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Miyazaki, a depopulated town in northern Honshu with no big supermarkets or convenience stores, is promoting its own unique version of “slow food” culture.

Behind the drive is Hideaki Miyazaki, 33, who rediscovered his hometown’s food culture handed down from generation to generation after returning from Tokyo, where he studied design.

While still in Miyazaki, nestled in the mountains of northern Miyagi Prefecture, he had longed for Tokyo and Europe, and he had a negative view about his town.

The eldest son of a farming family, Miyazaki became interested in design during high school. After a university stint, he landed a job in an advertising agency in 1992. He thought it was a dream come true but soon found his daily work routine “empty.”

“I wondered if I could design (something) that (someone) would love for a long time,” he said.

Miyazaki went on to graduate school to study design and development of local specialties and events.

In 1996, he got in touch with some local classmates who were engaged in chamber of commerce activities for community development.

He spent a year studying ways for his hometown to produce specialty products. He learned, to his surprise, that each house cooked a huge variety of dishes, including different types of pickled vegetables and dishes featuring rice cakes and wild plants.

In the meantime he rediscovered the mountains, rivers, hills and fields surrounding his town brimming with fruits, nuts and wild plants.

“It was really amazing and I thought (the town) was not completely without (hope).”

Miyazaki and folk culture researcher Tomio Yuki, 57, agreed that efforts needed to be made to let residents learn about their town instead of spending money to produce some local specialty.

They came up with an idea of holding a food festival in the local gym, where residents could display their traditional household cuisine. He urged every household to participate in the exhibition in 1999. Despite an initially cool response, half the homes turned out, producing a total of 800 dishes.

“It was simply great,” he said. “As I looked at the names written on the recipes, I could see the faces of mothers and grandmothers.”

The festival is now an annual event. More than 400 local dishes were laid on big tables at the gym when the last festival was held Nov. 2.

They included “akebi” (mountain tree fruit cooked with miso), ostrich fern dressed in sesame seeds and figs cooked with soy sauce.

Ayumi Takahata, a 15-year-old student, and seven classmates sold “gyoza” dumplings they had made.

“I’ve learned about the allure of my town, which I was not aware of, and also the efforts adults are making to develop the town,” she said. “There are a lot of things in the town that we cannot do elsewhere. The town is full of nature.”

Miyazaki photographed every dish.

“There are many women at the exhibition who prepared the dishes from the early morning,” he said. “They did so even though they get nothing in return.”

In December, the town won the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry’s top prize in the “contest for promotion of food lives rooted in regional areas.”

The town faces a decision in April on whether to merge with two neighboring towns. The undertaking to develop Miyazaki, initiated by the chamber of commerce, will shift into the hands of residents.

Those attending a merger promotion conference in November made active suggestions, including fostering manufacturers of “soba” buckwheat noodles and establishing a store to sell confectionery placed on local pottery.

The town also hosts hands-on farm experience activities for people from other towns. Children, accompanied by their mothers, come by bus and dig up yams.

People may think depopulated areas all look the same, but Miyazaki said “this town has its own appeal.”

“The residents have their wishes and dreams. They also have worries. I’d like to help them realize their dreams,” Miyazaki said.

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