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Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013

News photo
Have turnip will travel: Yoshio Otsuka (right) holds a rutabaga used in the 2011 International Rutabaga Curling Championship and kept frozen for a year, during his visit to Ithaca, New York, in late December. PHOTOS COURTESY OF YOSHIO OTSUKA

WEEK 3

Turnip-tossing turns up trumps for trader


Staff writer

Yoshio Otsuka's years of striving to revive a near-extinct strain of turnip known to have been grown some 400 years ago in the Shinagawa district of today's central Tokyo recently struck pay dirt in a most unexpected fashion.

News photo
Roots and all: Yoshio Otsuka, a vegetable vendor from Tokyo, examines a box of rutabaga in Ithaca, New York.

That's because, via a little local celebrity, his efforts at botanical resurrection prompted a bizarre twist of fate, taking him halfway round the world to the small city of Ithaca in the scenic Finger Lakes area of upper New York state — to compete in the 2012 International Rutabaga Curling Championship, no less.

And now the five-day trip he and two other Japanese "athletes" took in late December to the championship venue at Ithaca Farmers Market will be the main feature of a "variety documentary" show, as public broadcaster NHK dubs it, being aired in February.

Otsuka, a 64-year-old vegetable store owner in Shinagawa, said he had never imagined he would ever be called upon to hurl rutabaga the size and approximate shape (after a little trimming, as the rules permit) of small bowling balls in a world final in the United States. In fact, he had never ever seen or touched a rutabaga before, as the root vegetables also known as Swedish turnips or simply swedes are not generally grown in Japan.

Otsuka's odyssey all started in late November, when he was contacted by a NHK person who asked him to enter the event's "semi-finals" in Japan, which the broadcaster was set to stage for its TV show. He was told that the winner of the Japan event would then be sent to compete in Ithaca as the "Japan champion" — with all expenses covered by NHK.

As enjoyable and exciting a lark as this may have sounded to others, Otsuka wasn't at all thrilled. "I declined many times, because, as a vegetable vendor, I don't enjoy tossing good produce around," he said. "Plus, it was in December, when I can't be busier. Why should I participate in such an event?"

But the NHK people persisted, saying Otsuka's turnip connection they'd somehow heard about would make a good feature on the program. Finally, he grudgingly accepted the offer — on condition that he could take specimens of the Shinagawa Turnip to the Japan semifinals and introduce the purebred revived vintage veggie there. After all, he argued, he'd been promoting its cultivation and consumption for years as part of community revitalization efforts (see the JT's coverage of these at www.japantimes.co.jp/text/fl20091220x2.html)

Then, on the day of the semifinals at a gym in Saitama Prefecture on Dec. 8, with some 25 participants — including past bowling and curling champions and other athletic types taking part — Otsuka's turnips came up roses, as it were. In fact it seemed little short of miraculously that, of the three throws each of the participants was allowed, Otsuka's second pitch down a 25-meter lane at a traffic cone saw his rutabaga not only hit the cone but perch unbeatably on the edge of its base, he recalled. And so he became the Japan champion.

Next, the Shinagawa trader and two young runnersup — one a college-level curler and the other "also an athlete of some kind" — winged off to New York on Dec. 19 along with an NHK camera crew.

To Otsuka's surprise, it turned out to be a great trip, and he received a warm and passionate welcome from the Ithaca folks, he said. Being the only farming-industry person on the Japanese team, organizers of the annual International Rutabaga Curling Championship, which is run by Ithaca-area residents and growers, took him on a tour of vegetable farms and supermarkets with colorful organic produce piled high on the shelves.

Now, though, Otsuka is under strict instructions from NHK not to talk about details of the Dec. 22 competition itself, or its outcome — but he did disclose that at the end of the event he gave a big shout of "Ithaca, Banzai!" to thunderous applause from the spectators.

"It was short but a lot of fun," said Otsuka, who had never before been abroad except for four trips to Finland in the late 2000s to arrange for the harvesting and exporting to Japan of wild matsutake mushrooms that grew there in profusion but which hardly anyone ate — a venture that has since foundered as global warming has slashed the harvest there.

"I always thought that farming in America was all large-scale," Otsuka said. "But I realized that, in places like Ithaca, small-scale farmers were very active, and were promoting organic produce and taking their vegetables to the market on weekends. I felt inspired."

And how did rutabaga taste?

"Oh, I had just a bite," he said. "It tasted, um, like a turnip."

Yoshio Otsuka's New York trip will be featured in a 45-minute TV program titled "Sekaio" ("World Champions"), to be aired on Feb. 23 on NHK-G from 8 p.m.


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