Yahei hot chili peppers in Konan

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Meet Yukiyo Mitaka and Yuzu Sasaki (三峰 教代・佐々木 由珠), a young and peppy pair of hot chili pepper farmers in Konan, Shiga Prefecture, Japan. Under their company name and brand of fm craic (not a radio station), they grow a unique and local variety of super-hot chili peppers called yahei togarashi (弥平とうがらし).

They plant, grow, harvest, process, package, and sell the yahei hot chili peppers as blended spices, sauces, and confections. They do everything by themselves. Just the two of them. They’ve also become media darlings, appearing in numerous Japanese print media and even on TV. And they now appear here at shiga-ken.com, in English. They also appear in my new video introducing the city of Konan:

Video link: http://youtu.be/OjFnVdKMCKI

On a sunny November day in 2014, they gave me an exclusive tour of Konan and their chili pepper field near the Shimoda area where the yahei chili peppers were originally grown. It looked like the size of a football field or bigger. They grow about 1,000 yahei chili pepper plants.

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fm craic’s yahei hot chili pepper field in Konan.

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Yahei chili peppers are orange.

Yahei chili peppers are bright orange.

The harvest season (summer to early fall) was already over, but they still had yahei togarashi plants with bright orange peppers. Most were shriveled and not marketable. All the plants were going to be uprooted and disposed of since they were single-season only. They plant new seedlings every March and harvest in the heat of summer which is tough work.

I couldn’t believe that only the two of them did all the work on this huge field. No help from family members or friends either. They grow and plant the seedlings, till and fertilize the soil, grow the plants, harvest the peppers by hand in summer, process them, and use spoons to carefully fill little spice bottles. Totally homegrown and handmade product. A lot of work, but they can take it easy during the off-season winter months.

The main thing about yahei chili peppers is that compared to ordinary chili pepper spices sold in Japan (like shichimi), their yahei chili pepper spices are super hot. On the tip of a wet chopstick, I tasted a tiny dash of both. The regular, blended shichimi was not even hot. But just a little powder of yahei caused an immediate burning sensation on my tongue. Really hot stuff.

The spicy heat of chili peppers is measured by the Scoville scale. Yahei chili pepper is measured as having 100,000 Scoville heat units which is twice as hot as ordinary chili peppers in Japan. The girls also profess that it’s not only about the spicy hotness. Yahei chili peppers also have umami flavor and a mellow aroma.

The origin of Konan’s yahei hot chili peppers remains unclear. “Yahei” supposed to be the name of the man from Konan’s Shimoda area who brought over yahei hot chili peppers from overseas (probably Korea) over 100 years ago. “Yahei” was also a name given to succeeding generations, so it is unknown exactly which Yahei brought over the chili peppers. However, it is known that the local folks in Shimoda started growing yahei togarashi in their backyards for their own consumption. The peppers were pickled or heated as appetizers for sake rice wine.

fm craic was the first to go commercial with yahei togarashi, billed as Konan’s native vegetable. This has instilled some local pride and the girls have gotten a number of local food businesses to use their yahei chili pepper spices. It’s a good synergy and collaboration because they can then promote each other’s products and businesses. The girls are determined to improve and promote their local area and products. I cannot help but to root for their success.

Upper Secret, popular cafe in Konan.

Upper Secret, popular cafe in Konan.

One local business which uses yahei hot chili peppers is an American-style cafe called Upper Secret, a short walk from JR Kosei Station on the JR Kusatsu Line. We had lunch there and had the award-winning Indian chicken curry that used yahei chili peppers. Very good. The cafe opened only two years ago in September 2012 and it has become a local favorite. Manager Akane Kaikiri also speaks English because she studied in Oklahoma (of all places).

Besides curry, they had a good selection of yummy-looking, homemade desserts, pastries, cookies, etc. They also sell fm craic’s yahei chili pepper spices and sauces. It’s a nice cafe and a great place for lunch or coffee/tea. Open: 9 am–5:30 pm, closed Tue. Website

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Upper Secret’s manager, Akane Kaikiri.

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Inside Upper Secret.

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Upper Secret’s Indian Chicken Curry using yahei chili peppers.

Yuzu and Yukiyo also manage Konan Marché (こなんマルシェ), a local gift shop selling local produce, food, crafts, and souvenirs. It’s like a Michi-no-eki (roadside rest area for drivers). Opened in autumn 2011 in a former convenience store, they sell a wide variety of local products. Besides yahei chili pepper spices, they have locally-grown vegetables like the unique Shimoda eggplant, rice, snacks and confections, local crafts like Shimoda-yaki pottery, and souvenirs designed with local mascots Ko-nyan (a cat) and Ishibe-don (a Tokaido Road traveler). “Ko-nyan” is a twist on “Konan” with “nyan” meaning “meow” in Japanese.

