The people of Shinkamigoto lived close to the land, wringing a livelihood out of the rugged landscape. There’s no better way to get an understanding of Shinkamigoto and the Goto Islands than by pitching in and getting your own hands dirty. It’s one thing to buy a packet of camellia oil or try the kankoro mochi but quite another to make it yourself, learning about the products’ heritage from proud locals.
Pressing Camellia Oil
The camellia, or tsubaki, a viney plant belonging to the tea family and known for its pretty flowers, grows wild across the islands and is cultivated for the seeds produced in pods in the delicate flowers. The use of oil from the tsubaki as a beauty product to give a lustrous sheen to hair or to clear facial blemishes has more than a millennia of history; it pops up in classical novels and kabuki wig-setters’ toolkits, but also as an ingredient in drug store shampoo.
At an unassuming workshop on the upper peninsula of Nakadori Island, near Bandake Onsen, visitors can take part in the process that turns tsubaki seeds into a beauty product. This company has been in business for nearly a half century (they have a larger operation, as well, making camellia oil at industrial volumes with high-tech filtration systems) but the production of the oil has a long history on the islands. An interesting experience, of course, to see how the product is made, but also a chance to look at the lives of island locals.
Pounding Kankoro Mochi
Sweet potato is a New World crop but once it was introduced into the rest of the world during the Columbian exchange, it caught on fast, since it’s known to thrive in soil that won’t allow much else to grow. The rocky islands of the Goto chain are a tough spot to get things growing, especially before the advent of modern techniques and soil additives. The sweet potato saved the villagers of Goto from starvation and—when turned into high-proof shochu—was a great winter warmer.
Times are easier on the Goto Islands these days, but locals still make the dried slices of sweet potato that are the key ingredient in kankoro mochi. The sweet sticky ball of pounded dried sweet potato and glutinous rice, usually stuffed with red bean paste, is now sold in souvenir packs, but it’s more fun to make it yourself. A nonprofit run by local boosters Arikawa runs the experience in warmer months, bringing residents together with visitors to make the Shinkamigoto kankoro mochi as a team.
Making Tenobe Udon
As early as the 7th and 8th centuries, the Goto Islands became a waypoint for pilgrims and traders headed west to the empire of the Tang. It was from China that the islands got their first taste of air-dried noodles, the instant ramen of its day. The extravagantly titled Goto Islands Tenobe Udon Cooperative Association, a nonprofit that’s tasked itself with promoting the local delicacy, gives visitors the chance to make udon near the ferry terminal-linked venue in Arikawa that also hosts the mochi making.
At Marufuji, not far away, noodles are made in a process that’s a hybrid between industrial and grandmotherly, with many of the key steps being done by hand. The factory doesn’t host any official tours, but a glance inside can be arranged, and it’s worth it, if you’re visiting the shop to pick up some of their unique camellia-brushed udon.
Nothing stays the same forever, but on the Goto Islands, things change a bit slower. Every product made in Shinkamigoto has a story, connected back to the history of the islands. When you press camellia or pound sweet potato mochi or stretch udon or land a fish or cook down soybeans to make tofu—and this is only scratching the surface of hands-on activities in Shinkamigoto—your hands are doing the same work that people have done in the communities for centuries or millennia. There’s no better way to experience Shinkamigoto.