Spending time in both remote villages and populated cities, I was given a glimpse into the food systems in Japan. I spent the first few days of my trip in Fukuoka city and began to observe the themes of maximization and efficiency within everyday infrastructure. Transportation was precisely on time, convenience stores dotted every corner, roads and sidewalks were just wide enough, and virtual maps had detailed information about anything I needed to know. My first tastes of Japanese cuisine included a breakfast buffet stocked with dozens of pickled vegetables and cured fish, yakitori served out of a yatai (asmall cart that unfolds into a miniature kitchen with a bar and stools), ramen from a mom and pop shop, onigiri (ball of rice wrapped in seaweed) from a convenience store, and some shochu (a beverage distilled usually from rice, sweet potatoes, and barley) from a small izakaya, which is essentially a pub. In all of these different experiences, the food was prepared quickly and I was treated with much respect from those serving me, even the cashier from the convenience store. Although the food was quite satisfying, I was puzzled with the small amount of produce available to eat. I never saw a salad besides those at the convenience store and the few vegetables I consumed were the garnish atop the ramen.
When volunteering at Jiro’s small farm (roughly a quarter acre) at the foot of Mt. Aso I began to experience a completely different way of living than I could have imagined. Jiro described it as the simple life. Each day we would work very hard and then replenish ourselves with the produce growing out in the field. One night after eating a few servings ofsalad anda handful of rice bowls I was ready to go and clean off my dishes. Jiro stopped me and told me to finish my rice. But my rice is finished I thought. When I returned to the table, he pointed to the 4 rice grains sitting scattered around my bowl and explained to me that rice is soul food for Japanese people and wasting even one grain is disrespectful. This moment proved to be a symbol for the values Jiro stands for. What I admired most about Jiro was his attention to using every last bit of the resources he obtained. He built his house by himself with the help of WWOOFers, used firewood for hot water, owned just the few necessary tools for farming, made use of bamboo for his farming infrastructure, and almost never went to the grocery store. He constantly reminded me of the simple life. Hard work and fresh food. He explained to me that his life is not easy as he must produce maximum yields to sell to the few customers he has, while also taking care of the land and dealing with extreme weather, such as the devasting earthquakes in 2016 that killed over 50 people. WWOOFers are crucial to his well being. However, as long as he can eat fresh food, he will be happy.
After taking an overnight ferry from Miyazaki to Kobe and spending a few nights in Osaka, I travelled to Sasayama city in Hyogo prefecture to work on Charley’s farm for two weeks. Charley was the opposite from Jiro, he was a retired chemical engineer who quit his position from a pharmaceutical company because he believed that fresh food is the way to optimal health. Upon arrival, Charley explained to me that a wild pack of monkeys had eaten almost all of the potatoes growing on his plot of land. Even so, I quickly realized that Charley’s “farm” was more of a hobby rather than a way of making his living. Most of my time was spent cutting grass, which I felt was a bit strange. Unlike Jiro’s farm, we couldn’t harvest some produce and eat it later that day. Charley went to the grocery store (40 minutes away) almost every day to buy ingredients (often Chinese made produce) for our meals. One day he asked me to make some American food, so I decided on corn soup and watermelon salad. When I joined him at the supermarket I was regretful of my menu choice when I saw that one ear of corn was being sold for $3 and half a watermelon for $15. This was puzzling to me and I began to take special notice of food costs everywhere I went. After cutting all of the grass on Charley’s farm, he gave me the opportunity to prepare and plant his rice paddy. Out of all the farms I visited, this was the only one with a paddy and even though it was back breaking work I felt extremely accomplished when reflecting on what I had done. On one of the last days I visited his villages farmers market, which was essentially a 20 foot square tent on the side of road with 5 or 6 different farmers (both organic and chemical). Everything was being sold for unbelievably low prices; half a dozen eggplants was a mere $1. The incredibly high supermarket prices compared to the very inexpensive local farmers market provided me with some insight on what foods demanded money and which ones didn’t.
In Kyoto, historical Japanese cuisine was more accessible than I could have expected. I decided to visit the Michelin star rated restaurant, Mashita, which serves kaiseki cuisine, a traditional type of Japanese food that is compromised of around 10 small dishes with large emphasis on the seasons. This meal was mind blowing because of how fresh the food was and how soft and delicate it tasted. I felt as if I had left Kyoto and taken a quick break in the mountainside. Even though the meal was slow and the service was awkward, it enabled me to connect with nature inside of a city center unlike any of the gardens I had seen. I found this experience to be incredibly inspiring. Later that day, I went to Nishiki food market which is essentially a long hallway, maybe 10 blocks or so, that sells a variety of food and other accessories. There were vendors selling dozens upon dozens of pickled foods out of huge barrels, while across the hallway vendors were producing custom knives, and on both sides hot food was being served at an unbelievable pace. It was quite a chaotic scene (in the best way!) to say the least.