Konan Marché is open 10 am–7 pm, phone 0748-72-5275. (“Marché” is French for market.) The shop is in Mikumo, but will eventually move to a new location. Website

Konan Marché

Konan Marche

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fm craic’s chili pepper products.

fm craic sells four different blends of yahei hot chili pepper spices in small bottles for ¥630 each. It includes an all-purpose blend and one for curry. They also have two chili sauces, one sweet and one hot. Their products are nicknamed “Piriri” which means spicy hotness on your tongue. At Konan Marché, I bought and tried a few of the confections and snacks that used yahei chili peppers. Interesting how the hot chili taste comes afterward, like after you swallow. I liked their white brownies with small pieces of white chocolate and a dash of yahei chili pepper. It’s sweet at first, but there’s hot-chili aftertaste.

If you don’t have a car, the easiest place to buy yahei hot chili spices would be at Upper Secret near JR Kosei Station. They also sell at the Yurara Onsen hot spring facility near Zensuiji Temple. Or if you can read Japanese, order from their fm craic online store for shipping within Japan.

Upper Secret's booth at the 1st Geki-kara summit in Oct. 2014.

Upper Secret, winner of the 1st Geki-kara Summit.

Another impressive project was the “Yahei Gekikara (Super Spicy Hot) Summit” (弥平激辛サミット 2014) held for the first time on October 18, 2014. It was held together with the Ishibe-juku Matsuri Festival at the Ameyama Cultural Sports Park (Shukuba no Sato). They had food booths selling food using yahei hot chili peppers. It was a contest for the best spicy-hot food selected by popular vote and by a panel of food experts. The winner was Upper Secret’s Indian chicken curry dish. They received a cash prize and a free, year-long PR by the city of Konan. It has apparently replaced the previously held B-class gourmet event. I hope it becomes an annual event.

Shiga Governor Mikazuki at the fm craic booth at Shiga-Biwako Brand Fair at Osaka Station on Nov. 8-9, 2014.

Isn’t it amazing to see how far they’ve gone with some local chili peppers? Not strawberries, not grapes, but chili peppers of all things. Can you imagine?

Even their company name “fm craic” is intriguing for an agricultural company. “fm” refers to “farm” (as well as FM radio station) and “craic” is Irish meaning “fun and interesting.” So I guess they are “broadcasting” the “fun of farming.”

More young people (especially from the cities) are indeed getting interested in farming. If not as an occupation, at least as a temporary experience of getting down and dirty to plant rice, etc.

There’s a label for young farmers like Yuzu and Yukiyo. They call themselves “Noka Girls” (農家ガールズ) or Farm Gals which made me laugh. Shiga has a group of Noka Girls who keep in touch with other. They are all young women farmers. Definitely not the traditional image of old women farmers with bent-over backs.

Their background stories certainly is one reason for the media attention. A pair of young ladies quitting their unfulfilling jobs in the city, returning to their hometowns, and starting a business together. Something that all too many depopulating areas wish would happen more often.

Yuzu hails from Kusatsu. After graduating from a university in Kyoto, she studied the tea ceremony and Chinese language in Tianjin, China. She then worked for a travel agency in Osaka before moving back to Shiga.

Yukiyo is a native of Konan and studied in Boston, Massachusetts as an exchange student and also studied interpreting in the UK. So she speaks English well. She was working for a software firm in Tokyo before moving back to Shiga.

Both had a yearning to work in the food/farming business so they took a course in agriculture held by the Shiga Prefectural government. That’s where they met each other. Two inexperienced girls getting into the hard work of farming. They now have a lot to show for their hard work. It’s an interesting story for anybody. When they were starting out, veteran farmers in Konan were understandably skeptical of them. Like, “You gotta be kidding me.” But look at them now. They’ve come a long way in a few short years.

When you have the passion and the willingness to commit yourself, the wheels start to turn and things tend to fall into place. Shiga needs more people like them. Ambitious and determined folks out to improve their community. Konan is very lucky to have these two girls and it was a pleasure meeting them.

More about Konan | Map of Konan | Photos of Konan

*About the Konan video embedded above, it was my very first video introducing a city rather than just a single event or attraction. You can’t introduce everything about a city in a short video like this (about 10.5 min). So my strategy was to present some key words and images of Konan that people can remember.

The video also shows the indigo dyeing shop Konki Senshoku. The indigo dyeing master, Uenishi Tsuneo, helped us tie-dye a handkerchief when we visited in June 2011. I had an interesting talk with him and part of it is in the video. He speaks with a very rural and heavy Shiga dialect/accent. Since he talked like my late grandmother in Shiga, I could understand him. But he is rare one, I call him a “Living Treasure of Shiga.”

The video also shows a photo of Konan City Hall people showing drawings made by school kids in St. Johns, Michigan. Konan has friendship city relations with St. Johns. Every year since 20 years ago, artwork by elementary school kids in St. Johns are exhibited in Konan’s public library. And vice versa with artwork from Konan kids being displayed at Briggs Public Library in St. Johns. Website