High-flying ad man comes down to earth in Shikoku

by Yuko Naito

Eleven years ago, Toshihito Takahashi was a high-flying advertising copywriter with a leading Tokyo agency, one of the select few whose work regularly appeared on the nation’s TV screens.

Big money, creative expression, success and still greater prospects in a notoriously high-pressure business, even a certain glamour; to an outside observer, the 32-year-old Takahashi seemed to have it all.

Now, age 43, he’s an egg farmer living self-sufficiently in a remote mountain village in Shikoku.

The seismic shift in Takahashi’s life began with a small article his wife, Reiko, read one day about a monthly rice-growing class in Nara Prefecture. The couple thought they would check it out, and before long they became fascinated by what they were learning. Within six months, Takahashi says, he’d begun to feel like getting fully involved in farming.

But it wasn’t only a fantasy about a pastoral lifestyle that drove him. Despite his high-income, fashionable urban lifestyle, for a number of years Takahashi had been getting more and more skeptical about his advertising job. “Advertisers can never choose their clients. They have to promote any product or project they are paid to, no matter how they feel about them,” he says. “I felt like I was losing something important from myself, the longer I stayed in the industry.”

Now, to meet the obviously happy and contented Takahashis at the 160-year-old thatched farmhouse they rent in the small village of Higashitsuno, in Kochi Prefecture, it’s easy to see that they made the right decision.

Their village, a two-hour drive from the city of Kochi, is known as the source of the Shimanto River, which is often described as “the last clear stream in Japan.” While taking care of nearly 300 hens of three different breeds, he and Reiko are growing about 50 kinds of vegetables organically and are making miso, and even salt, by themselves.

“I love this rural lifestyle. The life itself is like a hobby to me. There is nothing more exciting than seeing something alive — both plants and animals — growing day by day,” says Takahashi. “I have never wanted to go back to the life of a copy writer.” Hindsight is a wonderful thing. When it came to actually making the break from his media career, it was far from easy for Takahashi to give up the 10 hardworking years he’d put in. “After spending many sleepless nights, thinking of what I really wanted to do over and over again,” he says he finally decided to quit Tokyo for a farming life. “To be honest, the decision was so painful,” he confesses, “I felt as if I had cut off one of my arms.”

That was back in 1991, when the couple’s rural life began in the village of Ogawa in Ibaraki Prefecture. He chose that village, Takahashi says, simply because he liked the scenery around there when he saw it on a TV program.

In fact, he liked what he saw so much that the next day he and Reiko jumped on a train and went there to see for themselves — and luckily found a village-run house and a 5,940 sq.-meter fallow field he could rent for free.

With the help of books and advice from neighbors, the Takahashis started growing rice and vegetables and breeding chickens. Earnestly striving to be self-sufficient, they had a serious financial problem for the first couple of years, with virtually no income from their farm products. Money was so tight, in fact, that for a while Takahashi had to work at an organic food shop or deliver newspapers every morning to support the household.

After that, though, their lives became easier when eggs began bringing them a steady income. Compared to those sold at supermarkets, his are incredibly expensive — 110 yen, 145 yen and 300 yen each depending on the type of hen that laid them — but the number of his customers kept steadily increasing.

“Safety-wise, our eggs are the best in Japan,” Takahashi says proudly. “I feed our hens a specially-blended feed that contains no chemicals or genetically-modified grains at all. The feed is pretty expensive, and that’s why our eggs cost so much.”

Three years ago, the Takahashis moved to their present home in Shikoku, fascinated by the serene environment of Higashitsuno. Of course, the move cost them most of their customers, but through a great deal of effort they now have about 100 regular buyers, including a well-known French restaurant in Tokyo. Though they’re not exactly rolling in money, they certainly don’t have to worry about it any more.

Aside from the money problems, Takahashi says that the differences in the ways of communication between their urban and rural neighbors puzzled them at first.

Unlike the easy, anonymous life of the big city where people are more or less indifferent to each other, there are some unwritten rules in rural villages. According to Takahashi, for instance, you have to greet villagers whenever you see them, even when you are driving a car. Also, you are required to attend all the ceremonial events in the community; and you had better prioritize harmony with others over your own personal feelings.

“Such things are not difficult, though,” says Takahashi. “If you want to get along with your neighbors, you only have to like them. Then, they will like you.”

Even so, Takahashi concedes there are what he calls “suffocating moments,” when neighbors unexpectedly visit at night. “They suddenly show up with a bottle of sake, and stay for hours. Of course they never make an appointment before coming, but you can’t turn them away. The more you are liked, the more often you have unexpected guests,” he says with a wry smile.

Looking back on what might have been as against what is, however, Takahashi says he and his wife have no regrets at having chosen this way of life.

“I now have plenty of free time, compared with my days as a copywriter. This is the life I dreamed of for a long time,” he says happily. “Also, I feel that this was my fate. Whenever I felt like giving up, something lucky happened at the last moment and saved me from a difficult situation.”