Today was our last full day in Tokyo, and I wanted to make sure I got in as many Hokkaido milk products as possible. Since about ten years ago, I kept stumbling upon articles and food references that would always say how delicious and superior Hokkaido milk was to the average milk. It started with a Hokkaido milk candy. Then, it became about the Hokkaido soft cream ice cream, then about the freaking milk itself. It has now ballooned into constant social media posts I get bombarded with regarding Hokkaido ice cream, Hokkaido milk cream cheese cakes and tarts… you name it, and I’ve likely already heard of it.
Granted, I already knew that American milk, overall, was inferior: the majority of cows in the U.S. eat grain (read: not natural) and have little time outside to graze (I think this also goes without saying, but again, not natural), whereas a happy cow would have vast amounts of land to graze and eat grass and insects, which is what nature intended. Because of this, I immediately noticed the taste difference in milk we’d drink in Australia or New Zealand (always grass fed cows) vs. in the U.S. Something about the milk just tasted brighter, fresher, and creamier. It’s hard to describe until you have it for yourself. Hokkaido is the second largest main island of Japan, a nation of islands. With only about 5.2 million people, Hokkaido is also one of Japan’s less populated main islands (compare that to the island of Honshu, home of Tokyo, Osaka, and Hiroshima, which has a population of of about 104 million people). Hokkaido is characterized by a cooler, more rugged climate, vast plains, and extensive forests. As such, it is the perfect place for cows to have vast amounts of fresh air and land to happily graze on. And happy cows always produce delicious milk, which makes for happy dairy consumers such as myself.
Our Hokkaido milk-themed food crawl started with the famous Hokkaido milk lady stand at the Akihabara train station, between platforms 5-6. To access this point, you’d either need a frequent train card or already be inside the train station itself. So once we got off our train from Ebisu, Chris and Pookster waited for me downstairs while I went up to platforms 5-6. I easily found the milk stand: it was run by a smiley, friendly Japanese lady who spoke just enough broken English so that we could communicate with each other. It was cute, humble, simple stand: while she had some ready made sandwiches and snacks, along with an array of packaged treats, milk was clearly her dominant item being sold. Her glass case was lined with various types of milk, most of which I could not read. But some were obvious based on the photos: lesser/low fat, apple-flavored, peach-flavored, etc. What I did not realize until I asked for Hokkaido milk and bought it from her was that she sells milk the old-school way: once you order and pay, she takes out a single-serve glass bottle, pops off the top with her can opener, and hands the glass over to you. You’re expected to drink the glass of milk right then and there, enjoy it, then hand the empty glass back to her for recycling (or, perhaps even sterilization and reuse, because why not?!). While I savored my single glass of cold Hokkaido milk, I marveled at all the people who rushed over to buy their glass, chugged their milk, handed it back to her, and then rushed onto an arriving train on the same platform. I would expect that this was an everyday or every-week ritual for a lot of people, and many of these people buying and chugging her milk were likely regulars who had a relationship with her who she knew. I thought it was really sweet to have a relationship with a milk person, and I wondered if she did know the inner workings of any of their lives at all.
I asked the milk lady if there were any takeaway options. She indicated that she usually doesn’t sell them, but she did have a small number in her fridge for a 10 JPY upcharge. She also tried to sell me on the apple Hokkaido milk, but I insisted on the original. So I picked up one to bring down for Pookster and Chris to share. Chris got in a few sips, but it was Pookster who really enjoyed this milk: it was truly love at first sip! She had this huge smile after slurping through the straw and got so upset when it was time to discard the bottle! I had only wished we had recorded her reaction to her first and only taste of pure Hokkaido milk.
We then proceeded to two other places for Hokkaido milk products: Cow Cow Kitchen, which makes what they call “milk pies,” which are cow head-shaped pastries that are essentially a cross between a croissant and a cream puff, filled to the brim with a delicious, thick Hokkaido milk custard; we also went to Azabu Sabo Hokkaido Milk Ice Cream just steps away, all at Akihabara Station. Today, we got lucky, as the special limited edition rotating flavor was pistachio (it’s like they knew I was coming!). Given Chris’s cousin and her wife were with us, we got to buy more and got a full box of six to share! We got three of the original milk custard and three of the pistachio. The pastry just shatters in your mouth upon the first bite, just like the perfect croissant. And the model “milk pie” was not lying at all: it really was filled very generously with custard. The milk custard was sweet (but not too sweet!), super creamy and milky, with a hint of a vanilla flavor. The custard was a bit on the thin side, but I couldn’t get enough of it. And as if that wasn’t enough of a treat, the pistachio one perhaps may have been even more impressive: the filling was a very pale green color (probably a hint that the coloring is JUST from toasted pistachios and no artificial green coloring, and it had just the right amount of nut in it to tell you that the flavor was most definitely sweet, toasty pistachio nuts! The custard was a bit thicker than the milk custard, and it just sang in your mouth!
Azabu Sabo Hokkaido Milk Ice Cream was also a treat. They had a number of flavors that we would never find at the average U.S. ice cream shop, even the Asian ones, such as cassis (black currant! YUM!), super matcha, genmaicha (roasted rice with green tea), and of course, their classic Hokkaido milk ice cream. We got a double cup with two flavors, the Hokkaido milk and the genmaicha. The genmaicha tasted exactly like genmaicha tea – roasty, slightly sweet, with a slight bitterness at the end from the green tea. And the Hokkaido milk was super creamy and almost vanilla-like. I will miss access to these rare flavors when we go back home. Chinatown may have matcha or green tea ice cream, but SUPER matcha or genmaicha — no way!
I would love to go to Hokkaido next and indulge in all things Hokkaido, and definitely get my further fill of Hokkaido milk products!