Yamagata Prefecture– 山形県

Hello! Sorry it has been a while since our last post. Due to summer holidays and the infernal weather, there has been a longer than expected break in our trips. Nevertheless, I have been meaning to post a work-related, agriculture-themed trip I took last fall to Yamagata Prefecture. There, we met an inspiring young farmer who runs Yamagata Girls Farm.

Here is the story in English.

日本語版。

More new trips coming soon!

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Hiroshima Prefecture ー広島県

日本語で読むために、ここを押して下さい。

Location: Hiroshima City, Hiroshima Prefecture

Duration: 2 Days; May 9-10

Impressions of the Trip:

A mention of Hiroshima conjures many images for people around the world, but in terms of agriculture,  oysters and lemons are two of the many specialty products that are synonymous with the Prefecture. Hiroshima, like Kagawa Prefecture, which we covered last fall, enjoys some coastline along the Seto Inland Sea, a stupendously beautiful waterway dotted with hundreds of islands. Each island seems to have its own personality, and  I started my trip with a quick dip in the Seto Inland Sea en route to Okunoshima, an island with an especially quirky history.

Okunoshima is also called Rabbit Island, as it is home to many, many rabbits. During World War II, it housed a poison gas manufacturing facility, and rumor has it that rabbits were used to test the effectiveness of the chemical weapons. Although the facility was closed decades ago and the island was deemed safe for human visitors, few people actually live there. Nevertheless, due to a lapine population explosion, the place is now home to countless rabbits of all shapes and sizes. Neither cats nor dogs are allowed on Okunoshima, so the rabbits have no natural predators. Immediately upon stepping onto the beach at Okunoshima, I noticed dozens of rabbits running towards me from all directions. Except for one fisherman, there were no other people in sight, just lots of grazing bunnies and the creepy remains of the poison gas facility. I walked the perimeter of the tiny island over the course of the next hour, meeting only two other humans, but thousands of rabbits. One side of the island boasted a poison gas museum, and numerous signs describing the facility’s various buildings and landmarks made the whole place seem all the more bizarre. Every time I rounded a corner, a new gaggle of rabbits approached me, curious and not at all scared. While walking around the ruins on the center of the island, hilly and covered with forrest, I kept hearing the slithering sounds of rabbits sliding down the brush-covered hills to see me. After a few hours alone on Rabbit Island, I was encouraged to see large groups of schoolchildren arriving by ferry just as I was leaving. The place felt less post-apocolyptic.

Returning by ferry and slow train to Hiroshima’s more urban parts, I revisited the images most visitors see: the Atomic Bomb Dome, Peace Memorial Park, and the numerous reminders of August 6, 1945. Hiroshima was the first place I lived in Japan, at age 15, and one of the vivid memories that stayed with me from that experience was of a shadow imprint on a building’s wall of a man who was killed by the bomb blast. I suspect anyone with a connection to Hiroshima could reflect on the ways in which the bombing, destruction, and unimaginable loss of life experienced by the city continue to affect it today, but I leave that to others. 

During the visit, Hiroshima hosted the National Omiyage Fair for the first time in 92 years. Omiyage are individually wrapped food items that typically come in packages of 4, 6, 10, or more pieces so they can be easily shared. From rice candy to crab-flavored crackers to tangerine jelly, omiyage generally use ingredients that the region they are from is famous for. It is customary for individuals to bring back a package of omiyage for their coworkers and friends when they return from a vacation or business trip. Any train station or airport in Japan has stores selling omiyage, and they are an obligatory purchase on any trip. 

We had a chance to meet some of the creators and designers of Japan’s most famous omiyage, and to see some of it being made. Hiroshima’s famous omiyage is the momiji manju, a maple-leaf shaped cake filled with red bean paste. Although the obligation to buy omiyage every time one takes a trip might seem burdensome, it is a great way to support local industry. Farmers often team up with packaging designers to take their specialty product and turn it into an omiyage. Hiroshima, for example, produces more lemons than any other prefecture. At the Fair, there were several exhibits on display aiming to promote lemon themed merchandise and gifts.

Omiyage are yet another aspect of regional Japanese culture and agriculture that is embedded in daily life throughout Japan, but virtually unknown outside Japan. The care and attention to detail with which omiyage are packaged and designed is only seen in luxury brands outside Japan.  Yet omiyage are local, simple, and generally made by farmers or villagers. Since each piece of omiyage is individually wrapped, buying one box for an entire office allows the traveler to give a gift to each co-worker or friend without having to search endlessly for something that actually reflects the personality of the place he or she has just returned from.

