Lessons from a “sunny” people
Nomadic chef Nao Mikami travels up and down Japan visiting producers at each destination, gathering their food, cooking the ingredients, and serving the dishes in a pop-up restaurant. Farm to table—her life’s work is driven by an aspiration to share the stories of amazing producers.
“Helping out at the Aoyama Farmers Market kindled my admiration for food producers. I discovered that vegetables are a mirror of the grower’s mentality and spirit. I’m drawn to growers who don’t strain nature or the vegetables, and for this reason, who are natural, relaxed people themselves. I wanted as many people as possible to appreciate these producers. The best way to do that was to get people to taste their food. And that was what inspired me to start cooking. My goal is still the same today.”
In exchange for convenience, contemporary society has drawn a clear line between consumers and producers, and taken the sites of production farther and farther away from everyday life. Nao’s mission is to act as a mediator and close the distance between the two sides naturally by “putting a face to the food on the table.”
This time, we invited Nao as one of our guests and toured the diverse fields of Kochi Prefecture—the mountain, the river, and the sea—while visiting the “modern nomads” at each destination. The plan was to gather the local foods and have Nao use the ingredients in outdoor cooking. What a luxury! Our trip started in Kochi City and headed west along the Pacific coast, then returned to Kochi City and explored the deep satoyama foothills following the clear Niyodo River. This was Nao’s fourth visit to Kochi. How did the land appear to her eyes this time?
“First and foremost, the food is incredibly good. It’s amazing that not a single ingredient disappoints, whether it came from the water or the land. A new discovery for me was the wealth of citrus fruits. I could use lavish amounts in place of vinegar. Another highlight was the cheerful and optimistic people. Sunny may be too abstract a description, but that was my impression exactly. One sun here, and another sun there—I lost count of the suns I met on this trip.”
In Ino Town, the home of many internal migrants, we met Masayuki Kariya, who welcomes both new immigrants and returnees to his Kariya Farm, and leads an original lifestyle himself. He was the sun of all suns, bursting with vitality, radiating his energy to those around him, and moving straight ahead on the path he believes in. Masayuki said this to Nao.
“Farmers are the strongest. Come what may, we are invincible. Any time you’re going through a rough patch, you’re welcome back. I’ve got all the food you need.”
In fact, just before this trip, Nao found herself at a turning point in her life. The Kochi producers’ basic, straightforward way of life and the powerful words that they spoke deeply touched Nao’s heart. We saw the changes too. The farther on we traveled, the brighter and more confident Nao looked.
“Food, shelter, and clothing—at the end of the day, the one we can’t live without is food. And the farmers who produce that food are literally the strongest of us all. They’re generous and kind in a way that only comes from having their feet planted firmly on the ground. You can tell they aren’t merely saying what you want to hear. Every word they say comes from the heart. Meeting these people, seeing their outlook on life, and talking with them on this trip has helped me go back to my own roots. Who cares what others think? Keep your faith in what you feel is fun and exciting, keep charging ahead, and you will find the light. I’ve learned that it’s all right to do that.”
Thanks to the beauty of nature
On this journey, Nao had a reliable partner: our other guest, professional angler Ayana Ishikawa. Bun-chan, as she is also known, taking the first character of Ayana, is a rare female professional angler and something of a celebrity in fishing circles. Contrary to her slender city girl looks, Bun-chan has a solid skill set and passion for fishing. She ventures into fields up and down Japan, and at times, puts up a daring fight to catch a fish that weighs tens of kilograms. This time, she took on the challenge of fishing in an ocean and river new to her, and played an enormous role in securing our food supply. Meanwhile, Bun-chan was also dazzled by the lifestyles of the people we met in Kochi.
“Everyone we met had a bright, cheerful expression, and more than that, an entirely different level of emotional wealth. Kochians have the spirit of it will be okay, things will work out. I used to be the type who needs to think things through before I can take any action, but this trip shattered my approach and my outlook on life in a good way. I was astonished that fishing is a natural part of the Kochian lifestyle. Some fished before or after work, and others fished on their days off from farm work. Without exception, everyone had incorporated fishing into their daily lives. The abundant fishing grounds certainly help, but Kochi’s greatest attraction was the beauty of the nature and the cleanliness of the water. The amazing field lures the residents to go fishing every day. How enviable!”
It’s true that Kochi was beautiful. The exotic energy of the sunshine, the endless grandeur of the Pacific, the finest secluded beaches, and the limpid Niyodo River—the perpetual beauty and power of nature must be nurturing this land’s abundant food and its strong, kind, and cheerful people.
Nao and Bun-chan met for the first time on this trip. They visited one local after another gathering their food, caught the freshest fish, cooked the ingredients in hand gathered and crafted outdoor kitchenw, and shared their meals around an al fresco table. They enjoyed the land’s climate with all five senses and were moved to the core by the residents’ words. Having spent an exciting, fruitful ten days together, the two grew closer in no time. In the final days of the trip, Nao hinted that she liked Kochi and might want to live here, and Bun-chan promptly suggested they become roommates. It might be that two new modern nomads will be putting down roots in Kochi very soon.
Nao Mikami is a nomadic chef born in Tokyo. After graduating from the Tokyo University of Agriculture, she worked as a dietician in an elementary school. Having later trained at a local restaurant in France, and then interned at Chez Panisse in California, at present she prepares meals around the concept of “putting a face to the food on the table.” Mikami sets up her kitchen anywhere, from the mountain to the river to the sea.
Ayana Ishikawa is a professional angler born in Kagoshima Prefecture. She was inspired by her father to start fishing as a child. In 2014, she was named Anglers Idol, a fifth-generation position in the world of fishing.