guidebook to Japan will recommend you visit Himeji City for
the sole purpose of seeing Shiragasi, the grand castle that
has stood on the hill above town since 1580. And every time
I have mentioned Himeji’s place on my itinerary, the listener’s
response is the same: "You’ll have to see the castle.”
Even my interpreter, Alice, who grew up in nearby Kobe, is
talking about “The White Egret” as we ride the
bullet train to Himeji. She recalls excitedly how when she
last visited, they pulled into the station and the white beauty
sat right there above them, as if the train had docked at
the castle gates.
But then, Alice has been gone for a while. Standing outside
Himeji station, the local horizon is not a wispy 16th-century
scroll painting but a harsh abstract of red and white electrical
towers connected by thick wires. Rather than actual pedestrian
life, there are mere suggestions of it: a bulldozer pushes
mounds of thin dirt from one end of a lot to the other, and
from the concrete next door there springs a park so green
it looks fake.
Looking back on the city as we leave the station, the White
Egret is nowhere in sight.
Nobuaki Nakayasu turns around in the van’s passenger
seat to face us, a bit hesitant but clearly eager to show
us his world. His cheeks are round and permanently blushed,
his smile is slightly crooked and totally generous. Though
his black hair is thinning, this man has the untainted energy
of a new adult who has never been burned. Odd, since in some
ways he has it worse than any farmer I’ve met.
“Ten years ago this was all farms,” he says,
as we pass vacant appliance stores, windowless factories,
and more parks that seem too green, even vaguely cloned. In
fact, 3 1/2 acres of this wilted metropolis used to be his
farm, and before that his family’s farm, ever since
it became solid ground 280 years ago.
Before that it was beach. The story is that during the Edo
period the rulers’ main source of revenue came from
taxes paid by farmers. More farms meant more taxes, but in
these tight and volcanic islands the only way to increase
arable acreage is to carve into the mountain or reclaim flat
land. And so this sandy coast in central Japan was covered
under a foot of topsoil, and proclaimed to be rice paddies.
The pattern has resurfaced in recent years, but this time
the topsoil is concrete and it aims to grow industry. In the
farm villages that hold on elsewhere in central Japan, noon
and five o’clock are heralded by a brief and scratchy
song played over tall, communal loudspeakers; standing on
the road as it plays, you see farmers emerging from the orchards
and fields like mice called out by the piper. In Himeji, noon
means a siren that blasts achingly loud to reach the people
inside the crowded buildings. Nobody emerges for lunch.
Nakayasu’s main field is three-quarters of an acre
that huddles amidst four acres of similar plots owned by neighbors.
Standing there, Nakayasu could throw a rock at the Apex Sanyo
factory, one of the gray boxes that borders this scrap of
green on three sides. Instead, he looks south and motions
with his hand—not at the factory there, but as if he
had x-ray vision to see through these walls and beyond to
the Inland Sea. “When I was young, there were still
strips of sand stretching into the sea,” he says. “Now
there’s no coastline left, just factories spreading
into the water.”
Now imagine this scene but put a calm look on Nakayasu’s
face. This is where his family farmed before he took over
20 years ago, and he lives as if things are no different now.
Standing by his lotus root field, its black pools crisscrossed
with the reflection of electrical towers, I ask him how he
has the heart to persevere in an environment that seems to
want only to swallow him. “When you live in the middle
of it you don’t notice much,” he says plainly.
“The change has seemed gradual. I figure it’s
just part of the overall trend of development in Japan.”
Even with his honest eyes, that’s hard to believe.
It would be one thing to grow food with the usual crop-supporting
chemicals here—the odds are against it, yes, but in
a way it seems related, like the factories’ agricultural
counterpart. But to farm here with Natural Agriculture’s
purist approach to organics, to return the farm as close as
possible to nature’s way?
I mean, where would one start?
Nakayasu took the gradual approach, transitioning his fields
to be additive-free over three years. Those were tough times,
and not just for growing the soil but for finding a community
of consumers that would believe in him—a task difficult
even within Shumei.
Today, six years later, his soil is still sandy but his greenhouse
bursts with life. Strawberries, eggplants, melons and cucumbers
sit impatiently in green pots and spill out onto the driveway.
