Farmers of traditional smoked daikon pickles, a popular bar snack from Akita Prefecture in northeastern Japan, are facing a conundrum as they struggle to comply with new industrywide food standards that are set to come into effect next year.
Along with the aging of producers who for generations have passed down the traditional flavors of iburigakko, as the pickled smoked radish is known in Japanese, some farmers are closing their businesses because they cannot afford the cost of renovating processing facilities to standards required under the revised Food Sanitation Law.
With less than one year before the full implementation of the law, pickle production areas across the country are doing their best to upgrade facilities, while municipalities in Akita are taking action to protect the local iburigakko food culture.
Iburigakko derives from "iburi," referring to smoked in Japanese and "gakko" the local Akita dialect term for "tsukemono" pickles.
It is made by smoking the daikon radish over an open "irori" hearth two or more days instead of sun-drying it as is commonly done in other regions that do not receive as much snow, using the timber from oak and cherry trees to produce a smoky aroma.
Pickled on a bed of rice bran and salt, among other ingredients, the fermenting process takes around 40 days to complete. November is the peak season for pickling iburigakko.
The pickled daikon is an important preserved food that has for generations been eaten during the long winters in snowbound areas where food tended to be scarce. It was first hung over the irori of each household to dry because the snow outside made it impossible to fully dry it there.
Its crispness and the sweet, tangy taste of daikon makes iburigakko popular nationwide as a side dish to accompany tea and alcoholic drinks such as sake, shochu and wine. It is mainly produced in large-scale factories, but many independent farmers maintain traditional production methods.
The Food Sanitation Law was amended in 2018 in response to an E. coli outbreak in 2012 in which eight people died after consuming pickled cabbage in Hokkaido due to a problem in the manufacturing process.
The production and sale of pickles, which until then only had to be reported to local authorities, became subject to a permit system and hygiene standards in processing facilities. The grace period allowed before the application of the new law will end in May of next year.
With change afoot, the impact on farmers has been significant. According to a survey by the Akita prefectural government, 30 percent of farmers said they were considering retirement, citing aging and other factors, since the law's revision.
The Sannai district in the city of Yokote is home to a thriving iburigakko industry. Ichiro Takahashi, 81, who has been in the business for two decades, decided to call it a day when the revised law was passed five years ago.
From harvesting the daikon radishes to pickling them, the work, which takes over a month in total, is grueling. He admits he has reached his physical limit, and he has no successor. "Even if I were to continue, we're talking two to three years at the most," Takahashi said.
An 85-year-old woman from the same district has also decided she has had enough. "It was a special feeling when I could make something delicious, but my legs and back ache now, and understanding the revised law is difficult. I just can't do it anymore," she said.
The uproar over the revision of the law in Akita was particularly hard-felt due in part to the fact that the prefecture has never before had an ordinance on pickle sanitation control.
In contrast, Nagano Prefecture in central Japan, famous for pickled mustard leaves called nozawana-zuke, has had regulation for more than 50 years, so a Nagano prefectural official said, "there was no major confusion due to the revision of the law."
Some farmers have decided to continue producing iburigakko, however, despite the challenges. Kentaro Takahashi, 43, renovated his processing facility at a cost of about 300,000 yen ($2,000). A sink with separate basins for food and handwashing was installed. Although the outlay was painful, he decided to go ahead because he wants the local tradition to continue.
The taste and texture of iburigakko will change depending on the salt and sugar content and other ingredients as well as the pickling time. But once the characteristic flavor of a farmer is lost it cannot be recovered, Kentaro insists.
"I hate it that we are losing something that has been around for generations," he said, adding that he is determined to continue producing to revitalize his aging hometown.
Local governments are also trying to turn the tide. Yokote has set up an iburigakko course as part of its program to educate new farmers who must take up residence in the city to enroll. During the two-year course, they learn all they need to know about smoking and pickling daikon radish.
"We want to plant the seeds to revitalize this community," said a local official in charge, expressing his desire to pass on the food culture to the next generation.