Conversations over good food and the best homemade Umeshyu

Note: written on May 24

Meal times are my favorite times at Ono Farm, not just because of the delicious organic food and by no means because the other activities are unenjoyable. At the dining table, we have had conversations about anything under the sun, and as the days pass our conversations have become deeper, more honest and more personal.

A typical meal at Ono Farm looks like this: when Masako-san is done cooking, Jing Ying and I would hustle into the kitchen to help set up the dining table. Yuji-san would return from the farm all sweaty and tired and take a quick shower while the three of us take our specific seats. Upon joining us, though, Yuji never brings his fatigue to the dining table and never lets anyone worry about him, instead fully recovering his amicable smile and outgoing demeanor. We next excitedly chant “Itadakimasu” together, upon which we are allowed to dig in to the delicious food Masako has made with fresh organic produce from their own farm. We would first share about what each of us have accomplished, and then move on to discussing anything that any of us spontaneously brings up. Our conversations develop organically (literally too) but are in no way superficial — all four of us happen to share a similar passion for a few issues and wider interest in many other topics, and more importantly, we share the same desire to learn and same open-mindedness to unfamiliar grounds.

At the dining table, I’ve discovered many things about Japan that I have been completely ignorant of and/or have not expected. Particularly on its food safety. Many of us in Singapore have this image of Japan as a country with quality produce due to their superb agricultural technique and perfect climate. We tend to attach their quality in taste and looks to their nutrition value as well, hailing them as health foods and elevating them to the same level as their organic counterparts. Unfortunately, this cannot be further from the truth. Ono Farm is one of the rare few organic farms in the Awa province. Even in the Tokushima prefecture and in Japan at large, organic farming has barely caught on as well. Most veggie farms still depend heavily (in fact increasingly so) on pesticides, herbicides, artificial growth stimulants, chemical fertilizers amongst others, with multiple causes behind this. For one, the government-initiated Japan Agricultural Cooperatives group (JA) are blatant opponents of organic farming. Not only do they promote (or rather, compel) the intensive use of highly subsidized chemical inputs, they are extremely unwelcoming towards organic farmers who try to join the cooperative and work with other farms. This has been a huge deterrent for farmers considering to switch from conventional to organic farming. Because of the Japanese government’s agricultural agenda coupled with its general lack of transparency, many Japanese remain ignorant about the deleterious impacts of such chemical-intensive farming on both environmental and human health. Neighbors of Ono Farm, for instance, would kindly offer to spray herbicides on Ono Farm when they see it infested with weeds, and are baffled when Yuji and Masako reject the offer. What compounds this problem is Japan’s culture of respect, reticence and deference, where one is inculcated from a young age the primacy of preserving the integrity of existing systems over airing one’s opinions. Yuji and Masako find it hard to explain their commitment to organic farming for fear of offending the conventional farmers around, just as the masses fail to question the government’s agriculture policies and concealing of information for fear of disrespecting the authorities and disrupting status quo. So yes, the perfect-looking Japanese rice, Kyoho grape and Wagyu beef that we covet are probably laden with chemicals.

Our conversations about Japan’s food security have also enlightened me in surprising ways. I came to Japan with the perception that Japanese take great pride in their local produce and depend little on foreign imports for food sustenance. Again, I am proven wrong. Japan cannot live without soybeans — its staples like natto, soy sauce and tofu are all made from that. Yet, three-quarters of its soybeans consumed are currently imported. While Japanese soybeans are all non-GMO, much of the imported ones are, but Japanese remain largely clueless about that fact. Soybeans are actually really difficult to grow, not to mention organic ones. The Japanese diet has also evolved from plant-based meals made from locally sourced ingredients to meat- and dairy-heavy meals thanks to Western influence, hence putting significant pressure on Japan’s soil to support animal agriculture, particularly highly polluting dairy farms. Such phenomena have compromised Japan’s ability to meet its own food preferences and dietary needs, making it more vulnerable to international fluctuations in food supply and climate change.

With a cup of home-brewed Umeshyu each (except Yuji who’s allergic to alcohol) loosening our tongues every dinner, beyond those two pet topics, we’ve talked about our travel experiences, our family, our schooling experiences, youth apathy and even our biggest regret in life. I’ve learnt about the the unimaginable hardships that Yuji and Masako have gone through as organic farmers in Japan swimming against the tide, receiving little to no support from family members, the community and the government. These conversations remind me how knowledgeable, wise, resilient and kind the pair are, and I will continue to hold them dearly to my heart.

