Story by Shannon Wianecki
Photos by Linny Morris
At the dawn of the twentieth century, Shinichi Hashimoto set sail for Hawaii. He was among the first of the thousands of Japanese laborers who came to the Islands hoping to find work, and his ship arrived in Honolulu at a dramatic moment in the city’s history: Honolulu was under quarantine due to an outbreak of bubonic plague. A fire intended to destroy plague-ridden houses had gotten out of hand, and Chinatown had just been burned to the ground.
The ship skirted this crisis and continued on to Hana, Maui. There, Shinichi disembarked and found a job on a rubber plantation in nearby Nahiku. It was hard work: ten-hour days of settling rubber trees into rocky, volcanic terrain for just $.50 a day. Most of the Japanese field hands were bachelors intent on making money and returning home. But not Shinichi; he had brought his family along with him. He planned to stay.
By 1915, when the plantation folded, Shinichi had squirreled away enough money to buy a farm of his own. He purchased a ten-acre plot in Kula, sight unseen. A third of the way up Haleakala, the island’s massive, dormant volcano, it boasted panoramic views of the summit, the central valley and two glittering shorelines.
The property had its downsides, too: The access road amounted to little more than a mule path. The ground was steep and rocky, and the air bitter cold during winter. Water was in short supply. Unlike the coastal rainforest of Nahiku, this dry region of the island averaged around thirty inches of rain per year with nighttime temperatures that sometimes dipped below forty degrees. But while the climate could be challenging for people, there was one fruit, Shinichi discovered, for which it was perfect: persimmons.
Persimmons are revered in Japan, where farmers have cultivated the autumnal fruit for over two thousand years. For just as long, Asian artists have celebrated the charismatic deciduous trees in traditional woodcuts and poetry. A haiku by the famous seventeenth-century poet Bashö succinctly captures their importance:
A village grown old
not a single house
without a persimmon tree.
The tree is native to Japan, China, Burma and the Himalayas, though its English name derives from an Algonquin word. North America has its own indigenous persimmon —a smallish, super-astringent fruit that’s nowhere as sweet and delectable as its Far Eastern cousin. The Japanese fruit, known as kaki, migrated west with the first Japanese immigrants. Shinichi staked his fortune on this delicacy from his homeland. He planted five hundred kaki trees on half of his ten acres. On the other half he sowed vegetables, sparing room for a dwelling. Nearly a century later the orchard is still there, still producing fruit for his descendants: a living testament to how a small farm can nourish a family and a community.
Clark Hashimoto, Shinichi’s great-grandson and one of the current owners of Hashimoto Persimmon Farm, leads a small group on a tour of his trees. It’s November, the peak of the two-month persimmon season, which means the entire Hashimoto clan has gathered to help with the harvest. Shinichi turned the farm over to his son Isami, who turned it over to his son John, who turned it over to his son Clark.
The latest proprietor operates the family business with help from his mom, wife and four siblings, their spouses and a passel of children and grandchildren. Counting the littlest helpers, six generations of Hashimotos have farmed the land.
Clark’s tour lags as guests stop to snap photos, enchanted by the scenery. It’s no wonder: In autumn the orchard blazes with fall colors that rival those found in New England forests. Plump orange globes hang from slender gray branches beneath a canopy of gold, rust, maroon and pink leaves—each glowing as if lit from within.
There’s an old-world feel amidst the trees; the footpaths between them were made prior to the invention of machine pickers and have never been widened. Here and there a ladder rests against a trunk, standing ready to hoist someone to fetch fruit growing on the upper limbs. White wooden scaffolding surrounds many of the trees, supporting branches that bear so much fruit they’d otherwise break beneath the weight.
Clark describes the three varieties of persimmon that grow on the farm: maru, hachiya and fuyu. The maru, which ripen first, have already been picked. Chock full of tannins, they’re too astringent to eat raw. The Hashimotos cure them with dry ice to reduce the pucker factor. After twenty-four hours the tart fruit turns candy-sweet, its yellow skin mottled with brown pockets of sugar. Maru aren’t as pretty as the glossy orange fuyu, says Clark, but they’re tastier. Historically, contemplative Buddhists have viewed persimmons as symbols of spiritual transformation, the shift from acrid ignorance to sweet wisdom.
The hachiya variety are also astringent. Big as softballs and pointed at the bottom, they’re picked and then abandoned on the counter until utterly ripe. When ready their flesh is sweet jelly held together by a thin skin and eaten with a spoon. There are only a dozen hachiya trees on the farm; there are 250 or so maru trees, and the remaining two hundred-plus are fuyu—the type most often seen in grocery stores. These smallish, pumpkin-shaped persimmons are crunchy when ripe. Eaten like an apple, they taste delicious straight off the tree. But that’s just the start. The tour guests head into the processing shed to discover how versatile the fruit can be.
