Goodbye Japan….Maybe

How do you summarize/condense half a year of your life in one blog post? I can’t, really, except to say that it was one of the best half-a-years I’ve ever had in my life. I was very happy in Japan and it was because of the people I came to know there, the work and purpose I had, and the wonderful, complex, difficult, welcoming, extraordinary, contradictory, sometimes familiar and yet singular and always surprising culture of Japan. I was challenged every day, with communication, with stereotypes, with my own and other’s cultural assumptions, and with what I thought were my limits.

Though we don’t like it, our best growth comes when we are made uncomfortable, and for the first month I was in Japan, I was made uncomfortable every day! (In the best way possible!) The challenges of living in another culture are beautiful but many! There are so many things that are unconscious for a native but completely unknown to a foreigner and not everyone you meet is understanding or forgiving of that natural problem. My first month I learned a new rule or norm every day, mostly by accidentally breaking it first!In the wonderful way things work though, the first month is also when everything is rosy and new and wondrous so you wake up to a challenge everyday but you feel excited and so ready to meet that challenge; “Bring on something else new!!” I found out just how elastic I am, to bend without breaking, to be pressed beyond what I thought I could do and find I am capable of so much more.

After the first month, and especially the first transition to a new host family, things became more familiar and homey, because I had found a home within myself and learned to love and appreciate Japan the way I found it. And things just kept getting better and better! I made a promise to myself while in Japan to always say “Yes!” After a couple of missed opportunities with my first host family, I didn’t want that to happen again. No matter what my inner self-doubt whispered to me, if I was asked to do something, I ALWAYS SAID YES. This led to some pretty great adventures and unexpected triumphs that didn’t always go the way I thought they would but were priceless just the same.

When I started this journey, it was because I believed that food and its’ production connect us all across the world, and I wanted to experience that. I believe it now more than ever and can’t wait to share that connection with Colorado. (Hopefully I have already shared it beyond Colorado, through this blog!) Most of the conversations I had with people revolved around food; food and language are so fundamental to our humanity. I loved how we could take something we had the most in common, food and farming, and use it to navigate what we had the least in common, language. I think this partly happened because of my position in Japan as agricultural research student, but also because Japan has such a foodie culture and they are very proud of their cuisine. They want to know what others think of it. I met so many great people this way and felt genuine connections with some that I will remember for the rest of my life.

One of the biggest lessons I have learned in Japan, is that communication happens in many different forms and while you can tell someone a lot of things, experience is where the most learning happens. I think I’m a naturally observant person and those skills were put to the test just to navigate everyday life but especially to study Japanese farming. I planted five crops, managed and harvested eleven different fruits and vegetables, and drove three tractors all without having anything directly explained to me in English. This attests to my host’s amazing good nature and willingness to teach and let me try things, but also my own ability to analyze my surroundings, learn quickly, and seek answers for my questions in untraditional ways. By my last months, I felt incredibly immersed in Japan and Japanese, so much so that it was a little jarring when some person or incident would point out that I was—much to my disappointment sometimes—a foreigner.

As I explored the Narita airport for ten hours waiting on my last flight out of Japan, I found a book store with Japanese cookbooks in English. I started flipping through one and became engrossed in its’ introduction. It was by an American woman who had spent many years on and off in Japan. She wrote that she never imagined she’d be publishing a book on Japanese cuisine when, forty years ago, she had left her first job as a 4-H extension agent (!) and moved to Japan with her husband. But “In the way that one thing leads to another in this life,” she described one experience then another, taking this job then that and now here she was, best-selling author of a book about her Japanese journey that I was standing here reading at perhaps the beginning of my own Japanese journey that had started in 4-H. Even two or three years ago when I thought about where I would be now, it was not in Japan; but one thing led to another and I am so glad I am! Most peoples’ lives are a crazy, beautiful, mixed-up, string of connected moments that may seem haphazard but form a unique narrative looking back; each experience contributed to who and what they are. I took the amazing opportunity to live in Japan and Japan has definitely shaped where I go from here. Who knows, maybe someday it will be back to Japan………

The farm group at Yamamasa Nouen!!

