Tuesday, August 27, 2013

JAPAN - Suttsu, Hokkaido

Suttsu was incredible, by far our favourite WWOOF experience so far!  We had no idea what to expect when we suddenly bought a plane ticket to Sapporo, we went only with a hope for cooler weather after getting up to 30+ degrees C in Nagano Prefecture.  Pretty grueling when you're working outside in the sun all day.

We arrived in Sapporo on July 24th and spent a lot of meals at restaurants trying what residents outside of Hokkaido always seem to associate with the area - delicious food.  We quickly booked our first host on the coastal town of Suttsu, a town known for strong winds, beautiful sunsets, and beach-side windmills.  On the way discovered the existence of 'Michi no Eki' (literally 'road station').  These places are awesome.  They are buildings along popular travel routes that offer a free place to sleep in your car or tent, free wifi, and a shop with snacks/food/coffee.  There is a terminal inside with maps and information about other Michi no Eki in the area.  We ended up staying there overnight in our new tent, staying up late drinking and chatting with a Japanese bike tourist who had been on the road for three months and an old lady sleeping in her van who had come up from the southernmost main island Kyushu.  We looked like hobos, circling around a box of sake and some snacks in the building parking lot.  We even had a view of the ocean with the place not being more than ten meters from the water at the town harbor.

The next day we met our hosts, and found out we had been staying a two-minute walk from their house.  We were also surprised to find out we were their first WWOOFers.  They were a lovely couple, not much older than ourselves, with an adorable ten-month-old baby girl.  Here we worked mostly with Italian style tomatoes, harvesting them from their greenhouse and vegetable garden and washing, cutting, drying, and jarring them with olive oil.  Some of them were crazy, beautiful colors like rosey pink and dark purple that we would mix and package prettily for the market.  We also got to make red currant jam from the bush in the back garden and design labels for it.  At the vegetable garden we discovered the horror that is 'abu' (huge Japanese horseflies) that are attracted to dark colors, of course the only color work clothes I brought.  We spent the first day with me letting one land on my back so Charlie could whack it with the bundle of twine we were using to tie up tomato plants and stomping them once they hit the ground.  At one point a group of kids walked by and surely had a good laugh at the spectacle we were making of ourselves.

The schedule was awesome, usually 5am to 11am with long breaks along the way.  We would then have lunch and usually our hosts would kindly take us to local hotspots like the beach where we could swim and look at starfish and sea urchins.  One day we went to visit a friend in the next town who let us borrow his canoe and dove into the sea and brought back a sea urchin that we cracked open with a rock and ate raw as it was still crawling away.  One evening we attended the Japanese day of the dead where people sent lanterns off to sea as a way to see off the spirits of loved ones who had passed on.  On our first weekend we went with them to the Sapporo farmers market and tried to use our foreign looks to our advantage in marketing their goods.

For Charlie's birthday we took a few days off to take the ferry to Okushiri island and camp on the northernmost tip surrounded by the Atlantic.  At night you could see the bright glow of squid-fishing boats on the horizon and a crystal clear sky of stars.  The last day with our hosts, we summited Mnt Mekkunai together, baby and all.  We didn't predict the time it would take very well and were all tired and starving by the time we reached the bottom and hit a few closed restaurants in a desperate search for sustenance before finally finding a restaurant.

We ended up staying for the full month and it hardly felt like work at all with the interesting tasks and good company.  We fully intend to keep in touch with our Suttsu friends and hopefully have them stay with us in the US in future!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

JAPAN - Ogurayama Farm

We finished out our two weeks with Bou-san at the Chikyuyado (Earth Inn) weeding a variety of veggies, maintaining two rice fields, and taking long breaks in the organic blueberry field eating berries to our hearts’ content.  Most nights we were without guests and ate dinner with the family at their home, which was always guaranteed hilarity with Ojiichan’s (Bou-san’s father-in-law) outright offensive sense of humor.  Afterward we would have the guest house to ourselves where we could chill out with a drink, play piano, or make plans for what to do next on our adventure.  Nearly everything was fun at the Chikyuyado with Bou-san’s upbeat attitude and willingness to work alongside us and teach us about his lifestyle.  He was such a cool guy, and it was sad to part ways with him and the Masuda family.

We went from Bou-san’s little guest house to the larger scale Ogurayama farm on July 7th.  The pace there was a little different from what we’re used to from the Hanai and Masuda residences.  There they house up to six WWOOFers at a time, so there was more opportunity to meet other travellers.  Everything was much more business-like compared to the former hosts, but the work was not challenging and provides a new experience with working in orchards, bagging and thinning peaches.

