American’s food import firm has grown organically

Jack Bayles and wife started out just meeting their own yen for special treats

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

Jack Bayles, owner of Alishan Organic Center and founder of Tengu Natural Foods, has lived within a 5-km radius his entire time in Japan in the shadow of the verdant, hazy mountains of Chichibu near the Koma River in Hidaka, Saitama Prefecture.

After nearly 30 years in Japan, Bayles, 60, a lanky, friendly native of Connecticut and the Long Island Shore, believes life is all about creating space and a sense of place.

Growing up in a small community, where Sunday dinner ranked as a highlight of the week, Bayles remembers the gathering of community within just such a specific time and space. “Every Sunday, we would come in from play, and sit with relatives and neighbors. Looking around the table, there would be 10 to 15 guests gathered in the fall and winter. That was my intro. Food was always important.”

Bayles admits he enjoys a lifelong love affair with food, particularly vegetables “Thanksgiving dinner has always been a big day in my life, but when I talked about it, it was the creamed onions, the squash, the vegetables that I loved from a young age.”

But he never planned to run an organic import business in Japan. It all happened rather organically.

Together with his wife, Faye, Bayles started Tengu in 1987.

“We set up a small table at the American School in Japan’s Christmas fair: just simple things, garbanzo beans, tahini, peanut butter, but every single item was gone in minutes. We put out a little piece of paper to take names and addresses. Fax machines had just entered the domain, so we created a simple catalogue and mailed them off and thus started a small business, importing organic foodstuffs.”

Before coming to Japan, Bayles had other dreams for life. He graduated from the University of Maine in 1972 with a degree in animal and veterinary sciences, and immediately entered a veterinarian school. “Ever since I was in seventh grade, I wanted to be a vet. I dreamed of being a vet, I wrote reports on being a vet, I worked as a vet’s assistant in high school.”

But wanderlust had also infected the young Bayles after a trip to Europe. A year into his veterinarian program, he reconsidered.

“I looked at my hands: Do I want to be a vet? Yes. Do I want to be a vet my whole life? No.”

That “no” led to another trip abroad, this time to Eastern Europe and trekking through Africa, the fulfillment of a different dream.

After a few months traveling, Bayles returned to the United States but decided not to return to veterinarian school. With his background in science, Bayles secured a position at Harvard University as a researcher working in the toxicology section in the Department of Physiology.

He worked there until the mid-1970s before taking a position as a stockbroker in Boston with Merrill Lynch. His creativity traveled outside the office, however, and Bayles soon began moonlighting as an assistant for a silk-screen artist. A few more years, and he was ready for another journey.

Bayles first came to Japan in 1981, an unplanned sojourn on a larger tour of Asia. “The opportunity to stop, smell the flowers and be an English teacher was very easy at that time in Japan, although I never actually taught English.” Bayles instead formed Tengu Antiques with two friends, inspired by his introduction to mingei, a Japanese folk art, and his own upbringing.

“Growing up in New England, I had a grandmother with a lot of old stuff in the attic. I always enjoyed working with my hands, and there was a strong interest back then in Japanese folk arts, so we could enjoy a very good life, restoring things we liked and selling them to designers in London and New York.”

Bayles and his friends playfully took the name Tengu, a nod to their own status as strangers in a strange land. “A tengu is, of course, a mythological Japanese figure who came from abroad,” he explains. “He is an outsider, he has a large nose, and he is usually depicted as big. Well, that’s a foreigner.”

Bayles didn’t make Japan home until 1985 as his work exporting folk art involved a lot of traveling until fate stepped in and united Bayles with his future wife.

“I actually met Faye earlier, on travels to Taiwan and the highest mountain village there, Alishan. There was a popular inn run by two young Chinese women — Faye and her sister — with a coffee machine and a great collection of music. A few years later, I was in Bangkok and we both walked into the same travel agent at the same time to book a flight on the same airline for the same day. I said, ‘Hey. I’ll meet you at the airport.’ We did, and as they say, the rest was history.”

