Gunma’s historic heritage of sericulture
Just an-hour-and-a-half train ride from the central Tokyo takes you to a green countryside full of rice fields, wheat fields, and uniquely shaped traditional houses. When you set foot in the western Gunma Prefecture, these houses are something you will notice immediately, whose high windows are sticking out from the main structure.
If you ask a local, they will proudly tell you about the history of sericulture that prospered from the late 19th to mid 20th century in the region. Houses with those high windows belong to sericulturist families, who played an important role in the modernization of Japan by raising silk worm for exportation of silk thread. Gunma was the epicenter of the movement and now some of their remains are registered as UNESCO World Heritage.
Chizuru Shimizu’s community engagement
In the midst of such an environment where history and nature sit side by side lives a lady who endeavors to make the life of rural faming families a better one. Meet Chizuru Shimizu, a former rural livelihood extension worker for Gunma Prefecture. Rural livelihood extension workers were the core of the life improvement program implemented by the Japanese government and played a significant role in the recovery and growth of the post-war rural Japanese communities in the late 20th century. They would visit from household to household across the prefecture to talk with women in farming families, identify their challenges in their daily life, and help come up with solutions.
“We would go deep in the remote mountains to reach out to families living there,” Shimizu recounts. She and her colleagues often drove a “kitchen car” fully equipped with cooking gears to raise awareness among rural farming families about nutrition and a balanced diet. The extension workers would take the kitchen gears and condiments, and the participants would offer their crops for the activity.
Farm party: There’s no better way to celebrate harvest and friendship
Her experience of working with rural and agricultural communities for over 40 years has led her to live a self-sufficient life herself. “The food tastes so much better when you make it yourself than eating in a restaurant,” says Shimizu, and she loves to share the joy with others. She grows potatoes, onions, blueberries, oranges, figs, and a number of other vegetables and fruits in her backyard. She likes to invite her friends to harvest these crops and holds “farm parties” where she prepares meals with the freshly harvested ingredients for everyone to enjoy. “Part of my job as an extension worker was to combat malnutrition so I would often prepare meals for large groups. That’s why I’m used to cooking in large portions and I still do that.” Her care for communities and willingness to share lives on even after she left her job as an extension worker.
Her self-sufficient way of life goes beyond the food she eats. She sews, knits, designs, and builds. “An idea pops up in my mind and the next moment I’m already working on it.” She showed me tables and benches she made all by herself using old sewing machines, skis, and snowboards. “DIY sounds like a lot of work, but it actually isn’t once you get down to it.” She even designed her entire house a few years ago. “I showed my plan to an architect and was told my design was perfect,” smiles Shimizu.
A perfect place for a well-balanced life
According to Shimizu, Gunma is a great location that has both an environment that allows a self-sufficient and relaxed way of life in the countryside surrounded by nature and the ease of access to the city of Tokyo. Besides the historic heritage of sericulture, Gunma is also known for onsen (hot springs) and mountain activities such as trekking, camping, rafting, and bungee jumping. “I think Gunma is a perfect option for anyone who doesn’t want to travel too far from the city but wants to experience as much as possible.”