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Nagano, Yamagata, Aomori: Producers of delicious fruits (Muslim-friendly!)

Nagano, Yamagata, Aomori: Producers of delicious fruits (Muslim-friendly!)

Mention "fruit" and different images may come to mind: common source of vitamin-C, a common choice for dessert, and sometimes summertime (for some people). Alongside vegetables, they are the one thing that your doctor usually advises you to eat more of for a balanced diet.

 

Some fruits are seasonal―think durians, coconuts, and watermelons, which are seasonal fruits that are best enjoyed in the summer―whereas fruits such as strawberries, grapes, and peaches thrive in more temperate climates. Many countries have their own range of specialty fruits, and one of them is Japan.

 

Fruits are a huge affair in Japan, where they gained a reputation for being delicious as well as expensive. Think of fruits in Japan, and many people would envision the auction prices of melons from Hokkaido, or the astronomical price of the famous square watermelons!

 

The fruits in Japan are famous for being delicious and diverse. (Image credit: Nagano prefecture (left), Yamagata Prefecture / JNTO (right))

 

Japan has the four seasons, so the fruits that can be found in the country are diverse according to the time of the year. Fruits that thrive in colder climates (example: strawberries) are best enjoyed during cooler seasons, whereas those requiring warmer temperatures are harvested during warmer times of the year (example: peaches).

 

Strawberries are best enjoyed during cooler months, whereas peaches are best during summer. (Image credit: Daisuke Yatsui / JNTO (left), Nagano Prefecture (right))

 

In fact, fruits play a special role in Japanese society. The people consider fruits as gifts for special occasions, and they would pay a premium to get the best quality fruits for their honoured recipients. Also, fruits are carefully chosen for making desserts both Western and Japanese; only the finest fruits are chosen to make Japanese sweets (和菓子 wagashi).

 

High-quality fruits are carefully chosen as gifts for honoured recipients. (Image credit: Joe deSousa / CC BY 2.0)

 

Fruits are also important for making Japanese sweets. (Image credit: Ishikawa Prefecture Tourist Association and Kanazawa Convention Bureau / JNTO)

 

Fruits can be found almost anywhere throughout Japan, and most fruits can be found throughout the year. However, it takes a special formula of fertile soil, temperate climates―balmy days with cool nights are ideal for most fruits to grow in Japan―clean air and water, and some ingenuity (and lots of hard work) by farmers will result in the best of fruits.

 

With the right formula in hand, and among all the regions that bear bountiful amounts of fruits, the Tohoku Region (東北地方 Tōhoku-chihō) and Nagano Prefecture (長野県 Nagano-ken) are perhaps some of the best in the country. Some of the best apples, pears, cherries, and grapes can be found in these regions.

 

Some of the best apples and grapes in Japan can be enjoyed in Tohoku and Nagano. (Image credit: Nagano Prefecture)

 

Because of the geographic location and unique terrains, Tohoku and Nagano enjoy the best of the four seasons and has optimal conditions for growing different kinds of fruits. Not only do the locals get to enjoy amazing fruits throughout the year, but people from all over the world flock here to enjoy the fruits too.

 

Locals and foreign visitors flock to Tohoku time and time again to enjoy its amazing range of fruits. (Image credit: Pakutaso)

 

Food is one of the main reasons that people from all over the world visit Japan time and time again. And in the realm of food, fruits are a big component; they have garnered a reputation for being some of the best that people can find. Plus, fruits can be enjoyed easily by anyone regardless of dietary restrictions, so that is great news for all visitors!

 

Personally, I’ve observed that enjoying fruits is one of the main impetuses for visiting Japan, and I’ve received many enquiries about fruits (specifically more on where to pick fruits; more on that later). Based on personal experience, I can understand their sentiments: Japan’s fruits alone are enough reason to visit there to begin with.

 

For this article, I will elaborate why eastern Japan is arguably the best region when it comes to fruits, catering to readers who love their fruits (including our Muslim friends; this is all Muslim-friendly content), as well as learning a thing or two about what each prefecture in the region has to offer.

 

Nagano Prefecture: Apples and grapes galore

Nagano Prefecture is synonymous with a number of things: ski resorts (Hakuba, Shiga Kogen), hot springs (Nozawa Onsen), venue to the 1998 Winter Olympics, sightseeing (Jigokudani Monkey Park). Food? Most definitely. It is home to the Shinshu Apple Beef, Shinshu soba, oyaki (おやき)― which are pan-fried stuffed dumplings made from buckwheat flour―and even horse sashimi (馬刺し basashi). But there’s one more thing that Nagano is truly famous for, and that is fruits.

