by Shūhei Shibata, programme director, NHK (The Japanese Broadcasting Corporation)
The programme featuring Akinori Kimura in our series ‘Professional Shigoto no Ryūgi’ (‘Learning from the Professionals’) was broadcast on the 7th of December 2007. The response was overwhelming, the biggest since the series began in January 2006. In the months that followed the broadcast, NHK received some seven hundred letters from viewers asking if we could repeat the programme, those wanting to write to Kimura, and others wanting to learn more about his methods of farming. The majority, however, wrote saying that they would like to taste Kimura’s apples, if only once.
The programme opened with a scene in a restaurant in Shirokanedai in Tokyo, a hideaway used only by those in the know. It’s booked solid for six months ahead. One item on the menu is Kimura’s apple soup. The chef, Hisakazu Iguchi, murmurs to himself as he chops the apples.
‘They don’t go brown. It must be the spirit of the grower …’
We were shown an apple which had been sliced in half two years earlier and kept in Iguchi’s kitchen since then. Normally, if you cut an apple and leave it, it starts going brown straight away, and will eventually rot. But Kimura’s apple hadn’t rotted; it was just shrivelling as it dried.
A tinge of red remained, and it had slightly sweet, cake-like fragrance.
We started our research in the summer of 2006. Apparently there was a farmer who “grows loads crops of apples without using pesticides or fertilizers”. When I first heard about this, I secretly doubted it. I come from Hirosaki City in Aomori Prefecture myself, so was used to seeing apple orchards go completely white after being sprayed with pesticides, and knew that apple farmers went to extraordinary lengths to eradicate diseases and pests. But people said that Kimura’s apples were not only grown without pesticides, he didn’t even use organic fertilizers. They didn’t rot either. What was the big secret?
I wasn’t really convinced when I went to visit Kimura at his home in Aomori. Information I’d been given suggested that he was ‘rather an eccentric type’. When we met in his living room, with its worn sliding doors, I chatted to him in the local Tsugaru dialect.
‘How is it you can grow apples without chemicals?’
‘I’m often asked, but I don’t know myself. I’m so useless – maybe the apple trees just got fed up and decided to produce fruit by themselves. Ha ha ha.’
At the time I was mystified.
I still had my doubts when we started our six-week shoot. Once the filming began, however, we discovered that Kimura at least loved to laugh. He’d laugh at his own jokes, laugh at what others said, and would also laugh, for some reason, after telling us of his hardships. The sound engineer had trouble following the dialect at first, and couldn’t fathom why Kimura seemed to be laughing for no apparent reason. But as shooting progressed, we learned that his smiling face hid a life and death struggle, one that was almost too hard to talk about. At some point we came to laugh with him and his remarkable cheerfulness, knowing how he had dragged himself out of the abyss his life had led him into.
Kimura’s chemical-free apple growing is based on unique know-how acquired after eight years of trial and error. Yet Kimura hasn’t changed in the least.
‘I’m such an idiot. I just blundered on like a boar crashing through the undergrowth, reckoning that sooner or later things would work out.’
Autumn arrived. Sure enough, without using pesticides or fertilizers, Kimura produced a huge crop of apples. Checks for residual pesticides in the harvested apples showed that there were none at all. We were given some of the precious apples in the orchard. They were apples that were ‘sun scorched’; each tree will have just one or two. Too much strong sunlight on the fruit during the summer can cause it to split, making the apples unsaleable. But despite their unpromising appearance, the apples tasted like no other fruit I’d ever eaten. The flesh was firm yet crisp. Intensely sweet with a balanced acidity, they tasted like wild fruit or, as Kimura put it, ‘fruit from the tree’.
There is still no clear scientific explanation as to why the apples grow without pesticides or fertilizers. One thing is certain, however, insects thrive, frogs spawn, and birds sing their hearts out in the luxurious grass growing in Kimura’s orchards. It is a lovely place to be. It must be so for the trees too.
The programme couldn’t show every aspect of the days Kimura spends in the challenging work of going pesticide-free. It was the programme’s presenter, Kenichirō Mogi, who suggested turning it into a book. And a year and a half later, that book is now ready.
Takuji Ishikawa has added a great deal of new material in writing this book. These pages tell the full story, in a way the programme couldn’t, of Akinori Kimura and his long and bitter struggle to succeed.
programme director, NHK, 2008.