‘Fermentation designer’Hiraku Ogura on the future of food culture
June 28, 2021
“Fermented foods have preserved local landscapes.”
So says Hiraku Ogura, the self-proclaimed “fermentation designer” who sings the praises of fermentation both at home and abroad. Originally an art director, he first became acquainted with the world of microorganisms after doing a design job for a maker of fermented drinks. Since then he has published books such as “Fermental Cultural Anthropology” and “Fermentation Tourism Nippon” that set off a boom in fermented foods in Japan, and in 2020 he opened Hakko Department, a shop and restaurant in Shimokitazawa that specializes in fermented foods from around the country. Ogura, an expert in modern Japanese fermentation culture, calls fermentation “a sustainable cultural mechanism that has continued for 1,300 years.”
According to Ogura, there are three reasons for this longevity. The first is that the culture of fermenting things is deeply connected to local ecosystems. “The primary ingredients in fermented foods are always the locally occurring produce. If most modern manufacturers have tended to exploit the resources of the land, fermentation is the opposite. For example, to produce the rice that is fermented to make sake or soy sauce, the quality of the local soil and water are crucial. Likewise, with sake brewing, you can’t just relocate a sake brewery to a new location, because of the countless bacteria that live within its distilleries. To make a popular sake you actually have to contribute to the agriculture and environment of the local area. Recently, organic rice is more highly valued than regular rice, and so production methods not reliant on chemical fertilizers are required. The same is true for vineyards: In regions where the people practice fermentation there will be less fallow land and the landscape will be better preserved. Fermentation is the result of repeated efforts to make the best, most sustainable use of an area’s resources.”
The second factor is the “upcycle” nature of fermentation. “Decomposition and fermentation are closely related, but fermentation uses the action of microorganisms to transform something that would otherwise be harmful to humans into something useful. For example, there is a popular deodorant called Kie~ru (https://kankyo-daizen.jp/) that actually came out of an attempt to solve a problem faced by livestock farmers. By chance, this 100 percent natural deodorant emerged as a derivative of a process involving the use of lactic acid bacteria to purify the harmful substances coming from livestock urine in Hokkaido. Fermentation techniques using the power of natural cycles like this could well be utilized in other fields as well.”
The last important point is fermentation’s deep connection with food culture, which is inherently accessible to all. “Fermentation has deep historical and philosophical connections to the land, but at the same time it is also relatable through the simple word ‘delicious!’ At my shop, some people are attracted to the philosophical element of fermentation and they buy books, but there are also many locals of all ages who come by to pick up their daily soy sauce or miso. Through the shop, I can communicate with men and women of all ages without going into the philosophy or aesthetics. When you think about it, a lot of the human rights or environmental issues now considered sustainable development goals have become difficult to discuss without a certain level of literacy and education. But with fermentation it all comes back to that physiological sense of being good to eat. And then there are the vernacular tastes that evolved independently in each region. This idea of being able to ‘participate’ in fermentation regardless of your level of understanding is another reason it has continued for so long as a culture. And that’s why it’s lasted for more than 1,300 years.”
Nowadays in Japan, the number of young fermenters of Ogura’s generation is increasing. As they explore this ancient food culture that has coexisted with the natural ecosystem for over a thousand years, they will continue to innovate, and the cultural scene surrounding fermentation will thrive and become even more interesting in the future.