Japan growing rivals to imported fruit

The Yomiuri Shimbun

A sandwich filled with Mongee Bananas grown in Okayama Prefecture, seen at rear right, is served at Shiseido Parlour Co.’s Salon de Cafe restaurant in Tokyo’s Ginza district.

By Ryo Kato / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterJapan has relied heavily on imports of fruits such as bananas and grapefruits, but that is slowly changing amid increasing efforts to produce them domestically.

While locally grown versions often cost more, their unique flavors — especially at a time of heightened consumer awareness about food safety — are creating a buzz. These products can be eaten as they are, and some are also processed into goods that make them easier to try.

Mongee Banana, a brand grown in Okayama Prefecture, has been turning many foodies’ heads. The word “mongee” means “incredible” in the Okayama dialect. Each banana costs ¥600 before tax, but they’ve chalked up solid sales at department stores in the prefecture and through mail-order.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    A farmer harvests a grapefruit in Hamamatsu.

The bananas are grown by D&T Farm Inc., an agricultural corporation based in Okayama city. Setsuzo Tanaka, a D&T official in charge of the company’s growing techniques, started growing bananas as a hobby about 40 years ago. He established a method that involved first freezing part of the plant’s seedlings. In recent years, the company perfected its banana production system before starting sales in 2017. D&T plans to ship about 100 tons of Mongee Banana this year.

Most bananas on Japanese store shelves have been imported from nations including Indonesia and the Philippines. However, these produce items are either coated in wax, or pesticides are used to prevent mold growing on them during the long transportation process.

“Mongee Bananas are organic, so even the skin can be eaten,” Tanaka said. “They have a sweetness and a stickier texture when ripe, which is typical of bananas grown domestically.”

Restaurants are using Mongee Bananas in their dishes. Salon de Cafe, a restaurant in Shiseido Parlour Co.’s flagship building in Tokyo’s Ginza district, sells a limited number of fruit sandwiches made with the bananas at ¥1,890. The restaurant does not use the skin for the dish, and serves the fruit with a not-overly sweet cream to bring out the fruit’s natural sweetness.

In Hamamatsu, efforts are afoot to grow grapefruit, which are generally imported from South Africa and the United States. A farmer in the city began growing the fruit in 2006 before starting sales in 2010. Seventeen tons were shipped this year.

As demand for mikan oranges was declining, the farmer decided to boost production of fruit that consumers wanted. Initially production was limited to one farm, but now six are growing the fruit, which is distinctive for its strong sweetness and being only slightly tart. The grapefruits sell for about ¥500 per fruit and reportedly are very popular as gifts. Shipments for this year have already finished.

Takara Shuzo Co., a major sake brewery based in Kyoto, took advantage of the Hamamatsu-grown grapefruit to release canned cocktails containing the fruit in May. “The product featured refreshing sweetness and a clear, crisp flavor,” a Takara official said.

In Miyazaki Prefecture, the prefectural government has been leading an initiative to grow vanilla beans, a major product of Madagascar and Indonesia but barely grown in Japan. In 2005, the Miyazaki Agricultural Research Institute’s Subtropical Plant Branch started examining whether the beans could be grown locally by controlling the temperature and adding fertilizer. In fiscal 2016, the branch settled on a suitable method, and is currently focusing on boosting harvest volume.

There have been previous attempts in Japan to cultivate agricultural products that are difficult to grow locally, with mangoes and passion fruit among the most high-profile ventures. In recent years, such endeavors have shown signs of taking off once more.

Tokyo University of Agriculture Prof. Hironobu Shiwachi noted that widespread use of the internet has allowed farmers to more easily grow new types of produce.

“They can find new markets through the internet. More and more farmers, especially those from younger generations, are trying to grow various agricultural products that can be highly profitable, even with small harvests,” Shiwachi said.

In addition, consumers have confidence in the safety of domestically grown produce and can enjoy tastes not found in imported foods.

“If these unusual agricultural products can satisfy consumer needs, we’ll probably see more of them in the future,” Shiwachi said.

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