How Purity Affects The Flavor of Natsu-Mikan

A journey into the hills to find Hagi’s summer mandarins and understand why it's important for them to "let them be themselves".

Natsumikan farms (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

When you take one look at the overgrown groves, you can immediately tell there is something different about this place….

There is a farmer in Hagi that produces beautiful Natsumikan, ‘Summer mandarin’, tending to each tree according to their location and individual characteristics, and foregoing chemical fertilizers. “Take everything as it is, accepting and savouring it” — what does he mean by these words?

Ubakura canal (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Scenic Hagi, where history and nature are intertwined

The southwestern Japan city of Hagi was once home to several figures who played pivotal roles in the end of the Tokugawa shogunate and the Meiji Restoration of 1868 that ushered in Japan’s modern era. Even today, one can see traces of the former castle town that was the seat of power for the influential Mori clan. One of these is the Ubakura Canal, which was created in 1855. Standing on the single bridge that spans this waterway presents an iconic view of this low-lying city. A unique landscape where the water and boats at mooring are almost at the same height as the traditional houses that line the canal.

Natsumikan (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Into the hills to find Hagi’s fruity symbol

Passing over the Ubakura Canal — one of Hagi’s cultural symbols — and heading into the hilled area beyond, you find its natural symbol soon appearing above your head. It is the pleasant, refreshingly scented Natsumikan, its vibrant yellow skin shining amongst the green. Planted among the Natsumikan are Amanatsu, a closely related citrus but with fruit that is sweeter and of a somewhat milder acidity. Harvesting commences from January; allowing the fruit to fully mature on the tree until April or May, however, increases the sugar content naturally. Not only is the Natsumikan symbolic of Hagi: all over Yamaguchi Prefecture (in which Hagi is located), many roadside guardrails are painted a Natsumikan yellow!

Mr. Takuji Tsuboya, Natsumikan farmer (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

“Nature is allowing me to take care of it”

“The right amount of light and the gentle breezes are what makes this place special,” says Natsumikan grower, Takuji Tsuboya. Tsuboya was born in Hagi, though he lived away for some years. He came back about two and a half years ago now in what you could say was a complete U-turn and jumped into the world of agriculture. Standing in the middle of one of his groves, one that tries to respect the will of nature as much as possible, Tsuboya laughs as he explains that, “Even on a rainy day, I’ll be thinking: ‘What great weather!’ I actually talk to the fruit without a care when I am here. It’s fun work — I feel like I am being ‘allowed’ to take care of the place.”

Pathway leading to the farm (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

A combination of experience, knowledge, and sensitivity

Although his career as a farmer is short, Tsuboya has absorbed an incredible amount of knowledge. Some of this was acquired on trips to New Zealand, a place he describes as somewhere new where the past and present of agriculture can be studied, and Italy, a leader in organic farming methods. Tsuboya is also familiar with Rudolf Steiner's biodynamic agriculture method, with its reliance on the movements of celestial bodies, and BLOF (Bio Logical Farming) theory in which pesticides are avoided and constant testing takes place instead.

“We accept and utilize the tried and true methods and continue to make sure we verify them in the field. However, there is no uniformity in nature — you can’t lump everything in together. Ultimately, we have to rely on having a ‘feel’ when finding out what works best.''

View of Natsumikan farms (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

In the natural world and in humans, diversity is the norm

The 1.22ha of land that Tsuboya manages actually comprises of several plots scattered about the hills. “I find it interesting that each grove has its own ‘personality’,” he points out. “Even within the same grove, differences emerge according to the location of each tree and the amount of sunshine and wind they are exposed to. Rather than looking to achieve a uniform taste, I think it’s better just to let them be themselves. I do most of the work here by myself, but I have people come to help at certain times and I also think it’s important to accept them all as they are, too. Above all, a mutual respect is the best thing, isn’t it?”

Natsumikan fallen on the ground (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

The grass grows wild around the base of the trees, acting as a bed for the fallen fruit. In time, they become a natural fertilizer, enriching the soil and helping to grow the next generation of fruit. In contrast to cultivation methods that look for fast growth, large fruit, and a uniformity of taste, there seems to be a more natural cycle at work here.

