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Inspiration in the Field: Iida, Nagano - The Organization: Kankan Shizenmura

Founders: Kimi and Michiko Sakai

Persimmons, light up a front deck of a home in rural Iida

It is persimmon season and the dried orange balls hang on strings in the morning air outside of homes. They hang like lanterns shedding off an orange hue. It hints that we are in the country-side where food, humans, and the elements are all close to one another. Here in the mountainous belly of Honshu Island, winter air is beginning to impose its grip on the land, while the changing autumn leaves burn warm fires in the hills surrounding the town of Iida. We have driven here from Tokyo, and the instructions were something like “after the city of Suwa and a lake on the right, there will be a turn into a valley on your left. Just take that”. Sometimes directions are ambiguous and sometimes they are overly detailed…rarely are they exactly enough. These instructions were exactly enough.

The energy of giving that is Kimi Sakai

A friend of our Director Julie recommended we come to this ‘little town’ to meet two friends of hers that have an organization, Kankan Shizenmura (‘Kankan’ itself references the idea of “feeling nature with all five senses”), for over a decade that in her words, “do so much of what is needed in the world”.

And as is so often the case, food is what binds and is shared

Founded, directed, and lovingly handled by Kimi and Michiko Sakai, it is an understated organization that does little to promote itself on social media channels, or anywhere else for that matter. They are not distant shareholders but rather do absolutely ‘everything’ themselves with a small team of committed individuals. They are those who simply do and continue to do, and that doing spreads and brings youth from everywhere into their sphere of food, outdoors, and engagement.

Kimi and Michiko, we learn very quickly, are involved in all aspects of Iida life; from running the local onsen (hotspring) to running a local restaurant that is adjacent, to being completely involved in gathering youth to immerse into their relationship with nature. They are in the very truest sense of the word “engaged”. Kimi suggests that this engagement is the only way to even consider doing what they do. “It has taken us a long time to be accepted here, but we are here to stay and to try”, he says.

Julie, myself and Baz at Kankan’s ‘headquarters’ on a small bluff outside of Iida

Our days with them only intensify this sense. From walking the forests, to sipping tea in a centuries-old building of antiquity, they tie all of the capsules of time, traditions, and generations together. During a visit to their two-structure headquarters, every single piece of recycled or reclaimed furniture; their fireplace, the wooden planks that will endure winter…all of it is consistent to their philosophy of treading lightly…but treading. One of the reassuring elements to their ‘curriculum’ (if it can even be called one) is that it is loose and flexible and not rigidly tied to a philosophy that doesn’t account for the idea that humans all have something to contribute to a time and space.

At the helm and amidst it all, Kimi

Sharing with us the idea that ‘small groups are better groups’, Kankan invites us to a gathering in their backyard to celebrate and give thanks for the rice harvest. Meals are prepared and shared outdoors at a long table and every single individual – young and ‘old’ – finds their role in contributing. Before and during the meal (which includes a stew with rice…loads of rice) young learners of all ages are invited with their parents to partake, and just as importantly, speak and contribute their own ideas of being thankful.

Nothing without sharing a bit of food and time

The world of Nature isn’t ever unconnected to the afternoon, nor is there any rigid formality to emphasizing the connection. There is a natural underlying element of casual understanding of the connectedness of all.

Kimi and Michiko’s reputation has spread and it has spread the old way: by story and by those who have participated tangibly in their programs. They embody an ideal that isn’t technical or overly complex and they live their codes and words.

It is a theme on this journey thus far that Kimi, Michiko, and Kankan represent; the theme of simply living and being that which one wants to encourage. How better to provide an example.

Something Kimi says at the unfortunate end of our time there remains with me, “We can only put our efforts into encouraging; we cannot make anyone ‘do’. If we treat it like fun and family every moment, we are doing something good”.

Enough said. We’ll continue on our journeys through Japan shortly with another blog entry.

One simply has to immerse and the little lessons are right there


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