Hokkaido milk tea vs Okinawa milk tea: What’s the difference?

Japanese milk tea

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Im sure for a lot of you, tea is something you drink on regular if not daily basis.

For me it’s matcha tea, or maybe a gyokuro tea if im feeling fancy. I feel fancy pretty often… I won’t lie.

Or hey, maybe you’re a coffee person instead!

But what about Japanese milk tea? Whilst it’s probably not something you’ve heard of, it’s an extremely popular tea in Japan.

Today we’re going to look at two of the biggest producers of Japanese milk tea, Hokkaido and Okinawa.

But which is best?

Quick Japanese vocabulary lesson:

Japanese milk vocabulary

Soy Milk: Tōnyū 豆乳

Milk: Gyūnyū 牛乳

The history of milk and dairy in Japan

Japan milk cow

Before we jump in to exploring the differences between both island teas, I think it’s important to understand Japans relationship with dairy to gain a deeper understanding of the drink.

The first time milk was brought to Japan

The history of dairy dates back to the Asuka period of Japan (592-710). When a priest named Chiso who came from Korea brought with him 164 books and one of those discussed the beneficial effects of milk.

This was the first time the Japanese people learned about milking cows milk.

The first milk store in Tokyo

Fast forward to 1870 and we see the first dairy store in the country. Sakagawa Masaharu opened ‘Sakagawa Milk Store’ in Akasaka although the majority of his customers were foreigners in the early days.

The Hokkaido dairy industry

Hokkaido dairy field
Hokkaido Field

Thanks to it’s enormous countryside, Hokkaido is responsible for producing about half of Japans milk supply. According to Japan Guide around 60% is used for drinking and the rest will be used for other dairy products like cheese, yogurt, butter, etc.

Because of this production, Hokkaido is associated with having some of the best milk in the country.

Visitors to Hokkaido might also see dairy being consumed or sold more than other places in Japan due to the long running heritage of the dairy industry on the island.

Why is Hokkaido milk famous?

Cows have a far better quality of life in Hokkaido than any other part of the country. This includes more land, fresher air, and a greener environment. This allows the cows to produce extremely high quality richer milk and in turn allows the farmers to charge more than anywhere else in Japan.

The Okinawa dairy industry

Okinawa field

On the flip side, Okinawa milk production is actually decreasing according to Japan Update. This is because the number of dairy farmers who keep cows is diminishing.

In 2015 there were 4,375 milk cows which is 444 less than 2014. The number of milk farmers has also gone down in the same period.

Another reason milk production is not so popular in Okinawa is that farmers are becoming increasingly concerned with how much milk products have been rising over the past decade or so. This can be put down to the overall decrease in demand for dairy products nationwide and seems only set to continue down this path for the foreseeable.

Royal Milk Tea

Now we know a little bit more about the dairy industry in Japan, let’s have a look at how they use it in tea and what makes it unique.

There are different regional versions of milk tea in Japan and the two main ones we are looking at today are Hokkaido and Okinawa.

Another name you may come across is Royal Milk Tea (ロイヤルミルクティー).

Royal Milk Tea was first invented by Lipton Japan in 1965 as a part of their ‘Royal Series‘. I’m unsure if this was supposed to be a limited series of tea or whether it was supposed to hang around, but it seems it took the latter option and is here to stay.

Some royal milk teas could be considered Hokkaido milk tea, but that all depends on the ingredients used and the regions they come from.

For instance, this Nittoh Kocha instant royal milk tea powder is technically capable of making Hokkaido milk tea at home because it uses a powdered Hokkaido milk.

What makes royal milk tea different?

Whilst standard milk tea uses a small amount of milk, royal milk tea uses a far bigger ratio.

The sugar (or honey), the tea leaves, and the milk (make sure its creamy) are all boiled one the stove at the same time before its poured through a siv and into a mug.

Many vending machines in Japan will stock take-away bottle of royal milk tea as it’s an extremely popular drink throughout the country.

The differences between Hokkaido and Okinawa milk tea

Milk Tea DifferencesMilk usedTea usedExtras added
Hokkaido milk tea:Fresh Hokkaido MilkAssamCaramel or Sugar
Okinawa milk tea:Whole MilkAssamKokuto
Hokkaido milk tea vs Okinawa milk tea

Hokkaido milk tea

As we’ve already discovered above, Hokkaido dairy is famous throughout the whole of Japan.

