For as long as I can remember, I've dreamed of Japan. As a chef, I'm drawn in by its reputation for hospitality. It's in Mashiko, a sleepy town in Tochigi Prefecture best known for its ceramics, soba and antiques, that I find my spiritual second home.
Leaving behind the buzzing lights of Tokyo, I traverse the waving grasses of Japan's lush, green countryside to reach Mashiko. My gracious hosts, Alice and Tenshi, greet me at the Mashed San house, a beautifully crafted, traditional-style retreat deep among the trees. It's here that I am to stay and help prepare a bountiful, locally sourced feast as part of Hijisai (the Earth Art Festival).
First, however, I am led to the courtyard of the Yamamoto Hachiman Shrine, where the visual artist and musician Takagi Masakatsu performs a live piano solo. As I sway to his e ortless melodies, I'm struck by the unexpected harmony between his contemporary compositions and the ancient forest around us.
The next day in the kitchen, I again experience this sensation of modernity meeting nature. The new generation here is armoured with kindness and is leading a revolutionary movement to bring organic farming practices and local fare back to the fore - an unusual mission in Japan, where "perfection" is typically the aim.
I find life and soul in each carefully sourced ingredient harvested from the Yamazaki Organic Farm, situated just beyond the house. Its assiduous farmer explains how the recent rains have influenced his yield, before we rest our weary feet, boil a pot of tea over the open fire and discuss our mutual love for natural produce. All the while I curate tomorrow's menu in my mind.
The dinner takes place at pejite, once a traditional kura (storehouse) that was used to keep rice and is now a shop selling antique furniture and artisan-made ceramics, which act as our serving platters come evening. Yamaimo, a Japanese mountain yam, and kabocha pumpkin feature heavily throughout the menu. Being able to utilise traditionally grown ingredients and add my own spin is something of which I'll never tire.
The feast is made possible by helping hands united by an appreciation for thoughtfully produced food. It's magical how things can come together so beautifully, our bite-sized morsels echoing the love that Mashiko's residents have for their town.
7-Day Vegan Challenge: The Easy Guide to Going Vegan will be published on 26 December 2019 (Hardie Grant)