Takahiro Sasaki begins his tour with a smile and a mission statement: “The olive is at the heart of everything we do,” he says. His reverence is almost comical. But he’s not kidding: I’ve only been on this small, obscure, slow-paced islet in the Seto Inland Sea for a couple of hours and I’ve already been offered sugared olives, olive-leaf tea, olive cider, olive bread, olive pasta, olive popcorn, olive tapenade to go with olive crackers, olive chocolate and chocolate olives. Oh, and I’ve just arrived via the Olive Line ferry, where I was greeted by a cartoon olive creature and an olive-branded bus ready to roll to an amusement park where the theme is, well, have a guess. But I’m not complaining. After a three-hour journey from Kobe, I’ve made it to Shodoshima: a quietly beautiful, slow-living island with epic beaches, majestic mountains and an unlikely Mediterranean obsession: olives. Welcome to the Asian olive capital you’ve almost certainly never heard of.
You wouldn’t be alone: according to Sasaki, our guide, even much of Japan is still quite unaware of the island’s unfettered fondness for the humble green fruit. And, honestly, why would they? Meaning “island of small beans”, Shodoshima is widely known for its soya beans. With a dozen or so factories, the island produces what’s broadly accepted as the best soya sauce in Japan. And it has done so since the Edo Period – at least 150 years. Olives, by contrast, are a relatively recent phenomenon: the first olive tree, it turns out, was only planted in 1908. And, though it died soon after, the sophomore tree of 1917 was more successful. It still stands, in fact, in the island’s Olive Park, an anomalous 102-year-old totem to the fruit that quietly turned this out-of-the-way island’s 30,000 inhabitants into secret olive obsessives.
One of those is Yasuko Minami, the president of Toyo Olive, one of the oldest olive producers on the island. We meet her at her family farm where she explains that their olive oil has won all the top awards. She goes on to say that eight years ago, the company started its own olive-based cosmetics brand, Tolea. I stand and listen patiently. But why olives? I’m bursting to ask. How did a small Mediterranean fruit make it to Japan? The answer, for this farm at least, begins in Greece. Back in the 1950s, her grandfather, who owned a shipping company, would often hob-nob with shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. It was at one of his parties where he first tried a sardine cooked in a strange, rich liquid. After some enquiry, he learned it was olive oil and was hooked, vowing to bring olive oil production to Japan. With a cutting from a Greek olive tree, he opened Toyo Olive in 1955. Sixty-four years later, Toyo Olive is one of the largest producers in Shodoshima. Twenty-five per cent of all olives grown in Japan come from here.
That afternoon, we head inland to the island’s Kankakei Gorge, a giant 13 million-year-old volcanic valley bang in the centre of Shodoshima. It’s the absolute non-olive must-do on the island, says tour guide Sasaki. As we take the five-minute cable car to the top, we glide over the orange-, red- and rust-coloured maple trees that carpet the mountain on the way to the highest peak on the island. The view doesn’t fall short of its billing: all around is an archipelago of verdant, mountainous little islets, some inhabited, most not, peeking out of the still blue sea. It’s easy enough to make me forget I’m on an olive odyssey. Until, that is, we return to the cable-car station, where a small, nondescript tuck shop sells ice cream. You guessed it, olive ice cream.
Shodoshima’s other beauty spot, Angel Road, is our next stop – a golden sandy beach where, at low tide, a small sandbar appears: a usually empty, tranquil walkway that allows access to the small, peaked islet of Yakusoku no Oka (Hill of Promise) for a few hours a day.
“We have three uses for olives,” says Sasaki, as we head back to town. Oil, cosmetics, and – get this – cows. Hang on, cows? Yes, he explains earnestly. “After the olives are pressed for oil, the leftover pulp is dried and then fed to the island’s cattle which, in turn, makes olive beef.”
Shodoshima’s olive-fed Wagyu began when farmer Masaki Ishii started to experiment with circular farming: in 2010, he devised a way to toast the olive pulp, drawing out its sweetness to make it attractive to cows. The result, eight years later, is the most expensive and hardest-to-find meat in the world. Even in Japan, it’s in seriously short supply and only really came to wider national attention in 2017, when it won a gold award at the annual Wagyu Olympics, Japan’s biggest beef show.
I had to try it. That night, I dined at Koyomi, a restaurant in an old converted village house where chef Hitoshi Kishimoto serves an omakase-style menu (literally, “I’ll leave it up to you”, “you” being the chef). It ends up a kind of highlight reel of all the best produce in the region, including, of course, our final course: the beef. Seriously delicious. Slightly charred, there’s a bold, rich umami flavour that comes from the high levels of oleic acid and the way-higher-than-average marbling (around 60 per cent). Or, put another way, pure fatty perfection.
The next day, we take the ferry to Teshima (“Isle of plenty,” Sasaki tells me), where we find another island with an abundance of, yes, olives. From the top of the serene Mount Dan-yama, we observe the acres of silvery-green olive trees spread across a valley. where half of Toyo Olive’s trees grow. Still, it’s not just olives on Teshima: citrus groves, strawberry fields and rice paddies stretch across the 14km2 island. Being a small, remote island, the need for self-sufficiency means that many of its residents grow their own produce. And, in fact, this way of life has proved something of a siren call to a growing number of Japan’s urbanites; according to a recent governmental study, almost one in four 20-somethings are thinking of relocating to the countryside. Similarly, the island’s population of 800 is slowly increasing. One of its newest residents is Yuki Nori, who moved to Teshima with his family in 2018.
Why move to such a remote island? “Well, it’s not like the big city,” he says. “We don’t need to worry as much. Everyone knows each other, we don’t even lock our front door. It used to be like that everywhere in Japan. But not any more.”
He says that the locavore movement in Japan has also helped spur a new wave of rural migration. “Food, I think, is definitely a factor. More and more people want to know what they’re eating, where their vegetables have been grown.”
Food was certainly what drew another of its new long-stayers: 25-year-old Australian Adam Laya arrived in 2017 and has no plans to leave any time soon. He works as an olive picker for Toyo, and is content with the slow pace of life on the island. “I live here with my wife and son,” he tells me, standing by a neat line of olive trees. He arrived by happy accident: “I had no idea about the island before I came here. I had no idea about the olive industry. I remember, when I found out, I was flabbergasted, I remember thinking, ‘Wait, Japan grows olives?’” He had no idea, he repeats with a bemused shrug. “Who does?”