Kahoru Uchida - Pursuing the Perfect Japanese Strawberry at Dragon Farm

The best way to learn about a country is by getting to know the locals. Our new interview series “People of Japan” brings you even closer to Japan by introducing business owners, cultural ambassadors, and all-round amazing people bonded by strong passions. This time, we're featuring Kahoru Uchida, the owner of Dragon Farm, a popular strawberry farm in Chiba growing 17 different kinds of fresh strawberries to pick and gorge on! We sat down with Kahoru to discover why strawberry picking is so popular in Japan and how she was able to grow such a delicious and diverse variety.

Chiba

Food & Drinks

Dragon Farm - Devour 17 Kinds of Strawberries!

Located in Chiba Prefecture next to Tokyo, the idyllic Dragon Farm bustles with hungry visitors seeking ripe Japanese strawberries during prime picking season. Alongside locals, it has gained a reputation with expats and travelers from overseas, making it one of Japan’s most well-known strawberry farms.

The farm can be reached from central Tokyo in just 70 minutes by train and on foot, or after a 40 minute drive from Narita International Airport. The sheer variety on offer is what sets it apart - while most fruit farms prefer to concentrate on a single strain, Dragon Farm welcomes visitors to indulge in a staggering 17 kinds of strawberry. And best of all, it’s all-you-can-eat!

While this alone would warrant a visit, after our day out exploring and feasting at Dragon Farm, we realized there’s a lot more than first meets the eye.

Cultivated Through Passion: The Evolution of Dragon Farm

Kahoru Uchida was born to a farming family in Chiba Prefecture. As they preferred to cultivate their own produce, Kahoru was fed home-grown vegetables and fruits from childhood. Naturally, she developed a passion for gardening and farming.

For 30 years, she ran a flower shop and gardened for a hobby, but she never ventured beyond. Itching to try something new, she opted for the relatively easy-to-grow blueberry, a personal favorite. Staying small at first, she gradually ramped up the variety until it ballooned into a whopping 30 species of close to 2,000 bushes. She eventually closed down the flower shop and opened Dragon Farm, allowing her to fully concentrate on cultivating blueberries.

Though earning the farm a stellar reputation, blueberries themselves can only be harvested in summer between June and August. To increase business, Kahoru sought out another fruit that could be cultivated during the blueberry off-season. She settled on strawberries, which peak between January and May.

In the beginning, she honed her skills on the two strawberry varieties of “Beni-hoppe” and “Akihime.” However, after learning more about the different tastes and textures between species, she began to gradually add more varieties she liked, expanding from two to five, and then to ten, and eventually reaching the seventeen she has now proudly assembled.

When we asked Kahoru why she started strawberry picking at her farm, she cheerfully exclaimed, “I wanted to give people the experience of tasting freshly picked strawberries!” Indeed, freshly picked strawberries are an entirely different kind of deliciousness than those you’d buy in the supermarket, and Kahoru takes immense pleasure in seeing visitors delight in her produce.

Plus, strawberries are extremely healthy and packed with vitamin C, while also believed to help one become resilient to colds and improve the skin. With such a myriad of benefits and a fantastic taste, it’s no wonder that strawberries are so well liked.

The Secret to Growing Delicious Strawberries

There are approximately 300 different kinds of strawberries in Japan, with some people even stating that over half of the world’s species originate from Japan. While varieties like “Tochiotome” from Tochigi and “Amaou” from Fukuoka are highly coveted, Japanese strawberry farms are constantly battling to create a better strawberry through selective breeding, adding new additions to the ever-growing market. One of these is the “Chiba Berry,” which was officially registered in 2015 in Chiba Prefecture, the home of Dragon Farm.

According to Kahoru, strawberry farming is a long-term commitment. After planting the seedlings in September, they won’t be ready to harvest until up to a year later.

In order to cultivate strawberries with a taste and appearance suitable for picking, regular care and painstaking attention is essential. The edible red part of the strawberry that we assume is the fruit is actually the central receptacle of the flower. The fruit is the tiny seed-like dots covering the receptacle. A strawberry plant will produce up to 20 flowers, and if too many nutrients gather in these flowers, the receptacles will become small. In order to thin out the flowers to just four or five, farmers will pluck them everyday while also removing smaller strawberries to reroute the nutrients elsewhere.

In addition, strawberries are delicate and prone to disease, making it vital to prevent bugs and bacteria from spreading for them to grow healthy and plump.

