A few weeks ago I was able to travel to Japan and explore some of the methods used, plants, and produce growth throughout Japan. My travels took me to manicured gardens, production farms, and one of the most well-known Japanese universities conducting agricultural research. While I was able to learn more about the Japanese perspective of many plants both known and new to me, I was most excited about bringing this knowledge home. When immersed in the culture it becomes very evident that plants are not simply plants used as food. They play a central role in what the traditional day to day life looks like, how people interact, how people feel throughout the day, and create a balance between us and what we require from the land. This principle can be seen deeply in yin- and yang philosophy that is practiced.
First Stop - A Local Farm In Oshino Hakkai
It was incredible to visit this farm not only for the work they do, but for the incredible location placed with a stunning view of Mt. Fuji. Here there are a lot of traditional old farms that utilize organic growing methods. This is a bit different from American culture where growing organically is considered more of a new practice. Instead the Japanese have placed a great importance on not only producing the food they need, but doing so in a manner that cares for the land as well. While these organic practices work more slowly, they often yield more effective results and generate less waste among agricultural processes.
For example, they utilize their farm chickens to produce manure that fertilizes their crops. They also use fresh river water that is very clear and clean, being careful to avoid any threatening contaminants. While their warm season was over during my visit and harvesting was done, they are continuing to utilize the full season by growing cool-weather crops like turnips during the shoulder seasons. This farm can be seen in the main image for this article above.
Second Stop - Hasune Farm in Tokyo
Hasune Farm was a pleasure to visit. You can check them out on Instagram @the_hasune_farm for a peek into what farms look like near the city. I was able to spend more time talking with them about their growing practices and some traditional uses for a few plants. I was especially interested in learning exactly how they grow shiso, as we receive many questions about this crop here at True Leaf Market. I observed that I utilize the same growing practices for the same varieties, yet it is the environment that can be accredited with some flavor differences. True Leaf Market is located in the dry Utah climate. This can greatly affect the way plants retain water and face many other stressors throughout the growing season. Alternatively, it is very humid here. This can reduce stress put on the plant and affect the flavor outcome. In Japan, shiso is often used in a variety of drinks and cocktails. I also learned that mitsuba is used in almost every meal similarly to how you would use parsley. It is most commonly paired with seafood.
Tokyo University - An Agricultural Research Hotspot
This was one of the stops I was most excited about. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see quite as much as I had hoped due to scheduling. However, my brief two hours were well spent as I visited their greenhouse featuring an assortment of vegetables, fruits, flowers, and ornamental plants. In addition to their greenhouse there are many labs that play a role in research used for furthering agricultural, medical, chemical, and physical industries. Some of their research is available in published videos and peer-reviewed studies for public viewing.
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
Like many botanical gardens found throughout the United States, the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden was a great source of information regarding unique plants and their uses. This was something that was of special interest to me. While I love growing plants, learning new ways to utilize their natural properties is where the real magic is. How plants are used in Japanese culture are also influenced by the Yin Yang philosophy. To maintain balance within the body, it is important to understand how different foods can affect you.
I was surprised to learn how widespread and common this information is. It is common for TV programs to include an array of educational content that makes this type of information common knowledge. Below are some highlights of plants, along with their uses, that I found interesting.
These blooms are usually dried and used in tea. Consuming ginseng as a fresh tea is known to have better health benefits than when consumed as a supplement.
Microgreens and Standards of Freshness
In the 90’s kaiwane food-related illnesses stopped production. Later in the 2000’s production started up again with kaiwane (microgreens) being sold with a determinate shelf-life of 3 days. This means any microgreens purchased at local stores are always of great quality and freshness. This is not only true of microgreens, but all produce.
In the United States it is not uncommon for old produce to be discounted in an effort to continue making money off of “sub-par” products. While this is beneficial for reducing food waste, it is also a signal to the lack of fresh fruit and vegetable consumption in the United States compared to many other countries around the world. In Japanese culture, fruits and vegetables are the main component of every meal. Little meat is eaten in comparison. When meat is consumed, it is often paired with specific plants and herbs to maintain comfort throughout bodily systems.
While edible flowers are growing in popularity here in the U.S. they have been used in Japanese cuisine for a long time. Some of the most popularly used include Sakura (Cherry Blossoms) for tea, dessert, and special drinks. And Chrysanthemum, for tea used as a means of cooling the body.
Visiting other cultures is always a fun way to gain new perspectives and expand your knowledge. For me this trip to Japan has reinforced the importance of using plants not only for their beauty, but the healing and physical properties they hold within their roots, leaves, blooms, and seeds. You can never have too many plants in your life.