Persimmon: The Fruit of the Gods

A journey to the Japan's ancient capital to learn the story behind the fruit

Large Persimmon (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

The Japanese persimmon, or kaki: scientific name, Diospyros kaki. Diospyros is often translated as “fruit of the Gods”; this may come as a surprise to most Japanese people as the humble kaki is a common fruit tree that has been planted in household gardens from long ago. To unravel the story of this familiar yet strange fruit, we must first travel to Nara, the ancient capital of Japan and a place tied deeply to the kaki’s origins...

Shiki's garden (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

The thought-provoking Meiji Period kaki of Taizanro

Biting into a persimmon
A bell resounds

Of the many haiku that feature kaki, this one by famed Meiji Period (1868-1912) haiku and tanka poet Shiki Masaoka is perhaps the most famous. Masaoka (who is known more commonly by his first name) penned this poem during an overnight stay at the then-flourishing Taizanro ryokan (Japanese inn) in Nara in 1895. From the end of the Edo Period (1603-1868) until it closed in 1963, the Taizanro was a much-loved destination for noted people from all walks of life, including scholar and promoter of the arts Tenshin Okakura and former prime minister Hirobumi Ito. Shiki stayed at the inn during what was his final travels; he died shortly afterwards at the age of 34.

Shiki's garden (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

In his essay collection on fruit entitled Kudamono (1901), Shiki writes of the kaki he enjoyed at the Taizanro. He recalls in one essay of finishing his evening meal and as he bit into a kaki that had been peeled by a beautiful inn attendant, the loud gong of a temple bell suddenly rang out. It is said it was his recollection of this moment that prompted him to write the haiku above.

Taizanro, Kadosada (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

“The old kaki that Shiki perhaps looked out on at the time is still standing,” says Takako Nakatsuka, proprietress of the Tempyo Club restaurant that stands on the site of the Taizanro. In the grounds of the restaurant lies the Shiki Garden, formed around an old kaki tree that is over 150 years old and planted with flowers that the poet was fond of.

Tempira Club's "Yamato Chazen" (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

“I wonder if Shiki gazed upon this particular tree and ate its fruit. It still bears fruit — I use the kaki I pick from it for cooking; we serve up kaiseki cuisine in autumn that uses kaki. I’ve heard that younger people don’t eat a lot of kaki these days; I personally regard them as my favorite fruit. In the old days, there was almost always a kaki tree to be found in family gardens and every home had the fruit hanging under the eaves to dry.”

Persimmon museum (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Visiting ‘Professor Kaki’ for the lowdown on the fruit’s roots

Kaki emerged as a commonly found fruit in the Meiji Period. To go back further in time to unravel its origins, a visit to the ‘Kaki Museum’ (dubbed the ‘Kaki Dome’) to meet a certain ‘Professor Kaki’ was required.

“The kaki that Shiki is said to have eaten is the non-astringent Gosho kaki, a variety native to Nara. Did you know that kaki fall into astringent and non-astringent types?” quizzes Sadahiro Hamasaki, Research Fellow at the Nara Prefectural Agricultural Experiment Station, the body that runs the Kaki Museum and someone who has appeared in various media outlets as ‘Professor Kaki’.

Mr. Sadahiro Hamazaki (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

“It is said there are over 1,000 different kaki varieties in Japan. Around 60% of these are classed as ‘astringent’. These varieties remain astringent even after they ripen, so they are often eaten after drying or soaked in alcohol to remove the bitterness. On the other hand, those that lose their astringency on the tree and become sweet are of the ‘non-astringent’ variety.”

According to Hamasaki, the kaki’s ancestors emerged in Southeast Asia tens of millions of years ago. After evolving further in China, it is believed that they made their way to Japan some 1,400 years ago; evidence of kaki has been uncovered in archeological digs from the Yayoi Period (c. 300 BCE to c. 250 CE). However, they were generally not eaten until the Nara Period (710–784).

Persimmon fruit (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

“For thousands of years, kaki were all of the astringent variety. It was in Japan during the Kamakura Period (1185–1333) that the first non-astringent kaki that sweetened on the tree, called the Zenjimaru, emerged. It is thought that they spread to other parts of Japan after the Muromachi Period (1392–1573) and with this, the appearance of kaki in various folktales, such as the well-known The Crab and the Monkey.”

It was the Swedish botanist Carl Peter Thunberg who, during his visit to Japan in 1775-76, gave the kaki its botanical name, Diospyros kaki, the ‘fruit of the Gods’ — so named after Thunberg noticed the kaki often growing in the grounds of temples or shrines. Since the 1800s, the fruit has made its way to Europe and South America where it has retained its Japanese name.

Tonewase (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

The elusive, groundbreaking Gosho kaki

The Zenjinmaru, the world’s first non-astringent kaki, is a type termed as ‘incomplete non-astringent.’ The astringency initially present in the Zenjinmaru abates once the seeds have formed. Meanwhile, the Gosho variety sweetens on the tree regardless of the growth of its seeds and is a ‘complete non-astringent’ kaki. The two varieties that are most common nowadays in Japan are the Fuyu and the Jiro; these are thought to be the varieties that were first grown in Japan.

