2019.02.01 Exploring Teshima Foodscapes

Exploring Setouchi #33

In Japanese, the name Teshima means “bountiful island,” and true to its name, it is blessed with a plentiful supply of water that springs from Danyama, a mountain in the island’s center. The mountain is partially covered in a forest of oak and chinquapin, many of which are over 250 years old.
Electric bikes can be rented at the island’s ports and are a great way to enjoy the beautiful scenery. I hopped on one myself to explore landscapes related to Teshima’s delicious food, stopping in at orange and lemon orchards and at Shima Kitchen, a restaurant operated by island women.

The logo on the side of the ferry that travels the route from Uno to Teshima and Shodoshima features a bright red strawberry resting against a mandarin orange. Both fruits are products of Teshima, and the first place I headed after disembarking was Shoji Yamamoto’s orange orchard. Actually, the design on the ferry originated with Shoji. “They asked me what was distinctive to this island,” he explains, “and I told them oranges and strawberries. In the end, that’s what they decided to use.”

It was Shoji’s father who started the orchard. As a young man, he worked on boats that shipped products made of Teshima stone, such as lanterns and ovens, to the Kansai area. “He steered the ship, reading the wind, the tides and the currents,” Shoji says, “but he saw many boats sink in the waves. He told me that hell lurked beneath the wooden planks on the ship’s bottom. That’s why he quit. He bought some land and planted an orchard instead.”

Shoji’s father grew different kinds of fruit depending on the season, including persimmons, apples, pears, and peaches. When Shoji took over, however, he decided to grow only mandarin oranges. “Teshima is well-suited for fruit growing,” he tells me. “It’s sunny for much of the year and has good slopes, which means the orchards get lots of sunshine and have good drainage. But each type of fruit requires a different approach, so it’s not efficient to grow many different kinds. That’s why I decided to specialize in mandarin oranges.”

The kind he grows is known as Maruyama Ichigo. He fell in love with their color, shape and flavor and kept visiting the farmer who developed the strain until the man finally shared some seedlings with him. Shoji reclaimed land to double the size of his orchard and plant the trees. “You can tell just by that how much I love them,” he says. “The market for mandarin oranges was booming back then, and the national government was encouraging us to grow them. A lot of farmers got involved at the same time. I figured that at some point this would lead to overproduction. If I wanted to stay in business, I would have to plant the best oranges I could find. These oranges are the ones I decided to stake my future on.”

Shoji is 85 years old and has been growing oranges for the last 65 years. “When it comes to oranges, no one can beat me,” he laughs. He grows oranges in half the orchard and lets the other half of the trees rest. “I only let fruit grow on the trees once every two years. It’s important to keep them from getting tired. If you let them rest for a year, the fruit’s sweetness increases. And the peel is thinner, too.”

While growing oranges, Shoji has also contributed to his community in many ways, serving as the chairperson of the local town council and supporting efforts to revive the island. He was a key person in the realization of such art projects as the Teshima Art Museum and the establishment of the volunteer organization that preserves the island’s terraced rice fields. “It makes me really glad to see all the visitors that come for the Triennale.”

The other fruit pictured on the ferry is strawberries, and strawberry jam and strawberry sauce are popular Teshima products. Hajime Tada, owner of Tada Strawberry Farm, began growing strawberries 20 years ago. Teshima is his grandparents’ native home, and he moved here to start farming.

“As a child,” he tells me, “I lived with my grandparents on Teshima for a while when I was recuperating from an illness. My grandfather practiced what he called ‘three-dimensional farming,’ raising cattle, turning their manure into fertilizer and using that fertilizer to cultivate a variety of crops. Because of him, I always wanted to be a cowherd.” Hajime even considered training with a livestock farmer so that he could start animal husbandry on Teshima. But outbreaks of ‘mad cow’ disease (BSE) made cattle-raising so unprofitable, farmers could not even afford to buy livestock feed. There was no way that he would be able to support his family.

“That’s when I heard about a project to revive Teshima’s farming sector. It had been hard hit by bad press when an illegal dumping ground for industrial waste was exposed on the island. The project introduced the Kagawa-style hydroponic peat-pack system for growing Nyoho strawberries. It was easy for anyone to learn and apply, and I started growing strawberries in 1999. Everyone loves them, and I was sure they could serve as a symbol of the island’s rebirth.”

“Oranges and olives had already been cultivated here for many years, and I thought the addition of strawberries would increase the variety of specialty products. I could imagine kids and grandkids who came to visit taking Teshima strawberries home with them, and grandparents taking them as gifts when they went to visit their kids and grandkids. Everyone involved in the project had the same vision.”
In the beginning, four farms began growing Teshima strawberries. Now there are five.

“But we can’t grow strawberries year round on Teshima,” Hajime continues. “I wanted to let people enjoy their delicious flavor whenever they came. That’s how I got the idea of making strawberry jam and strawberry sauce.” He gave seminars on jam making and shared the technology with anyone who was interested.

“I think that revitalization starts with something tasty,” he says. “For example, visitors who try our delicious strawberries are quite likely to buy our jam in their local store at home when they see the word ‘Teshima’ on the label. It’s been twenty years since we started, and thanks to everyone’s efforts, I think people finally recognize strawberries as a product of our island.”

