Driving northwest out of Tokyo, the city’s busy mishmash of buildings gives way to lush, rolling hills and fields. A sign for a chain restaurant springs up out of the farmland on the outskirts of town. Arriving among a strip of vacant storefronts on the main street, this scene resembles any other rural community in Japan.

With a population of around thirty thousand, the town of Ogawa, Saitama has not been immune to the decline that has hollowed rural areas across the country. For decades, young people have been flocking to large urban centers such as Tokyo and Osaka for higher education and employment, leaving behind an aging and shrinking population in the countryside. Yet in the face of this existential threat, Ogawa has seen an influx of newcomers — some just visiting and others here to stay.

In the last few years, a natural wine producer, a craft brewery, and two curry restaurants — one hailing from Tokyo’s trendy Shimokitazawa neighbourhood — have set up shop here. Another new spot has quite a history. A former learning center for sericulture (silk farming) dating back to 1888 has recently transformed into Gyokuseisha, a facility that houses an organic restaurant, cafe, wine bar, and select shop.

I’m here to meet Takehiko Yanase at People, his quaint store and cafe inside a renovated storehouse in the complex. As my unofficial guide to Ogawa, he’s going to show me around this changing town and introduce me to a couple of residents who he believes embody the future of the community.

Gyokuseisha: where silk farmers once trained, locals now gather at this reimagined cultural hub.

The Connector

With his athletic frame, gruffy facial hair, and wavy bun, Yanase could easily be mistaken for a hipster in the Pacific Northwest. He speaks with a deliberate and eloquent rhythm as he talks about how he ended up here in Ogawa. A native of Tokyo, Yanase first visited the town in his early 20s to participate in a washi-making workshop. As luck would have it, he also met his now-wife Natsumi on that trip. But it would be seven years before he returned to settle down in the area.

After quitting his full-time advertising job in Tokyo and establishing his own copywriting practice, Yanase started searching for another place for him and Natsumi to put down roots and begin a long-term passion project. Travelling across the country for his work expanded his interest in rural communities. “Not only did each region have its own distinct local culture, I enjoyed seeing how close people were — especially compared to Tokyo — as well as being surrounded by many individuals with diverse, specialized talents,” he says.

Takehiko Yanase, proprietor of People.

When Yanase returned to Ogawa, he came away with the impression that the town had great potential. “While Ogawa lacks many popular stores or a particularly beautiful landscape, I thought it was a place where you could freely do what you wanted by taking initiative. Somewhere that was very conducive to experimentation,” he says. “Ogawa is very small, so after many visits, I began to meet people here from different walks of life — but who all shared a similar mindset of creating something here.”

Yanase saw an opportunity to join a renewal project for Gyokuseisha, a disused sericulture training and dyeing facility that was an important historic landmark for the town. Warashibe, a locally-run organic restaurant, moved into the building and brought together designers, local businesses, and townspeople to rebuild and reimagine the gathering place. Yanase directed the branding and wrote the copy for the project. He took over the storehouse area in the complex, and after two years of renovations, People opened its doors in 2019.

The entrance and bar space at People: the space’s brand identity is an homage to Gyokuseisha’s past in sericulture and dyeing.

Serving as a cafe, boutique, restaurant, and event venue, People is a hub for residents and visitors of Ogawa to foster new relationships. The idea of connecting interesting individuals is the intent behind the store’s name. “Compared to reading books or watching movies, I get more inspiration from meeting and talking with people,” Yanase explains. “I decided to open a shop not only to get to know new people personally, but also to create a space for serendipity and community.” 

For Yanase, Ogawa’s wealth of organic produce is a compelling way to bring people together. He organizes a monthly farm-to-table pop-up restaurant at his shop, where guest chefs from Tokyo work with neighbouring farms to create original menus that change according to the seasonal ingredients available. With several friends from Saitama and Tokyo, Yanase runs the Ogawa Edible Garden Club. There is little to no space in the city to cultivate their own food. Here on the land behind the store, the group collectively maintains plots of fruits, vegetables and herbs.

Growing produce is tough work, but Yanase finds support from his neighbours in the community. A good friend of his is a farmer who often supplies the restaurant and shares gardening advice with the club — Yanase is taking me to meet him.

The Ogawa Edible Garden Club: a community garden where Yanase and friends from the city grow their own vegetables in Ogawa.

Into the fields

During our short drive south, Yanase gives me a quick primer on the geography and history of Ogawa, which means “small river” (小川). Surrounded by the lush Outer Chichibu mountains, the town is nestled in the confluence of the cool, clean waters of the Tsuki and Kabuto Rivers. The region’s rich natural resources enabled the production of sake, silk, wooden partitions known as tategu, and somen — thin wheat noodles often served with a dipping sauce. Most famously, Ogawa is known as the hometown of washi hand-crafted Japanese paper. The rise of these traditional industries fuelled Ogawa’s growth from the Edo to the Meiji period in the early 17th to early 20th centuries.

