Historically, there are many values that Japanese people held dear to them, when life was still simple. The sentiment of ‘mottainai’ (what a waste) which I have mentioned before, exists because people used to treasure what they have. And in seeing what they treasure disappear, they say ‘mottainai’. While this isn’t a value for environmental protection per se, I believe it is at the heart of protecting the environment – treasuring our resources and feeling a sense of love for the environment around us, be it what we eat and where we thrive. In the farms we visited thus far, this sentiment was strong: we made sure that leftovers were kept for the next meal, and nothing edible was wasted during meal preparation. In the countryside, all the neighbours know each other, and they gift each other the food they make, and sometimes even come together to cook with the ingredients they each bring.

However, the farmers shared that this is changing, because the younger generations are unable to understand where the value comes from. Because of how available all our resources seem to us in the cities (convenience stores, supermarkets), we often forget how difficult it is and how much work goes behind the scenes to procure all these resources, and there is no need to think ‘mottainai’. Even though I previously thought that everyone finishes all their food when they eat at restaurants due to the presence of this value in Japanese culture, we found out that it isn’t true. While there are people who do ensure that they finish all their food for this reason, there is also an increasing number of people who don’t hold this value anymore.

We arrived in Tokyo with the perception that we wouldn’t be able to find these deep rooted, beautiful values, but rather be surrounded by modern, consumerist cultures. While that was true to some extent, there are people who care. I felt so alienated by the coldness of Tokyo after two whole weeks of being in the the warm countryside where strangers greet each other (I even smiled and greeted a stranger on the streets of Tokyo on reflex, and surprised both the other party and myself). But after visiting some farmers markets and organic stores, we realise that while small, there are people who care and still hold these deep values. It’s so important for these people to be here as they are the catalysts of change in these large and scary cities – I met farmers of vegetable and free range egg farms, distributors of organic food and companies supporting socio-environmental causes, such as a fairtrade company bringing in organic bananas to Japan (and with minimal packaging)! What warmed me the most wasn’t their amazing initiatives, but how they were so willing to share their knowledge, happiness, love and hard work. Even though I took their precious time away from work (I even talked to some of them for almost 10min!), most of them gifted me with something as thanks – although I should really be the one thanking them. I was gifted an egg from a free range egg farm, and a banana from the fairtrade company, which touched me so so much.

The banana and egg I received as gifts :’)

The kind employee sharing about ethical bananas – at an organic mini farmer’s market right outside Takashimaya Shinjuku!

I was also thinking about how modern Japanese culture has come to be and why Japan seems to use excessive packaging and cosmetically filter their food more than other countries do, and I realise that much of it is rooted in their culture of hospitality. It seems to have manifested itself in the consumerist market as all the issues we are identifying now – cosmetic filtering, excessive packaging, all serve as a way to show respect and hospitality even in the modern times. At department stores for instance, Japanese shops will always give generous servings of samples (exposing Coco’s guilty pleasure) as a show of hospitality to the customers. Knowing that these issues are rooted in such values confuses me, but I think it teaches me that understanding cultures goes beyond the surface, and requires deep understanding of why certain things are done. It’s easy for us to get mad at all the packaging we see, but if we understand the scenario charitably, we can actually learn a lot from it, and slowly unpack what we have to do to resolve the issue.

While it may appear that values such as mottainai have disappeared along with the times, I believe they’re still somewhere in people’s hearts and that these values can be ignited once more, especially with the hard work of all these people. A farmer shared with me that his regulars and the people he gets to know at events start to get aware of the issue and ask for ugly fruits and vegetables, so he brings them along to farmers markets. Although he doesn’t display them, he knows his regulars and informed customers will ask for them. While this isn’t at the level of community building yet, this connection and heart behind reducing waste is so touching to hear.

Farmer’s Market at the United Nations University (every Saturday!)

The farmer whom brings ugly food to his stall at the UNU Farmer’s Market

Being at such events (at really popular locations) also tells us that the movement is gaining traction, and organic food is becoming more and more mainstream in Tokyo. While it is currently still presented as a luxury and at slightly exorbitant prices, they are slowly becoming more available to the wider public.

Surprisingly affordable vegan food at UNU Farmer’s Market!

With the climate crisis approaching, increasing poverty and world hunger, and so many other problems that humans have created, I think there is some hope – that lies with passionate hearts, and connecting them to create powerful communities.

In this cold city, I found so much passion that really warms my heart.

