When thinking of Japanese food, a lot of items come to mind from sushi and tempura to ramen and okonomiyaki, but olives are unlikely to feature at all. Yet, for those in the know, the island of Shodoshima has become near synonymous with this versatile fruit.
Situated in the Seto Inland Sea in southwest Japan, Shodoshima (小豆島, Shōdoshima) is far larger than its popular neighbors Naoshima and Teshima, renowned for their modern art museums and installations. While it also has a fair few artworks dotted about, most tourism on the island involves milking — or perhaps pressing — the olive production angle as much as possible.
Olive mascots and designs adorn just about everything on the island, from ferries and buses to store windows. Located on the birthplace of olive cultivation on the island, Shodoshima Olive Park is promoted as the main attraction. Visitors can stroll among olive trees with a view of the sea and stop by a museum, although most seem to come to pose for pictures with the replica of a Greek windmill, recreating a scene from a popular anime by jumping with a broomstick.
Olive cultivation is an ostensible anomaly, but it reveals an interesting history, and an even more intriguing foodie future, thanks to the versatility of the olive plant and creativity of local people.
To begin, let’s go back to when olive cultivation in Shodoshima first began to take fruit…
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Why are there olives on Shodoshima? A brief history
There are records of olives being brought to Japan in the mid-1800s and attempts to cultivate them for medicinal purposes, but the story of commercial cultivation begins at the turn of the 20th century.
After the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), Japan expanded its territory, acquiring large fishing grounds in the northern waters. This naturally allowed the country to increase its haul and the government began to hatch a plan to export fish to other countries, namely Europe. For that, the fish would need to be preserved in cans, and olive oil was the perfect solution.
There was a glaringly obvious issue, however. Olives trees, which are believed to have originated in what is present-day Italy and the eastern Mediterranean basin, weren’t growing wild across Japan and there certainly weren’t any being professionally cultivated in Japan at the time.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce decided to hold trial production in three areas, Mie, Kagoshima and Kagawa. Yet it was only in Shodoshima’s Nishimura district that olive trees managed to survive, and to this day, it’s credited with being the birthplace of olive cultivation in the country.
While the success of Shodoshima has been attributed to its Mediterranean-like climate with its warm weather and relatively low rainfall, this is sadly an oversimplification and cultivation has not come without issues. The island still receives almost double the amount of rain as places on the Mediterranean coast, with the damp and humidity allowing diseases and fungi to spread.
Then, there’s the issue of the olive weevil, which as (bad) luck would have it, is a pest only found in Japan. Once these insects infest a tree, they increase their population very rapidly, subsequently causing the tree to die. As a result, the vast majority of producers on Shodoshima are reliant on pesticides to raise their trees, although a handful of farmers are trying to pursue an organic path.
Shodoshima’s olive industry
The olive was designated as Kagawa’s official prefectural flower in 1954 and as its official prefectural tree in 1967 in recognition of its significance. With now more than 100 years of cultivation, it’s an important industry for Kagawa Prefecture, which — including Shodoshima — is estimated to account for more than 90% of the total shipping volume of olives in Japan.
On Shodoshima, olives are embedded in the tourism industry. There are countless olive-related souvenirs on sale, from olive-flavored udon to olive cosmetics. Some producers, like Tōyō Olive or Misaki Kōbō, offer tours of the olive fields and olive oil factories, and even allow eager visitors to help pick the olives during the harvesting season in October and November.
While pickled olives exist but remain relatively rare, the island’s olive oil production has been garnering international attention. Its reputation has grown steadily over the past two decades, winning awards at international competitions. Producers picked up a total of four awards — two Gold Awards and two Silver Awards — in 2022 at the NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition, the world’s largest olive oil quality contest, despite flooding, landslides and heavy rainfall resulting in challenging conditions.
The success, however, remains small scale. Kagawa Prefecture, including Shodoshima, only produced 420 tonnes by 2018 figures, making Shodoshima olive oil an expensive luxury. Be warned when buying olive oil on the island — the cheapest are invariably manufactured from imported olives!
How are olives eaten in Japan?
Most Kagawa Prefecture tourism websites will have guidance on how to enjoy olives, which is a testament to just how not pervasive olives are throughout Japanese cuisine.
Among the recommendations are drizzling olive oil on traditional Japanese items like tofu or natto, or even adding it to miso soup. Alternatively, it’s processed into olive salt or olive udon, combining forces with another popular product in the region. Aside from island innovation, olives are sometimes added to rice cooked in a donabe (traditional clay pot).
However, olives are versatile and local producers are becoming increasingly innovative on how they can create new and unique food offerings.
