More than half of the apples produced in Japan are grown in Aomori Prefecture at the top of Honshu, the largest island in the Japanese archipelago. That’s nearly 450,000 tons of fruit coming from Aomori alone.
Aomori’s northern climate is particularly conducive to apple production, a fact recognized by the American missionaries who first introduced the fruit to this region around 1870. But like many other imports, Japan has modified and improved on the original stock to create something truly special and Japanese.
Most Aomori apples are grown in relatively small, independently-owned orchards, although most apple growers also work cooperatively with other growers. Of some 4,000 varieties of apple said to be grown in Aomori, about 40 of them are commercially grown. The bulk of Aomori’s apples come from Hirosaki. Hirosaki also has an “apple park” containing about 1,300 trees of 65 varieties. A visit here is a learning experience.
While there’s a lot that goes into raising those crispy, sweet, delicious orbs, the harvest is, of course, the pay-off for all that effort. Apple harvesting time depends on the variety: between late August and mid November. Most harvesting in Japan is done by hand, to minimize risk of damage to the fruit.
Once harvested, the next step is getting the fruit to market. This process begins with an initial sorting at the orchard with the best looking fruit placed in heavy plastic crates or traditional wooden boxes for shipment to a “proper” sorting facility, like this one on the outskirts of Hirosaki. Shipping unsuitable fruit to the sorting facility can result in the entire box of fruit getting downgraded or rejected, with a commensurate drop in its value.
At the sorting facility, each box is tagged to identify the orchard it has come from and put into cold storage to keep it fresh. Fruit is sorted in the order it comes in; in peak harvest season, there is a bit of a queue.
Sorting and grading the apples for retail sale has become a surprisingly technology-assisted process, although every piece of fruit is also examined by trained human eyes, as well.
At the first stage, the apples are moved from the initial crate or box to a conveyor belt that is made of up square plates with round indentations in which a single apple can ride without risk of damage. During this process, each apple is examined and any fruit with dents, scars, blemishes or shape irregularities is removed.
The fruit that makes it to the conveyor belt then passes through a machine that uses light sensors to non-invasively examine the fruit to determine factors like size, sweetness and moisture content.
This information is embedded by computer into the conveyor belt plate on which the apple sits. The apple is then disgorged into the appropriate sorting bin (based on size and quality) as the conveyor belt makes its way along. At the same time, the computer information is used to calculation the value of the apple to ensure that the grower is appropriately paid.
As the sorting bins fill, workers remove the apples from the sorting bin and pack them into styrofoam boxes. Any fruit that a worker at this stage judges to be substandard is dropped onto a separate conveyor belt to be collected elsewhere as a reject.
The filled boxes have their plastic liners drawn over them and they are placed on a separate conveyor belt to move on to to the final packing stage, where the lids are fitted.
Key information, like the apple variety, quality, sweetness grade and the fact that everything was judged by light sensor, is recorded on each box. Today’s apples are “Orin”, a Golden Delicious-Indo hybrid harvested in early to mid November that is sweet and aromatic with dense, juicy flesh. In comparative taste testing, Orin apples definitely rank among the sweeter fruit.
The boxes get stacked onto pallets and moved by forklift to a long-term cold storage area that keeps the fruit fresh and tasty while waiting for the orders that will move the fruit on to retailers and your table.
If you were feeling sorry for the fruit that gets rejected along the way, don’t be. Every apple has its use and the not-so-nice fruit finds its way to a juicing or other processing plant.
Apple juice is ubiquitous in Aomori. Where other homes in Japan offer guests a cup of green tea, in Aomori one is offered apple juice.
Some of the juice gets processed into alcohol: Aomori is also known for both apple wine and hard cider (styled “cidre”, probably to distinguish it from the clear carbonated non-alcoholic beverage known as “saidah”). A good place to taste test (to find your favorite) and to buy is A-Factory which sits conveniently between Aomori train station and the ferry terminal. Cidre is even produced on site.
And, of course, there are many other goodies made from Aomori apples, including cookies, cakes, pastries, candies, crackers, jams, ice cream, dried apple, apple chips, pickled apples, vinegar and curries. I’ve even seen apple infused bath soap and toiletries.
Surrounded by all this apple goodness, who wouldn’t become a fan of the apples of Aomori?