Going Wild

(I apologise in advance for the long post… I was too beWILDered by this topic)

I often say that it would be great if humans can go back to our caveman days – to lead simple lifestyles and have ourselves integrated back into the ecosystem. It would solve so many of the world’s current problems: waste, climate change, poverty, even mental health. But if I think about it, would I be able to lead such a life? I don’t think so. I can’t even climb a mountain without following a set, man-made path (we had to circle the mountain we wanted to hike up and nearly gave up because we couldn’t find the entrance…). We can’t even tell what kind of plants are edible – we ended up foraging on the path up the mountain as there were so many sweet-smelling fruits, but we had no idea if they were poisonous. It hit me then that we were so used to just picking up anything at the supermarket that we don’t actually have the ability to tell whether what we were holding was edible. On top of that, having lived a sedentary lifestyle as a stressed and lazy student for almost all my life, my body is so weak that I find simple farm work tough. I am inevitably stuck as a modern, spoiled human being who is weak, delicate and unable to survive in the wild. Perhaps I can adjust to it, but it will take a long time and require many uncomfortable changes to my life.

When we think about food, something we don’t often think about but is vital is where our food comes from – whether it is farmed or wild caught. Previously I never really distinguished between the two, but experiencing life in the Ishikawa prefecture has made me think twice. While farming organically is great, the concept of farming in itself is destructive. It requires massive land use change. I often wondered to myself what land we stood on looked like before it was transformed into the farm it is now: was it a temperate forest? Or perhaps grassland? We will never know, but even for something that is touted to be great like organic farming, there are hidden tradeoffs like the destruction of landscapes (although this would probably have happened very long ago). Even the natural plants/animals that reside in these areas are labelled as ‘weeds’ and ‘pests’ by us humans and forcibly removed, whether by hand (organically) or by herbicides/pesticides. And even with organic farming, if the soil is not treated well, the topsoil can be easily eroded and lack the nutrients it requires to sustain farming.

Farmed animals then come with a whole new set of problems, to do with ethicality. Are the animals treated well? Do they have sufficient space/freedom/food to sustain themselves healthily (both physically and mentally)? Even with such intimate contact with our hosts at the poultry/dairy farms, it is impossible to answer these questions. For one, we’re not animal experts, and we have no idea what the hosts do when we are not around. Labels such as cage-free and organic feed may not be all there is to the picture – it’s also about where they buy their animals from, how they treat them, whether their ‘cage-free’ space is large enough, and more often than not these factors cannot be controlled.

However while farming has its cons, Yuuji, one of the owners of the organic farm we first visited holds a life philosophy: that we learn the most when we try to do things by ourselves – which includes creating your own food. He made his own tofu recipe from scratch with a lot of experimentation (which is super good by the way), and is making upgrades to his house all by himself (like building a second floor and solar panels). Unlike many other farmers, he comes from Tokyo so he’s had a taste of city life and comfort, yet he decided to move to the countryside and farm for many years now, which must have been a leap of faith, motivation and lots of courage. We remarked during one of our dinner conversations that the farm looked perfect; the veggies looked and tasted great and we’re always so amazed by everything he does, and wondered how he even did it. And he told us about a Japanese proverb ‘石橋を叩いて渡る’ (which means to tap on the stone bridge before you cross it). It teaches one to not stop oneself from doing anything because you’re afraid of failure, because the bridge is stronger than you think. And he told us that the reason why he’s able to look so successful now is because he’s made many mistakes and failed at everything he’s done, which allowed him to learn how to succeed. He only knows what to plant because he’s had the experience of failing to grow and harvest his plants, and I’m so inspired by his attitude and there’s so much to learn from him. We almost expect him to be this really perfect person, but then he starts telling us about how his solar project is totally failing right now – and I find it so admirable. The other farmers we visited also followed similar philosophies, although they didn’t articulate it. For instance, the farmer in Noto, Ishikawa learned to forage and eat whatever he could find in the mountains and sea by himself – he asked questions (especially ‘why’), but always seeked the answers by himself. This is also how he perfected the feed he produces for his cows, and learned by himself how to keep the soil healthy through experimentation. They are really proud of what they have done, and have learned so much in the process. Farming one’s own food has its virtues too – and I am in absolute awe of the philosophy behind farming.