Just some fangirling over the owners of Ono Farm

Note: Written on May 18

It’s only been a week but I’ve learnt so much that I don’t even know where to begin… My time at Ono Farm has been beyond superb, giving me many new experiences in farming and rural living, and many new insights into diverse topics ranging from organic farming to Japanese culture to the farmers’ own life histories. In this reflection, let me share about how amazing the owners of Ono Farm are.

Yuji-san and Masako-san, husband and wife, have been running their own organic farm for over thirty years. The sixty-year-old duo manage every single part of the farm themselves, from crop production to sales and marketing to delivery. Each of these aspects in turn comprise many different activities. Crop production, for instance, includes planting, weeding, fertilizing, watering, harvesting and cultivating the soil, and each crop requires different methods of doing each of these steps. Across an entire year, the two grow almost a hundred crops in total, scheduling them according to their seasons and spreading them across their 10 rental plots. Again, each crop has its own season which frequently overlaps with other crops, and scheduling + keeping track of all of them requires as much meticulousness as it requires big-picture thinking. 

Not only are they impressive strategists, their commitment to agroecology is highly respectable as well. Organic inputs, minimal use of automated machinery and crop rotation are some of the ways they ensure that their farm stays ecologically sound and sustainable. And this is by no means easy. As I was sprinkling oyster shell powder (lots of calcium!) over an empty field to prepare it for new crops, I couldn’t help but wonder if there already is a machine that could do the job much more efficiently and painlessly. After all, having to move around 20 bags of that stuff, each weighing 20 kg, and then toss them all over the field from a pail I could barely hold on to was far from effortless. Having to go to the fields at 6.30am to rummage through the pea plants for peas while repeatedly squatting and bending also made me recall the mechanical tomato harvester I read about in my Intro to ES course. That course has taught me about the environmental harms and social inequalities brought about by these machines, but hands-on experience at Ono Farm has allowed me to better empathize with those who have adopted such technology not because they are out there to exploit but because it is intuitive for them to say yes to whatever solution available that can get them out of hardship. It has also impressed upon further me how resolute the two are to do the right thing. Engaging in such tough manual labour every day, it is so easy for them to give in and take the easy way out but they remain committed to organic farming till this day.

Despite having 1001 things to do and working from dawn to dusk, they have no intention to slow down any time soon. In fact, at sixty years of age, they still have many things planned ahead while most of their counterparts are already retiring. They remain just as excited to try out new crops, explore new markets to enter and experiment with new farming techniques. And their zest for life goes far beyond farming. In this 100-year-old house that they moved into three years ago, they continue to take up an eclectic mix of projects like installing solar panels on their roofs to charge their electric car, building a second floor for guests and making drinking straws from rye. And they do these all by themselves, learning the steps through books, troubleshooting with their own intelligence and literally building things up with their own pair of hands. Their continuous quest for self-improvement without the fear of failure is truly inspiring. On that note, their knowledge on issues all around the world is also remarkable, something I admittedly did not expect at all from rural farmers who have dedicated their lives to farming. This, I will explain further in my next reflection on our dinner conversations at Ono Farm.

First leg, Phrae: Indigo dye, weaving & a long bus ride


In Phrae (pronounced “preh”), you cannot escape the mountains. Every which way you turn, the blue-green shadow of sloping mountains peek through. Our friend told us that Phrae is like a pan – it is flat but completely surrounded by tall mountains on every side.

(A view you get at the end of every road)

The 8-hour bus ride from Bangkok to Phrae with little to no WiFi meant a good amount was spent (somewhat pensively?) staring out of the window. It is fascinating how the landscape slowly changes as we began the upward drive to Phrae. The roads started winding, and we were shrouded by endless green – large expanses of farmland and forests. I see trucks crammed with cattle driving past me, and Tammy whispers, “to be slaughtered!”