None of this would have been possible without the Colorado4-H Foundation funding nearly the entire study and the dedicated work of IFYE4-H staff in Colorado and Japan who initiated and coordinated the experience for me. Thank you to all those people especially Courtney Loflin, Rochelle Platter, Inoue Takahiro, Maeda Ayaka, and all five of my hosts in Japan: the Saitoh family, Nagai family, Deguchi family, Miura family, and the Yamamoto family. I would also like to thank 4-H Korea for their amazing help in hosting me for a week in order to extend my stay in Japan and then coordinating a last-minute flight for me when Typhoon Jebi disrupted travel plans. To all who have helped me along the way: Thank You.

Arashiyama

All Images (C) Emily Haver

All Rights Reserved

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Yamamasa Nouen

Yamamasa Farm (cucumbers, eggplant and taro by Mr. Yamamoto), and Ma Rui Company (blueberries and blueberry products by Mrs. Yamamoto)

As we get deeper into fall, the sun is setting way too early and my room is way too cold to make it worth getting out of my amazingly warm and cozy bed any earlier than I have to.

Eventually I do get up, but at a very generous 8:00AM, sometimes make a cup of instant Starbucks coffee that was a gift from a friend I made while staying with my last host family, the Miura’s, in Izumisano, and then I make the fastest quick change possible from my big warm blanket into my clothes. Japanese homes don’t have central air systems and are generally built for airflow to protect from the sweltering heat of the summer. This system works against them in the winter though, when the lack of insulation is noticeable.Japan has come up with all sorts of awesome, warming gadgets to help people cope in the winter season, alas, none of which I own as I am only here a short time.

With only a minute or two to spare, I layer on the hats and jackets and run downstairs to my sweet, shiny, blue bike I ride to the farm every morning. This thing is a pleasure to ride and looks brand new.

This is not my house, this  is when I parked the bike outside a drug store–not the most elegant background–but isn’t it pretty!?

Only about a mile away, past other greenhouses, two 7-11’s,and a construction site they say is going to be a new mall, I ride up to the farm’s main shed where we do all the produce processing. Most mornings it is cucumber harvesting time and Masato san (my host), his father, and their two to four employees have a couple hours head start on me. There are ­­­­­23 cucumber greenhouses and by the time I get there only 8-10 are left to be harvested.

I bundle up on my way to the farm, but all my layers are soon peeled off as the sometimes intense heat of the greenhouses quickly warms me up. Once all the ready cucumbers are harvested and the crates placed outside, Masato san backs the farm truck all the way to the first one and we load the crates on. The guard-dog who lives at the shed, goes wild every morning when the truck leaves.  I haven’t figured out if it’s because he loves it or hates it but his crazy high pitched bark-squealing I have never heard before!

Once all the crates are stacked inside the shed, we stop for a nice coffee/tea break. All my Japanese hosts have been very serious about their breaks; same time every day and usually with nice refreshments. I can make no cultural conclusions about it, I just know I certainly appreciate it! Something it would be nice for some Americans I know to adopt……

Yamamasa Nouen sells some of their cucumbers to restaurants but the vast majority are sold, wholesale, through Japan Agriculture (JA), that vast organization I have mentioned before that is the control center of farming in Japan. All cucumbers must be sorted, boxed, weighed, loaded, and then driven to the local JA cucumber collection facility where cucumbers from all farmers in the area are brought.

The price per box can change day-to-day and Masato san says the prices have not been good since the typhoon that hit Osaka in September. A lot of cucumbers from another prefecture were brought in by JA and it flooded the market for local producers. Still, there really isn’t another market for cucumbers outside of JA right now, so Yamamasa Nouen will keep selling them through JA for the present.

We stop at noon for lunch. Sometimes we go out for lunch for ramen or gyudon (beef rice bowls), but today Rui san has packed us bento (lunchboxes). Japan has ruined me for ever being satisfied with any other food again, and I especially will never be able to look at my own packed lunch the same.The detail and beauty of Japanese bento boxes is famous, homemade ones are even more impressive.

Onigiri, beef, Japanese rolled egg in the lower left corner, macaroni salad, and even an apple slice cut to look like a flower!!!

After a restful and filling lunch, we finish boxing any cucumbers we have left, strap them together using this nifty strapping machine and load them onto the farm truck. While I’ve been here, we’ve averaged fifty 5-kilogramboxes a day.

While Masato san is dropping off the cucumbers, I help Makisan with her tomatoes. Maki san is a friend of the Yamamoto’s. She works for them on their farm and cultivates her own tomatoes to sell in two of the smallest greenhouses. We prune, weed, and harvest from the three tomato plant varieties: the average sized momotaro tomato, cherry tomatoes, and a new variety I’ve never heard of before called “puchi puyo.” Maki san also runs the vending machine out by the main road, so we walk to check it and refill any empty slots with bags of tomatoes, eggplants, or cucumbers.

