The power of traditional vegetable varieties
Unzen National Park, established in 1934 is Japan’s first designated national park. The Amakusa area was added in 1956 to become Unzen-Amakusa National Park. The majestic volcanoes with steam billowing from the hot springs, and the infinite waters studded with islands like the stars in the sky—we took in these spectacular twin views as we drove along in quest of ingredients for an original sandwitch.
Our home base of choice was Obama Onsen, known for having the hottest springs in Japan. A few days’ stay is all it takes to find that the numerous cold springs, as well as hot, provide an abundance of pure water to sustain the people’s lives. The hot spring resort was also close to the organic market Taneto, specializing in pesticide- and chemical fertilizer-free vegetables. Noriko and Chikashi Okutsu have made it their lifework to explore the relationship between people and food. The couple originally ran cooking classes and a café in the Kichijoji neighborhood of Tokyo, but about seven years ago, they organized a farmers market that marked their turning point. Chikashi says it persuaded them to relocate to Unzen:
“Our work in Tokyo was going well enough, but I was always skeptical about whether what we did was rooted in the community per se. Tokyo is home to residents from diverse backgrounds. It’s no easy task to get your activities to take root there in the true sense. This was going through my mind when I organized a farmers market event selling only traditional vegetables. One of the vendors I invited was Masatoshi Iwasaki, a farmer from Unzen specializing in in-house seeding. Meeting Mr. Iwasaki was a revelation. Soon after the event, I had some business in Nagasaki and took the opportunity to visit the Iwasaki Farm. The panorama of grassland was so incredibly beautiful that I decided there and then that I wanted to move here. I had always wanted to work with food in a site near the soil, and my intuition told me this was the place where I could fulfill my dream.”
Mr. Iwasaki is a celebrated “seed saver” and a guru in the world of agriculture. Most familiar vegetables generally distributed on the market are called F1 hybrids, which produce a large crop of vegetables in uniform sizes that are beneficial for business. Mr. Iwasaki shuns these F1 varieties and opts for traditional farming. That is, he takes the care to grow indigenous vegetable varieties, harvest them, gather the seeds, and use them to grow the next crop. This produces vegetables of all shapes and sizes, but all of them are firmly established in that particular site. Without farmers who go out of their way to save the seeds, these traditional varieties would face extinction.
“Saving heirloom seeds is certainly not an efficient practice, but it helps preserve life for generations, and over the years, the vegetables adapt to the local climate,” says Chikashi. “We want Taneto to provide a place for the locals to discover these delicious traditional vegetables that are established in their soil, and through it, to make Unzen a special place. The farmers are giving shape to the bounties of the local soil. We want to support them and play a part in upholding traditional Japanese culture. Gazing at the Iwasaki Farm gives you a sense of safety and comfort beyond words, and that’s because it embodies a complete cycle. I’m keen to protect that view and what it represents, because it’s unique to Unzen and worth protecting.”
All the while Chikashi was telling his story, customers and local farmers came streaming in to shop and mingle at Taneto. One customer selected an unusual vegetable and thought up a new recipe. A group of local farmers brought their proud pick of the day and cheerfully discussed their harvest. Communication was being generated liberally around the native vegetables of Unzen—taking in the scene before our eyes, we realized it was all going according to Chikashi’s plan.
We asked his wife, Noriko, to create our original sandwitch. Being the head of the “School of Kitchen,” Noriko is an expert in healthy, delectable home cooking. She studied the ingredients before her and smiled:
“Before I begin cooking, I always ask the ingredients how they wish to be cooked. The ingredients have a voice that tells me the best way to draw out and enhance their flavor. With each meal I make, I want the person eating it to be happy, and the ingredients being eaten to be happy, too. I’m going to try to translate this idea into your sandwich.”
Noriko says the greatest obstruction to the process of creation is the creator’s ego. We couldn’t wait to taste the voice of the ingredients and the cook’s straightforward expression of the local climate.
Organic base Taneto
2138-1 Chijiwa-cho hei, Unzen-shi, Nagasaki
1011 Obama-chokitahonmachi, Unzen-shi, Nagasaki
R Cinq Famille
New 1 Kakuro Building 1F East No.1 114-6 Obama-chokitahonmachi, Unzen-shi, Nagasaki
14-7 Obama-chokitahonmachi, Unzen-shi, Nagasaki