Winter winds in Miyazaki, arguably one of Japan’s most sunny prefectures, can be relentlessly cold. They stir up sand and earth from nearby vegetable fields and blow them through long and tall tent-like structures made from long bamboo poles.
Between December and February, hundreds of white daikon radishes dangle neatly from up to nine rows each side. This is to make sure every daikon is bathed in the same amount of warm sunlight and cold winter breeze. The goal is to produce enough sugar inside the drying and slowly shriveling radish to make a Japanese delicacy called “takuan” (pickled daikon radish) – a staple food in Japan.
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What is Takuan?
Takuan (mostly 沢庵 or 澤庵、たくあん), sometimes also spelled takuwan (たくわん), is the name for Japanese pickled daikon radish. Daikon (大根、だいこん) is the Japanese word for a type of white radish, which is popular in Japan due to its relatively mild and slightly sweet taste compared to other radishes.
There are two types of takuan: sun-dried pickled radish (天日干したくあん, てんぴぼしたくあん, tenpiboshi takuan), and salt-pressed pickled radish (塩押したくあん、しおおしたくあん, shio-oshi takuan). The taste and texture vary slightly: Salted daikon does not shed as much excess water as dried daikon, and it feels relatively soft and crunchy.
However, there are a lot more varieties depending on the additional ingredients used for seasoning, for example sweeteners like sugar, fruit juice and mirin, or sources of umami (the so-called fifth core taste next to sweet, sour, bitter and salty) like sliced, dried bonito flakes (鰹節, かつおぶし, katsuobushi) and kelp (昆布, こんぶ, kombu).
As takuan is a fermented food, which after slicing is typically matured in a container using a stone weight on top, it has a long shelf-life and traditionally has been an important source of vitamins in the harsh winter period.
In fact, takuan is said to have a long history, dating back to at least the 16th century. The most common narrative is that the name was derived from Takuan Sōhō (1573-1645), a Zen Buddhist monk from the Rinzai sect, who is credited as its inventor.
Another theory claims that the name originated from a phrase meaning “unmixed” (jakuanzuke or takuwaezuke, 貯え漬け, たくわえづけ), before it evolved to takuan or takuwan.
Others believe takuan was invented way back in the Heian era (794-1185) by a scholar called Jiei Daishi Ryōgen (912-985), also known as Gensan Daishi. He is a figure of legends and often depicted with devil horns. He belonged to a large temple of Mt Hiei in Kyoto, an area where a pickle called jōshinbō (定心房,じょうしんぼう) has been made for centuries by pickling dried daikon radish as a whole with salt and straw.
How is Takuan enjoyed in Japanese Cuisine?
What’s your favorite vegetable? Have a think – and then be surprised by Japanese government data, according to which daikon radish is on top of the list, followed by onions and cabbage.
This probably reflects how relatively affordable and ubiquitous radish is in Japan. Daikon cut into spirals serves as a bed for sushi, grated and seasoned with soy sauce it supposedly helps with digestion of fatty dishes like grilled fish, and boiled in soy sauce (oden) it serves as a popular snack with beer.
The prefectures which produce most daikon radishes are Hokkaido, Chiba and Aomori. The largest amount of pickled daikon radish, however, is made in Miyazaki, according to market leader Michimoto Foods.
In fact, takuan is one of the most common Japanese pickles, which are called tsukemono (漬物, つけもの). They are typically served as one of the many little side dishes that come with a Japanese set meal (定食, teishoku) as well as in Japanese lunch boxes (弁当, べんとう, bentō).
In traditional restaurants, a set of rice, miso soup and tsukemono – often takuan – is typically the last course to fill you up at the end of a meal (if still needed at all!). In such cases, the pickled daikon radish is typically served sliced in round or half-moon shapes. However, cut into strips, it can also be used to make maki-zushi (巻き寿司, まきずし).
How is Pickled Daikon Radish Made?