In Kaga-shi and Noto-shi in Ishikawa, where we stayed with a poultry farm and dairy farm, the farmers consume wild boars caught from the mountains, and fish wild-caught from the sea – the Ishikawa prefecture is flanked by mountains, valleys, rivers and the Sea of Japan. As environmentalists, we often try to keep to a plant-based diet in order to reduce our carbon emissions and eat more sustainable food. However, observing their diets in the Ishikawa prefecture has entirely changed my perception of what makes food ‘sustainable’. I felt really weird and my conscience pricked at me for eating wild boar and sashimi so often for meals because I don’t usually consume so much meat (I’m a flexitarian).

But in this area, eating meat-based proteins may actually be sustainable, as long as they’re caught sustainably. Wild boar populations boomed after the loss of predatory species such as wolves (in Kaga), and when they moved into areas where wild boar are not native to due to extreme weather in other regions (in Noto, from colder areas like Niigata). As I learned in Ecology and Ecosystems, a module I took this semester, the large increase in population of any species can upset the balance of the ecosystem and cause the destruction of landscapes, as large numbers of wild boar feed excessively on the shoots and trees in the area. This makes wild boars a pest to nature, and hunting them down can actually ripple into a positive effect for the environment, as it allows the forests to recover from excessive grazing.

My usual dinner at Noto – with イノシシ (wild boar) and saba sashimi

As for fish, because we’re literally right beside the sea, there are little food miles incurred when we consume local seafood, and because they are not farmed, there is little carbon footprint incurred in the process. However, the question of sustainable fishing still remains and will remain unanswered – otousan was trying to convince us that the locals fish sustainably by ensuring that they don’t overfish, but it is impossible for us to verify this information of course (unless we stay with fishermen – but unfortunately we won’t have the chance to do so). But judging by the price of fish in the supermarket, you can buy an entire fish for less than 200yen (ard $2.50), which is absolutely insane, the fish in the area might really be in abundance. It was also really interesting to consume local fish, which is different from what we normally see in other areas. In Noto, we had fish like あじ aji (horse mackerel), れんこ鯛 renko tai (crimson sea bream) and 鯖 saba (mackerel) caught fresh in the morning and eaten as sashimi (otousan will always emphasize that you can’t have these fish as sashimi anywhere else as it isn’t fresh enough – he also fillets them himself, and is self-taught) or grilled. We also occasionally went to the shore to catch 栄螺 sazae (turban snails) along the seawalls, and otousan even broke them apart for us to try raw right there and then. All this felt like such a luxury, but I was appalled at how cheap and available everything was. The concept of sustainability is complex, and requires a deep understanding of the local environment – there isn’t a single one-fit answer, and it isn’t always the least luxurious sounding option.

Fish at the local supermarket

The sazae we caught!

Otousan is always so excited to introduce us to good food, and often splurged on food. He called himself (and us) 食通 shokutsu, which means a gourmet/foodie, and was always really excited to have good food; sashimi is his favourite food. Of course good food doesn’t just include extravagant food, as he also appreciates other foods such as sea snails, wild mulberries, random roadside flowers and his own vegetables and milk. But this made me think a little – while an extravagant diet happens to be somewhat sustainable and available in this area, it’s not a lifestyle that everyone can and should strive to afford (especially people living in cities, or places like Singapore where all food is imported etc.). Are we, as humans, entitled to eat good food?

Through this trip, I realised how much happiness food can give to people – on top of being a necessity for survival, it is also vital for one’s wellness. The happiness I feel having good food – a huge privilege – can energise me for the entire day and warm my heart, and I acknowledge how powerful this can be. Many are food insecure, and more are food secure but lack access to a variety of foods – just having grains for every meal for instance can be detrimental to one’s health and wellness. As someone who doesn’t usually have access to luxury foods such as sashimi and wagyu (many things I’ve had on this trip were a first for me), I was honestly really touched and grateful for the random and very casual opportunity to try such great tasting food. On one hand, I wish everyone had access to such food which can really boost one’s well being, but on the other hand, is it a necessity? It’s not sustainable for everyone to live like this and have access to such foods, and it can create inequalities especially in large cities where the price of such foods is hiked up due to increased demand. This effect is going to be exacerbated as climate change hits, and food availability drops even further. I don’t want to imagine the day this will be a reality, and this impending crisis makes food sustainability even more important than ever.

