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.


All Images (C) Emily Haver

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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 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.

A poster for the event


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


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.


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!

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

Chihaya Shrine

Chihaya shrine

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

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.

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…..

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


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!

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.)


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.

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.

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

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!

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.

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).

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.)


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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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In the northwestern corner of Wakayama prefecture, just an hour and a half away, is the famed and spiritual Koya-san. This mountain is where the Shingon sect of Esoteric Buddhism was established over 1200 years ago by Kobo Daishi, a priest who studied in China and then brought his knowledge back to Japan.

Today, it is still the headquarters of the Shingon sect and many Buddhist priests reside in its more than 110 temples. It is most often visited by followers of the religion to pray at its’ temples or in it’s vast cemetery, and by tourists who want a chance to stay in shukubo (temple lodgings) and try shojin-ryori (the vegetarian cuisine of Buddhist priests).

I visited Koya-san last Wednesday, enjoying the cooler temperatures and admiring the leaves that are just starting to change colors as we drove up the narrow, windy, and steep road to get there. The town is beautiful and fairly small with cobblestone sidewalks and many traditional style buildings.



We arrived around lunch time, so our first stop was the only restaurant I could find where you can order shojin-ryori without reserving it at a temple. Everything is vegetarian, from the eggplant and miso main dish to the soy and apricot custard desert. It may be slightly mystifying considering there’s no meat but shojin-ryori is expensive; the cheapest meal was 2,000 and 5,000 to 10,000 meals are served at some temples.

Shojin-ryori is suppose to use local, organic, and seasonal fruits and vegetables and meals are crafted as part of a Buddhist monk’s spiritual practice. Each meal is supposed to be a balance of five colors, five flavors, five preparation methods, and the five elements. You can learn more about it in this great article:

As our meal was prepared in a restaurant by chefs from Tokyo, and not Buddhist monks, it probably was not as authentic or true to these principles but it carried the same ideas. I can say I have never felt so satisfied after eating vegetables before! The meal was indeed perfectly balanced, giving a feeling of being full without being heavy.

After lunch we walked around the town a bit and visited Kongobu temple, the headquarters of Shingon and the home of Koyasan’s head priest.



Oku-No-In’s Cemetery

Finally, we got back in the car and drove to the other end of town to Oku-no-in, the vast and famed cemetery on Koya-san. Kobo Daishi (the founder of Shingon) is interred in this cemetery however followers of Shingon believe that he is not dead but meditating until the return of Maitreya, the future Buddha, when he will be the only one able to interpret the Maitreya’s message. Because of this, followers of the religion desire to be close to Kobo Daishi and a vast cemetery of important religious figures, historical leaders, and commoners has amassed over the hundreds of years since Oku-no-in was established.

To get to Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum, you walk 1.6 km through these grave markers, piled amongst giant, ancient cedar trees. My camera could not capture the beauty of light and moss, nor the massiveness of the trees. I encourage you to look up pictures on your own.

The entrance of the path leading to Oku-no-in



Japanese Funeral Rights

In Japan, almost every person is cremated after death. This is due to the influence of the Shinto and Buddhist religions and a natural response to the lack of space in a small country with such a large population. In the Buddhist tradition, the bones of the deceased are ceremoniously picked from the ashes and placed on the family altar or distributed amongst the family members. A specific bone in the neck, said to resemble a sitting Buddha is picked up first using ceremonial chopsticks (one of bamboo, one of willow ), and is sometimes taken to special places to help the deceased “cross over”. For the past 1200 years people have brought this bone or a lock of hair, or the ashes of the deceased to Oku-no-in to be close to such a center of spiritual power. These “bits” are what reside in Oku-no-in; it is not a cemetery of coffins like in many Western countries.



At the end of the path through the gravestones, we came to the Mimyo-no bridge and on the other side was a lantern hall and the mausoleum. Before crossing the bridge we had to stop and let a procession of monks go by! They are intensely interesting persons, but I had the feeling I shouldn’t stare at them. They are in an interesting position, devout worshipers at an intensely holy place, but that holy place is also open to all people and so an international tourist attraction. I wonder if this makes Koya-san a desirable or undesirable placement for a Buddhist monk? They must get stared at constantly with people snapping pictures all the time; is that merely rude or a sacrilege? All of these musings in less than five seconds led me to confusedly staring at their feet (which was still quite interesting as they wore geta sandals, wooden shoes elevated on two thin wooden blocks; they make a pleasant clip-clop sound that if you weren’t looking would make you think there were horses coming down the road!).

