Category: Japan

Day 47: Getting to know a small Japanese town

Today was our day off. Celso and I went to the city of Ayabe. We took the 9:30 bus. The bus was tiny. Most of the passengers were aged people. Later, while in town we discovered that most of the town comprises of old people, which is well representative of Japan’s ageing population.
We first went to the tourist office and rented bicycles. Then, we went to a shrine which had a complex of gardens and buildings. Just outside its main building, there was a wooden plank facing a zen garden covered in moss. We sat there for quite a while and just talked. 
A moss covered serene zen garden by which we sat for a while. 

A temple that we found after walking uphill from the zen gardens of the complex 

 After that, we went looking for McDonalds to try Japan’s shrimp burger (locally known as ebi burger). We asked several people but couldn’t find it. Everyone we asked pointed us in a different direction. It was impressive that they could understand us in the first place. But it was ironic that Celso and I were working so hard to find Mcdonalds, which is one of the franchises that can be found literally everywhere. Finally, our hunger and the hot sun made us give up on Mcdonalds and postpone it to another day.

We went to a Japanese curry place for lunch where we faced some embarrassment in trying to understand the drinks on the menu. People around us were amused. 
After lunch we stopped by a super market for some fruit. We found boxed cut pineapple slices and bought them to share. They were so delicious. While buying the fruit I noticed that the cashier machine was automated in giving change. The lady at the counter inserted the money I gave her into the machine, and the machine automatically calculated the change and threw it out. Genius.
We went to a shawl factory museum. There wasn’t much in English. (Good thing we didn’t have to pay any entry fees!) When we got in, a lady came running after us with different shoes (which resembled toilet slippers) that we had to put on before going into the museum. 
A very realistic looking exhibit at the shawl factory

 After the museum, we still had some time left so we went to the downtown area and walked around there. Most of the shops were closed and the street was mostly deserted. We decided to go back to the first shrine we’d gone to and sit there for rest of the afternoon, since the bus only runs at specific times and the next one was 2.5 hours later.

The downtown street of Ayabe-devoid of people on a Wednesday afternoon. Many shops were closed and the area was pretty quiet, apart from the two noisy high school students we saw besides the grocery store and the cars driving by. 

Language barrier was certainly a problem today and I felt it more than I did anywhere else.We didn’t see any other tourists around and people on the street looked at us quite a bit. Many of the locals said hello to us.One couple even came to shake our hands. This behavior kind of reminded me of the way people in small towns (and sometimes even cities) of India react to foreigners. 
We got home around 6 and spent some time watching TED talks, after which we helped Sayaka-san make dinner. I made the miso soup today and it was surprisingly simple. All I had to do was cut vegetables and put them in boiling water. The miso was put in the end because if its put before, the flavor gets dissolved. 

Day 46: A Day of Weeding

Today was all weeding. It was a bright day and it didn’t seem like it would rain. I spent the first hour helping out around the house while Celso did some carpentry with Sayaka-san’s dad. 
In the field, I spent the first one and a half hour using the weeding machine to cut grass around the rice paddy. The weeding machine is very sharp and sends things flying all over the place. When I do it, I seem to get dirt all over myself. But when Celso does it, he doesn’t seem to. Maybe I wasn’t using it perfectly right. Also, the machine only cuts the weeds from the top, and not from the roots. So I wasn’t sure if I was doing it right. But Sayaka-san told me later that it’s okay.  I learnt that grass is a kind of weed too.
I spent another half an hour walking inside the rice paddy looking for weeds with red roots. Those are apparently really dangerous. This rice paddy wasn’t as neatly planted as the last one and it was harder to walk around in it. There weren’t very clear rows and columns and when there were some, they were too thin to comfortably walk in. The good news was that I was wearing socks, so my feet didn’t hurt too much from the stone, and since it hadn’t rained the mud wasn’t as soft and wet as last time. 

We did some more weeding in the afternoon. I spent about an hour and a half weeding with the machine in another field this time.
For dinner, we ate okonomiyaki. Sayaka-san taught me how to cook okonomiyaki on the pan. All that needs to be done is to put the mixture of vegetables, meat and flour on the pan and wait for it to solidify. It is flipped every now and then and takes about 10-15 minutes on the pan. It was delicious and tasted different from the one I’d had before. 
Okonomiyaki (savory Japanese pancakes) for dinner
Some high school students from nearby visited and we introduced ourselves to each other. They spoke broken English. They just hung around the house for a bit playing with fire crackers.Although I couldn’t understand what they were saying to each other, the tone of the conversation seemed similar to what I imagined my own to be when I was their age (around 15 or 16). 
I feel a lot healthier and fit, and I’m eating significantly more than usual. 