Along the journey to Phrae, I witnessed several of what seemed like roadside communities. These communities lived directly by the road, sandwiched between huge expanses of farmland and the long stretch of road. They live in between towns, in between cities, seemingly unconnected to where we came from or where we were going next. It appeared to me like a strange, disconnected life. Of course, I could be making assumptions from a privileged person, but their geographical location, where they lived, seem to greatly affect how they lived their lives, and how they could see their futures.

In particular I remember a scene of several watermelon stands next to the empty road, and behind there is farmland. I automatically assumed they were watermelon farmers.They sat next to their watermelon stands, rows of red watermelons cut open to reveal fleshy juicy insides, flies buzzing. The heat was strong, and the road was empty other than our bus and some trucks. I wondered who they could be selling for. It seemed hard to envision they could have many customers other than the odd tourist. Perhaps they could be supplying watermelons to the nearby communities.

The idea of the three of us on our travel fellowship, then, became almost dissonant in its privilege. I didn’t want to feel guilty, but I acknowledged that my geographical location – Singapore, where things were close by; the city was small and accessible – has greatly shaped my freedom to aim and strive for things that I wanted. In turn, there are also communities and people living in the nooks and crannies of Thailand that seem almost forgotten or unheard of, their daily striving for food on the table something many people do not see or recognise. In a country that is big, sprawling, where roads are long and land plentiful, people can easily be cut off from opportunities and growth. This 8-hour bus ride became a small, limited window into what might be a daily reality for some who live by the road. I wanted to remember that there are people everywhere trying to make a life for themselves. And I wanted to remember that aspects like geographical location, urban planning and the environment could have very real and present impacts on individual lives.


The artisan community: Mai Kam Fai 

The moment we stepped into Mai Kam Fai, we were warmly greeted by an elderly woman with curly hair and a large smile. This short and sweet woman was actually the original owner of Mai Kam Fai who had the ambition and hope to continue the traditional practice of weaving and natural indigo ink dyeing. Over the next few days, we learnt that the craft carries the weight of over 200 years of tradition which originated from Laos, something that was very unexpected to me.

She was welcoming and open to sharing her remarkable story of who she was and what Mai Kam Fai meant to her. She proudly shared how Mai Kam Fai has grown since their humble beginnings in 1999 where they have since been recognised by the Tourism Authority of Thailand and have won several awards. She affectionately talked about the artisans that worked for her, consisting mostly of elderly women who weave as and when they please. She went on to share that she was extremely happy that Mai Kam Fai gave the women around her a job and has bonded her community even more ever since indigo dyed fabric became Phrae’s speciality product. And this proved to be true as we explored her workshop and met the weavers. It became very apparent to us that artisanship was much more than a skill. Many of the women working there mentioned that they enjoy their work not only because it provided greater financial stability, but also because they could return to their friends and have a place where they could talk.

However, like so many products that are steeped in tradition, there is a fear that these trades will not be passed on to the next generation and ensure its continuity. The co-founder, Beau, has expressed that her 14-year-old daughter is adverse to the idea of becoming a weaver or continuing the business and we soon learn that Phrae’s youth tends to be uninterested in these traditional crafts, choosing to leave when for bigger cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai when they are independent. This led us to reflect on the importance of continuity of tradition and the value of artisanship. I am left with this uncomfortable feeling of guilt where I can easily say that I love artisanship and the significance it holds in culture and utility but cannot say that I wish to become an artisan. What can I do to protect this practice when the issue is not with the lack of demand but rather with supply? What happens if this practice dies out? I still don’t have any answers but this experience has surely left me with some confusing perspectives of the significance of artisanship and its future.

Ms Aoba Nezu – Arts as medium for Business

What she does and how she got started? 

4 years ago, she was a program officer at a public incorporated company that aims to bridge cooperations with the arts. She realised that many companies relegated arts to the peripherals. However, she saw the value of arts to business and wanted to harness it.

Now, she runs her own consulting firm that provides business strategies using arts, culture and even sports as a medium.

For example, many large companies have their power centred mainly in the hands of old men and the young people are constantly trapped in lower level jobs. Due to the ageing society, there are fewer opportunities for young people to rise through the ranks and older staff hoard the higher positions, Young people also tend to change jobs more frequently because of the stagnation of opportunities.

