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October 18, 2011

What Gaijin Eat

What Gaijin Eat

Its time again, after spending a few days in a hospital eating what must be the worst food I have ever had in Japan. Even the rice was inedible without adding a smuggled-in packet of instant chazuke and some hot tea. I myself was only there for a few days so I was able to handle it, but my heart goes out to some people who had been our would be there for weeks or longer. I don't know what was scarier though - that the people who prepared the food actually went to school and had some kind of training, or that some people (even hospital staff) actually ate it as if there was nothing wrong...

Nurses and other inmates would see me returning full trays of food and inevitably make remarks about how "Foreigners can't eat Japanese food." When I could not eat the rice it was because "foreigners can only eat bread".

Its time again to definitively answer the age old question that plagues every foreigner in Japan: What do gaijin eat?

What Gaijin Eat

A random lunch on a typical foreigner's table:

White Rice:

Rice in our house is easily a couple of blog-post chapters all on its own, so what I will say about this particular meal is that we enjoyed our own home-grown rice. We still have about a half-year worth of last year's harvest sitting in rodent-proof lockers in our basement. We save it as momi, which is rice-in-the-husk to preserve the freshness, but as great as it tastes at a year old, we can't wait to try the fresh rice from this year's harvest. Hopefully within this week.

Hijiki Kiriboshi Daikon Itameni

Dried hijiki seaweed, Kiriboshi daikon (cut and sun-dried daikon radish), carrot, sesame and soy-sauce.

Hijiki Gomokuni is a very traditional dish in Japan, but we haven't seen it on our table much recently - at least compared to the past few years when Tomoe was pregnant and nursing and needed a lot more of the calcium and iron found in hijiki.

Thought it is getting harder to find, due to cheap imports from China and Korea, Tomoe uses and recommends domestic hijiki purchased online. If cost is a barrier, consider that if a normal health-conscious family might end up paying only three to four-thousand yen ($40) per year more.

Yeah, yeah, there is the issue of carbon emissions from transportation distance to the table (Nagasaki would be the furthest grower from us), supporting local economy, and Japan's dietary self-sufficiency, but ANOTHER reason to buy local is that Japanese hijiki is less likely to come with a piece of used toilet paper surprise.

Apparently there were stories about Korean growers using unprocessed humanure to fertilize their crops. Remember, hijiki is a seaweed, so fertilizer is applied by simply pouring the poop into the ocean. People reported seeing toilet paper and other things that people throw into toilets floating around in the farms. Japan is also much stricter in terms of regulating the plankton-icides and algaecides that China and Korea apparently use freely.

In this particular variation to the recipe, kiriboshi daikon (dried cut daikon radish) is used. Traditionally, daikon are cut into thin strips and dried in May (the best drying month of the year) as a way to make use of those radishes that have survived the winter in the cellar, but are looking a little more... errr... elderly than what you are used to seeing at market.

Sun dried daikon are also mineral and fiber rich, with lots of yummy vitamin D3 which helps our bodies absorb the calcium from the hijiki. Likewise, the oils from the the ground sesame help absorb iron.

Finally, the carrots. While I would love to say that we used our own yuki-no-shita (grown beneath the snow) carrots, I can't. We didn't grow enough carrots, so the carrots are purchased from a local farm market.

What Gaijin Eat

Roasted Natto Krispies

Homemade natto using black, brown, and yellow organic soy-beans from our garden. The natto this time was not fermented in rice-straw, rather using a bit of bacteria left over from a regular natto pack, but the recipie is still worth making at home.

For this dish Tomoe sprinkled it with chick-pea flour and stir-fried it with a dash of oil and salt. Tomoe says it is a "good meat substitute" but since it has neither the texture nor flavor of meat, I assume she means nutritionally as it does have lots of protein. The dish could be made with boiled beans as well, but with boiled beans, only 60-70% of the beans nutrients can be absorbed by the body, whereas the fermentation process of natto makes digestion easier, raising that nutrient capture rate to 99%.

What Gaijin Eat

Okanori (Curled Mallow)

The brilliant green colored veggie is called okanori, which translates to "seaweed on a hill", apparently because it has a very tender, slimy seaweed texture, yet grows on land.

Tomoe simply boiled them this time and garnished with sesame oil, garlic, and salt. It was delicious just like that, but as it is in the same family as okra and other mallows, it is usually used in soups and as a cool weather okra substitue or as a thickening agent to other dishes. It is extremely high in calcium and easily beats out spinach for a calcium-rich salad green.

Unfortunately for most city-folk, this is hard to come by as it is very difficult to transport, looking "fresh" for only a few hours after picking. Strangely, it is difficult to find here in the countryside too, and we are the only ones growing it on our block and perhaps in the entire village.

Next year we intend to plant lots more as it provides a low/no maintenance green year-round. Okanori is the first green to appear when the snow melts, and self-propagates like a weed. There are very few pests interested in it, and it provides fast growing ground-cover. We are hoping it will out-grow the weeds. Finally, the extremely soft stems and leaves compost very quickly and will add lots of calcium.

