Amakusa Olive Orchard AVILO


All for that single, sparkling green drop

Amakusa’s First Encounter with Olives

Oe Catholic Church, built by French missionary priest, Frederic Louis Garnier, with the help of local Christians in 1933. ■ Oe Catholic Church, built by French missionary priest, Frederic Louis Garnier, with the help of local Christians in 1933.
Amakusa Olive Orchard AVILO, opened in 2010. ■ Amakusa Olive Orchard AVILO, opened in 2010.

About 400 years ago, many residents of Amakusa Island were converted to Christianity by Portuguese missionaries such as Padre Luís de Almeida. The missionaries founded seminaries called Collegios in the region, and it is believed that the four boys of the Tensho Embassy spend some time at the Amakusa Collegio after they returned to Japan from Europe.
Since the 16th century, Amakusa has continued to retain these connections with Nanban (Southern barbarian) culture through Christianity. And today, the scent of European culture has started to waft across these lands once more.
Amakusa Olive Orchard AVILO began its farming operations with the planting of 1,300 olive tree saplings in the hills of Amakusa City. Around the same time, Amakusa City also launched a regional promotion plan with the concept of “creating an olive island.”

“We had 2,000 hectares of abandoned farmland that we wanted to do something with, so we focused on ‘olives so as not to compete with local farmers. We also hoped that it would contribute to local tourism.” Masakazu Ito, Leader of the Olive Business Promotion Group at Kyudenko Corporation, the company that owns AVILO, described the farm’s beginnings. It was with such intentions that Kyudenko began growing olives. This venture was without precedent in Kyushu as a community-based new business that would also contribute to society.
“Back in the old days, olive oil, which was first brought to Japan from Portugal, was apparently called ‘Horuto no abura’ or ‘Porutogaru no abura (Portugal oil).’ In that respect as well, we thought that Amakusa, with its historical connections to Portugal, and olives would be a good match.” (Mr. Ito)


Ryuji Kiyota, Orchard General Manager ■ Ryuji Kiyota, Orchard General Manager

The orchard’s operations themselves were entrusted to General Manager, Ryuji Kiyota, who actually grew up on an orchard himself. After many years working in an office at Kyudenko, however, Amakusa and fruit tree cultivation were completely new territory for Mr. Kiyota. To make matters worse, when he arrived at the orchard, he found the area’s soil to be of clayey with poor drainage. The start of the project was far from smooth sailing.


Growing Olives in Amakusa

White pebbles laid on the ground around the trees, and the support braces tied to all of the trees. The orchard offers walking tours for tourists. White pebbles laid on the ground around the trees, and the support braces tied to all of the trees. The orchard offers walking tours for tourists. ■ White pebbles laid on the ground around the trees, and the support braces tied to all of the trees. The orchard offers walking tours for tourists.

Many days of trial and error began for Mr. Kiyota and the orchard’s staff.
“We tried everything that we thought might work, such as replacing as much of the soil as possible, digging holes about 2 meters deep around the saplings and filling them with pumice stone for better drainage, paving the ground with white pebbles that would reflect the light up into the trees to increase their sunlight exposure,” Mr. Kiyota recalled.
He traveled to Shodoshima Island, which accounts for 90% of olive production in Japan, to study the cultivation methods there, but found that climate and soil conditions were very different, so many of their methods were not immediately applicable to growing olives in warm, humid Kyushu.

An even greater headache was caused by typhoons. Because the roots of olive trees are quite shallow, they are easily knocked down by strong winds, and the trees themselves are weakened. In fact, a typhoon in 2014 knocked down 500 of AVILO’s trees, dramatically reducing the volume of olives that could be harvested for the following two to three years.

Determined not to let any more trees be knocked down, they immediately embarked on countermeasures. First, they replaced the “braces” that support the trees, something that is rarely seen in European olive orchards, with stronger ones and tied them to each individual sapling. This has paid off and the orchard has experienced no major typhoon damage since, allowing them to triple their harvest in 2017 compared to the previous year.

shunji Kubo, who is himself one of the joint research farmers, as well as a growing instructor. ■shunji Kubo, who is himself one of the joint research farmers, as well as a growing instructor.