They married in 1985 and decided to make their home in Japan.

Traveling not only ironically gave Bayles an incentive to settle down, it also inadvertently planted the seed for his work with organic food.

“We shipped all our antiques abroad in chabako (a box used for storing tea leaves), and as we were in London or New York unloading them, we would pack the storage again with things we wanted for our own life back in Japan, and it would be things like real peanut butter, Indian pickles, foodstuffs we could not find in Japan.”

Friends back in Japan with similar tastes started requesting particular foods, and as Bayles and Faye set up their new home in Saitama, it was natural to look for a vocation that did not require so much traveling. Tengu Natural Foods grew out of that search.

“Food pulls together so many different threads in my life. It involves a lot of physical exercise, unloading goods. For the first 15 years we had no forklift, so it was out of the truck by hand, onto the pushcart by hand, up the stairs; but it was wonderful. I love physical exercise,” he said.

Fueled by their hard work, Tengu Natural Foods flourished, making connections with other Japanese natural food stores, expanding into the wholesale market while increasing its retail profits. “We had no advertising, no media, just word of mouth, but always steady growth. I would receive letters from people genuinely thankful because Tengu allowed them to eat organic while in Japan, before organic foodstuffs became commonly available.”

In 2001, Bayles founded Alishan Organic Center, opening a cafe soon afterward. “In creating the cafe and center, it has given us the opportunity to be physically creative, given us a chance to meet our customers. It has been a wonderful transformation. We can host overseas chefs like May Kaidee, a popular Bangkok vegetarian Thai chef, hold yoga classes, offer children’s Halloween pumpkin-carving parties.”

The center holds annual events including a food carnival in mid-May. This year’s version has been replaced, in respect to the times, by a charity concert with an antinuclear theme. All proceeds from the concert will go to relief efforts for survivors of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, but Bayles also wanted to raise awareness about energy choices.

“The Japanese people, listening to the powers that be, the government and the media, convinced themselves that because they are a detailed and safety-conscious people, they could tame the nuclear dragon while living in a major earthquake zone,” he said. “It is delusional. We are at a wonderful opportunity now. People have woken up and are scared, so we need to build on that pressure and work hard to find alternatives.”

The May 14 event will feature live music performances and a discussion session led by Wako University professor Mukai Koichiro on nuclear power and alternative energies — as well as servings of organic food.

Bayles feels strongly the responsibility of feeding others. “We have connections to farmers all over the world, from a Uganda vanilla farmer to a third-generation wheat grower in Washington state. Of most of our connections, we know the individual farmer, we’ve visited their farms.”

In addition to the extra care to ensure safety of his foodstuffs from the radiation fallout of the Fukushima nuclear plant accident, he is trying to contribute to the larger efforts for rebuilding of the tsunami-ravaged Tohoku areas.

Alishan and Tengu Natural Foods are long-time supporters of Second Harvest, a nonprofit food bank in Japan, currently organizing food relief to the tsunami-hit areas of Tohoku. Last week, Bayles addressed members of the European Chambers of Commerce in Japan on relief efforts and longer-term recovery planning. “The important discussions now are how to develop a valid, sustainable business model that can help (Tohoku) rebuild,” he said.

Literally and metaphysically, for Bayles food is an intrinsic component of his life’s philosophy: “Providing good food, in all the myriad meanings of the word, means everything to us. Done right, any livelihood can be a cause for celebration and not for ducking. This is the very soul of Japanese artisanship, whether it be creating a bowl, a sword, a meal or arranging a flower.”

Or creating a space where people can be: “I am not a farmer nor a chef, but I can recognize farmers who grow good food, and I can recognize quality ingredients. From the beginning, it was just finding those good things and bringing them in, and then eventually letting good people create good things within a given space.”

For more information on Tengu Natural Foods and the May 14 event, visit alishan-organics.com