The waitress balances two ice cream cones in metal holders and hands them over. “Shadow Queen” is purple and tastes of berries with a hint of bacon, while “Inca no Mezame” is bright yellow and reveals a delicate aroma of honey and milk.
For diners who’ve come all the way to Tomamu, Hokkaido, there are 80 different flavors to choose from. In a surprising twist, the colorful scoops are not made of ice cream but of potato salad or poteto sarada in Japanese.
Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, has long been famous for its spuds that come in plenty of varieties — and some impressive colors, like pink, purple, and orange.
However, not all is well in potato land. Lately, the popularity of the humble tuber has been falling, so chefs and farmers in Hokkaido are trying to find new ways to update the old classic.
Japan prides itself on its seasonal cuisine, and cooks and consumers also place a lot of importance on cyclical varieties. The potato is no exception.
The Hoshino resort in Tomamu uses six kinds of potatoes to create its ice cream potato experience: Danshaku, May Queen, Kita Akari, Inca no Mezame, Shadow Queen, and Northern Ruby. All of them are grown in Hokkaido.
Ingredients — like asparagus, haskap berries, milk, corn, wasabi, beans, scallops, fish roe, squid, or kombu (Japanese seaweed) are then added to create colorful salads that make for an Instagrammable Hokkaido experience.
The potato is a special part of Hokkaido’s food culture. In Kiyosato town near Shari, in eastern Hokkaido, the Shinoda farm is producing ice cream exclusively from potatoes. There are three different flavors from three different potato varieties: Inca no Mezame (Inca Awakening) for a sunny yellow, Shadow Queen for a deep purple, and Northern Ruby for an elegant pink.
Snow Town with Potatoes
Some 450 kilometers away in Kutchan, locals are also trying new ways to sell the humble tuber. Kutchan, a small town with 15,000 inhabitants, is famous for two things: potatoes and snow. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Jagata-kun, the town mascot, is a skiing potato.
In the center of town, Hiromi Honma sits in his office. The 43-year-old trader hails from a family of potato merchants and has been dealing with potatoes his whole life. The company, now in its fourth generation, has been operating for over a century in Kutchan.
Honma tells the story of his great-grandfather Matsozu, who started the business: “His potato storage was just a makeshift building where snow blew through the gaps of the shed. So, in winter, Matsuzo slept with a bowl of water at his bedside. When he woke up, he would put his fingers into the water to check the temperature, if the bowl was covered with ice, he would get up, rush to his warehouse and light a fire in the middle of the night — inside the warehouse, to prevent the potatoes from freezing.”
Honma does not have to get up at night any more to check on his potatoes, but he, too, is concerned about the temperature and his potatoes — only in slightly different ways than his ancestors.
Climate Change, Changing Eating Habits
“Even here in Hokkaido we see climate change, food gets less, it is getting too hot,” says Honma. “Our seeds need to change, to adapt to the new climate.”
He continues: “Because our plants are getting sick, it rains more, we have more temperature fluctuation, and temperatures are rising. This all affects the health of the potato plant.”
Usually, Kutchan gets an average snowfall of 10 meters per year, the kind of powdery snow skiers consider paradise. Not this year, though. Hokkaido, one of the snowiest regions on earth, experienced a serious snow shortage.
On January 17, the Japan Meteorological Agency only measured the snow depth at 67 centimeters, down 43% from Kutchan’s 30-year average — another sign of global warming. The average winter temperature in Japan’s northernmost prefecture has been three degrees higher than usual.
This year has also set new heat records elsewhere in Japan. Even in September, the mercury topped 40ºC for the first time on record.
Honma sells five types of potatoes: Sayaka, Danshaku, Kita-Kamui, Toya and Kita Akari. As a wholesaler, he gets his potatoes from 50 farmers in and around Kutchan, amounting to about 2,000 tons per year.
This seems a very small quantity, considering that Hokkaido produces 1.5 million tons of potatoes per year. But Kutchan potatoes are not used for industrial production and end up as potato chips or other processed food.
Honma’s “bespoke” potato goes to households, hotels, and restaurants. His famous “540 potato” is stored at low temperature for 540 days. During the storage process, the potato starch turns to sugar, making his aged potato a highly prized delicacy.