Kanji: 

御当地, gotouchi. A word that literally means “where one comes from”, but that is used to describe everything from omiyage to sumo wrestlers that hail from a particular place. There are gotouchi Hello Kitty keychains from Okinawa, for example, that feature Kitty wearing a costume that looks like a bitter gourd, a locally-grown specialty or gotouchi Kit Kat flavors (e.g. edamame) that are only sold in certain areas of Japan. The abundance of gotouchi gifts, toys, and food is again an interesting commentary on how much Japanese people appreciate local color and local flavors. 

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Kochi Prefecture 高知県

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Kochi Prefecture

Location: Kochi City, Kochi
Duration:2 days

Impressions of the Trip:

Kochi is a tiny prefecture on the smallest of Japan’s main islands, Shikoku. It is one of Japan’s more remote and hard to get to prefectures. Locals say this remoteness has allowed Kochi to preserve its culture, which has matured, not dissipated, over time. Home to Ryouma Sakumoto, a famous samurai, the place is imbued with a laid-back, but slightly wild atmosphere. Kochi boasts more bars than any other prefecture, a fact that struck me as odd at first given how sparsely populated it is. Neverthess, shortly after arriving, I was invited to join a party of perfect strangers who were drinking sake and telling stories. This happened again with a different group of strangers the following night, leading me to realize that Kochi residents enjoy one another’s company, and use food and drink as a way to get to know one another and stay up to date on local gossip.  Kochi leads the nation in the production of yuzu (a Japanese citrus fruit), ginger, and eggplants. Thanks to its mild climate, the area not only has a thriving citrus industry, it is also known throughout Japan for its surfing, hiking, and as an outdoor sports paradise. Every single meeting I went to in Kochi was with someone who had left the Tokyo area in favor of better work-life balance and a more leisurely and light-hearted approach to life.

That said, Kochi takes its major industry, agriculture, seriously. With the recent yuzu boom overseas, prefectural authorities and businesses have their sights set on marketing yuzu abroad,  especially to upscale French restaurants that can’t get enough of the stuff. Kochi is on the cutting-edge of greenhouse technology development, and in recent years the prefecture has exported its designs and techniques to maximize the efficient use of land to other prefectures focused on citrus and berries.
Kochi has a “sister state” relationship with the entire nation of the Netherlands, modeling farm technology and efficiency after greenhouse technology there. The average farm is Kochi is only .3 hectares in size, yet vertical farming techniques and advanced technology can produce as much as the average Dutch farm, which is 3 hectares, or 10 times the size. Japan leads industrialized countries in pesticide use, but Kochi has led a movement to reduce the use of chemicals in agricultural production  and has become a well-known destination for farmers practicing natural cultivation.

A highlight of my journey through Kochi was motivated by this small, but thriving natural farming community. Akinori Kimura, the 80+ year old organic farmer, cult figure, and author of “Miracle Apples”, was giving talk at a local kindergarten in Kochi. Decades ago, Kimura dedicated his life to growing pesticide-free apples, something no one thought was possible. After failing countless times, blowing his life savings, and alienating himself from his community and family, Kimura was ready to kill himself. Amazingly, he had a revelation on the night he planned to hang himself that changed everything. With new resolve, he transformed his bug-ridden orchard into a thriving operation, all without any chemicals. His success story spread, first within Japan, then to the rest of the world. Despite being featured in magazines and television shows around the world, he still travels Japan spreading the gospel of natural cultivation to farming communities all over rural Japan.

I startled both Kimura and the 300 people who came to his lecture when I walked into the gymnasium. If being a foreigner in Tokyo can make one feel conspicuous, being a foreigner in the most rural nook of rural Japan can be downright awkward. I was asked to introduce myself to the entire audience before finding a place to sit on the gym floor. Kimura’s lecture made a great case for organic farming. Without giving too much away, I will mention that Yoko Ono (yep, that one) was so moved by Kimura’s book that she had it translated into English and put it on her website. It is a fantastic, quick read. It is available for free at this website:
http://imaginepeace.com/miracleapples/?p=56

Kanji:

園芸-horticulture. Kochi is focusing its efforts on greenhouse technology in order to increase the efficiency of its small fruit farms. According to prefectural authorities, Kochi is where much of Japan’s greenhouse technology was invented. This small, but mighty prefecture seems to be leading the charge not just in greenhouse cultivation techniques, but also in encouraging the rest of Japan to take a more eco-friendly, efficient approach to agriculture.

