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19 August, 2019 00:00 00 AM
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High-end rebrand makes life sweet for Japan ‘ice farmers’

AFP, Nikko, Japan
High-end rebrand makes life sweet for Japan ‘ice farmers’
This picture taken on January 10 shows a worker removing a block of natural ice after it was cut from an open-air pool at a factory in Nikko, Tochigi prefecture. AFP Photo

In a mountainous area north of Tokyo, a priest blows a conch shell as Yuichiro Yamamoto bows and thanks the nature gods for this year's "good harvest": natural ice.

Yamamoto is one of Japan's few remaining "ice farmers", eschewing the ease of refrigeration for open-air pools to create a product that is sold to high-end shaved ice shops in trendy Tokyo districts.

His trade had all but disappeared in recent decades, and the shaved ice or kakigori that is popular throughout Japan in summer had been produced with cheap machine-made ice.

But reinventing natural-made ice as a high-end artisanal product has helped revive the sector and save his firm.

"When I started making natural ice, I wondered how I should market it. I thought I needed to transform kakigori," Yamamoto tells AFP at his ice-making field in the town of Nikko, north of Tokyo.

Yamamoto took over a traditional ice-making business 13 years ago in Nikko, where he also runs a leisure park.

At the time, shaved ice cost just 200 yen ($2) in the local area and Yamamoto, who was fascinated by traditional ice-making, knew he couldn't make ends meet.

"My predecessor used to sell ice at the same price as the fridge-made one, which can be manufactured easily anytime throughout the year," the 68-year-old says.

The situation made it "impossible" to compete he explains, as producing natural ice is labour intensive.

Instead he decided to transform cheap kakigori into a luxury dessert, made with his natural ice and high-grade fruit puree rather than artificially flavoured syrup.

After months of research, he began producing his own small batches of artisanal kakigori.

"I put the price tag at 800 yen for a bowl of kakigori. I also priced the ice at 9,000 yen per case, which is six times more than my predecessor," he says.

At first, there were days he threw away tonnes of ice because he could not find clients.

But one day buyers from the prestigious Mitsukoshi department store discovered his product, and began stocking it, turning around his fortunes.

Kakigori dates back to the Heian Period (794-1185) when aristocratic court culture flourished in the then-capital of Kyoto.

It was a rare delicacy reserved for the rich, with the ice naturally made and stored in mountainside holes covered with silver sheets.

It was only after 1883, when the first ice-making factory was built in Tokyo, that ordinary people could taste the dessert.

With the development of ice-making machines, the number of traditional ice makers dropped to fewer than 10 nationwide.

The story is one familiar to many traditional Japanese crafts and foodstuffs -- with expensive and labour-intensive products losing ground as cheaper, machine-driven versions become available. And making ice naturally is a gruelling task.

The season begins in the autumn when workers prepare a swimming-pool-like pit by cultivating the soil and pouring in spring water.

 

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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman

Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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