‘Food Sustainability’ – Small Communities


Apart from farming organically, another problem we touched on during our meals was Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). GMOs have not penetrated Japan’s market significantly, but that is changing. They shared that the government has changed the law such that the regional governments will no longer have to keep a local seed bank, which is highly problematic. The local, non-GMO seeds are highly precious as they are a huge part of Japan’s history and culture – with food being such a vital part of our everyday lives, and are especially precious to organic farmers who are trying to preserve this food culture.

A part of Japanese culture which I really admire is the sentiment of もったいない (mottainai), which means ‘what a waste’ (I will expand on this in another post). People in the past, and some people now still carry this value and make sure that nothing is wasted during their cooking/consumption process, down to the last drop of soup. However, with food becoming more available in the market, there is an increasing invisible yet very problematic issue, which is cosmetic filtering. While the sentiment of ‘mottainai’ exists, it is increasingly eroded by the power of the capitalist market and the strive of Japanese companies to become perfect. This means that the external appearance of food sold in Japan is taken into careful consideration when it is packaged by the farmers and companies – both producers and consumers only want to see excellent produce on the shelves. This hits organic farmers especially hard as their produce will rarely be perfect. Working at the organic farm, we see how many perfect vegetables are rejected every single day and kept for ourselves/neighbours just because they don’t have a perfect appearance. Even if these organic vegetables taste way better than everything else, consumers have no way to know, and only judge them by their appearances and/or price. The sad truth is that the vegetables we always see are laden with chemical fertilisers/pesticides which makes them look perfect, while organic produce looks (and tastes) the way it is supposed to be – slightly misshapen.

One of the moments that we thought was truly ‘mottainai’ was when we went for a short hike at a nearby mountain on our day off, and we saw so so many plum and mikan trees, full and ripe. But as we didn’t know whether they belonged to someone, we only took one mikan and a few plums with us (which was so fun!). When we got back home, we found out that those trees didn’t belong to anyone and were usually abandoned because those mikans can’t sell in the market (they’re not sweet/large enough), even though they taste perfectly fine. We were really baffled, but then we visited a supermarket in Kyoto in the next few days and we understood – those mikan wouldn’t stand a chance beside these beautiful ones sitting in the supermarket. What are consumers demanding from farmers, and is it worth all these chemicals and waste?

One of Coco’s beautiful pictures of the mikan trees!

However, one of the organic farmers’ more informed customers really inspired us. She leaves her own bags with the farmers and comes over occasionally to buy ugly vegetables and leave another one of her bags behind. She is truly an exemplary of sustainable living – she brings her own bag (no packaging waste!) and buys ugly fruits and vegetables that the farmers don’t usually sell. The farmers are thankful for her and hope that more consumers can be like her.

With so many problems with food production: what exactly is the solution? The farmers think that the best solution to these issues is to create 地域社会 (chiiki shakai): small, tight-knit communities all over Japan, where people can come together in a sharing economy. Even though they are subsistence farmers, they acknowledged that it is impossible for them to live alone. They often rely on the supermarket to buy other essentials, but another alternative is to just share. For instance, neighbour A makes X type of veggies and grains, and neighbour B makes Y type of veggies and fruits, and neighbour C runs an egg/poultry farm. If they all share a little bit of what they make with each other, they would have enough for an entire meal. Doing this allows for the building and strengthening of relationships, and the circulation of surplus food, which reduces food waste. We have observed this at all three farms we visited, where neighbours will randomly show up at each others’ houses and gift each other whatever they’ve made and would like to share. With the farms we visited being pioneers in their respective fields, they also often give advice to their neighbours and provide them with the resources they need, creating small and strong communities.

We did not only hear this from Yuuji-san and Masako-san, but rather everyone we talked to mentioned the concept at one point (even without us prompting). We talked to another organic farmer from Tokushima, the founders of Food Bank Kyoto and the farmer from the poultry/egg farm in Kaga, Ishikawa, and they all mentioned the small communities concept, even though they are all from very different parts of Japan. The most common response we got was “ahh, too bad that Singapore doesn’t have 田舎 inaka (countrysides)”.

They mentioned that with this concept, not only is it easier to live sustainably, it also promotes physical (keeping fit with farming – the Ono farm farmers are 60 and still really fit: in fact, they’re 3 times our age and work 3 times as fast!) and mental health (as you maintain your relationships with others and build a supportive community). And it seems that every little town/village we’ve visited practices this.

My question now would be: can cities and larger communities also create such “small communities”, and if so, how? How do we provide platforms for trust building and the support of such communities in our scattered and dense cityscapes?