Posted in citrus, government and agriculture, innovative agriculture, Kochi Prefecture, luxury fruit, organic produce, Shikoku, yuzu | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Tochigi Prefecture- 栃木県

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Location: Nasu and Utsunomiya, Tochigi

Duration: 2 days

Dates: January 20 and 21, 2013

Impressions of the Trip:

Among Japan’s many interesting sub-cultures is the Yamagishi community, an intentional community with 40 ” jikkenchi” (“places to realize (Yamagishi) principles”) across Japan and around the world.  In 1956,  founder Miyozo Yamagishi and other original members pooled all their personal assets with the hope of realizing a fulfilled and happy society by doing agricultural work and leading a simple lifestyle supported by other community members.  Today, still, new members of Yamagishi donate their wealth to the Yamagishi association and undertake a quest for happiness in rural communities, where they live on pooled money and minimal possessions.  Decision-making, whether related to work or communal life, is done through a group discussion process.

Each Yamagishi jikkenchi focuses on a specialty agricultural product of the region, whether livestock, dairy, or vegetable, and produces it for sale to consumers across Japan under the Yamagishi brand. The jikkenchi also supply one another with food for consumption by jikkenchi members.  We had the chance to spend a night at a 20-member jikkenchi in rural Tochigi prefecture that specialized in hog farming. Yamamoto-san, who has been with the jikkenchi for almost 40 years and is currently serving as a manager, guided us through the center and explained the farm’s operations.

On the first day, after lunch, we worked with jikkenchi members preparing food for the farm’s 5000 pigs.  The jikkenchi has a system set up with local businesses to receive defective and expired food products in bulk for a very small fee.  This sensible and waste-free arrangement saves disposal fees, compensates the businesses for otherwise total losses, and lets Yamagishi produce hog feed at a fraction of the normal cost.  Our work involved cutting open plastic bags of expired or misshapen noodles received from nearby supermarkets and emptying the contents into a receptacle. The noodles would be mixed with similar quantities of expired cheese, bread, used tempura oil, ketchup, and other food that was no longer suitable for sale or human consumption.

The following day, we accompanied Mr. and Mrs. Yamamoto to Azuma Shokuhin’s natto factory in Utsunomiya.  Natto, or fermented soybeans, is a specialty of the region but has a controversial reputation within Japan, and increasingly, the world.  Natto is generally eaten with rice or raw egg, and has the distinctive properties of being, depending on who you talk to, stinky; delicious; nasty; healthy; or horse food. One thing is sure.  it is “neba neba,” a Japanese word for slimy or stringy.  The sticky, slimy natto exudes threads that stick to everything in reach.  Natto is high in calcium, protein, and several other minerals, low calorie, and high in fiber. It is reputedly good for skin and makes its consumers beautiful.  Despite these benefits, many will not touch the stuff, either because of its consistency, taste, or its stinky properties, for which there is a special word in Japanese, “nattokusai.”

The Azuma factory produces about 60 different types and brands of natto. After suiting up in protective gear, tape rolling all stray hairs or fibers off of our clothes, and standing in an air bath that blew away all dust, we toured the four story building and saw where soybeans were soaking, being sprayed with a bacteria, being squirted into little styrofoam packages and sealed up, and fermenting.  Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was that natto ferments and gets its characteristic stickiness after being packaged, and not before.

 Kanji: 栃木, Tochigi.  We have a silly story for this kanji.  Perhaps because of the 木 in 栃木、until we arrived at Yamamoto’s place we somehow thought we were going to Ibaraki (茨城), also famous for natto.  So, Tochigi (栃木) is our kanji for this trip.

