Organic farming, Japanese recipes


Is there organic food in Japan?

A reader asked a very worthwhile question:

I’m a current JET in Hokkaido, and something has been bothering me about farming in Japan, or rather what I don’t see marked on the groceries. How do you know if food is organic or not? In America, as you may well know, it’s not “organic” unless the sign is screaming it at you. Sometimes literally. So does this mean that all food grown is organic, or that there is a mix and no one really seems to care one way or the other?

This is an excellent question because it has an easy answer: Unless you buy it at a health food store (and even maybe then!), your food is almost certainly not organic.

The bad news: there’s little organic food

The main reason is a relative lack of demand in Japan, although it is increasing slowly.


Official seal of the National Organic Program

Image via Wikipedia


Another reason is the same in America and Japan—the organic certification is difficult and expensive to get. It doesn’t only

depend on your own habits, but on the people around you as well. If their spray drifts over your field, you may not be able to get certified.

Another reason may be the policies of choku-uriba, or areas reserved for local farmers at stores.  Choku-uriba play a similar role as farmer’s markets in America, except that the farmers drop off their goods, which are then bought at the store’s registers.  The store takes a commission and the farmer can collect the rest of the money.  In some cases, though, farmers may not be allowed to advertise that they are organic. Why? It would give them an unfair advantage over their competition! This still seems strange to me, but it actually happened at our local store.  So in this case the risk of becoming organic would not pay off with extra dividends.

That said, the situation here is probably better than you might think.

The good news: local farmers maintain a more reliable level of quality


Image by Getty Images via @daylife

We can be grateful that Japan has a much higher level of small-scale and medium-scale farming activity than America.  Individuals often have at least a kitchen garden, and quite often have land that they cultivate. Since they’ll be eating what they grow they have a very good incentive to keep it as clean as possible. Most small farmers/gardeners I talk to follow the same pattern of spraying while their plants are young and most vulnerable and not spraying either after the fruit forms, or within a few weeks of harvest, depending on the crop.

If you buy food sold at choku-uriba, that food must have a written history of chemical application submitted when the food is put up for sale. This won’t make it any more organic, but it allows the store to ensure that a chemical wasn’t put on immediately before harvest, for example.

So although most food is not organic, I think much of what’s grown locally is generally more trustworthy than what’s coming from larger farms. Additionally, it’s not difficult to find out who’s using which methods since it’s a popular topic of conversation and is documented in many cases.

Given all this, my recommendation would be to grow what you can by yourself, and get the rest from someone in your community whose methods you can live with. Offering them what the food would cost in a store would benefit both of you as it allows them to avoid paying commission to the store.

Have you just arrived in the country? If so, go say hi to someone working in their garden and inquire about what they’re working on. Even if you don’t have any language skills, you can find a way to get your point across. If you’re curious enough I bet some of whatever they’re growing will arrive at your door eventually, and if you reciprocate it’ll keep coming.

As for the rest of what you will inevitably need to buy, well, that’s up to you and it will probably be a patchwork. Some stores will be better than others. The largest supermarkets get their produce from wherever, and much of it will likely be treated with chemicals to help preserve it and make it appealing on the shelf.  Your best choice may be the stores devoted to local produce; around here the most popular one is called Yo-te-te.  In the middle are the smaller markets who source from around the country and world but also have the choku-uriba that I mentioned before.

I should also mention that you might want to be a little more stringent with your choices in the summer than the winter. In order to deal with the armies of insects that appear in the summer, farmers use more chemicals then than in the winter, when they might use none.

To wrap up, allow me to also point you to Maki Itoh’s excellent article from the Japan Times and the follow-up on her blog.
Maki Itoh’s Japan Times article
Maki Itoh’s blog followup

Do you or have you lived in Japan?  Please share your experiences finding healthy foods in the comments!

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Rice harvest: dryer to bags to storehouse

The rice in the dryer reached 15% moisture content today, so we hulled and bagged it and moved it into the storehouse.  We ended up with 28 30-kilogram bags, which represents a good year for rice despite the sometimes very strange weather.

This video is a real quick introduction into the hulling and bagging process.

When it’s done, what do you have?  Wakayama rice!


We have two more loads to do, each spaced three to four days apart to account for drying.  So we should be done sometime next week.

(Without delay, let’s eat!)

Rice that was harvested a couple days ago–delicious!!

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The Japan rice harvest has begun!

