By Yoko Tsujimoto / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterGOJO, Nara — “Biting into a persimmon / a bell resounds / Horyu-ji.”
Thanks to this well-known haiku by Shiki Masaoka (1867-1902), people always associate Horyuji temple’s home of Nara Prefecture with persimmons. Harvesting season is at its peak now in Gojo in the prefecture — the city that enjoys the largest production of the fruit in the country.
The Nishi-Yoshinocho district in Gojo is located on the prefectural boundary with Wakayama, in a mountainous area with commanding views of Mt. Omine when the weather is clear. The mountain stands in a region known as “Yoshino and Omine,” which is part of a UNESCO World Heritage site. In the harvesting season, the mountain slopes are covered with persimmon trees bearing colored fruits, completing a spectacular autumn scene.
Third-generation farmer Yoshiaki Okamoto, 45, cultivates persimmon trees on 4.4 hectares of mountainous land about 400 meters above sea level.
“In this area, lands at an altitude of 200 to 400 meters are suitable for persimmon trees,” Okamoto said. “Any higher and the trees won’t bear good fruit because the temperature is too low. If it’s lower down, on the other hand, the fruits won’t be well-colored because the daily range of temperature is too narrow. Persimmons in Nishi-Yoshino have a mild sweetness, thanks to the moderate daily range of temperatures before harvesting time.”
The harvest season begins in mid-September and continues through the end of the year, with different harvesting times according to the variety. The season starts with harvesting tone-wase, a seedless astringent persimmon. Harvests begin for hira-tanenashi, another variety of seedless astringent persimmon, in late October.
In early November, the popular sweet persimmon fuyu appears on the market. These days, many farmers grow persimmon trees in greenhouses, so they can harvest from early July onward.
Climbing up and down the mountainous slopes, Okamoto sets a stepladder against the persimmon trees, quickly picks the fruits and puts them into a basket.
“Peach and chestnut trees are said to take three years to bear fruit, and the persimmon eight years,” he said. “However, it actually takes 10 years for a persimmon tree to ‘come of age.’ Trees aged 40 or older can bear fruits that taste great. The flavor is dense and rich.”
Astringent persimmons are not suitable for eating raw because the soluble tannin they contain tastes bitter, according to the Nara Prefecture Agricultural Research and Development Center. When exposed to alcohol and carbon dioxide, however, tannin becomes insoluble and loses its astringency.
A factory run by JA Naraken Nishi-Yoshino handles the process of removing the bitterness of the persimmons harvested in the area. At peak time, about 240 tons of persimmons are brought into the factory per day.
They are first put in a room filled with carbon dioxide gas for about 20 hours. After degassing, the fruits are kept in a room with the temperature set at 24 C for two days, becoming very sweet. It is quite a sight to watch the processed persimmons carried on an about 60-meter-long conveyor belt and sorted by size.
In the Nishi-Yoshinocho district, about 300 local farming households are members of JA’s Nishi-Yoshino persimmon division. Of this number, about 70 farmers are in their 40s or younger. This bounty of young farmers apparently stems from the fact that demand for local persimmons is stable, and they are also popular overseas. Such factors make it easier for farmers to foster future successors.
“Our business is not easy by any means. But we hope to pass it on to the next generation and keep delivering the taste of autumn to many areas across the nation,” Okamoto said.
Though persimmons originated in China, sweet persimmon varieties are said to be unique to Japan.
The fruit is rich in vitamin C, polyphenol, carotene and other nutrients.
Because the leaves have antibacterial properties, the invention of “kakinoha-zushi,” which is vinegar-marinated fish sushi wrapped in persimmon leaves, allowed the people of landlocked Nara Prefecture to enjoy seafood.
Kakihoha-zushi has become a popular local specialty.
There is a direct-sales store at the persimmon-sorting factory run by JA Naraken Nishi-Yoshino. Mail-order or online purchasing is available.
Visit http://www.nishiyoshino-kaki.com/ or call the factory at (0747) 34-0105 (Japanese only) for inquiries.
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