Location: Nasu and Utsunomiya, Tochigi
Duration: 2 days
Dates: January 20 and 21, 2013
Impressions of the Trip:
Among Japan’s many interesting sub-cultures is the Yamagishi community, an intentional community with 40 ” jikkenchi” (“places to realize (Yamagishi) principles”) across Japan and around the world. In 1956, founder Miyozo Yamagishi and other original members pooled all their personal assets with the hope of realizing a fulfilled and happy society by doing agricultural work and leading a simple lifestyle supported by other community members. Today, still, new members of Yamagishi donate their wealth to the Yamagishi association and undertake a quest for happiness in rural communities, where they live on pooled money and minimal possessions. Decision-making, whether related to work or communal life, is done through a group discussion process.
Each Yamagishi jikkenchi focuses on a specialty agricultural product of the region, whether livestock, dairy, or vegetable, and produces it for sale to consumers across Japan under the Yamagishi brand. The jikkenchi also supply one another with food for consumption by jikkenchi members. We had the chance to spend a night at a 20-member jikkenchi in rural Tochigi prefecture that specialized in hog farming. Yamamoto-san, who has been with the jikkenchi for almost 40 years and is currently serving as a manager, guided us through the center and explained the farm’s operations.
On the first day, after lunch, we worked with jikkenchi members preparing food for the farm’s 5000 pigs. The jikkenchi has a system set up with local businesses to receive defective and expired food products in bulk for a very small fee. This sensible and waste-free arrangement saves disposal fees, compensates the businesses for otherwise total losses, and lets Yamagishi produce hog feed at a fraction of the normal cost. Our work involved cutting open plastic bags of expired or misshapen noodles received from nearby supermarkets and emptying the contents into a receptacle. The noodles would be mixed with similar quantities of expired cheese, bread, used tempura oil, ketchup, and other food that was no longer suitable for sale or human consumption.
The following day, we accompanied Mr. and Mrs. Yamamoto to Azuma Shokuhin’s natto factory in Utsunomiya. Natto, or fermented soybeans, is a specialty of the region but has a controversial reputation within Japan, and increasingly, the world. Natto is generally eaten with rice or raw egg, and has the distinctive properties of being, depending on who you talk to, stinky; delicious; nasty; healthy; or horse food. One thing is sure. it is “neba neba,” a Japanese word for slimy or stringy. The sticky, slimy natto exudes threads that stick to everything in reach. Natto is high in calcium, protein, and several other minerals, low calorie, and high in fiber. It is reputedly good for skin and makes its consumers beautiful. Despite these benefits, many will not touch the stuff, either because of its consistency, taste, or its stinky properties, for which there is a special word in Japanese, “nattokusai.”
The Azuma factory produces about 60 different types and brands of natto. After suiting up in protective gear, tape rolling all stray hairs or fibers off of our clothes, and standing in an air bath that blew away all dust, we toured the four story building and saw where soybeans were soaking, being sprayed with a bacteria, being squirted into little styrofoam packages and sealed up, and fermenting. Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was that natto ferments and gets its characteristic stickiness after being packaged, and not before.
Kanji: 栃木, Tochigi. We have a silly story for this kanji. Perhaps because of the 木 in 栃木、until we arrived at Yamamoto’s place we somehow thought we were going to Ibaraki (茨城), also famous for natto. So, Tochigi (栃木) is our kanji for this trip.