Jerry Nelson: Ichinomiyas love the Midwest, including lutefisk, ice fishing

Jerry Nelson
Special to the Farm Forum
Lutefisk lovers Akimoto and Tomoko Ichinomiya.

It’s always good to meet fellow lutefisk enthusiasts no matter where they hail from.

My wife and I became acquainted with Akimoto and Tomoko Ichinomiya through various dairy-related activities. Aki is the assistant dairy plant manager at South Dakota State University. Tomoko is a program assistant for the office of the president at SDSU. Aki grew up in Tokyo. Tomoko is from the city of Fukuoka in southern Japan.

My wife and I recently did lunch with the Ichinomiyas to learn how they ended up in South Dakota and how they became acquainted with lutefisk.

“My father was a businessman who worked in the import-export field,” Aki said. “He worked very hard. Sometimes he would come home from an overseas business trip, change clothes and go straight to the office.”

Tokyo is a thrumming metropolis of 14 million people. Aki longed to escape the crowded city.

“There are people whose job is to literally shove as many passengers as possible into subway cars during rush hour,” Aki said. “I wanted to get away from all that, so I contacted the Ministry of Agriculture to see if they had any farm positions. I was sent to the northern island of Hokkaido where I worked on an 80-cow dairy farm for three weeks. It was difficult work, but I loved the cows and the open spaces and being able to see the stars at night.”

Jerry Nelson

After attending a branch of the University of Nevada in Tokyo for a year, Aki, with encouragement from his father, decided to transfer to a college in the United States.

“It was easier to be admitted as an international student in Iowa and South Dakota, so I began to research different universities. I transferred to Augustana University in Sioux Falls because they had an (English as a second language, or ESL) program," Aki said.

“The area where I grew up is subtropical,” Tomoko said. “We had orange trees and grew things in our garden the year round. But I didn’t like the heat and humidity. I wanted to live someplace where it gets cold in the wintertime. I looked through a directory of universities in the Midwest, and Augustana was near the top because it starts with an A. I called them, and they were so nice that I started packing my bags.”

Tomoko met Aki while taking ESL classes at Augustana.

“I was told that there was this cute Japanese guy that I had to meet,” Tomoko said. “People from Tokyo speak in a much different dialect than people from my area. I could barely understand him.”

Aki eventually decided to study dairy manufacturing at SDSU.

“When I was growing up I thought that meat came from the supermarket,” he said. “I felt the need to become more connected to our food and how it’s produced. At SDSU, I milked cows on the university’s dairy farm and studied animal science and meat processing. I wanted to learn about all of the facets of agriculture.”

“We feel much more connected to nature and where our food comes from since we moved to the Midwest,” Tomoko said. “The people here have been very kind and welcoming. The sweet corn is so delicious, it’s like eating honey! It took us a while to get accustomed to how tall and blonde people are. We have a deep respect for farmers. They have to do everything for themselves and find ways to make things work.”

Tomoko and Aki enjoy our chilly Midwestern winters.

“We like to go ice fishing,” Tomoko smiled. “I will send photos of a frozen lake with cars driving on the ice to my family back home. They find it hard to believe.”

Aki teaches college students how to turn milk into cheese and ice cream.   

“I enjoy training students. It’s fun to watch them grow and develop. And I like it when people come to the dairy bar for an ice cream. Seeing the pleasure on their faces brings a lot of joy to me.”

And as for lutefisk, well...

“When I was at Augustana I was hosted by the Ode family, who dairy-farmed at Brandon, South Dakota,” Aki said. “The Odes are Norwegian and at Christmastime they would serve all the traditional Norwegian dishes. People had warned me that lutefisk was an acquired taste, but I liked it from the first bite.”

“Lutefisk is wonderful,” Tomoko concurred. “If it’s prepared right you don’t even need butter, just a little pepper.”

Aki and Tomoko have immersed themselves fully in the Midwestern culture and have cultivated a wide circle of friends.

“We feel that we have two families,” Tomoko said. “One is here in the Midwest and the other is in Japan.”

Jerry Nelson’s book, "Dear County Agent Guy", is available at http://Workman.com and in bookstores nationwide