Location: Fukui City, Eiheiji, and Katsuyama, Fukui Prefecture
Dates: May 2-3, 2012
Impressions of the Journey:
Of Japan’s 47 prefectures, Fukui might be one of the most often overlooked and least visited. Far off the beaten track and famous throughout Japan for its Zen temple, dinosaur fossils, and the town of Obama, which put itself on the map in 2008 with its commemorative sushi , Fukui seemed like a perfect place to visit during the generally crowded travel period of Golden Week. Located in Japan’s snowy, rice-producing region, farmers in Fukui long ago realized that they needed to develop an off-season occupation they could earn money from during the harsh winters, when their fields were covered in a thick blanket of snow. Why they chose eyeglass production as that off-season trade is unclear, but even today, the prefecture is famous for its eyeglasses. In fact, Sarah Palin’s famous rimless eyeglasses were produced in Fukui City by a company called Masunaga.
While in Fukui, our primary stop was Taya Toryu’s Farm, Nouen Taya, a huge expanse of lush, green fields and greenhouses just a 20 minute drive from Fukui train station. Taya’s 2 hectare farm produces about 50 different types of produce, and, with the help of his 13 member staff, he ships baskets of produce to subscribers all over Japan once a week. Taya’s model is a good example of a recent trend in Japanese agriculture called chokubaisho (直売所), farmers selling directly to clients without using traditional channels (e.g. Supermarkets, Government-run “Japan Agriculture” stores, etc.). While this type of direct sale cannot always compete with supermarkets in terms of price, the farmers typically try to differentiate themselves in other ways. For example, with each basket of produce Taya sends a subscriber, he includes is a “produce guide” that explains each vegetable’s characteristics, suggested uses, and sample recipes. He also throws in a few free items, like dried radish or herbs. While this type of arrangement is fairly common in other countries, it is relatively new to Japan, and is an interesting expression of the direction Japanese agriculture and rural innovation might be headed in. For example, despite Taya’s farm’s location in the sparsely populated, relatively economically depressed Fukui prefecture, he uses Facebook and other fresh, new methods to cultivate wealthy, health-conscious consumers in Tokyo and other large cities. He is now able to sell to them without having to deal with other players and institutions in the process.
While touring the farm, a few things stood out. While most of the produce grows in greenhouses, a variety of winter vegetables, like the Japanese daikon radish, grow outdoors and are generally harvested in the dead of winter. Due to Fukui’s heavy snowfall, winter farming requires a high tolerance for cold weather and wet socks, but the benefit is that Taya and his staff can produce vegetables all year without having to sell eyeglasses. In the greenhouses, Taya introduced us to an indigenous variety of eggplant that is only produced in Fukui. Several years ago, a farmer elsewhere in Japan was the only person still growing the ancient eggplant, and before he died, he entrusted Taya with the seeds. Taya was able to successfully grow a first generation of eggplant, distribute the seedlings/seeds among more than 30 other farmers, and save the eggplant variety from extinction.
Taya’s 13-member staff is a diverse and energetic group, hailing not only from Japan, but also Senegal and Indonesia. Another Japanese staff member recently finished up a two-year farming apprenticeship in Bolivia, and in an upcoming “47 Flicks” film, you’ll hear a bit of his story (and much, much more!) Taya has a relationship with an agricultural training institution in Indonesia, allowing him to employ Indonesian trainees for 2-3 year stints on his farm. Judging by the harmony of the multicultural group, the arrangement seems to be working well.
Before departing Fukui via overnight bus, we took a day trip with some friends to one of Japan`s true gems, the Zen Buddhist temple, Eiheiji. A training monastery surrounded by big trees and lush forest, Eihei-ji houses more than two hundred monks and nuns in residence. Visitors with Zen experience may participate in a rigorous Zen training after making prior arrangements and all visitors are treated as religious trainees. Before entering the temple, we were given a lecture by a monk-in-training about how to behave, what not to do, and where not to go. From what we have heard, the Zen training involves waking up at 3:30a.m. to start a long day of meditation, as well as cleaning and cooking duties to support community life at the temple. Even visiting as a tourist during peak tourist season, walking, shoeless, through the temple`s wide passages and halls, the place had a very contemplative feeling to it. The forest environs buzzed with a sense of history and tradition befitting a temple of its status. While it was a short trip and introduction to the practice of Zen Buddhism in Japan, it struck me that Eihei-ji is a concrete (and increasingly rare) example of the unique, living traditions/culture that many tourists and foreigners hope to see and experience when they come to Japan.