by Tanizaki Emiko
A tiny village and its fruit
“Are we there yet?” We are driving deep in the mountain. There are no konbini (convenience store), gas stations, no buildings of any kind, but only mountains! mountains! mountains!!! Can we really see and reach the village ? We just keep driving up the mountain roads. At last, about 2 hours later, we finally see the village.
In Kochi, there is a very famous and tiny village called Umajimura, which is in deep in the mountain, and we have to drive to go there. And you’ll surprise that the population is only 2015 in 2010. Well, this s the same number of my old high school. Why is so famous like this small village? On the TV , we can watch the scene of the country and children wearing mugiwara boushi (straw hat) are gulping something with relish “Gokugokugoku”! So, this is the famous drink GOKKUN made from YUZU. Umajimura is well known as GOKKUN source in the nation. This is the story of how YUZU industry changed this small village and what YUZU is for people in Umajimura.
After arriving in Umajimura, we see no people, a few houses around, so we go to the town office. Then Kiyonaga-san welcomed us kindly with…of course Gokkun! We asked some questions while drinking the famous beverage. “There are common problems everywhere in Japan now that the populations of small villages are rapidly decreasing, but why did such kind of small village Umajimura be spread all Japan?” He said with a smile, ” because, nokyou-no-onchantachi (men working at the farmer’s cooperative) tried hard to make Yuzu products. Because of the Yuzu products, people got some opportunities to get a job. Recently people who returned to Umajimura, known as “U-turn”, and people from the big city, known as “I-turn”, are increasing. We are very glad not only for this reason but also for the encounters with those people”.
He took us to Yuzu-no-mori which is by the river and walked into the forests where the factory of Yuzu products appeared . There we smelled the woods and we felt nature. An officer explained many things about Yuzu while walking around the factory. And here, he gave us another Gokkun! There were lots of machines making Yuzu products, but also some people boxing them up by hand to send as “ochugen” all over Japan. They have kept their tradition of hand-packing as in the past. Then I asked about the history of Umajimura and Yuzu. In the past, forestry was the main industry in Umajimura. But forestry unfortunately declined because of the fallen prices. And so, the village changed into Yuzu farming. Yuzu is tough to grow but the temperature of Umajimura suits Yuzu farming. Yuzu has been eaten since ancient times in Umajimura. This is why “onchan”, the older men of farmer’s cooperative, settled on the fruit to recover Umajimura’s economy.. However, rich harvest which comes in every four years has brought in a fall in prices. This causes them trouble and brings worry about how to consume all of them! Their shape is bad to sell because they are trying to keep organic farming which their concept is “safe”. Moreover, Umajimura is in the valley of the mountain, so it did not suit for large-scale farming. At that, they focused on processed goods of Yuzu in order to raise the value-added up.
The process of spreading Gokkun to all the nation was long and hard! How many times they tested to make how to make the product better and what percentage of compound the materials into Gokkun! A teacher at junior high gave us a clue of how to make Gokkun. At last they succeded to produce a 120 yen drink. But, it didn’t become famous. Umajimura is in the mountains in Shikoku so that was difficult to develop at that time. So, Onchan-tachi went to the urban cities like Osaka to spread by mail order, not to sell. It did not go easily, but the number of the consumers on the mail order list slowly increased year by year, especially among people originally from Umajimura. Nowadays, the number of the consumers on the list have more than 200 times of the population of Umajimura!
Kiyooka-san guided us to go a place by the river where there is a lot of nature and we could breath clear air. There is also Yuzu direct-sales shop made of wood that smelled wonderful and felt sol comfortable. We walked toward forest and we could find “Yuzu no mori” factory which is also a wooden structure.
Then we went to second floor and met some women. They look busy at the call ringing and answer, but they smiled. “Now is busy,” one man said, ” consumers call for Ochugen.”
Then he guided us around the factory. We could see the many Yuzu products and large machines making Gokkun! On the other side, many women were packing Yuzu products into boxes by them. “In the past,” said our guide, “Gokkun was hand-made from pouring until wrapping the ravel. So we wanted to save that style to leave goods with our whole hearts. And through it, we can make more employment that influence the population.”
“Are you going to import to the other countries?” I wanted to know. “Actually Yuzu ponzu are sold in America,” he answered. “If other countries order, we do as possible. But we are not actively on importing to other countries because it’s not our concept. Our purpose is just to spread Umaji Yuzu culture all over Japan and show how people in the country side are fine! Yuzu is one of the tools to spread and make new fans of Umajimura, not to get profit from them!” Now they are finding the new Yuzu’s potencial to produce new Yuzu thing.
2010’s sale of Yuzu products is 3 billion and 200 million yen. However, it is happier thing for Umaji people that Umaji-genki is spreading all over Japan! Kiyonaga-san said, “In the past, if someone ask me where I am from, I was so shamed to answer because nobody knew such a countryside deep in the mountains in Kochi. But now, almost everyone knows the most famous small village called Umajimura which has suceeded with the local activities of Yuzu. That is the happiest things for me that Umaji is spreading all of Japan!”.
So, what is real power of Yuzu? Through making Yuzu products, local people in Umajimura work hard to make or spread Yuzu products each other!. This make more local connection and bond deeper! When we are in Umajimura, we could see many Umaji people’s relationships with big smiles, which can never see in the urban cities in recent years. Even they are not family, all Umaji people are like “a big family”. Umajmra has rich warmhearted local bond that in many places in Japan are disappearing nowadays. Yuzu’s real power make Umaji people connected, isn’t it?