The secret to a good-looking strawberry is the humble honeybee! When bees seeking pollen visit the farm and take nectar, they rub up against both the male and female plants and get pollen stuck to their fur. Traveling between the different flowers to gather more nectar, they inadvertently pollinate the plants, after which the plant ovaries swell to produce fruit. Bees are essential to the development of strawberries, and it’s thanks to them that we can enjoy such delicious spoils.

The majority of strawberry farms use honeybees to thrive, with Dragon Farm likewise keeping a nest in their greenhouse. As long as they’re left alone, honeybees are perfectly safe, so don’t worry if you spot them buzzing about the farm.

Essential Tips to Maximize Your Strawberry Picking Experience

Here’s how Kahoru determines the best-tasting strawberries:

1. Recent and Current Weather

The first thing to consider when strawberry picking is the weather. If there has been a recent stretch of rainy, cloudy, or snowy days, then the strawberries likely won’t have reddened enough. On the other hand, a row of sunny days means a hoard of juicy, bright red strawberries awaits! If you’re seeking the reddest of the red, then definitely save your strawberry picking date for a week of sun.

2. Time of Year

It’s also important to understand that the flavor of strawberries changes depending on the time of year. For example, between January-February, when the harvesting season has just started, the strawberries will take just a few days to ripen and are absolutely delicious. March-April is said to be when they reach peak sweetness, and an acidic taste begins to appear after May. Of course, these seasonal changes all depend on the variety of strawberry itself, so do some research to see what’s on offer and when they peak before visiting a farm.

3. A Split Below the Head

This final tip is not as well known. As shown in the above image, strawberries with a split just below the head are ripe and very sweet. When we visited, we actually found some strawberries like this and were pleasantly surprised at just how sweet they were. While rare and difficult to find, they’re undoubtedly worth the effort!

Dragon Farm Has More Than Just Strawberries

Kahoru has visited numerous strawberry farms across Japan, and each time, she felt that once the picking and eating was over, there was nothing left to do but go home. This is why she equipped Dragon Farm with lots of rest and recreational spaces, both indoors and outside. Visitors are also served a complimentary cup of tea or coffee, which they can enjoy alongside a selection of light meals like oden and miso dengaku, as well as a variety of sweets. Being able to unwind and enjoy the atmosphere after strawberry picking is a big part of Dragon Farm’s popularity.

One extra highlight are the baked sweet potatoes, which are slowly roasted on stones and served up piping hot. We were lucky enough to grab a helping for ourselves, and we all agreed they were some of the most delicious we’ve ever tasted!

Originally, Kahoru roasted sweet potatoes as a hobby, personally handing them out for free to visitors. As they became more popular, many would even ask, “Are you serving sweet potatoes today?” with some customers even preferring the potatoes over the strawberries themselves.

Kahoru continued this way for 10 years, however, as one would expect, the farm became too popular and busy for her to continue handing out free roasted sweet potatoes, and she eventually settled on selling them for around 250 yen a pop, depending on weight. It is a bargain for such a heavenly treat, and we definitely recommend saving a bit of room for one after you’ve finished picking strawberries at Dragon Farm.

The Future of Dragon Farm

Kahoru Uchida is happiest when hearing the delight-filled voices of visitors as they chow down on her hand-grown strawberries. She plans to continue dedicating herself to growing fruit at Dragon Farm, aiming to add additional strawberry species and services. She is currently cultivating two new strawberry types and will increase her offerings to nineteen next year. We’ll definitely be checking in to see where the ambitions of Kahoru lead her next!

Unfortunately, due to the effects of COVID-19, the number of overseas visitors has drastically declined, forcing Kahoru to shorten Dragon Farm's opening hours. While many are justifiably worried about COVID-19, Dragon Farm is doing its part to curb the spread by checking the temperatures of visitors upon arrival and providing alcohol spray at the entrance.

When researching for this article, we struggled to find other farms offering such variety with all-you-can-eat service, so we definitely recommend checking out Dragon Farm once travel to Japan resumes!

All-You-Can-Eat Strawberries Made With Love

When visiting Dragon Farm for this edition of People of Japan, what stood out most to us was the clear love and attention that owner Kahoru Uchida put into creating her strawberries and all the additional services complementing them. If you’re seeking an encounter with the Japanese strawberry, we think there’s seldom a better place than Dragon Farm in Chiba Prefecture.

 

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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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