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Supporting Tohoku one glass at a time

by Melinda Joe

On a Saturday evening in late July, Wine Aid for East Japan began, appropriately, with a toast. Now in its third year, the event, organized by professionals in the wine industry to raise money for charities in the Tohoku region, featured over 100 premium wines and a buffet showcasing ingredients from northeastern Japan. The opening remarks culminated in a catchy slogan expressing hope for Tohoku’s recovery through food: Yo naoshi-wa, shoku naoshi (Changing the way we eat to change the world).

While wine was the main draw of the event, the focus was on Tohoku’s farming and fishing industries, which have continued to struggle with the effects of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. This year, Wine Aid’s organizers had invited a handful of agricultural producers from Miyagi and Iwate Prefectures to introduce their products and mingle with the crowd.

The idea, says event director Hiroshi Miyagawa, is to “use food as a means of encouraging financial recovery” and to give consumers a chance to “talk face-to-face with producers.” Guests murmured appreciatively as they tucked into plates piled high with rosy-pink slices of roast short-horn beef from Iwate Prefecture, baked salmon in cream sauce and squid-ink paella made with seafood from the Minamisanriku area.

At the back of the banquet hall, Hiroyuki Takahashi, president of Tohoku Kaikon, a nonprofit that promotes the region’s food culture, passed out copies of “Tohoku Taberu Tsushin,” the organization’s monthly magazine. Takahashi also spoke with people about the current situation in the tsunami-stricken areas. Although oyster beds off the coast of northern Japan were almost completely destroyed in 2011, he says that overall conditions are improving.

“The sea is in better shape now than even before the disaster. The water is clean, and soil that has flowed into it has enriched the ocean floor with nutrients,” he told me.

Takahashi remains “optimistic” but notes that the fishermen and farmers in Tohoku rely on markets in major urban areas such as Tokyo. “The producers are getting back on their feet, and if people in Tokyo eat more foods from Tohoku, it will help the industry flourish,” he said.

All of the proceeds from the Wine Aid event are donated to charity organizations based in Tohoku: the Foundation for Cooperative Community Creation, which offers assistance to seniors; and two organizations that concentrate on providing resources for children, the Ashinaga Foundation and the Peace Project. Last year, Wine Aid raised ¥2 million, and tickets for this year’s event were nearly sold out.

But volunteer Mitsy Murata, a sommelier at the wine-distribution company St. Helena 1934, points out that long-term support for recovery efforts is essential: “It’s difficult because people don’t have the same feeling as they did at the time of the earthquake, but our theme is, ‘Do not forget, and keep working,’ ” she said.

Miyagawa said that the organizers of the Wine Aid event intend to continue the program for as long as possible. “If everyone can do what they can, no matter how small, it can help speed recovery in Tohoku. For me, that’s wine, but I think everyone can find something to contribute,” he concluded.

Melinda Joe is an American journalist in Tokyo and a certified wine and sake professional. She blogs at tokyodrinkingglass.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaJoe.