Japanese farm life

We spent two weeks volunteering on two very different Japanese farms, one in the wintry valleys of Nagano and one about ninety minutes outside of Tokyo, in the Ibaraki prefecture. We did this through WWOOF, which isn’t well-known in the U.S. but is very popular in much of the rest of the world. Essentially, you work a specified number of hours per day (usually between six and seven, depending on tasks) in exchange for room and board. This is a great way for travelers to get to know a specific area and culture a little better; we obviously hoped to learn a bit more about different ways of farming, too.

Our two farms couldn’t have been more different, and as is the rule with travel in general, sometimes things don’t go exactly as you’d expect. Our first farm was primarily an orchard, with hundreds of apple, pear, plum and persimmon trees. Obviously, in the winter the work has very little to do with fruit. We harvested carrots from underneath the snow, spread rice hulls as mulch in the orchard, and chopped a lot of firewood. Accommodations there were a bit rustic, to be charitable. We slept in an unheated packing shed with a composting toilet (that’s Latin for “hole in the ground”) with no hot water. It was never above 30 degrees there, and we were cold. Really, really cold.


A haiku: “Sunrise in winter. Today I am cold again. Where is my warm coat?”


We harvested well over a thousand pounds of carrots from underneath the snow.


One team pruned the fruit trees, while we followed with a special sealant to paint the pruning cuts so the tree didn’t get infected. 


Thankfully the farm’s chainsaw was very similar to N’s at home. The farmhouse was only heated by a woodburning stove, so they needed lots of firewood. Basically, we were in Little House on the Japanese Prairie.


We filled the crates with rice husks from the pile, then spread the husks in the orchard as mulch. 

Our second farm brought us back to life. We stayed in an incredible traditional Japanese wooden farmhouse, built about thirty years ago from just three trees harvested from the owner’s property.


The entrance to our second farmhouse with traditional Japanese gardens out front.


A rice field on our second farm. We were sort of in the Nebraska of Japan, which is genuinely intended as a compliment. 

Perfect greenhouse-grown eggplants (aubergines, for our British readers) and cherry tomatoes are the farm’s primary cash crop, although they also grow and process a hundred tons of different rice varieties. Our first task each morning was typically to harvest that day’s eggplants (nasu in Japanese), and if you think that’s easy, try harvesting only the eggplants that weigh above 80g. Without weighing them. There was a bit of a learning curve.


One of the eggplant greenhouses. The plants are pruned aggressively to keep them producing consistently for over eight months; the technique was completely different from anything I’d seen before.


Gorgeous Japanese eggplant, or nasu. They’re harvested from the greenhouse every single day to ensure they’re the perfect size.


Our task one morning was to spray the eggplant flowers with pollination liquid, because in winter it’s too cold for the bees to go to work. The liquid is clear, so it’s colored with blue food-grade dye so you can easily see the flowers that have already been sprayed.


One of the tomato greenhouses. All of the tomatoes were indeterminate cherry varieties so they produced for months and months.


Tomatoes were harvested every day too, and we had to be extremely careful to pick only those that were perfectly ripe.


N found this little one on an eggplant branch while weeding the greenhouse. He’s only about an inch and a half or so.

We’re very glad that we got to experience a side of Japan away from the touristy commotion of the big cities, and we learned a lot – especially about how important it is to keep your farm clean, tidy and safe and how to profitably grow and maintain eggplants and tomatoes in greenhouses. And also that we don’t really want to farm in eighteen inches of snow. That knowledge will definitely come with us to Quiet Farm.

Lost in translation

We’ve collected a few amusing signs during our time in Japan. Please know that this is just a bit of gentle humor; no disrespect or mockery is intended. We couldn’t write our own names in Japanese much less an informational sign.


I don’t know what it is, but I want it. Mostly because the workman himself is also handmade.


Drug dealing? Prostitution? Timeshares?


Notice the clarification on the last option. If you like to order your food based on gender, this menu is for you. (I do not think this would go over well in the U.S.)


Very perplexing.


Really, this is good advice no matter where you are.


Remember: dehydration kills. Drink something.


My favorite thus far. 

Monkey hot pot

N was very keen on visiting the famous snow monkeys near Nagano, the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics. We traveled by train from our farm in the little mountains up into the serious mountains where at least a foot of fresh powder had just fallen. This is the largest skiing area in Asia, a network of nineteen different resorts spread over thousands of acres.

Snow monkeys, or more accurately Japanese macaques, are native to Japan and found all over the country, but nowhere do they behave like they do at Jigokudani. During spring, summer and fall, the nomadic monkeys have plenty of food high up the steep forest slopes and are rarely seen, but in winter they’re forced to search harder for sustenance. The park opened in 1964 after a local railway employee started feeding the monkeys in winter.


These monkeys are known for their particular habit of bathing in the natural hot springs that also draw so many visitors to the area. Legend has it that one baby monkey decided to dip a toe into the hot springs and found it very much to his liking. He introduced his family to the wonders of the local onsen and the rest, as they say, is history. Once park rangers figured out that the monkeys would bathe in the hot pools during the winter, they built a small pool along a river with pathways where visitors can observe the monkeys at close range (for a fee, of course).



What makes this place so special is that the monkeys are neither disturbed by nor interested in the human visitors. Visitors are told explicitly not to bring food either for themselves or the monkeys, and as long as that rule is followed the monkeys are perfectly happy to go about their daily activities unfazed by the throngs. Monkeys will walk right by you, sometimes climbing over you if you’re impeding their path, but they’re neither aggressive nor timid. It’s a remarkable experience – as close as possible to actually seeing animals living in their natural habit without the restrictions of a zoo, but safe for both monkeys and humans.



The monkeys have carefully structured family groups and are constantly involved in small skirmishes, foraging and grooming. They also seem to love frolicking in the snow, followed of course by some relaxing hot tubbing. Seeing the monkeys in the hot pools is really funny, if only because they act so human.



The best part about the experience is that while there were hundreds of people there, everyone was extremely respectful. It was very quiet and very peaceful; no one shouted at or harassed or teased the animals, and the pathways weren’t littered with trash. It is the only place in the world where these macaques can be observed so closely, and it was absolutely worth the travel effort to see these fascinating creatures.






Your helpful onsen etiquette guide

While planning our five-month trip (in a ridiculously short period of time) I only researched a few activities for each country, assuming that the rest would take care of itself. In Japan, however, I knew I wanted to visit an onsen, or mineral hot springs.


This cheery Scandinavian fellow greets you at the entrance to the onsen. Why isn’t he Japanese? I have no idea.

The onsen tradition is revered in Japan with hundreds of springs scattered all over. Many are located in scenic areas like the Japanese Alps, and are a natural complement to skiing and other winter activities. Onsens require a bit of introduction, however, especially to Western visitors – and it’s important to understand the etiquette before partaking.

Onsens are separated by gender and are always taken without clothing of any kind. (And they’re often used as company team-building activities! Can you imagine explaining to an American HR department that you’re going naked hot-tubbing with your work colleagues?)


A row of harvested carrots on our farmstay. In the upper left you can see the onsen set high up on the hill. It was about a fifteen-minute walk from our farm straight up the wooden stairs built into the slope.

When you first enter the onsen, you remove your outdoor shoes and put on a pair of slippers. (In all of the places we’ve been thus far in Japan, you never, ever wear your outdoor shoes into a home. I love this.) You buy an entrance ticket – this one cost about $5 – from the vending machine then head to the changing area. All of your clothes and belongings are stowed in lockers, and you enter the central shower area. It’s imperative that everyone is very clean before entering the communal pools; not showering first is a major transgression.


After showering, you can choose from a variety of different pools, depending on the onsen. At this location there were three: a large, warm pool and a hot tub with serious pressure jets, both indoors, and an outdoor pool constructed of rocks that looked over the snow-covered valley. When you move from the indoor to the outdoor pool you just walk – naked as a baby – and once you get past the Western mentality of embarrassment about being completely unclothed amongst strangers, it’s really amazing. The outdoor pool was the hottest and my favorite, because it was absolutely freezing outside and as soon as you got too hot you could sit up on the edge to cool off. I could have stayed there all day.


The view from the balcony; for obvious reasons, I have no photos from inside the onsen.

