Escaping to the Countryside

In keeping with my promise to myself to make sure I am squeezing every ounce out of the time I have left here, I decided I would sign up to a website called WWOOF, which stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. It's an online platform that enables volunteers and farmers to connect: in return for their help on the farm, volunteers live with the family and are fed for free. I decided this would be the best way for me to continue doing home-stay experiences, while also spending as much time outside as possible and meeting local people. 

It turned out to be exactly what I needed. In beautiful sunshine, I boarded a 2-car rickety local train into the rural village of Koume (神目) where I was met by my host mother and driven another 15 minutes up into the mountain town of Kumenan-cho (久米南町) to spend the weekend on their lovely little farm. In short, it was magical. 

Naturally, myself and my host parents were nervous to start with. The local dialect made communication a little difficult but I was shown around the house, the farm, and told what I would be helping with over the weekend. I was quickly given an apron, gloves, arm covers, wellies and a high-tech head shade. With every part of my body covered, I followed my host mother out into the radish fields to start work. Over the noise of the tractor, she told me about watching out for snakes and hornets and I followed wide eyed wondering quite what I had got myself into! When we got to the radish planting area, she showed me how to choose which to pick, how to do it, trim the top leaves, and line them up in the tractor for her to take back to the barn. I did as I was told and worked as fast as I could. I could not be the weak little English girl among these hardworking old farmers. Luckily I seemed to be doing okay and all was well as I yanked 20 enormous radishes and enjoyed the views over the hills of Okayama and Kagawa Prefecture.

Picking the enormous radishes

Trimming the top leaves   

Washing the radishes

After that, it was time to help my host father cut and weigh out the asparagus. I haven't had any asparagus since coming to Japan, as it's unbelievably expensive in the supermarket. Seeing it in abundance was wonderful! I was tasked with cutting the stems to size then adding date and price labels. We did the same with the radish and cabbages, before taking them to the local farmers' market, which is how they make 78% of their profits. 

cutting asparagus in the barn

Taking my freshly picked, washed and labelled radishes to the farmers' market

It was fantastic to be able to follow these products from the ground to the shop- it does put into perspective how much work goes into this kind of farming - and why it is so important to support local business. My hosts explained to me the strict regulations in place on fresh produce and how anything less than perfect is sold at a heftily reduced price. It seems the desire for perfection is something that infiltrates all elements of Japanese society, right down to their vegetables...
Nevertheless, I was happy as all the ugly vegetables got put in the pile of things we would be eating as a family so it didn't matter much. A vegetarian's heaven! 

I was apprehensive before spending the weekend with a rural family that my decision to be vegan would cause a lot of problems. As such, I decided I would be vegetarian for the weekend, but there was absolutely no need to worry. Apart from meat, fish, eggs and condiments, the farm is completely self-sufficient. That meant there was hardly any animal products on their dinner table anyway. The eggs we ate came from a neighbouring farm who keep a handful of chickens only for eggs for themselves. Without large-scale corporation farming being a concern, or the animal's welfare, I saw no problem in having some fresh eggs. It reminded me so much of the fresh eggs I have at home from my own chickens - and it almost felt like a treat! I happily ate piles and piles of vegetables that we had picked, rice that had been grown the previous year and soy products from their own beans. It felt amazing to have a weekend of eating things where I not only knew where it had come from, but I had either picked it myself or it had been prepared by my host parents. That was wonderful.

After an enormous lunch, we headed back into the fields to plant 100 aubergine seedlings. First, I watered them all and loaded them into the truck from the greenhouse. We then zigzagged our way between the rice paddy tiers to where we would be planting, and together we measured and cut the plastic at 20 cm intervals. After incisions had been made, I watered each hole and was followed by my host father who added fertiliser. Then, we took each potted plant and arranged them by the holes and began to put them into the soil. For a couple of hours we planted, rested for cold tea, and continued under the afternoon sun.