 

Nagano Prefecture is famous not just for its mountains, food, and hot springs, but also especially for fruits. (Image credit: (Clockwise from top left) Yasufumi Nishi, Nagano Prefecture / JNTO)

 

Nagano is known for its mountainous terrain and relatively cold climate, making its soil fertile and ideal for growing fruits. Fruits that require temperate climate thrive on the soils of Nagano, some of which include grapes, apples, and peaches.

 

Grapes in Nagano are a big deal, and the prefecture is one of the top producers in Japan. (Image credit: Nagano Prefecture)

 

A variety of grapes are cultivated in Nagano such as Shine Muscat. (Image credit: Nagano Prefecture)

 

Speaking of grapes, the fruit is one of the prides and joy of Nagano. The prefecture is known as one of the top producers of grapes in Japan, with sprawling grape vineyards stretching the vast lands of the mountainous region. As grapes need cooler climates to grow, they are best enjoyed from mid-August to mid-October.

 

Nagano is famous for producing certain kinds of grapes, such as the Shine Muscat and Nagano Purple (ナガノパープル). Shine Muscat are a type of bright-green grapes known for their crunchy bite at the surface to grape candy-flavoured sweetness. Nagano Purple are dark-purple grapes modified from its famous counterpart Kyoho. They are seedless, and they have crunchy skin with juicy flesh with mild acidity. Both are highly coveted―a box of such grapes can easily cost more than a hundred dollars outside Japan―and they are often used as special gifts for honoured guests such as VIPs and clients.

 

Nagano is equally famous for their amazing apples. (Image credit: Nagano Prefecture)

 

Nagano Prefecture is also known for their apples, perhaps just as famous as their grapes. As the second top producer of apples in Japan (second only to Aomori Prefecture, more on that later), Nagano is able to grow amazing apples because of its differential temperatures: warm days coupled with cool nights. And the variety of apples grown is endless: some include Sun Fuji, Akibae, and Orin, local varieties including Shinano Sweet and Shinano Gold.

 

Apple orchards are everywhere in Nagano. (Image credit: Nagano Prefecture)

 

Fruit picking is highly recommended for those wanting to pick their own apples. (Image credit: Nagano Prefecture)

 

Many fruit farms in Nagano are run privately by families, and some villages and towns get their incomes from the farms themselves. During peak apple season―which is from mid-September to mid-November―visitors can buy apples (and other fruits too) directly from the farms, or from roadside stations (道の駅 michi-no-eki). In fact, the best way to enjoy fruits is to pick them yourself. Fruit picking is the best way to enjoy fruits, and many farms have fruit-picking activities for a fee.

 

Apples are also used in sweets and desserts in Nagano, and visitors can find plenty of them at shops in places such as JR Nagano Station. (Image credit: bryan... / CC BY 2.0)

 

Apples also need not be enjoyed in their fruit form. They are also extensively used in making desserts and sweets, and Nagano has plenty of them everywhere for sale. They are used in pastries, custards, juices, wines, ice creams, and so much more. A good place to find apple-themed souvenirs is JR Nagano Station (JR長野駅 Nagano-eki), which is conveniently right in the heart of the capital city.

 

Yamagata Prefecture: Cherry abound, and a fruit paradise

Yamagata Prefecture (山形県 Yamagata-ken) shares a lot of similarities with Nagano: mountainous region, plenty of wonderful hot springs, great sceneries… and amazing fruits too! In fact, the prefecture is colloquially known as ‘Fruit Kingdom’, and the reason for this is obvious: the list of fruits grown here is endless! Peaches (もも momo), melons (メロン meron), watermelons (すいか suika) in the summer; apples (りんご ringo), and persimmons (柿 kaki) in the autumn, are just some that are grown in the region.

 

Yamagata is known for cultivating many fruits, one of which is persimmons. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture / JNTO)

 

But if there is one fruit that essentially defines Yamagata, it is the cherry (さくらんぼ sakuranbo). Cherries forms part of the Yamagata identity, and for a good reason: the prefecture is the top producer of cherries in Japan, providing up to 70 percent in the whole country!

 

Yamagata is the top producer of cherries in Japan. (Image credit: JR East)

 

Cherries were first cultivated in Yamagata as far back as during the Meiji Period (1868-1912), and was introduced originally from Germany. When it was first cultivated, it would go very quickly and thus could not be harvested well. Then came Sato Eisuke, a farmer from Higashine City (東根市 Higashine-shi) who tried to crossbreed two types of cherries: Tobaz (cherries that are sweet but with short shelf life) and Napoleon (cherries that are very sour but with long shelf life). The result is the Sato Nishiki, the type of cherries that eventually became the most famous in Yamagata, as a result of 16 years of experimentation.