A couple of interesting notes about onsens: you don’t use the large fluffy beach towels we might use at home. Instead, you can bring (or rent) a small body towel and a face towel. It is incredibly bad manners to put your face towel into the hot water; leave it resting on your head. You can also use the larger towel for modesty as you move from one pool to another, but many guests didn’t bother. Also, most onsens still prohibit any sort of tattoos. Traditionally, tattoos were only for yakuza, or gangsters, and onsens didn’t want this type of clientele. As tourism expands and foreign visitors become more and more important, it seems that the prohibition against tattoos is relaxing slightly, but only if they’re covered with a bandage or patch. Full-sleeve or other extensive tattoos (or piercings) will absolutely get you politely escorted out of an onsen, even if they already let you in.


Steam from one of Yudanaka’s onsens.

Onsens are mostly silent too, a time to sit quietly with your thoughts and enjoy the soothing water. While there were children at the onsen I visited, they were polite and respectful and not splashing around. I heard very little conversation, and that I did hear was in appropriately hushed tones.

We visited the famous snow monkeys at Jigokudani, or Hell’s Valley, and the town we stayed in – Yudanaka – is known for its onsens. Much like Glenwood Springs and Idaho Springs in Colorado, the mineral-rich waters are seen as a cure for just about any physical ailment. Yudanaka has nine special onsens, each with a different mineral composition, located along public streets and marked by numbers. The doors are kept locked and keys can only be obtained by staying at certain ryokans, or traditional inns. Visiting all nine, and collecting a stamp from each to be attached to a special souvenir cloth, is thought to bring good fortune. While out walking we often saw ryokan guests walking from onsen to onsen in their designated yukata robes and wooden slippers. Many of the inns here are well over four hundred years old, and the streets have retained a truly lovely ancient atmosphere.


Ryokan guests en route from one onsen to another.

After a week on the farm of harvesting and sorting carrots, chopping firewood and spreading rice husks in the orchard in bone-chilling temperatures, my two onsen visits were borderline miraculous. If you travel to Japan and have the opportunity to visit an onsen, go! It is a not-to-be-missed experience you won’t find anywhere else. Just get your tattoos removed first.


Yudanaka’s ancient streets.

Want to learn more about the onsen tradition? Go here!

Food for thought


Octopus skewers, Nishiki Market, Kyoto.

Food – ingredients, preparation, presentation – is something I think about far more than the average person. As I’ve mentioned, at home we almost never eat out, both because I love to cook and because I’m often testing recipes or preparing for a class, so I tend to have an excess of food on hand at any given moment. Food obviously plays a huge role in travel, too, and for me that’s both positive and negative. I love tasting unfamiliar ingredients and trying to appreciate a place through its food culture, but the reality is that more often than not restaurant food is disappointing and overpriced – especially when you’re traveling in heavily touristed areas. I know how much I’m overpaying for it and I hate that feeling of being cheated – paying $75 or more for a “nice” meal, only to leave with a bitter taste. It’s tough, though, especially in a country like Japan where everyday communication is delicate at best and a mess of unforeseen land mines at worst, to know where the locals eat. My answer to that, invariably, is “at home.”


Prepared food counter, Nishiki Market, Kyoto.

Other people travel and visit art museums and temples and things. I travel and visit minimarkets and grocery stores, because I think few places tell a country’s story better than where the locals shop for food. I was looking forward to Japan for many reasons, but the food was high on the list. We have a superficial impression of Japanese food in the U.S. – primarily sushi, of course, then perhaps tempura or soba or various tofu dishes. I’m interested not in what people eat when they go out to celebrate a special occasion (do we all eat at The Capital Grille every night? I think not), but what they grab from the store at 5:30 on a Tuesday night after a long day at work.

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Soba noodles with shrimp tempura, Arashiyama.