Posted in branding, Farm stay, Farm visit, intentional communities, pigs, Tochigi, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Kagawa Prefecture– 香川県

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Location: Naoshima and Teshima, Kagawa, Shikoku

Duration: 3 days

Dates: November 24-27, 2012
Impressions of the Trip:
Kagawa, the smallest of Japan’s 47 prefectures, is also home to some of the country’s most amazing beauty and the worlds’s coolest modern art. Consisting in part of the islands of the Seto Inland Sea, we spent a few days bopping around on ferries, biking the islands of Naoshima and Teshima.
In the late 1980s, the Benesse Corporation, an education services firm based in nearby Okayama, decided to take up the troubled islands of the Seto Inland Sea as a revitalization project. At the time, the islands were home to refineries, industrial waste sites, and a facility for patients suffering from Hansen’s disease. The Mayor of Naoshima teamed up with Benesse to revitalize Naoshima by rebranding it “Japan’s Art Island”. In addition to placing modern art works by world renowned artists in old, traditional houses, several modern art museums dot the islands of the Inland Sea.
It was the art and natural beauty that initially brought us to Teshima, but oddly enough, it was the lemons that left an equally strong impression. On a rainy morning, we were making our way through Teshima’s terraced rice fields, when a beat up van pulled up alongside us. The driver, whom we later came to know as Okamoto-San, insisted on giving us a lift to a tiny museum on a beach across the island. During the short car ride, Okamoto-san told us he was a lemon farmer, the only organic lemon farmer on Teshima. Given Teshima’s history as an industrial waste site, it was surprising to think about a successful farm thriving there. Okamoto-san charmed us with his toothy smile and friendly manner, but he was so humble that we did not really get the full story until we returned to Tokyo. Before thanking Okamoto-san and bidding him adieu at our destination, we exchanged name cards with him and he recommended that we search for Teshima  lemons on the internet.

Upon returning to Tokyo, we did just that, and found this great article about Okamoto-san. As it happens, he isn’t just a lemon farmer, he single-handedly planted about 10,000 lemon groves and put Teshima lemons on the Japanese citrus map. About the time that we were learning about Okamoto-san’s accomplishments online, a bunch of lemons arrived in the mail from Teshima. Okamoto-san had mailed some to us in Tokyo, filling not only our offices, but also the homes of many neighbors and colleagues, with the scent of his amazing lemons. We wished we had met him earlier in our trip and had another occasion to learn more about him and his story.
Kanji:

Sometimes the best stories and insights into culture, and agriculture, are completely unexpected. Farming so permeates the story of rural Japan that it isn’t altogether strange that we managed to converse with a farmer while exploring the islands of the Seto Inland Sea. What was an extra-happy coincidence, though, is that this farmer was Okamoto-san,  an inspiring person who believed enough in the idea of growing organic lemons on Teshima that he eventually succeeded beyond even his own expectations. To find a rural innovator and creative businessperson like Okamoto-san on a tiny island in the middle of the Sea was  寝耳に水, a great surprise.

 
Posted in Island Life, luxury fruit, Modern Art, organic produce, outdoor adventures, Shikoku | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Akita Prefecture – 秋田県

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Location:  Akita Prefecture

Date:  11/17-11/18, 2012

Host: Akita Prefectural Government, in cooperation with JTB and a local magazine.  This trip was a special promotion, offered selectively to bloggers who applied online.

Impressions of the Trip: At 7:20 sharp, we met our fellow travelers on the Komachi Express platform at Tokyo Station.  We were all bloggers, taking advantage of a special, limited, travel offer from the Akita Prefectural government, JTB, and a local magazine.  The bullet train sped us from the big city to Tohoku snow country in just a couple of hours.

At Kakunodatte we hurried from the bullet train to the local, inland line and piled onto a special train car painted with autumn leaves and outfitted with low wooden tables and tatami seating.  This was the “riori tsushin densha,” a special dining car used to promote and revitalize local agriculture and cuisine.  A network of “farm moms,” – including several of our neatly aproned  hostesses on the train – work together to deliver delicious food items that they produce at their farms directly to this train when it stops at their local stations: roasted chestnuts; “gakko,” or Akita pickles made of delicious vegetables; chestnut rice; a beautiful bento full of seasonal veggies and mushrooms; toasted mochi sweets; and more.  Our hostesses introduced each local “farm mom” (and one farm dad, who made the delivery to the train because mom was too busy) and explained each food item to us. The delicious seasonal foods were the perfect compliment to the fantastic rural scenery outside: autumn-colored nature as far as the eye could see, dotted here and there with orchards, vegetable fields, and houses.