A happy (and hot) little farmer enjoying the sunshine

cutting the plastic at 20 cm intervals

putting a plant next to each hole 

planting the seedlings together

After a long day of planting, cutting, picking and labelling, it was time to go in and help my host mother with dinner. My host father was going to a village meeting where they were to discuss how to stop the ageing population of their community of only 75 affecting the economic output of the farming area. Having studied Japan's demographic crisis quite extensively over the last few years at Edinburgh, I was interested to hear all about it and he was eager to tell me what he planned to discuss at the meeting. My host mother and I packed him off with a shopping basket full of freshly made rice balls, salads and alcohol that they would be having at the meeting. 

making rice balls (onigiri) with my host mother

For dinner, my host mother, her adult son, the grandmother and I sat down together to have another veggie dinner installment. There was homemade miso soup, rice balls, homemade pizza, soy beans, tofu, salads and boiled eggs soaked in soy sauce. The grandmother - who I found almost impossible to understand due to her dialect and old Japanese, told me that she never interacts with other volunteers, so as someone who can speak some Japanese, this was really special. We watched the news together and generally put the world to rights as we helped ourselves to more rice or vegetables all evening. When my host father returned, he told me all about the meeting and how well liked the rice balls were so that was good too. We sat down again together and my host parents told me that heavy rain was forecast for the next day, so there might not be too much to do. I was, of course, fine with that, and went to bed full and happy at having such a wonderful first day. 

Day 2

As predicted, Sunday's weather was atrocious. The stunning views we had seen the day before were completely obscured by clouds. Nevertheless, after the 7.45 am breakfast, my host father took me down to the bottom fields to teach me all about organic farming in Japan. In wellies and with enormous umbrellas, I followed him down now very slippery grass verges in between the rice paddies. He showed me where he plants his rice and told me that the one field would make 80 kg of rice, which is enough to feed the average family for one year. He told me that his family eats 100 kg a year, and I saw bags stacked up in the barn ready to be opened once a sack ran out. He explained to me all about pesticides and growing techniques, how the weather affects what he can plant, the different stages of various plants and in general about farming life. Admittedly, much of what he said I could not understand, but I've come to learn this year that understanding everything is simply not important. Understanding even what I did, was an achievement enough.

Lettuces to rival even my granny's!

rice seedlings before being planted

After the tour, we got back to the daily job of washing, cutting and labelling vegetables to take them to the farmers' market. The selection was very impressive.

After delivering the produce to the shop, we made our way onwards to a temple which they had decided to take me to, on the account of not having any outdoor work to do in the hammering rain. I hadn't expected to have the day off just because of bad weather, but was secretly very glad to not be outside working in the rain. So really to my luck, the rain meant the day was instead a tourist adventure. We visited three temples buried in the countryside, so far off the tourist trail that we had the place largely to ourselves. While places like Kyoto and Nara arguably have the most impressive and historically significant temples, nothing beats exploring a temple without the humdrum of a thousand tourists. They explained the history of certain things we saw and even took me to the temple they had got married in over 20 years ago! I'd never been somewhere quite so remote, and the hammering rain and low hanging fog made for a very eerie - but amazing - experience.

A raised walkway between different temple complexes

hidden pagodas

After a few hours of temple adventures, my host parents extremely kindly took me out for lunch. We went to their favourite udon restaurant, where I had a delicious set noodle dish with sweet tofu rice balls (inari) and a red bean paste sweet for dessert. The three of us ate largely in silence as we enjoyed the warming food. I was then - after the most enormous bowl of bloat enhancing noodles - told our next destination would be the onsen. After having naked bathed with my teacher last weekend, I figured going with my host mother would be no different... so we finished our lunch and drove 15 or so minutes to the local public hot spring bath. Unlike the calm and largely empty onsen experiences of last weekend, this was something else. A huge changing room and women packed boob to boob (almost) undressing, it was a little uncomfortable for me, but I bit the bullet and pegged it into the shower room. Ignoring the wide eyes directed my way - the only foreigner around - I washed and got into the bath lickety-split. Of course, once you're in the water, any notions of embarrassment are lost as you enjoy the soothing water. It was a lovely chance to soak after the sticky work of yesterday, and then the dampness of the morning. While the English would simply be horrified by the idea of public baths today, and many family members tell me they would find it very uncomfortable, there's nothing better than a long soak. It makes complete sense after a long day working in the fields. After getting dressed and dry, it was finally time to go home after a long day of exploring. 