A Delightfully Poopy Day

It’s almost noon and Jing Ying’s napping while I’m sitting on the floor of our room, waiting for lunch although we just had ice cream. Be warned, this post may not be as coherent or organized, so keep your expectations low 😛 We’re currently at our third farm — a commercial dairy farm which also has a large veggie farm for their own consumption — and our daily routine looks like this: 

7-7.30am Breakfast

7.30-8.30am Veggie farm work

8.30-10.30am Milk the cows and clean their poo poo after

10.30-11.30am More farm work / eat and nap

11.30am-2pm Lunch then rest time i.e. nap again

2-6pm Rest, farm work, shopping and/or touring around

6-7.30pm Dinner

7.30-9pm Milk the cows and clean their poo poo after

Today’s our sixth day in this farm, and it’s been the poopiest day so far. Cow dung was literally flying everywhere in the milking room this morning, and even though I consider myself pretty skillled at dodgeball, my face and glasses were not spared. We also spent the longest time cleaning up, and while at it I couldn’t help shuddering at the thought of slipping and falling flat on the brown slurry mess left behind. 

But how do I feel about working at this farm? Extremely blessed! The host family has been so generous, kind and welcoming, feeding us way too much food and way too much GOOD food, (think fresh sashimi every day, Wagyu beef, wild boar, organic black garlic, fancy cheeses, the sweetest strawberries and sweet potatoes, and of course the richest, tastiest milk no exaggeration intended), offering us pills and creams for our various ailments (cuz we’re weak city-dwellers) and giving us one too many nap times and car rides to various attractions around the area. 

Beyond these luxuries, I am also extremely thankful for the opportunity to meet Hashimoto-san (whom we call Otou-san, which means father) and his family, for their commitment to sustainability and cohesion as a family have inspired me greatly.

Otou-san always harks back to the concept of ‘BALANCE’ whenever he talks about his dairy farm or other environmental issues. To him, that’s the key to sustainability and optimal environmental, animal and human health. He cautions that simply being organic is not enough — many organic farmers misunderstand that organic inputs are all it takes for healthy produce without looking into the quality of their soil or the composition of their compost. He also takes great pride in his dairy farm, whose cows produce excellent milk because of the decades of meticulous effort he has put into nourishing the barren soil with compost and ensuring its nutrients are well-balanced to grow quality pasture. Being unusually passionate about sashimi, he also tries to convince me (a vegetarian) at literally every meal that eating fish at Noto, Ishikawa, is ok as they are caught sustainably. He explains at length how both the law and the residents themselves guard against overfishing, and that having local fish as a main protein source reduces food miles significantly (Noto is right along the sea!). On that note, his family also exclusively eats local produce — their fruits, veggies and meat are all either grown or caught by themselves or sourced from other farms in Ishikawa. He also shares enthusiastically how farmers in the region have been collaboratively planting trees since ancient times to counter deforestation for timber, thus allowing Noto’s mountains to still be flourishing with lots of flora and fauna. His knowledge extends beyond Noto — eating local also applies to mountainous areas of Japan where people eat snakes and insects for protein as they do not have easy access to fish.

The camaraderie between Otou-san and Okaa-san (his wife) also deserves a mention. They started their dairy farm from scratch after their marriage and have been working cooperatively till this day, both showing the same dedication and sharing the same love for this family business. They consult each other on all issues big and small, be it about the dairy farm, their own veggie farm or what to eat for dinner. As true epitomes of life-long learning, they both continue to read widely and share with each other new things they learn every day. Even though they bicker all the time, they never fail to get work done together and to care for each other, acting like a couple on honeymoon whose bickering is just how they show affection and even how they work together. I believe it is this mutual support, common vision and shared diligence that at over 70 years of age they are both still able to work day in, day out on their farms together with their son and an old friend. One afternoon, after working on the veggie farm (more like standing aside listening to the two bicker about how to plant the new crops), we found ourselves being driven by Otou-san to a rose orchard nearby because Okaa-san loves roses and saw on TV that now’s the best time to see them. I’m amazed enough that they continue to work so well together after five decades of marriage, while divorces are getting more common these days, and even more amazed to learn that theirs was an arranged marriage!

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.

‘Food Sustainability’ – Living Organically

Hearing the term ‘food sustainability’ may confuse you. What does that exactly entail? Food security? Sustaining the land/water? Reducing the carbon footprint generated by food production and consumption? Bettering and maintaining human health?

