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! 

Day 40: Bugs, more weeding and cleaning

I left a part of my window open last night which resulted in what seemed like hundreds of bugs dancing under the light of my room. I didn’t want to sleep with them, so I carried my comforter into the main house and slept in one of the rooms there. 
I felt much more at ease today. For breakfast, I ate the delicious thick Japanese bread that I’ve been conveniently ignoring for milk and cereal over the past five weeks. I took the recyclable plastics out before I started working in the field. 
To my surprise, I’d gotten better at weeding already and was able to pull out weed more efficiently and quickly. One big achievement was that I was able to use the big spade. I learnt that one can identify a plant by its leaves and I learnt how to identify the potato. The leaves of all these different plants still look the same to me though. It was still tiring and I felt quite hungry after two hours in the field.
We ate spaghetti for lunch today, with lots of home grown vegetables. I ended up sleeping after lunch again. 
After lunch, my task was to dry laundry and vacuum the house. I felt exhausted and sleepy and was really slow at most of it. My body hurt, especially my legs. Nevertheless I got through the vacuuming, and later the mopping. The bucket here used for mopping is really interesting (it looks something like this). It has a pedal which you press down. Two bars inside the bucket come close together as a result. The function of these bars is to squeeze extra water out of the mop. Sayaka-san told me how to mop the right way. She mentioned that I need to apply a fair bit of pressure. She said the same when I was washing dishes later at night. While brushing my teeth, I found myself applying for pressure to my teeth. 
I unfortunately can’t tell the difference between the city air and the “fresh country air” as many people say, although its a little bit cooler here. Its certainly quieter and greener. I’m learning to tolerate bugs better. Today, I accidentally touched a dead frog stuck to one of the mops. I was freaked out by the slippery texture of the frog’s skin, but I recovered as Sayaka-san buried the frog’s body in the soil. 

Day 39: Learning basic farm tasks

I started the day at 7: 30 a.m. After a breakfast of cereal, goat milk (!!) and a banana smoothie, my first task was to take out the burnable trash. There are separate days on which the burnable trash and recyclable plastics are collected. All the residents of the area leave their trash in a little enclosure which is just about 100 meters away from my host’s house. I was also asked to put up the sign board for my host’s café by the street, which she opens on some days.
Next, it was time to go into the field for some farming activity. Sayaka-san told me to wear rubber boots, full pants and a full sleeve shirt. We started at 8:30 and went on until around noon.I was first asked to pick some plums that had fallen on the ground so that Sayaka-san could make plum jam later. They were all half eaten and when I asked why that was, Sayaka san told me that birds had eaten them. Later, I watched her make jam and it was surprisingly less dense than the kind I buy in the market. Apparently, there is a chemical called pectin that is used to make jam thicker. Sayaka-san uses no preservatives while making jam. She only uses sugar. 
My second task at the farm was to put composting material in this little black container (about 2 or 3 feet tall) which stood in the field. It was circular and black. I put the composting material (banana peels, seeds, etc.) in the container and was told to cover it with some soil. I had to use a digger for that. I’d always seen laborers using that and thought it was very heavy and tough to use. But it wasn’t actually too hard. 
My next task was weeding. Weeding was tough. First, I learnt how to identify the weeds. I was surprised to learn that the little green plants which I often admire as greenery are actually weed. There were all kinds of weed-small ones and large ones. The smaller ones were much easier. Some were so tough that I’d fall back trying to pull them. There was two tools that I could use. One was a small one with sharp steel lines curving downwards, to grab the weeds by the roots (see picture below). These could be used around plants. Then there was the bigger tool, which was the size of a spade. It had to be slammed on the soil sideways and then pulled back. It was hard. I ended up using the smaller one most of the time. Weeds have to be removed so that they don’t take up the nutrients from the soil. They grow all the time in every season and are what keeps farmers the busiest. 