There are now two places on Teshima where people can enjoy strawberry desserts. “I think it would be great if each of the strawberry farms started up their own shop. People could enjoy comparing their products, deciding which has the best strawberry crepes or strawberry snow cones.”

“It’s my mission to find the most delicious ways for people to eat the strawberries we make,” Hajime says. “We farmers get together often to study cultivation methods and other things. This has helped us make the quality and flavor of our berries reliable. Even the same species tastes different if you use different fertilizer. The berries produced in some greenhouses have a stronger tanginess while others might have a richer flavor. If people could taste and compare the berries grown at each farm, they would come away with fun memories of this island.”

Winter is the height of the lemon harvest season, and as I rode around Teshima, I could see lots of the yellow fruit. Organic lemons were first grown on the island in 2001. A Teshima native who had been working in the city came back and reclaimed abandoned farmland, planted lemon trees and began cultivating them without any agrochemicals, pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Pretty soon he was flooded with orders from all over Japan. Later, Ikue Tsutsumi took over the business, and she continues to cultivate organic lemons, managing 1,800 trees.

Ikue, who was born in Okayama and worked for a company in Tokyo, moved to Teshima in 2014 specifically to grow organic lemons. “I love lemons. They’re healthy and delicious,” she says. “When I lived in Tokyo, I used to buy organic lemons which cost 200 yen a piece. After a while, I wanted to grow them myself, so I looked for a place where I could train and found a lemon farmer on Teshima.” She trained for half a year and then took over the orchard.

The orchard, which overlooks the Seto Inland Sea, is filled with trees laden with yellow lemons. Looking closely I found some branches with flower buds and baby lemons.

Organic lemon farming involves a lot of weeding in summer when plants grow fast, but other than that, all you have to do is spray the trees three times a year with plant enzymes. Winter is the busiest time of year when the lemons are picked and the trees are trimmed. When there’s too much work for Ikue to handle on her own, she gets help from the locals and people like her who have relocated to the island.

Some of the trees in the orchard are taller than Ikue. “You can trim the trees so that they don’t grow too tall, making it easier to pick the fruit,” she tells me, “but I trim the trees to make the most of their natural vigor. Lemons from a strong and healthy tree taste fantastic.” Teshima lemons are left to ripen on the tree until just before they are shipped, so they are not just sour but sweet as well.
“The natural environment on Teshima must be very rich for the lemons to grow so big and delicious without any agrochemicals or fertilizers,” Ikue says.

In the village of Karato-oka on the lower slope of Danyama you will find a spring called Kiyomizu, meaning pure water. It is so named because the abundant water source never ceases to produce clear, pure water. Near the spring, architect Ryo Abe redesigned and remodeled an old house to create Shima Kitchen as a place where art and cuisine meet and as a space in which people can connect. With advice from a chef from Tokyo’s Marunouchi Hotel, the island women came together to develop a menu using local foods, and they now run the restaurant with members of the Koebi-tai volunteer group that supports the Triennale.

Rika Ogaki, a Koebi-tai volunteer, explains, “I ask the island women to supply vegetables that are in season, and we think up the menu based on what vegetables are ready to harvest. Yesterday was a food prep day, and some of the women had already brought freshly picked vegetables and placed them in the doorway. Often someone will call me up to say, ‘I’ve got some Chinese cabbage. Do you need some?’”

“The rice we use is grown in the island’s terraced fields. All the vegetables in today’s lunch were from Teshima, too. Even the miso we used as a sauce on the stewed daikon was made on the island, and the salad dressing was invented by the hotel chef using Teshima-grown onions.”

When working with the island women in the kitchen, Rika says she is often reminded of how abundantly food grows here. “They’ll say, ‘I just got a bunch of Sweet Spring oranges. Shall we make jam?’ Those women are incredibly active, and they love trying new things, whether growing new vegetables or trying new recipes. Once we got a bunch of zucchini, and I suggested we make ratatouille. They whipped it up just like that, even though they’d never heard of it before.”

Once a month on the restaurant’s terrace, Shima Kitchen hosts an island birthday party to celebrate the birthdays of everyone born in that month. It’s an event where people of all ages, islanders and off-islanders alike, can come together and have fun. They’ve celebrated the birthdays of people aged one to a hundred.

“Of course, it’s a space for islanders and people from outside to connect,” Rika says, “but it’s also a place for the islanders themselves to get together. I feel that Shima Kitchen is finally becoming a platform for the island.”

Koebi-tai members make birthday cards for each party. “First we take a group photo. Then while everyone is eating cake, we print them and put them on the cards. We’ve been having these birthday parties since 2014, with an average of fifty to sixty people, and sometimes as many as a hundred.”

Another popular restaurant project is their monthly Dinner Dishes Day. “Elderly people who live alone,” Rika says, “won’t make tempura or other deep fried food just for themselves. We take orders for the different dishes we make and deliver them. It’s an easy way for the islanders to enjoy the food from our restaurant, too.” Croquettes are the most popular item, and they make over 100 each time.

Mandarin oranges, strawberries, and the vegetables, fish and rice served at Shima Kitchen. When we hear the thoughts and stories of the people producing these things, not only do we appreciate them even more, but the island’s beautiful scenery takes on new meaning as well. Behind the foodscapes I encountered on Teshima, I discovered the lives of the island people, their history and their smiling faces.