Ehime, the Oranges Kingdom of Japan

As many as 40 different types of mandarin oranges are grown in Ehime besides the prefecture’s 2 original orange species

by NG MIN SHEN/ pic by TMR FILE

MENTION Japan, and what comes to mind are Tokyo, Toyota/Honda, anime, Mount Fuji, sushi, polite people, the super-fast train Shinkansen, and more of that sort. Even the character Ultraman has fascinated millions of children worldwide for more than five decades.

But what should be equally recognised as a key Japanese landmark, yet remains largely hidden, is the Ehime prefecture, about 11/2 flight from Tokyo. Ehime encompasses the northwest quarter of the Shikoku Island and many smaller islands in the Seto Inland Sea, known as the Aegean Sea of Japan. The word “Ehime” means “beautiful women”, according to a tourist guide map.

The breathtaking prefecture is known for its “onsen” (hot springs), citrus fruit production and sports development, among others. It’s also home to Mount Ishizuchi, a sacred mountain and the tallest peak in western Japan.

The streets are lined with quaint castles and temples. Trams and even old locomotives run through Matsuyama, the capital of Ehime, adding to the splendour and grandeur of the old existing in the modern world. Greeneries add to the serenity of the city.

Thousands of people visit Ehime for its offerings. The Dogo Onsen, which is said to be Japan’s oldest hot spring, is often packed all year round, said Ichiro Takada, interpreter for Japan-East Asia Network of Exchange for Students and Youths 2019 (JENESYS)-Sports Exchange Malaysia.

Dating back thousands of years, the Dogo Onsen Main Building — a three-storey wooden building built in 1894 — is a nationally designated important cultural property.

Like other famous sites, Dogo Onsen has its own mythical folklore. It was said that an injured egret soaked his leg in the hot spring and the long-legged bird was cured.

Locals were amazed with what they witnessed and the therapeutic nature of these hot springs. This gave birth to the Dogo Onsen. Besides hot springs and public bathhouses, Ehime offers exhilarating landscapes and natural wonders. The Mount Kiro Observatory Park, also known as Imabari, provides the best view of the surrounding sea.

Despite the rather steep drive up the mountain and several flights of steps, you will enjoy a 360-degree breathtaking view from the peak, a sight any painter will record on a canvass.

A small souvenir shop offers orange-decorated towels, a familiar theme at stores in Ehime, which is famous for its Imabari towels — fine, delicate and extremely high quality products. Ehime’s official mascot is a dog named Mikyan whose face is literally an orange, representing the region’s main export. Like most things produced in Japan, Ehime’s oranges are grown with love, care and pride.

“We call ourselves the Oranges Kingdom, or ‘the best place for oranges’,” said Naoki Saito, chief director of the sports and culture department at the Ehime prefectural government.

As many as 40 different types of mandarin oranges are grown in Ehime besides the prefecture’s two original orange species. Around 210,000 tonnes of oranges are exported annually from the prefecture, according to data compiled by All Nippon Airways’ (ANA) regional vitalisation project, “Tastes of Japan by ANA”.

Although Ehime is Japan’s top citrus fruit producer, not much of the fruit made its way to Malaysia previously due to the lack of a trade agreement, Saito said during the JENESYS 2019-Sports Exchange Malaysia courtesy call to Ehime government headquarters.

“However, we started exporting (more) to Malaysia starting February this year. And in December, you’ll see the Beni Madonna — our own species of orange — in Malaysian supermarkets,” Saito said.

Exports from the prefecture are mainly shipped to Malaysia through Khaishen Trading Sdn Bhd, he added.

As of March this year, Ehime exported about 10 tonnes of the fruits to Malaysia. Ehime’s oranges are also exported to Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Macau, Canada, Cambodia and the European Union.

For a display of Ehime’s sporting interest, the Ehime Prefectural Budokan is the best place to start.

From the outside, the martial arts gym looks like a gigantic temple, structurally supported by wooden beams and built on a base of larger than life stones. The wood structures are about 150 years old, and the gabled roof comprises about 320,000 tiles — all made in Ehime.

The structure houses a main arena that’s also used for concerts, training areas for judo and kendo (a traditional Japanese martial art), and an exercise room with various gym machines.

The prefecture also has strong ties with Malaysia through badminton. A memorandum of understanding was signed between Ehime and the Badminton Association of Malaysia in July last year to organise training camps for the Malaysian national team in preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“Our governor was a badminton athlete in college. So he’s always very interested in the sport. Thanks to him, we have these training camps from other countries besides Malaysia,” Saito said.

Badminton training starts from a young age, said Satoshi Matsunoki, general director of the Ehime Badminton Association. There are 30 badminton clubs in the prefecture at the elementary school level alone, he added.

“The Japanese develop players from young and this makes them better,” Matsunoki told reporters. “But maintaining the coaches’ level of competence is also very important. Our goal is to maintain the level and ensure that it continues through to the next generation,” he added.

Malaysian, Izuan Ibrahim, is one such figure who’s contributed greatly to the development of badminton in the prefecture, having served as a youth coach in Ehime.

Izuan also used to coach the Japanese back-up national badminton team, of which Kento Momota was a member. As of Oct 2019, Momota ranked first in the Badminton World Federation’s men’s singles world rankings.

“He (Izuan) is a person who really started our growth from the very beginning. That’s how we think of him,” Matsunoki said.

Former national shuttler Datuk Misbun Sidek is also highly regarded, with Matsunoki dubbing him “a very good high-level coach” with whom Japan has a strong personal relationship.

The prefecture has a GDP of ¥4.92 million (approximately RM189,437.17) as per data from the Prefectural Citizens’ Economic Accounts 2014, Cabinet Office.

Major industries include paper/pulp, nonferrous metal industry, chemicals, shipbuilding and electrical machinery, according to the Japan External Trade Organisation.

Ehime has a population of 1.43 million and a labour force of 700,000, based on a 2015 consensus. Matsuyama’s population alone is about 500,000.

But Japan is facing the problem of an ageing population and Ehime is no exception.

Many young people leave Ehime to study and work in bigger cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, said Oda Hiroaki, subsection chief of distribution planning under the agricultural planning division at the Ehime Agricultural Marine Product Department.

“It’s a problem. We don’t have enough young people. But living costs in Tokyo for example, are very high. So many people prefer to retire in places like Ehime,” Hiroaki said.

Tourism is a major supporter of Ehime’s economy, as the prefecture is home to the Nishiseto Expressway, which connects Onomichi, Hiroshima, and Imabari, Ehime.

The 70km expressway, often called the Shimanami Kaido, is a world-famous cycling destination, as its many suspension bridges — complete with cycling paths — offer spectacular views of the Seto Inland Sea.

Marathons are also popular with the locals here on the Shimanami Kaido. Even for the less athletically-inclined, the uphill climb at the start of the route is worth the journey.

Ehime embodies serenity, tranquillity and all nature’s splendours. The small-town charm coupled with friendly locals and nature’s best creations make this prefecture a hidden gem in Japan which has plenty to offer.