The smaller tool used for weeding

After some weeding, I plucked purple-reddish herbs growing in the field called shiso. That was much easier. I had to pick the big leaves so that Sayaka-san could make shiso juice later. All this while I had to be careful to not hurt my back by bending too much. I was told that it’s better to sit on your heels while doing weeding or plucking as opposed to bending your back down in standing position. My feet started to hurt after some time, since I wasn’t used to sitting that way for long periods of time. 
After I finished plucking the shiso leaves, I had to do some more weeding and plucking beans. I was asked to remove some nets from the field which had been used to separate some plants earlier. My gloves, clothes and boots were all soiled by the time I was done. 
We finished farming around noon and took showers. We ate udon for lunch and then rested for two hours. I was pretty tired by now and fell asleep. 
Sayaka-san normally spends half a day in the field and the other half in the house doing maintenance tasks or household chores. So after lunch, I had mostly lighter work. Sayaka-san asked me to wash the boots which were very muddy. It was unexpectedly tiring, partly because I was still tired from farming. After I was done washing about ten pairs of boots from all the mud of the field, I was asked to help out with the kitchen. I stirred the plum jam mixture for a few minutes (which was basically rotating a handle that would push through the jam through the sieve and leave the seeds behind), and then I helped Sayaka-san dry dishes and put them back in place. It was around 5 p.m. by the time we finished.
I was exhausted and ready to retire. We ate dinner at 6. I noticed that Sayaka-san has more vegetarian food than meat. She says it’s because she has some many vegetables growing in the field that veggies are more accessible to her than meat for her. She doesn’t sell any of her veggies in the market and the farm produce is for self consumption (which includes consumption by her guests as well).  
Over dinner Sayaka-san told me that she started her guest house and farm three years ago and has hosted about a 100 WWOOFers since then. She said that WWOOFing is apparently popular among Europeans and Americans. In Japan, there are quite a few Taiwanese WWOOFers as well. Most WWOOFers are travelers in their late 20s or early 30s. I will be joined by another WWOOFer later this week and the guest house will have some overnighters next weekend. For now, the two of us are by ourselves. 
All this while, I’ve been sitting on the deck of the house and I’m watching the clouds change color as the sun sets. It’s beautiful. I can’t actually see the sun, but the clouds are fire red now. They were orange a few minutes ago.

Today was pretty tiring, and I think it will take me a few days to get used to this lifestyle and work. I don’t know what the future or outcome of this experience will be, but one thing I’ve learnt from my first day of farming is the literal meaning of getting your hands dirty. 

Day 37 & 38: Nara

Nara is a little town known for its temples and deer park. Although I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing more temples, such towns often offer more of a cultural atmosphere of the real Japan as opposed to cities. It used to be the capital of Japan at one point. Nara is 45 minutes away from Kyoto by train and costs as much as my one way commute within Tokyo. The scenery on the way there was lush green and I got a glimpse of the Japanese countryside on the way. Houses got more traditional as I moved further away from the city.

I got to my hostel in Nara to find more interesting travelers to talk to and a very well set up common room where I spent a lot of time. I met people from Australia, the US, Denmark and Hong Kong. I wished I was spending more than one night in Nara, just so that I could spend some more time hanging out at the hostel. Nara in general was a quiet place apart from the tourists there, and it struck a good balance between a developed place and a cultural one. Its definitely makes a great getaway.

I spent my time in Nara at the Nara park (AKA the deer park) and the Todaiji temple. The bus system in Nara is great, and its very easy to get around the tourist places using a circular bus service. The deer park was beautiful. There was moss growing on the side and it was a great place to walk. The deer were fearlessly walking around, getting close to the people who offered them food. Deer biscuits were being sold at several stands in the deer park. Apparently, there is an antler cutting ceremony that occurs every year to ensure that the deer aren’t able to harmfully attack tourists. As a part of the deer park was the Kasuga-taisha, a shrine that is a UNESCO world heritage sight.

