Long-lost pumpkin variety nears revival in Shinagawa

A long-lost variety of pumpkin originating from Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo, could see a revival this summer, thanks to the efforts of a vegetable shop owner who called on local primary and middle schools to team up with a farmer to grow Irukibashi kabocha after its seeds were discovered last year.

The 66-year-old shop owner, Yoshio Otsuka, is in high spirits.

"There isn't much farmland in Shinagawa right now," he said.

"But I want everyone to learn about the history of how various vegetables, including pumpkins, were produced in Shinagawa in the old days by growing them," according to Otsuka.

Irukibashi kabocha, which had been grown in the ward from the Edo period (1603-1867), disappeared sometime during the Showa era (1926-1989).

According to Otsuka and a research council for Edo Tokyo heirloom vegetables, Irukibashi kabocha belongs to the same family as the Chirimen kabocha pumpkin, which has bands and bumps on its brown surface. It is characterized by a sticky texture.

Buddhist monk Takuan is said to have ordered its seeds from the Kansai region in the Edo period and had the headman of then Irukibashi village (now the ward's Osaki district) grow them.

The village earned a reputation as a production site for the pumpkin, which is reportedly how the variety came to be known as Irukibashi kabocha.

The Shinagawa area prospered as a post station along the Tokaido road in the Edo period.

Shinagawa was famously linked to the pumpkin as seeds were easy to obtain from travelers along the road and the village area had good access to water due to its proximity to the Megurogawa river, the research council said.

Otsuka, who has avidly studied local varieties of heirloom vegetables, appears to have fully embraced his vocation.

In fact, he successfully revived the Shinagawa turnip in 2008 after it disappeared for about a half century.

Today, Otsuka teaches workshops on how to cultivate the turnip at 23 primary and middle schools in the ward. In return, the students have given him the nickname "Kabu Ojisan" (Uncle Turnip).

Last November, when Otsuka was searching for other Shinagawa vegetables to bring back, research council representative Michishige Otake told him, "An acquaintance of mine grew some pumpkins that look a lot like Irukibashi kabocha, according to diagrams in books."

Otsuka went to see for himself and found that they did indeed resemble the long-lost variety. When he was finally confident that they were the real thing, he decided to launch a revival project.

He asked a farmer he knew to raise the seedlings. In May, a total of 40 vines of the heirloom pumpkin were planted in fields on the grounds of primary and middle schools in Shinagawa Ward.

The pumpkins are expected to be harvested in summer. The crops are set to be used as materials in children's food education and supplied to local restaurants as ingredients.

"Maybe now will children call me 'Kabocha Ojisan' (Uncle Pumpkin)," Otsuka said with a grin.