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無来人(2): Huyen & Dan （シリコンバレーで働く夫婦）
A subtle silence came over the train car. Flat, snow-covered rice fields blanketed the landscape outside the train, adorned by rounded, pearly-white cliffs that welcomed an enthusiastic group of local passengers who couldn’t help but attempt to capture this natural beauty on their smartphones. We were en route to Aizuwakamatsu.
Growing up in Hanoi, Vietnam, I used to sneak Vietnamese-translated manga books under the covers, dreaming of visiting Japan one day. It was my second trip back to Japan this time, with my last time here being over 10 years ago. For my partner, Dan, it was his first. I was thrilled for him to finally see the country that I’ve told him so much about, and to meet Kota.
Kota and I first met at Princeton in Beijing, an intensive summer program for college students focused on Chinese language study. We quickly became good friends because I was drawn to Kota’s thoughtfulness and his willingness to question the norms of our society, always forging a path that was true to himself. At the time, his academic pursuits seemed to be leading him in a different direction, and I never would have guessed that he would find his way to farming. Seeing him pursue this new path with such dedication and enthusiasm is truly inspiring.
As we approached Aizuwakamatsu, we were greeted by snow-capped mountains in the horizon and the white vastness of rice fields, dotted by tiny little houses. Upon arriving at the train station, a sense of tranquility came over us, amidst the slightly chilly winter afternoon. Kota picked us up from the station and we enjoyed soba for lunch before driving to Munokai.
As soon as we stepped into Noriko-san and Kojima-sensei’s home, we were greeted by the most delicious smells of amazake, fermented foods, Hiroshima shrimps, and home-grown sauteed vegetables. We felt welcomed and embraced by the warmth and love that Kojima-sensei’s family showed us. Nestling under the kotatsu, we had a long chat with Kojima-sensei, who shared with us the farm’s philosophy of minimizing waste and creating a diverse and healthy soil ecosystem through the use of organic methods, and letting the crops grow in a way that is in harmony with nature.
After dinner, we visited the local onsen. It was Dan’s first time trying an onsen, and we both thoroughly enjoyed the experience. We had the best sleep in months and woke up to the smell of breakfast, which turned out to be a feast. The freshness and delicious taste of the food reflected the philosophy that Kojima-sensei and his family lived by—that the quality of the food is inextricably linked to the health of the environment.
Dan had previously managed organic farms in California and Ohio, and was excited to see the Munokai farm in the daylight. Kojima-sensei gave us a tour of the farm and showed us his compost piles, rice fields, and greenhouse. The strawberries in the greenhouse were some of the tastiest we had ever tried. It was clear that Kojima-sensei and his family were passionate about their work and cared deeply about their land and the environment.
We were sad to leave and did not want to go back to Tokyo. Before we left Aizuwakamatsu, we made sure to buy some local sake that we hoped to share with friends and family. Saying goodbye to the mountains and the land that had been farmed for over 3,000 years was bittersweet, but we knew that we would be back. Our visit to Kojima-sensei’s farm was a reminder of the importance of sustainable farming practices and the power of community and hospitality.
On the way out of town, Kota shared with us his and Kojima-sensei’s future plans and vision for the farm and community. We were inspired by Kota’s passion and mission to bring young people back to the countryside to learn about sustainable agriculture. We felt grateful for the opportunity to be invited into Kojima-sensei’s home—their way of life and dedication to the environment had made us think more deeply about our own values and priorities. We realized that family, community, and nature were at the core of our purpose and being, and that we wanted to be more connected with these elements in our lives.
As we drove back to Tokyo, we made a promise to ourselves to support Kota and Kojima-sensei’s work in any way we could. We left the farm with a sense of fulfillment and gratitude, knowing that we had witnessed something special. Our time at Munokai was short, but we left with our hearts and minds full. Munokai is not just a place, it’s a movement: a movement towards a more sustainable and connected future.