“We have very sweet potatoes in Kutchan, which are very popular with women and very hoku hoku (crunchy),” explains Honma.
While Kutchan’s sweet potato is a favorite in fine dining, there is no way around the fact that consumer habits are changing — and “not in favor of the potato,” Honma admits.
“More and more people have less time to cook,” he explains. “People eat more processed food in general.”
Responding to changing consumer patterns, Honma has started to offer potatoes already prepared for cooking, peeled and sliced into small pieces. But he still sells more of his potatoes the traditional way — in bags of 200 grams for households, and 1.5 kilograms for hotels and restaurants.
Labor and Population Dynamics
Apart from climate change and new consumer habits, the Kutchan potato industry suffers from a labor shortage. “We don’t have enough workers in factories, and foreign workers often don’t speak Japanese too well, so it is difficult,” explains Honma.
It is less of a concern for his company, which only employs 10 workers for packing and sorting the potatoes. “A lot of the work is automated.” But his business is indirectly affected by a lack of truck drivers to ferry Kutchan potatoes to other parts of Japan.
On the other side of Kutchan town, Kenji Harada runs a small potato farm at the foot of Mount Yotei, the Hokkaido version of Mount Fuji. He plants Kita Akari, a potato with pink flowers which cover the area in a carpet of green and pink, and he only sells them locally.
Harada is just building a new storage facility on his 700-square-meter farmland. He feels lucky, as his farm sits on the west side of the 1,878-meter-high mountain. “The temperature here is still okay for potatoes, but it rains more and we struggle more with disease,” says Harada.
How and when the potato arrived in Hokkaido is still a subject of debate.
Some people think the tuber was first planted by the Ainu people, Hokkaido’s indigenous inhabitants. Ainu cuisine makes extensive use of potatoes: as mash, in soups, for savory pancakes, and fermented or frozen to preserve the vegetable.
“There are many theories on how the potato came to Hokkaido. One is that the Ainu traded potatoes with Russian traders. Others believe it came from Honshu, where the potato had been introduced by Portuguese missionaries,” explains Hirofumi Kato, professor of Ainu culture at the Center for Ainu and Indigenous Studies at Hokkaido University in Sapporo.
The earliest record of potato cultivation as a food crop in Hokkaido dates from 1706. In the late 18th through early 19th century, potato production was encouraged as a way to combat famine when the rice crop was poor, especially in northern Japan, where growing rice was difficult.
Enter the Baron
Large-scale potato production only started in the late 19th century, when the Meiji government pushed for the development of Hokkaido and encouraged citizens to settle in the North and grow food on the land. An alternative to rice farming was needed that was suitable for the cold climate.
Fittingly for the frenetic modernization effort, it was an engineer who proposed the potato as a rice substitute. Baron Ryokichi Kawata was director of an agricultural company in the port city of Hakodate. Kawata hailed from a lower-rank samurai family in Tosa city, Shikoku, and had been sent abroad to study mechanical engineering and shipbuilding technology in Glasgow, Scotland.
With a keen interest in technology and progress, Kawata even owned a steam automobile that he had specially imported from the United States. The Locomobile was notoriously unreliable as a mode of transportation and prone to fires, but nevertheless made Kawata the first person to drive a car in Hokkaido — and the first person in Japan to obtain a driver’s license.
As one of the biggest private farm owners in Hokkaido at that time, the baron was also heavily involved in agriculture. At his farm in Hokuto near Hakodate, Kawata experimented with several varieties of potato plants that had been imported from Western countries. The Irish Cobbler variety did so well in Hokkaido that it was later named Danshaku, which means baron, in Kawata’s honor.
More than a century later, the Danshaku is still the most popular potato in Japan. They are the little round potatoes that are usually sold in bags of seven or eight at supermarkets. These potatoes are considered best suited for dishes like potato salad, mashed potatoes, or added to Hokkaido’s famous dish, soup curry.
It is also the bestselling ice cream potato in Tomamu, says the waitress, “combined with salmon and topped with salmon roe.”
Author: Agnes Tandler (Sapporo)