When Masato san gets back, there are eggplants picked this morning so he and Maki san set about sorting and boxing them for market. This process I only watch because it is one requiring finer skill and a softer hand. The average Japanese consumer has very high standards and expects flawless and beautiful produce. Eggplants that seemed just fine to me, are deemed unfit for the Grade A box. Masato san has found another, private market for Yamamasa Nouen’s eggplants that allows for a larger profit margin. He has to drive farther to get there and the market isn’t as large, but it’s worth it.

Tomorrow we won’t pick cucumbers. With the colder weather theydon’t grow as fast so we only harvest every other day. Perhaps tomorrow we’llput up the inside vinyl layers of the greenhouses for extra insulation of the cucumberplants, or we’ll harvest taro root (an expensive and traditional New Year’svegetable).

Now, I say “また明日!” (see you tomorrow), to everyone and hop back on my bike to pedal home in the growing darkness. I wonder what great Japanese dish Mrs. Yamamoto will let me help her prepare for dinner. I definitely didn’t need to use the bike-light on my way home just a week ago, but I flip it on now as we are steadily marching into winter……

All Images (C) Emily Haver

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Japan 4H Presidents’ Meeting

Last week I was invited to a 4-H meeting in Osaka that gathered the 4-H presidents from every prefecture in Japan, from Hokkaido to Okinawa. One of the big topics of discussion in that meeting was the future of Japan 4-H’s international farming exchanges: me!

The Japan 4-H website, featuring a picture of the 4-H prefectural presidents (click this picture to visit the website!)

I don’t know why it never occurred to me before, but I was surprised to find out that all my activity in Japan has been and is being as documented by Japan 4-H as it is by me! Every time I’ve moved to a new host family, a little blurb with my picture is posted to the Japan 4-H website and every 4-H member in Japan can know where I am and some of what I’m doing. My hosts have to make reports on my activity–what they’ve taught me, the cultural activities I’ve engaged in, and the sightseeing I’ve done–and they turn those reports in to the Japan 4-H board of directors. After months of reading about what I’ve been doing, the presidents wanted to hear about my impressions of Japan, so I was invited to their meeting in Osaka.

That’s me!

One of my previous hosts, Deguchi san, met me at the subway station and we went to the meeting together. I gave a short speech about what I have learned with my different host families. One of the staff kindly did their best to translate for me. My speech was flustered and all over the place but I hope at least the positive sentiment got across!!

The lovely woman who translated for me; she works on international exchanges for Japan 4-H

This year Japan 4-H hosted just two overseas farmers, me and a farmer from Taiwan.  That is far fewer than the dozens to hundreds of international exchanges 4-H in other countries hosts. Japan 4-H is very interested in growing their international program and are currently looking at several partnering organizations to do so. I hope many of those future exchanges will be with the U.S.!

Japan 4-H’s website can be found here or by clicking the picture at the top of this post. For us non-Japanese speakers, you can scroll down the page and there are pictures linking to three articles about me moving to different hosts (red arrows) and the report on the presidents meeting (circled in red)!


“Back In the Mountains Again…”

My first month in Japan was spent on the eastern edge of the Japanese Alps in Saitama Prefecture and after plains, city, and ocean, my last month in Japan is being spent next to the Kongo Katsuragi mountains. Mountains are my geography, I feel at home and in my element and am reminded of the song lyrics, “…I’m back in the saddle again…” Give me the reigns, I know where I’m going!

Last month I had some great adventures on my own that weren’t exactly part of the IFYE program so I didn’t share them on this blog; I regret that. So this month, especially being my last, I want to share as much as possible! Last weekend I had two great mountain experiences, one with my host family and the other on my own.

Tanada

Tanada is “rice terrace” in Japanese and Saturday night Mrs. Yamamoto, some of her friends, their kids, and I took a bus to see a tanada light show. These particular fields have been named one of the Top One Hundred Terraced Paddy Fields of Japan.  Every year after the fields have been harvested, the edge of each terrace is lined with real candles in bamboo holders to create a stunning illuminated effect! It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.

