Strawberries are the most beloved fruit in Japan, so much that you can find them in parfaits, daifuku mochi, and super kawaii and photogenic Christmas cakes. And they also have a dedicated day!
A brief history of Japanese strawberries
Strawberries were imported to Japan from Europe in the mid 1800s, but were still considered simply ornamental plants. A the end of the century, agronomist Hayato Fukuba started to cultivate strawberries. Fukuba carried out his research inside the imperial garden of Shinjuku (today Shinjuku Gyoen) and realized that he needed a greenhouse to grow good strawberries. In fact, the climate of Japan is poorly suited to growing strawberries outdoors, compared to some areas here in Europe. Fukuba thus began to cross some varieties of strawberries to obtain one whose fruits had a beautiful shape and a good flavor, and were able to withstand the cold better. In his honor, there is a variety called ‘Fukuba’ that is somewhat considered the ‘mother’ of all Japanese strawberries. Shinjuku Imperial Garden at that time supplied fruits and vegetables to the imperial family, so the Fukuba strawberry was called imperial strawberry, and was therefore a luxury. You can see Fukuba strawberry plants at Shijuku Gyoen, where they are preserved to prevent their extinction.
Around 1920 strawberries began to be grown for the population, who often couldn’t afford them anyway. The glass to build greenhouses was too expensive, so many farmers gave up. The problem was solved using stone walls: rocks of 10-30 cm in diameter are piled up and strawberry seeds are planted in the cracks between one stone and another. In this way, during the day the rocks absorb heat to keep the strawberries warm even at night. By doing this, Japanese farmers could harvest strawberries as early as February and therefore have an income even in winter.
Strawberries in present day Japan
The boom in strawberry cultivation occurred after the Second World War, thanks to plastic, much cheaper than glass, which many used to build greenhouses. Since then, new varieties were introduced every year and today 39 prefectures produce more than 200 different varieties. The most popular are the Tochiotome from Tochigi Prefecture, which is also Japan’s largest strawberry producer, and the larger, sweeter Amaou from Fukuoka Prefecture, usually used as a gift. Just take a trip to any Japanese mall to see boxes of polished strawberries, and you can even buy a single strawberry! If you have to give a gift and you can spend a little bit, strawberries will always be appreciated by a Japanese. In recent years white strawberries have been a popular gift for weddings, births or birthdays. One reason could be that white and red are considered lucky colors and are usually use to celebrate Japan.
Now there is even a day in the calendar dedicated to strawberries, January 5 or Ichigo no Hi. Strawberry in Japan is ichigo, and 1 (for January) is ichi, while 5 is go. Also, if you love strawberries, then every 15th day of the month can be strawberry day! I would certainly love to have an excuse to eat strawberries, whole or in recipes with mochi, or my beloved strawberry shortcake. Yes, you will find strawberries in most sweets and desserts in Japan!
Where to pick strawberries in Japan
There are farms in Japan where you can pick your own strawberries. Keep in mind that the strawberry season varies depending on the region and prefecture, so some companies open to the public as early as December, while others, especially in the north, are open until the beginning of summer. In Tokyo, Setagaya Ichigo Juku lets you pick and eat strawberries for 30 minutes without a reservation, also providing you with a box of condensed milk to accompany the fruits. Strawberry House Ebina in Kanagawa is perfect if you have back or knee problems, as strawberries are grown higher so you don’t have to bend over to pick them. In Hokkaido, Sobetsu Fruit Village offers a variety of fruit picking options, and strawberries are available until July. In Kansai you can find GrandBerry just outside Osaka and Momota-Nouen Farm near Kyoto.
Tech and projects involving strawberries in Japan
Some prefectures developed projects involving local universities and farms to create robots that would be able to harvest strawberries. The main reason is the aging of the population and the lack of direct heirs who can take over the reins of companies in the near future. Also, picking strawberries takes a long time and the robots speed up the process because they able to pick the sweetest, ripest fruits.
Japanese prefectures are also collaborating on another project for the economic development of some countries in Southeast Asia. In the Golden Triangle, where the borders of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand intersect, governments have launched an initiative to combat opium cultivation, which has been declared illegal. Part of this program is to incentivize farmers to grow more. Some Japanese, after retirement, volunteered to go to Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam to teach cultivation techniques; the project works because strawberries generate a much higher income than other crops, prompting more and more farmers to choose them.
Do you love strawberries too?