 

Sato Nishiki cherries are known to be extremely sweet and ruby-red appearance. (Image credit: JR East)

 

Sato Nishiki has since been recognised as the "King of Cherries", becoming the most reputable type in the region. As it is best grown in warmer climates, the cherries are in season from June to July.

 

Yamagata is also known for another thing: pears! And not just pears, but a special type known as La France pears. As evident from its name, the pears were originally introduced from Europe, but has since defined the prefecture. In fact, Yamagata produces almost 80 percent of all the La France pears in Japan.

 

Yamagata is also known for La France pears, producing almost 80 percent of all European pears in the country. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture / JNTO)

 

La France pears are famous for the melt-in-your-mouth texture, superior sweetness, and mellow scent. In fact, the pears are even known as "Queen of Fruits", and are highly coveted as special gifts. They are usually in season from end-August to end-November.

 

Yamagata is one of the top three producers of grapes in Japan. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture / JNTO)

 

And then there are the grapes of Yamagata. Yes, grapes are also a pride and joy of the prefecture, as it has the third highest production of grapes in Japan. The types of grapes grown in Yamagata are diverse: Shine Muscat, Delaware, Kyoho, and Aki Queen are just some available in the region. Grapes are best from August to October.

 

Yamagata's strawberries are among the best in Japan. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture / JNTO)

 

Last but not least, strawberries from Yamagata are famous. In particular, the prefecture is known for Otome-gokoro (roughly translates as "young lady’s heart"), a special type of strawberries known for their rich flavour and juicy flesh, perfectly balancing sweetness and tartness. Strawberries require cooler climates to grow, and are originally best enjoyed during spring, from April to June. However, due to increasing demand especially during the Christmas period, strawberries are cultivated in greenhouses so they can also be enjoyed during winter, from January to April.

 

Aomori Prefecture: Kingdom of apples

When it comes to Aomori Prefecture (青森県 Aomori-ken), it becomes almost natural that the first thing to come to mind is apples. The reason is simple: Aomori is the top producer of apples for the whole of Japan, and the fruit has become a strong identity for the prefecture.

 

Aomori Prefecture is the top producer of apples in Japan. (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture / JNTO)

 

As Aomori is the northernmost prefecture of Tohoku Region, its climate is relatively temperate, making it perfect for apples to thrive. The prefecture cultivates a wide variety of apples, including Jonagold and Tsugaru. In fact, it dominates more than half of the apple market in Japan, delivering delicious apples across the nation all year-round. Apples are in season from September to December, when the cool climate is optimal for their growth.

 

The story of Kimura Akinori has been adapted into film entitled Kiseki no Ringo. (Video credit: YouTube Movies)

 

There’s a sentimental story behind the success of apples in Aomori. It all started with Kimura Akinori (木村秋則), a local apple farmer from Hirosaki City (弘前市 Hirosaki-shi) in Aomori, who took up farming apples many years ago. He soon recognised the need to restrict himself from using pesticides and chemical fertilisers from his farms due to his wife’s severe allergic reaction to them, but gradually realised over the years that it caused his farms to be infested with pests and disease. On the verge of taking his own life from depression over his failed crops, he had an epiphany and went to research about topics such as native insects to look for ways to save his crops. The answer came in the form of diluted vinegar and weeds, both to address the problem of pests and fertilisation. Eventually, beautiful apples begin to appear on his land, saving his crops and inevitably his own life. Soon, the farmers learn about his findings, applying and refining them to grow apples that flourish in Aomori. Mr. Kimura’s life story has since been adapted into film entitled Kiseki no Ringo (奇跡のリンゴ), roughly translated as ‘Miracle Apples’.

 

Aomori is synonymous with apples, and is enjoyed throughout the year. (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture)

 

Apples can be bought in Aomori (or almost anywhere in Japan) at private farms or at roadside stations, but why do that when you can pick the apples yourselves? Fruit-picking is almost a mandatory experience in Aomori, and there are numerous farms and orchards where you can pick your apples (and other fruits as well). You can have a look here if fruit-picking is inside your to-do list.

(Note: It is best to check with the farm and make a booking prior to visiting for fruit-picking, just to check whether the harvest is suitable for the activity.)

 

Fruit-picking is a must in Aomori; the best apples are the ones you pick yourself. (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture / JNTO)

 

In fact, apples are so synonymous with Aomori that there’s even an apple hot spring here! Minamida Onsen Hotel Apple Land (南田温泉ホテルアップルランド) is famous for putting apples into their hot spring baths, as the fruits’ malic acid is said to have a moisturising effect on skin while the linoleic acid helps to promote blood circulation. There’s even a footbath outside the hotel for the public to use from April to November, so do check it out.