To make pickled daikon radish, first, the radishes must be dehydrated, either by drying them in the sun, or by pickling them in salt and pressing them. Michimoto Foods, a Miyazaki company specializing in takuan, uses daikon radishes which are grown for about 80 days, according to the company.
After the harvest, they are hung outside to dry for two weeks, using a method called daikon yagura – more on that below. Then, the shriveled radishes are pickled in salt and rice bran in 1.5-ton storage barrels for at least one week, typically several months, and in some cases up to ten years! The vibrant yellow color takuan is known for comes either from natural ingredients like turmeric, or artificial coloring.
Another reason for drying radishes first is to increase their sugar content and umami flavor. The texture also becomes crunchier – which one can literally hear when taking a bite. Takuan feels even noisier than eating very crunchy cookies!
Then they add seasoning like soy sauce. After that, the takuan is packed and sterilized using heat. Interestingly, after the cooking and drying period, the products are also run through a metal detector. After a final inspection, the products are boxed and shipped.
What are daikon yagura?
Pickled daikon radish is mostly produced in the Kansai area in central Japan and in the south of Kyushu. There are various ways of drying the radishes. On Tanegashima Island in Kagoshima prefecture for example, locals use the long guardrails along roads to dry the vegetables, making for surprising yet picturesque views while driving on the island.
In Miyazaki prefecture, where more takuan is produced than anywhere else in Japan, particularly in the Tano and Kiyotake areas, daikon radishes are dried on large bamboo scaffolding called daikon yagura (大根やぐら, だいこんやぐら).
From December to February there are up to 300 daikon yagura in the area. These radish towers are up to 6 meters tall and wide, and between 50 and 150 meters long. They are typically set up right next to the fields where the radish is grown.
The farmers string the radishes together in bundles of two and stack them neatly up on the loading area of little K-trucks – small and very mobile trucks that are essential in the Japanese countryside. One farmer will then pick up the bundles with a pitchfork and hand them over to another farmer balancing on the scaffolding, who will then pack them tightly next to each other onto the horizontal beams. This process can take one farming family up to a week.
“Within two weeks the radishes shrink to half their initial size”, explained Mr Tsugumi Kuroiwa. As the assistant director he oversees the Agriculture, Forestry and Construction Division in the Tano area. “Through the drying process, the taste is condensed.”
While the white part of the radish is made into takuan, the radish leaves are used for making animal feed. “We use everything,” Kuroiwa said. In that sense, takuan production is traditionally aligned with the goal of preventing food waste – one of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
People have been preserving vegetables through drying since the Edo period (1603-1868). However, in the 1960s, a new trend took hold, when pickle factories were built in the area and the drying process was re-imagined. The earlier rack looked like half of the current daikon yagura – leaned against a wall for example. The current tent-like structure makes it easier for sun and wind to reach every radish properly.
While the process might seem straight-forward, there are many challenges. “Every year I feel again like a beginner,” Mr Etsuo Noda said, one of the farmers in the area. The reasons are difficult-to-predict risks posed by the weather and climate change.
When visiting the area in mid-January 2023, the prefecture experienced an almost unprecedented cold spell it had not seen in several decades. To prevent the radishes from freezing and spoiling, the farmers covered the daikon yagura with blue plastic sheets and put up to 60 gas stoves inside. A logistical challenge, but also a financial one!
Like many other countries, Japan is seeing much higher gasoline prices these days. However, it would not be possible to raise their product prices accordingly, Noda explained, on the contrary: If anything, prices were going down, he said.
There used to be up to 1,000 daikon yagura in the area, more than three times the current number. However, like in many rural places in Japan, successors are scarce, especially in physically demanding jobs like agriculture.
Recently though, new opportunities within the framework of the “sixth industrialization” have attracted a few youngsters to take up the challenge. During the visit, a woman and a man explained they had moved there from neighboring Kagoshima to learn from Noda and other farmers about daikon yagura and other farming traditions.