Soon I was in Gifu prefecture, at Totomi’s farm, which she runs on her fathers plot of land. Unlike Jiro and similar to Charley, Totomi’s life did not depend on her farm as she held a well paying job in a nearby city. She ate the food she grew and gave the rest to friends and family. However, her farm was quite robust compared to Charley’s as there were a dozen chickens and a fair amount of produce. We were occasionally able to harvest some vegetables and eat them shortly after, however, most of the time we ate food from the supermarket. Everyday, I was responsible for weeding the crops and taking care of the chickens by cleaning their coup, refreshing water and food supplies, and of course collecting the eggs. On one Saturday Totomi brought me and the other WWOOFers to the local market, which was located in the parking lot of a popular restaurant. Despite the light drizzle, the entire community came to hang out. To my surprise there was no produce being sold. There were vendors selling second hand items, others selling breakfast foods, some sold pottery, while others sold beer and coffee. And there was a live band. It was such an incredible community bonding moment, but I still couldn’t wrap my head around the fact no one was selling produce. One day I asked Totomi about the popularity of organic agriculture and she explained to me that it is popular in more liberal cities like Tokyo and Osaka but that in the rural villages, there is little appeal. The last day, Totomi brought us to a botanical garden as well as the organic grocery store, which proved to be great examples of the way nature is experienced in contemporary culture. The garden was so modern and evaded traditional styles of Eastern gardening since there were no rocks, moss, or water, however, this garden still had a distinct Japanese taste in terms of the dedication that went into preparing this garden for the public eye. The flowers were planned spatially and seasonally in that the designers did not want their viewers to look at one flower but rather observe the ways in which the flowers interact together(those in season versus those out of season). This experience was so calming. Shortly after, we made it to the organic supermarket which had giant banners hung up throughout, all with photographs of the farmers who supply the produce. I was impressed with the effort that went into connecting the customer with the farmer, as it was nothing I had seen before during my time in Japan. Even though the ideal relationship between farmer and customer should be face to face, this effort showed the direction Japan is headed towards.
After spending a dizzying week in Tokyo, I was on my way to Aomori City, the northern most tip of Japan’s main island. My time at Katsan’s farm was by far the most demanding out of the rest. His family lived at the foot of Mt. Iwaki and worked a medium sized piece of land, around 4 acres or so. Katsan ran a CSA of about 100 members and delivered a box of produce to his customers once every week. Each morning we would begin work at 5:30 am and harvest a variety of vegetables such as cabbage, beans, carrots, and zucchini. Even though the work here was challenging, it felt amazing to be apart of such a community. Each day, volunteers would join us at work, sometimes high school dropouts or retired community members. We would work together to make sure the farm was kept well and that we were all well fed and rested. I feel very connected to Katsan’s farm and the people who worked there. After leaving his farm I even stayed a night with one of the volunteers in a nearby city. The produce here was definitely not picturesque, however, it was flavorful, filled with nutrients, and harvested on delivery day. I would argue that Katsan’s method of organizing his farm and managing the CSA is the ideal agricultural model because of the way it integrates community through food, whether people come to his farm to work/apprentice or enroll within the CSA. Each day we would eat fresh produce alongside meats like chicken and octopus from the supermarket. Katsan and his family relied on the income from the CSA to stay afloat, however, they were passionate about their work and had an excellent system in place.
My last farm experience took place in Kamifurano, Hokkaido. I was shocked to learn how much different this part of the country was from the mainland. Everything was so big; roads, stores, open space, and the towering mountains in the distance. Unfortunately, I was only able to stay for a few days because of a change in travel plans. This farm was massive, roughly 10 acres and run by three generations. Their produce was sold to the local supermarket everyday and would be sold alongside chemical and Chinese produce. Even though they didn’t use chemicals, they struggled to receive reasonable prices for their products. Tanaka, the head of the household, explained to me that climate change has had a huge affect on farming in his region. Only 15 years ago did growing rice in Hokkaido become possible because of the increasingly warmer temperatures. Despite the ability to grow rice in Hokkaido, there are many drawbacks. Tanaka explained how the weather becomes incredibly extreme, specifically monsoons which bring large amounts of rain and dangerous winds which cause extensive damage to the buildings on his farm as well as the crops. Each season he must pay $10,000 to repairs the damage to the greenhouses and structures on his farm. This financial setback along with the limited farming season makes it challenging for Tanaka and his family to sustain a living. And Tanaka also told me something quite shocking: less than 1% of farms in Japan are organically run. Even though I had seen people in full body suits spraying chemicals on their crops in nearly every region I had visited, I was so disappointed to learn about how small the organic farming scene is.
Overall, I had some wonderful, diverse experiences in Japan in terms of agriculture and food. I began to see how food is portrayed in Japanese culture and the lives that organic farmers live. I also saw prime examples of how geography affects culture. Because Japan is such a small country with many mountains, there is very little farming land available and therefore people need to maximize their yields to survive. Organic farming is very unpopular because it requires a patience with the land and a willingness to work with it before producing high yields. Jiro, Tanaka, and Katsan are all fine examples of people who have dedicated their lives to creating high quality, chemical free produce for their surrounding community. More affluent members of the population such as Charley and Totomi prove that there is growing interest in the organic movement. Ultimately, organic farming in Japan is a growing struggle as there is increasing competition from Chinese agriculture producers, more occurrences of extreme weather, as well as a limited market for chemical free products as they are the most expensive and there is little consumer understanding of the benefits. With that said, the Japanese people share an extraordinary relationship with nature in many different ways such as their attention to the seasons, traditional kaiseki cuisine, integration of green spaces, and hot springs, just to name a few. This is why I am puzzled with the mainstream use of chemicals in agriculture, which distances us from the natural world. Nonetheless, I am permanently indebted to the Luce foundation for making this trip possible and consequently providing me an unprecedented understanding of life in Japan.