Time was that Fukushima – Japan’s third-largest prefecture by land area – was known as an agricultural powerhouse. The vast prefecture is split by dual mountain ranges into three geographical and historical regions; the coastal Hamadori, where seafood reigned; the midlands of the central Nakadori, home to large cities and fruit and vegetable growing. (As of 2011, Fukushima produced more than 20% of Japan’s peaches.) To the west lies the historic Aizu region, home to towering Mount Bandai, Japan’s fourth-largest lake, Inawashiro, and the castle town of Aizu-Wakamatsu. Snow melt in mountainous Aizu feeds rice fields, producing some of Japan’s most beloved rice and sake. From its snowy winters to its verdant summers, Fukushima has been blessed with nature’s bounty.
This sterling reputation received a terrible blow in March of 2011. As the Great East Japan Earthquake ravaged northeastern Japan, a massive tsunami swept across the Fukushima seaboard, inundating the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The resulting meltdown forced more than 150,000 people in the Hamadori region to evacuate; much of the coast became a series of ghost towns, only recently fully re-opened. The reputational effect was much wider, subjecting the whole of the prefecture – including large regions completely untouched by the actual disaster – to scrutiny and fear. Despite a vigilant program of testing that has continued to prove prefectural produce as safe, some stigma remains, more than a decade later.
Thankfully, the past years have seen a reevaluation of Fukushima Prefecture in Japan. Slowly, the old reputation for fantastic food set within a beautiful landscape has supplanted more negative connotations. This is most exciting for the people of Fukushima, long proud of their remarkable home prefecture and what it has to offer.
This past weekend, I returned to Fukushima to once again experience just that; the joys of getting my hands dirty planting rice in the wet fields, and of sampling delicious food and superlative sake. Best of all, perhaps, was again encountering the kind, hardy people of Fukushima. This was all thanks to Magonote Travel, and their exciting local Food Camp program.
Introducing the Food Camp
I should probably start out by mentioning my own connection to Fukushima. I spent four years in a small village teaching English on the JET Program; Fukushima actually (just barely) remains the prefecture of Japan in which I’ve lived the longest. Living in Fukushima for so long allowed me to really get a sense of the wonderful appeal of its various regions. The rugged Ura Bandai region in the shadow of Mount Bandai remains one of my favorite areas in Japan; Volunteering in the former Zone of Exclusion also helped me gain a sense of just what the 3.11 disaster cost the prefecture. It also allowed me to see first-hand the huge community effort being put in to revitalize those devastated towns and villages.
This background meant that I immediately saw the appeal of Magonote’s Food Camp program. Magonote is a small travel agency based out of central Koriyama, Fukushima, offering planned tours in the prefecture. Owned by the local Yamaguchi Taxi Group, the tours evolved out of their vehicle services, which also include welfare transport for seniors; according to Joost Kralt, a Magonote employee, the desire to assist seniors with their daily lives led naturally to the idea of providing them with enjoyable outings. This led to more general opportunities to host pleasant adventures in the extensive nature of their prefectural backyard.
According to their official website, Food Camps are “an open-air restaurant tour to experience the food, people, and nature of Fukushima.” The tours set off from Koriyama in the morning via bus (with local transfer provided by Yamaguchi taxi service, included in the tour price). From there, they make their way to agricultural fields, orchards, and vineyards around the prefecture, experiencing local agriculture directly. Next comes “..a one-day outdoor restaurant under the blue sky,” presenting a gourmet meal using local produce. In other words, a real hands-on, farm-to-table experience.
Off to Aizu
Magonote has hosted dozens of Food Camps in the four corners of Fukushima. The trip I joined this past weekend was bound for the homestead of Bond&Co., a unique organic rice farm in the vast agricultural fields of Aizuwakamatsu City.
The bus set off from Koriyama around 9 AM, heading west towards the passes through the Aizu mountain range. The ride gave me a chance to chat with my fellow passengers. I sat next to a man who had originally hailed from the coastal town of Tomioka; on March 12th, 2011, the day after the 3.11 tsunami swept through his town, the entire 15,000 citizens of Tomioka had been evacuated. His parents, lifelong denizens of Tomioka, had been among them; they still live outside of Fukushima to this day. These days, Tomioka is no longer a ghost town – although only 2000 people now live within its borders.
We talked of our hopes for the revitalization of towns like Tomioka. “But, you know, I don’t think our goal for these towns should be a return to how they were,” he told me. “The window of opportunity has closed. People have made new lives elsewhere; even if they were to return, their old communities no longer exist. People should be allowed to move on. But Tomioka should have a future – what we need most is to find a new pathway forward for these coastal towns.”
He’d given me much to think about. Our bus descended from the mountains to the Aizu basin, an area that feels a world away from the Hamadori coast and the ever-shrinking Zone of Exclusion.
Say Hello to Bond&Co.