There’s a recent trend of feeding olive derivatives to various livestock, including chicken, hamachi, and pork, to create new and supposedly superior brands, but all this began with the invention of olive beef. It’s a story of innovation infused with some Japanese mottainai (waste not, want not) sentiment.
In the early 2000s, Masaki Ishii, a livestock farmer from Shodoshima, was considering how to produce more profitable beef. He was farming Sanuki Beef, a local beef brand that, despite producers expounding its favorable qualities, has a relatively low market value compared to other brands.
While considering how to make it more profitable, he noted that the amount of oleic acid in meat was a criterion for the national beef competition, and this gave him a bold idea. Given olives are naturally high in oleic acid, he wondered if feeding his cattle olives might increase the oleic acid in their meat. Moreover, the olive lees left behind after pressing for oil were being thrown away as industrial waste.
Ishii wondered if he might solve both issues at the same time, and ultimately he did, although It took some experimentation. Olive lees are incredibly bitter, not making them especially appetizing to cows, but Ishii discovered drying the lees did the trick.
After two years of shipping olive beef, there was a price difference of about 100 to 200 yen per kilogram between olive beef and Sanuki Beef not given the olive feed. This led to farmers turning to him for advice and, from 2011, production of olive beef began throughout the prefecture. Adding to the success story, this new farming method is a great example of circular agriculture. Not only is the problem of olive lees waste resolved, but the manure from the cattle is used as a fertiliser for the olive trees.
This only leaves the question of how olive beef shapes up against the competition. The science is apparently sound: according to Kagawa Prefecture, olive beef has been confirmed to contain more oleic acid and antioxidants than the average Japanese beef, making it good for one’s health. It’s also high in glutamate and peptides, which add flavor.
From personal experience of gorging on a multi-course olive beef dinner, I can anecdotally attest to its umami-rich flavor and beautiful texture, and that I woke up the next day feeling surprisingly light compared to how a fatty, meat-heavy dinner normally leaves me!
For olive beef on Shodoshima, stop by Olive Beef Yakiniku Higyū for excellent value and delicious yakiniku. Make sure to order the nakaochi, meat taken from in between the rib bones that has plenty of umami.
If passing through Takamatsu, Kagawa’s capital, get yourself a booking at Steak House Ichigo for a course meal using olive beef throughout in various dishes. (Be warned that the server will give you a very charming explanation of “the girl” who becomes your dinner, including telling you her name, so be prepared to eat your food without hypocrisy. Poor Daisy chan.)
Olive yeast sake
Kagawa is the smallest prefecture in Japan and it’s certainly not renowned for its vast sake production. This hasn’t deterred its brewers though from searching for a new regional product to take to market.
The Kagawa Prefecture Sake Brewers Association teamed up with a fermented food research institute on Shodoshima to develop a sake yeast from olives. Four sake breweries in Kagawa are now brewing unique sake to the area, with shipments increasing 1.5 times in three years since sales started in 2020, suggesting growing appeal.
Morikuni, also known as Shodoshima Sake Brewery, is the only sake brewery on Shodoshima itself, and has now developed three sake based on the yeast, including “When the Olives Grow” which has well-balanced umami and sweetness, and Nagara, an elegant Junmai Daiginjō.
Stop by the brewery for some sake tasting, which you can also pair with lunch or dessert sets that incorporate sake lees. Hot tip: the “island pizza” topped with locally produced tsukudani chirimen (young dried sardines simmered in soy sauce and mirin), some olives and shiso makes for a great snack.
Olive yeast bread
Not content with leaving olive yeast to the sake brewers, researchers at Yamahisa, a long-established soy sauce manufacturer on the island that also cultivates olives, teamed up with Azuki Bakery to produce an olive flower yeast suitable for fermenting dough. It was a quite a mission that took eight years of research before the right yeast was finally discovered in spring 2020.
The bakery now sells a couple of types of bread made with it. Be sure to try the shokupan (Japanese sliced white bread) — normally fluffy and slightly sweet, this rendition has a light sourness that gives it a depth of flavor way beyond the average loaf.
Would you like to try Shodoshima olives and olive products?
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Phoebe Amoroso is a Tokyo-based reporter, multimedia journalist and storyteller. Hailing from the UK, she moved to Japan in 2014 and has since been shouting about the country to all who will listen.
She divides her time between covering breaking news and producing feature stories for TV; writing about everything from business and tech to food and travel; and guiding hungry visitors who want to sample the best of Japanese cuisine. When not working and/or eating, she can often be found running up a mountain or cycling by the sea.