This creates a divide in the office between the young and old. To bridge the divide, she organises company bonding workshops that uses arts to foster more opportunities for honest communication between different levels of staff. (using one of Shakespeare’s plays, the team (compromising of both senior and junior staff) have to recreate a scene. However, the junior officers are given the roles as stage directors and the senior staff have to follow along. Such reversal in roles show older staff the capabilities of junior staff and give junior staff more confidence.)

On how she’s so convinced that the Japanese work culture needs changing

After living and working in the west for more than half her life, she grew to realise how stifling and rigid the Japanese work culture was. As a result, there is a talent outflow from Japan. Coupled with the aging population, power in Japanese companies is over centralised in the hands of older workers. But the young people are the ones who have to pay taxes and take care of the ageing population. She feels that she wants to reshape the working culture to create a more conducive/nurturing/embracing/encouraging environment for young people.

On gender related challenges in the workplace and how to navigate around them

She acknowledges that many people in top leadership positions in the corporate world are male and naturally the idea that women are ill-equipped to be rational and decisive is still pervasive.

Even with the government encouraging more women to enter the workforce, the ground is still resistant to the change in mindset. In response, she feels that this can be overcome by women using logic to defeat overly misogynistic men. She shared that during presentations, she counters negative perceptions of women in business by being extra logical and decisive and adopts a no nonsense approach. She believes defeating one by logic is the best way to reshape perceptions.

On whether women entrepreneurship is a possible key to breaking the glass ceiling…

She feels that currently there is little government support to encourage women Entreprenuership. When women want to start their own business, they are usually advised to start as an NPO. This already reveals society’s perception that entrepreneurship is risky and more so women entrepreneurs.

She feels that there should also be skills retraining and design thinking course to reshape how women think because they have been repeatedly forced towards thinking in a box and might not be aware of their entrepreneurship potential and their possible opportunities entrepreneurship can bring.



Ms Tsutsumi – challenging instituitions

Since my travel fellowship mainly comprises of interviews, I will be sharing an interview transcript (obtained with permission)and my reflections from one of my interviewees.

What does she do?

  1. She runs a co-working space attached to a daycare facility (2 months to 6 years). She hopes that this will enable parents to settle toggle between their working and childcare responsibilities and not have to sacrifice one for the other.
  2. She operates venue hire services where parents can have play dates with their children.
  3. She runs a child-friendly cafe and hires staff who find it hard to find work in Japanese society due to their personal circumstances (disabilities, criminal record etc).
  4. She also manages an employment agency that helps people who are commonly shunned by society find work.

How did she get started on this? 

She used to a be freelancer at a broadcasting center. She believed that work was an autonomous decision and that you will be rewarded fairly for the work you have done. However, after having children she realised just how much labor laws were rests on the assumption that a woman will work for a big company and have kids. She felt that the value of work. especially for women, was compromised.

For example, she feels that it is common for a woman’s career to last only up till she has a child. (Japanese corporations often give husbands whose wives stay home a bonus, and the Japanese tax system punishes couples with two incomes.) She feels that the laws are overly myopic and does not take into account women who choose to explore alternate paths like working through the pregnancy and after birth. Hence, she created a company that aims to enable women to make more independent decisions and build a more inclusive and diverse working environment.

On the lack of career portability in Japan…

(This might explain why Entreprenuership is not gaining as much traction in Japan).

In Japan, the company pays taxes on behalf of their employees. Naturally, young people are swayed to work for big companies and as a result, they do not really have a clear goal of what they truly want to do.

When it comes to a woman’s prospects, it is still influenced largely by societal expectations. She gave the analogy of a cocoon. The cocoon’s existence is dedicated solely to the development of the pupae and loses its value after a butterfly emerges. Likewise, a woman is seen as a mother and a wife first before a woman.

What shaped her views? 

From young, she already knew what it felt to be an outcast as she suffered from a heart defect and could not play with other children. A few years ago, she met a mother with her kid at a playground late at night. She asked why the mother was out so late and the mother revealed that her child suffered from albino and because the child was bullied so often by other children, she could only bring him out at night to be spared of the tormenting. At that moment, Ms Tsutsumi felt enraged because it seemed that society was unrelenting and unsympathetic to even children. Those for were different were immediately branded as an outcast.

This experience motivated her to build a community that rewards efforts instead of endowment so that we can all create our own truths instead of living out society’s definition of truth for us. Hence, her company makes it a point to hire those who find it hard to gain employment.