A Potato Story: The Matter of Potatoes in the Far East

October to November is harvest season in Japan, especially for potatoes.

Kiwanosato village is a small farming community of 70 people.

Among them, people aged 65 are referred to as ‘young lads’. The oldest villager in 2019 was 89 year old Mrs. Isomura who will turn 90 in 2020. She is still healthy and continues to working the land growing rice.

Within the village everybody looks after each other from birth to grave.

Like the village’s people, potatoes are well looked after in every season. Sweet potatoes are especially well respected.

Just as you have different kinds of potatoes in Europe, Japan has a wide variety of sweet potatoes, each of which have a different name and texture.

This is Mr. Yoshimura, leader of the village revitalisation committee and one of the many keen organic produce and fungi growers within the community.

Mr. Yoshimura and his team organise an annual potato harvest day in early November as one of the ten public events hosted by the village throughout the year.  During the event, the population of the village doubles as members of the public visit for the harvest.

A well organised event, precise instructions are given as to the correct methods for harvesting the potatoes. The soil in front is fine and tight, the soil at the back, rough and drainable. The potatoes are planted in this way to demonstrate growth differences in each soil type.

Experience is one of the most important elements of the activity.

The harvest is shared equally with every participant.

While the village’s men look after the land, women are cooking lunch for everyone.

The volunteer village ladies come dressed and ready to work. The younger villager’s kitchen fashion is especially remarkable with a traditional cooking hat, arm protectors and apron.

Everyone takes on a roll in the chopping, mixing, washing and cooking of meals without any particular system of working – it just happens.

A super seasonal village lunch is served, including newly harvested potatoes, rice balls and homemade pickles with a pork and vegetable miso soup.

The village’s leader, Mr.Yoshimura, is a keen organic fungi grower. He uses Konbu seaweed as his chosen fertiliser.

This photo was taken after the typhoon. He was with his wife when they both saw seaweed washed up on the shore of his holiday location by the sea. They immediately went home to collect their truck and returned to load up as much seaweed as they could.

It is illegal to harvest any seaweed directly from the sea without permission so this was a lucky day for them!

This is him tending to his especially sweet potatoes. Trimming back all the leaves and stems.

He then chops and mixes with Nuka (bran from rice) before spreading on his crops and waiting for nature to do its work.

Sweet potatoes need to sit under the sun for over two weeks before they are ready to eat. 

Mrs. Yoshimura stores her potatoes in an old milk barn and covers them with a thick blanket.

“They get cold otherwise!” she explains.

Another village lady, Mrs. Kawasaki is also busy covering her potatoes with a thick blanket.

This is another important creature Mr. Yoshimura uses for fertilising his crops called kogosei-photosynthesis: “The oldest life on earth!” he explains enthusiastically.

He also makes anti slug liquid from hot chilli peppers and water which he sprays around his crops every so often, but especially after the rain.

He has such a passion for growing he talks about it non-stop.

The ground becomes a white board for him to explain how to best set fertilisers.

This is Momigara- a part of the husk left after harvesting rice.

This breed of potato is called Konnyaku which the Japanese traditional food of the same name is made from. Konnyaku has no calories and is full of fibre and amongst the most loved Japanese foods for those pursuing a healthy diet.

This mysterious looking potato grows underneath big trees or in shady areas of land taking between 2 – 3 years to grow to full size.

Mr. Okamoto, 83 years old, grows a long potato called Jinenjo. At the local market, the longer the potato the better with this example valued at around £30.

This is how to grow a long, straight potato. Mr. Okamoto sets a support to the side, so as not to break the potato when he comes to harvest it. Watering the potato is quite tricky as if you over water it, the potato will avoid the wet part by twisting itself around it.

Another villager, Mrs. Ueda, who is 76 years old supplies her harvest to the market every morning in her truck.

Mrs. Ueda shows a very special mother-child taro potato. When planting she took out a tiny part of a larger potato and buried them alongside each other. Now, they have both grown well and are ready for market.

Images and Stories © Motoko Fujita

This series of photographs was first presented as a part of Potato Connoisseur evening events hosted during Fairland Collective’s residency in Jersey in 2019.