When it gets close to rice harvest time, everyone watches the weather.  Harvesting after a rain means a very heavy harvest, and letting mature rice get hit by a typhoon can be disastrous–it can get flattened and must be harvested by hand immediately or it will rot.

This week’s forecast is for clouds and rain, so naturally it was sunny today.  We went to cut the weeds at the entrances to the rice fields so trucks can get in and out without slipping, and just in time, as the friends who do our harvesting decided to get a jump on the weather and harvest today.

You may remember that their rice planter is bright blue.  To round out the garage palette they bought the orange harvester.









It was a beautiful day!  Keep going for some videos that show the operation of the harvester.



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Japanese summer festival fireworks: Shirahama, Wakayama

As the rice season comes to an end I’m going to focus a little more on cultural and tourist activities in our area. Much of that will showcase the Kumano Kodo, a UNESCO World Heritage site in our backyard. For now, though, the first of a couple posts on summer festivals in Wakayama. The two Shirahama fireworks shows are huge, drawing crowds from Osaka and further, and as a former fireworks geek in America I wanted to show the cool things they do with the fireworks here. Enjoy!


Too hot? Japanese recipes to cool down with!

With the summer heat come wonderful veggies: cool cucumbers, tasty tomatoes — and the grotesque goya.   Called bitter melon in English (they should have found a better publicist!), goya is generally boiled for a short time or sauteed before using to take the edge off its bitterness, but can be used raw if you’re feeling adventurous.  Goya definitely adds a zing! to these Japanese recipes and is an extra-cooling addition when used in cold salads.

One of the best known recipes is goya chanpuru from Okinawa, in which it’s sauteed with tofu in a light soy-based sauce.  Recently we’ve eaten chanpuru, goya tempura rings with matcha green tea salt, hijiki kelp salad with goya and more.  Here are three more recipes that we’ve loved:

Recipe: Goya and bonito flake salad

Wash goya and cut into rounds.  Remove seed pith.  Boil for less than one minute, making sure that it’s still crunchy.  Toss with some bonito flakes and a dash of soy sauce.  Sprinkle with sesame seeds.  Serve immediately or chill.

Recipe: Korean-style vegetable donburi rice bowl (feeds 4)

Ingredients: vegetables of your choice–we used goya, green and red peppers, eggplant, mushrooms, okra.

Sauce ingredients:

  • 1 T sesame oil
  • 2 tsp grated ginger
  • 2 tsp grated garlic
  • 3 T soy sauce
  • 1.5 T brown sugar
  • 1.5 T rice vinegar
  • Water
  • 1 T sesame seeds
  • 3 T sliced green onion

In a frying pan, heat sesame oil over medium heat, sautee ginger and garlic until aromatic but be careful not to burn them.  Add soy sauce, vinegar, brown sugar, sesame seeds, and green onion.  After sugar dissolves add water until the sauce is runny but not weak–probably about 1-2 T.  Remove sauce to a dish.

Boil the okra and goya for one minute and drain.  Over med-hi heat, sautee the vegetables in regular oil one at a time until they’re just done.  Pour sauce over veggies while they’re hot.

Arrange vegetables on a bowl of rice.  Pour remaining sauce over the top to taste.

 Recipe: Goya and cucumber cold vinegared salad (feeds 4)

This is the perfect salad for cooling off on a hot day!


  • 1 cucumber, sliced thin
  • 1 goya, pith removed, sliced thin
  • Wakame seaweed, either reconstituted or fresh, 1/4 C
  • Meat from salted dried white fish, grilled and taken off bone, 1/4 C (optional)
  • Salt
  • Sesame seeds, 1 T
  • Chopped ginger, 1 T
  • Shiso leaves, 4


  • Rice vinegar, 2 T
  • Brown sugar, 2 tsp
  • Soy sauce, 2 tsp

Slice cucumber and massage in appx 2 t salt (should be significantly salty to the taste).  Set aside for 10 minutes, drain water, and squeeze to remove more.  Cucumber should be lightly salty at this point; if it’s too salty you can briefly rinse and squeeze again.

Remove seed pith and slice goya, boil for two minutes in salted water and drain.

Julienne shiso leaves.  Combine all ingredients, dress, and add salt or sugar to taste.  Chill and serve.

For other interesting recipes including goya, check out the National Bitter Melon Council’s website.

Enjoy, and stay cool!

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