While the orchard was engaged in these struggles, the City of Amakusa established the Olive Promotion Council, with the aim of “creating an olive island.” The Council launched an initiative to dispatch instructors to farms and individuals that wanted to grow olives.
Shunji Kubo is one of those instructors. Mr. Kubo worked as a fruit farming instructor with the JA agricultural cooperative organization until his retirement, but he had never dealt with olives before. He is now exploring methods of growing olives that will suit Amakusa, while acting as a bridge between AVILO, the large-scale olive orchard, and small scale farmers.
“We currently have 68 ‘joint research farms’ that are pursuing olive growing in Amakusa together with AVILO. The outcomes of these farms’ efforts in growing olives by trial and error under different conditions have immediately been accumulated as olive-growing know-how for Amakusa. I, too, have been captivated by olive oil, something I knew nothing about previously, and am really looking forward to seeing this region become an olive island,” said Mr. Kubo.

Mr. Kiyota also talked about making olive oil together with the joint research farms here in Amakusa. Not only does AVILO mutually explore growing methods with these farms, but we also purchase olives, which are difficult to sell in their natural form, from these farms, turning them into olive oil with AVILO’s olive mill, and selling the final product. AVILO does not complete the manufacturing itself, instead outsourcing bottling to a factory on Amakusa Island. The underlying hope of this is to make this project grow into an industry that Amakusa can be proud of through mutual cooperation with other companies and local residents, as a business that is firmly based in the community.

Growing olives (primary industry), processing them into products (secondary industry), and distributing and marketing those products (tertiary industry), as well as offering tours of the orchard and hands-on experiences for tourists, AVILO could be described as a model case of a sixth-order industry that is able to bring vitality to the region from multiple angles.

Olive Oil Pressed Within 24 hours

Four olive oil varieties can be tasted to compare aroma and flavor. ■ Four olive oil varieties can be tasted to compare aroma and flavor.

“A, B, C, and D. Which did you feel tasted the best?”
Visitors to the orchard can enjoy free olive oil tastings, guided by AVILO staff, who are qualified olive oil sommeliers. Olive oil has become quite common in Japan, but there are not many opportunities to taste it before buying. AVILO’s product range includes original oils made with olives grown on partner orchards in Italy and Portugal as well as in Amakusa. By tasting these oils, customers can gain a sense of the subtle differences in flavor.

In Japan, even if an olive oil is marketed as “extra virgin olive oil,” it is not graded under international standards, so the quality of these oils can vary considerably. All of AVILO’s products are genuine extra virgin oils that meet the international standard of an acidity level of 0.8 or less. Because olive oil is basically the “juice of the olive,” just like freshly squeezed fruit, descriptions such as “light and not oily,” “tastes like spice,” and “a green, grass-like aroma” suit AVILO’s oil perfectly.

The Mediterranean-style building beside the olive orchard is the press mill. During harvest season, the building is filled with a rich, aroma that smells like green apples. ■ The Mediterranean-style building beside the olive orchard is the press mill. During harvest season, the building is filled with a rich, aroma that smells like green apples.

“The fact is that 60% of an olive oil’s quality is determined by the pressing process,” said Mr. Kiyota. Within that process, the “malaxation step,” a process of churning or mixing the milled olives, is particularly important. The olives, which have been carefully picked by hand, one by one, start oxidizing immediately, so they need to be processed as soon as possible. AVILO has a press mill right next door to the orchard, so it is able to start the pressing process as soon as the olives have been harvested.
Olives sent to the mill for pressing are first washed and milled. The next step is “malaxation.”
“Keeping a close eye on the olive paste as it is being churned, when it reaches the point that we think is best, we place the paste into a centrifuge to separate out the oil. That churning time is very important. There is no set rule about how many minutes it should be churned for. The condition of the olives varies depending on what the weather was like that year and how much rain fell before harvest, so we watch for the moment when the oil looks like it is just about to rise and make a split-second judgement.”

