The Girl Who Knows Nothing

Tama-Chan harvesting tomatoes
Tama-chan harvesting tomatoes

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.

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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.

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Chestnuts & Cigarettes

On the dash of the nameless Japanese woman’s car sat a box of tissues with a picture of a cat printed on the front. Two packs of nicotine gum were in a small compartment underneath the radio unit. On the floor-a forgotten carton of Lark cigarettes, the contents spilling out with each bump in the road.

Panting nervously in the passenger seat was a rodent looking dog with beady black eyes and fur that probably hadn’t been washed in ages. Michael and I were packed in the backseat, our knees nearly hitting our chest with each sharp turn.

We were on our way back from a hike up the Japanese Alps in the Azumino valley, a farming town 300 kilometers north of Tokyo, in Nagano prefecture.

It was a two-hour hike up the deep green peak, and it was 11 o’clock in the morning when we began our descent. Sometime close to 11:15am, a dusty blue sedan pulled up to us, and a chestnut haired woman of fifty or so poked her head out.

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After some hand charades and unintelligible grunts on both sides, we concluded that she was offering us a ride down.

There was one catch, however. What had she been doing on the mountain to begin with? She and her dog had come to the mountain seeking chestnuts. In exchange for a ride down, we would be her harvest partners.

After a two-minute ride in her car, which smelled like cigarettes and wet dog, she pulled up to a small clearing off the main road and signaled for us to unload.

Her dog Haku (meaning “white”), looked on through the open passenger side window as the three of us soundlessly collected chestnuts. Midway through our mission, she showed us how to peel a chestnut, and attempted to explain a chestnut recipe that involved rice and salt. A few confused minutes later, we dumped what we had in a small pink grocery bag that she held out, and packed back into the car.

The remaining five minutes of the ride were bumpy and silent, our language barrier preventing us from any small talk. She would ask us a question here and there in Japanese, and we would respond with a quizzical look and a nervous giggle.

Her mud caked fingernails, cat-print tissue box and malnourished dog might have screamed “ax murderer” elsewhere, but here in the Japanese countryside, where strangers bow to each other with respect, she was an anonymous old lady looking for chestnuts.

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