No pictures are allowed past this point (though some people disgracefully ignore this rule), so I do not have any. We crossed the bridge and entered the Toro-do, a building housing lanterns that are supposed to have been burning for the last 900 years and where worshippers can write letters to Kobo Daishi, purchase amulets, and receive a gift of a manju (Japanese confection of rice stuffed with anko) and a grapefruit! We lit a candle and burned incense in front of the mausoleum to pay our respects and then wound our way around and back to the front to stop by the Miroku-ishi. This small wooden pagoda houses a rock which you can reach in and attempt to lift. The weight of the rock is supposed to change according to the weight of your sins….All I can say is, it makes weak people feel really bad!

Just outside Oku-no-in, in the cemetary, I found this shrine between two auxilary buildings. I thought it was a perfect example of how Shinto and Buddhism are so entwined in Japan. Because Kobo Daishi is believed not to be dead, only meditating, food is symbolically offered to him at his Buddhist mausoleum everyday, but it is first blessed at this Shinto shrine to ensure its purity.


On the way back, we came across this beautiful path leading to a Shinto shrine!



After three and a half months in Japan I am pretty shrine and temple-weary, but Koya-san was a refreshing exception and so worth the trip. Thank you to my new friends for taking me there and making the experience so personal!

All Images © Emily Haver

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I have never encountered a farmer in America that uses a greenhouse, but they are the preferred method of agriculture here in Japan. I would like to find more research on the subject, but I think this is primarily due to the size and type of crop cultivation here. Arable land (land that is usable for farming) is in short supply in Japan and crops are generally grown on small pieces here and there making greenhouses desirable two ways. They offer a means of increasing productivity with less land by offering a controlled environment for delicate crops to grow in and they are possible because of that smaller space—farmers don’t have to cover acres and acres in greenhouses which would be expensive and excessive.

If I have never met an American farmer who uses greenhouses, it would be a safe bet to guess I had never worked in one before coming to Japan. Since living in Japan, I have learned a lot about greenhouses. This week I increased that knowledge by helping to take one apart and in putting another together!

Typhoon Jebi really did some damage in the Osaka area, especially to the area’s farmers who have a significantly smaller crop this year. Last month I shared with you pictures of the collapsed greenhouses of Deguchi Nouen. Miura Nouen also suffered heavy losses; all but one of their greenhouses collapsed.

A Miura greenhouse collapsed on their kale! We still harvest it for our own dinners though!

By the time I arrived here, most of the clean up work had been done; the torn vinyl covers rolled up and thrown away, the mangled aluminum framework organized in piles. It only remained to pull out the steel posts and take them to a scrap yard and then do a trash sweep of the litter blown in on the storm winds, and plow under the broken eggplants and hope for better luck next year.

Remains of the eggplant greenhouse

The destruction of their eggplant house was a heavy blow for Miura Nouen. Eggplant features heavily in the Japanese diet (at least on the main island of Honshu), and is Miura Nouen’s biggest crop. Their eggplants are so valued they are even used in several Michelin star restaurants in Kyoto and Osaka!

So the pressure is on for the success of their other crops this season and special care is being taken of their one remaining greenhouse. This past week this greenhouse got a facelift: we fitted a new “skin” on it. (This analogy both pleases me and makes me cringe!)

Before….(We are in the middle of harvesting all of these greens)

My host, M. san, says they replace the vinyl sheeting (the “skin”) of their greenhouses about every two years. It requires a still day with no wind, otherwise the large sheets act like parachutes and are dangerously impossible to hold down. It also requires a hot, sunny day for the vinyl to fit properly over the frame; if the temperature is too cool the vinyl will not stretch like it should. A tight fit is imperative to greenhouse integrity to prevent warm air leakage in cold weather and tears in windy weather, but not too tight otherwise it will tear on cold days when they vinyl contracts.

Cool fact about Miura Nouen: they grow many of their vegetables without pesticides! As any gardener/farmer who has tried to grow organically will know, this means they have to get creative to fight off bugs and weeds. In this greenhouse, they grow a variety of lettuce greens which are particularly susceptible to a tiny but destructive bug called a thrip. Thrips are miniscule insects that munch on leafy vegetables by sucking up the watery contents. The Miura’s import beneficial bugs to control the thrip population, such as carnivorous ladybugs, but it is best to prevent thrips from finding your crop in the first place. To accomplish this, the Miura’s install red mesh on the sides and top of their lettuce greenhouse. The red confuses the eyes of the thrips, disguising the bright green of the lettuce.

