In the autumn of that year, Kimura harvested a great mountain of apples the size of ping pong balls. Thinning out the blossom to produce a smaller number of fruit is essential for growing larger apples. The blossom thinning, though, had been half-hearted. Five individual flowers form each blossom cluster. Four of these must be pinched out, leaving one flower. He’d got that far, but that is not enough by itself. There’s also the job of assessing the strength of the tree, and deciding how much fruit it should bear, and then pinching out more blossoms. He hadn’t done this. For nine years at least.
In his desperation he’d seen apple blossom in his dreams, so now his hands shook when pinching them out – it seemed so wasteful. Unless you pinch the blossoms out, however, you won’t get bigger fruit. He couldn’t bring himself to do something he knew was obvious. The reason he didn’t do the thinning completely was not only to do with the issue of how he felt, there was also an excuse, one particular to Kimura, who’d put up with diseases and insects for so many years.
It was not simply a matter of being pleased at the blossoming and fruit being produced. Once the vinegar started working, the outbreak of disease could be contained to a significant extent.
The diseases were not fully controlled, and the numbers of pests remained the same, too. Overall, in fact, the number of pests increased along with the healthier leaves. Leaf rollers, for example, ate the inner flower parts of the blossoms as well as the leaves. He continued removing them by hand, but this didn’t entirely prevent the damage from feeding. Some of the blossom was eaten by the leaf rollers. A certain amount of the fruit itself would be affected by insects and disease. Even if you use pesticides, not all the remaining blossoms will come to fruition. You’ll always get a certain yield, and this was why the yield in Kimura’s orchards, where pesticides were not used, was rather low. In fact he had no clue as to what sort of yield to expect. This was the first time he’d seen blossom in full bloom in orchards that were pesticide and fertilizer free. He thought he’d try keeping pinching out to a minimum and see how much fruit he’d still have come the autumn.
But the disease and pest damage didn’t turn out to be as bad as he’d thought. When the blossom came out, the entire Kimura family worked hard at removing insects, but it was the strength of the apple trees which more than anything conquered diseases and pests. The yield turned out to be far greater than Kimura imagined, and there was a lot of fruit on the trees in the autumn. But not enough nutrients were getting through to the fruit, so the apples were only growing to the size of ping pong balls.
Of course, there are only a few people who will buy such small apples from you. His were eventually taken by an apple dealer for processing. Although they were small, their sugar content was high so they could be used for juice. If you packed the boxes used for the crop to the top, you would normally get, at most, seventy normal apples in, but they packed in about two hundred and sixty of the apples Kimura produced that year. The apples were small enough to have fallen through the holes in the mesh on the sides of the plastic cases belonging to the dealer. Twenty kilos of apples went into one box, and for this he was paid one hundred and sixty yen. A pittance you’d normally get for throw-out apples. The entire apple harvest hardly made ten thousand yen.
‘Having not had a crop for ages, just producing one was a cause for celebration. Thinking calmly about it, though, that by itself didn’t mean anything. The proof of the pudding is in the eating: we had to make a living selling the apples we grew. The following year I thinned out the blossom properly, and the apples were slightly larger, but nothing to compared to apples grown using pesticides. The orchards were still not settled. People were surprised. “You call this an apple?” I took them to various markets, but no-one was interested.
So I began to wonder about ways I could sell them. We could only really say that the apples were grown without pesticides once we could make a living from them. If we couldn’t make a living from them, no-one else would think of following us. I wasn’t going to settle for being content with feeling self-satisfied at growing them. To be honest, I’d thought so for a long time before the apples started looking after themselves. I reckoned customers buying apples direct from us would be the best thing.
Supermarkets only stock perfectly formed, beautiful apples. But I believed there must be customers who want to eat irregularly-sized, plain looking, pesticide-free apples. I wondered how I could get my apples to these customers. I didn’t know a way. So when the apples started looking after themselves, it must have been in the second or third year, I went to Osaka. Why Osaka? Well, they say Osaka’s the place for food. I reckoned if there’s someone who appreciates real food, they’re going to be from Osaka. Don’t laugh. I was serious. Anyhow, I went to Osaka, thinking I’d try selling apples on the roadside if I had to. I’d no particular plan. Ha ha ha. There’s desperation for you!’
The train from Hirosaki bound for Osaka arrived early in the morning. He’d already sent the apples on ahead. He had no acquaintances in Osaka, so he’d sent the apples directly to Osaka station addressed to Akinori Kimura. It may sound rather unfair, but this sort of common sense doesn’t apply in his case. When he went to the station office and asked where his apples were, the station attendant looked incredulous and lost his temper.
‘You sent those apples?’
Following the man, he found the apple boxes he’d sent piled high in a corner of the station now heaving with rush hour commuters.
‘This sort of thing gives us a real headache.’
The attendant was fuming.
‘I grow apples in Aomori. These were grown without pesticides, fertilizers … ‘
Paying little heed to what Kimura was saying, he accepted an apple Kimura apprehensively proffered. It was tiny for an apple. But it might have been its size which had caught his attention. He took a bite, peel-on. It seems he hadn’t missed the words ‘without pesticides’. His expression changed in an instant. The previously irate station attendant was all smiles.
