Olive fanatics rejoice: Shodoshima, an off-the-beaten-path island in southern Japan, is a haven for all things olive (there’s even an olive theme park!).
There simply cannot be a cheerier way to kick off a vacation than to see the beaming face of “Olive-shima chan.” The jolly little olive-headed character is plastered all over the shops, hotels, and bus stops of Shodoshima—a nearly 60-square-mile isle in southern Japan that’s positively obsessed with olives. The happy soul is a fitting mascot for the relatively unknown island, revealing to visitors who arrive by ferry (either via the one-hour journey from Takamatsu in the south or the three-hour trip from Kobe in the north) just how mad for olives this island really is.
The first olive seedlings were brought over from the United States and Europe in 1908 on behalf of the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce, in an effort to produce a homegrown oil suitable for packing the country’s tinned fish in. While the trees didn’t take as well in neighboring isles, the fruit has thrived on Shodoshima ever since, thanks to the island’s year-round mild climes. Today, Shodoshima is a near-doppelgänger for a southern Mediterranean island—albeit one that is 9,000 miles away, hidden away in an Asian archipelago.
Famous within Japan for its mighty olive, Shodoshima’s olive industry is thriving, and the olive (with four main varieties here: Mission, Manzanillo, Nevadillo Blanco, and Lucca) feeds into almost everything the islanders do, from cooking to cosmetics (there’s even an olive theme park!). For those with a taste for the green fruit, you simply have to see it to believe it: Accordingly, here are the six can’t-miss experiences on this olive-obsessed Japanese island.
1. Go to the olive theme park
Your first stop on the island has to be Olive Park, a sort of low-key theme park (although minus the rides), modeled on an ancient Greek village. That may seem confusing, until you learn that Shodoshima is a “sister city” to Greece’s Milos island, likewise famed for its olives and olive oil. Accordingly, the park’s creators have installed a replica Grecian Parthenon, amphitheater, and a statue of Athena on the site. There are row upon row of silvery-green olive trees—including one that the late Emperor Hirohito planted here in 1950—and visitors can learn all about the island’s olive-related history via the multimedia exhibits in the visitor center, or via information points spread around the park and its gardens. (Tip: While you’re here, don’t miss a highly ’grammable photo op, while pretending to fly aboard a broomstick à la the 1989 Studio Ghibli film, Kiki’s Delivery Service, which was filmed here.)
2. Sign up for an olive oil tasting session
While there are several trained “olive oil sommeliers” (yes, that’s a thing) throughout Japan, there are equally qualified olive oil producers on the island who can arrange a tour and tasting of Shodoshima’s very best extra virgin olive oil (which should officially be swilled from little blue glasses, by the way, so that the tasters aren’t influenced by the color). Toyo Olive is one of the oldest and most respected olive producers on the island; with advance notice, it welcomes guests to tour its olive groves and for tasting sessions of its oils. Or, to get super geeky, visit the Shozo Olive Research Institute, which analyzes the island’s olive production; it offers olive-oriented classes, tours, and tastings (although they’re conducted in Japanese), as well as a permanent exhibition about the island’s olive agriculture.
3. Enjoy some olive soft serve
All over Japan, there are interesting ice-cream flavors to sample; purple sweet potato, carrot, sweetcorn, and even soy sauce. On Shodoshima, the soft serve flavor of choice is olive; you can order a scoop at Olive Park. It’s surprisingly sweet and tastes a bit like matcha tea ice cream. (Tip: It’s best enjoyed as an ice-cream float over olive soda, which tastes something like apple soda, for a double hit of the fruit.)
4. Get slathered in olive oil products at an onsen
The oil that comes from the pressed olive is naturally loaded with antioxidant ingredients, making it the perfect product for Shodoshima’s five onsen (hot springs). The most popular spot is Sun Olive Hot Springs at the Olive Park, but for a more luxurious spa, try the ryokan (a traditional Japanese guesthouse) Shimayado Mari. Here, you are given a kimono to change into before heading into the spa’s indoor and outdoor baths, where you can slather your body with olive-oil based products—or pay the in-house therapists to use them during a massage; either way, it’s pure bliss.
5. Dig into olive-flavored wagyu beef
The idea of feeding leftover dried olive pulp to cows is a relatively new farming notion: It was only in 2010 when local island farmer Masaki Ishii had the bright idea of using the detritus of the olive-pressing process for some lucky animals to enjoy for dinner. As a result, the ensuing product, sanuki wagyu, is said to be the most expensive cut of meat in the world, due to it having the highest fat content of any existing steak, along with its rarity—there are only an estimated 2,220 Wagyu cows in the Kagawa prefecture, which is where Shodoshima lies. After a few bites, it’s easy to see why it commands such a high price tag. The extra fatty marbling of the meat makes it juicy, while there’s a slight yet delicious olive tang in each piece.
6. Take home olive memorabilia
If you haven’t yet hit olive fatigue, there are literally suitcases’ worth of olive-related mementos to bring home. Olive soft toys, candied olives, olive ketchup, olive sake, all manner of Olive-shima chan trinkets . . . the list goes on. Family or friends not a fan of the fruit? Bring them back little bottles of the four-year-old, barrel-aged soy sauce from Yama Roku (as seen on Netflix’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat) or handmade noodles from the 100-year-old Masagokinosuke Seimenjo factory. And save those chocolate-covered olives for your plane ride home.