Bellies full, we got off of the dining car at the end of the line, and boarded a bus that took us deeper into the heart of Akita to Nyutou Onsen, which is famous for its outdoor pools of milky-looking hotsprings reputed to have healing properties.   After a relaxing soak in the pool, we headed back down the forested trail to our bus and departed to an award-winning beer brewery situated on the shore of Japan’s deepest lake, Lake Tazawa.  One of the brewery’s unique offerings is a rice beer, designed to compliment Japanese food.  They are currently developing a beer that is meant to be enjoyed either cold or hot: unfortunately, it is still in the development phase and I was not able to try it.  If they succeed in making hot beer taste good, it will be a real revolution!

Sunday morning we returned to Kakunodate, the “samurai city,” where we learned about a local style of basketry made of finely sliced wood, and tried our hand at weaving decorative horses.  I gave my “horse” caribou antlers, to the astonishment and fascination of everyone in the room (I was surprised, too, when everyone came to take pictures of my caribou).  Next we made our way to a family restaurant specializing in natto soup.  Natto is a variety of fermented soybeans with a distinctive odor.  Famously good for the health, they are also famously difficult to eat for the uninitiated: they leave sticky filaments all over your face and inexplicably fluff up as you chew.  Natto soup, on the other hand, exhibited none of those disturbing traits.  A delicious broth full of veggies and mushrooms, it went perfectly with the bowl of Akita Komachi our hosts offered us.  Long considered the best rice variety in all of Japan, recently Komachi has lost ground to Yamagata and Niigata strains of rice.

The father of the family that runs the shop explained to us why Akita Komachi (the rice that the Akita shinkansen is named after, if I am not mistaken) has not been able to hold onto its place at the top of the Tokyo rice market rankings.  Evidently, the climate in Akita has been getting warmer.  High quality rice requires warm days and cold nights to mature properly.  This type of climate is most common right at the base of mountains (the cold, pure water needed for rice is found there, too) Because of Akita’s changing climate, the harvests have been getting smaller and the quality of the rice is not as high as it once was.  Akita has less arable land near mountains than Yamagata and other prefectures, adding another layer to the challenge of creating rice that is competitive in the Japanese market.  One more interesting note he shared was that rice is now being grown in Hokkaido, an area that until recently was far too cold for the crop.

Our last two stops both involved that cold weather food speciality, kouji.  Kouji is a special rice mold, strains of which are used in creating miso, sake, and Japanese pickles, or tsukemono (gakko in Akita dialect, as my hosts repeatedly reminded me).  At 羽場 (Haba) kouji factory, we sampled fresh apples treated with kouji (soft, sweet, and delicious!), a sweet miso jelly packaged in beautiful paper, and rice balls with miso.  At the Amanato sake brewery we saw another variety of kouji incubator and tasted a few varieties of sake.  Sake is unique in the alcohol world in that it has two types of microorganism actively processing the brew simultaneously: kouji breaking down the rice into simple sugars, and yeast eating the sugars, causing fermentation and alcohol production.

Kanji:  This trip’s kanji is 糀、or kouji.  The components of the kanji are “rice” and “flower.”  In the long cold months of the northern part of Japan, it is probably the only flower blooming!

Posted in Fermented Foods, rice, Tohoku Region | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Miyagi Prefecture 宮城県

 

 

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Location:  Sendai and Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture

Host: Trip was done in cooperation with Umari and scallop fishermen in Ishinomaki

Duration: October 27-28, 2012

Impressions of the Trip:

Roshni first went to Ishinomaki in August, 2011, just months after the March 11th earthquake and tsunami devastated the town, washing away much of the coastal infrastructure,  including the boats, farms, and farmhouses that formed the backbone of many residents’ livelihoods.  Many beloved community members were lost that day.  The stillness and beauty of the clear skies and sparkling water was an eerie contrast to the ruined town.At that time, kilometers away from the ocean, she noticed that the watermark on the walls of the buildings (showing how high the tsunami waters had remained) was several feet above her head. Along with several other volunteers, Roshni set up food stalls and carnival games for the town’s children, many of whom were dressed in donated clothing several sizes too big.

