Picking strawberries in February? In the northern hemisphere? Yes, you can do it in Japan, where the strawberry season starts in December - just in time for Christmas.
Strawberries are one of the most important ingredients in the traditional Christmas food in Japan: Strawberry cake. But from new year on, you can buy strawberries in the grocery stores. Typically, they are priced at between 300 and 500 yen per packet, with a package holding about 250 gram, which translates to between 15 and 20 strawberries. Most of those strawberries come from the Tochigi prefecture, and they are grown in plastic greenhouses.
Skyberries Or Tochigi Tome
Japanese strawberries tend to be more on the tart side, with a sweet edge over the fruity sourness. The most common kind, Tochigi Tome (栃木 とめ), is specially bred for the conditions in central Japan, and work amazing in cakes and jams because of its acidity, which balances the sugar of the shortcake and the fattiness of the whipped cream perfectly. Recently however growers have developed a new kind of strawberry, Skyberry, which is much sweeter but still retains that fruity acidity.
Beware Of The Bees
We went to a place called Ichigo no Sato, which produces enormous amounts of strawberries every year, most of it for picking by visiting tourists. There are bus tours from Tokyo if you feel a craving for strawberries. You book half an hour to pick either Skyberry or Tochigi Tome. You have to make a reservation in advance, otherwise you will not get a spot. It can be terribly crowded during weekends, in particular long weekends. The price varies between 1200 and 2000 yen depending on the type of strawberries you want to pick. And eat, because you can not take them away. Pick the berries in the sun, they taste much sweeter.
The vinyl hothouse is really just plastic stretched over frames, and they are not called hothouses for nothing: It can be terribly warm inside. Especially when spring starts and the outside temperatures creep above 10 centigrade, which happens around the middle of March.
They are also intended to grow strawberries, not accommodate tourists. There is a beehive (for pollination) in each hothouse, and they grow the plants in soil beds, not hydroponics. Which means the ground can be soggy and you can get dirty. But that is what nature is like.
Ichigo no Sato is more than a destination to eat lots of strawberries, however. They also have a giftshop, a cafe, an icecream store, and a buffet restaurant. All crowded to overflowing by the tourists coming to see and eat the strawberries. The buffet restaurant has an amazinng assortment of desserts. But they get picked out pretty quickly. And the main courses are humdrum to be nice. Sure, the salad selection was not bad, but rice and curry tastes the same anywhere in Japan, and fried chicken is fried chicken. Your children will be happy if they have the patience to wait that long. Because everyone tries to eat at the same time. Ichigo no Sato is literally located in the middle of the strawberry fields, and even driving to the nearest restaurant takes fifteen to 20 minutes.
Is It Worth It?
If you like strawberries, this is your best chance to eat your fill. And the Tochigi strawberries live up to their reputation. But schedule your lunch in Oyama, the Tochigi area is famous for their gyoza and this is one of the capitals of soul food in Japan. You will find ramen and gyoza places galore there, and if you plan properly, arrive early in the morning and then let your kids fill up on strawberries, you will miss the lunch rush and get a great lunch all the same. Just avoid sushi places. You are about as far from the sea as you can get in Japan, and you can get much better sushi elsewhere.
Where Is Tochigi?
The Tochigi prefecture is located to the north of Tokyo, inland from Ibaraki. It is probably most famous among visitors for the Unesco World Heritage site of Nikko, itself an amazing place located in the northwestern corner of the prefecture. But for Japanese it is equally famous for its strawberries. The two inland prefectures of Gunma and Tochigi have the most sunny days of any place in Japan, which is one reason you will see so many solar farms there. It may sound stranges that these fairly northern parts of Japan have more sun than the tropical islands of Okinawa, but it rains much less in Tochigi. And this makes the climate perfect for cultivating strawberries in vinyl greenhouses. But the winter can be cold when the wind blows from the mountains. Even if you rarely have snow in Tochigi winter is much worse than Tokyo.
Ichigo no Sato, http://www.itigo.co.jp/
Address: 〒323-0058 Tochigi-ken Oyama-shi Ogawajima 408TEL : 0285-33-1070
Opening Hours : 9:00〜17:00
I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Tokyo to Sendai, previously of Bangkong and Honolulu. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning seven - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on email@example.com, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.