What Gaijin Eat


The bottle on the table is Tomoe's home-made spicy rayu sauce. Her version is slightly different than what can be purchased in the supermarket in that in adition to our home-grown chili peppers, which have a "firey" spiciness, she also added some imported Chinese huajan which is a spice related to sansho, giving the sauce a "piri-piri" (tingly) spiciness as well.

The recipe is so simple (soy-sauce, huajan, chili peppers, sesame oil, and vinegar), taking less than ten minutes to prepare the entire bottle which would sell for over two-thousand yen ($20) in the supermarket. This is a staple in our spice rack and I use it way more than plain soy-sauce.

What Gaijin Eat

Kaki (Persimmon)

Cant forget our first kaki of the year! This was purchased at a farmers market for really cheap because it is one of the unripened fruits that growers pick early to thin out the tree. I took a bite a few weeks ago, and it tasted like cardboard, but leaving it in a closed plastic bag with other ripening fruits for a while created this gem. Mona approved.

What Gaijin Eat

October 13, 2011

Parents Of The Year


Lets get a closer look at that...


Mona came with us to the rice field again today. Aside from stealing a neighbor's apples and dissapearing into the forest for a few minutes, she was a perfect angel.

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In other news, we have been nominated by all the women in the bath for the bvillage's "Best Parent" award.

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October 11, 2011

Soba Harvest

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Yesterday we had lunch at a friends shack in the mountains. He spends his summers up there off-the-grid. His plumbing is the river and a composting toilet. He has the outdoor bath heated by the sun or wood stove that I have been dreaming of for years now, and access to enough field space for a family of three's yearly food needs. Hmmmm....

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Today we spent the day helping an acquaintance harvest soba (buckwheat) with a group of soba chefs from Tokyo. They grow soba for a relative's restaurant, which means they need quite a large area, and it would be a long tedious job without help, but in moderation it is quite enjoyable. A field big enough to grow soba for a family of three would be quite manageable. Hmmm....

Once again I have been running some numbers in my head, trying to figure out just how many hours we really need to work in a week/month/year.

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October 10, 2011

Farming? Gardening? Playing?

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We "farm" enough for our own consumption, to give away to friends, and have some leftover to feed guests and experiment with some unique products to go on sale soon.

The very small scale allows us to do much of the farming by hand, which also means that we have little need to purchase the large machinery which puts many of our neighbors into debt. We spend less time in the fields. We spend less money. We enjoy it. Yet, always work under the uncomfortable shadow of being considered as "playing" by our "real" farmer neighbors.

While we were out harvesting the rice a week or so ago, it took us two days to harvest the same amount that the guy in the next field completed in about an hour. We still have to do the thrashing as well which will most likely take several days of tedious work - work that they also complete in an hour.

In the past we have borrowed equipment form neighbors when time was scarce, but now we have the time, so we enjoy getting outside and moving our bodies. We also enjoy being able to work without having to worry about Mona causing trouble - when we are in the house she is either trying to help us write emails, begging to watch sesame street, or trying to escape when we are not watching the front door. In the field there is no place she can escape to, and it is open enough with enough interesting little bugs and frogs to keep her occupied by herself for hours.

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Still, despite all the benefits and reasons to be as inefficient as we are, I always find myself being self-conscious when neighbors see us walking to the field, old-fashioned scythe and hand hoe in hand. I wish they couldn't see me when they finish tilling five of their fields before lunch and I have only tilled five rows in our adjacent field.

They, naturally, don't take us seriously. They think that we are just playing. They have given up on telling us to stop even trying - that we should stick to doing things that can make us more money. To them it is a waste to see a Tokyo University graduate and a perfectly good native English speaker playing in the dirt to grow things that, if not given to us for free, can easily be purchased with money earned from a very small fraction of the time by teaching English.

In the bath last night, I soaked next to two neighbors who groaned and ahhh-ed as they lowered themselves into the bath, rubbing their shoulders and talking about how many fields they harvested that day and how tired they were. I kept my mouth shut as I had only tilled eight rows of field intended to experiment with canola for oil (it is most likely too late, but we decided to try anyway instead of waiting for another year).

All the while I was tilling I imagined them smirking at me as they drove their tractors around, shaking their heads at the white guy who likes to pretend to be a farmer, just as I imagined a mocking tone in their voice in the bath. I somehow felt inferior even despite a strong urge to comment on how tired it made my back and arms, and ask them what, exactly, it is about sitting comfortably on what is basically a large riding-mower all day made them so tired...

I have no idea why I feel I need to justify the time we spend doing "silly" and inefficient things, when I should actually feel proud that we have that much time to "waste" and still pay all of our bills.

In the photos Tomoe is gathering weeds which we cultivated to produce green manure for next year. The neighbors, of course, wonder why I spent hours harvesting weeds by hand that could easily have been taken care of with thirty minutes worth of spraying.

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October 06, 2011

Help Wanted ("Will you be my friend?", asks Mona)

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Help Wanted. Pass it on, please. Permalink To This Post

We are finally getting around to applying for status as an official WWOOFer host (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) - despite the fact that our farm will soon be covered with snow for six months. Of course you need not be a paying WWOOF member to come stay with us, so if you or anyone you know is even remotely interested in giving a few days, a week or maybe longer worth of your time to mainly entertain Mona, as well as help with the various duties listed below, in exchange for room and board, please contact me!

