Aomori store offering more than just apples


Aomori Hokusai-kan, a shop set up to promote Aomori Prefecture, is close to bursting at the seams with the product that the prefecture on the very northern tip of Japan’s main island is best known for: apples.

Lining the walls of the store located in the Iidabashi business district of Tokyo are a variety of local products, ranging from apple juice and apple jam to apple pies. There is even apple dressing, apple “soy sauce” and apple ketchup. The shop also sells fresh apples shipped directly from local farmers.

“Many of our customers come with high expectations of our apple products,” said Kazumi Hasegawa, manager of the store. “Apples sell out as soon as we get them.”

The shop was set up more than 20 years ago but underwent extensive renovation in April. It has about 500 items on its shelves — 100 more than previously — and attracts nearly 300 shoppers daily, generating sales of 400,000 yen per day, according to Hasegawa.

More than 70 percent of visitors to the shop, operated by the Aomori Local Produce Promotion Association, an affiliate of the prefectural government, are women in their 40s and older, but in the evenings the store attracts office workers on their way home.

A 49-year-old businessman who dropped by the shop recently on his way to a client nearby said he is a big fan of the local apple jam.

“The jam is really popular in my family,” he said. “It takes guts for a guy like me to enter this kind of shop, but once you get in, you find a lot of good stuff.”

Of course, apples are not the only specialty that Aomori is proud of. The prefecture is a major exporter of marine products such as scallops, squid and sea urchin. The shop also stocks items such as dried seaweed and stockfish.

Aomori has two cultural zones, Hasegawa explained, each with different dialects and dietary traditions. The Tsugaru area, on the northern tip of the Tsugaru Peninsula, belonged to the Tsugaru clan during the Edo Period and is the heart of the apple-growing region.

The Hachinohe area, in the southeast of the prefecture, bordering Iwate, used to be controlled by the Nanbu clan and is famous for its seafood, the most popular of which is “kazunoko” pickled herring roe.

The pickle, mixed with seaweed and vegetables, is known as “Nebuta-zuke,” after the popular local Nebuta Matsuri festival — and it is among the shop’s best sellers.

In mid-September, the shop temporarily withdrew all apple juice products — another favorite among consumers, with 3,000 cans being sold each month — for quality checks following revelations in the summer that some apple and pear farmers had been using carcinogenic agricultural chemicals.

The scandal worsened when a 50-year-old apple farmer in the prefecture hanged himself last month after it was learned he had used the chemicals on his crop.

The pilot shop fielded inquiries from worried consumers after the problem came to light, Hasegawa said, adding that the products were put back on the shelves as soon as officials had confirmed they were safe following a battery of chemical tests and interviews with farmers.

“We would go out of business if we betrayed our consumers,” he said. “We have done all we can to ensure the safety of our products.”