■ When the green olives have just started to change color, they are harvested and pressed in the mill to extract the oil.
ほのかに色づき始めた緑色の実を収穫し、搾油機にかけてオイルを搾り出す。

Having traveled to olive orchards in Europe, the home of olive oil, every year and learning by experience everything there is to know about the process, from growing the olives to the right timing for churning, Mr. Kiyota has now become quite the skilled olive oil artisan.
“I feel very nervous at the first pressing in October every year. Even today, I still tear up every time I see that first drop of olive oil come out of the press.”
At this young olive orchard, established only eight years ago, each tree yields an average harvest of 500g of olives. Only 10-15 % of that becomes the pressed oil, so in that moment, when those precious olives that they have raised so carefully are pressed and turn into oil, the hardships of the past year are instantly turned into joy.

Premium 100% Amakusa Olive Oil

Amakusa 100% Limited Edition, in a custom-made Takahama-ware bottle. ■ Amakusa 100% Limited Edition, in a custom-made Takahama-ware bottle.
Amakusa porcelain stone, a high quality white ceramic material also used in Arita and Imari. ■ Amakusa porcelain stone, a high quality white ceramic material also used in Arita and Imari.

Olive oil made with 100% Amakusa olives, which are still rare, is left to settle in a tank for 2 - 3 months after pressing before being bottled. This year (2017 season) as well, a limited run of 300 bottles of Amakusa 100% Limited Edition reached store shelves in mid February. 200 of those bottles were sold in the first week. Customers who had purchased a bottle last year and been struck by how delicious it was were waiting with baited breath for this year’s vintage. This special olive oil is also offered onboard the cruise train, Seven Stars in Kyushu.

The 2017 edition of Amakusa 100% oil is characterized by an aroma of Claude Blanchet pears and sweet and bitter afternotes of walnut. And just like last year, the bottle is an original local Takahama-ware bottle, made with Amakusa porcelain stone.

Large quantities of this natural porcelain stone, a high quality ceramic material in use since ancient times, have been quarried in the area around the Takahama region in west Amakusa facing the East China Sea. A pottery kiln opened in the area in the 18th century, and various types of pottery have been made there ever since. The pottery made in this region has always met the fashions of the times, such as being decorated with the kind of colored pictures that were popular in Europe, similar to Arita ware. Although the kiln stopped production temporarily in the mid-Meiji period, it was revived in 1952 and has continued to make ceramic ware as “Takahama-yaki Juhogama Kiln” ever since.

Toshiaki Furuta, General Manager of Takahama-yaki Juhogama Kiln ■ Toshiaki Furuta, General Manager of Takahama-yaki Juhogama Kiln
Custom-made AVILO bottles that have just been formed, lined up in the Juhogama Kiln workshop. ■ Custom-made AVILO bottles that have just been formed, lined up in the Juhogama Kiln workshop.

According to Toshiaki Furuta, Manager of the Juhogama Factory, this was the kiln’s first attempt at making an order-made bottle for a local product. “We had a lot of difficulty with the pouring spout and the neck of the bottle that holds the cork. To keep the size and thickness even so that the oil would pour out easily while preventing the oil from leaking, we had to make many prototypes before we perfected it.”
The inscription in gold on the beautiful white ceramic, with an original design and the year the oil was produced, highlights the sense that this premium 100% Amakusa oil is very special. “We have one of the bottles, empty of course, on display in our showroom, and customers have said that they want to buy it. We are very happy that, through this kind of collaboration, we can promote the charms of our hometown, Amakusa, together.” (Mr. Furuta)

Based on its olive growing business, Amakusa Olive Orchard AVILO has started to promote the charms of Amakusa to the rest of the country, drawing in the tourism industry and traditional industries as well. Apparently, they are being visited by a growing number of local governments and organizations that want to learn from this example. What Mr. Kiyota and his colleagues have in common with all of the other people who are working hard to have olives take root in Amakusa is a simple, enthusiastic desire to work together with the local community to make something of which Amakusa can be proud. It is a refreshing passion, like the spirit of Southern Europe, which is surrounded by sea like Amakusa.