Michelin Chef Meets Itoshima Brand

Nestled between the ocean and the mountains, the Itoshima Peninsula is about a 40-minute drive from Fukuoka Airport or a 30-minute train ride from downtown Fukuoka. The proximity of this beautiful bucolic region to the city is, without a doubt, one of the reasons many people love Fukuoka.

In recent years, foods produced in Itoshima have been gaining popularity, and the Itoshima Brand is fast becoming a household name throughout Japan. These “Made in Itoshima” products are known not only for their high quality, but for the dedication of the people who produce them, which is sure to strike a chord with anyone who places value on quality of life.

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This year, Mikizo Hashimoto, head chef at the Michelin-acclaimed Japanese restaurant Ichirin in Tokyo, visited Itoshima for the Sakuraitoshimatsuri, a festival at Sakurai Jinja Shrine held to coincide with the blooming of the cherry blossoms. Japanese cuisine requires the best seasonal ingredients, and Hashimoto, who’s spent the better part of his life in the culinary trenches, is one of many who have fallen in love with Itoshima.

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“Good food grows where there are many good people,” says Hashimoto, who was visiting Itoshima with some department store buyers. He had learned of the region from its products, but now he was here meeting the people behind the Itoshima Brand. Hashimoto believes food tastes better when you know the story behind it, and meeting the growers in Itoshima only made him more enamored with “Made in Itoshima” items.

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As a professional chef, it is Hashimoto’s job to deliver produce from the growers to the stomachs of his patrons. “Produce in Itoshima is special. I was surprised that everything is such high quality,” remarked Hashimoto, who believes the only way to make delicious natural ingredients taste better is to get to know the people who grow them. On the day we visited, Chef Hashimoto was on stage with local growers at the festival for a food show. His professionalism shone through with his deft handling of even the most pedestrian of ingredients.

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His advice ran the gamut from seaweed preparation (“Take your time when reconstituting dried hijiki or other foods. You should let them soak at least overnight.”), to boiling greens (“Don’t drop nanohana (rapeseed) into boiling water. Once the water boils, turn the flame down and heat it up gradually.”) and, last but not least, rice (“Remember: rice is also a dried food, so let it soak in water for a while.”)

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Nowadays, people demand safe, reliable foods that are not only grown locally, but are also traceable; therefore, consumers want to know who is making their food, and these interactions can build strong bonds.

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In his food show, Chef Hashimoto mixed in some humor as he created a set meal from seasonal Itoshima ingredients. The mayor of Itoshima City even joined the crowd of locals to behold Hashimoto’s handiwork. A genuine crowd pleaser, Hashimoto kept the audience engaged and entertained from start to finish.

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Washoku, or Japanese cuisine, is experiencing a boom of sorts, captivating foodies throughout Japan and the world over. The essence of washoku lies in fresh, seasonal ingredients, a variety of preparation methods and a culture of connecting people through food.

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Mikizo Hashimoto (Head Chef, Ichirin)
Hashimoto worked in restaurants during high school and dove headlong into the world of Japanese cuisine upon graduation. He opened his own restaurant after gaining experience at famous eateries in Kyoto and Tokyo. He emphasizes the importance of knives in washoku and personally owns more than 400. He believes knives are not only tools, but possess a culture of their own.

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Masumi Yunoki
“The Mother of Itoshima”, Yunoki has been promoting locavorianism her whole life. She owns ZongCaiTian Ganko, a shop that sells prepared foods and processed goods made from locally grown ingredients.

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Mako Nomiyama
Nomiyama turned part of her old home into the Rustic Barn cafe, which has become a must-stop spot on an Itoshima drive. It’s also a congregating point for Itoshima locals and transplants. A major proponent of the Itoshima slow life, she started the Sakuraitoshimatsuri festival last year.

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Yusuke Oki (Oki Farm)
Oki Farm specializes in growing “soil-friendly” vegetables. Oki, who believes that good veggies start with good soil, uses vegetable compost and nigari (the mineral-rich water that remains after salt has been removed from seawater) to carefully cultivate around 50 types of seasonal vegetables throughout the year. He moved from Fukuoka City in 2011 to begin a new life as a professional farmer. On the day of the festival, his farm provided a variety of daikon radishes and nanohana (rapeseed).

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Shinji Fujii (Fujii Green Farm)
Fujii is arguably one of Japan’s top asparagus farmers. After leaving the securities firm where he worked for 15 years to go freelance, Fujii happened upon farming and was hooked. He decided to move to Nijo in Itoshima, and after two and a half years of training, he started his own farm in 2011. He currently sells fresh asparagus, but is also highly focused on creating delicious asparagus-based processed foods.

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Spring asparagus comes into season in Kyushu in March and April. On the morning of the festival, Fujii harvested 150 kg of asparagus! Fresh asparagus is neither fibrous nor bitter, so it tastes great even raw. Just look at how fresh and springy this spring asparagus is!

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Hironori Yamashita (Yamashita Shoten)
Yamashita is the second-generation owner of the 20-year old Yamashita Shoten, a marine product processor that uses hijiki, wakame and other marine products procured from Itoshima fishermen. He uses seaweed from Itoshima’s pristine waters to hand-make his trademark hoshi-hijiki (dried hijiki) and hoshi-wakame (dried wakame). The ever-pleasant Yamashita not only makes the products, he’s also the shop’s head salesman, and he always makes a point to plug the Itoshima Brand wherever he goes.

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Naomichi Suezumi (Rice farmer)
Suezumi and his family grow rice at the foot of Mt. Raizan, in southern Itoshima. Carefully cultivated with clear mountain water and minimal pesticides, Suezumi’s rice has grown quite popular. He sells half of his harvest directly to individual customers and restaurants. Suezumi knows that once milled, rice will begin to oxidize, so he does not mill his rice until an order is placed, and he strives to deliver it to his customers as quickly as possible so they may enjoy his rice at its most delicious.

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