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Urban hogs dig Setagaya

Gardener Yukihiko Yoshioka raises pigs in one of the capital's ritziest neighborhoods

by Tomoko Otake

From the outside Yukihiko Yoshioka’s property could easily be mistaken for a traditional Japanese-style house with a small garden. After all, this is Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward, a premier residential neighborhood in central Tokyo, and Yoshioka’s property is only a few minutes’ walk from the local shopping street, where posh boutiques, cafes and medical clinics line the tiled pavement all the way to Chitose-Karasuyama Station on the Keio Line.

But step inside the fenced property and you feel as if you have wandered into a countryside farm from a few generations ago. Yoshioka’s family has practiced rice and vegetable farming for 12 generations, with Yukihiko, a landscape gardener, the 13th in line.

The garden and farm is large, covering 15,000 sq. meters. Between gnarled trees and heaps of chopped-off branches are 43 pigs and 450 chickens roaming about freely, oinking and clucking in the middle of the day. A pile of dark-brown compost — a mixture of pig and chicken dung, protein-rich rice bran and tree branches — sits in the 220-sq.-meter pig pen, with steam wafting up here and there. The compost is fermenting.

“Feel it,” Yoshioka says, scooping up a handful of mud to show me. To my surprise, it is warm, and doesn’t have the noxious smell of ammonia. “You see?” he continues with a sense of confidence in his voice. “Pigs don’t get cold in the winter. Also, it hardly smells, because we mix it with wooden chips that we make from the branches of trees we trim. The chips absorb the smell and serve as a deodorant.”

In fact, this steamy chunk of mud is why Yoshioka keeps free-range chickens and pigs on his premises; their dung makes a perfect fertilizer for his trees.

“All my life, I’ve been in this zoen (garden-designing) business, creating Japanese-style gardens,” says Yoshioka, 62, who lives on the property with his wife, two of his three daughters and his mother. “Stones, you can leave them alone and moss grows on them nicely over time. But trees have to be produced. And so the soil is really important.”

An unpretentious, easy-going man with big, hardened hands, Yoshioka graduated from high school as a gardening major and went on to get a gardening degree from an agricultural university. But he says he has acquired most of his skills by helping his grandfather, who expanded into gardening from farming in the early late 1920s or early ’30s, and his father, who, while young, was sent off to work for a veteran gardener in Tokyo’s Yoyogi district.

“I’ve never wavered in my belief that I’m destined for this work,” he says, perched on his house’s veranda and downing a steamed bean-paste cake and green tea. “When I was little, my grandpa used to carry me on the back seat of his motorbike as he visited clients, and everywhere he went, he told people, ‘Here is my grandson, and he will be a gardener.’ That’s how I got brainwashed.

“Most people, at one point in their lives, wonder if the road they have taken was the right one and if they should try something different. Not me. I’ve never had a desire to try anything else but gardening.”

His business took an interesting turn about 15 years ago, though, when he started keeping a few pigs.

“At first, I wanted to have pony rides here,” he says with a laugh. “Everyone in my family raised objections. So I said, ‘Fine. I’ll keep a pig then.’ Well, you can’t ride a hog after all. Kids and women can. Not adults like me, we are too heavy.”

Then one day, he learned of Tokyo-X, a premium pork brand that the then-Tokyo Metropolitan Livestock Experiment Station in Oume, in western Tokyo, began to develop in 1990. While most of the pork meat sold in Japan is made from the so-called LWD, a mixed breed of Landrace, Large White and Duroc pigs, Tokyo-X is a hybrid of Duroc, Berkshire and Beijing Black, the last of which comes from China.

Yoshioka asked the association of Tokyo-X breeders to let him raise the breed as well, and he became one of 10 farmers in Tokyo who do. He is the only one raising Tokyo-X within the 23 wards that make up the center of the metropolis.

“They are so cute,” he says, after patting a few of the snorty brown and black piglets on their heads.

Yoshioka receives piglets when they are three months old and each weigh around 30 kg, and he raises them for four months, giving them a designated organic feed only. Then he ships them out to an abattoir, by which time they weigh around 120 kg. The carcasses of the pigs — after the liver, head and skin are removed — sell for ¥760 per kilogram, 1 1/2 times more than average pork, according to Yoshioka.

The Tokyo-X pork is tasty and tender, with a fine marble of fat mixed in it, Yoshioka said, noting that its supply is so limited that it is only available at top-rate restaurants and at department stores in Tokyo. One restaurant charges ¥3,000 for a tonkatsu pork cutlet made from Tokyo-X, he says.

“It’s nothing like you’ve ever tasted,” he adds wistfully. “The fat . . . it’s juicy, almost like water.”

But doesn’t he feel conflicted, having so much affection toward his pigs and then shipping them to an abattoir, knowing that they would be slaughtered? “Not at all,” he says plainly. “I feel that, because I raised them with affection, they must taste excellent. I just feel, ‘Be eaten well.’ “

Yoshioka treasures his chickens just as much as his pigs. They freely roam the farm, eating weeds, which helps his trees. Without them, he would have to hire helpers to pull them out from the garden 15 or 16 times a year. The chickens, free of growth hormones or antibiotics and raised on nongenetically modified organic feed, lay eggs too.

Yoshioka explains that about 200 of the 450 chickens are of the South American Araucana breed, which produce pale green eggs. They are sold on his farm for ¥500 per 10-egg pack, twice more expensive than eggs you would normally buy at supermarkets.

Another 55 birds are an even rarer breed called Ukokkei (Silkie), which are extremely sensitive and produce very few eggs, he says, noting that ancient Chinese princess Yang Kuei-fei (719-756) used to eat their eggs every day to keep her famed beauty. Yoshioka also sells Ukokkei eggs at ¥1,000 for six.

While he obviously enjoys what he does, Yoshioka has had his fair share of challenges running a pig farm in central Tokyo.

“A neighbor complains now and then about the subtle smell that arises when we stir the compost,” he says. Asked how often he does this, he pauses for a moment, and then says, “About twice in three months, I think. And only a few hours each time.”

Yoshioka has no doubts, though, that his family business will survive despite Tokyo’s urbanization and Japan’s dwindling population. He is hopeful that his only grandson, who is 2 1/2 years old, will be his successor. Would the little one be interested in farming?

“Sure,” he says with a grin. “Chickens are such a hardworking bunch. They make the money for you.”