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A poster for the event

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In the middle of the tanada, one terrace was specially lit and a violinist and guitarist performed beautiful melodies that floated over the entire scene from speakers places all over

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Above the tanada, there were food stalls and a booth selling goods made with the harvested rice

Mt. Kongo

Sunday my hosts gave me to do whatever I liked with. I asked if there was any hiking around and Mrs. Yamamoto recommended Mt. Kongo, or Kongozan. As luck would have it, the same bus we took the night before to the tanada, could take me to a trailhead for Mt. Kongo!

I left around 10:30 am, biked to the bus stop, and then took a thirty minute bus ride up to Chihaya, a small village at the base of Mt. Kongo. I had no plan and really no idea exactly how to get to the top; I wasn’t even sure I wanted to get to the top (I had read on other blogs that the top was really developed with a campground, nature museum, and restaurant).

After hiking up a steep, paved path for only about five minutes I found a side trail with signs indicating a shrine on the hill above. I decided to take it. I found a beautiful clearing with shuttered huts and a stone-line path leading to what I have decided is my favorite shrine in Japan. The day was very crisp and cool, the sunlight brilliant, the air clear with the scent of pine and cedar and I had this oases all to myself.

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Later I learned what an uninformed nincompoop I had been, because this “clearing” is actually the ancient site of the Chihaya castle, where the famous samurai, Kusunoki Masashige, fought a very famous battle. Outnumbered and cutoff, Masashige held the castle and defeated the usurpers by using ingenious and unorthodox tactics. AND, this is the same samurai that my host family’s farm is named after!

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Yamamasa Nouen’s logo. They gave me a sticker to put on my water bottle!

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Chihaya Shrine

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Chihaya shrine

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Masashigew created dummy warriors as part of his defence of the castle. These guys are placed all around the area today

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Hut in the castle clearing

After spending some time wondering around the castle site and the shrine I followed the path around and down, back to the main trail. One of the things I love about hiking is how friendly they people you meet on the trail are; people who wouldn’t think twice about you on the city street, never fail to smile and say hello and good luck when you pass them on the trail. It’s like the toil you both are experiencing, bonds you together even for the briefest moment. And toil I did! Hiking in Japan invariably means stairs. I don’t know why they haven’t embraced the switch-back, but all the trails I’ve read about and come across are built straight up!

Mt. Kongo is very well known and easy to get to, and I went on a Sunday so the trail was pretty crowded. Everyone I met was friendly and encouraging and as I came to a part of the trail where many logs were stacked for repairing the stairs, this gentlemen stopped me as asked where I was from.

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Me and my temporary friend

When I told him “America,” he exclaimed, “That’s great! Let me welcome you with a Japanese song!” He then threw down his bag and burst into song right there on the trail! He was an excellent singer and other hikers joined me in clapping heartily as he finished. Then he asked to take a picture with me as a “souvenir for grandma” and after much hand shaking and “Ganbatte!”s (good luck), we parted.

It took about two hours to reach the top and I found that the actual summit of Mt. Kongo is just a grassy area with a sign. The development is on an adjoining ridge about a mile away. I did wonder over there eventually but first took a good rest in the sun and rewarded myself with some chocolate and onigiri (rice ball). There were many other people resting and enjoying their lunches too and the wisdom of the giant packs some people had lugged up there (that I had previously thought were excessive for a day hike) was revealed as they pulled out stoves and pots and proceeded to cook delicious, hot noodles! That’s the way to hike! My cold onigiri seemed a little less appetizing…..

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Mt. Kongo summit view, that’s Osaka city down below

After resting I followed a wide path to some shrines, a lookout tower and some great views. I managed to avoid the restaurant/campground/museum hullabaloo and found the path just kept going and going along the top of the ridge-line, taking me to better and better views and fall foliage

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I lost track of time exploring the trails on the top of Mt. Kongo and suddenly realized I was not going to make it back home in time for dinner if I had to hike all the way back down. But wouldn’t you know it, there’s a cable car on Mt. Kongo that takes you right down to the bus stop! After the wearying climb and with the thought of early darkness (it is November now), I decided to take it.

The car was packed but I secured a spot at the front and had a perfect birds-eye view all the way down. It was a perfect day with perfect weather and I was perfectly satisfied. In a great full-circle coincidence, when I got on the bus to go back home, I saw the same hiker who had been on it with me in the morning! We had taken separate trails up and down, I hadn’t seen him all day, but we started and ended our journey’s together.

(I may be guilty of over-sharing in this post, but everything was just so beautiful!)

All Images©Emily Haver

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Goodbye Izumisano, Hello Tondabayashi!