Our answer: It involves all of these issues that intertwine with each other – food production, distribution, and consumption all affect the extent to which food is sustainable (in all security, health and waste), and they all affect each other, one way or another.

Following up from my first reflection, my reflections will focus on two things: some with regards to my personal relationship and connection with food and how that has grown, while others will focus on delving into the heart of food sustainability, by sharing insights from our different experiences here in Japan and reflecting on how these experiences shape my understanding of food and how it can become more sustainable in the current-day context.

Today, I want to share about the farm I mentioned in my previous reflection: Ono Farm. For a little bit of context, we have currently joined the WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) programme, which is a platform that allows us (Wwoofers) to be matched with farms (hosts). We chose our farms based on how well they fit into our travel fellowship: they are environmentally conscious and the first is a vegetable farm, then we’re moving on to a poultry/egg farm (which we are currently at), then to a dairy farm, as well as visiting various places in between.

The first farm, Ono farm, is one of the pioneers in organic farming in modern Japan. As we heard over our meaningful dinner conversations, people in Japan mostly farmed organically in the past. However, after the green revolution, most farmers in Japan turned to commercial and more efficient farming methods. This caused a sudden shift in the way farming was done in Japan – commercial fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides boomed in popularity and even now, farmer Masako described how she is sadly greeted with herbicides the moment she walks into the supermarket, and how their neighbours (out of goodwill) offer to spray their fields with herbicides when they are overgrown with weeds.

At the time, it was an amazing innovation: growing food more efficiently, making more food and earning more money off it. Many subsistence farmers saw the potential in turning their farm into something profitable. Unfortunately, as with economics, the price of food fell as well as supply increased with the ease to grow food, causing farming to be deemed as a labor-intensive, low-output job even now.

Most people don’t see, or perhaps choose to ignore the hidden trade-offs that come with these chemical pesticides, fertilisers and herbicides. Its impacts on health are often always dismissed with skepticism. When asked about how they felt about this skepticism, farmer Yuuji replied that it would almost be delusional if you deny that what you pour onto the land where you grow your food wouldn’t affect you when you put it in your body. It’s true – while hard to prove with science, it is basically common sense: would you eat pesticides? (No.) Then should you spray it on what you’re eating? (Definitely not!) The farmers believe that whatever food you make should be something that you would want to eat. Many non-organic farmers nowadays don’t even consume their own produce, rather they sell their produce and buy others’ to consume. This is likely due to the sheer amount of chemicals they see themselves pour onto their crops, and how cheap and easy it is to get other food at supermarkets.

Organic farmers have to embrace the trade offs when making crops without such chemical additives. That means that there are constantly many herbs and grasses competing with their crops, they have to invest in natural fertilisers for the land that are harder to find (for instance, Ono farm uses ground oyster shells – which would otherwise be wasted!) and we often find many pests feasting on their precious crops, such as slugs, birds, ladybugs etc. But as a result, their crops taste way better and they are happy and safe eating their own produce as well. I’m feeling safer and happier too, and I really don’t want to go back to eating non-organic food. When we stopped by Kyoto for a few days, I felt so pained eating at expensive (relative to countryside food/wwoofing) restaurants and yet finding their vegetables so plain as compared to what we had at Ono farm.

(Protecting the crops with hay – eliminates plastic use!)

I am so amazed at their dedication as organic farmers. They had to endure, and still are enduring so many hardships. When they first started out, people thought they were crazy, and the community didn’t accept them with warm open hands. They could only find barren land with weeds growing up to their chest, and had to work really hard every single day to barely produce anything. While they have overcome those initial hardships, farming organically isn’t easy – like I mentioned, pests, weeds and erratic weather (climate change!) can easily ruin their hard work. They can’t sell their produce at exorbitant prices as not many consumers are aware of organic food, and most importantly, they want the food they produce to be more accessible to the public so they try to make the prices more competitive. We see them toiling constantly from day to night every single day while we get tired just from one trip (and they tell us to take breaks while they go farm some more – we were spoiled). They are such amazing people with huge hearts and I constantly feel so inspired by them.

