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Inspiration in the field: Life Farming Camp in Nozawa-Onsen

Inspiration in the field that we at Akahiao love and try to immerse in is vital. Other methods, ideas, and spaces always serve to broaden our own context and inspire how we do what we do and how we might evolve or tweak elements. And so, we too must spread a little and wander to find other organizations both near and far from ‘home’, both to collaborate with and to simply admire and share.

Our little ‘home’ that is supported, sheltered, and made possible by the forest that surrounds us

This autumn Julie, baby Baz, and I, have all arrived in Japan and one of our first stops is the Life Farming Camp based in Nagano’s village of Nozawa Onsen. Known for a frisky snow season of enormous white powder falls and the famed spring-fed water that feeds the town’s hot springs, drinking water fountains, and the Chikuma River, it is a place where bears roam and mushroom gathering is sacred (and to a large extent ‘kept’ secret). In short, it is a rural heaven that still lives according to what Nature dictates.

One of the little farm plots resting just outside of the forest

Our visionary host, Takahiro-san - and his sculpted beard - and son welcome us to his vision of life: locally-sourced foods, a reverence for the ‘old’ and sustainable ‘Sato Yama’ (mountain foraging) philosophy, and a spectacular wooden framed set of ‘decks’ set out in the forest. Takahiro-san’s vision, called Life Farming Camp, has taken time to create; time to convince locals what he is doing pays them tribute rather than redirecting any of their ways, and time to actually build (and maintain) structures that will stand after successive winters that come with a special force. Time too, to convince city dwellers to visit and embed (even if only briefly) in an alternative and sustainable pace. None of this is lost upon us as we arrive to this beacon of natural living. It isn’t about changing people’s minds through explanations and theories – it is about showing people ‘how’ one might live through tangible and immersive examples.

The camp has been structured so as not to injure the trees, while using their foundation to keep the entire body of the camp above the forest floor. Tent dwelling homes sit on platforms surrounded by coniferous trees a hundred feet high and a dining table is a long structure encouraging communal meal times.

Detail of Farming Life Camp within the woods just outside of Nozawa Onsen

Food is prepared by a local chef who knows and uses local gardens that lie just beyond where we tent. Only foods that are local, within the season, and of minimal ‘manipulation’ are served up. It brings back something my grandmother used to say, “If it isn’t in season or from the region, don’t eat it”.

Part of an entirely locally sourced (and in season) meal that fed far more than the belly

Takahiro-san waxes lyrical about the quality of the local rice from Iiyama and urges us, whenever possible, to “attack” the bowls provided to us. He has embraced this part of Japan which is less than two hours by Shinkansen outside of Tokyo and as he describes it, the place calls him back again and again…and now it replenishes him.

We accompany a ‘mushroom guru’ of the town, Akihiro-san, through a forest on the verge of winter. For Julie and I, any place that is laden with mushrooms, as this region is, is close to a mecca of sorts. Akihiro-san speaks technically, poetically, and lovingly of the region and the forests in particular, and at one point imparts a little trinket of local lore. It speaks to the fact that bears most often attack (and perhaps prefer) men foragers, as it is they who keep the secrets and forage alone, making them prime targets. Local women apparently forage in a loud and vociferous posse, which keep the big animals at bay.

Julie and Sebastian with the incomparable Akahiro-san of mushroom fame

Takahiro-san isn’t someone who thinks that anyone and everyone can move to the country, but he believes adamantly that all should be aware of the innate sustainability of living closer to the land and its seasons, and revering the natural world. He works with local shop owners, baristas, and farmers; he employs a student of economics “who returned from the city to be back amidst the trees”. Takahiro-san is one of those alchemists who amalgamates a kind of ‘greatest hits’ of committed participants who believe in a more connected world where humans and nature intersect and infuse eachother.

Our little families drink from Springs, which run open throughout the town. Beneath a 250-year old Zen temple, we walked past a set of hot spring pools only for local use to boil vegetables and eggs.

Sebastian fills a thermos with water from one of many publicly accessible springs within the village of Nozawa Onsen…or at least he ‘attempts’ to fill that thermos

Snow and winter would coming and during our morning of departure, there were the telltale wafts of snow in the air. The hints are strong that it wouldn’t be long at all before another winter of skiing and a restorative time when all is under a blanket of white.

Julie speaks to the joy of knowing that here “the seasons are distinct, and they still matter”. We clear out before anything white appears from the sky, knowing full-well that we will return.


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