making wishes at the temple my host parents got married at

Once home, I helped my host mother prepare dinner. It was leftovers from the last two days' lunch and dinners, which I was completely happy with. We did however, also make onion tempura, which I think was largely for my sake rather than anything else. I made a great pile of onion rings to go with shredded radish, bean salads, miso soup, eggs, homemade bread and a thousand other plates of veggies. Like the night before, we talked, watched some TV and nibbled on this and that for hours. Once my host mother and grandmother had left, my host father offered me the alcohol he had been bottling before dinner. He explained the month long process of fermenting homegrown rice with water and starch. It was far sweeter than I expected it to be despite not having any sugar in it, and we thoroughly enjoyed it together. I told him how much my dad would love it and asked for a detailed recipe breakdown, but I was assured I would not be able to make it! At that point, I half wished that Dad was there to join me as he would have absolutely loved it. I told my host father all about his sloe gin making and we chattered for hours about all sorts. 

There was a very eye opening moment towards the end of our long talk. I was listening carefully as my host father explained the PH of Japanese soil, how it is acidic and in order to farm successfully, you need to add calcium to balance out the PH. With help of an occasional flick in the dictionary, I learned about the importance of nitrogen, phosphate and potassium. He told me he adds oyster shells to the soil to make it more alkaline. While the process of getting to this point was far longer than I have made it seem due to a serious amount of agriculture terminology that I was clueless about, I finally understood what he was talking about - because I could relate. I remembered that we add oyster shells to our chicken feed, to make the egg shells stronger. Two people, with completely different backgrounds, different genders, ages, nationalities and languages, bonding over oyster shells. It's not something I'll forget anytime soon: sitting around a table with homemade alcohol talking about the PH of Japanese soil and fumbling our way to a conclusion that oyster shells are the answer to everything. We laughed and at that point, I felt very close to this man who had taken me in only two days ago, and with whom I'd found to have much more in common that I could ever have imagined. I went to bed with a smile plastered on my face, the sheer accomplishment of communication, the excitement of the day's adventures, and a sense of pride for going out of my way to make this year memorable.

Day 3

After another 7.30 am wake up call for a breakfast of homemade bread, homemade honey and homemade miso soup, it was time to resume farming duties. The sun had returned, and I was back to chopping and labelling asparagus in the barn with my host father, as he weighed lettuces and my host mother dried radishes. I packed my small backpack up and we made my last trip to the farmers' market to drop off the morning's produce. I bought some souvenirs to take back to Okayama and was given a bag full of veggies, to my happiness. An enormous radish, a lettuce and a stem of asparagus, which I have been enjoying all week. There's nothing better than fresh fruit and veg - and it's all the better when you've picked it AND it's free! With my backpack and heart so much fuller than when I had arrived, it was time to leave. I boarded the tiniest, tinniest train carriage and waved goodbye to the countryside and my wonderful new Japanese family.

the red bean paste filled sweet cakes I bought back to Okayama 

It's always hard coming back to Okayama after weekends away like the last two weeks. I am utterly done with the university and largely useless classes I take here. It is all very mundane and I really am living for my weekends at the moment. However, it's not without good parts. If I hadn't decided to come to a university in the countryside, I wouldn't be able to do all the amazing things I'm doing on the weekends, so yet again I'm so glad I decided to venture outside the big cities of Japan. For me, there's so much more to Japan than Tokyo and Kyoto. Going to the deepest parts of the countryside, living and working with the local people and learning whatever you can from them, is so rewarding. When I look back on this year, these will be the things I remember, not being stuck inside a classroom learning grammar. All this learning outside the classroom has proven invaluable, and so as always, I'm so grateful to the lovely little Japanese family that took me in for the weekend; fed me, taught me, and made me feel like what I've chosen to do up until now has all been worth it.

So until my next adventure,
Molly xox


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