Through a dusty window at Mukoyama-Kita Elementary School, you can see a chalkboard covered in pastel scribbles of Snoopy and Anpanman, the Japanese kid’s hero whose head is made out of a red bean-stuffed bun. Mustachioed former principals sternly suppress smiles from rows of faded black-and-white portraits in the office. In the gym, the flags of Japan, Miyazaki Prefecture, and the town of Takachiho hang side by side. Mukoyama-Kita Elementary closed in 2010 when it had only 15 students left. One third of schools in the town have had to shut down in the last decade due to a shrinking population.
Although a school lunch hasn’t been served here in six years, Sayomi Sakamoto is peeling vegetables in a small outbuilding next to the gym. Behind her, on a shelf above a cash register there’s a Shinto altar. A paper Buddhist charm hangs on the wall to protect against kitchen fire.
With the sleeves of her indigo kasuri blouse pushed up to the elbows and a bundle of green stalks wrapped in newspaper on the counter beside her, she holds a stem in one hand and deftly strips off a fibrous ribbon, like de-stringing celery. These are kabocha no kuki, Japanese pumpkin vines. Kabocha, smaller and sweeter than the Jack-o’-lantern kind of pumpkin, is used year-round in Japanese cooking, but most people just throw out its prickly vines. Sakamoto will stir-fry and simmer them with soy sauce, sugar and chili pepper, a variation of the classic dish kinpira.
Kabocha pumpkin and myouga, Japanese ginger. Photo by: Ellen Freeman
Her impulse to use the unwanted part of the vegetable can be ascribed to mottainai, the Japanese ethos of not letting anything—especially anything edible—go to waste. Often translated as ‘waste not, want not,’ mottainai is a phrase used by moms to get kids to scrape every grain of rice from their bowl, and it was used by Sakamoto’s husband when, three years ago, he was helping to weed Mukoyama-Kita’s overgrown school playground.
Mr Sakamoto looked up from his work to take in the view: lush trees disappearing into a river gorge, an arched bridge leading across to a storybook village, graduated layers of blue-green mountains retreating into the distance. Mottainai: what a waste of a view and a school building. “He gave me no choice but to open a restaurant here,” says Sakamoto.