In an idle rice field along the Tenryu River in Inadani, Nagano Prefecture, white filiform agar glittered on a reed screen under the rising February sun. The temperature was minus 8 degrees.
February is the perfect time to harvest agar. Agar, a gelatinous substance made from seaweed, is frozen in the cold at night and dried under the sun during daytime. The process is repeated for more than 10 days.
Due to generally warmer temperatures, the period for exposing agar to the cold has become shorter.
“It is splendid to leave it to nature. We have to make agar as much as possible while it is cold,” said Toshifusa Ogasawara, 68, president of Ogasawara Inc.
Since his grandfather’s era, the company has been producing filiform agar for “yokan” bean jelly, made with agar and sugar, at a plant run by Toraya Confectionery Inc., a longtime confectionary manufacturer in the Akasaka district in Tokyo.
Since the Edo Period (1603-1867), when agar was first produced, the bean jelly has been Toraya’s star product, and the company has been paying the utmost attention not only to its taste but also its texture.
For example, dotted lines spaced 2.4 cm apart are printed on the product’s wrapping. “If you cut the bean jelly with that thickness and eat it, a delicious elasticity is felt at its best,” said Yoshikazu Ishida, 50, director of the materials department.
The quality of agar is determined by its firmness. Toraya looks for a sticky texture when dried agar is boiled and condensed, and a high concentration when it is jelled. The company sets a jelly intensity standard for filiform agar and immediately returns any that fails to meet the standard.
Agar is obtained from agar weed. The seaweed is cleaned in a large washer to remove sand, refined, boiled in an iron pot and steamed with the pot’s lid on overnight. Next morning, the broth is filtered with a rag and jelled to form gelidium jelly. Using an ejector, the jelly is made filiform and finally exposed to the cold.
A washer at the Ogasawara plant contains agar weed of various colors.
“The red one is picked off the Izu Peninsula and the blue one is imported from Indonesia,” the company’s president said. Agar weed is picked in 17 locations across the world, including Morocco, South Korea and South Africa.
“Generally, domestically picked weed has strong jelly intensity and is easy to handle,” Ogasawara said. Domestically picked agar weed usually clears Toraya’s standard without problems, but things are not so easy with the progress of internationalization, he added.
Motoharu Abe, 31, an engineer at the Izu branch of the Shizuoka Prefectural Research Institute of Fishery, said imports of agar weed have increased.
“In Japan, agar weed pickers are decreasing in number. It is because of aging fishery operators and cheap unit prices despite the hard work,” he explained.
The work involves not only deep-sea diving to pick agar weed but also washing it to remove dirt and drying it outside.
According to the Izu branch, the volume of weed picked hit its peak in around 1965 and has been decreasing gradually ever since. The volume in Shizuoka Prefecture, the largest producer in the country, is now only one-twentieth of the volume during the peak period.
Ten kg of domestically picked agar weed is priced at about ¥12,000 on average, while the average price of imported weed is about ¥5,000. At Ogasawara Inc., which uses about 420 kg of dried agar weed a day, imported weed accounts for 40 percent to 50 percent of the total.
Agar weed is another product that requires hard work and is losing ground to cheap imports. The quality drops if you give priority to cost calculations, said Ogasawara, who is trying hard to maintain the intensity and thickness of agar.
Agar is part of Japan’s traditional cuisine.
Yuko Tanaka, a professor at Hosei University, said, “The hard work involved is blamed for the decrease in the volume of agar picking in Japan. People are becoming unaware of what is important in maintaining traditional tastes. Cheap goods are being selected, saving the trouble.”
She said the same challenge is faced by all traditional fields, including clothing, food and housing. “Hard work cannot be converted to money because it is a source of pride for the people who make things. What should be maintained is the affluence of hard work.”