And I’ll admit – I’ve been really surprised by Japanese food culture, at least what little I’ve seen of it. First and foremost, sugary drinks take a lot of rightful blame as a major source of excess calories in the American diet; we’re now seeing “soda taxes” and other measures designed to curb consumption and hopefully reduce our obesity and diabetes rates. But Japan, which I think many people perceive as one of the healthiest countries in the world (see The Blue Zones) is absolutely covered with drink vending machines. They are everywhere. There are apparently more than 5.5 million machines in this tiny country, while the U.S. has just under 7 million for nearly three times the population and a lot more landmass. While the machines do contain bottled water, they also contain sugared coffee drinks (cold and hot – and that is a miracle in the middle of this damp, frigid winter), sports drinks (the awkwardly-named Pocari Sweat is my favorite), and plenty of other sugary beverages. Clearly, the machines are worth the real estate – so why aren’t the Japanese plunging into a sugar-related health crisis like we are?


Fried snacks, Nishiki Market, Kyoto.

I’ve also been surprised at the amount of refined grains, but that may be because I’m so focused on teaching whole grains at home. Obviously plain white rice is a staple served with every meal; we’re currently on a farm stay and the rice steamer is kept filled with fresh, hot rice for eating at any time of day. But the buns, pastries and breads are all soft, white and sweet – the bread available for our morning toast here is like that super-cheap, super-thick “Texas Toast” we used for French toast as kids. I watched the nine-year-old son eat four pieces slathered with fake butter and jam for his breakfast this morning, and he’s thin as a whippet. So again, I’m observing very high consumption of refined grains – which the body essentially converts to sugar – and yet not observing the expected results.


One of N’s recent lunches, and the only time yet I’ve seen raw vegetables such as lettuce and tomato.

Meals for us have primarily been inexpensive, filling and warming – plenty of ramen, of course, plus other noodle soup variations, but also curry rice and simple “lunch sets,” which usually include miso soup, various pickles and a main such as chicken and rice (photo above). These too have surprised me with the overall lack of vegetables. While there might be a few small dishes of pickled or fermented vegetables, we’ve only once had any served raw – a fresh carrot and daikon salad here at the farm, with a delicious creamy, tangy dressing. There are never any vegetables in the soups or with the meat and rice, certainly nothing like what we’d think of as traditional stir-fry. That said, the Japanese tend to cook more seasonally than we do, and I suspect we’d see a greater variety of raw vegetables during warmer months than in the middle of bleakest winter.


Pickled vegetable selection, Nishiki Market, Kyoto.

In stores, it’s package after package after package. From a thousand varieties of crunchy salty snacks to pre-made sandwiches to “Hot Pockets” to sushi and sashimi, I’ve noticed very little in the way of fresh ingredients designed for preparing meals at home. Fresh fruits and vegetables are almost nowhere to be seen and crazily expensive when found; I bought an apple in downtown Kyoto – one apple – for about $2.50. We’ve walked by a couple of small fruit and veg stands, but literally nothing that would rival your most basic American grocery store produce department with its stunning array of gloriously arranged, perfectly shiny, identically sized out-of-season fruits and vegetables. And yet the farm we’re currently staying on has acres of fruit trees and thousands of apples in cold storage right now, so where are they all going?


The oddest dessert I’ve ever eaten…jellied fruit and red beans with clear gelatinous cubes underneath. Algae? Gelatin? Space-age packing material? Also it came with what I thought was a sauce and may have actually been hand sanitizer. Not dead yet.

So after nearly two weeks of eating and travelling in Japan, I’m left with a mess of contradictions. The diet appears, at least on the surface, to be as unhealthy as ours in the U.S. And yet the people here, at least from my extremely limited research, don’t seem to be plagued by the same health crises. What can we learn from this?

(P.S. Please know that these observations are only based on a few days here in Japan and are in no way intended to represent some sort of serious large-scale sociological study. If anyone has spent time in Japan and has additional insight to share about the food culture, I’d love to hear it!)

Scenes from Kyoto

We’ve spent six days in Kyoto and depart tomorrow for a long day of travel to Matsumoto, where we’ll volunteer on a farm. Below are a few of N’s photos from our first week of travels.


The Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine is one of Japan’s most photographed sites. Thousands of bright orange shrine gates lead up Mount Inari, about 600 feet above sea level. You can’t tell from this photo, but it was snowing pretty hard on our way up.


Kitsune (Japanese for fox) are one of the most common spirit animals seen at shrines and temples.


Rather moody and dramatic, isn’t it?


