ASAHIKAWA, HOKKAIDO – Eiji Nagao had almost given up on his career as an artisanal cheese maker after surviving the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake that struck off Miyagi Prefecture.
However, with support and encouragement from friends and colleagues, the 43-year-old in December opened his own cheese factory in Hokkaido’s Asahikawa, his wife’s hometown, where he now resides.
“I want to produce cheese that can only be found here,” Nagao said. His shop Japacheese, decorated with a wooden interior, sells natural cheeses made from milk produced by farmers in Asahikawa.
But instead of sharp cheese catering to the tastes of sophisticated palates, Nagao said his goal is to make cheese that “blends in with daily life.”
Raised in a dairy farming family in the town of Zao in Miyagi, Nagao had helped with the daily chores of raising cattle since he was a small boy.
After studying dairy farming at a high school in Ebetsu, Hokkaido, he majored in dairy product manufacturing in university because “I felt there must be some dairy products that only I, precisely because I know how dairy farmers feel, will be able to produce,” Nagao said.
Upon graduation, he took a job at Zao Dairy Center in his hometown and was involved in developing new products, as well as with technological development.
When the earthquake struck Miyagi and other parts of northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011, Nagao’s then-pregnant wife, Eriko, 40, was staying at her parents’ home in Asahikawa, where she was preparing to give birth. Eriko decided to remain in Asahikawa and after lengthy discussions, Nagao moved there to join her in October 2014.
In the immediate aftermath of the quake, Zao Dairy Center’s business suffered immensely from the loss of many clients concerned about radiation contamination from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in neighboring Fukushima Prefecture.
Nagao recalled his anger and resentment at how trust built through years of hard work crumbled so easily from widespread public fear. He was so upset that he considered quitting the food industry and started preparing to switch careers after relocating to Asahikawa.
But harsh words from a former colleague who heard of his plans made him reconsider.
“Why on earth would you throw away all of your hard-won skills and expertise?” the colleague asked him.
With encouragement from fellow artisans, Nagao said he decided to continue on his path as a cheese maker.
As Nagao makes all the cheese by hand, Japacheese currently only sells two types. But he is also coming up with ideas for new products, such as using Asahikawa’s locally brewed beer and tomatoes, he said.
“Some day, I hope to produce (cheese) using milk from Zao as a way to give back to my hometown,” Nagao said with a smile.
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