A field of dreams and swans in Sendai, Japan

February 2, 2012

Nanohana miso soup

In downtown Sendai, the biggest city hit by the earthquake and tsunami last year, you can't see any signs of the destruction that my cabbie said hit every single street corner. Unless you look closely. He points out a few modern, mid-rise buildings — that look like they're plucked off Daley Plaza — completely Christo-wrapped in graphite grey construction tarp.

Back to business as usual, it seems, with a 24-hour FamilyMart convenience store behind my hotel, where I pick up a late night snack of a Häagen-Dazs green tea ice cream sandwich, a Muji green tea waffle, and a hot can of Fauchon matcha latte.

Nanohana seeds

But drive half an hour to the coast and there's nothing, but a few stands of bare, leaning trees and concrete building foundations. The tsunami swept in over four miles — think Navy Pier to the United Center. You might remember videos of the water and debris hitting Sendai airport washing planes through buildings.

Just up the road, which was packed at that time with a traffic jam of people trying to escape, are rice paddies and fields, covered in fresh snow.

I've arrived at one of the sites of the Nanohana Project (nanohana means "canola blossom"), whose current mission is to restore farmland after the sea water left a layer of salty sediment. As we pull up, Assistant Professor Michiaki Omura, the Tohoku University's agricultural science expert who's running the project, says, "There they are!" He's spotted for the first time the flock of wild swans that have been eating his plants, who've only left behind white feathers. The birds had not been known to eat canola plants, but he guesses they do now because of their lack of food. There are no nanohana plants now, but the swans gather on his one single field nonetheless.

Nanohana leavesThe project has actually been in existence formally for over a decade, researching the best and most complete use of the canola seeds, plant, and blossom — from food to oil and even biodiesel fuel. Their seed bank dates back even further, over 60 years. It's the only canola seed bank in the world, and they're now able to use it to determine which seeds will grow best in current soil conditions, as well as best help restore the land in the process. Professor Omura said that surprisingly, what they're finding is that after the salty topsoil is removed, the soil below is actually better than before the tsunami, he believes from the nutrient-rich seabed sediment.

The Nanohana Project has also become part of a larger volunteer effort of graduate school professors who decided to use their fields' expertise to actively help local farmers get back to growing food.

Nanohana bowl

"Usually professors only think about concepts, but we think we should really work to help the people," said Professor Yutaka Nakai, Vice Dean of Tohoku University Graduate School of Agricultural Science and an animal science expert. "The government thought 'farmers need money, so let's pay them to clean their fields.' But this is not farmers' work. Farmers work to produce food. We thought we should help."

They started with a "2-6-2" factor.

"Twenty percent of the farmers have already started to work again. Sixty percent are still thinking about what they should do. Twenty percent have quit."

"We should help the sixty percent."

In a university greenhouse, Professor Omura used the nanohana that the swans were waiting for, in a hot bowl of miso soup. A hearty yet velvety wintry green, crisp and slightly bitter, it's a taste of the season to come.