Goodbye Izumisano!

Can you believe it!? This is my last month in Japan! (Wow, writing that really depresses me….) But I haven’t left yet; there are still twenty-plus days left to explore, taste, experience, learn, and farm Japan!!!! Time never passes in the same metered way and I felt this past month was especially short. I am scrambling to keep up with every last one of my precious moments left here.

 

Farming has a way of reminding you just how much time has past though, as evidenced by these before and after pictures of two of Miura Nouen’s fields. I can’t believe that much growth happened just while I was there!

I ended up staying an extra five days at Miura Nouen because Mrs. Miura had planned on taking me to this fancy farm-to-table lunch in a historic machiya house in Nara on the 7th and it was just easier for me to stay than to move on to my next host family and then go back to the Miura’s. No complaints from me, I felt so lucky to be able to spend more time with this wonderful family!

Not only did I learn a lot about vegetable marketing techniques and farming technologies, but I was able to experience some very Japanese culture with wonderful people who made me feel at home. The Danjiri festival, visiting Koyasan and Wakayama, eating fresh oysters at the docks, and this month’s Shichi-Go-San festival are just some of the great experiences and memories I take with me.

 

I cannot thank the Miura family enough for the kindness, generosity, and patience (haha!) they showed me during my stay and the wonderful people I met in Izumisano. I miss them already!

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Our last picture together!

Hello Tondabayashi!

I haven’t moved far this time. (Really I haven’t moved far the last two times, as all of my last three hosts have been in Osaka prefecture, just short train rides away from each other.) Tondabayashi is a little north of Izumisano, and a little more inland; I’m not so close to the ocean any more! (But I am closer to mountains, which I love, so it’s a fair trade.)

tondabayashi

In Tondabayashi I am staying with the Yamamoto family. They cultivate cucumbers, eggplants, blueberries, and taro, and (surprise!) used to live in California! Mrs. Yamamoto studied English there, and Mr. Yamamoto studied blueberry farming in Oregon.

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My room: western style bed with tatami mat flooring, sliding doors, and a characteristic low table with very comfortable cushions!

Tondabayashi feels less urban because it’s at the base of mountains that are the edge of Osaka’s urban sprawl, but is still not at all rural. Like most of my previous hosts, the Yamamotos predominantly use greenhouses to cultivate their crops and their greenhouses are located some distance from their home clustered with other farms.

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One section of cucumber greenhouses; there are five sections of cucumber greenhouses!

I can’t wait to learn all about cultivating these new crops and getting to know my host family and Tondabayashi!

いただきます  (Itadakimasu!)

For my very last day with the Miura’s, we woke up early to take one last picture together and then Mrs. Miura and I traveled to Nara by train to see the 70th Annual Exhibition of the Shoso-in National Treasures at Nara National Museum with advance tickets. The Shoso-in is a repository of artifacts collected by the Todai-ji temple since the 700’s and contains thousands and thousands of pieces that are rotated in the exhibit every year so new and important pieces of Japanese history can be seen.

After the exhibition, we met a group of other farming ladies at the train station and walked to the restaurant where they had reserved a special lunch. The restaurant was an antique “machiya” (Japanese traditional store-front house) that has been renovated into a restaurant serving traditional Japanese food from local farms.

 

There were four courses, and as they were brought up and set before us, the ingredients and their origins were explained by one of the chefs. I did a little research and this was not kaiseki food but it sure seemed as close to seasonal and hand-crafted as you can get! (Kaiseki is a type of traditional Japanese multi-course meal where all ingredients are supposed to be local, seasonal, and hand-crafted. Kaiseki is considered a haute cuisine and is a very expensive experience.)

 

All Images © Emily Haver

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Miura Nouen

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A rare variety of onion that Miura Nouen has worked hard to cultivate, ready to be planted for seed next season

For a while now I have wondered just how Japanese small scale farmers, like those I have been staying with, make a living. Who do they sell their produce to? How do they get customers? Where does most of their revenue come from? At the end of the day these are all central to how a farmer makes a farm work; how it is possible to do this for a living and so connect to 4-H and so end up hosting an American who is trying to learn all about it!

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Eager me with a basket-ful of lettuce!!

Unfortunately, this is also the aspect of farming that is most hidden from me and the hardest to bring up in conversation. I have learned a lot in Japan mostly through being super observant, being shown examples, and trying things for myself. Not only is the business of farming something that can’t always be shown to me, it also hits the sensitive and private vein of finances.