More than a year later, we returned to Ishinomaki together to find a place still recovering, but looking and feeling much more like the vibrant town it used to be. We started the day by meeting Abe-san and his son, who work with a small team of scallop fishermen to grow and harvest scallops in the coastal waters of Ishinomaki.  The Abes grow scallop seeds into full grown scallops on a three year life cycle. First, they collect tiny scallops in their floating, plankton stage by hanging bags filled with a fine net, or else rope threaded with heavy-duty plastic barbs, for the tiny animals to attach to.   The scallops attach and begin to develop into tiny bivalves, and when the nets or barbed ropes are hauled up a year later, the Abes can pick the tiny scallops off of the materials for cultivation.  Next, the scallops are put in special nets and transported by boat to ideal locations on lines anchored to buoys where they can reach full maturity. Prior to 3.11, the Abes were working with a stock of 80% mature, adult scallops and 20% immature scallops, but since scallop stocks were ravaged by the tsunami, the family is now contending with 80% immature scallops, and only 20% mature, adult scallops.

10 of the 18 boats owned by members of the Abes’ close community were destroyed in the tsunami, and throughout the day we heard some heart-wrenching stories about the trials and tragedies the fishing community faced on March 11, 2011. The older Mr. Abe told us that one of the local fisherman was on his boat at the time of the disaster and realized that he had no chance of surviving the tsunami.  He tied himself to his boat so that his body could be found and returned to his family. “Those are the kinds of things that we were thinking about that day,” Mr. Abe shared.

Although the Abes and their team currently live in temporary housing with other tsunami survivors who lost their homes, they have been able to rebuild their scallop farm, a seaweed processing plant, and other critical infrastructure to get their operations up and running again. They are currently focused on selling live scallops directly to consumers via commercial express delivery service (Japan’s “Black Cat”). A package of 10  freshly harvested scallops go for 1500 yen, a fraction of what they would cost if offered via a wholesaler or supermarket.

Kanji:
再生,or regeneration. Much  the same way the Abes’ scallops are slowly multiplying and building up to their pre-3.11 levels, the Abes’ business, infrastructure, and the surrounding community is rebuilding, regrouping, and attempting not to just return to their previous livelihoods, but to adapt, change, and grow their community into something better.

Posted in government and agriculture, innovative agriculture, 3.11, Miyagi, outdoor adventures, seafood/seaweed, Tohoku Region | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Kyoto 京都

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Kyoto-fu

Location: Kameoka, 25 minutes by train from Kyoto City

Hosts: Masayuki-san and Yuuko-san of Yagisan Nouen

Duration: One day

Impressions of the Trip:

Before visiting Yagi-San farm in Kameoka, just 25minutes by train from the city of Kyoto, I had heard that Kyoto was famous for vegetables. Not knowing what this meant, Yagi-san’s spirited and friendly owners, Masayuki-san and Yuuko-san , took me on a tour of their vegetable farm before we proceeded to plant lettuce and prepare next season’s other leafy greens for planting.

As Kyoto City seems to be on most tourists’ itineraries due to its ancient temples and traditional architecture, it should be no surprise that Kyoto’s famous vegetables are also a relic of the past. Kyoto vegetables (kyo yasai), include 41 heirloom varieties that are produced in Kyoto. One of the most famous is the peanut-shaped Shishigatani pumpkin, pictured above. Kyo yasai are typically more vibrantly colored and grown seasonally. Masayuki-san and Yuuko-san produce several kyo yasai, in addition to about 70 other seasonal vegetables, taking only the month of April off, as it is the only month when no vegetable is at its best. Kameoka’s location in a valley results in extreme temperatures in both the summer and the winter, an ideal climate for vegetables. using no pesticides or herbicides, the family’s organic vegetables command high prices in both Kansai and Kanto, where they are mailed weekly.

Planting lettuce in the hot sun, we were pouring sweat and rushing to finish before the onset of a coming lightning storm. Yuuko-san grabbed a handful of choke-cherry like pods from some nearby overgrowth and we headed inside for a tea break. In her hand were tiny, perfect husk tomatoes, each a slightly different color and not one  bigger than a marble. While the husk tomato plants  have spread to several locations throughout the farm and grow in wild clumps, no one seems to mind. The unusual, sweet tomatoes are hugely popular among their customers–just one more example of Kyoto’s vegetables in action.

Kanji:

Working with Masayuki-san and Yuuko-san through the long, humid afternoon, we enjoyed several great conversations.  In discussing Kyoto’s traditional vegetables, and the various ways in which they have been crossed and bred to produce new varieties, while also preserving the old, ancient types, a word that frequently reemerged was 交配, kouhai, crossbreeding or cross-fertilization.