Probably most noteworthy about Ogurayama Farm was our fellow American WWOOFer, Andrew.  Andrew was ninteen years old, from Washington state, and had been arrested twice so far since arriving in Nagano.  The story he enthusiastically told us in our first real conversation was that he had been mistaken for a ganster after talking to some Japanese kids wearing bandanas outside Matsumoto train station.  Another version of the story, later relayed by another fellow WWOOFer, was that he was arrested for shouting ‘U. S. A.’ over and over again on the train to Matsumoto, and was arrested again days later for getting lost and sleeping on the street.  He told us of his plans to visit Matsumoto city on his day off, and while Charlie and I were elsewhere I made a sarcastic comment about him getting arrested, only to return and hear the story of how at a festival in the city he saw someone dressed in a frog costume, ran up to him and hoisted him into the air, and had to apologise profusely and bail before the cops were called.  The kid certainly made for interesting conversation during long shifts weeding carrots and cleaning onions.  Furthermore it was an unforgettable experience when we were all riding in the car together with the host’s four-year-old son when a fellow WWOOFer commented on a Pachinko (slots) place as we passed by and the son yelled ‘Chinko!’ (‘penis’ in Japanese) and turned and slammed double-fists into Andrew’s crotch.  The rest of us could hardly be blamed for losing it while he was simultaneously groaning and telling us it wasn’t funny (it was).

For my birthday Charlie and I took two days off and hitchhiked for my first time up to Kamikochi, a popular national park area in the Japan Alps to climb Mt Okuhodaka.  We stayed in a ryoukan (mountain hut) called Karasawa with people setting up tents on thick compacted snow on the ground in July surrounded by jaw-dropping scenery.  As we approached the ryoukan a group of around thirty large monkeys were crossing the trail frighteningly close to us while other hikers warned us not to look in their eyes as they would consider it a challenge.  We met a number of lovely people that bought me birthday beer and crafted me a birthday cake out of choco pies.

We woke at 3:00am to begin our climb to the summit and had a hell of a time crossing the snow field with crappy rental crampons across the eerily steep slope.  If we slipped we knew we would be sliding down the mountain-side and stopped for a good half hour contemplating whether we should even carry on.  As we got closer to the top the weather got more abysmal and we ended up summiting in heavy rain and wind, hanging on wet rusty chains and ladders bolted into the side of mountain over deadly drops to make it to the top.  It was probably a blessing that I could barely see ten feet in front (or below) me or else I probably wouldn’t have been having as much of a blast as I did.  In the same day we then down-climbed another 8km to camp at grounds closer to the bus station and left the next day.  My legs were pretty cheesed off for the next three or four days.  Probably the best move we’ve made so far on this trip was the decision to buy a tent after returning, and we are now the proud owners of an MSR Hubba Hubba.

We finished out our two weeks at Ogurayama farm and flew from Tokyo to Sapporo on July 24th to enjoy the cooler climate of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island.

Monday, June 24, 2013

JAPAN - Matsumoto, Azusa, and Azumino

It has been about four weeks since we arrived in Japan and I am relieved to say farm work is not making me want to run crying back to the corporate lifestyle.  In fact, we have come across a number of people with similar stories of suddenly ditching what they always thought was expected to pursue a way of life that is healthier and better aligned with personal interests.  I particularly like a saying of our current host, 'life should be half agriculture half x', which suggests a lifestyle that combines living off the land to provide good food and a little bit of extra income with a means of financial support closely relating to one's skills and interests.

Our plan to hitchhike over the course of a week from Tokyo to Azusa fell through in favor of a three hour bus ride.  We had decided upon this the night before and booked a hotel for a few days to buy some time to form a plan for how to live cheaply until we met with our first host on the 7th of June.  Between getting the stink eye and finding one pillow, towel, etc in the room, we realised what we had booked was intended for a single person and they would charge double for two, incurring more expenses than we were willing to pay.  We arranged with the hotel to stay the first night, and the next day went around town visiting a few hostels until we settled on a low cost room across the street from Matsumoto Castle, the oldest castle in Japan.  We struck a deal with the hostel staff to pay half price for the room in exchange for some gardening, which turned out to be a nice light introduction to the volunteering for accommodation adventure.  For the most part we had the place to ourselves and it was a blast learning how to buy groceries, cook, and sleep on futons rolled out over tatami mat floors in our own little Japanese house.  We managed to keep expenses down until we met with our first hosts.