However, as the demand for these traditional products decreased in modern times, Ogawa experienced a steady decline. People moved to cities for better job prospects, and the population shrank from its peak of almost 38,000 in 1995 to just under 30,000 in 2020. Despite this downturn, the town has become a model for organic agriculture in Japan thanks to the efforts of local farmers. Shimosato Farm, a pioneer in the movement, has been teaching trainees here for over four decades — many of their students have gone on to settle down in the area, including Yanase.

The Seiun Shuzō sake distillery prides themselves on using rice and washi from Ogawa in their products (top). Shimosato Farm is a pioneer of organic agriculture in the area (bottom).

We pull up in front of a humble farm stand and Gaku Yokota greets us, sporting a wide-brimmed North Face boonie hat and a warm smile. He asks how the drive from Tokyo was, and his friendly vibe makes me feel immediately at ease — as if we have known each other for years.

Yokota is part of a growing cohort of farmers in Ogawa who are bridging the city and countryside through organic food and sustainable agriculture. Together with his parents and younger brother, they manage over five hectares of verdant farmland that include greenhouses, rice paddies, vegetable fields, and animal pens. Yokota Farm supplies vegetables to a range of customers from individual households to restaurants in Tokyo.

After a stint in the big city studying software engineering, Yokota left the hustle and bustle behind and returned to the familiar fields of his home. He came to find renewed purpose in his farmwork and with his contrasting experience of city life, he began to imagine the possibilities for him in taking on an outreach role. On a mission to spread awareness and advocate for organic agriculture, he often travels across Japan to personally visit his clients and speak at events. He also documents his daily life in and out of the fields and organizes workshops throughout the year on sustainable farming, harvesting rice and soybeans, and making miso.

Gaku Yokota of Yokota Farm.

“While it is important for those of us working in the same field to stick together, we also need to reach outwards into the mainstream and introduce people to the importance of organic agriculture and sustainability — starting with something as simple as eating healthy food that is good for you,” he says.

Yokota’s endeavours are especially timely as growing interests towards personal health and the environment encourage people to learn about life on the land. A major attraction for the region is the Ogawa Organic Fes, where he has participated as a speaker and exhibitor since its inception in 2014. An annual celebration of food, music, and entertainment, the event is a great opportunity to reach an audience that would not come to the town otherwise. While most people initially visit Ogawa because of their interest in organic agriculture, many also gain an appreciation for the qualities of small-town life. “As someone whose family has been farming the land here for generations, I feel that a lot of people who come here from outside Ogawa recognize its appeal, allowing locals to also rediscover the merits of our hometown,” says Yokota.

Unlike typical commercial farms, Yokota Farm harvests over 50 different types of vegetables throughout the year.

About thirty years ago when Yokota Farm switched from conventional to organic agriculture, there were only five or six farms in the surrounding area doing the same. Today there are more than thirty. Yokota recalls that the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 was a major trigger for this increase. Soon after the disaster, the number of agricultural trainees grew, including a notable number of younger folks without farming backgrounds.

“Our world goes through cycles of boom and bust. During boom times, the number of trainees dwindles, but when times get tough, they increase. A big part of sustainable agriculture involves a long-term, incremental process of learning how to work with vegetables and Mother Nature. Maybe people who have experienced failures or setbacks in their past gravitate towards organic agriculture, as they realize these experiences are actually what’s most important to life,” he says.

Yokota credits the new residents like Yanase with breathing life into his hometown, bringing with them a boost to business and perhaps eventually, renewal. “Compared to before, my generation knows what life is like both in Tokyo and the countryside. So as times change, I feel like there are more and more people here now with a balanced mindset towards rural and urban life. With these outside perspectives, locals now are able to look at our home and reimagine its potential — in turn creating something new here, together.”

Yokota driving his Mametora power tiller and trailer, which we rode into the fields.

From the workshop floor

Our next stop is tucked inside a residential area on the north side of town. As we drive down a laneway, we find ourselves in a giant lot with several large, nondescript, hangar-like structures that contain offices, materials, and woodworking machines. This is the scene of a few budding collaborations. “Where we are now, I always show up with friends out of the blue without an appointment, saying ‘hey it’s me again …’ this time I actually reserved in advance,” laughs Yanase.

He introduces us to Kazuki Kasahara, the CEO of Sentido. Kasahara's full-service studio manages the manufacturing process of wooden furniture and products from beginning to end. With six full-time employees, they handle design, material procurement, production, delivery, and sales. The bulk of their time is spent working with design studios to create made-to-order furniture for projects in the Greater Tokyo Area. Recently they collaborated with Kengo Kuma and Associates on the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Stadium.

