Outside of Tokyo, at the tiny organic farm Nahual Garden in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, a group of young professionals swap packets of seeds and horticultural advice over cups of freshly brewed lemongrass tea.
During the week, they work in a variety of fields — media, education, design — but, on weekends and holidays, they all become amateur farmers.
Across Japan, farming on the outskirts of major cities has become a favorite hobby among urbanites. According to the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the number of shimin noen (city farm) plot rentals has increased three times in the last 15 years. While the majority of weekend farmers are interested in agriculture from a food perspective, rather than a lifestyle choice, there are several grass-roots and nonprofit organizations whose objectives transcend the gastronomic.
Like most voluntary farmers, Naoko Sugita has a full-time job in Tokyo, and she initially took up farming out of concern over food issues. Although an interest in permaculture — the type of low-intervention, organic farming practiced on Nahual — had led her to study agriculture nine years ago, she had had no practical experience as a farmer until relatively recently. She started visiting Nahual in 2008, after hearing about it through friends.
“I felt like the food culture in Japan was divorced from reality,” she recalls, pulling weeds from a bed of arugula. “Reliance on imports is a kind of artificial subsistence.”
Nahual Garden consists of only two small fields measuring roughly 2,310 sq. meters in total, and Sugita, who works as a celebrity manager during the week, and the other volunteers are growing everything from sweet potatoes to kiwis on these tiny plots of land. The property is privately owned, but anyone is welcome to help out on the farm.
Sugita became so enamored of the experience that she moved onto the property in March to help maintain the site year-round. Together with three other full-time residents, she is working to organize the farm’s monthly open house and other community-building events to spread the message of permaculture and organic farming.
“In the future, (organic farming) will be a basic skill because it’s not only good for the body and the environment, but also for the mind,” she says. “We can learn so much from nature about creating communities.”
The farm was founded by New Zealand native David Duval Smith, a longtime Tokyo resident with a background in art and graphic design. He turned to farming after having what he describes as a “paradigm shift” and decided to trade his high-profile urban lifestyle for months of meditation and physical labor.
When Duval Smith started Nahual Garden three years ago, it was a dense, intractable patch of bamboo forest. Now, it’s a lush, if wild, permaculture farm, where taro root plants flourish in the shade of chestnut trees and Holy Basil bushes bloom.
“When you raise one plant, you get thousands of seeds,” he says. “The profit level is unbelievable, and yet it is the antithesis of capitalism.”
Duval Smith has started holding children’s art and nature workshops on the farm twice a month and is looking to expand the Nahual community outside of Kamakura. At the moment, he is working on permaculture projects that will utilize fallow fields in Chiba. One of the original founders of the popular Tokyo event space SuperDeluxe, Duval Smith says that he sees Nahual as the prototype for a larger cultural movement.
“I’d like to help create ‘Inaka (countryside) Deluxe,’ (a farming complex) that would include a theater, a community kitchen and a school,” he says.
Farther afield, in the village of Iketani, near the city of Tokamachi in Niigata Prefecture, small groups of volunteers have been traveling to take part in a weekend volunteer farming project called “Let’s go to Tambo,” coordinated by Tokyo-based nonprofit organization JEN. The program, Tambo, which began in 2008, organizes agricultural volunteers to assist locals in rice farming five times a year, from May until November.
Unlike Nahual Garden, which is interested in building a new community, Tambo is working to rebuild an existing one. The project developed out of emergency relief efforts initiated by JEN after the Chuestsu Earthquake in 2004. The area suffered extensive damage during the earthquake, and several roads and rice fields were destroyed.
“There were only 16 families living in the village, all elderly,” explains Miyako Hamasaka, the JEN director of public relations. “They still had to maintain the public land, but they needed support, so we dispatched volunteers to help.”
The Tokamachi area is known for its tremendously heavy snowfall, and the aim of JEN’s first volunteer project, called “Snowbusters,” was to clear the roads of snow, which can reach up to four meters in winter. After the success of Snowbusters, JEN consulted the villagers on ways they could expand their aid operations.
As in many of Japan’s rural areas, one of the biggest problems facing the community is depopulation. Many of Iketani’s younger generation have chosen to resettle in the cities, and the aging villagers are struggling to maintain their primary industry: rice farming.
“We asked the villagers what they wanted, and they told us that they needed help with farm work,” says Hamasaka. “They wanted to restart their rice production.”
With the help of local volunteers and support from the regional government, JEN launched the Tambo project, which began in 2008. The organization arranged to rent rice paddies from the village and hire the villagers as teachers. Throughout the year, volunteers assist in every stage of rice production — from planting, to weeding and harvesting. After harvesting, JEN sells the rice on behalf of the villagers, and proceeds from the sales go toward maintaining the program.
At first, the volunteers were JEN staff members who had learned about agriculture and farming through some of the organization’s relief efforts abroad (JEN currently operates disaster-relief and infrastructure building programs in eight countries, including Sri Lanka, Iraq and Sudan). Soon, the program began to attract other volunteers, and many have returned to participate in the various phases of cultivation. Around 80 percent come from Tokyo, and most are young Japanese in their 20s and 30s. After JEN enlisted American company FedEx as a corporate sponsor last year, several non-Japanese volunteers began signing up for the program. At the last session, roughly a third of the volunteers were from abroad.
American Zak Elliot has joined the program three times and plans to return next year.
“The program has breathed new life into the community, and now we can start thinking of ways to improve things,” he reflects. “The most important thing has been seeing this network in action and watching the villagers get connected with people from the outside.”
On Nov. 26, JEN held a ceremony handing the reigns of the program over to the Tokamachi Regional Development Committee, a group of local counterparts who will take over the organization of the program next year. JEN will continue to manage the sale of the rice and handle publicity for the program, but the villagers will coordinate the farming activities on their own.
“Our ultimate goal is to ensure the future of the village through self-reliance,” says Hamasaka. “JEN will be there to support the villagers, but, from now on, this will be their project.”