‘Mm. What’re going to do with the apples?’
‘Well, if possible … ’
Encouraged by the man’s smile, Kimura launched into asking about whether he could sell them somewhere in the station. It was out of the question. What had he been thinking, sending goods like that to Osaka station in the hope he could sell them there? If they did agree to this sort of thing, the attendant went on, Osaka station would be packed with vendors.
Kimura was crestfallen. Having come all this way, he realized he had no other contacts. He’d been there in the 90’s. The city of Osaka had been through the bubble years, and changed greatly on the way. Rows of futuristic buildings now loomed over passers-by who flaunted the most desirable brands and were dressed in the latest fashions. He felt like a solitary figure from the 1950s, someone who’d just emerged from a time warp. Where, in this crowded, unwelcoming city, he could set out his apple stall?
Within seconds, a little circle of curious Osakans had formed. A dejected man in front of a pile of apple boxes, and a troubled looking station attendant nibbling on a small apple he held in one hand. It was human nature to want to know what was going on.
‘Why not try Osaka Castle?’ suggested one of the curious onlookers helpfully.
‘I’m not too sure, but I think there are loads of stalls selling food in Osaka Castle Park. They’d probably let you sell your apples wouldn’t they?’
‘That’s a good idea. I heard they had food events and the like.’
A number of folk voiced their agreement in unison. The station attendant looked relieved, burden lifted from his shoulders. He brought a trolley over from somewhere, saying he’d lend it to him and that he should definitely follow this advice.
This was just what he needed. Of course Kimura didn’t hesitate for second. He loaded the boxes on the trolley and set off in high spirits for Osaka Castle Park. It would have taken over an hour, but he seemed to be there in no time. Finding the event manager, he was told that all the pitches inside the venue were taken, but that there was space just outside the entrance. A number of farmers had already arranged and were selling fruit and vegetables, freshly picked that morning, under the awnings there. The spot offered to Kimura was next to a farmer from Nara who grew persimmons. There was no comparison at all between Kimura’s pathetic apples and his gorgeous persimmons.
He’d tried to pick out those with good colour and shape, but once arranged the blemished apples stood out. On top of which they were just so small.
There were quite a few people at the event, but none bothered to pay any attention to Kimura’s apples. One or two people stopped for a moment, but immediately lost interest once they say how tiny the apples were.
‘They really apples?’
‘They’re apples grown without pesticides or fertilizers. They are small … ’
His sales gambit was coolly received. People seemed to lose interest once he’d confirmed that they were indeed apples, and quickly moved on. Probably thinking what rubbish they were. Glances were exchanged with the persimmon farmer next door. He was looking sorry for Kimura. Without thinking he offered him an apple.
‘It’s small … but they taste good.’
They decided to swap fruit, Kimura receiving a persimmon. It tasted delicious.
He touted them as pesticide-free and fertilizer-free until evening came and he was hoarse, but the apples just didn’t sell. One or two people did buy some though. Pleased that they’d bought them, he filled the paper bags he’d prepared to the top with apples. Nevertheless, all ten boxes he’d struggled from Osaka station with remained virtually untouched. Even if he wanted to send them back to Aomori, he didn’t’ have the money. The persimmon farmer came to his rescue. He’d come by car, and when asked by Kimura if he’d like the lot, had gladly accepted.
The return journey to Hirosaki seemed to take forever. The feeling of elation he’d felt coming to Osaka had all but evaporated. If only he could have recovered the cost of sending them he’d have been happy, so he dropped the price right down. Sixty yen each. Even then no-one bought them.
Just sending them to the apple dealer wouldn’t be nearly enough. Unless he could sell the apples, he wouldn’t be able to maintain the orchards. Bowing his head before the apple trees would be no help this time. For one thing, he was now going to have to deal with people. But Kimura was useless when it came to dealing with people. Kimura had started growing apples when he was in his twenties. He was now over forty. When the apples had blossomed, he’d been on top of the world. He’d been quietly elated to have achieved something that no-one else had done. But it would all amount to nothing if his apples were ignored. He wondered if it had all been a waste of time.
Kimura headed once more for the orchards, this time with a heavy heart. The apple trees were dressing down for winter. The leaves, job done, were turning red. Any day now they would start falling. It was a sight you wouldn’t have seen in any other orchard.
For some reason, in orchards where pesticides and fertilizers are used, the leaves hardly change in the autumn. Insipid leaves remain on the trees, even as winter gets underway. There was no doubt that his orchards looked the more natural. Why was it that people weren’t interested in natural apples grown in natural orchards? A red leaf drifted down and landed on a patch of grass.
‘You’re not wrong.’
Sensing this, his mood brightened a little. That was it. He wasn’t doing anything wrong. The question was not whether he was accepted by others. That was for them to decide. He should continue along this path. What followed was not the most important consideration.
It was several weeks later that the letter arrived. It was from one of the customers he’d given a paper bag stuffed full of apples to. The letter contained the message, “I’ve never tasted such delicious apples. Please send more.”