We worked with Winnie and Keita in Azusa, Matsumoto for two weeks.  Our timing was great, allowing us to see the process of preparing an organic rice field from step one.  On the first day we used shoveling tools to try and level the mud for planting and I earned my first blisters.  The next day I covered those blisters in the muddy water of the paddy while replanting fallen rice seedlings and filling gaps left by the planting machine.  I truly realised the value of said machine after putting every fiber of my being into hand-planting straight rows of mochi rice and having them turn out so far from straight it was impressive in itself.  Once the rice was in place, we built a fence around the paddy and put up a house for 44 ducklings scheduled to arrive that week to prevent and eat weeds.  The ducklings were only days old when they arrived, adorable of course.  The day after arriving, one managed to escape his enclosure and was brought back to the house for the night to keep an eye on him, and Charlie and I had the alternating honor of keeping him warm.  Once the rice paddy was stable, we began doing more work in the garden ranging from picking vegetables for our meals to planting a field of beans to harvesting canola by hand.

The days went by quick and we enjoyed every one of them between socialising with interesting people and learning about various methods of organic agriculture.  I hadn't thought too much about organic vs. non-organic but I am so glad that we are involved in the former since I can't imagine spraying the crap out of crops with questionable substances being half as fun as playing in the mud, building structures, and cuddling baby ducklings.  It also gives a sense of pride and good health about what you are eating every day and how it came to be.  We worked hard in blazing sunshine and pouring rain and got to enjoy the benefits of the lifestyle in three incredible meals a day.  We also had a handful of highlights in our free time including our first trip to the onsen (public bath), making mochi the traditional way in a hollowed log with a wooden mallet, and wandering around the lush Japanese Alps.

Yesterday we arrived at our second host, Bou Masuda's guest house and farming areas in Azumino.  He and his family welcomed us with a big meal of grilled meat, vegetables, and copious amounts of beer.  The work at this host is even more grueling so far, mainly weeding bean fields rice paddies for hours straight, but I like the more regimented style Bou-san seems to have and hope that severe pain equates to getting into better shape.  Here we have been given long breaks, usually in the blueberry field where we can eat ripe organic blueberries to our hearts' content.  I have been volunteering to lay low in the back of the two-seater truck to and from the fields, reveling in any rest I can get between bouts of work.  I will report more on our experience here after we finish out our two weeks.

Missing friends and family back home and hope someone is enjoying these details.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

JAPAN - Tokyo

After quitting our jobs, breaking the news to our parents, reading up on various exotic diseases that cause swelling of the brain or shitting oneself to death and receiving the appropriate vaccinations (within reason), taking care of technicalities from banking to insurance to selling nearly everything we own, and receiving feedback ranging from 'Now's the time to do it, while you're young!' to 'Quit your job in this economy? Good luck!'- we arrived in Tokyo on the night of May 27th, 2013.

We landed around 7:30pm after an 11 hour flight from LAX to Tokyo Narita, and through the cheapest method of transportation covered the 50 or so miles in four hours to get from Narita Airport to Shinjuku where we stayed for four nights before moving on to the countryside.

The first two days we were kindly shown around Tokyo's hot spots by our friend Akiko. On the first day we strolled around the Asakusa shopping area taking pictures at the request of many a Japanese school kid and purchasing our fortunes before hitting the Unagi restaurant for lunch. After Asakusa we headed over to Shibuya and Harajuku to check out the shopping scene, stocking up on snacks and cutesy items at 100yen shops and discount stores. It took some self control for Charlie not to buy an adult sized pikachu suit at the Don Quixote discount store, and I for one will forever regret his decision not to. We met up with Hiroko and had dinner at an awesome restaurant in Shinjuku where you submit your orders via a tablet provided on the table throughout the evening, and we finished off the day with a good wholesome game of Tenko Hero (I'm making the name up...I think).

The next day we took the train to Tsukiji, the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world. This was probably my favorite spot of all in Tokyo with lane after lane of shops and restaurants selling sushi, snacks, sweets, and all sorts of bizarre looking stuff that we weren't sure we even wanted to know what it was. We had lunch at a sushi place, naturally the best we've ever had. Then we went to Akihabara, Japan's otaku (anime fanatic) central, to see people dressed up like dolls and cat people handing out flyers advertising their shops.

On the final day, Charlie and I strolled around Shinjuku Gyoen (a large park in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo) in the rain, checking out old tea houses, towers, and a greenhouse. It was incredible to see such a thriving beautiful park with a backdrop of Tokyo skyscrapers. We spent most of the day there before doing a little bit of shopping and meeting Akiko, Hiroko, and their mother in the center of Shinjuku for a yakiniku dinner (Korean style grilled meat). This was definitely the highlight of our Tokyo stay as far as both of us are concerned. We had so much fun with them, and it was a blast to try different delicacies including beef tongue and diaphragm, all of which you cook yourself on grills built into the table.

Hoping all is well at home.