Aizu is a beautiful region, with lush green rice paddies bounded by snowy mountains. In the Aizuwakamatsu city center lies Tsuruga Castle, one of Japan’s most striking feudal fortifications. In 1868, Tsuruga was subject to one of the last great castle sieges in Japanese history. It was a bloody affair; our day in Aizu was to be focused on much more peaceful matters.
The day’s excursion was structured around Bond&Co., an organic rice farm and sake producer that focuses on agriculture in the LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) spirit. The Bonds in “Bond&Co.” are Richard and Aki Bond, an intrepid husband and wife duo who run the farm alongside Aki’s mother. Rich and Aki met in far-off Poland, where Aki was teaching Japanese and Rich was working as an artist; while neither envisioned a life working in agriculture, their mutual interest in sustainability and good living eventually led them back to Aki’s family farm.
Adventures of Duck Rice Planting
The farm has been in Aki’s family for many decades, where they’ve employed a unique rice-growing technique: duck rice. This isn’t some discreet varietal of rice with a mallard-inspired name; rather, they actually use domesticated ducks to help grow their rice!
Each June, the Bonds rely on their 70-odd ducks to help clean out their rice fields. The young ducklings are released into the wet fields, where they eat pests and prevent weeds from growing. The Bonds demonstrated the duck technique for our group; we helped feed the ducks, who happily swam along in the rice fields toward their feeding area.
As the ducklings made their way deeper into the rice fields, I and others waded out into the paddies, seedlings in hand. The thick mud and cloudy water reached halfway up to our knees. We made our way down the rows of green rice plants sticking out of the water, replacing seedlings that had been knocked over by overexcited ducks. With the quacking of domesticated water foul, the sloshing of the water, and the mountains in the distance on all sides, it was a uniquely bucolic experience – far from my everyday life in frentic Tokyo.
While I and a few others continued planting, those who didn’t envy the prospect of wading through paddy mud instead walked the lengths of the azemichi (あぜ道, raised footpaths between rice fields), tossing in leftover lees from the sake production process. The concentrated lees can return some of their nutrients to the soil. Truly, a circle of sake life.
A Fukushima Feast
The planting was done, and the group returned to the main Bond&Co. compound to wash up. What followed was the Food Camp centerpiece: a delicious meal made using local materials crafted by a skilled regional chef. These meals are crafted on-site in the Magonote food truck.
The chef for this outing was Sato Manabu of Teppanyaki Aizuya. Chef Sato is a native of Aizuwakamatsu, having opened his teppanyaki restaurant in 2009. He seeks out local produce, visiting farms and meeting producers before selecting ingredients for his restaurant. Although a Food Camp veteran, this was his first time working with the Bonds.
“As both a chef and an individual, I care about organic ingredients,” Sato is quoted as saying in the Food Camp’s pamphlet. “It’s amazing how the two of them are able to get across their personal policies and styles.”
Chef Sato’s meal took place inside the shelter of a vinyl agricultural tent. First came a group kampai (“cheers!”) via a round of “Aizu Mint Mohitos” using locally sourced herbs. Five courses followed: omusubi rice balls with rice from the Bond’s fields; salad with duck gizzard, liver, baby leaf, and mini daikon radish (the circle of farmland duck here complete); a refreshing onion pottage; succulent roast duck on risotto; and, for dessert, a rice pudding.
In between, sake from the Bond&Co. line was served. As a low-level sake connoisseur, I was deeply impressed by each sake. The sake produced by Bond&Co. is also billed as LOHAS sake, with their organic duck rice as the primary ingredient. Usually, sake makes use of separate rice varietals from those used for eating; however, each koshihikari-based sake served held a deep flavor, among the best I’ve had recently. The high-quality food and drink, alongside enjoyable conversation with the Bonds and fellow Food Camp visitors, made for a highly memorable meal.
Our tour bus headed out of Aizu around 4 PM; soon enough, many of the participants, bodies tired from a day in the sun and stomachs satiated by good food and drink, were fast asleep. I myself passed out as the bus approached the Aizu mountains; by the time I awoke, we were already on the outskirts of Koriyama.
As I boarded the Shinkansen bound for Tokyo, I reflected on how happy I always am to return to Fukushima. Its broad green spaces, kind and resilient people, and, yes, great food, are really something special. Thanks to this experience with Magonote’s Food Camp program, I was able to experience some of the best Fukushima has to offer in a single day. Some of the best, yes – because there’s always more to discover when it comes to Fukushima. And what better way to discover it than alongside the people the prefecture, putting in a bit of work in its soil, and partaking of its bounty?
Even after all the years I spent living in Fukushima, my experience in Aizu this past weekend left me feeling more connected to it than ever.
Planning a trip to Japan? Let Unseen Japan help you get the most out of your time here. Go deeper with tailor-made itineraries and personalized interpretive guiding. Hope to see you soon!
What to Engage with Next:
 Schreiber, Mark. (April 17, 2011). Japan’s food crisis goes beyond recent panic buying. Archived April 20, 2011, at the Wayback Machine. The Japan Times.