Mount Yoshino, in the town of Yoshino in Nara Prefecture, is often said to have the most beautiful cherry blossoms in all of Japan. But the local tourism industry has a long love-hate relationship with that reputation. While the town attracts many tourists in the spring, they rarely come during the other seasons. The Yoshino Visitors Bureau, which aims to boost tourism in Yoshino, decided to launch a new strategy to attract off-season visitors. And what could be a better attraction than flowers? Japanese sweets.
The Bureau developed new sweets using Yoshino kudzu, or Japanese arrowroot (also kuzu), a local specialty. The sweets will be available before the end of the year — but only in Yoshino, which means you have to be there to try them.
A New Strategy
Each year, Yoshino welcomes about 800,000 tourists. Most of them visit to see Kinpusenji Temple, a World Heritage Site, and the "thousand cherry blossoms" of Mouth Yoshino. In fact, forty percent of the tourists come specifically during the cherry blossom season.
Although more tourists are visiting in the fall to see the changing colors of the leaves, "the disparity between the busy and off seasons is an issue for the town's tourism industry," says a town official.
Now, the town and Yoshino Visitors Bureau have teamed up to make "Mount Yoshino enjoyable all year round."
A survey conducted by the town in 2016 asked 1,000 hotel guests about the reason for their visit. The top reason was "to enjoy nature" (37.5%), followed by "sightseeing, outdoor recreation, or walking" (28.7%) and "to visit shrines or temples" (20.2%). However, only 0.6% of the guests chose "to eat."
Japanese Sweets as a New Attraction
Atsushi Kitaoka, the representative director of the Yoshino Visitors Bureau, decided to leverage the town's famous Yoshino kudzu.
Yoshino kudzu is an edible powder made from kudzu or Japanese arrowroot, a type of perennial legume. The starch from the roots is processed using a special method called Yoshino zarashi, which involves pouring groundwater from the Yoshino region over the roots.
The powder is commonly used in Japanese dishes and sweets, is one hundred percent natural, and doesn't contain any additives. Junichiro Tanizaki, one of the most eminent writers in Japanese literature, titled one of his books after the town's specialty.
Mr Kitaoka hopes that these Yoshino kudzu sweets will become the town's new attraction.
The Menu Expands
Restaurants and souvenir shops on Mount Yoshino have been testing a range of recipes since summer.
The traditional Japanese hotel Yoshinoso Yukawaya has created a non-baked cheese mochi using kudzu that combines both Japanese and Western flavors.
The owner of the hotel, Chiharu Yamamoto, is confident about the recipe. "The secret ingredient is black pepper. It adds a sophisticated flavor that is appropriate for the age range of our guests."
Meanwhile, the tofu shop Tofu Chaya Hayashi plans to add soy milk tiramisu to its menu. The dessert has fewer calories than the average tiramisu, as it is made by dissolving Yoshino kudzu in soy milk. The shop hopes to attract health-conscious customers.
Another kudzu sweet in the making is the "seasonal" kudzu steamed buns by the Japanese confectionary shop Nakai Shunpudo. It plans to serve the buns with seasonal fruits from Nara Prefecture, such as Shine Muscat grapes and pears.
Japanese Sweets on the Go
On October 7, nine business owners presented their Yoshino kudzu creations at a tasting event at the Mount Yoshino Cultural Center in Yoshino.
A participant in the tasting event, Yukiko Miyazaki, a freelance writer from Fukuoka, is excited about the potential of Yoshino kudzu. "They elevated the traditional Yoshino kudzu to modern flavors. Visitors can even enjoy the sweets on the go."
Ayaka Inoue from Osaka praised the sweets highly."The kudzu has a different texture in each dessert. You can feel how much thought the creators put into making them."
After adjusting the recipes based on the feedback, the sweets will start being sold this year, exclusively in Yoshino.
Yuko Tanaka, a producer at Recruit who helps develop local cuisine, also helped the town with this new strategy. "The choice of Yoshino kudzu, which contains no additives, allows each business owner to create a rich variety of flavors and textures. Offering seasonal sweets would also attract off-season tourists, as more people enjoy eating on the go."
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(Read the article in Japanese at this link.)
Author: Naohiko Nishiya