Lyna Mohamad in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan
Before leaving for the Land of the Rising Sun as a participant representing Brunei for the ASEAN Journalists Group Invitation by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, I was told that strawberries in Japan are sweet and different from the usual ones found in Brunei. As someone who loves strawberries, I looked forward to visit a strawberry farm in Japan.
While in Japan, we were informed about the visit to a strawberry farm in Fukushima Prefecture. We left Tokyo Train Station early on a Saturday morning with everyone eager and excited to board the Shinkansen (bullet train) headed to Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture. It takes several hours to reach via normal train but with the Shinkansen, we reached our destination in 90 minutes. It was indeed a memorable journey for me and my fellow participants as none of us has ever been on one before.
The cold weather that greeted us on arrival in Koriyama did not lessen our excitement nor did we complain, as everyone was looking forward to what awaited us at our first stop – the Strawberry Paradise Farm – for an experience of picking fresh strawberries.
We were welcomed by the owner Atsushi Sato who ushered us to the greenhouse where we saw a field of green plants with the juicy red fruits shying away under the leaves and ready to be picked.
Sato demonstrated the correct way to pick strawberries, and pointing to several species his farm has, he highlighted one particular species – the Peach Strawberry, which is similar to what we have here like the Tibadak Kawin or Rambutan Kawin.
Although I was initially keen to try out the red strawberries, my curiosity led me to a row of peach strawberries. With my first bite, I sensed the peach aroma but there was the taste of strawberry and peach, which I really liked. I then decided to try the other red ones but while crossing over to the rows of red strawberries, encountered a bee.
Sato explained that these honey bees are harmless and are the greenhouse’s “assistants”, sharing that the bees have an impact, giving the strawberries better shape.
After having our fair share of fresh strawberries, we sat down with Sato and were served dried strawberries and peach strawberries.
The strawberry farm is in an area affected during the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, one of the 15 largest nuclear plants in the world. Following an earthquake and Tsunami in March 2011, the plant suffered major damage and radiation leaks and saw several of its reactors destroyed.
Radiation released in the atmosphere forced Japanese authorities to declare the 20km evacuation zone a no-go area with over 150,000 residents evacuated due to airborne radioactive contamination from the damaged reactors. Water was also contaminated with radioactive isotopes.
Asked how badly affected they were, Sato responded that so far there has been no impact whatsoever. However, they were affected by baseless rumours that harmed their business while it was difficult to tell the amount of damage.
He said today there are rumours that farm productions from Fukushima have been affected by radiation.
“There was a JPY50 million compensation for damages paid by Tokyo Electric Power Cooperation (TEPCO) – not directly to us but through agriculture cooperation of this area and the cooperation is still asking more compensation from TEPCO, but at the same time, for myself I want to be less resilient on wild rumours,” said Sato. “One of the things I did was to start this tourism business because if you try to ship your local produce then that is weaker against wild rumours, for example, import restrictions.”
At one point other prefectures did not want any Fukushima farm produce leading to a rough time for them. However later, some movements supported Fukushima produce and, as of today, they have buyers from other prefectures including Tokyo.
“We can assure the safety of our products because in Fukushima Prefecture we apply the most rigourous standards, because of the rumours. So our products are safe,” said Sato. “We ship only agriculture produce that has passed the strictest standards. Yet as we have this rumour misconception issue, some countries still have import restrictions for produce from Fukushima.”
Sato said the farm is a family business and he is the 16th generation, noting that his family began with doing agriculture. With the passing of time, he decided to change from growing strawberries outside in fields to greenhouses and water irrigation.
“We now use these greenhouses, a better irrigation system and we can ship strawberries throughout the year. We generate employment as we need workers. In Japan we have four seasons and in winter other agriculture product volume and income is lower. So that is why we grow strawberries in winter, because January is a big season for strawberries, so that makes up for the reduced volume.”
They set up strawberry picking for the public a year ago. They were looking to do more in terms of diversifying their products. Currently, among the 10 products are ice cream, dried strawberries and fresh juice.
Set on 0.35 hectares of land accommodating six greenhouses, the farm is the only one involved in tourism activity, with the strawberry picking season between January and May.
Last year, they received 10,000 visitors while they expect 15,000 this year. Ninety per cent of the visitors are from within Fukushima Prefecture, with hardly any foreign visitors except for foreign nationals who are living in Japan.