Close-up of the red thrips mesh

We applied the red mesh one rainy afternoon by stretching it tight and then fixing it with these wavy wired that pop into grooves that hold the mesh in place.

The next day the weather did a 180 and we were able to put the new skin on the greenhouse. It was a big job, taking all five adult family members plus three hired hands and me to get it done in one afternoon.

We stretched the vinyl by simultaneously pulling on all sides at once and then it is held in place by wires in the same grooves as the red mesh, and then trimmed. (I promise we did this over two different days, I just coincidentally wore the the same thing!)


After!….(Finished greenhouse with a shiny, new, hopefully bug-proof, vinyl “skin”)


All Images©Emily Haver

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Harvest Season: Danjiri Matsuri

Warning: This post contains some content that is not appropriate for all ages. Perhaps previewing the content would be advisable.

If I was wondering where all the outgoing fun-loving people Osaka is supposed to be known for are, I found them in Izumisano. What a way to be welcomed into the community! From day one I was thrown in as one of the family and encountered exuberance, mountains of food, a fair amount of good-natured teasing, and way more Japanese than I have had to decipher thus far!

My first two days with the Miura family were during one of their biggest events of the year: Izumisano’s Danjiri Matsuri. A danjiri matsuri (or festival) is a unique and very Osaka-n way of praying for and celebrating a good harvest; many have been held in different towns in the area since the early 1700’s. The defining feature of a danjiri festival are the giant, intricately carved wooden carts that are pulled through the streets at break-neck speeds while specially appointed people dance on top!

As you can imagine this isn’t the safest of occupations and some years end in fatal causalities (the town of Kishiwada is especially famous for their intense and dangerous danjiri festival). However, it is a tradition beloved by many people and I must say is a heck of a lot of fun, so it continues every year!

The danjiri’s “garage” where it resides most of the year round.

My host family is heavily involved in the town guild that cares for and organizes the danjiri team in their community. I awoke my first morning in Izumisano knowing it was a festival day but having no idea what I was in for! As I ate breakfast, two cousins were dressing in their happii (the uniform of a danjiri team), while a son-in-law had already left for the danjiri garage, and my host, M. san, was trying to get her two very bouncy and excited sons dressed in their festival wear.

Preparing the danjiri for the weekend; special attention must be given to the wheels and axles, with several  in supply in case they break (which hopefully doesn’t happen because that would mean crashing!)

Other preparations took up the morning and then we walked over to the main Miura house for lunch. It is a wonderful, large, traditional style Japanese house that was packed with people and activity. Every person from a big family knows the kind of wonderful craziness that ensues when you all come together for a holiday; that atmosphere is what I stepped into. I found a place at the long table between a baby and an uncle, and as I stuffed my face with rice and oden stew, M. san surprised me by asking if I wanted to change into festival clothes! Now, I had seen happi-wearing festival teams before in Chichibu and had only wished I could be so cool; to be given the chance to join their ranks was almost too good to be true!

I put on all the above clothes (minus the shoes) and then we were ready to go! I met a very nice man on our danjiri team on Sunday who had studied at a university in the U.S. when he was younger, Mark san. Mark san speaks English and he explained a lot of things about danjiri including the fact that happi are special garments that can only be worn by the members of that community and you cannot pull the danjiri unless you are wearing one. This made me feel like an imposter and very special at the same time.

Two danjiri teams pass each other at full speed, close enough for the daiku-gata to reach out and touch fans!

Each “neighborhood” in Izumisano has their own Danjiri, seven in all, and on Saturday they all convened on Izumisano’s main street. Members of the community will follow their danjiri through the streets, running or biking after it. After lunch we ran ahead, found a good place to watch from the sidewalk, and when our danjiri passed by we followed after! I’m sure the many people watching wondered who that gaijin (foreigner) was and who let her put a happi on, but I tried not to think about that and just keep up and not get run over!

There are several parts to a danjiri team: the pulling team at the front comprised of all ages, boys and girls, the “rudder” team at the back who turns the danjiri on signals from the daiku-gata on top, the daiku-gata who dances on top in dare-devil style urging on the pulling team and directing the steering team, the brakemen who operate two large wooden paddles that create friction on the wheels and slow it down, the dignitaries who stand on the front of the danjiri (usually senior men of the community), the musicians who sit inside the danjiri, and the “motivating team” (as I like to call them) who run alongside the pulling team blowing whistles, giving direction to the youngest, and whacking any slackers with paper fans! (Besides the daiku-gata, I made up the names of the other parts of the danjiri team, haha!)

