Organic farming, Japanese recipes


Winter fruit in Japan: drying persimmons

The first week of December has passed, and while they’re fighting snowstorms in Hokkaido, we are still harvesting tomatoes from our garden!  The fall this year has been unusually warm but the winter fruits are ripening right on schedule.  In America winter fruit meant a thinning of options in the produce section and a return to apples, oranges, and bananas—the apples from Washington state, if you’re lucky, the rest from further afield.

Here, winter fruit is mikan, or small oranges in various sizes and varieties, and persimmons.  Since mikan are a cash crop there is always an abundance, so as farmers harvest they always pass on extras to neighbors and friends.  Those neighbors and friends already got a bunch of mikan from other farmers, so they pass them along to their own neighbors and friends, who themselves are already overflowing.  It’s a big mikanfest, and by February everyone’s sick of them.  But it’s great to have free fresh fruit wherever you go.

Persimmons are slightly rarer since they’re not a cash crop, but there are many producing trees around so they’re quite easy to get, especially if you don’t mind asking.  They come in two varieties, fuyu-gaki (winter persimmons), and shibu-gaki (bitter persimmons); winter is the most popular variety because you can just peel and eat.  They start coming in November and are served crunchy, and by December you can find nice soft ones you can eat with a spoon.

Bitter persimmons are popular as dried fruit, called hoshi-gaki.  Their astringency disappears and they become very sweet as they dry.  But harvesting and drying them is becoming less common these days, and many people just buy them in packages for a new year’s treat.

There is a tree up the hill from us on a piece of land for sale that had lots of nice bitter persimmons that no one was picking.  We asked our hancho, or neighborhood leader (this is apparently where the word ‘honcho’ came from), who called the real estate company for us and got permission to pick them.  It wasn’t a very large tree but we got 32 kilograms from it!

The big ones we peeled and strung up to dry.  The ones you can see in the foreground have been drying for about a week.  The dark color is natural–any drying fruit will oxidize and change color.  If dried fruit still has a nice fresh color to it, that’s a giveaway that there is sulfur or some other preservative in there.  The fresh ones in back have been hanging for just one night.

You should massage them every day to loosen the fibers and release the sugars; if the conditions are right some sugar will form a white coating on the outside, and those are the most prized.  I’m thinking this year is too warm for that though.

We removed the stems from the smaller persimmons and piled into a pickling vat.  The microorganisms present on their skin should turn them into vinegar in a few months.

Oddly enough, most people I tell about this experiment aren’t even aware that you can do this, even though it was a traditional processed food.  We’ll see what happens.

Enhanced by Zemanta


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!

Enhanced by Zemanta

Leave a comment

Rice update, recent stuff from Japan

I had hoped to be posting more about local culture and travel opportunities in Wakayama and Japan–we’re very safe down here!–but right now is ‘throw a seed on the ground and it’ll sprout’ season, so we’re busy prepping, planting, and harvesting all at the same time.  The spinach is ready to eat as baby leaves, and that means more planting in the spaces left by harvesting.  The radishes came in quickly, and we have to keep eating or serving them before they get bitter!  The daikon is a real mixed bag, but some are sprouting quickly and the ones that didn’t come in I’ll replant soon for a rolling harvest.

The potatoes are also a mixed bag, but as you can see in the picture, the row that we planted under a dry grass mulch is coming in very nicely, while the row that was under a plastic mulch pretty much sucks.  I can’t make any real claim to this success as I had no idea what I was doing when I did it except a sense that you shouldn’t have to cover everything with plastic if you want it to grow, but I’m happy to find that the grass held nicely against some pretty strong winds, is keeping the weeds at bay fairly well, and allows enough air and light to pass so the sprouts find their way through at the right time.  So the neighbors who thought I was crazy can go stick a piece of dry grass in their eye.  At least until I make a fatal mistake with my next venture.

Our rice at day 12 (2 days ago) was at 5 cm.  We checked it for water at 1 week, and after that it’s every three days–if there are no dew drops on the sprouts, or if the dirt on one side of the trays is dry, we open up the whole thing and water it.  Due to differences in height many trays are growing lopsided; those trays we turn 180 degrees before watering.  Our nosy neighbor who loves to give advice (I love to listen, most of the time) says, ‘I tell you guys every year to make it more level…’ and I want to say, ‘And every year we make a small mountain of rice that everyone loves to eat…’  Forgive us if we’re not perfect.  We’re doing fine, thank you.

