KAMIKAWA, Saitama Prefecture--Like many first-time tourists to Japan, Californian Nancy Singleton Hachisu came to Japan in 1988 with an expectation that she would find a healthy food lover's paradise.
She imagined a land where people only eat traditional seasonal harvests, cooked in minimalist, healthy culinary methods.
Instead, she soon realized modern Japanese prefer what she calls “brown foods” such as curry with rice, ramen and overcooked meat. But in an aging farming community 100 km from booming Tokyo, Hachisu found the richest traits of a traditional food culture that met her expectations.
In September, the 56-year-old wife of a Japanese egg farmer in Kamikawa, Saitama Prefecture, is publishing her first photo book, “Japanese Farm Food,” which offers unique insights into Japanese farm life and culture through recipes she inherited from her husband, in-laws and others in the local farming community.
“One reason why I really wanted to publish this book about Japan is that people in urban areas do not know what is going to be lost,” Hachisu said in a recent interview at her family’s 80-year-old farmhouse.
“It was my way of finding a voice to say to the world there is this great, cool thing about Japan, and even if it’s not what you thought, it’s almost greater.”
The Stanford-educated Hachisu came to Japan in 1988 in what became the final chapter of her youthful self-searching period and taught English at a language school in Kumagaya, Saitama Prefecture.
As she writes, “I came to Japan for the food, but stayed for love” in the preface of her book, she met her husband, Tadaaki Hachisu, who was studying English at her school. Tadaaki proposed to her six months later, and the two moved to his hometown of Kamikawa in the following year.
The book, which introduces more than 160 recipes of traditional farm food in full color, 400-plus pages, is the grand sum of her two decades-plus of life in Kamikawa.
From the simplest fast food of “raw egg on hot rice” to feasts for special occasions such as sukiyaki, all the recipes are familiar to Japanese. However, they all are presented in highly eye-catching and even exotic fashion, in ceramic bowls or antique baskets that Hachisu collected from local garage sales and flea markets.
Special emphasis is given to her family crops and other local, organic vegetables. They are cooked in line with her philosophy that a truly creative process should be “interactive with nature and the environment.”
“Japanese farm food is vegetable-driven--they have different tastes and colors. More than anything, you have to eat only available things,” Hachisu said. “The fact that you use what you have or what your friends have is such a natural process.”
This interactive or mutually dependent lifestyle that she found in Kamikawa was a freeing experience for Hachisu, who had found it tiring to live an American way of life in which one is compelled to “make decisions by yourself every day,” she said.
In urban America, "there is always the theme that you must follow your dream," but the rural farming life taught her that "following your dream is an everyday thing." One makes small choices or takes a new step every day, which will eventually make a big difference or visible achievement, like her upcoming book, she said.
Hachisu learned it from her late parents-in-law, who instructed her strictly on acting responsibly as a farm bride while supporting her in pursuing her dreams, such as running an English immersion preschool by the family's chicken farm and writing the cookbook.
“Japanese have more of the idea that society keeps the control, like kids should not screw up because it’s gonna be bad for the whole extended family,” said Hachisu.
“If you are young, you may not like it, but the fact that there is so much structure in Japan allows bigger freedom--people who want the structure can take it and use it as a way of keeping their life centered.”
So, her book is naturally a homage to everyone in her close-knit community, including her husband, their three sons, friends and neighbors and especially her mother-in-law, Toku, who passed away at the age of 83 in November last year.
In fact, it is the book’s ultimate charm that it feels as if every page is full of Hachisu’s affection and respect for her family and what they have tried to preserve in the face of an ever-changing Japan.
“Everything I do in my life, it’s about (telling people) that this is such a cool thing about Japan, how I live my life, and we don’t want to lose this,” Hachisu said.
(“Japanese Farm Food” will be published by Andrews McMeel Publishing on Sept. 4, 2012)
- « Prev
- Next »