Day 45: Conversation, Carpentry and Using Weeding Machinery

Today we spent the morning finishing the deck. It was a cloudy day with spells of light rain. While it was fun working on the deck, I was given a few difficult tasks like drilling holes into the wood which required all my strength. 
I chatted with Sayaka-san about doctors without borders where she works seasonally. She told me how the doctors that go to the field only stay there temporarily, but the refugee camps can stay for decades, as many of them have. 
I got to try somen for lunch, which is a summer noodle. 
Somen Noodles: You take the noodles out from their plate and dip them in a bowl of tsuyu sauce before putting them in your mouth (like soba noodles). You can add things like ginger, sprouts and green onions to the sauce for flavor. 

After lunch, I took a long nap and then we engraved our names on the wooden deck. All the wwofers who help create stuff carve their names on their creation. It’s great because it makes this place so international with carved names of people from different countries on the wooden decks around the house, the outhouse, etc. 

Celso tries to be a perfectionist in carving our names by the wooden deck we helped build

Then we went to another rice paddy with Sayaka-san’s father which comprises of rice grown for the rest of Sayaka-san’s family. We did weeding using the sharp machine which Sayaka-san had earlier told me was quite dangerous. It had a sharp circular blade at the end and it sends weed, mud and stones flying everywhere, including your own direction. She didn’t intend to let me use it, but I was glad I did. It was a good experience. After all this work at the farm, I’m motivated to try more sports and outdoor activities when I’m back in Singapore.

Later in the evening, we spent a long time chatting over our usual outdoor dinner. I learnt that Sayaka-san father has an NPO in Laos. 
Celso showed me this show called 60 minutes which tells stories from around the world. We saw one on China’s real estate bubble and another one on stolen paintings from WW2. Another video he showed me was an episode from a TV show called Master of Killing time. It’s a Japanese cartoon about a guy killing time in class doing random things and a girl next to him freaking out about all that he’s doing. 

Day 44: Finishing the Deck and Pizza Making

It was raining this morning and Sayaka san had guests coming over to her guest house. So we spent all morning cleaning the house in preparation of them.

In the afternoon, we all made pizza for lunch. I learnt how to kneed pizza dough. We made a regular veggie pizza and also added some Japanese food to the meal by making miso pizza! 
We did some drilling in the evening and almost finished the wood deck. It feels great to walk on something you’ve built. 

Sayaka-san and Celso cook while I get distracted and start taking pictures

A delicious and somewhat circular vegetable pizza

Miso pizza: giving a japanese touch to the meal!
Plums straight from the farm.
After dinner, we joined Sayaka-san’s two guests in lighting sparklers. Although we couldn’t directly communicate with them due to a language barrier, Sayaka-san’s father acted as our translator and we were able to interact a little bit through him.

Post dinner sparklers: The diversity of sparklers was new to me-there were different colors, multi-colored, big ones and small ones. 

Day 43: Carpentry and weeding

We did more weeding in the rice paddy. Despite a back and shoulder ache that I’d developed overnight, I felt more at ease with walking around in the rice paddy. Although some rocks still hurt me, it wasn’t too bad, and I think I felt it less. My feet once again got bruised and torn. I think I was also bitten by several insects. There was a spider hanging around my weeding machine. But all of that bothered me less. 
Somehow, I feel hungrier and hungrier as I spend more time here. It feels good to eat after working in the field and it feels like I’ve earned the food. 
After lunch, we worked with Sayaka-san’s father whose visiting for a few days. First, I painted a table that Sayaka-san’s father had bought second hand (just for 1500 yen!). Then I sowed some green onions. This was my first time sowing. I was surprised to find that while sowing, you aren’t required to bury the roots too deep. Just one or two scoops of soil is enough. Then, I picked some vegetables from the garden. After all of that, I helped Sayaka-san’s father with the wooden deck he was working on building. I helped Celso carry wooden planks from the work shed to the wooden deck area and then drill nails into them. It’s quite fun.I never thought I’d do carpentry. Its just always been one of those things that I assumed I would never need to do. 
The wooden deck in construction
Over dinner, we had some sake and chatted with Sayaka-san’s father. At night Sayaka-san, Celso and I watched the movie the Grand Budapest Hotel. It was hilarious, I’d definitely recommend it. 
I think today was my longest day. We did outdoor work for about 6 hours. I realized that being here and doing different tasks everyday pushes me outside my comfort zone daily, which is exactly what I’d hoped for.  