Hair neatly gelled and polo collar upturned, Kasahara looks like he’d be just at ease in the workshop as in the boardroom. Pacing around in a brightly-lit, well-organized office filled with large technical drawings, he runs through a long list of project ideas. Now in his early 40s, Kasahara moves with the energy of someone ten years younger, but speaks in a measured, understated manner that points to years of experience and wisdom.

Kazuki Kasahara, CEO of Sentido.

“Ogawa’s location makes it a very ideal location for manufacturing and craftsmanship,” says Kasahara. The proximity to the mountains allows businesses to purchase lumber at an affordable price, the rent is low compared to more populated areas nearby, and the convenient access by car or public transit makes it easy for clients to visit. All these factors enable his company to focus less on the operational costs to stay afloat and more on the quality of their craft.

Kasahara is the fourth-generation owner of a family business with over 60 years of history. Originally, the business consisted of sawing and supplying lumber. They expanded into the production of exterior shutters known as amado and then shifted to tategu, the wooden partitions and doors common in old Japanese homes.

Over the years, each generation redefined the focus of the business in order to meet changing needs and lifestyles in Japan. Kasahara is no exception. When he took over the business a decade ago, he decided to completely cease tategu production and instead focus on making furniture, thereby integrating his own management philosophy with his family’s generational knowledge, skills, and resources.

The production area at Sentido.

Rather than shokunin, the traditional Japanese title for artisans, Kasahara refers to his craftsmen as “creators” (クリエイター), an empowering term that implies breaking free from the old way of doing things and instead being flexible in thinking and approach. For him, the furniture-making process is a vehicle for thinking broadly about the relationship between work, personal growth, and happiness.

“My goal is not just to increase sales, but to focus on how we can develop people,” he explains. “In the previous generation, the craftsmen did not leave the workshop and focused only on making products according to the technical drawings. By diversifying to provide a more holistic array of services, [...] they are exposed to different worlds and can grow as people. Enjoying life is very important, but a prerequisite of that is growth, both on a personal level and within a community.”

This open-mindedness and vision stands out to Yanase as a crucial foundation. He’s connecting Kasahara with a Tokyo-based art collective as part of his long-term goal to bring together the city’s creatives with Ogawa’s traditional craftsmen, farmers, and makers. “If we can successfully connect people from both places, something new — whether it is a new product or project — can emerge, something both sides really want to do. It would be great to become a bridge between the two.”

Yanase and Kasahara discussing plans and projects.

The prototyping town

We wrap up the tour back at People, where Tokyo-based designer and illustrator Michiko Ariji is hosting an intimate farm-to-table dinner in the space. Tonight’s feature is a chicken cacciatore made with freshly harvested summer vegetables. Guests from near and far have come to hang out over some good food. An interior designer, a banker, and an editor are mingling around the bar. Yokota and Kasahara also swing by for a few drinks. Yanase is in his element — he floats from one conversation to the next, making connections as he keeps the drinks flowing.

People hosts monthly farm-to-table dinners. Guest chef Michiko Ariji cooks up a storm (top). The Yanases chat with their guests (bottom).

Despite the increase in visitors and newcomers, Ogawa’s renewal is still very much a work in progress. Beyond its long-standing tradition of craftsmanship and agriculture, Ogawa mainly functions as one of many commuter towns, which are all competing for people and resources in the Greater Tokyo Area. For rural areas seeking revitalization, finding the right strategy has been tricky. Top-down initiatives championed by governments and large companies often bring a funding boost, but may struggle to sustain long-term benefits for the community.

After hearing many of the residents talk about the town’s positive changes in the last few years, I can sense that Ogawa is on the cusp of something special. The town seems to be growing in an organic, diverse way that is rooted in the cross-pollination of ideas between government, industry and local community. No one knows exactly what its future will look like, but I believe that Ogawa has the right ingredients to attract the dreamers and doers who can reimagine the town together.

The view of Ogawa from atop Mt. Sengen.

“I imagine Ogawa as kind of a ‘prototyping’ town — a place for trial and error where you can put your thoughts into shape before inspiration leaves you,” Yanase muses. “What I want to try next is to integrate farming more in my daily work. Imagine waking up and heading to the fields, harvesting vegetables, and then coming back in the afternoon to do some office work on the computer.”

Perhaps in a few years, Ogawa will have grown into a community built around prototyping ideas and monozukuri — a Japanese concept for the spirit of “making things”. Maybe when I return to Yokota’s farm, I will find a group of schoolchildren from Tokyo harvesting the daikon radishes they planted earlier in the season. At Sentido, artists might be building giant sculptures for the inaugural Ogawa Wood Festival. And after a long day of work, the regulars in town would gather at People to try the latest dish of the day from the new chef-in-residence program.

I know that I will be back soon, next time with a shovel and gardening gloves. ▲