The bamboo mountain must have absorbed some radiation or something, because everything is coming in huge this year.  No more monster shoots like last time, but the average size is well above normal; today we harvested about 20 kilos easily, and that was with a crowbar handle that was partially broken from overenthusiasm.

By the way, how many bamboo shoots can you find in the next picture?  I see 4.





Eye-opening podcast on soil health

If you compost, garden, or are thinking about starting, this is an excellent listen! Soil doctor Doug Weatherbee gives an easy to understand introduction to the components of soil and how we can adjust some variables. Click for part 1 of soil health podcast , then follow the link on that page for part 2.

We’ve had heavy rain followed by light rain for a few days now.  The mulch that we laid down over the potatoes did its job just fine and protected the soil, whereas the rest of the exposed areas took a beating.  In retrospect, I should have saved some mulch to protect the spinach and carrot seeds.  I think they’ll be fine though.

I’m eagerly awaiting my first sprouts, and also the first fruiting of oyster mushrooms, which I’ve planted in a few media for testing! 🙂


On mulching, organic soil, fruit trees, and mushrooms

I finally got the garden space near the tracks cleared enough to plant the trees we wanted, so I  took a trip to the local home improvement store, sore back and all, to pick out the shoots that I hope our kids will be picking fruit from.  $100 later I was on my way home with yuzu (right), lime, two seedless kumquats, and three blueberries.  An extra treat from the store was a bag of oyster mushroom starter.

It was a really slow day at the restaurant, so Hiro agreed to take solo duty while her mom and I went out to plant the yuzu, lime, and kumquats in the garden near the tracks.  I had two holes already dug and the other two were pretty easy to put in.  We poured some mikan haigo, a fertilizer for citrus and other fruit trees, put a layer of native dirt over that, and in went the trees.

I also carried in a big green composting cone so I could make my own compost in that space over time.  The family has been digging the restaurant scraps into the main garden, which is great, but I think we can do a lot better and maybe with even less work.  Compost generally takes a 1:1 ratio of carbon to nitrogen (also called browns and greens); the carbon would be fallen leaves, newspapers, grass clippings, etc., while the nitrogen would be food leftovers.  If this is news to you, well, it was news to me too.  At any rate, I had some nice dry leaf material at the site which went in with a couple buckets of coffee, eggshells and food remains, about a 1:1 of browns and greens, add a little water, mix, and we’re off to a good start.

Then the hard work started.  A few days ago I started talking about how I want to use plant remains for mulch instead of the plastic sheeting that everyone uses around here.  In fact, the word mulch in Japanese, マルチ, is synonymous with plastic sheets.  I always figured that it meant ‘multi’, which is another meaning for that pronunciation, as in multi-purpose, but no, when you use the word mulch in Japanese without specifying anything different, you’re referring to a plastic sheet.  Oh, the horror.

If you’re curious, here’s a google images link for mulch in Japanese (combined with ‘garden’, since マルチalso means ‘multi’):

And here’s the English

And you see what we’re dealing with.

So the mother-in-law and I went to one of the rice fields whose surrounding banks had had its weeds cut a while back, and raked up all of the dried stalks.  Wheelbarrow load after wheelbarrow load we carried back to our little truck, and we filled the truck three times over.  Two of those went to the potato patch, where we covered one (one!) row of potatoes, and the last one was split between the garden near the tracks to cover our newly planted trees, and the blueberries.

It was nearly dark when we got back to the restaurant, and I hurried out to plant the blueberries in the corner of the near garden.  We decided to put them there for easier and safer access in the future.  And that was the end of what turned out to be a seven-tree day.

All this talk about mulching and organic gardening—I feel like I’m either preaching to the choir, or to people who don’t care either way.  Whichever you are, let me run this by you: It bugs the crap out of me that I’ve been digging in various dirts here for almost a month now, and have found only a few bugs and no earthworms whatsoever.  Regardless of how we got to this point, it’s no surprise to me that people given these conditions feed their crops artificial foods and cover them with plastic sheets to get them to grow.  But I’m determined to do better.  If normal, natural organisms don’t want to live in my dirt, I don’t want to eat the food that came out of there.