The pulling team on the ropes: youngest in the front, older in the back. They guys with fans and whistles and that giant sign are the “motivators”

The rudder team getting ready to “heave-ho!”

Three dignitaries standing on the front, drummers are hidden inside, flutists on each corner, and two brakemen with those large paddles in the front

The daiku-gata is the most honored position on a danjiri and the most dangerous, requiring skill and courage. A. Miura is a daiku-gata, you see him in many of my pictures, his father was one of the community elders who rode on the front, and M. san’s husband and cousins were on the rudder team.


A. Miura literally hopping from side to side as he dance-directs the danjiri!!

Since I was wearing a happi and hanging out in the back as we ran after the danjiri, they let me try my hand on the “rudder” team! It definitely requires a lot of strength and synchronization, not to mention a fair bit of courage and swiftness as they make tight and fast turns on narrow streets. There were a couple of turns where they needed to pull the cart father over than they had space to do so and would crash into each other, light posts, and fences. After the first time that happened I just let go; the next time I left it to the professionals!

Another danjiri rudder team correcting their course (I risked life and limb to get this shot!)

The coordination and skill of the daiku-gata and the “rudder” team is of the upmost importance to prevent the danjiri from crashing into buildings and light posts or toppling over. (Businesses in towns with danjiri festivals will purchase danjiri insurance for impending disasters!) Most deaths occur from danjiri falling over on a turn and crushing someone, or the daiku-gata falling off and being run over.


The danjiri is pulled all over town all day, taking short rest breaks when everyone would collapse on the ground, only getting up to crawl to the refreshment truck that followed us with tubs of ice and drinks, so nice!

If you thought this festival couldn’t get any crazier you’d be wrong, because after liberal alcoholic libations, they add several more pounds and feet in height of lanterns to the danjiri, and then hand the reigns over to the kids of the community! This gives teens the chance to practice handling the cart, for soon they will be old enough to take over the danjiri, and gives the little ones a chance to be part of the action by helping to pull. As you can imagine, thus the danjiri moves much more slowly at night and it is a more relaxed, albeit sometimes raucous, atmosphere with many stops for more refreshments!

Sunday morning the whole thing started all over again but instead of all of Izumisano’s danjiri coming together, they stay in their own neighborhoods and go to their shrines to receive a blessing. This was truly a hair raising part of the festival, as the danjiri team would run, full-tilt, down the street, under the tori gate and into the shrine–the danjiri flying after–and at the last second and with limited space, at a signal from the daiku-gata, the rudder team would heave and spin the danjiri around to a stop, wheels screeching and smoking!!

Entering the shrine after completing the ninety degree turn to get in!

Four danjiri gathered at this shrine so space shrunk with each addition and the teams had to slow down, the last not quite making their turn into the gate!

In Kishiwada, that famous Danjiri Matsuri town, the second-day competition is a race between the danjiris. I don’t know what it is in other communities, but Izumisano’s was a comedy skit created and acted out by high school boys from each team.

Kids clambered up on top of the danjiris for a better view

Don’t ask me exactly what they were about because I don’t know! (And yes that is a boy in a diaper….)

The winning skit gets money for their team and the skits are judged by a panel of four people, one from each danjiri team. Our team almost won, but came in second after a tie-breaker! (They made me laugh the most, anyway!)

Teams and crowds gathered to watch; most of theses people were from the team that won

After receiving blessings at the shrine and the skit competition, the danjiris took off to continue their parades. This day however, they stayed in their respective neighborhoods instead of venturing around all of Izumisano. We took a very nice long lunch break before joining them again and this time on bikes!

That night proceeded much like the night before and I met so many friendly, outgoing people. I was also able to have a good chat with Mark san, my new English speaking acquaintance. He explained several things to me including the fact that being hit with the paper fans is supposed to be “inspiring” to the young people pulling the danjiri and doesn’t really hurt. (I don’t know if I believe that, hahaha!)

Pulling the danjiri!! Notice my awful grey and purple tennis shoes because there were no cool toe shoes (jika tabi) for me!

I feel like everyone in town must know about my existence now; I felt like a local celebrity taking pictures with people, trying to answer questions in my poor Japanese, and been offered copious amounts of snacks and drink. My hosts know so many friendly people and I left the festival Sunday night with several plans for future get-togethers with my new acquaintances in my calendar. It was a wonderful weekend that made me settle right in and feel what everyone repeatedly told me, “Emily, you’re family now!”


(P.S. In case you were worried: no danjiri crashed and no one got seriously injured this year!)

All Images©Emily Haver

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