Trying to meet someone at Victoria Train Station in Central London during morning rush hour is how I imagine salmon must feel when swimming desperately upstream. As I push through commuters bustling past me in the opposite direction, I somehow manage to spot Shuko Oda, head chef at udon noodle restaurants Koya City and Koya Soho. Today, she and I will be taking a short train journey out of London to NamaYasai in East Sussex.
A small organic farm specialising in Japanese fruit and vegetables, NamaYasai is where Oda sources greens for the restaurants. We board our train and spend the journey chatting and sipping coffee, attempting to ready our morning brains for taking in the fresh country air.
London-born Oda spent her childhood living between Tokyo, Los Angeles, and London. She began her career working in retail at Dover Street Market and doing shifts in kitchens, but soon realised she wanted to cook full-time. She relocated to Tokyo and worked at Claska Hotel, where she learned about macrobiotic cuisine. A few years later, she got a job at Paris’ prestigious Kunitoraya noodle bar, which is where she learned how to make udon. In 2010, Oda helped launch Koya Soho.
“My love for food comes from the women in my life—my mother and grandmother—but I learned the skills from various restaurants I’ve worked in,“ she explains. “The air about kitchens and how things are made with your own hands are what fascinates me about cooking.”
After pulling into a quaint countryside train station, we hop into a taxi and follow a winding roads that lead through an iron gate, past several giant greenhouses and tractor shed, and into NamaYasai. We’re greeted by owners Robin Williams and Ikuko Suzuki, who is holding the farm cat Popsy in her arms.
“One of our customers actually gave us this cat,” Suzuki laughs. “She’s a friendly fur ball who just wants attention, but she wreaks havoc on the crops from time to time.”
NamaYasai was founded in 2004, after Williams and Ikuko grew tired of life in London. Williams had reached a point in his IT career where he wanted to do something different, and decided it was now or never.
“We started by digging up our back lawn, and now we farm 60 acres. We don’t use any pesticides or fertilisers, all vegetables are grown on land and picked the same day,” he explains. “You won't see straight rows of plants or acres of polythene—and weeds are welcome here.”
“Nama yasai” literally translates to “raw” or “give birth,” “field,” and “vegetable” in Japanese. The farm’s ethos reflects the meaning behind its name, putting flavour, nutrition, and freshness at the forefront. A team of six workers plus several volunteers help grow more than 50 varieties of vegetables and between May and early December, and deliver the produce boxes by van, train, and bike to customers in London. As well as Koya, NamaYasai supplies to London Japanese restaurant Umu.
Williams begins by showing us around one of the greenhouses. It’s full of cropping yuzu trees, edamame, rainbow chard, karashina (red mustard leaf), kabu (Japanese turnip), shiso (a minty herb), and mizuna (mustard leaf). The building hums softly with the sound of bees, hover flies, and the occasional wasp that flies far too close to my ears for comfort.
“Here, taste some of this mitsuba, it’s known as Japanese parsley,” says Williams, handing me a freshly plucked leaf. “You can eat every part of most crops: the leaves, stem, flowers, and all."
Chewing on the clean-tasting leaf, I notice that the flavours are more intense than those found in the supermarket salad aisle. This is a direct result of the farm’s growing methods.
“In general, the warmer the temperature, the faster the growth. But if they grow too quickly and have too much food, they’ll lose the flavour and the nutrition,” Williams says. “We prefer to grow outside to ensure the best quality crops, but the downside to this is it’s labour intensive, and they’re prone to more pests and diseases.”
Oda tells me she has worked with other vegetable suppliers, but nothing comes close to NamaYasai’s produce.
“These kind of Japanese vegetables aren’t really common in the UK and you don’t normally get that with other suppliers,” she says. “I look for that freshness in flavour and turn the seasonal produce into pickled vegetables, chopped in salads, or raw as a garnish in my restaurant.”
Moving onto the fields outside, we’re surrounded by young flowering sakura trees, protected crops under reusable sheeting, and workers planting a new batch of negi (Japanese long onion) along the way.
“This land was plowed last autumn and already the weeds are coming back through, that’s one of the downside of organic farming,” Williams says. “If you compare the land to a plowed field on a non-organic farm you won’t see a single weed.”
Oda and I finish our morning at the farm with a picnic lunch. Sitting outside with the workers, Williams, Suzuki, and of course Popsy, we enjoy a sliced daikon, tomato, rocket, and mizuna salad, fried tempura flowers in rice flour, and spring onion frittata served with a side of bread and cheese.
As we eat, I ask Oda what attracted her to NamaYasai.
“Well, Koya means ‘little house’ in Japanese and what the restaurant stands for is something that’s humble, nothing too fancy and good home-cooked meals. We want to put an emphasis on things that are made from scratch,” she says. “Championing slow food places like NamaYasai is a way we can all appreciate the soul's need to slow down and enjoy the deep nature of Japanese cuisine.”
After a morning at NamaYasai, my soul is certainly feeling soothed.