“Kimono Forest,” Arashiyama train station. These are tall sealed Plexiglas pillars that contain bolts of fabric traditionally used for kimono. As public art goes, it’s pretty spectacular.


Looking up at the bamboo grove in Arashiyama.


What a difference a day makes…eight inches of snow overnight. And we thought we’d left winter behind.


Snow monkey at Arashiyama Monkey Park. Ironically, the humans are inside the “cage” feeding the wild monkeys on the outside.


Matsuo-taisha Shrine, Arashiyama.


Imperial Palace, Kyoto.


Imperial Palace gardens, Kyoto.


Gion’s famous “red lantern district.”


Gion District in Kyoto is known for its geisha culture. Many visitors pay to rent kimono and dress up like geisha or maiko (apprentice geisha). There are dozens of shops offering kimono plus hair and make-up services. You can identify the tourist geisha because they don’t have on the traditional white make-up and they’re willing to be photographed. Current estimates suggest that there may only be about two hundred true geisha and about one hundred true maiko in all of Japan, though accurate statistics are tough to come by. Can you spot the true geisha in the photo below?



Minimart Challenge: Japan

So I have THE MOST AMAZING IDEA for a competitive cooking show and it goes a little something like this: cheftestants (yes, I hate that word too) are dropped into a random minimart in a random country and they have a specified amount of time and money to spend in said minimart. After they have made their selections, they are whisked away to an Airbnb where they’re obligated to craft their minimart purchases into something delicious. The challenge, of course, is that the Airbnb kitchen will most definitely NOT be stocked with the high-end equipment they’re accustomed to in their shiny professional kitchens. Instead, it will contain the oddest assortment of dull knives, thrift-store cookware and mismatched plates and cutlery. Good luck, cheftestants!

One of the biggest challenges of extended travel for me is not cooking. I’m well aware that most people would wholeheartedly disagree with this statement, but I cook virtually every single meal when we’re at home, including all of the food packed for N’s work lunches. (The irony, of course, is that I’m regularly asked for restaurant recommendations. We never eat out.) While others might relish a break from cooking, I dread it – because, as I teach in all of my classes, when you cook at home you hold sway over exactly what goes into your food. When we’re traveling, especially for a trip as long as this one, I have to relinquish a great deal of control over what we eat – and that doesn’t come easy. It’s not only that I want to know exactly what we’re eating, but also that as a chef I want the opportunity to cook with unusual ingredients that I might never find at home. And also that cooking sets everything right in my world.


Sites like Airbnb, however, have made travel so much easier, especially if you want the option of staying in a home with kitchen facilities. We’re currently in an Airbnb in Arashiyama, just outside of Kyoto, and we have access to a reasonably well-stocked common kitchen. (I’ve certainly cooked in worse.) Today was a bit of a rest day for us, and as we didn’t feel like going out to a restaurant we opted for the minimart up the road.

The result: sesame-soy cucumber salad with crunchy rice crackers, steamed shu mai, bacon and cheese sandwiches and crispy broccoli. All procured for about $17, and that included the wine. It took about 15 minutes to put this meal together. Was it the absolute healthiest? No, but it did include two different vegetables and honestly, there was a lot of rather mysterious unidentifiable fried food that we didn’t buy. My loves, the point is this: not every meal you cook at home is going to be perfect. Sometimes, it might even be a hot minimart mess. But – and this is specifically directed to all those busy parents reading this who think they’re not doing a good enough job – it matters. Cooking matters. So keep it up, because you’re doing great. See you on TV, cheftestants.


P.S. I’m sorry for the above photo; N was busy setting up the cribbage board. Let’s just put a copyright rule in place: if the photo is good, N took it. If it’s lousy, it’s mine. Avert your eyes accordingly.

The first stop


Nihon e youkoso, or welcome to Japan. N and I have found our spiritual home in this lovely country. This is a society that values respect and politeness above all else, and we’ve loved everything thus far. Thinking of visiting Japan? Allow me to provide you with a few solid reasons to do so.