Posted in Farm visit, innovative agriculture, Kansai region, Kyoto, organic produce, rice | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Fukushima Prefecture- 福島県

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 Fukushima Prefecture- 福島県

Location:  Minamisōma, Fukushima Prefecture

Host: Rokkaku Shietai and the amazing Suzuki family

Dates: August 18-20, 2012

Impressions of the Journey:

With the Japan Railways (JR) Joban line still in a state of disrepair after the March 11 triple disaster last year, the only way to access many of Tohoku’s coastal towns is by car. After arriving in Sendai, we traveled with Hiro Suzuki and his son Shunta via minivan to Minamisoma, a town only 20 kilometers away from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear reactor. Most of Minamisōma was located inside the evacuation zone, though on April 15, 2012 , Minamisōma residents outside the 10k no-go zone were able to return to their homes.

While there has been considerable reconstruction and recovery since last year’s disasters, even the drive to Minamisoma left some very strong and sad impressions. Highway 6, which connects Sendai to points north in Fukushima is an elevated roadway that, for many last year, marked the deciding line between life and death. As the tsunami struck Miyagi Prefecture’s coast and raced inland, people tried to beat the wave by fleeing via Highway 6. Even today, one side of the highway, that facing the ocean, is a patchwork of weeds, overgrowth, mud, and crushed or newly rebuilt  houses. On the other side, a postcard of perfect rice fields, spacious farmhouses, and the beautiful Abukuma valley greet the eye. Even 18 months after the tsunami, the juxtaposition is shocking.

Minamisoma:

The town of Minamisoma continues to deal with the aftermath of not only the earthquake and tsunami, but also of the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactor. Entire sections of the town were submerged or reduced to rubble, including portions of the 17 meter tall sea wall built to protect the town from waves like the one that hit Japan’s coast last year. According to Tokiko Suzuki, the vibrant manager of the Rokaku Shientai, a non-profit organization that manages some aspects of Minamisoma’s recovery effort, receiving and cataloguing just about all of the letters, packages, and truckloads of donations and assistance that pour into Minamisoma from around the world. Given that the organization’s headquarters are in a cafe/business hotel, it keeps meticulous records, with binder upon binder of delivery slips and registries of the thank you notes and photos that Rokaku Shientai sent back in return.

Suzuki-san, a 60-something with more energy than most people half her age, showed us around Minamisoma and introduced us to several local farmers. Mr. and Mrs. Watanabe, pictured above, had an extremely memorable story. Before last March, they were rice farmers in Haramachi, an area of Minamisoma 16km from the reactor. After the nuclear accident, the Watanabes fled to Yamagata prefecture, where they stayed in an evacuation center for several months. After a long deliberation, they made the difficult decision to return to Fukushima and resume farming, even when over half of their farmer friends decided either not to return or to abandon farming in favor of other work. Recognizing that it would be difficult to sell Fukushima rice to consumers, they decided to take another route. They met a flower farmer who gave them some seedlings and tips on farming Turuko kikyo, a rare variety of flower that is often in high demand, particularly during Obon season. During the Obon holiday every August, individuals place flowers at the grave sites of their departed ancestors and relatives. To meet the demand for Japanese asters and Turuko kikyo, two of the varieties used for this custom, they started a flower farm in Minamisoma once they were allowed to return. The Watanabes said they have had some failures along and a lot of trial and error along the way, but so far, their project appears to be successful. While they must conduct radiation testing on the soil around the stems of the flowers, even consumers with concerns about radiation are willing to buy their flowers since the produce will be left in a cemetery, rather than consumed or kept in the home.

The Watanabe family’s story was just one of a host of inspiring tales we heard in our brief time in Minamisoma. One of the many striking images that stayed with us long after returning to Tokyo was that of the numerous sunflower fields we saw and walked through. Sunflowers were historically used by Fukushima rice farmers as a rotation crop to enrich the soil and yield sunflower oil, which they sold. After the March 11 triple disaster, rumors of a scientific study regarding the ability of sunflowers to remove radioactive cesium from the ground spread throughout Fukushima, and sunflower fields sprung up across the contaminated area. The thinking of many at the time was that if sunflowers could effectively soak up radioactive cesium, they might present an easier alternative to removing a layer of topsoil from the entire radiation-affected area. Unfortunately, the study was proven to be untrue, as sunflowers only absorbed a tiny fraction of the radioactive cesium contaminating the soil around the Dai-ichi reactor. Thus, the sunflower fields have become a symbol of some of the complexities that will continue to affect Minamisoma and surrounding areas for many years to come.

