Food & Drink

Chiba loquat grower loves his work, but frets over the future of the biwa business

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

Kenzo Takeba picks a loquat out of his basket, unwraps it from its paper cover and expertly begins to peel off the delicate orange skin with his fingers.

He bites into the soft flesh, scoops out the chunky brown seeds with a flick of his thumb, then sips the juice from the hollow center before gobbling down the rest of the fruit.

“Delicious,” he says, as he reaches into the basket for another one.

Standing under the sweltering late-May morning sun on a hill near the tip of Chiba Prefecture’s Boso Peninsula, Takeba is taking a break from the work he has spent all year preparing for. Growing loquats, a soft, juicy fruit known as biwa in Japanese, requires constant care and attention but produces a yield that must be harvested in a matter of days.

The Minamiboso area has a rich history of loquat cultivation stretching back around 270 years to the Edo Period (1603-1868), when the fruit was sent by boat to markets in the city.

Since 1909, the area’s growers have held an annual competition to select the best loquats, which are then offered as a present to the imperial family. In 1957, then-Crown Prince Akihito visited Minamiboso to watch the selection process.

As Japan’s population gets older and more and more young people turn their backs on agriculture, however, the area’s long association with loquats is facing an uncertain future.

“There is a shortage of people willing to take over,” says Satoshi Mizuno, of the Minamiboso city government’s department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries. “People die and there’s no one to follow on from them. It’s a serious problem for loquat producers.”

The loquat has a taste that is perhaps best described as a mix of peach, pear and mango. | CHISATO TANAKA
The loquat has a taste that is perhaps best described as a mix of peach, pear and mango. | CHISATO TANAKA

The loquat (Latin name: Eriobotrya japonica) is a species of flowering plant commonly found in Japan, China, the Korea Peninsula, India and some countries in Southern Europe and the Middle East. Nagasaki Prefecture is Japan’s biggest biwa-producing area, followed by Chiba, Kagoshima, Kagawa and Ehime prefectures.

Loquat trees are evergreen shrubs that generally grow to a height of around 5 meters, and produce round, succulent fruit about 5 cm in diameter. Each fruit contains several large, hard seeds, and the flesh has a taste that is perhaps best described as a mix of peach, pear and mango.

“They have a unique taste,” says Takeba. “When you first bite into them, they’re juicy and refreshing, then you get a faint sweetness.”

Takeba looks after two plots totaling around 30 trees, which produce between 12,000 to 13,000 loquats a year. He is one of many small individual growers in Minamiboso, although bigger businesses producing 200,000 to 300,000 biwa a year also operate in the area.

Takeba’s trees grow on sloped land, in line with traditional cultivation techniques. In recent years, more growers have begun to raise their fruit on flat land in greenhouses, which offer protection from the elements but are expensive to set up.

Takeba says he is the 37th generation of a family that has lived in the Minamiboso area since the Kamakura Period (1185-1333). He agreed to take over the plots from his elderly relatives four years ago, and he works alone with occasional help from his wife.

Loquats are covered with an individual paper bag to protect them from insects, birds, excess sunlight and bruising. | CHISATO TANAKA
Loquats are covered with an individual paper bag to protect them from insects, birds, excess sunlight and bruising. | CHISATO TANAKA

Once he has harvested the fruit in late May or early June, Takeba will fertilize the trees and prune the branches before new flowers start to blossom in October. Clusters of around 10 to 15 flowers will bloom in a bunch, and he must choose the most promising one and pluck off the rest to ensure the fruit becomes plump and juicy.

At the end of March, Takeba must cover each young biwa with an individual paper bag, to protect them from insects, birds, excess sunlight and bruising. Once this painstaking work is finished, he waits around two months before he can begin harvesting.

Choosing an exact date, however, is a matter of last-minute judgment.

“You unwrap the paper and have a look,” he says. “You can tell by the color and how firm they are. I go and have a look at them every morning and afternoon. It’s very delicate. Every tree has its own particular characteristic. It’s not a manufacturing industry. It’s difficult to explain it in words. You can only tell by going there and checking yourself.”

Loquats from Chiba Prefecture, trademarked as Boshu Biwa, are usually packaged in special presentation boxes and sold as a luxury item. A box of 12 will generally range from ¥3,500 to ¥5,000, depending on the size of the fruit.

Loquats produced in Minamiboso, Chiba Prefecture, are sold as a luxury item under the trademark Boshu Biwa. | ANDREW MCKIRDY
Loquats produced in Minamiboso, Chiba Prefecture, are sold as a luxury item under the trademark Boshu Biwa. | ANDREW MCKIRDY

Takeba sells his produce directly to regular customers around Japan, having built up a reputation for quality. His exacting standards mean he refuses to sell loquats that have fallen from the tree or have been slightly spoiled by pests such as stink bugs.

“My customers buy from me every year because they know my loquats are good, so if I let the quality slide, they’ll find me out,” he says, as he inspects the fruit from the top of a ladder. “You can’t cut corners. I want to start picking them early but if I do that, they won’t taste good. If I don’t maintain high standards, I would only be hurting myself.”

The difficulties of loquat production must make it tempting to sacrifice quality for a quick profit. The threat of bad weather is ever present, and low temperatures in the winter months can wipe out a tree’s entire crop. Two years ago, five of Takeba’s trees were destroyed by a typhoon, depriving him of 5,000 loquats.

