This is a photo taken by Ito Jintaro in around 1930. The woman sitting down is Hirayama-san (still single) and the one standing up is Hazesaki-san (married). These women, who were sisters, and their husbands, who were brothers, lived in the same house and worked together in the fields. Both women passed away some 20 years ago at around the age of 90.
Harvesting would have made October a busy month for them. After the Meiji era began in 1868, Japan imported farm machinery from the West, but for years many continued to plant and harvest using basic tools. Machines took an especially long time to reach a village like Nakatsugawa, deep into the mountains. It wasn't until 1973 that a snow plough was used to clear the snow during winter, and life would have been very tough throughout the year. But as you can tell from these smiles, there was happiness amid the hardship.
Utsuzawa is an area of Nakatsugawa where a certain kind of pumpkin has been grown for at least 100 years. Its reputation is well established, and it is served in famous restaurants. The production volume is small as manpower is limited, and so pre-orders are placed at the time of harvest, which is in October. The outside is orange, and the flesh is bright yellow. It is said that the same type of pumpkin grown away from Utsuzawa doesn’t taste the same. The soil and other local conditions are said to be crucial.
The mountains around Nakatsugawa are a treasure trove of wild delicacies, including walnut and chestnut trees, akebi, mountain grapes, and numerous varieties of wild mushroom, including maitake, shiitake, and nameko.
Nakatsugawa was actually the first village in Japan to sell canned nameko. This in was around the 30th year of the Meiji era (1897), a time when the only other canned foods were beef and horse meat. No canned seafood or fruit was produced then.
The people of Nakatsugawa, under the guidance of Ito Kinnosuke, the head of the village at that time made 500 cans of nameko and tried selling them at Yonezawa market, without much success. But they did not give up and tried to sell them through third-party vendors. Initially they sold one can for eleven or twelve sen (1 yen = 100 sen). But eventually canned nameko ranked behind charcoal in economic value for the village.
By the first year of the Showa era (1926), Nakatsugawa was known around Japan as Nameko Village.
Today, only 250 people remain in Nakatsugawa, and more than half of them are 65 or over. But villagers continue to experiment with new business ideas. Here’s a video where we tried some freeze-dried wild vegetables in 2020.