Around four hours southwest of Kobe, smack dab in the Inland Sea, you’ll find Shodoshima Island. This tiny slice of paradise holds a population of just 14,000 and some change, making it truly feel like a world of its own. The moderate climate, gorgeous beaches and craggy mountain interior don’t hurt either.
Thanks to its picturesque atmosphere, the island is also peppered with luxury resorts and cosy boutique hotels, making Shodoshima just as romantic and charming as it is wild and scenic. But beyond the lover’s hideaways and epic volcanic gorges, lies a more interesting aspect of Shodoshima—and that’s sauce.
The name Shodoshima literally means ‘Island of Small Beans’, a nod to the island’s seemingly infinite source of the popular Japanese mung bean (AKA adzuki beans) that grow across the lush landscape.
Initially, Shodoshima was famous for its adzuki beans, but it didn’t take long for farmers to notice an even bigger potential within the landscape: soy sauce. Since the latter half of the 16th century, the salty and savory Asian staple has been one of Shodoshima’s biggest claims to fame—and a perfect accompaniment to Shikoku’s famous udon.
The success of the island’s soy sauce can partly be traced to its high quality salt, which lends a special flavor to soy sauce made on the island, and the warm climate, which makes it easy to cultivate the yeast needed to give soy sauce its unique aroma. But of course, none of this would be possible without the people of Shodoshima.
For at least the last 400 years, locals of Shodoshima have developed some of Japan’s most delicious soy sauce and have done so through meticulous methods, carefully selecting ingredients and tending to the wooden koga (barrels) that are used to mature the sauce.
Shodoshima’s Golden Liquid
As deservedly famous as Shodoshima’s soy sauce is, in more recent years, that fame has shifted to a different type of sauce. Or should we say oil? Shodoshima is renowned, among so many other things, for being the birthplace of olive cultivation and olive oil in Japan. Although the history of Japanese olive oil is a modern one, it’s a fascinating one nonetheless.
Legend has it that the first Japanese olive ever tasted in Japan was gifted to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of the nation’s three 16th century warlords, but King Philip II of Spain. Shortly after, the Edo period began and Japan completely closed itself off from the rest of the world—as well as olives and their oil—until the mid-late 1800s. Although this gave the country plenty of picturesque post towns and unique architecture, it meant a standstill for olive oil.
It wasn’t until the 1800s that the last Shogun’s personal physician began promoting the medicinal and therapeutic value of olive oil after studying Western medicine. One thing led to another and, by 1874, the very first olive trees were planted on Japanese soil.
Fast forward to 1905 and the end of the Russo-Japanese War. When Japan came out victorious, the Russian Tsar was forced to relinquish several Northern Pacific islands and their fishing zones, leading to a boom in the Japanese fishing industry. But how would they preserve their catches from distant seas and otherwise? With imports of preserved liquids costing a fortune, Japan had to think fast.
Soon, the Japanese realised that the best way to keep their goods fresh was to preserve them in oil. And where to get that oil? Olives. With a mild climate, Shodoshima was identified as the ideal location to plant and grow Japanese olive oil. And voilà, the Inland Sea became the Mediterranean.
Taste Shodoshima’s Olive Oil
In the past hundred-some-odd years, the sphere of Japanese olive oil has seen its share of highs and lows, but still remains a uniquely precious commodity of Shodoshima’s landscape, with plenty of room to continue growing in popularity.
Nowadays, olive trees can be seen all over the island from private gardens, to roadsides and in the wilds of the old groves. First graders are presented with a sapling at the start of the school year; they’ll plant it at home and have a tangible representation of their growth over the years. Community events even consist of olive cooking contests and the harvest season in fall is a cultural event for all ages.
However unanticipated the customs of olive cultivation in Japan may be, it has become an integral part of the framework that makes up the local culture of Shodoshima. From the serenity found in the turquoise waters and verdant slopes to the unmistakable essence of umami in Shodoshima’s soy sauce to the rich, smooth bitterness of the local olive oil—it’s in a league of its own.
Japan is a country of culinary delights. For a glimpse into what to expect when taking a foodie tour of the Land of the Rising Sun, read our Japan Travel Guide.
This content was created in partnership with the Japan National Tourism Organization and Japan Airlines.