Which brings me to my final unresolved point of this post: oyster mushrooms.  Knowledge-wise, I feel like I’m throwing darts blindfolded, but consider this.  1. You can grow oyster mushrooms indoors in used coffee grounds (yes, google it, get some starter, and swing by Starbucks on your way home!); 2. Oyster mushrooms can de-toxify oil-polluted land more quickly and effectively than any other method currently known; 3. Mycelium networks are the ultimate basic necessity for any natural soil process and should be present in any soil medium but they’re obviously not present in many.

It’s easy and beneficial, so as soon as we have some grounds saved up I’m going to start growing, and as soon as the original base is used up I’ll innoculate my compost piles with it.  I have no idea what’s going to happen, but I envision magic.  

If you’ve gotten this far but you think I’m full of BS (or if you’re the choir but you haven’t seen Paul Stamet’s talk at the 2008 TED), watch the following video in its entirety.

-your tired but dedicated farmer


Organic Farming in Japan

Heavy frost this morning. Apparently there was snow in some parts of the prefecture, but all we got was frozen windshields and baby lettuce frozen solid to the dirt. We’re hoping to plant spinach soon, but will either have to lay down some black plastic sheeting to warm the soil first, or just wait til the frosts stop. It’ll probably be soon. We’re still waiting for the ash to coat the cut sides of the seed potatoes as well. We could probably go buy some but it’s more fun waiting for people from our own community to help us.

Speaking of local circles and such, I spent about four hours today on the tractor, then another half hour washing it. Wow. On one hand I feel like I’ve gotten no exersize. On the other, my knees hurt, my thighs are sore (I have no idea why), and I’m pooped. Going up and down the rows at a snail’s pace, what I keep thinking about is, if I spread the fuel for this operation over the area that I’m plowing, it would be such a thin layer, but that tiny amount of fuel is doing something like 10,000 calories, or two marathons’, worth of work. To put it another way, I could put my back out many times over trying to replicate the energy expenditure of those few liters of fuel.

Still, it’s hard for me to balance in my mind the cost of the fuel, the tractor, the yearly maintenance, and all the rest with the idea of saving money by growing our own food. It’s probably something that’ll take me at least a few years to get a handle on as I do the accounting.

Everyone's happy!

Which brings me, sort of, to organic farming. To be honest, I’m not sure what it means, exactly, to practice organic farming. Which is why I’m never terribly confident when I buy something that says ‘organic’ on it. Take that down a level, and I’m not terribly confident when I buy fertilizer that says ‘organic’ on it. As you can see in the picture, the cow that made this manure was apparently a very happy cow, if we can infer a smile from its upturned nosering. But what else is in that bag? I suddenly feel like a character from Portlandia….

I can say this for sure: we definitely won’t be using any insecticide or pesticide sprays that we don’t make ourselves from natural ingredients. I’ve already had plenty of experience with aphids in Japan, and I’m excited to try garlic and tomato leaf-based sprays on them. As far as our rice goes, my wife’s mother has reduced her insecticide use to zero over the years as she’s discovered that she doesn’t actually need it, and the only man-made additive that goes on is a mold resistor that’s put in at the time of seeding to prevent some seeds from molding before they germinate. It’s possible to raise rice without it, but the loss rate is too high for an operation that doesn’t get extra income by charging extra for the organic label.

How do you say organic in Japanese? There are two ways:有機 (yuuki), and 無農薬(munouyaku). The latter literally means ‘without farming chemicals’, and is the equivalent of what ‘organic’ meant in America before the USDA stuck its dirty fingers in that pie. If your neighbors use sprays, apparently you can’t call yourself ‘munouyaku’. ‘Yuuki’ means organic, literally, in the sense of something natural that can decay, as in organic matter, but is also used to denote fruits and vegetables that are grown without man-made substances. So when my semi-fermented bark says ‘60% yuuki’, is it 60% pure, or 60% natural material? It’s quite confusing, and I suspect it’s confusing to many Japanese people too. I’ll report back when I have more than a picture of a smiling nosering cow as evidence.

One fun part of thinking about the future of our garden fields is the abundance of raw materials: we grow our own rice, so we have piles of rice hulls and rice straw, and from the restaurant come endless piles of coffee grounds and eggshells. Maybe a vermiculture bin is in our future?

Does anyone have experience with organic soil additives or homemade anti-pest sprays? Let us know in the comments!