Organic food tastes way better too, but we just don’t notice it. Due to how we season our food, we often miss out on the natural sweetness of fresh crops. Only when we had organic produce at Ono farm did we notice the difference. I normally dislike green peas, but when we had fresh, round and huge peas from the farm that we harvested, I was really surprised at how sweet and juicy it was, unlike any other peas I’ve tasted. I even came to love peas by the end of our stay – yes, that’s how much I enjoyed them, and also when I realised that the food I normally know and taste probably doesn’t truly taste like that. For instance, I never knew that strawberries could have such a strong and pleasant taste – all I’ve known is that it is sweet, sour and juicy, and never more than that, until I had organic strawberries.

(Beautiful organic peas!) (These organic strawberries… were so good…)

(to be continued)

A Journey To Becoming More ‘Human’

As our plane TR804 took off towards Kansai International Airport, I stared out of the window at the wide, blue sea that sparkled in the sun; beautiful yet surrounded by our human mess – reclamation work, oil refineries flaring and scattered ships breaking the the continuous blue of the ocean. What a pity, I thought, what humans do to this beautiful planet. It’s also hypocritical that I said this as I rode on a plane running on fossil fuels.

As much as I’d hate to admit, I’m an urban, wasteful human integrated into the world’s globalised capitalist system. Riding on a plane to another country is already enough of a hint. Yet on this travel fellowship, we’re trying to explore a basic building block of life – food. Why do we have to travel so far and wide in search of something that should be commonplace?

But if I think about it, what do I even know about food? Coming from Singapore where all kinds of food are available 24/7, I see food everywhere. But in return, I know nothing about it; my food comes from all over the world and is grown in very different climates, but none of that is reflected in my daily meals. I don’t know when (or where) plum trees fruit, or how long it takes for a watermelon to grow, or how fish are hunted, or what the food on our plates even looks like before it reaches us (like tofu – did you know that it’s made from soymilk?). When have I actually learned about food, let alone how to put food on my plate?

These questions arose over dinner conversations (and post-dinner reflections) with the hosts of the first farm we are visiting and currently at – Ono Yuuji and Masako, who run a small-scale organic farm in Awa, Tokushima (Shikoku, Japan). They happily pointed out the plum trees, the watermelon and pumpkin seedlings in their small garden and greenhouse, but we quickly realised that we have no idea what we were even supposed to be expecting – what is common in May, and what is planted for summer.

I was embarrassed to admit that I know absolutely nothing about what I’ve been eating my entire life and how privileged I have been to be able to pick food up at markets and eateries to my convenience. I consume so many vegetables without even knowing what the seeds looked like as it was eased into the ground, how hard it is for it to grow, who pulled them out of the soil, when its harvest period is and how far it travelled to get to my plate. And I’m not the only one.

I realise that with exploring something that is so vital to us, food, we end up also questioning how human we really are. Have we lost our roots as human beings? The three essentials to a human life are: food, water and shelter. It is scary to think that I, and many humans like me, don’t have the ability to procure any of these with our bare hands.

Sure, you can argue that we aren’t meant to do these with our bare hands, that humans can communicate and delegate tasks for a reason. But if we do that to a point where none of us have a grasp of the process, do we feel the same connection to these essentials? Can I really understand, appreciate and love my food if someone I don’t even know from somewhere on the other side of the world made my food and isn’t even thanked for it (or worse, if it was industrially farmed with no human touch)? Perhaps there isn’t a need for this ‘human connection’ to whatever we consume, but when I have my mum’s homemade food, when I eat the food I painstakingly spent the entire morning harvesting in the fields, the love and appreciation I have for my food makes it taste a hundred times better (on top of the fact that organically grown food naturally tastes better). I feel so much more motivated to not waste any bit of what’s on my plate, because it has suddenly become so precious to me. We take all that we have in life for granted, because this human connection; this love that we can have for our food, water and shelter isn’t consciously there most of the time. And if we don’t treasure our resources, it can be so easy to waste our precious resources away. I find it really sad that society has come to this point, where our capitalist and globalised market has disconnected us from our surroundings.

On this travel fellowship, I want to find this love, connect with it, and explore what it truly means to live as a human (i.e. what and how we should eat). And on top of that, connect to the earth: the foundation that allows us to even have food and water. This is a personal, and perhaps slightly spiritual endeavour, and what I believe is a key to making our food sustainable; but who knows, perhaps I may be proven wrong. Perhaps it is fine to stay disconnected, to harness technology and innovation to the advantage of humankind, to the point where we can care for all humans with technology alone. That is what I hope to explore at least a little more of: what it means to be truly living (sustainably), and what we should learn as urban, wasteful humans.