Nestled in seedling beds, the sweet potatoes have unfurled
vines to cover all the bare dirt with their leaves.
This hope comes because Nakayasu has found a way to see what
tools he has. Even in this most industrial setting, the land
has a life that can instruct anyone who bothers to be a student.
And he has done just that.
In the lotus root pond there are power poles rising literally
out of the water, their peaks taller than the blue mountains
in the distance. Nakayasu’s neighbors use fertilizer
for the heavy-feeding plants and add limestone to neutralize
the soil’s characteristic acidity. When Nakayasu gave
up such additives, he drew on things he had heard about in
stories over the years. Today, his fields get only straw,
which acts as both a sort of compost and a weed suppressant.
He says his yields are half, maybe two-thirds of his neighbors’,
but his soil has neutralized itself, almost gone alkaline
in some parts—a change unheard of in Japan’s sour
He draws on old ways with his row crops, too, saving seeds
to culture the plants that can cope best with the poor soil.
The seed bank growing in the small garden behind his house
is nothing special, but the vegetables within it are spectacular.
This marks the eighth year for his turnip seed, and this season’s
progeny is gigantic and heavy with blossoms. Tall, bushy white
carrots, bright yellow daikon blooms — this garden of
flowers we don’t usually see belies the area’s
meager topsoil and the nine feet of sand beneath it.
Drawing on the past is essential to Nakayasu’s success,
but it wouldn’t work if he didn’t also pay attention
to the present. Rather than bemoan the area’s urbanization,
he has found ways to take advantage of it.
For instance, those two-green parks: With all the factories
in Himeji came factory workers, and the houses that sprung
up for them created a third element in this city’s patchwork
identity, that of suburbia. Seeking to make the city more
livable, in 1998 the government bought much of the remaining
farmland and converted it to parks. It was by selling 3 1/2
acres to the project that Nakayasu was able to weather the
financial transition to Natural Agriculture.
More so, though, he has seized the parks’ ongoing benefits
to build up his fields. His soil alone is not strong enough
to grow many weeds, certainly not enough to make compost.
(When he began farming this way, he used to go desperately
to the riverbanks to collect fallen weeds.) However, the city’s
trees, with all their leaves and branches tucked into those
tidy parks, grow greener than they need. In an arrangement
made through a relative who works with the local disposal
company, twice a year Nakayasu diverts 50 truckloads of trimmings
from the incinerator to his field. “At this point,”
he says, “I couldn’t survive without the parks.”
Likewise, his sales rely on the city. With suburban growth
it has become possible to sell directly to individuals, which
means not just cutting out the middleman but getting a premium
for food grown naturally amidst all this artificiality. His
non-organic neighbors who sell wholesale are gradually selling
off their plots to developers and the city. Despite their
attachment to the land, the market just isn’t profitable
enough to make it worth staying.
And the reality is, as one farmer falls, so the rest are
weakened. Nakayasu’s main field is the last in a line
of 12 such plots. The thin berms between them are more evidence
of attachment than separation. When one farmer sells his 1/4-acre
strip, the new, non-farming owner must buy all of those adjoining
in order to use it. I remark that this must lead to more pressure
to sell, and Nakayasu replies with characteristic optimism:
“Yes, but luckily I’m on the end. Someone could
buy all eleven of those, and I could still farm here.”
On the drive back to the train station, he confesses to being
torn between worlds. He is attached to the land for its history,
and yet he dreams of moving to more hospitable land because
it would mean a better life in the present and future. Of
course then he bounces back to the bright side, and says that
ultimately it doesn’t matter where he farms. “My
work is to pass on the philosophy, techniques and heart of
Natural Agriculture,” he says, “and I can do that
Driving back to the train station, I think of the sad lotus
fields punctured by telephone poles. They remind me of the
sutra I read last night in The Teachings of Buddha, the Japanese
hotel’s equivalent of a Gideon Bible. The lesson described
the lotus flower, purest white, which grows forth only from
Undefiled by worldly dharmas
Like a lotus flower floating on the water
They have welled forth out of the earth
Nearing the train station, I see flashes of ancient white
through the cracks between buildings. Maybe it sounds too
perfect a story, but it’s true: you can still see the
White Egret from these gray and empty streets.