Got a hankering for strawberries? Well, you could easily run over to the commissary and buy a package of the oversized waxed fruit that we’ve come to expect, shipped from somewhere distant overseas at a premium price. Alternatively, you could get your strawberries at any supermarket on Okinawa, which are far superior to those available on base in color, size, and taste. But, the farm-fresh strawberries picked by hand at Okinawa ichigo (Japanese for “strawberry”) farms are made oh so much delectable by the fruits of your labor!
It’s strawberry season in Okinawa, and here the fruit is farm fresh – literally.
Strawberry picking in Japan is a popular activity this time of year, and strawberry farms across its many islands offer opportunities for highly coveted all-you-can-eat visits. On Okinawa strawberries have only recently been harvested starting as early as March. Traditionally, before modern housed cultivation, the season begun only in early summer. But if you want until then it’ll be too late!
Jody and I had an Okinawan friend help make our reservations – they are highly encouraged, and most places require one in order to enjoy their berries. We selected a farm up in the middle of the island, well away from the urban sprawl that seems to infect most of the southern reaches of Okinawa. We left early enough to ensure at least an on-time arrival, but ended up about 15 minutes early. But even then, the first groups of the 1100 picking hour were already being led into one of the large, plastic-draped greenhouse.
Strawberry farming is relatively new to Ginoza, starting only about the last decade. Okinawa’s harsh high heat and humidity is hard on the fruit, and strong summer typhoons and winter storms can easily damage the fragile plants. But greenhouses have changed all that. The farms on Okinawa cultivate the berries in greenhouses, which makes variations and swings in climate and temperature a thing of the past. The well-sheltered greenhouses additionally offer protection from strong winds, birds, and insects.
Jody and I found the registration desk, and after finding our names on the farm’s list – easy to find when you are the only English on a whole page of Japanese – we were led to a 2nd greenhouse (out of the 5 or 6 available) just opened with two Okinawan women, one of which turned out to work on-base and became our impromptu translator for the rest of the day.
There, in our nearly private but massive greenhouse full of strawberry bushes, we were given a quick lesson in picking and eating. Remember, there is etiquette for everything in Japan! Then, with plastic cups in hand for the berries’ inedible tops, we were turned loose for the next 40 minutes to wander and wonder, all the while stuffing our faces with the seeded red deliciousness.
Within the greenhouses, there are two major methods of cultivation: elevated and ground level. In the elevated approach, the crop is planted in waste-high planters that offer a few major advantages over in-ground growth. This tactic keeps the berries off the ground so that there is almost no spoilage, but equally as important, it’s easy on the lower back as no squatting or bending over is required to enjoy the fruits of your labor! Plus the ground is completely covered so there’s no worry about mud or dirtying your footwear.
Strawberries on Okinawa are different from those found in the more northern reaches of Japan. Because the sun’s ultraviolet rays are so much stronger here, the berries grown on Okinawa take on a deeper red and develop a richer, sweeter taste. Strawberry farms, such as the Ginozason Agricultural Successors Training Center which Jody and I visited, are extremely busy in the spring, especially during the weekends. But if you confirm your reservation early, the farms in Ginoza will provide your money’s worth, not just of farm-fresh strawberries, but of the overall experience.
Be sure to dress in layers; although Okinawa can still offer chilly early morning breezes, the houses will warm and with some humidity. Oh, and be sure to use the facilities before you start; strawberries are mostly water after all, and forty minutes is a long time….
While the large plump berries will tempt you and seem to be the obvious choice, Jody and I found that the smaller, redder berries offered the most sweetness. And since the strawberries here are grown completely organically, they are eaten directly off the bush. No need to worry about chemicals, dirt, or insects. Morning is the best time to pick strawberries when they are chilled and well-hydrated from resting overnight. Jody and I both agree that these are the best strawberries we’ve ever had. While I usually have to add sugar to most berries in order to really enjoy them, the small sweet variety here explode in your mouth in a cascade of full flavor and almost crunchy texture.
Strawberry picking is not to be missed and costs around 1,500 yen ($15) per person, but the prices vary from farm to farm. Most offer all-you-can-eat visits for 30 or 40 minutes, and few offer take-away options based on weight. The details of the facility we visited can be found below.
Ginozason Agricultural Successor Training Center
Offering elevated cultivation, the center is open late January to May, with generally three rounds of all-you-can-eat picking for 40 minutes at a time. 1,300 yen ($12) elementary students 900 yen, preschoolers 600 yen. Reservations are required; call 098-968-5102 for more information or see them online at ginoza-ichigo.net. Sorry, the website is Japanese only!
The farm, along with nearby “Ginoza Strawberry Farm” is easy to find. Take the Okinawa Expressway north to Interchange No. 9 (IC Ginoza), and follow the exit ramp past the tollbooth to your first left. After making the turn you’ll come to a large baseball park and stadium. Here you’ll see signs featuring strawberries along the road directing you to the farm area, which requires a few twists and turns along back country roads. Once you’re close, parking is along the roads wherever you can find it.