People don’t want to display just how much money they make and how they make it–especially to a semi-stranger. Asking direct questions about my hosts sales and marketing is not only difficult because of the language barrier but also potentially offensive.

Fortunately, at Miura Nouen, the sales and marketing of farming in Japan has been exposed to me little by little as I help prepare orders for the various restaurants and supermarkets they supply vegetables to.

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Applying a label to a bag of freshly picked and packaged kale

Mizunasu, or water eggplant, is the main crop of Miura Nouen. These eggplants are smaller than regular eggplants and have thinner skins with a higher water content, hence the name. They are very desirable, specific to this region, and are hard to grow so they can be sold at a higher price. Miura Nouen is quite famous for their mizunasu, they’ve been featured on different television programs and they supply a lot to Muji, an international home goods retailer in Japan. Unfortunately, if you will recall a few posts back, Typhoon Jebi destroyed Miura Nouen’s mizunasu greenhouse. Farmer’s the world over have to deal with nature threatening their livelihoods; it is an inevitable reality that smart farmers will prepare for. While I am not privy to how this devastating hit will play out in Miura Nouen’s finances, I know that it has not stopped the work of planting and harvesting.

Miura Nouen cultivates almost two dozen other varieties of vegetables besides mizunasu: turnips and radishes, lettuces, cabbages and kales, peppers, onions, taro, and okra just to name a few. It is not a stale and crusty family farm; they are constantly innovating and trying to reach new markets with new vegetables. This means experimenting with new crops they’ve never grown before and learning how to market and sell them. This year they grew romaine lettuce, Romanesco, kohlrabi, Chinese cabbage, and kaboronero (black cabbage) for the first time.

Every week, M. san will receive orders from restaurants, department stores (dept. stores sell food in Japan in glorious, gleaming basement level markets), and groceries.  Sometimes these orders come in over the phone, but either I’m never around when they do, or they mostly come through email. Harvesting, packaging and shipping vegetable orders is the first task of every day. Large orders can take all day to fill, but usually we pack up a box or two by lunch time and then do other things in the afternoon (like still cleaning up from the typhoon and planting the winter crop of onions).

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An order of vegetables for a department store, in various stages of assembly. Clockwise from left: kale, kaboronero leaves, more kale, kohlrabi, daikon radish, turnips, romaine lettuce and more daikon radish

Though these vegetable orders have taken up most of our time lately and are prep intensive, Miura Nouen actually makes the majority of it’s non-eggplant income through wholesales with JA, the national agricultural cooperative in Japan that I have talked about before.

I would say the key to successful small-scale Japanese farming is diversification. Very few farmers grow just one crop and it is imperative that they secure a broad array of markets for them.  Miura Nouen supplies around 50 restaurants on and off throughout the year, makes appearances at conferences and farm shows to gather new customers. M. san is great at networking through the local agricultural institute, Izumisanop 4-H, and personal contacts. Miura Nouen actually just signed up to be part of an experiment through the ag school that uses red LED’s for pest control (because much of Miura Nouen’s crops are grown pesticide free!)

They also maintain a strong online presence through their website and Instagram, and although it wasn’t quite clear to me I think they might be part of the online meal-in-a-box craze that’s sweeping the world right now…. If you weren’t convinced by the end of this post how awesome they are, I encourage you to check out their webpage for yourself! (P.S. I’m on there so you know it’s going to be good.)

MIURA FARM

All Images © Emily Haver

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Shokuiku (Food Education)

In 2005, Japan enacted the “Basic Law on Shokuiku”. This piece of legislation is many layered but the most well-known aspect of it can be seen in school lunch systems. In elementary and middle school, all students are required to buy school lunch every day and this lunch is crafted by a school nutritionist and served as part of students’ food education.

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A school in Tochigi Prefecture where we parked for a Saturday event.

Faced with rising rates of lifestyle-related diseases, an influx of western foods (bread, beef, dairy) among other factors, the Japanese government decided that education on healthy and traditional eating habits wasn’t happening in the home, so they made it part of the education system.

School lunches are often made from scratch and are accompanied by lectures in the classroom on the origin and nutrition of the ingredients. Students take turns serving lunch to each other (there are no “lunch ladies”), everyone gets the same food and everyone must finish their food.

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This is not a shokuiku school lunch, this is my lunch, but it is a great example of what Japanese school lunches look like. Rice, fish, and vegetables feature heavily.

