Outdoorsy expatriate lured by the beauty of Hokkaido sets up in Niseko. Sound familiar?
It wasn’t the mountains that proved irresistible for Dutchman Dennis van den Brink, it was the valleys and plains.
“I came for the farming,” says van den Brink, who has helped make Niseko Green Farm, a creative mainstay in sustainable farming in Kutchan, an area southwest of Sapporo. It provides organic vegetables to the wider Kutchan area, restaurants in Sapporo and seasonal veggie boxes nationwide. In addition, Niseko Green Farm has partnered with two restaurants in the town of Hirafu: Green Farm Cafe and IKI. During the winter, van den Brink helps manage the restaurants and even lends a hand in the kitchen.
Before ending up in Niseko, van den Brink traveled across Europe, and through Asia to New Zealand — largely by bicycle — searching for a sustainable way of life.
“There’s not many places in the world left where you can live so free — with space — in safety, with clean air and water,” he says. “Where you can really have peace of mind.”
Green Farm Cafe features “soul food” and people watching. There’s patio dining during the summer, hamburgers made from Hokkaido beef, meat pies or sausage complemented by the farm’s fresh produce — all delivered daily. It’s a great place to enjoy slow food.
Literally down the road, the recently opened IKI features more upscale dining under the motto: “Food from farm to fork.” This summer, the restaurant will offer a special lunch buffet.
Summer at Niseko Green Farm means a special chance for weekend and holiday visitors.
“We give tours of the farm and allow visitors to pick their own vegetables,” says van den Brink. After that, the veggies are washed and customers are given prepared, homemade dough.
“People roll their own dough and then make pizza together in our wood-burning pizza oven. It’s 100 percent organic pizza.”
This method means that it isn’t just the taste buds that are engaged, according to van den Brink. The customer is engaged in the process.
“It is really good for people to see how vegetables grow, since most people just buy them at the supermarket. People are always amazed by the freshness.”
Although van den Brink had always considered working in food services, it wasn’t until he came to Japan that he started actively learning how to farm.
“Before traveling, I worked six years with mentally handicapped people in the Netherlands,” he says. “My idea was to set up some kind of commune to live off the land, so I wanted to grow the food together and have a small restaurant going.”
Hoping to gain some life experiences and practical skills, van den Brink took a year of unpaid leave to travel. Finding himself in Japan in 2000, fresh off a ferry from South Korea, he took a job cooking in the Tokyo area. During the spring and summer, he worked at a farm in Fukushima Prefecture.
“I really learned by doing, and a lot of self study,” he says. “It was so quiet and pre-Internet, so I rented a house in the middle of nowhere — no neighbors. I was all by myself in a forest.”
Life in the country meant a lot of books and farming. Eventually, he formed connections to people in Hokkaido and, after a brief stint in Sapporo, he arrived in Niseko in 2007.
Everywhere he went, he focused on becoming a better farmer, researching heirloom variety seeds and the latest in sustainable farming methods.
“Heirloom seeds have such an interesting story to tell, as they’ve been passed on for centuries, from generation to generation,” he says. “Open pollinating all over the world, they’ve had to adapt to various climates, so heirloom vegetables seem to survive better. All the shapes are perfect, the colors are rich.”
May is a very busy time for van den Brink and other farmers in Niseko, with a short spring to prepare for the harvest on their 12 hectares.
“We just built a bunch of greenhouses and the asparagus harvest will start soon,” he says. “We’re growing all the seedlings, so we have to water them each morning and transplant them from trays to small pots to let them grow further. We do it all in-house and by hand, because the soil is not organic with the plants you buy from a nursery. Because the snow melts so late here, you get a very short time to get everything ready.”
Endlessly fascinated by his life’s work, van den Brink never once considered conventional farming.
“Organic is more sustainable, the quality of the produce is better, and the end result is a better tasting and a better looking vegetable,” he says. “It will be hard to get me out of Niseko.”
Niseko Green Farm is located at 258-3 Kutchan-cho, Hirafu, Abuta, Hokkaido. The farm’s online shop will update in June, and veggie boxes will go on sale from mid-June. For more information, visit www.nisekogreenfarm.com. Green Farm Cafe is located at 167-6 Yamada, Kutchan-cho, Hirafu, Abuta, Hokkaido.(0136-23-3354). IKI Cafe is located at 190-4 Aza-Yamada, Kutchan-cho, Hirafu, Abuta, Hokkaido(0136-55-8114).