Ponkan & Tankan (ポンカン ＆ タンカン）
The ponkan citrus fruit, an easily peeled, sweet variety of orange, arrived on Yakushima from Taiwan in the 1920's. The even sweeter, juicier tankan arrived in the 1950's. Both crops helped to revitalise the agricultural industry on the island as sugar cane production dwindled after the Second World War. Yakushima is now Japan's main producer of ponkan and tankan oranges. Orange orchards can be found around most of the island, but the main orange area is in the south. If you visit in the winter or early spring keep your eyes peeled – sorry – for bags of oranges for 100 yen at the roadside markets. Some places even give them away for free!
The ponkan harvest is in December and the tankan harvest is from February – March
At some point during your stay in Yakushima you will undoubtedly be served flying fish. If you're not sure , just check if your fish has wings or not! Yakushima has the largest catch of flying fish in Japan and a variety of flying fish species (tobiuo – トビウオ) are caught year-round. The peak fishing season is from late spring to early summer. The flying fish industry is based in Anbo (安房). Flying fish are served as sashimi, salt grilled or deep fried with their wings fried and crispy. There was a time when these fish cold be caught very easily along the shores of the island as the flying fish used the shade of the pine trees to spawn their eggs. However, gradually the trees from the coastal area disappeared and so the flying fish left the coastal region of the island and now the fishermen have to travel much further out to open water to catch the fish.
The local word for flying fish is 'toppy' which is why the hydro foil goes under the name of Toppy.
To solve the 'fiddly bone' issue, the locals came up with the idea of mincing the flying fish. Slightly sweetened minced flying fish patties are deep fried and are a popular bento lunch box ingredient.
Smoked Mackerel (smoke saba – スモーク・サバ)
The mackerel fishing industry is based in Isso (一奏) in the north of the island. The mackerel variety caught locally is the spotted chub mackerel. This species contains less fat than common chub mackerel. Yakushima has several mackerel smoking plants, the oldest of which is over 100 years old and is located by the river in Isso. Dried, smoked mackerel is sold vacuum packed and is a popular souvenir with Japanese tourists. 'Saba bushi' is also produced. The mackerel are first smoked and then dried. A natural mold is encouraged to form which gives the dried mackerel a distinctive flavour. The dried mackerel is either shaved or ground into a powder for use in noodle stock. A processing plant at Isso offers tours around the factory.
Mackerel is a fish that spoils quickly so only the freshest fish can be eaten raw as sashimi or sushi. To preserve the freshness the Yakushima fishermen have a method of breaking the mackerel's neck as soon as it has been caught. Broken-necked mackerel (Kubi Ore Saba) are a Yakushima delicacy and are usually eaten as sashimi.
Shochu Liquor (shochu – 焼酎)
Shochu is a clear, distilled Japanese liquor. It can be made from a variety of ingredients but in Yakushima it is usually made from sweet potatoes. Like whisky, the quality of shochu is dependent on the quality of the water. Therefore, Yakushima is renowned for the quality of its shochu. Shochu, rather than nihonshu (rice winie) is the traditional drink of choice in the southern regions of Japan (Kyushu – Okinawa). When distilled it is around 40% alcohol, but the popular brands are diluted to a more palatable 25%. Shochu has a 'stronger' flavour and aroma than traditional nihonshu ( which is made from rice). The popular way to drink shochu is to mix it with water. In the winter you can ask for it 'oyuwari' (with hot water) and in the summer time 'mizwari' (with cold water). Or you can simply enjoy it on the rocks. A traditional brewery in Anbo offers free tours around the factory with tasting sessions afterwards.
The neighbouring island Tanegashima (種子島) is nationally famous for its 'annou imo' sweet potatoes, but as Yakushima is so close to Tanegashima then it's no surpise that Yakushima also grow some tasty potatoes (the monkeys and deer would also agree with this statement). The more common variety of sweet potato is called satsuma imo (さつま 芋), but the locally grown golden coloured annou imo is sweeter. Sweet potatoes are harvested from autumn until early winter. Sweet potatoes can be eaten simply roasted in their jackets 'yaki imo', made into cakes or sweets or as tempura.
Green Tea ( – 煎茶)
The east side of the island, around the airport area of Koseda (小瀬田), Nagamine (長峰) & Anbo (安房) is where you'll find most of the tea fields. Most of the fields are not visible from the main road, but should you venture into the hills around this area and there are fields and fields of low-lying beautifully manicured tea bushes. Heading south just past the airport is an organic green tea shop that sells a variety of Yakushima produced teas and some wonderful green tea ice cream (200 yen).
Tumeric (gajutsu – がじゅつ)
One of the oldest names for Yakushima was '薬島' pronounced Yakushima but with the kanji meaning Medicine Island. This was due to the variety of medicinal plants naturally occurring on the island. A variety of tumeric known as 'gajutsu' is widely grown and harvested in the autumn as a medicinal plant. It is used in pharmaceuticals as a powder to aid digestion and sooth stomach problems. It is found in various places on the island. This is perhaps the oldest crop on Yakushima and is known to have been grown more than 400 years ago.
Yakushima sea salt has a sweeter and less harsh flavour than table salt. The main production area is in Nagata (永田) where the turtles visit to lay their eggs. A variety of sea salt flavoured cookies and snacks are available in local gift shops, as well as herb flavoured salts of various kinds.