 

Minamida Onsen Hotel Apple Land is famous for putting apples into their hot spring baths. (Image credit: 南田温泉ホテルアップルランド)

 

Of course, Aomori is famous not only for their apples. The prefecture also produces pears (both the European and Japanese kinds, such as Le France and Chojuro), cherries (outou is their top-selling type), plums (they have three kinds: European, American, and Japanese types), grapes (the second top-producing fruit in Aomori after apples). Aomori is yet another fruit paradise, where apples reign king, so it’s best to check them out when in season.

 

BONUS: FruiTea Fukushima

Imagine this: enjoying the best fruits that Fukushima Prefecture (福島県 Fukushima-ken) has to offer, but on a moving train! Yes, visitors can enjoy an experience as special as that on the FruiTea Fukushima (フルーティアふくしま Furūtia Fukushima), a Joyful Train by East Japan Railway Company (JR East)!

 

FruiTea Fukushima is a Joyful Train by JR East that showcases the best fruits that Fukushima has to offer. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Joyful Trains are trains by JR East that let passengers enjoy a unique experience while riding on the train, and FruiTea Fukushima is one where passengers will enjoy dining on sweet treats right on the train. The train ride is all about seasonal tarts and pastries using Fukushima’s own locally grown fruits.

 

The seasonal tarts and pastries on FruiTea Fukushima are a delight to the eyes as well as the palate. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

The concept of the train is a "travelling café" where the menu showcases the fruits of Fukushima. The prefecture is a top producer of grapes, peaches, apples, and pears, its most prized fruit being peaches. The menu changes on a monthly basis, so there’s always something to look forward to for every season!

 

The menu changes every month, so passengers will get to experience something new every season. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

A public service announcement for our Muslim friends, however: it is highly recommended to check with the staff on what goes into the dessert. Some desserts may contain alcohol (brandy, liqueur) depending on the menu. The menu (in Japanese) are made available only around the beginning of each month, and the detailed ingredient list are only available onboard the train. Hence, Muslim visitors are to practise their own discretion on consuming the desserts served onboard the train.

 

My colleague Carissa has written extensively on FruiTea Fukushima on Japan Rail Times. If you like more details on the Joyful Train, do check out her article here.

 

Tohoku is progressively seeing more and more visitors pouring into the region, and I find it welcoming to see how my Muslim friends are gradually recognising the region as a tourist destination. One of the common things they look forward to when travelling to Japan is fruits-picking, as they constantly ask me where to find fruit farms, and when to go for picking fruits. Tohoku’s fruits are to be reckoned with, and I encourage visitors, both first-timers and repeated travellers, to go and try out the best fruits that each prefecture in the region has to offer.

 

More details on travelling around Tohoku and Nagano

Tohoku is located in the northeast region of Japan, just under the region of Hokkaido in the north. Visitors from Tokyo can take the Tohoku Shinkansen (東北新幹線) to travel to prefectures in Tohoku such as Yamagata, Aomori, and Fukushima. For Nagano Prefecture, visitors from Tokyo can take the Hokuriku Shinkansen (北陸新幹線).

 

The harvest of fruits is dependent on the weather and climate. Although seasonal fruits are grown during certain times of the year, their harvests may be disrupted due to weather changes. For fruit-picking, visitors are encouraged with check with the fruit farms first before visiting to check on their fruit harvests. Also, due to the ongoing coronavirus, some farms may be closed temporarily.

 

(INSIDER TIP: If you have the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), you can travel on the Tohoku Shinkansen and make seat reservations for free! If you have the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), you can travel on the Hokuriku Shinkansen and make seat reservations for free!)

 

JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)

The new JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)

 

The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) is an affordable pass that offers unlimited train rides on JR East lines, including bullet trains, within the valid area for 5 consecutive days. It's only ¥30,000, making it a considerable option for rail travellers. Pass holders can also reserve seats online for up to a month in advance for free on the JR-EAST Train Reservation.

 

JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)

The new JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)

 

The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) is an affordable pass that offers unlimited train rides on JR East lines, including bullet trains, within the valid area for 5 consecutive days. It's only ¥27,000, making it a considerable option for rail travellers. Pass holders can also reserve seats online for up to a month in advance for free on the JR-EAST Train Reservation.

 

The JR-EAST Train Reservation. (Image credit: JR East)

 

Header image credit: Aomori Prefecture / JNTO

 

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