The history of Goshogaki (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

“The Gosho kaki — the variety that Shiki ate — emerged between the Muromachi and Edo periods in the Nara city of Gose (where its name is derived from) and was presented as tribute to successive Shoguns throughout that time. Its texture is silky, its sweetness like wasanbonto (refined Japanese sugar), and its flesh reminiscent of the finest yokan (sweet bean jelly). Matsuo Basho, the famed haiku master, feted the Gosho when he wrote: ‘Matsutake mushrooms and Gosho kaki: I could eat them to my heart’s content.’”

Goshogaki (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

“The thing is, the Gosho is certainly delicious, but it’s a particularly difficult variety to cultivate,” Hamasaki notes. “You only get a small yield and the fruit falls off the tree easily. It was for these reasons that over time, it has been surpassed by new varieties such as the Fuyu.”

The Gosho had all but disappeared, but in recent years, there has been a concerted effort by farmers and high school students in Gose City to revive this ancient fruit. Despite an increase in production in recent years, it is still limited in scale and the variety rarely appears outside Nara Prefecture. Biting into a Gosho is an experience those looking for a slice of history in Nara that all visitors should try.

Persimmon leaf sushi (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Kakinoha sushi: a taste of the sacred mountains of Yoshino

The fruit is not the only part of the kaki tree that has been used in Nara’s ‘kaki culture’. During the Muromachi Period, one romantic custom was to write a love poem on a kaki leaf then send it afloat on a stream. Another custom — one that all visitors should try — is the local dish, kakinoha (kaki leaf) sushi. This type of pressed sushi, customarily made with fish, is wrapped in kaki leaves and is a specialty of Mt. Yoshino, birthplace of the ancient Japanese religion of Shugendo and at the heart of a designated World Heritage area.

Yoshino Mountain (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

How is it that sushi ended up becoming a famed dish of a landlocked prefecture? Naoto Tatsumi, 4th generation owner of the famed kakinoha sushi restaurant Yakko in Yoshino explains:

“Mt. Yoshino is a long way from the sea, so naturally fish are hard to come by. Long ago, mackerel would be salted and brought all the way up here from the Kumano-nada Sea (at the southeast of the Kii Peninsula). When the fish is wrapped in kaki leaf, which has antibacterial properties, it can be kept for days. As Yoshino has many kaki growing here, fresh leaves have always been easy to come by.”

Persimmon leaf sushi (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

The fish from Kumano-nada would be heavily-salted to preserve it on the long trek to Yoshino along the Higashi Kumano-kaido — a road that was also known as the ‘Saba Kaido’ (Mackerel Road). The way of making kakinoha sushi at Yakko has remained the same since the establishment’s opening, the heavy saltiness a signature of the dish. The fine balance between the salty mackerel and the vinegared rice make for a particularly tasty delicacy.

Persimmon leaf sushi "Yacco" (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

“Many shugensha (mountain ascetics) will come to buy the kakinoha sushi before they go into the mountains. It takes several days to make the pilgrimage along the steep Omine Okugakemichi route so having preserved food like this is appreciated by those making the journey. Even now, I hear people say that the kakinoha sushi they eat after it has aged one or two days is much more delicious than the freshly-bought sushi!”

Persimmon sweet bean jelly and persimmon leaf tea (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

A bitterness appreciated by kaki connoisseurs

A new food culture centered on the kaki is emerging. With its main store in Yoshino and satellite outlets elsewhere in Nara Prefecture, Kaki no Senmon Ishii (‘Kaki specialty store Ishii’) makes and sells various processed kaki products, such as sweets and seasonings.

“It’s harder to make processed products from kaki. The reason being they are not good when subject to heat. They have a weak scent and therefore cannot be made into fragrances; they also discolor easily. Processing the fruit really is a challenge,” explains Kaki no Senmon Ishii president, Kazuhiro Ishii.

Persimmon butter and persimmon cake (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Persimmon Nara Zuke pickles (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Dried persimmon sweets (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Kaki yokan made without a drop of water, monoka that have kaki that has been simmered and made into a sweet paste that is placed between two crisp mochi-based wafers, kaki vinegar and butter, Narazuke pickled kaki, pesticide-free kaki leaf tea: in all, Ishii’s company has come up with around 60 kaki-based products. The one that Ishii says he has the greatest fondness for is the Kyoshu no kaki (‘nostalgic kaki’): dried Horenbo kaki that are filled with a sweet paste. The Horenbo is a unique astringent kaki native to Nara and one that grows wild in the Yoshino area. It was never a popular type due to its strong bitterness, but the astringent taste was put to good use in the Kyoshu no kaki; so deftly, in fact, that the sweet snack became a hit product, giving new value to the Horenbo.

Mr. Ishi of Persimmon Speacialty Ishi (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

“The Horenbo is a variety I personally love,” says Ishii. “At first, you think that only the sweet, non-astringent varieties are delicious, but you eventually tire of their taste and start craving something with a little more bitterness to it. We are always thinking of how we can create something from kaki that don’t generally make it into the marketplace, like the Horenbo. The more we can sell processed products using kaki, the more we are able to pay local farmers for the kaki they sell us. I’d like to continue to offer people a variety of tastes that can be found in kaki and pass on the ‘kaki culture’ that has been around in Nara for centuries.”

Credits: Story
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.
Explore more
Related theme
Meshiagare! Flavors of Japan
Discover Japan's unique dishes, its foodie culture, its diverse landscape of ingredients, and the makers behind it all
View theme
Google apps