While high-level diplomacy between Bhutan and Japan is the talk of the town, less frequently highlighted is the one at the private level. Every year, more than 20 high school and college students from Bhutan, together with participants from the other SAARC member countries, are invited to a 10-day cultural exchange in Japan under the JENESYS Invitation Programme. In late November 2017, four high school students nominated from Wangdue and Trongsa were there, accompanied by the manager of the Bajo Youth Centre. They visited the Nagasaki prefecture, located in the western island of Kyushu, as well as collective orientation and debriefing sessions in Tokyo.
Because there is no Japanese Embassy in Thimphu, my staff and I myself are voluntarily following up the JENESYS Programme, visiting each ex-participant at his/her school for interviews on their experience and observation in Japan. During their stay in the Nagasaki prefecture, the four students and the Youth Centre manager visited the Nagasaki Peace Museum and learned about the devastation of the A-Bomb dropped into the city on August 9, 1945. They also attended the interactive session with Japanese high school students in Isahaya City.
Above all, they raised one place as the most unforgettable experiences during their stay. That is Omura Yume Farm Chou Chou in Omura City.
They were amazed by the taste and variety of ice creams, fruit and vegetable juices, and sweet stuff like pudding and cakes offered at the Farm. They were all original and processed inside the 2.5 acres of the farm, from the fresh eggs, milk, fruits, and vegetables procured locally. They saw an indoor farmers’ market built in the farmyard. Farm produce is always kept fresh as approximately 150 local farmers come and replace the old leftovers with fresh ones a few times a day. Consumers always want fresh foods and are concerned about who produced them. Therefore, the photos and brief profiles of the farmers are tagged to the sales items. This causes peer pressures for the local farmers to be more conscious of quality of their products.
Then what do they do with the products which are not subject to sales at the market? The Chou Chou Farm has installed an ice cream shop, a juice processing unit and a patisserie. Their gelato, Italian-style ice cream, and “Chou Chou Pudding” are made from fresh eggs and milk, and they are a big hit. The Bhutanese students also had a buffet lunch at the restaurant canopied by grape vines. All the dishes were made of local products. This restaurant is frequently used as a wedding hall, and the farm hosts matrimonial too to make boys and girls meet and decide to live together in the area. The Farm has thus emerged as one of the most popular tourism spots in Nagasaki, collecting almost 500,000 visitors a year.
The students experienced a village homestay for two nights with an elderly couple in their 60s, where the husband was a member farmer of the Chou Chou Farm. The farm also arranges the village homestay for the visitors coming from outside.
The farm is run by a farmers’ group, but farmers are not engaged only in agriculture. Combined with food processing and retailing, as well as information and hospitality services for tourists, it has a characteristic of secondary and tertiary industries. In Japan, we call it the sixth industry. The Chou Chou Farm has been regarded as one of the most successful early achievers of the sixth industrialisation to revitalise the local economy.
As is often the case with rural Bhutan now, fallow lands had already been a serious concern among the people living in the rural Japan in the 1990s. As communities became super-aged, their cultivation scaled down to the subsistence level. The local youths out-migrated and the communities came to hang in the balance. Omura was not the exception.
The community revival exercise in the Chou Chou locality started with the establishment of a village council of 40 local farmers in 1996. They studied the best practices across the country and eight farmers agreed to invest in the installation of a road-side sales counter of their products. But they still feared that the consumers might easily lose interest in their products if there was no change in the product lines. They worked on to differentiate their products from other sales counters and hence attract the passers-by to be a repeater. In 1997, they launched an ice cream shop and it received more than 1,000 fans on the first day.
They founded the Chou Chou Farm in 2000, taking loans of 400 million yen (Nu 250 million) to convert the sales counter to more comprehensive tourist attraction by adding a vineyard restaurant, a homemade bakery, and greenhouses for strawberry picking. Chou Chou Pudding was a product developed for a new patisserie added to the farm in 2005. It won the gold medal in the One Village One Supreme Product Award 2007.
More recently, the farm has been hosting the field school since 2007 for the Japanese babyboomers in their 60s to learn farming exercises and return to agriculture. This programme was instrumental in developing original shochu (Japanese ara) brands in 2008, using rice and sweet potatoes the students produced. The field school has produced more than 250 graduates. The farm has further expanded the coverage to tap the younger generations by providing hands-on experience in agriculture at the once fallow farmland.
Narumi Yamaguchi, Managing Director, says, “We pooled our own funds and lands, and borrowed JPY 400 million. It is so scary to look back at the risks we had taken. But because we did it on our own and didn’t rely easily on government subsidy schemes, we could take it seriously and come up with a great idea after another.”
The member farmers feel they have to keep the Farm attractive for repeaters. Their efforts never end.
Chief Representative, JICA Bhutan Office