SAITAMA – For Kaori Nukui, who grows Japanese tea and log-grown shiitake mushrooms, farming is a creative endeavor that allows her to turn her agricultural yield into unique products with a playful twist.
Two of the products created by the 41-year-old former public relations consultant from Saitama Prefecture, are dashi packed with the tasty umami flavor derived from shiitake, and roasted tea-flavored craft beer.
“As a farmer, I want people to enjoy what we make. That drive has led me to propose various ways of appreciating” our products, Nukui said.
Other products she has created include jarred tomato sauce with shiitake, a shiitake-infused soy sauce, and tea-flavored milk confiture.
Nukui was born into the family that runs Nukuien, a tea farm with more than 100 years of history in Iruma, a city on the far western outskirts of Tokyo at the foot of the mountainous Okutama region.
When her father was 32, he started farming log-grown shiitake during the winter to supplement his income during the off-season for tea.
Log-grown shiitake, often cultivated by planting spores in logs left in a forested environment, require more time and care to farm compared with those farmed on mushroom beds.
One of the most labor-intensive tasks is replacing the lined logs and flipping them over to help the spores spread evenly, Nukui said. There are about 30,000 logs in Nukuien, and all the work is done by hand.
Of all shiitake produced nationwide, log-grown mushrooms accounted for about 9 percent in 2017, while the rest were grown on mushroom beds. The price, however, depends on the size of the mushroom, regardless of how it was grown, according to Nukui.
The Iruma farm’s shiitake, which can be harvested from September to June, are meatier and thicker than those grown on beds and have firm textures, the farmer said.
Over the 30 or so years working his property, Nukui’s father has won numerous awards from the farm ministry for his shiitake-growing techniques, but inheriting her father’s skills, much less his vocation, was not something she had imagined. Her father did not ask her or her two younger sisters, who work off the farm, to aspire to follow him, either.
After earning her bachelor’s degree in economics, Nukui joined a small recruitment startup and then moved into public relations.
“I did learn the joy of working in those companies for seven or eight years, but during my work in supporting clients’ businesses, I realized I wanted to try something original,” Nukui said. “That’s when I thought it might be interesting to try expanding our family business.”
At the age of 29, she returned home from Tokyo and started learning about tea and shiitake — from the ground up.
At the farm, her inquisitive mind and project-planning skills helped expand her network and link her to a range of people from top chefs to government officials, bringing new perspectives to Nukuien products.
In addition to local supermarkets, she started distributing fresh shiitake to restaurants, including those with Michelin stars in Tokyo and its vicinity, after becoming friends with a chef she met over a glass of wine, one of her favorite activities.
Nukuien’s mushrooms are spreading via word of mouth. Many chefs praise their texture and rich aroma, Nukui said, adding that many mushrooms on the market arrive in less than good condition.
Her farm delivers fresh shiitake daily, allowing it to service supermarkets while also responding to chefs’ orders quickly so the mushrooms can be dispatched on the same day they are picked, seven days a week.
“Maintaining good quality cannot be done without the strong will to do so because mushrooms go bad easily,” Nukui said, emphasizing the pride she takes in her work.
She also started exporting Nukuien’s tea products to a specialty Japanese grocer in France in 2012, and has started shipping shiitake products there as well.
“I haven’t done networking for the sake of sales,” Nukui said. She says she just follows her interests and enjoys watching how connections with people can lead to the development of new projects.
When Nukui was offered a chance to hold a sales exhibition at a Japanese department store in Hong Kong in January 2017, she asked others to join her via a female farmers network set up by the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry.
“If I went alone, the fair would have been just a small tasting event. I thought it was more fun with a variety of farmers at one place,” she recalled. Several people in Hong Kong who tasted Nukuien’s products were impressed and purchased the items on the spot, she said.
For their second promotional event about nine months later, Nukui planned a cooking and tasting experience in collaboration with ABC Cooking Studio International, the Hong Kong branch of a Japanese company that conducts cooking classes in several countries in Asia.
But she didn’t stop there.
During the events, she realized their products would be more attractive if they were sold under a single brand name.
After discussions with a designer she met during the Hong Kong exhibition fair, she created a brand she dubbed “Famable” — a portmanteau of farmer and marbles — the latter refering to the many colors of marbles used in the game, a parallel she draws to the diverse range of products Japan’s female farmers produce.
The brand is open to new female farmers in Japan who are interested in selling products at stores or online under the project, said Nukui. The brand will focus on the domestic market for the time being to raise funds for an eventual push overseas, Nukui said.
“There are so many ideas I want to follow through on,” she said. “Preserving log-grown shiitake is, of course, something I should work on, and some creative thinking is required to clear obstacles such as the high costs.”
She is determined to produce quality tea and shiitake and cherish the customers who have supported Nukuien’s products. But at the same time, Nukui said she has a long-term vision to turn her love of wine into a business as well, adding it to her farming activities.
Just like her father added mushrooms to his tea farming, Nukui began a small grape-growing effort last year after studying viticulture and winemaking in her spare time.
“I hope that one day the wine will become my signature product to be enjoyed by people who find my work fun or interesting,” she said.
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