Day 42: Weeding the Rice Paddy and an Onsen Experience

Today we went to the rice paddy. It was wet and muddy. There were frogs everywhere, tiny ones though. My legs were muddy upto my knees (we don’t wear boots or any kinds of shoes in the rice paddy). Celso and I were given machines which we pushed along the rows of rice to pull out the weeds. It was difficult at first to walk in the mud and quite tiring to push the machine. But it got better. Sayaka-san told us that the key is to walk slowly. The weeds wouldn’t come out if we simply pushed the machine forward, so we’d have to push it forward and then yank it back to uproot the weed properly. Our legs got some bug bites and my feet got a bit torn from the stones in the mud, but I didn’t notice it until afterwards. Sayaka-san told us that the rice should probably last her all year and amounts to about 250 kgs in weight. She said that the rice is sowed in May and harvested around September. She holds a ceremony every year in which she invites neighbors and friends to sow the rice paddy with her. Harvesting is usually done with a machine. The rice tastes really sweet and fresh when eaten in September, not just in the countryside. 
Weeding in the rice paddy

Washing my muddy feet in a narrow canal that runs besides the rice paddy
After lunch I was reading and fell asleep in a rocking chair. There wasn’t much work in the afternoon and Celso told me some of his fascinating travel stories. 
In the evening, we went to an onsen (Japanese hot spring). This was my first onsen experience, which is shameful considering that they’re sprinkled all over Japan and I’ve been here for over a month. The onsen wasn’t dramatically different from what I expected. It is similar to a public or communal bath in which you first wash yourself and then get inside the large hot baths. The water, however was different and it was interesting to learn that different onsens have different kinds of spring water-some contain iron, and other minerals as well. People spend quite some time (hours) in the onsen but because the water is so hot they can’t spend too much time continuously inside the water. So they get out, take a cold shower or just sit around, and then come back to the hot bath. There was also a spa in a small room right next to the hot baths. Sayaka-san told me that Japanese people take baths everyday (as opposed to other countries where people take quick showers), which means that they must spend considerable amount of time everyday in their bath tub. Onsens are particularly popular among old people. The onsen was pretty cheap. It cost 300 yen per person (~$3). So I guess it isn’t too hard for people to go there on a regular basis. 

Apparently it is bad to eat right after a hot bath (something to do with blood circulation). So after waiting for  half an hour (which we spent on grocery shopping), we went for ramen and ice cream. I got an ice cream sandwich from a convenience store. It tasted really good. It was cookies and cream with azuki inside (red bean).  
Ice cream sandwiches found at convenience stores in Japan. The one I ate was second from the top.

Day 41: A Rainy Day and Gyoza Dumplings

It was raining today. So we didn’t go to the field today. 
Instead, I spent the morning in the house cleaning and doing other household chores. Cleaning the glass window sills was one of my tasks and it was a surprisingly tedious one. 
After lunch, I walked down to the bus stop to pick up Celso, the other wwoofer. I didn’t recognize the bus stop so I ended up walking much longer than I had to. The bus stop was literally just a stand with a list of bus timings on it. Celso is Portugal and is currently on an around the world trip. He has the funniest stories. 
In the afternoon, I helped dry the dishes and put them back in place, after which we all went grocery shopping. We biked 5 km to the local market. A lot of the ride was uphill and quite tiring. But the view was beautiful and biking is always fun. At the supermarket, we discovered that fruits were quite expensive, which is surprising considering that this is the countryside. 
Sayaka-san treated us to ice cream at the konbini! I chose a sort of green tea ice cream with red bean and mochi on top. 
In the evening, we made gyoza dumplings together. That was quite fun. Sayaka-san also taught me how to wash rice. I learnt that sushi rice is a bit different from regular rice, because sushi rice has vinegar in it to make it stickier. I also learnt that Japanese authorities in Paris have actually regulated sushi restaurants and certify the good ones because of the large number of bad quality sushi restaurants in France. 
Cooking dinner: Sayaka-san, my host on the left and Celso, my co-wwoofer in the background

Our beautiful and delicious final product: Gyoza dumplings!