National | Regional Voices: Fukushima

Fukushima town works to revive herb vital to its frozen rice cake delicacy

Fukushima Minpo

A breeze rustles through leaves of oyamabokuchi plants on a farm in Katsurao, a village in Fukushima Prefecture.

The herb, an edible variety of thistle, is normally found in the mountains. It is ground up and mixed with rice to produce a local delicacy called shimimochi, or frozen rice cakes. The plant once grew in abundance in nearby forests, but harvests have been limited since the Fukushima nuclear crisis in March 2011.

Fearing the chewy delicacy, passed down through generations, might disappear along with the herb, the village began working with Koriyama Women’s College on a project to develop new cultivation methods for oyamabokuchi, which is also known by its botanical name Synurus pungens.

Mitsuko Shinkai, 70, a member of a women’s farming group called Ofukuro Foods, which translates roughly as “Mom’s Foods,” had been making and selling frozen mochi for two decades before the nuclear disaster.

“Things are slowly getting better,” she said, running her hand across the leaves of one of the plants.

The research began in fiscal 2017 after Shinkai and others came together to share their knowledge of the herb to come up with new ways to grow and cultivate it.

It is normally grown from seeds that germinate naturally. But by manipulating the temperature and humidity of a growing facility at the college, they succeeded in producing seedlings.

Previously, it was believed that shaded, sloped land was needed to rear the plants, but research has shown that neither factor necessarily affects growth. On the other hand, it’s become clear that the plant isn’t particularly resilient to weeds.

Last year, twice as many roots were planted compared with the previous year, and most were successfully harvested. Still, the amount is much less than what used to be harvested in the mountainous areas before the disaster. The members of the project plan to make manuals detailing ways to better grow and cultivate the plants and distribute them to residents.

In winter, blocks of shimimochi used to be hung from the eaves of homes like a curtain. After school, children would soak pieces in water and eat them as snacks. At gatherings, they were paired with tea.

But after the nuclear evacuation order was lifted in June 2016 and Ofukuro Foods got back in business, frozen mochi shipments only recovered to about half of pre-disaster levels, according to the village.

Researchers at the college found that frozen mochi is actually healthy. With the help of restaurant menus created by students, oyamabokuchi can be cultivated on a larger scale and help revive the village.

“I’m proud that something from Katsurao is being appreciated,” Shinkai said. “I hope frozen mochi grows popular and the village becomes healthy again.”

This section features topics and issues from Fukushima covered by the Fukushima Minpo, the largest newspaper in Fukushima Prefecture. The original article was published on Jan. 8.