It’s dinnertime at the Ogurayama Farm, and Tama-chan settles into her usual seat toward the end of the 10-seat table. The meal starts, like all meals in Japan do, with a show of appreciation to the food being served. Not a prayer to a god or a word of gratuity to the chef, but simply acknowledging the food’s existence in nature.
For Tama-chan, the ritual does not end there. She tastes the food in front of her-steamed rice, tofu, a chestnut-and her face beams with delight.
“Oishiiiiii”, she says, dragging out the word (“delicious”) with unadulterated joy, like each bite is the first she has ever tasted. This happens at every meal, and at snack time in between.
With her permanently tousled hair, dirt-stained pink zip-up sweatshirt and baggy pants that came from Charlie Chaplin’s wardrobe, Tama-chan looks like she sprung from a garden, as natural to this landscape as a suit and tie is to a city.
Her English is comparable to a 4th grade student in America, though her diction can show surprising depth: “I’m famished” or “I’m not photogenic”. This, combined with her pixie-esque sense of wonder and simple world outlook, can often result in snatches of profundity. What attracted her to farming? “I like being outside,” she said.
Born in Seoul, South Korea to a Korean mother and a Japanese father, Tama-chan (it’s formal to attach “chan” to the given name of young females in Japan) has been engaged in a work exchange program at the Ogurayama Farm in Azumino, Japan for four months. She lives with a family of five on a farm that is surrounded by the Japanese Alps, where she wears a number of hats: cook, nanny, farmhand, vital resource to foreigners.
Her 29-year path to the Ogurayama Farm has been transformative. A city girl who was always first in her class to a farm girl whose callused hands can weed an apple orchard with the hardiest of men.
Tama-chan grew up alone with her mother in a small city in Shiga Prefecture, near Kyoto. Her mother left Seoul-and Tama-chan’s father-for Japan when she was a few months old. She studied nutrition (why? “I like to eat”) at Shiga Prefecture University for four years before landing a job teaching nutrition to kindergarten students. Trouble finding work in the nutrition field led to Tama-chan testing her hand as a freelance photographer when she was 26.
Around this time, in 2012, an earthquake decimated towns across the country and resulted in the infamous nuclear incident in Fukushima. This was the first of two major turning points of her life; an event of death and destruction for many infused her with life.
Her first move was to get married. There was a man who she had met through her photography work, and at 26, Tama-chan decided it was time to get hitched, lest another catastrophe occur. It was then that she quit her photography gig and began to look toward Japan’s farms for work.
She bounced around seven farms, from Kyoto Prefecture to Nagano, when her second turning point occurred. At a guesthouse in Nagano, a ten-minute walk from Ogurayama Farm, her host showed her gentleness and open-heartedness she had never thought Japanese people capable of.
She adopted a sunnier disposition and a sense of humor that crosses cultural boundaries. As apart of her evolution, she changed her name from Miho-chan to Tama-chan, and ended her marriage of three years.
The man she married was 42, and “not a good person”. So why did she marry him? “I was not a good person”, she says. It’s hard to believe that this woman-who sits cross-legged at night while brushing her teeth to gaze at the stars and treats an apple like it’s a newborn child-was once, as she described, “not a good person”.
“My heart was closed,” she tells me, forming a heart with her fingers and then crushing the heart with her fist. Her mother never supported the marriage, and it was a decision she looks back on with the hindsight of a woman who finally knows who she is and what she wants. “Now I’m free”, she said.
Tama-chan, the girl who cooks a mean tofu stir-fry, who takes midday naps in a field of tall grasses, who says “thank you very much” when you show her a picture of your dog, is wise well beyond her years.
It’s a running joke at the Ogurayama Farm that she is a mountain spirit that has been alive for centuries, in control of weather patterns and the future. She has a crystal ball on a desk in her room, lending a shred of credibility to this theory.
With a toothy smile and a shrug of her shoulders, Tama-chan brushes aside any compliment of her wit and wild theories about her origins. “I know nothing!” she exclaims. But that’s far from the truth.