Sweet or Sour? Okinawans ponder future of the pineapple
Every once in a while the air blows sweet across stout pineapple plants that stretch out in neat rows.
Crouched down, working in near tandem, a couple in their 70s diligently tends to the fruit. Their one-acre plot, a plateau they cleared out of the hill themselves 30 years ago, is up north on the island where the tightly packed, shoddy buildings that characterize the south have faded away and rolling hills have emerged.
The area, along with the tiny Ishigaki Island, is the only place in Japan where pineapples grow.
Tatsuyuki Kinjo is quick to gather a handful of ripe pineapples, deftly cut into one of them with his sickle and offer guests a dripping slice right off the blade. He pops a few chunks of the yellow fruit into his mouth.
His wife Etsuko just watches — years of tasting on the job in the fields has killed her appetite for the fruit, she said, smiling.
For the past three decades, the couple has cultivated about 10 tons of the fruit a year. But consumers would have a hard time finding their pineapples for sale on the island — or any other locally grown pineapples.
Almost all of the Okinawan pineapple products are exported to mainland Japan, and the local market of both canned and fresh products is dominated by imports mostly from the Philippines, according to Masaya Chibana, director of the Okinawan Pineapple Promotion Office of the Japan Agricultural Cooperatives.
“The amount of production continues to drop in recent years, and farmers are getting older and older,” Chibana said.
The average age of the 380 pineapple farmers in Nago is 75. Despite the grueling work of growing the high-maintenance crop, the Kinjos plan to continue to farm as long as their health permits.
“We like to work here. After all, this is all we did in our lives,” Etsuko Kinjo said.
They have four children, but none is interested in taking over the family business. The Kinjos do not know what will become of their farm once they retire.
Grueling workGrowing pineapples is a battle with the heat. Each fruit must be individually wrapped with newspaper to protect it from the sun.
“Pineapple farming demands lots of hard work,” said Katsuhiko Kinjo of the pineapple promotion office, explaining it is not the type of lifestyle that attracts young people.
With its acidic soil that’s perfect for the fickle pineapple, northern Okinawa used to produce 70,000 tons of the fruit a year in the heyday of the 1960s. Today, that number hovers around 10,000 tons.
Much of the produce is canned at the JA Okinawa Pineapple Factory, the only such factory in Japan. The factory workers, too, are getting old. Most are past what Americans would consider retirement age and have worked at the factory since it opened in 1959, said Masakazu Oshiro, the factory’s assistant director.
On a typical day, there are 140 workers — in almost head-to-toe white with goofy hats that Velcro under the chin, heavy aprons and rubber boots — who work the quick assembly line.
Pineapples delivered from the fields, including those grown by the Kinjos, come in on conveyor belts. Most of the canning process is done by machines, but the finishing touches need human hands and eyes.
After the pineapples pop out from the peeling machine, workers use knives to remove the small brown spots that were missed. Watching the next set of workers down the line swiftly sort the freshly cut pineapple rings that are speeding down the conveyer belt, one can’t help but think of the “I Love Lucy” episode where Lucy finds herself much too slow for the candy factory.
Except pineapple rings would be a little harder to pop into one’s mouth.
Like the fresh pineapples, all 4,000 tons of the fruit canned each year gets shipped off to the mainland.
New taste for the palateWhat one can find on Okinawa is pineapple wine.
Inspired to help the sagging industry out, the Nago Pineapple Park opened a winery in 1992, said Tomonori Uezu, the kitschy park’s managing director.
“We wanted to contribute to pineapple farming and support farmers by boosting the consumption,” he said, adding the idea came from a similar winery in Hawaii.
The wine is, obviously, of the sweet variety. Pineapple wine smacks distinctly of the fruit itself. But despite its one-note flavor, the wine is crisp and refreshing.
Uezu said the wine doesn’t pair well with much food, but the pineapple’s digestive qualities make it a good choice for after a heavy meal.
Almost apologetically, Uezu explains the pineapple wine business is still young. There just isn’t a knowledge base like in grape varieties to develop a wine that has many subtle characteristics.
The process for making the wine is the same, except one important distinction: It shouldn’t be aged in a cellar for years.
“For pineapple wine, freshness is everything,” he said. “The fresher, the better.”
Maturation is only about three to four months.
Uezu did a test once and kept a bottle for 10 years.
“I wouldn’t recommend it,” he said, shaking his head and smiling at the thought of it. “It tasted like vinegar.”
Stripes reporter Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this story.
If you go
Nago Pineapple Park in Nago City is open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; admission is 500 yen. Admission includes a ride in a pineapple-shaped shuttle and audio accounts of history and pineapple facts. While the official Web site (www.nagopain.com) is in Japanese, make sure to check out the video on the upper left that features the pineapple carts.