Shokuiku isn’t just a concern for schools and children, it is a nationwide effort that involves local governments, communities, farmers, fishers, and businesses. Shokuiku doesn’t just happen inside school walls either. Last week, the Izumisano 4-H club hosted kindergartners from around the city for a Shokuiku field trip!

Shokuiku is about learning all aspects of food, not just how the nutrients affect the body but where food comes from and how it is grown. Schools will often take students to local farms to experience planting or harvesting.

Izumisano 4-H owns a small field in the southern part of town that this year was sown with satsuma-imo (Japanese sweet potato). City officials organized a day last week for around 200 children to come and dig up the satsuma-imo and then take them home to cook and eat. This is a great way to give them hands-on experience with farming and knowing where their food comes from, but perhaps even more importantly it introduces a nutritious and cheap vegetable into their homes. Teachers send bags of the harvested sweet potatoes home with suggested recipes that kids are eager to try because they harvested them. This all in an effort for food education to go beyond just school lunches but influence a healthier lifestyle.

As busload after busload of colorfully-capped children arrived, they were handed little trowels and given a short speech on what they were doing and why and then lined up on their rows. The 4-H members spread out with our adult-sized shovels to help unearth any particularly difficult potatoes.

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Digging potatoes with the first group. Two of the little boys recognized me from the Danjiri Festival!!

Turns out they were all particularly difficult to dig up! The ground was hard as rocks and satsuma-imo can be impressively large. This did not quell the enthusiasm of the kids though; the squeals of delight every time my tussle with the ground succeeded in uncovering a potato, made it all worth it.

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A great pile of sastuma-imo; the result of all our hard work and fun!

 

 

いただきます  (Itadakimasu!)

Speaking of food education, I had an educating food experience last week: I ate fugu (blowfish)!!! Fugu, for those who don’t know, is a very poisonous fish that if not prepared right, can kill you. Correct preparation has to do with removing the internal organs, which contain the poison, without even scratching them less they release that poison onto the meat. I had always known about it as a very exotic and daredevil food, one that people who were crazy, or had a crazy amount of money, sought out to try.

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The restaurant; I took plenty of pictures to ensure evidence should something go wrong and my family need to collect retribution…

However, the nonchalance of my host family and the ease and rapidity with which they decided we were going out for fugu, selected a restaurant for fugu, and then ate fugu like it was any other meal, made me question my Western perception of this fish. We ordered three different fugu dishes: sashimi (thin slices of the fish raw), nabe (chunks of meat with vegetables you boil in a pot of broth on your table), and sake (hot rice alcohol with a fugu fin in it).

It all happened so quickly I don’t think I took it all in like I should have. I had always heard that you should always ask to see a fugu chef’s license before consuming any in their restaurant (fugu chefs supposedly go through intensive training and then take a test where they prepare fugu and then eat it themselves to test their confidence in their skills).  This seems like a logical thing to do but my host family didn’t suggest it and I didn’t want to be insulting or a high-maintenance American so that step was skipped.

The sashimi was chewy and mild tasting with a beautiful iridescence. The meat for the nabe arrived still pulsating on the plate! I guess that’s how I could tell it was fresh but it was freaky to see, almost like the fugu’s last warning, “Don’t eat me! I’m poisonous!”

The nabe meat was delicious, especially with the mushrooms and ponzu (citrus) sauce; fugu is not “fishy” at all and very tender. Unfortunately I do not have good things to say about the fugu sake. Why I thought boiling a fish fin in alcohol would taste good, I don’t know, but it was vile. My host kindly drank it for me, haha!

Having finished my meal I started to wonder what all the fugu fuss was about and if I should be emailing my last will and testament or sitting back feeling as satisfied and undisturbed as my dining companions looked.

On the way home I started google-ing “how long it takes to know if you’ve been poisoned” and “eating fugu”. This was a mistake, as most internet searching about things you don’t really want to know the answer to, are. I found plenty of stories about “5 men in hospital after eating fugu in northern Japan” and “Fugu outlawed in the EU”. I finally had to just put my phone away. As I am writing this a week later, it is obvious I wasn’t poisoned and I thoroughly enjoyed my fugu experience.

Perhaps it is only in the Western imagination that fugu is such a mysterious and mythical dish; all the Japanese people I have talked to just say, “Oh fugu’s not poisonous if you prepare it right; it’s delicious!”

All Images © Emily Haver

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