The huge daikon radish comes out of the dark soil a lot more easily than the fledgling farmer anticipated and the momentum swiftly deposits him on his bottom. But it’s still a victory for this three-year-old city boy getting his first taste of Japan’s countryside and he grins from ear to ear as he grips his prize tightly.
The Japanese government, working with private travel companies, is keen to get foreign visitors off the well-worn “golden” route of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, not least because the soaring number of international arrivals has put a strain on accommodation in the nation’s favourite destinations.
Communities the length and breadth of the country are also looking to get a slice of the tourist pie and are polishing landmarks and attractions for the delight of foreigners. But not every town is blessed with a particularly attractive temple, a spectacular annual festival or an “onsen” natural spring with supposedly curative powers.
So towns such as Otawara (population 75,000), in the deeply rural northeast of Tochigi prefecture, a good 90 minutes by car from central Tokyo, are playing to their strengths.
Domestic travel giant JTB is marketing short-stay holidays with farming families in the town, with visitors staying in traditional farmhouses, trying the local onsen, pulling up the ingredients for the evening meal and then helping to prepare the dishes. Then, after a supremely fresh meal washed down with local sake, laying out their futons on the tatami mat floor and settling down for the night.
No fewer than 100 families in Otawara are taking part in the scheme, which is supported by the city and Japan’s agriculture ministry, with two homes specifically for tourists from overseas.
On the wall in the kitchen of Sakura House, the family home of Yoshiyuki and Keiko Ishii, are photos of visitors from India, Australia and the Philippines, while the names of tourists from as far away as Papua New Guinea and Spain are to be found in the visitors’ book. And with their sons both having grown up and moved away from the area, the Ishiis say they get a great deal of pleasure from welcoming strangers into their home and sharing Japan’s largely overlooked countryside with people who had previously considered the nation to be defined only by skyscrapers and temples.
In truth, the Ishiis’ smallholding would comfortably fit into a single large field in the industrialised farms of Britain or North America, but that is largely the way Japanese agriculture works, even today.
Seeing that their latest batch of city-slickers are woefully unprepared for mud, the Ishiis kit us out with rubber boots, gloves and wind-cheaters. And as they don’t have many three-year-old guests, Harry gets plastic bags placed over his shoes and tied above has knees. He thinks it’s a hoot.
Armed with nothing more than a wheelbarrow and a trowel, we head directly to the daikon patch, where Yoshiyuki Ishii shows us how to select the best specimens, give them a quick wobble to loosen them a little and pull them up. In a couple of moments, we have six large daikon and it’s off to the leek patch. Tug, tug, snip, snip and the barrow is beginning to fill up. The final stop is for a good selection of spinach leaves at the back of the house before we head to the well to wash off our haul.
Rising from 70 metres directly below the property, the water is cool in the summer but never icy cold, even in the depths of winter.
Ishii drops some mountain potatoes in a plastic bucket filled with water and uses a length of cedar tree to swirl them around, to get rid of the stringy outer layers, before laying the vegetables out to dry. The couple also grow rice and barley in the fields immediately around their home, and all without chemical fertilisers.
Harry, meanwhile, has spotted the tractor and drags the ever-obliging Ishii off for a drive. The other highlights of his holiday are taking Lucky the dachshund for a walk and tickling Sakura the elderly cat under her chin.
With the sun going down, the Ishiis insist we sample an onsen that is just a short car journey away and we return pink and glowing for dinner. The meal – sashimi, miso soup, oden stew, rice with vegetables and prawns, all finished off with local strawberries – is accompanied by beer and conversation, and lasts for several hours.
The Ishiis are the fourth generation of Yoshiyuki’s family to live in the house, parts of which date back 70 years. In the daylight, the plaster-over-split-bamboo construction of the walls of the barns is clearly discernible, with the single-storey home bearing all the hallmarks of a traditional farmhouse. The hearth has been covered by tatami, but the chimney that used to take the smoke out is still visible, a glassed-in verandah runs around one side of the house and the bedrooms have tatami floors and sliding wood-and-paper doors. It is quintessentially old Japan.
The following morning, after a remarkably deep sleep and a sumptuous breakfast, we go to visit Keiko Ishii’s family, who are also farmers and have a herd of award-winning cattle. We also test-ride the town’s toy railway and visit the market, alongside a thatched former farm that displays old-fashioned implements and household items, including threshing machines, a vast miso soup pot and a pair of wooden ice skates.
As the Ishiis bid us farewell and a safe journey, they won’t let us leave without at least a couple of daikon, as well as bags of leeks and spinach.
It is, they insist, merely the hospitality of the countryside.
Getting there: an attractive option would be to travel from Tokyo to Otawara by hire car. Alternatively, a taxi from Nasushiobara Station to Sakura House costs about 5,000 yen (HK$380). Bed and breakfast is 7,200 yen per adult per night and 5,100 yen for children. The shared evening meal is 2,000 yen for adults and 1,400 yen for children.