Wild boars are another nuisance. The animals can jump to heights of around 1 meter, and throw themselves at the trees in an attempt to snap off branches and collect the fruit.

Farmer Kenzo Takeba picks a loquat from a tree at his farm in Minamiboso, Chiba Prefecture, last week. | CHISATO TANAKA
Farmer Kenzo Takeba picks a loquat from a tree at his farm in Minamiboso, Chiba Prefecture, last week. | CHISATO TANAKA

Global warming is also a factor, and Takeba believes its effects are already being felt.

“If it’s not hot when it should be hot, cold when it should be cold and raining when it should be raining, as it was in the past, it’s difficult to grow loquats properly,” he says. “It’s very important to have the right balance.”

Despite the difficulties involved, Takeba says he loves growing biwa and his satisfaction is plain to see as he brings in this year’s harvest, occasionally stopping to eat a few himself. His enthusiasm, however, is not shared by everyone.

In 1980, Chiba Prefecture produced 1,780 tons of loquats from a total growing area of 204 hectares, and figures have been on a steady downward trend ever since. In 2015, Chiba produced 503 tons from an area of 164 hectares, with the nationwide output dropping from 14,200 tons to 4,960 tons and the growing area falling from 2,420 hectares to 1,530 hectares over the same 35-year period.

Minamiboso’s population has decreased every month but one over the past five years, and fewer young people are willing to take over work that can be demanding, dangerous and at the mercy of the elements.

The Minamiboso Municipal Government is attempting to reverse that trend by offering subsidies for young growers, paying them a monthly amount over the first two or three years as they learn their trade. The local authority also provides information to facilitate the transfer of plots, which can be a complicated process.

Products made from biwa line the shelves at Michi no Eki Tomiura Biwa Kurabu, a roadside rest stop in Minamiboso, Chiba Prefecture, on May 27. | ANDREW MCKIRDY
Products made from biwa line the shelves at Michi no Eki Tomiura Biwa Kurabu, a roadside rest stop in Minamiboso, Chiba Prefecture, last week. | ANDREW MCKIRDY

But perhaps the biggest stimulus to reviving the industry is happening not far from Tomiura Station at Michi no Eki Tomiura Biwa Kurabu. Michi no Eki is a roadside station, a government-designated rest stop found along many roads and highways all over Japan. There are currently 1,154 nationwide.

The first wave of 103 roadside stations was launched in 1993 to provide services to drivers, but also to revitalize regional economies by promoting locally produced goods. Biwa Kurabu was among that vanguard and was the first registered roadside station in Chiba Prefecture, but initially faced opposition from local traders who thought their business was being threatened.

“Our aim was to help revitalize local businesses, so it would make no sense to muscle in on their turf,” says Biwa Kurabu executive manager Kenji Suzuki. “We made it our policy to sell products that didn’t interfere with the local traders.”

Around a third of loquats grown are considered too bruised or nonstandard to be sold, and in the past, this produce would have been eaten or turned into jam by the growers and their relatives. Biwa Kurabu, however, began buying the damaged fruit from producers and using it to make loquat-based products.

There are currently around 50 different products on sale at Biwa Kurabu, encompassing everything from biwa juice to biwa cookies and biwa jelly. The roadside station sells around 1,000 biwa ice creams every day at a price of ¥400 each, and even has biwa curry on the menu at its cafeteria.

The innovations have helped to attract more visitors from outside the area, and also spread tourist numbers more evenly across the year.

Tourist data for the Tomiura area from 1992, the year before Biwa Kurabu opened, show steady numbers of around 15,000 visitors for every month except for a huge spike to over 100,000 for the two summer months after the harvest. Data from 2005 showed between 75,000 to 125,000 visitors for every month except the last three of the year.

“We don’t have autumn leaves changing color here so we don’t get so many visitors in autumn, but to some degree we have become a place where visitors come all year round,” says Suzuki. “Before we opened 26 years ago, about the only products that were made from loquats were jam, canned fruit and jellied dessert. Through what we have done, there are now lots of different products.

“This is the only area in Chiba that grows loquats. And in the north of the prefecture, they’re not really familiar with them,” he says. “But since we started, loquat products have begun to be sold in shops all around Chiba.”

Biwa Kurabu’s efforts alone, however, will not be enough to reverse the decline in Minamiboso’s loquat production.

Farmer Kenzo Takeba eats a loquat fresh from a tree on his farm in Minamiboso, Chiba Prefecture, on May 27. | CHISATO TANAKA
Farmer Kenzo Takeba eats a loquat fresh from a tree on his farm in Minamiboso, Chiba Prefecture. | CHISATO TANAKA

Takeba admits that it is difficult for small family growers like him to make a living solely from loquats. He also runs a guest house not far from his fruit trees, and he is a qualified and experienced ring-maker.

As he dips into his basket for another biwa and begins peeling the vivid orange skin, he chews over the question of whether the fruit’s future will be quite as bright.

“It’s a difficult job,” he says. “It can be dangerous. Branches can fall on you and you can get injured. You can fall and break bones. You don’t harvest fruit all year round, so it can be difficult to make a living unless you’re a big company producing 200,000 or 300,000 biwa a year. I don’t think loquat production will completely die out, but I think the number of growers will decrease.

“It’s a very particular way of life and it’s not something that every area in Japan can produce,” he says. “Every year, loquats from Minamiboso are presented to the emperor. It’s a very precious product. I think it’s a very important thing.”

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