ brand’s most popular products. “It represents 50% of our sales,” says Imai. “We take advantage of the high quality of Hokkaido’s milk products, but that’s not all. For a few years now, we have also been using potatoes,” she says with a smile, seeing a look of surprise at the idea of a combination of potatoes and chocolate. But innovation is at the heart of Royce’s success, and it so happens that the chocolate maker came up with the idea of potato crisps coated on one side with chocolate. A local business supplies Royce’ with the crisps, which are then coated and packed. People love them. In the factory shop in Ishikari Futomi, just 30 minutes from Sapporo’s city centre, boxes and bags of chocolate crisps sell like hot cakes. “Many tourists travelling through Hokkaido come all the way to the factory to buy some. It’s a sign of the product’s quality,” adds Imai. Not all the tourists she mentions are Japanese, there are also many foreigners who are increasingly addicted to Hokkaido’s chocolate, and Royce’ uses that fact as part of its marketing strategy. These past few years, the island has made great efforts to attract visitors from abroad, especially from Asia, and Royce’ has used one of its advertising campaigns to help promote this. The company has developed its investments in Asia, and opened many retail outlets: Singapore, in 2001, followed by Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Russia at the end of 2011. This fast-growing success both in Japan and Asia can be explained by the originality of the products, as well as the quality of the raw materials. “Hokkaido’s milk is wonderful. We only use milk from farms where the animals are fed with organic produce,” insists Imai. It gives the product a unique taste and texture that cannot be found anywhere else. That is the reason why Yamazaki Yasuhiro is confident about the future. He is certain that this taste of Hokkaido can conquer the world.