Why do we look so fondly on the cultures of particular times and places? Two ingredients are needed. One is the people who live that life in the first place. The second are those who recognize the value of the culture and want to preserve and disseminate it. Until recently, Tokachi had the first of these ingredients, but was unaware of its own charms; recently it has also found the second, in the form of the Itadaki-masu Company. The staff support the local agriculture in an indirect but invaluable way, by allowing others a glimpse of the region. Since it was the start of the summer, they invited us to take a tour of the fields.
Based on passions of the pioneers
The word itadaki-masu is an expression of the Japanese attitude towards food. Meaning “I gratefully receive”, it indicates a sense of gratitude for all those involved in bringing the food to your plate – from the farmers to the cooks – as well as giving a sense of appreciation for nature’s blessings, and is uttered, however briefly, before every meal. Ms. Tomiko Ida, the representative of the Itadaki-masu company, chose this culturally important term as her company name. She recalls the experience of taking her daughter – who would refuse vegetables served at the table – to the fields, and was surprised to notice that her daughter picked up a turnip and started nibbling it. Since then, she has guided tours and organized activities that aim to convey the truth that the things we eat are the work of other people’s hands.
When the promised morning came, Tomiko and her colleague, Ms. Yumi Shiraki, met us next to a sturdy tractor. They wear matching farm-girl outfits of straw hats and denim dungarees – which they jokingly describe as their business dress – and convey an infectious sense of joy. They are managers at the Tokachi Farm Equipment History Museum, which aims to give an insight into the pioneering spirit of Hokkaido during the time in which it was being settled; during the Meiji period (1868 – 1912), when Japan opened to the outside, Hokkaido was still considered a new world, a land for pioneers.
On display are beautifully polished wooden tools dating from around 1900, still the era of pioneers. In the 1950s, agriculture became more industrialized, with big, colourful tractors appearing. Many of the visitors to the museum recognize the tools with an immediate sense of nostalgia, and remark that, for example, they remember their parents being particularly skilled with a particular type of tool on display. From these rough but well-cared-for implements, you gain an immediate sense of the determination of these people who left their lives to come to cultivate this rugged country.
“There is such a rich history of pioneering here. Even in the current generation, you still sense a certain challenging spirit”, says Tomiko. “I myself benefited that attitude when I started this company. At the beginning, the local men just observed our activities, although they didn’t complain about new-comers like ourselves at all. I expected that it would take a long time for the locals to understand what we were up to, so I was really moved when I first received a request for a lecture in Obihiro City”, she laughs.
She said that she aimed to embody this spirit of challenging the status quo in her own endeavours. “The Japanese employment system is based on the idea that only people who can work, should work. That’s why I tried to make this a workplace where people with problems – like restrictions on their time or their ability – are able to work, in a non-stressful environment. There are many women and elderly employees in my company, but I don’t necessarily focus on these two groups. My ideal company is one where diverse people, who may have their own issues, can still work together”.
The concept of the field tour, which is popular with guests from overseas, is to show the area exactly as it is. Tomika says “I want to cherish the original experience, because this is really a time when the field and the dining table are so separated, so isolated from one another”. So guests can experience a rainy day just as a rainy day in the countryside really is; tramping through the fields in raincoats, if need be. Ms. Okano – another cheerful field guide – speaks English, for the benefit of customers from overseas, and explains the system with a series of illustrations. At the start of the tour, the visitors don matching straw hats and boots, to avoid introducing external bacteria into the fields; then it’s time to set off.
We first visited the field of Mr. Hiromitsu Kuroda – representative for the farm of the same name – whose broad shoulders demonstrate how much time he has spent on his favourite activity, baseball. The fields were still wet from the previous day’s rain, and so we offered a ride on the back of a tractor. No matter how far you travel, you remain amongst the endless hills of bright yellow and green rapeseed flowers.
“Beautiful, isn’t it? I think so to myself every day”, says Hiromitsu, smiling shyly. In the field that he inherited from his Karaoke-loving father, he explains that no fewer than seven kinds of crop are grown, amongst them rape, wheat, buckwheat, soy beans, and red beans. “This is not very productive, really. In terms of effective production and fast processing, it’s better to grow only one kind of crop all the time. Issues with food allergies complicate things, because we can’t have, say, the buckwheat seeds mixing even slightly with the rape. But for the health and sustainability of the field, it’s much better to apply cyclical planting of multiple crops. And naturally we want to be able to use this field for as long a possible”.
Hiromitsu – now a director of the local branch of the Japan Agricultural Co-operative – has been able to cultivate 47 hectares of fields just by himself. Until he inherited the land eight years ago, he was approaching his forties, and working for a non-agricultural company. “In fact… I didn’t like farming very much when I was young. I tried to become just a normal office nine-to-five-er, and I thought I’d just get accustomed to any career after doing it for a few years. Agriculture is different, though. I know it’s a cliché, but you’d never got bored of your life if you’re dealing with nature, with the weather and with the soil. You need to expect something unexpected, every year. The connections between the farmers are even stronger than in my father’s time, so it’s nice to be able to get advice or exchange opinions about the field. The conversations with other farmers are very helpful, especially over a few drinks”, he laughs. “My experience working outside of agriculture was also useful when I established my farming company”.
After bidding farewell to the Hiromitsu and the beautiful landscape around us, another highlight of the tour awaits me: lunch. The ingredients – bacon, bread and cheese, amongst other things – are all from the Tokachi area, and mingle together on a hot plate. Fresh vegetables like asparagus and tomatoes taste so strong that they don’t need to be accompanied by any sauce – a drop of rapeseed oil is enough, although a fondue of melted camembert cheese is also extremely tempting.
It’s still surprising how much fun can be had just to enjoy a meal outside, with company, some pleasant sunshine and a cool breeze.
As I faced the wheat fields and bathed in the aroma of the local foods, I realized I had become quite a fan of Tokachi, and remembered the words of Tomika of the Itadaki-masu Company. “We are such big fans of the farmers, and all of Tokachi is proud of them. That’s why I can work with a smile, and I feel that if I enjoy doing a good job, it has a positive influence on others, and makes the whole region better. I want to be part of such an energy, an energy that goes to unite the whole region”.
Photos: Misa Nakagaki
Text: Makiko Oji
Edit: Saori Hayashida
Production: Skyrocket Corpration