People | WHY DID YOU LEAVE JAPAN?

Tomoko Houtzager: Moving to the bush just to live off the land

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Contributing Writer

Tomoko Houtzager isn’t living entirely off the grid, but in many respects she’s not far off it.

Originally from Yokkaichi, a city in Mie Prefecture, Houtzager has been living on a 130-acre farm in New South Wales, Australia since 2004.

The sprawling farm, more or less the same size as Ueno Park in Tokyo, is within reach of three national parks, all of which are registered as World Heritage sites.

While Brisbane, the capital of Queensland, is only a two hour ride away, Houtzager says that in her adopted corner of the world, everything, including the nearest town — “it’s more like a street with a few small shops”— feels a lot farther. When we spoke in January, it was between two record-breaking heatwaves enveloping Australia.

“We don’t have any air conditioners,” Houtzager says, admitting that surviving the heat was a daily battle. “But, we keep the house shut during the daytime to keep the heat out and the cool air in.

“We also don’t have any mobile reception.” Though that, she admits, is more unintentional, than by design.

Houtzager says she always wanted to travel. When she was 17, she moved to California in the States for her senior year in high school. It was her choice and something she is still grateful to her parents for helping her with.

“But it was so hard, and I got so fat,” she recalls with a laugh.

For Houtzager, senior year stateside was her first experience of standing out and not belonging.

“It was hard to make friends in the beginning,” she says, “especially as my English was not so good.”

It was before the internet and computers were commonplace, and phone calls were expensive. But, Houtzager says, this left her with no choice but to speak English. And she did. Her language ability improved — not as quickly as she wanted it to, but by the end of year she noticed a marked improvement in her communication skills.

English, though, had already played an outsized role for Houtzager, who expressed an interest in the language from an early age. It made her a kind of black sheep of the family, she says.

“After I started to learn English in junior high school, I told myself that I was going to learn to be able to understand and speak English, and understand movies without subtitles,” she recalls.

With that interest came a desire to learn more about the outside world, to discover what was beyond Japan’s borders.

Houtzager chose to study English literature at Doshisha University in Kyoto, after which she joined the work force in Osaka. But after two years of clerical work, she was back on the road, this time with Up With People, an international group of young adults that has its roots in the Moral Re-Armament (now named Initiatives of Change) movement in 1960s America.

Up With People, which comprised a cast of about 150 people, is probably best known for its halftime Super Bowl performances. Houtzager traveled through the U.S. and Europe with the group as it toured music and dance performances. For accommodation, the members stay with local families.

“I didn’t really join for the singing or dancing,” says Houtzager. “But as a whole experience, it was brilliant.”

After the year out, Houtzager rejoined the working world in Osaka, taking jobs in communications, commerce and translation. These jobs, though, were always a means to something else, she says. To what exactly, or what shape that would take, she was still figuring out.

Her “life changing event,” as she describes it, was when she took a trip to Hawaii in 2002 to visit a friend. There, she found herself at a permaculture community.

“It was a completely different way of life from that in the city and working in the corporate world,” Houtzager says, recounting that she saw nudists there and that everyone ate a lot of raw food. She ended up staying at the community for three months, learning more about the tenets of living in a more balanced relationship with the Earth.

After that trip, an idea that had long been brewing took shape. “Eventually I decided that I was going to live in the countryside and not go back to the corporate world,” she says.

She chose Australia for practical reasons: She was young enough to get a working holiday visa and she thought she could find somewhere within the vast country that would have a warm climate a lot of the time. It was while there, working on a farm for a WWOOF trip, that Houtzager met her husband, a farmer who grew up in Australia.

Houtzager is committed to the rural and sustainable lifestyle she sought, but she’s under no illusions about the amount of work that it entails, especially with so much land.

The couple have stopped keeping livestock as the property needed a lot of renovation work to do so. Instead, they focus on growing vegetables that she uses to make everything from miso paste and soy sauce to jams and relishes, which she sells at the weekly farmers market, along with cucumbers, zucchini, tomatoes, water melons, rock melons and konbucha (konbu seaweed tea).

Houtzager says, laughing, that since she left Japan, she’s also learned quite a lot about Japanese cooking, including how to make her own kōji, a key ingredient used in fermenting foods.

“I used to hate cooking, and I’m still not a big fan,” she says. “But I love eating. And I especially love eating good food.”

About a year ago, the couple also started renting out a cabin on the farm. It’s a rustic building — with an outdoor bath — but it is increasingly being used by guests who want to get off the grid, if only for a few days. The natural beauty of the surrounding countryside draws many of the guests to the farm. That and the lack of wireless internet and mobile service.

“The guests know there is no Wi-Fi in the cabin, but without it they get a chance to chill out and relax,” says Houtzager. “You can just sit outside and look at the stars, and you’ll see an amazing amount of stars out here.”

Profile

Name: Tomoko Houtzager

Profession: Craftswoman and farmer

Hometown: Yokkaichi, Mie Prefecture

Age: 45

Key moments in career:

1992 — Completes final year of high school in Riverside, California

1997 — Graduates from Doshisha University, Kyoto

1999 — Spends a year with Up With People, traveling in the U.S. and Europe

2002 — Visits a permaculture community in Hawaii

2004 — Moves to New South Wales, Australia

Things I miss about Japan: “Food, family and friends.”

Words to live by: “It’s never too late to start new things.”

Best advice I ever got: “You can’t change the past and others, but you can change the future and others.”

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