Photo/IllutrationChildren smile after digging up Nerima daikon radishes in Tokyo's Nerima Ward on Dec. 3, 2017. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

At a vegetable farm in Tokyo's Nerima Ward the other day, I dug up a "Nerima daikon," a variety of white daikon radish that this ward is famous for.

I didn't exactly underestimate the job, but it turned out much tougher than imagined because the roots went unexpectedly deep.

At first, I just grasped the daikon by its leafy stem and pulled. But it was bulbous halfway down, and wouldn't budge until I repositioned myself into a crouch and pulled with all my might.

The daikon I dug up was a whopping 70 centimeters long.

"The job is easier this year because the long wet spell of this past autumn made the ground wetter and softer than usual," noted Yoshitaka Shiraishi, 65, the owner of the farm. "This job is a backbreaker every year."

Shiraishi's ancestors started farming on their land in the early Edo Period (1603-1867).

The Nerima daikon has a long history. According to local lore, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (1646-1709), the fifth shogun of the Tokugawa Dynasty, was cured of chronic beriberi after eating this vegetable.

Prepared as "takuwan" pickle, it became widely popular, and Nerima daikon farms won the patronage of major clients that included the Japanese military and coal mining companies during and beyond the Meiji Era (1868-1912).

Takuwan production peaked during the years around the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). The pickles were sent to the front lines to feed the troops.

Production began to lag in the early Showa Era (1926-1989) due to droughts and blight or other plant diseases.

After World War II, the Nerima daikon lost considerable farm acreage to cabbages and tomatoes. And Nerima's farmland diminished drastically in the ensuing housing development boom. Many farmers gave up on the labor-intensive Nerima daikon.

But calls for its revival grew after the era changed to Heisei (1989-2019). This prompted Nerima Ward to launch a promotion program, under which daikon seeds were distributed widely to farmers commissioned to grow the vegetable.

The program not only aimed to bring the daikon back, but also sought to revive the ward's steadily dwindling urban farming through partnerships with local farmers.

The ward is hosting the first "Sekai Toshi Nogyo Summit" (global urban farming summit), slated to start on Nov. 29. Experts from five overseas cities have been invited to participate in this event.

Unlike regular daikon sold at supermarkets, the Nerima daikon has vigorous green leaves and its white flesh is surprisingly long.

Feeling the weight and texture of this vegetable that embodies the rise and fall of farming in Nerima Ward, I imagined the healthy future of urban farming.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 26

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.