Who We Are / What We Do

We are an international couple with a kid (American, Japanese, and a mixture of both) living in a small Northern Nagano village. Among other things, we run an eco-tourism bicycle touring business, grow our own food, and are starting a health food bakery/food production business and farm-inn/backpacker accommodation.

Durring the non-snow months we farm and gather wild and organic vegetables and rice for our own consumption and some for sales online and at local events.

Durring the winter months our area is covered with two or more meters of snow. We offer some short hiking and cultural tours to experience Japan's "Snow Country", as well as focus on inside work, preparing for the next spring-fall seasons, web-development, research, etc.

You can learn more about our business and lifestyle through the blog you are reading now, and our business website.

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Volunteer Duties:

* Entertain Baby Mona

Volunteers will not be a "nanny", but while my wife and I work at home we need someone to entertain the little girl and give us some a little concentrated time to get our work done without her "helping" us to write emails and cut vegetables.

Families with small children are more than welcome to come out for a weekend or whenever you have time off!

Volunteers should enjoy dolls, picture books, stacking blocks, crayons, Sesame Street, playing in the sand/snow, singing, and tickling.

* Prepare For Winter

Getting fields ready for next year - weeding, helping to till, gathering compost, etc. Helping to tidy/organize house, helping with some do-it-yourself building projects around the house as we prepare to be certified as a farm-inn / backpackers accommodation.

* Snow Shoveling

Once the snow comes (mid-late December) help shoveling snow around the house.

Volunteers should be able and willing to do some physical labor, and get dirty, but need not be weight-lifters.

* Office Work

May include: Compiling customer email lists, updating website, preparing news letters, organizing files (digital and analog), web research on topics related to our business, web promotion (twittering, blog updates, etc).

Volunteers should have basic 21st century computer and web skills.

* Random

Anything that pops up. Maybe helping our neighbors in their fields, washing the van, accompanying us on a shopping trip to the city, scouting a bike or hike route, make a bike trip to the local produce vendor to buy Mona some grapes, etc.

Working Hours

Hours are always changing and flexible, but expect to work up to 6 hours/day at various tasks. Very rarely will anyone be asked to spend the entire day on any one chore.

In Return

In return for your assistance, you get a room with a bed and warm futon, and lots of home-made/home-grown, mostly-vegetarian, healthy meals. (For good workers we throw in a pillow)

Depending on how long you stay, we can give plenty of free time to explore the area on your own on bike, foot, ski, and snow-shoe. We are 1.5 hours by train from Nagano City. For longer volunteers, you will have time to make a day or overnight trip to there.

Aside from sporadic train service, there is little public transport. Volunteers should be self-motivated to entertain themselves, and fit and willing to walk/ride a bike or hitch a ride on their own if you want to see more of the village in free time. When we have business that takes us to other areas, we will be sure to take volunteers with us whenever possible so you can see more of the larger region.

We have no TV, but you can use the high-speed wi-fi connection, so bring your own computer if you need it to stay entertained, or else bring a book.

Hiking opportunities. There are a few hiking trails in the area, and plenty of nearby forests to enjoy. In winter you can enjoy snow-shoe hiking just outside the front door.

Skiing (December 25 - March). The local ski hill is very affordable and never crowded. We are 30 minutes away from a much larger ski resort (Nozawa) area as well. There are also ample areas for safe and easy "back-country" skiing accessible by a short snow-shoe hike. We have snow-shoes and some cold weather gear for hiking. We have snow-boards to lend (you will need your own boots).

Hot-spring baths. There is a local hot-spring just a five minute walk away. Opportunities to use other hot-springs in the vicinity (at your own expense) accessible by train or bike.

Untitled from Kevin Cameron on Vimeo.

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Mommy's Banana Sunflower Bread, Anyone?

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Watch out world. Lil' Debbie step aside. The banana-sunflower bread market will never be the same with our new spokes model. (It was some dang good bread too!)

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October 01, 2011

Mitsukuri, Soba, Aspara

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Went for a jog the other day to get some photos of Mitsukuri hamlet, just a ten minute walk from my house, but I have been there only a few times since the earthquake wiped out the the road on the other side of the hamlet, ruining one of my favorite biking roads with great views, passing through little hamlets as well as lush forests, and only a slight, every managable uphill with a breath-taking downhill.

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View Mitsukuri in a larger map

My goal this time was to get some photos of the hamlet for the village website. Unfortunately, I have been there too many times and what I once would have spent hours photographing, I now look at and feel desensitized to its beauty. Anyone know how to get that first-time feeling back?

At any rate, what I found appealing this time were the soba fields and the asparagas seeds after a good rain.

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September 29, 2011

More on the Rice

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More from the rice harvest. You may think the ninja would be a big help because she should be handy with various blades. Think again. I am proud to say that even though I am not a ninja myself, I am hands down the fasted with an ine-kama.

Next week is dakkoku time so I gotta start practicing with my ashifumi dakkoki pedal powered rice kernel-off-the-stalker

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