According to Daniel Food Diary the cows in Hokkaido are said to be happier and healthier because of the ‘fresh air, spacious land, and green environment’. I don’t know how much I agree with all this, but apparently a lot of people do so who am I to judge.

It’s because of this that you can expect Hokkaido milk to be more creamy and thick than any you’ve tried before.

So by adding what is essentially a light cream to your tea instead of milk, the last of the finished drink is bound to be sweeter and richer than anything else.

As we can see from the table above, the final step in creating Hokkaido milk tea is adding a caramel or sugar.

What does Hokkaido milk taste like?

With an extremely rich and quality tea from the cows in Hokkaido, a hardy black tea like Assam, and either sugar or caramel to finish, Hokkaido milk tea has a distinct final taste to it.

You can expect your tea to be extremely smooth and creamy due to the Hokkaido milk with a hint of caramel from the sugar (or caramel).

Okinawa milk tea

So whilst Okinawa milk tea doesn’t use Hokkaido milk, it’s still a worthy competitor to it’s northern brother.

Okinawa milk tea still uses a good quality milk and similar tea leaf for it’s flavor profile, but it’s secret weapon comes in the form of Kokuto.

What is Kokuto?

Sadly I’m yet to try what’s considered the worlds most healthy brown sugar.

Luckily the folks over at ChefShop have and the describe it as the following:

“Not solid or hard, it is soft and crumbly with a wonderful sweet taste. It has a texture, like maple candy, with a flavor that hints of licorice, light muscovado, and a subtle hint of molasses.” – Chef Shop

Well, I’m sold! Anything with a texture like maple candy gets my vote!

Kokuto was first made in the 17th century but has only recently gained a wider representation.

It’s sugarcane is grown in Okinawa where it’s swamped with sunlight and minerals from the ocean. It’s because of this environment that Okinawa is able to grow Kokuto where the rest of the world simply would not be able to.

And so you arent likely to find this sugar anywhere else in the world which makes any food it becomes a part of far more unique and special.

Hokkaido milk tea vs Okinawa milk tea: Which one should you pick?

If you’re looking for a world famous drink that’s a little sweeter and deeper in it’s flavor profile, go for Hokkaido Milk Tea. If you’re looking for the most unique and rare drinking experience I would suggest trying the Okinawa Milk Tea due to it’s Kokuto sugar.

Where can I find Hokkaido and Okinawa milk tea?

Obviously it’s all well and good knowing which one you want to try, but none of that matters if you cant find out a way to get your hands on the ingriedients.

In Japan: This is obviously the easiest way to get your hands on Japanese Milk Tea. Your best bet would be to visit each of the two locations and find a nice independent café for the best tea drinking experience.

If you’re limited on time or money you could visit your local 7-Eleven and pick up a pack of powdered tea to take with you on the rest of your journey or even back home.

Your final option to find either Japanese milk tea in the country would be to use a vending machine. Whilst this won’t be the best way to experience tea and may not be the best quality you’ll ever taste, it’s the easiest and quickest way to try Japanese Milk Tea if you’re stuck in the city.

Online: You’ll find a number of online shops selling powdered milk Hokkaido and Okinawa milk tea.

Buy Okinawa Milk Tea

Buy Hokkaido Milk Tea

Make it yourself: If you’d rather craft Japanese milk tea yourself, then there’s no reason why you cant!

Unfortunately I’m not the best person to help you make a recipe, but Talkboba have you covered with theirs!

Hokkaido milk tea recipe:

  • 1-1.5 Cups of black tea (Assam recommended)
  • 1/4-1/2 cup of Hokkaido milk (You can buy powdered from amazon here)
  • 2 Tbsp of sugar/Syrup (Use Kokuto or just brown sugar if you’re making Okinawa tea)

Let me know if you enjoyed your Japanese milk tea!

For me, I’m always going to be a fan of matcha more than this but it’s always interesting to explore all the options a country has rather than just finding your favourite meal and sticking with it.

Katsu curry lovers, I’m looking at you! 😉

Jonny Gleason

Photographer, Magazine owner, Matcha drinker. One of these is definitely the most important, just unsure which...

Instagram: @jonny.gleason

2 Comments

  1. Anything tea gets my attention. I loved reading this article with all the new information ( new avenues in the tea land as I never heard or read about Hokkaido and Okinawa teas) . I liked the practical tips offered regarding preparation of these special teas.

    • I agree! It’s something I’m bound to try next time I’m in Japan. Who knows, it may even replace my matcha addiction haha!

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