Fukuoka: Kabocha pumpkins unite villages hit by disasters

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Participants plant seedlings of the “Iitate Yukikko” brand of kabocha in Toho, Fukuoka Prefecture.

TOHO, Fukuoka — Farmers from Iitate, Fukushima Prefecture, who had struggled with the effects of a nuclear accident, donated kabocha pumpkin seeds to Toho, Fukuoka Prefecture, an area that suffered heavy damage from torrential rains and flooding in 2017.

The villagers are determined to make kabocha a symbol of reconstruction by having the vegetable become Toho’s new local specialty. The variety of kabocha given to Toho is called “Iitate Yukikko,” which is characterized by its white rind and its sweet, bright-orange pulp. It was created by Motoichi Kanno, 70, in Iitate, who spent about 30 years improving the variety. It was registered with the agriculture ministry four days after the Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant disaster on March 11, 2011.

Tomiko Watanabe, 67, a farmer in Iitate who was involved in the development of the Iitate Yukikko variety, has been working to protect the brand in the aftermath of the nuclear accident.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
People harvest “Iitate Yukikko” kabocha in Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, in September 2013. The brand was grown there because it could not be grown in Iitate, Fukushima Prefecture, because of the nuclear accident.

As the residents of Iitate were temporarily forced to evacuate following the disaster, Watanabe lived in Nagano and Ibaraki prefectures. After moving to a temporary housing complex in Fukushima City in May 2011, she rented a fallow field to cultivate the brand.

In April 2017, when the evacuation order was lifted for most of the village, she returned home and started growing the kabocha variety in the village.

Seiki Wada, 48, from Toho, visited Iitate in March as part of a friendship program for disaster victims. After meeting Watanabe, he wanted to try growing the brand in Toho.

Wada’s house was swept away in the torrential rains in 2017, and he had to live in temporary housing in the village.

“I want to carry on the spirit of the Iitate people, who never gave up no matter how hard it was,” he said.

Wada belongs to a group that works to protect local terraced rice paddies. The group received the kabocha seeds from Watanabe, and on June 6, members of the group and volunteers planted 200 kabocha seedlings in about 700 square meters of the terraced fields.

The vegetable will be harvested in September. The group plans to use kabocha in such recipes as pumpkin cake.

In addition to donating a portion of the harvest to a children’s cafeteria, the group is planning to donate the profits to university students who are struggling because of the coronavirus pandemic.