It’s a special occasion: a farm dinner hosted by Kupu Maui, a pop-up restaurant that allows gourmets to eat on location, where their food is grown. The Hashimotos’ 1940s farm building has been transformed into an elegant dining hall for the evening. Chef Lyndon Honda whips up a Thanksgiving meal in a makeshift kitchen in the corner. The menu brims with persimmon-flavored items including stuffing, hash, panna cotta and fried green persimmons. The latter—tiny wheels of tart, salty goodness—are so scrumptious that guests sneak them from one another’s salads.
Clark and his family sit at the head table, looking both pleased and bemused as the diners gush over each dish and praise the idyllic view beyond the processing shed’s windows. Clark’s mother, Hanako Hashimoto, sits beside him. At 94 years old, the family matriarch is the same age as the venerable trees outside. She raised her family in this humble, one-room shelter. Nine people altogether—she and husband John, their five children and John’s parents —lived here before the construction of the larger house next door. Her family knows how to live simply and how to cooperate.
When Hanako smiles, her eyes vanish behind sickle-moon creases. Despite her years she’s bright and energetic, especially when talking about her favorite fruits. Her husband John was an ambitious agriculturalist: He experimented with almond, walnut, apricot, plum and peach trees. “The Kelsey green plums were delicious,” Hanako remembers. “I miss eating them!” What remains from John’s trials, aside from the persimmons, are cherimoyas and loquats—the latter a large, superior variety imported from Japan.
Because the two-month persimmon harvest wasn’t enough to feed so many hungry mouths, John and Hanako grew head cabbage to support the family. “The cabbage and onions that grow up here are the sweetest,” Hanako says. “Even a few miles down the road, they’re not as good.” She credits this to the soil, which she knows intimately. It’s true that the farm occupies a sweet spot on Pulehuiki Road in Upper Kula. It lies in the convergence zone of two different Haleakala eruptions: the Kula and the Hana volcanic series. The soil here is well drained and loamy—ideal for farming.
Until John passed away in 2007 at age 90, he and Hanako worked side by side in the field, bundled up in flannels against the brisk Kula air, planting vegetables, pruning trees and picking fruit. “They sent all of us kids to college,” says Clark with pride. “We all have degrees.” Hanako beams at him with a smile that suggests she’d do it all over again were her body willing. She nods. “I had to work hard.”
Hanako and John turned the farm’s management over to Clark and his wife Jackie in 2003. While John helped found the Maui Farmers’ Cooperative, an initiative that helped local farmers cut costs and stay competitive, his son did similar work as a county extension agent for the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. “I’ve been helping farmers all my life,” says Clark.
He gave his own farm a boost by expanding the original processing room and building a new drying shed. Thanks to his improved care of the trees, Hashimoto Persimmon Farm has recorded bumper crops for the past few years. Meanwhile Jackie, a former home economics teacher at Baldwin High School, developed recipes to make use of bumped and bruised fruits that might otherwise go to waste. Her creations include persimmon jam, butter and scone mix; the scones, served at the Kupu Maui dinner, were a huge hit.
Clark expected that interest in the traditional Japanese treat would fade when the older generation began passing away. Instead local demand for persimmons has picked up. “We can name our price,” he says. But along with the cost of the fruit, the cost of business continues to rise, too. He recently researched what it would take to replace the antique sorting machine—a lovely turquoise relic that sends fruits tumbling gently down into a round fiat. “They don’t make them like this anymore,” he says, shaking his head. “The new machines are computerized with infrared to sort out bruises … and they cost half a million dollars.”
Over the years, the Hashimotos have strived not only to improve their own farm but to support the survival of other Upcountry farms. In the last decades many of Maui’s family farms have disappeared beneath bulldozers and development, abandoned when the next generation decided it wasn’t up for the challenge of working the land. But the Hashimotos have found a system that works with their contemporary lives. Because persimmons remain dormant until spring, they’re a relatively easy crop to manage. When fall harvest rolls around, the extended family assembles to pick, sort and pack fruit on weekends. A volunteer cooks lunch for everybody. When the harvest ends in December, Clark begins the year-round work of repairing the aging wood braces and pruning all five hundred trees. Scaling the ladder and choosing which slender branches to snip and which to save is a tedious task that he hopes to pass on to his own sons soon. “Farming persimmons is not something you can make a living off of,” he says, “but it’s good for keeping family tradition and making extra money for vacations.”
Each year, persimmon fans make pilgrimages up Pulehuiki’s steep, winding road to purchase their favorite fruit: More than fifty percent of the farm’s sales happen onsite. Along the way, sharp-eyed drivers might catch sight of ring-necked pheasants stalking the mist-laden orchard for fallen fruit. Many customers are old friends who stay to chat while Hanako, Jackie or one of the keiki (children) sorts fruit into wooden crates. Top-quality persimmons are carefully placed into cardboard boxes: eight pounds for $20.
“Twenty-five years ago persimmons were not as popular,” says Clark. “Now we can’t grow enough.” He’s right. Demand outpaces supply, and nearly all of the persimmons grown in Hawaii come from his farm or one of his neighbors on Pulehuiki Road. Hanako also refiects on the past. “Those green plums were delicious,” she says. “But the trees didn’t survive like the persimmons.”