Lifestyle | CHILD'S PLAY

Countryside Chiba farms out the fun

by Jason Jenkins

If you’re raising children in Japan, then there’s a good chance that, like me, you are raising city kids — children who are more comfortable in an urban setting than a rural one, whether it’s in downtown Tokyo or suburban Kobe.

For me, bringing up children in an urban environment has been a mixed blessing. I remember swelling with pride when I saw how comfortable my brood was with metropolitan life, but then wincing every time that they recoiled from a fluttering moth as if it were a rabid bat. Sure, my kids can comfortably navigate the subway with ease, but how about a mountain trail? They may enjoy a wide variety of international cuisines, but do they really know where their lamb chops and cheese come from?

For those in Kansai and other areas further from Tokyo, the great outdoors can be a short ride away. Residents of the capital, however, have a longer haul past suburban sprawl to reach the countryside. One place that’s well worth the ride is Mother Farm.

Set inside a bucolic corner of Tagura Futtsu in Chiba Prefecture, Mother Farm is an excellent outing for families in need of open space and a small taste of rural life. Essentially it is an amusement park with sheep, but there are a number of enjoyable learning opportunities that help push it up my list of recommendations.

First, Mother Farm has all the animals you’d expect. There are chickens, cows and, of course, horses that you can ride for an additional fee. The real action, though, is the pig race, where piglets join forces with visiting children to race around a track. If your child is up to it, sign them up — they’ll be assigned a number and four-legged teammate.

If your children are younger or less assertive, then head for the petting zoo, which has goats, sheep and turtles that they can touch. Rabbits and guinea pigs are also available for a short, one-on-one cuddle aided by Mother Farm staff. When the kids are more comfortable handling animals, they can try the hands-on experience of milking a cow. Milking happens only at certain times, so I recommend standing nearby before it begins to avoid the inevitable line.

Animals are perhaps the draw, but farm life is also about raising crops, and Mother Farm offers strawberry and blueberry picking. As with much of nature’s bounty, seasons matter, so if you want to eat fresh strawberries, now is a good time, since the season ends mid-May. Blueberry picking usually begins in July.

For families planning to stay for lunch, there are also a number of dining options. Vegetarians should know that meat takes center stage here. There’s no softening of what farming is really about: steaks, sausages and pork-laden ramen can be found in abundance and the most popular item on the menu is “Ghengis Khan” barbecue, which consists of sliced mutton and vegetables that you cook yourself on a griddle. We’ve enjoyed this, but to save a few bucks on our second visit we brought our own picnic, which is perfectly fine with Mother Farm. Besides, if you’re in need of something small to snack on, there are also shops offering cheese flavored with shiso (perilla) leaf, mentaiko (spicy cod roe) and other unconventional ingredients.

Whether you picnic or eat something from one of the Mother Farm food stands, make sure you save room for dessert. There’s excellent soft-serve ice cream and doughnuts. My family consumes milk and meat, so I believe it’s important that we all understand a few details about our diet and its consequences. If your kids are old enough and can handle it, this break could also be a good time to talk about the origin of their lunch.

The top attraction of Mother Farm, however, has to be the sheep-shearing show in the main hall. For Kiwi and Aussie parents, this may be nothing new, but for the families that I saw in the theater, it was certainly a spectacle. A variety of sheep species are herded onto the stage and led to pedestals marked with their country of origin. Then from the back of the hall, sheep dogs barrel into the building, bounding over the sheep who hardly seem to notice. After a few more tricks, there is a sheep shearing demonstration, which provides you with another teaching moment: “Kids, do you remember those fleece jackets you wore all winter?”

Speaking of winter, keep in mind that this part of Chiba can be cooler than the cities, especially after sundown. Make sure to bring a jacket in the spring or fall, and possibly an extra set of clothes if you think your kids will get messy (this is a farm, after all).

If you’re still looking for fun after all this, there is a small amusement park, live music and a kiddie-train that will tour around the grounds for an additional fee. My favorite activity, though, is just sitting in the grass or wandering through the flower fields, which change by the season. We may love the pace of urban living, but a lazy day on the farm is sometimes exactly what city kids — and their parents — need most.

Mother Farm is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets are ¥1,500 for adults and ¥800 for children (¥1,350 and ¥700 respectively, if bought in advance at a convenience store ticket machine). There is a free shuttle bus to the site from Kimitsu Station on the Uchibo Line, but it requires a reservation (call 0439-37-3211). For more information, visit www.motherfarm.co.jp/en.