The sixth industrialization integrates production, processing, and sales, to create “added value” and higher margins. “You won’t become rich by doing this, but you can lead a stable life,” public servant Kuroiwa emphasized. He also said that the slower and more relaxed lifestyle attracted many newcomers.
Appreciation for the agricultural tradition came also from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. In 2021, it designated open field farming in the Tano and Kiyotake towns, symbolized by the daikon yagura, as a Japan Agricultural Heritage, i.e. an industry to be preserved for future generations. Open field farming is a process of using the same field for different crops throughout the year, for example sweet potatoes and tobacco leaves during summer, and radish in winter.
What kind of pickled daikon radish products are there?
Michimoto Foods is one of about 40,000 food manufacturers in Japan and the only one specializing in dried takuan. Their processing facility is in Tano (Miyazaki City), but they work with about 40 farmers in the region and accept about 1,700 tons of dried daikon from them per year.
Michimoto Foods president Hideyuki Michimoto said his company was proud of the fact that while the average age of Japanese farmers is rapidly approaching 70, the average age of their contract farmers was only 55. To give you some comparison: A mere 5.2 percent of Japanese farmers are in their 40s, and another 5% even younger, according to statistics cited by Michimoto.
Founded in 1937, the 58-employee-company has been making pickled daikon radish since 1966, but they also manufacture other agricultural products and dried vegetables. Their products are exported to many countries in Europe and Asia as well as the United States, generating a profit of 100 million yen in 2021 – “Still only about 70 or 80% of pre-Covid levels,” the company boss said.
Takuan is typically sold laminated in plastic pouches. In 2013, however, after three years of trial and error, Michimoto Foods succeeded in commercializing Japan’s first canned takuan.
Catering to overseas food trends, the company also developed gluten free takuan (a personal woohoo here!). It is currently not on sale in Japan but exported to 22 countries and regions and sold on Amazon.com in the United States.
Despite the shrinking domestic market due to demographic change and changing food preferences, company president Michimoto believes in the future of dried vegetables and expects this segment to grow. He also set his company on the path to exporting more to overseas markets, where the popularity of Japanese food has soared in recent years.
One of the latest takuan trends is a type called iburigakko – which is actually not a new thing at all. Iburigakko is smoked takuan, typically produced in Akita prefecture in the north of Japan. The main difference is that the radishes are dried and smoked, tied in packs of ten pieces, over fire from oak, cherry tree or zelkova for several days. The smokey flavor makes them a popular ingredient to combine with (cream) cheese!
Why should you incorporate Takuan into your diet?
Takuan, like all pickles, is a fermented food. That is why it contains many enzymes and probiotic microorganisms which improve your gut health – and your overall health! It also provides many essential vitamins, minerals and nutrients.
While the salt content of pickles in general has been raising eyebrows, as it elevates blood pressure, dried takuan from Miyazaki has a relatively low salt content, which has to do with the storage method in the refrigerator.
Also, the amount of GABA (Gamma Amino Butyric Acid), which is said to have a blood-sugar-lowering effect, has been found to increase seven-fold within the two weeks of sun-drying the radishes according to studies by Miyazaki University and local food-related organisations. Just 10 grams of takuan is said to provide the same amount of GABA as 100g of germinated brown rice – another popular food trend in Japan in recent years.
A word of caution though: It is highly recommended you store takuan in an airtight container in the refrigerator, as it belongs to some of the smellier foods in the world – according to experiments, similar to smelly tofu and even natto (fermented soybeans)!
Have you tried pickled daikon radish? What’s your favorite way to eat it?
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Sonja Blaschke is a multilingual freelance print journalist and TV producer from Germany based in Japan since 2005. She reports mostly about social issues and politics in East Asia & Australasia and is the editor-in-chief of a German-language magazine on business in Japan. In 2022 she directed her first TV documentary about young Tokyoites moving to the country to take up rice farming. In her spare time, you are most likely to find her at rock & metal concerts.