Nama Yasai

Literal translation
‘raw vegetables’

Words by Matthew Hook
Illustrations by Spencer Wilson
    There's rarely a spare seat at the counter in Soho's Koya bar. Thick, Udon noodles are endlessly slurped, rice and tempura dishes fuel the Soho public, going back to work full steam or powering through that last big window shop. The throng continues in a steady stream from early breakfast into the night, and the queue is very nearly a complete cross-section of the neighbourhood on any given day, all with heads buried deep in a bowl of hot soup like exalted pilgrims. 

    Office types on a rushed lunch break rub shoulders with hungry tourists, newbies sent there by friends or apps, and the veterans, those customers that have mastered the menu, who come alone to squeeze past a naïve party of six and into a narrow spot at the counter. They know there's magic to be had on the daily specials board, though it can be daunting for some, the list tends to feature a few things you’ll not have heard of, and you would be forgiven for your ignorance, as some of them are strangers to British shores.

    Koya has a small farm in Sussex to thank for these exotic foodstuffs. Nama Yasai (literal translation “raw vegetables,”) is the passion project of Robin Williams and Ikuko Suzuki, a duo with a few green acres just outside the town of Lewes, where they have made their family. They’ve supplied Koya bar, and it’s gone-but-not-forgotten older sister Koya for years. Since 2004 the pair have turned their wits to growing their Japanese produce in English soil, and they’ve grown something more than a few exotic novelties, they’ve built a model for what can be achieved with some good dirt and thoughtful farming.

Japanese aubergine (Nasu)

    I arrive early on the fast train from London, Robin and his gang of assistants – mostly student volunteers here to soak up some of the agricultural insight– have already been out in the field since the little hours, on their knees pulling weeds from a few rows of Tayberries. The conversation is deep into the subtler points of weed prevention, growing things being a constant hot topic out in the field.

    I manage to pull Robin away from swinging around his giant scythe for a tour of the farm. We take a stroll through the fields, look over a few mulberry trees in the test phase, still years away from letting on whether it was all worth it. There are wild sloes, rosehips, rowanberries and blackberries, happy additions to a farm that celebrates independent plants. Kabocha pumpkins grow in a mad sprawl. There are no carefully manicured hedgerows here. Plants are allowed to grow as they want if last years crop starts to self-seed and sprout in other parts of the field, why not let it? .

“even with all the research literature in the world, working in tandem with the natural world can be as predictable as a bad night at the casino”


    Robin reassures me “It’s a bit of a mish-mash, but it is deliberate, it keeps costs down and helps with diversity,” biological diversity is key to Robin's vision, working towards a constant balancing act between the many hundreds of actors on his farm. In the sticky air of the greenhouses are growing Nasu (Japanese aubergine), negauri (bitter melon, and worth a Google image search), Yuzu trees and a host of experiments and companion plants. They have no direct financial value but serve to keep up that biological diversity to get natural systems to do the job that fertilisers and pesticides have subsumed in conventional agriculture. It maintains a semi-natural semblance of an ecosystem, keeping wasps, bees and other buddy insects around and staving off infestations of anything with too much of an appetite, in a practice known as conservation biological control. Marigold, dotted around the greenhouse, is for example aphid kryptonite, at least in principle. Robin is quick to point out, however, that even with all the research literature in the world, working in tandem with the natural world can be as predictable as a bad night at the casino. The best way to accomplish it is to get to know your land, find out what will work in it.

    Robin used to work in I.T, it treated him well and afforded him the chance to take on Nama Yasai in 2004. Despite the apparent contradiction of a tech guy in an empty field, Robin found a use for his methodical brain “It taught me that there’s always a solution.” Robin also proved to have more than enough get-up and go to get the farm producing fast. He put in the solar-powered pump that brings water up from an underground stream himself, which keeps him self-sufficient and supplies an extensive, again self-installed, irrigation system. The composting toilet he built, with woven walls of green wood that have since retaken root in the soil, a real testament to giving back to nature, in every way.

Japanese ginger (myoga)

    Robin isn’t a fan of bureaucracy; in his mind, it keeps him away from his leafy progeny out in the field, and ties farmers down to their office chairs with so much red tape filling out applications that he tries to avoid at all costs. It’s why he isn’t certified organic. He points out that there is a distinction between brand organic and the actual on the ground application of chemical-free farming. He tells me about the political factions even within the organics movement, references a shady-sounding ‘anti-ploughing lobby.’ And so his farm is a benchmark for doing things au naturel, the air is thick with winged creatures, both protecting and eating his crop, that wouldn’t be tolerated on a conventional, pesticide-heavy farm. The philosophy of one Masanobu Fukuoka heavily influences his more laissez-faire practices. Fukuoka is one of the five pillars of the organic movement, alongside fellow sage Rudolf Steiner and his bio-dynamics, more than just a trendy tagline to add to cloudy wine.



    Fukuoka coined the term “Do nothing” farming in the mid-twentieth century after developing a system of agriculture which puts faith in the natural workings of the world, with just a little coaxing from the human element. He popularised the clay seed ball, a technique involving wrapping up seeds in a little bomb of fertile soil to be germinated safe inside the protective clay shell away from predators so kick-start a plants early life. It’s now a fan favourite amongst the guerilla gardeners, environmentalists who hurl the balls into public spaces and industrial wastelands to revitalise them with wildflowers.

    He popularised the clay seed ball, a technique involving wrapping up seeds in a little bomb of fertile soil, to be germinated safe inside the protective clay shell away from predators to kick-start a plants early life.

“heads buried deep in a
bowl of hot soup like
exalted pilgrims”

    He believed that farming in this way was a part of the larger and loftier goal
of “the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” He put his faith in the complex systems of microbes that naturally occur in the ground for producing fertile soil, advocated abandoning ploughing, pruning, excessive weeding, and took these ideas around the world. The later years of his already jam-packed life he busied himself with the not insignificant task of reforesting global deserts affected by humanmade degradation. His book, ‘The One Straw Revolution’ has become a bible for organic farmers, Robin and aforementioned anti-ploughing fanatics included, though ever the pragmatist, he reminds me that no one system works for everyone, it’s a constant process of trial and error, and a battle to keep the balance. “You’d be surprised how quickly nature takes over.” Something Fukuoka also learned in the early days, when he managed to ruin his father’s orange groves in a test run of his fledgeling idea.

Bitter melon (nigauri)

    Back in the prep kitchen at Koya, a Nama Yasai delivery has arrived, stacked high with alien greenery, and the most recent addition to the kitchen team casts his eye over it dumbfounded.