A Feast for the Senses in the Japanese Countryside

Prairie Stuart-Wolff, founder of Mirukashi Salon, takes visitors on a culinary adventure in Kyushu.


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IT’S A CLOUDLESS spring day in Karatsu, Japan, a rural coastal city on the island of Kyushu. Yellow mustard flowers bloom, and the smell of a new season permeates the air. I’m accompanying Prairie Stuart-Wolff on a foraging excursion for watercress in a local stream. She is the founder of Mirukashi Salon, a company offering intimate five-day immersive culinary and cultural experiences in the Japanese countryside that include foraging, cooking demonstrations, home-cooked meals, and visits to Japanese purveyors and restaurants. Through Mirukashi Salon, Stuart-Wolff hopes to show visitors how to live with nature and understand where ingredients come from. “Things just taste better when you’ve gone into the stream and picked it yourself. It’s also a way in which we really understand the progression of seasons. When you forage, it’s just visceral,” she says as we pull on galoshes, grab buckets, and make our way into the water. We taste as we forage, nibbling butter-soft, peppery watercress while taking in the peaceful scenery.

Fifteen years ago, Stuart-Wolff moved from New England to Karatsu to live closer to her wife’s family. “I came here with a complete blank slate,” she says. “I had no preconceived notions. And in retrospect, I’m really grateful for that because I’ve just taken everything in as it is, and I’ve developed a lot of ideas and opinions.” In order to connect with her in-laws, who only speak Japanese, Stuart-Wolff joined her mother-in-law in the kitchen, where their bond strengthened over their mutual love of cooking.



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“In the beginning,” she says, “[the family] would have these elaborate meals that went on for four or five hours. I would sit there because I couldn’t understand the conversation, and I would just taste the flavors. They were so earthy, they were so pure, they were so different from what I was familiar with. But they also really touched me. I think I came to know the culture through the flavors first.”

Stuart-Wolff started Mirukashi Salon to share what she was learning with curious travelers and food lovers. “I see a lot of travelers come here who have already developed a lot of ideas about Japan. They come looking for something that will corroborate what they already think they know about the culture. That’s great but also, in a sense, I think it makes people a little bit blind to all of the other amazing things that are available here.”

We comb through a nearby bamboo grove in search of shoots and forage fuki (giant butterbur, a plant with rhubarb-like leaves) on our drive back to the house. On the family’s property, I sample a kinome leaf from a sansho tree in the yard and am amazed by its unusual bright and earthy flavor. Later, I enjoy it on top of Stuart-Wolff’s egg custard made with egg and homemade dashi, and garnished with a preserved local cherry blossom.

Stuart-Wolff shows me how to make dashi, a common broth stock, at her in-laws’ house. The home is traditional, yet contemporary, filled with exquisite pottery. Her wife, Hanako Nakazato, who is a potter, comes from several generations of traditional Karatsu ceramicists.

“You really can’t talk about Japanese cuisine without considering the aspect of the plating and the pottery that goes along with it. They really operate as a unit,” Stuart-Wolff says. When we pay a visit to Nakazato in her pottery studio, where she creates over 10,000 handmade pieces each year, she shows off her expert throwing techniques. “We often say in Japan that the first taste happens with the eyes,” says Nakazato. “So, you see the dish presented to you, and that’s the first taste of the dish, the beauty of it.”

Next, Stuart-Wolff drives us to visit tea farms overlooking the ocean and terraced rice fields flooded in preparation for planting. We drink matcha and savor heavenly mochi at her favorite park with a view of a bay studded with islands. It’s nearing the end of sakura season, but we are fortunate to see several trees with their majestic puffs of pink and white still in bloom.


Stuart-Wolff explains that there is a growing divide between rural and urban Japanese when it comes to food. “Over 90% of the population in Japan lives in metropolitan areas, and the countryside population is aging. A lot of the flavors that you find in high-end restaurants, the flavors that are associated with Japanese food, all originate in the countryside. They get horsetail in March or bamboo shoots in April, but I think very few people understand where it comes from anymore. Very few people are in touch with the landscape. I think it’s so important to understand where our food comes from and what we need to do to care for the earth in order to make sure we can keep harvesting these things.”

Stuart-Wolff continues to seek ways to connect more deeply to the culture and to bring that knowledge back to the salon by interviewing small-batch soy brewers, tea farmers, and fishmongers and by learning to cook from local professionals. “When you’re dropped into a foreign culture, a foreign language, a foreign family, you really are just grasping for ways to root yourself. My mother was an avid gardener. Literally, the way we root ourselves is to touch the earth, to garden, to grow things, to sort of make your mark, to feel in tune with the land. And so I started gardening, and then it was really just a natural progression of wanting to connect with my mother-in-law, wanting to understand the family that I was in.”

As we sit down to eat a meal that Stuart-Wolff prepared with all the ingredients we collected throughout the day, we talk about what it means to slow down and appreciate the little things right in front of us. She says, “To be able to take a walk into the landscape, forage something, and then sit down to dinner and eat something that I literally just collected from the land a few hours earlier is the true and ultimate definition of luxury.”

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Elissa Polls Writer

Elissa Polls is the head of production for Departures. A producer who typically stays behind the scenes, she has worked with creatives from around the world, helping bring their ideas to life. Polls has over 15 years of production experience and lives in Berkeley, California.

Ian Alexander Levine Director/Editor

Ian Alexander Levine is an Oakland-based filmmaker originally from Vermont, where he was raised off-the-grid by nature-loving artists on a homestead with goats, bees, and a windmill. He got his start in music recording and production at Full Sail University before moving to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he launched his career in film. Levine’s keen sense of rhythm, awe of nature, and insatiable desire to reveal the true spirit of any given story guide his creative sensibilities as a director and editor.

Stebs Schinnerer Photographer

Stebs Schinnerer is a Bay Area director and director of photography. He specializes in documentary storytelling for commercial and editorial clients around the world.


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