Kanji:

Among the many people who shared their stories with us, one of the common threads we noticed was the deep level of contemplation that everyone in Fukushima seemed to be immersed in. After 18 months of grief, loss, and dedication to finding a way to start a new life in their completely changed town, Minamisoma residents have come to embrace the fleeting nature of life, and the importance of celebrating small changes and simple pleasures. Perhaps more than most of us, the constant reminders of destruction and regeneration around them have led to an intense awareness that life is ephemeral, or 儚い (hakanai).

Posted in Fukushima, government and agriculture, Radiation, Sunflowers, Tohoku Region, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Saitama Prefecture 埼玉県

日本語で読むために、ここを押して下さい。

Saitama Prefecture- 埼玉県

Location:  Fukiage, Saitama Prefecture

Host: Gabare Farm, owned by the Ebara family

Dates: July 14, 2012

Impressions of the Journey:

According to the Ebara family, if you take the hour long train ride from Tokyo to their farm in Fukiage, Saitama prefecture, there is a decisive point about 40 minutes north of Ueno Station at the town of Ageo where the mega-urban landscape suddenly turns into a green carpet of rice fields, rolled out between single family farm houses. We saw this striking change when we visited the Ebara family and experienced our first suburban farming experience. Saitama Prefecture, often compared to the U.S. state of New Jersey, is mostly known as a suburb, or “bedtown” of Tokyo, though despite its industrial landscape, the prefecture hosts some of Japan’s most well-known organic farms and thriving organic farming communities.

Hiroaki and Hiromi Ebara run a small, organic farm in an unlikely spot tucked into an alley off a highway teeming with car dealerships and strip malls.  Just a quick turn off the main drag, we were greeted by the sight of the Ebaras’ 400 year-old homestead, formerly a silk farm.  The driveway, surrounded by flooded rice fields, was filled with aigamo ducks. The ducks eat pests, soften the soil, and fertilize the rice fields.  This method is known as “aigamo farming technique,” (アイガモ農法) and was popularized in Japan, but Ebara mentioned that there are currently only about 10 farmers in Saitama using it. The Ebara’s ducks were stolen last year, a disheartening commentary on the intersection between farming and urban living.

In addition to rice farming, the Ebara’s produce a wide array of organic produce. During our brief farm stay, we picked and cleaned eggplants, peppers, cucumber, and tomatoes, and after that rainy morning’s work we spent an afternoon planting soybeans in the broiling heat. Fukiage is very close to the town of Kumagaya, the hottest town in Japan. Despite the heat, the three generations of Ebaras were kind and gregarious, and it was a pleasure working on their farm.

Once a month since 3.11 (the massive earthquake-tsunami-nuclear accident of last year), the Ebaras drive 10 hours each way to Iwate Prefecture, where they spend a weekend with 3.11 survivors, making bento lunch boxes for sale in intact urban areas. The Ebaras shared some of their experiences working with NGOs and evacuees in the area. They noted that organic farmers in the disaster area were able to start the next chapter in their lives more easily than other farmers. Organic farmers in Japan are part of a strong international network, and some organic farmers affected by 3.11 were able to count on a strong support system to help them relocate to other prefectures, or even as far away as Vietnam, and have already started farming again.

We plan to visit Saitama again in a few months to touch base with Ebaras and harvest some aigamo power-infused rice!

Kanji:
蚕, kaiko, is the word for silkworm. Fukiage and surrounding areas, as well as nearby Gunma Prefecture, used to be known as the silk-producing centers of Japan. The Ebara homestead, a renovated silk farm, featured handmade, sliding glass doors that were almost 100 years old. The beam supporting the house was made from a single tree, of a size and quality that can no longer be found and harvested in Japan. Spending our breaks drinking tea, perched in the breezy doorways of such a harmonius, traditional house, it was hard to believe we were only an hour away from Tokyo.


Posted in Farm stay, Farm visit, innovative agriculture, rice, saitama, Tokyo | 1 Comment