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Food for Thought

February 9, 2013

By Alena Eckelmann

“We are what we eat”, or so the saying goes.

Dietary advisors and other well-meaning authorities keep pointing out that our well-being greatly depends on what we put on our plates and in our stomachs. We hear what they say, yet most of us do not really listen.

Living in Tokyo I thought that I did well by buying a salad from the convenience store or opting for vegetables whenever there was such a choice on the menu. I ate out a lot and rarely did I cook at home. The justification? My busy lifestyle. I was simply too busy with work, projects and meeting people to properly cater for myself.

Besides, eating out in Tokyo was so convenient and entertaining. Such a huge variety of different types of cuisine . The nearest eating place just a couple of minutes walk away. And affordable, with the price of dishes beating the daily drag of having to go food shopping and spending time in too small a kitchen to put something together as quickly as possibly to fill the stomach. My partner came home late every weekday; so what was the point of cooking for the two of us? Inevitably I ate alone, watching his portion getting cold.

What’s more, I only knew the food from the point it arrived on my plate at the restaurant or the moment I picked it up from the grocery store. I hardly ever enquired where it was from and how it was produced.

This changed with the Fukushima disaster.

I began looking for labels that showed the prefecture of origin when I bought fresh produce. As for eating out at restaurants, I  was left with an anxious and even guilty conscience, at least until the food arrived.

After moving to Kumano,  the real change occurred.

Here in Wakayama Prefecture, my nearest convenience store is 20 km distant, or a 45 minute drive away. The nearest restaurant is 3 km away, a “michi-no-eki” (station outlet) that is open from 10am to 5pm. There are a couple of restaurants catering to tourists in the nearby town but they also close on bang 5pm. My nearest grocery store is an A Coop (co-op) store about 3 km away. It is the size of your typical “convini” and stocks the basics, and even some lunchbox “bento” and “onigiri” (rice balls)  for a quick snack during the day. No chance anywhere really for a quick breakfast on-the-go in the morning, or eating out for dinner in the evening.

However, next to my house is a field big enough for growing vegetables. So this is what I began to do.

In spring I planted potatoes, carrots, cucumber, tomato, rocket salad and they all grew well. In autumn I sowed Japanese radish and “mizuna”, a sort of greens, and they also prospered. There I was with all the veggies I needed waiting to be harvested.

“Old habits die hard” – yet another old saying, and oh so true.

Tokyo’s eating style had left its imprint; for a while after moving I was constantly trying to find reasons for eating out. But in my new environment  it soon became clear that this did not work. For a while I sensed resistance, but now everything is different.

My partner comes home as soon as work is finished. No overtime, no socializing with clients or colleagues around here. Instead, everyone is eager to get back home to their families and to follow their hobbies after work.

So I have started cooking dinner for us using homegrown vegetables, supplemented by others from neighbours. I’ve discovered that cooking is fun; also I enjoy spending time with my partner eating dinner together and talking about the day. I chat a lot with other villagers too about growing vegetables and cooking healthy meals.

The change of circumstances has prompted a whole new attitude to eating and I’m glad that I took the broad hint and have changed from being merely a food consumer to becoming a food producer, albeit just for our own use.

Many good things have come out of this change: healthy eating, knowledge of foods, food production and usage and new cooking skills; an improved communication and sense of connection with my partner; great rapport with the local neighborhood.

Whether it is due to better food and eating habits, or an improved emotional state of happiness, I’m not sure,  but I do feel good in my body and my mind, and I’m ready to explore more.

What are the local herbs that I can grow, what is out there in the forest and meadows that can be used? Is there anything else that I can produce with my hands? What do the plants and animals tell us about living in harmony with nature and with our fellowmen.

I wonder whether I would have made this transition to what I consider a healthier and happier me if I hadn’t moved.

Did the change of location and embracing the new external conditions do the trick?

Alena Eckelmann reports monthly on how her life is changing after moving to the mountains to pursue spiritual development and escape the nuclear threat of Fukushima. This is the third installment. See here for part one and here for part two.


About the author: Alena Eckelmann grew up in East Germany, and it has been change and transition ever since the Berlin Wall came down. She took up Southeast Asian studies without having ever been in Asia. Thanks to some scholarships, she spent over a year in Vietnam. Next she went to London to learn English from scratch with no money in her pocket but then made London her home for nine years. She worked herself up the corporate ladder to manager position and executive training in Japan before changing direction and embarking on full-time aikido and weekend taiko training. Alena has been working freelance as a writer and researcher in Japan for several years now with second thoughts twice, which took her back to the corporate sector in Tokyo. Currently she lives in the Kumano Mountains where she tries to ‘do less and be more’ while pursuing journalistic, touristic and spiritual projects. You can find her on Facebook and LinkedIn.
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