Mr. Takuji Tsuboya, Natsumikan farmer (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Accept, embrace, savour

Tsuboya hoists himself to the top of a tall fence made from the trunks of the Isunoki. Ash from the Isunoki is used in the glaze for Hagi’s famed pottery; the tree’s extreme hardness also means it has been employed for centuries as protection from fierce storms. It is a tree imbued with the wisdom of previous generations. What is the toughest thing for Tsuboya about working alongside nature? “Well, in a good sense, there’s a side to it akin to spiritual training,” he ponders as he surveys the scenery from his vantage point. “You accept it, embrace it, savour it. Then, you let it go. That’s not only true when dealing with nature; it’s not like you should casually take no notice or ignore things in life. I always try to accept and learn more.”

Hagi City View of the sea and islands (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Tsuboya gives me a hand up to where he is atop the fence. The sea and the islands off the coast look like they are floating around the lush greenery that surrounds us. “Nature seeks to balance,” continues Tsuboya. “Even within a single species, even when there is an excess, discrepancies will naturally occur. No matter what new thing we try, we have to go along with what is just right with the natural realm. I spend each day thinking that I want to make the earth a more beautiful place, even just a little. To do that requires helping it to maintain the right balance.”

Grape farms (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

A winemaking dream starts to come to fruition

In his previous life, Tsuboya worked in the restaurant business. It was when he was a waiter in Tokyo that he first came across natural wines; the thought of one day creating his own winery began to ferment in his mind. One of the fields he has is now lined with the still petite vines of the Muscat Bailey A, a red wine grape hybrid developed in Japan. In 2020, Tsuboya launched the Cascina Shibuchin winery (cascina meaning ‘small farmhouse’ in Italian). That first bottle of delicious natural wine is surely not far away.

Peeling the skin of Old Amanatsu (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Tasting the riches of the hills

“Are you feeling thirsty?” Tsuboya inquires before clambering up an old Amanatsu tree to grab one of the large fruit. Even before he starts to peel it, the aroma that wafts over me instantly refreshes my mood. “Of course, the juice and the jam are delicious, but I like to eat them like this,” he says as he peels off the yellow skin with his trusty knife. “Eating them here in the hills makes them taste even better!”

Old Amanatsu fruit (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Taking a bite, the fruit has a somewhat soft and chewy texture. Your mouth is then overflowing with juice that is gently acidic and sweet. You would wonder if this is what they mean by ‘a taste that you would never get tired of’ as you pick up another piece. Recently, fruit grown in Japan has tended to attract attention for sugar content. However, perhaps the unique taste and freshness of this particular citrus should be the starting point for judging all other fruit.

White hibiscus flowers (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Butterflies and dragonflies dance around the flowers and the long grass sways in the breeze. Tsuboya’s groves are not exactly the easiest to walk around. “My leg muscles have really got a good workout since I started all this a year ago!” he grins. In order to not disturb the Japanese honeybees that inhabit the groves, the grass is not mowed by machine; everything here, including the mowing, is done by hand.

Tsurunoeshinmyougyu (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Welcome fate and be in the now

The Shinmei Shrine sits beyond a grove of Natsumikan, surrounded by greenery. Tsuboya straightens his back before bowing respectfully to the resident deity. The present is the point at which fortuitous timing and encounters come to meet — the natural state of affairs, he explains. “There are many relationships and links that connect us to the ‘now’. As for me, I have no particular intentions and I don’t think in terms of ‘profit’ or ‘loss’. I’d be happy if some kind of fortuitous matrix of sorts emerges here. As a farmer, you tend to have many others around you taking on their own challenges so bonds will no doubt naturally form over time.”

Mr. Takuji Tsuboya (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Sharing a warm spirit of hope with all he connects with

When asked how far towards his goals he is overall, Tsuboya responds immediately: “Two percent. But, I’m not overly concerned and I don’t get down about it. I do know that I am on my way. When you have a specific result in mind, you can see what you have to do each day. Say you have a 10-year plan. Well, you can think of that as five two-year plans you can work towards instead. To an onlooker, progress may appear slow, but the path to the ideal goal is in sight. I hope I can inspire others I connect with and enjoy myself on this journey.”

Credits: Story

Cooperation with:

Cascina Shibuchin winery

Photos: Yusuke Abe (YARD)

Text: Makiko Oji

Edit: Saori Hayashida

Production: Skyrocket Corporation

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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