A Joy to Fly / When life gives you lemons

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By: Tom Miyagawa Coulton - Photography by: Nandin Yuan - Posted on: January 17, 2019 | Travel

Hiroshima’s current generation of farmers and entrepreneurs is injecting some zest back into its centuries-old citrus industry

“Back then, these terraced fields stretched to the sky,” recalls Hidemi Miyashiro, an 85-year-old citrus farmer. “During the harvest, the whole island would glow with oranges and lemons. That’s why they call this the Golden Isle.”

The small town of Ocho on Osaki Shimojima – part of the Tobishima Kaido island chain two hours south-east of Hiroshima City – is synonymous with lemons and oranges. Hiroshima produces more lemons than any other region in Japan, and Osaki Shimojima’s farmers are still at the core of the prefecture’s citrus production, harvesting 6,000 tonnes every year.

This island’s relationship with citrus started in 1818, but only really took root when it produced the first ever Japanese lemon in 1898. In 1903, it introduced the hugely popular wase mikan orange; by 1935, it was providing 40% of the mikan oranges sold in Tokyo.

In the industry’s heday, Ocho’s farmers cultivated every inch of the island – even the slopes of neighbouring isles. A flotilla of mikan bune (citrus boats) would leave Ocho’s bustling harbour every morning, only returning at dusk. It was a lucrative business, three crates of these oranges could be worth a month’s salary.

Fast forward to today and the inlets are empty, bar a scattering of fishing boats. With younger generations feeling the pull of the city; a fall in citrus prices; and the aftereffects of a typhoon in 1991 that wiped out thousands of fruit trees, farming has lost its former allure.

The remaining farmers are having to diversify to survive. “I used to grow three varieties of orange,” says Hidemi. “Now, I’m growing 15. Farmers here have always been good at thinking about the next step.” That taste for innovation is clear among his fellow growers on the island, who are experimenting with new methods to put oranges and lemons back at the top of the tree.

Bubbling Under

After nine years in Shanghai attempting to promote traditional sake (Japanese rice wine) to the Chinese market, 33-year-old entrepreneur Koichiro Miyake returned home with a clear goal. “In China, I realised that I had to create a new sake that was more accessible to overseas customers,” he shares. With that epiphany, he set about creating a whole new drink: a lemon-flavoured sparkling sake with the look and feel of champagne.

“Much like the vineyards in France, I wanted to maintain strong connections between the sake and the provenance of the lemons,” says the charismatic Koichiro. “As such, I travelled the length and breadth of the Seto Inland Sea to find the perfect location.”

His search eventually bore fruit in 2014, when he changed upon the small island of Mikado, just of Osaki Shimojima. Upon experiencing the island’s rich culture of citrus farming and its beautiful surroundings, he knew he had struck gold.

He started his company, Naorai, on the island in 2015, launching a new sake brand called Mikado Lemon. As well as buying lemons from growers on the island, he began cultivating his own. With its distinctive taste and striking bottle design, his sake is starting to make big waves in the local industry; he now plans to market it across Asia, Europe and America.

“I want people to enjoy the drink, but also use it as an opportunity to visit this area,” says Koichiro. “Once you see the beauty of the landscape, taste the sea air and feel the sunshine, you’ll get a true sense of what goes into every bottle of Mikado Lemon.”

Organic growth

Since college, 28-year-old Shintaro Takeuchi has always been searching for something. He worked in logistics, reflexology and bartending, and thought he had found his calling when he was sent to Barcelona as the man on the ground for a Japanese importer of serrano ham. He quality-checked cured ham by day and checked himself into tapas bars at night. Life was good, but he chose to leave it all behind and return to Japan to become a citrus farmer.

For generations, Shintaro’s grandparents and great-grandparents had tilled the mountainsides of Osaki Shimojima. But with his grandmother living alone and with no one to take over, the fields fell fallow until Shintaro decided to seize the opportunity. “I was drawn to the independence of it all. Everything from start to finish is down to you,” says the straight-talking Shintaro. “I can choose what to grow, how to grow it and who to sell it to.” Today, he tends to his fruit trees while studying at the local agricultural association.

Shintaro is determined to farm his lemons, limes and oranges organically – an uncommon practice in Japan, where a low level of chemical’s is usually used to keep fruit looking good. “Japanese customers are used to seeing perfect, unblemished fruit,” he says. “But there are people who appreciate the wholesome nature of organic produce, those who care more for taste than appearance.”

Farming is a slow process and learning happens in yearly cycles. But for Shintaro, the feeling of working in the fields in the sun while looking out over the Seto Inland Sea is enough to convince him that he made the right decision. “My next focus is building relationships of trust with my customers. At the moment, there’s a disconnect between producer and consumer. I want my food to connect people and places.”

Taking heart

Shigeru Nagasako was born and raised in a family of farmers on Shimo Kamagari island. “From the age of ten, I was already helping my dad in the fields,” the 54-year-old recalls. “When other children were playing, I was busy farming.”

As an adult, Shigeru found work in the city, but chose to return to the island’s fields 20 years ago. There, he started a conventional citrus farm, relying on what he had learnt from his father all those years ago. Satisfied with his work, he looked to diversify.

“I didn’t have formal training like the other farmers, so I didn’t know how to create new varieties of citrus,” he admits. “That’s when I saw farmers on TV trying to grow fruit into new shapes. I thought this was something I could do!”

Soon, he set his mind on creating heart-shaped lemons, figuring out the process by himself through trial and error. With the help of a local metalworks factory, he created a set of vice-like metal moulds that would coax the lemons to grow just so. Eventually, he found the right method to create his distinctive fruit; today, he grows 3,000 heart-shaped lemons every year, sold across the country in Hiroshima, Miyajima, Tokyo – and even overseas in Taiwan.

“You have to tighten and loosen the moulds during the growing season,” says Shigeru, who tends each lemon individually by hand. “It’s hard work adjusting each mould, and some fall off, but the end result makes all the effort worthwhile.”

Following the scent

“The local agricultural association asked us to think of a way to add value to the lemons being used for juice and nothing else,” recalls Mayumi Zazu, who runs consultancy firm HR. “So we took the discarded peel to create pure lemon aromatherapy oil.” The 55-year-old is one of the brains behind Neroli Café, a stylish eatery above Osaki Shimojima’s sleepy ferry terminal with its own distillation lab to boot.

With the warm fragrance of lemons in the air and magnificent ocean views, the café, which opened in March 2016, is the perfect place to unwind. Here, Mayumi and her team conduct regular aromatherapy workshops, during which participants can venture out into the surrounding fields, pick their own ingredients and distil their own oils.

Lemon oil has a wide range of uses, and Neroli’s customer base reflects this: aromatherapists, cosmetic companies, food makers and futon manufacturers all put its oil to good use. During the 2016 Kumamoto earthquake, Mayumi and her team also sent batches of lemon oil to evacuation centres for use as fragrances and cleaning agents.

“It’s easy to forget the powerful effect fragrance has on our daily lives and wellbeing,” says the driven and positive Mayumi. “We run the café and workshops so that people can come and enjoy the island. After they leave, the scent of lemon oil will remind them of this special corner of the world.”

SilkAir flies to Hiroshima three times weekly from Singapore. For more information, please log on to www.singaporeair.com/silkair

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