  1. The people. From navigating our way from Tokyo to Kyoto via shinkasen bullet train, subway with transfers and elevated vintage tram to every person we’ve encountered in shops or restaurants, the people here are unfailingly polite and helpful, especially when you’re tall, fair-haired and very confused-looking. It is delightful.
  2. The silence. On public transportation, you’re greeted with numerous (polite) requests to silence your phone and if you do need to talk, to please remove yourself to the compartment between carriages. Thus, train rides are silent and peaceful, with a slight rustle of paper as everyone tucks into their meals and snacks. (Except for our carriage, where two American men – U.S. Department of Defense employees en route from Guam to the U.S. – FaceTimed loudly and disrupted much of the journey. N and I tried in vain to hide.)NJB_9398
  3. The toilets. If you’re not familiar with Japanese toilets, do a little reading. They may be reason enough to visit this magical land.
  4. The cleanliness. Streets contain virtually no litter, everyone cleans up after their dogs (they rinse the pavement with spray bottles!) and did I mention the toilets? Even public transport bathrooms – places most of us might normally avoid if at all possible – are immaculate. On our Japan Airlines flight to Tokyo the airplane toilet was freshened between every visit.


Arigatou gozaimasu, Japan. You’ve stolen our hearts.

Why cooking matters, vol. 1

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Some months ago, I was setting up for one of my corporate Lunch & Learns. A staff member poked her head in “to see what smelled so good!” When I explained that I was there to teach a class on healthy cooking at home, I could literally see her shut down. “I don’t cook,” she said emphatically – derisively, in my (perhaps biased) opinion. I interpreted her comment to mean that no sane person would waste their time cooking when they didn’t have to.

And it’s true – no one, at least in the U.S., actually has to cook ever again. Between traditional restaurants, fast-casual, delivery, $8 green juices and four million different meal replacement energy bars, why would anyone cook at home? You could use that time to catch a Pokemon or update your status or watch Game of Thrones.


And yet, I believe that learning to cook is a necessary life skill, like writing a resume, or sewing a button, or changing a tire. Except that we’re no longer passing this skill on – cooking is now something done for us, rather than by us. We are now in an unprecedented era – one in which today’s children are expected to have a lower life expectancy than their parents. This has never before occurred in an industrialized nation, and I’d be the first to argue that our movement towards eating the majority of our food in restaurants plays a huge role. But despite our looming health crisis, somehow cooking at home has lost its luster and I cannot understand why. Maybe that’s easy for a professional chef to say, but cooking at home is so much easier than most people think it is.

We live in an age of instant gratification, where food or booze or cheap Chinese-made goods are available within minutes. Cooking – and cooking well – isn’t. People who attend my classes often ask how they can learn to cook better. My answer, while boring, is invariably the same: in order to cook well, you have to cook regularly. You have to get it wrong in order to know when you’ve gotten it right. Needless to say, no one likes this answer.

While there might be a million cooking apps, there is no app to teach you how to season properly. How to cook meat to your preferred doneness. How to roast vegetables until they have those delicious caramelized crackly edges. How to know when a cake is done. These are things that can only be learned with practice. Repeated practice. Tasting, tasting and more tasting. And yes, you will make mistakes. And some of the things you cook won’t be amazing. But the learning curve isn’t steep, and you’ll improve quickly. Soon, your food will be better than most restaurants. Trust me on that, but mostly trust yourself and trust your palate.

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Here we are, at the beginning of the new year – a time when many of us resolve to get healthy. If you’ve made a commitment to living a healthier lifestyle this year and beyond, and if you don’t cook, I ask you politely – please try. There is simply no one thing you can do that is better for your physical health, your financial health and the planet’s health than cooking at home. Start small; commit to cooking one or two meals at home each week. Plan your meals. Devote a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon to preparing batches of food for the week ahead. Pack repurposed leftovers for your work lunches. Minimize your food waste by making delicious soups and stir-fries and frittatas. And please, if I can be of more assistance in encouraging you to cook at home, contact me – I have a wealth of helpful tips that I’ll gladly share.

I leave you with this manifesto from Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs of Food52, a site that passionately encourages home cooks.

Because, if you cook:

Your family will eat dinner together.
You will naturally have a more sustainable household.
You’ll set a lifelong example for your children.
You’ll understand what goes into food and will eat more healthily.
You’ll make your home an important place in your life.
You’ll make others happy.
People will remember you.

Wishing you the joy of learning to cook in 2017!