Nara Park: The fearless deer roam freely in the souvenir shopping and food street that runs from Nara Park to the Todaiji Temple. I even found one inside a souvenir shop!

Next, I walked to the Todaiji temple (built in the 8th century) which houses the Great Buddha (locally called the Daibutsu), a national treasure of Japan. I had already seen the Great Buddha at Kamakura, but this one was bigger and of a different color. It was indoors unlike the one at Kamakura.

The Diabutsu (Great Buddha) at Nara’s Todaiji Temple

Another attraction of Nara is a five story pagoda which is the oldest wooden structure in the world. Unfortunately, due to limited time (and rain), I was unable to see that. I felt like a complete tourist walking around Nara, taking pictures of things that I didn’t know much about. I missed having my host mum and dad or my professor around to answer all my questions and tell me more about what I was looking at. Still, it was nice to be able to chat with people, since english was spoken quite commonly by tourists and locals alike.

I ate udon for lunch at one of those awesome vending machine places (where you chose what you want to eat and pay for it at a vending machine in the front of the restaurant). Udon is supposed to be slightly different in the Kansai region. I think the difference lies in the broth (kansai has lighter colored broth), but having limited experience with udon, I couldn’t tell. Surprisingly, it was served with fried rice (which is strange, since noodle and rice are normally interchangeable food items that aren’t served together).

While checking out from my hostel in the afternoon, I met a spanish couple who were travelling around the world. They were on the last month of their travel and said they were exhausted. I’ve met other such travelers during this trip and I’m quite surprised by the large number of RTW (Round the World) travelers.

Day 38 continued: Organic Farming in the Kyoto countryside

For the next two weeks or so, I will be organic farming at a small town about 2 hours from Kyoto. I found the farm through an organization called WWOOF (World Wide Organization of Organic Farmers) which operates in many different countries including Japan. The concept is that farmers can host travelers or volunteers who agree to help out at their farm for 4-6 hours everyday in return for food and accomodation. The volunteers are called WWOOFers. WWOOFing during can range from one week to several months. I decided to do WWOOFing partly because it gives me an opportunity to experience the Japanese countryside, partly because it saves on travel costs, and partly because its something I’ve never done before and is bound to push me outside my comfort zone. Japan seemed to be a great place to do WWOOFing for the first time, considering how safe it is and also how hospitable people are here. The organic farm I chose is in a town called Ayabe (population~15000 people). It is near a city called Fukuchiyama and is equidistant from Osaka and Kyoto (but more inland unlike Kyoto and Osaka). The farm is pretty far away from civilization. I don’t see any convenience stores or anything nearby. My host picked me up from the train station and it took 25 minutes on the road from the train station to get here. There’s a bus which runs from the train station to my WWOOFing location, but it only runs 5 times a day, and doesn’t run on Sundays. At first, the town looked fairly populated and developed, but then we drove into lush greenery and the main town was far behind. This place is close to the river as well as the mountains. It’s like those pictures that kids draw of the sun between the mountains and a river flowing in the foreground. Infact, I saw the setting sun here and it was beautiful. The sky was flaming red. I’ve never seen such a beautiful sunset before. 
A view of the sunset from my host’s house


My beautiful room for the next two weeks
Sayaka-san, my host runs a guest house called Furumaya and has her own organic farm on the side. Having studied in the US, she speaks fluent English. She was also a round the world traveler at one point and still continues to travel (especially to Africa) as a volunteer for Doctors without Borders. She loves to cook and lives on her own, with frequent visits from her parents. Sayaka-san welcomes foreigners who are interested in seeing the Japanese countryside. There aren’t many English speaking people in the countryside, so she stands out that way and is one of the few people here who is able to communicate with foreigners. 
I am the only WWOOFer here for the next few days and I have my own room, which is besides the main house. It’s a square shaped tatami room with the most amazing view. There are some bugs and insects here, but they seem quite harmless.

Part of the farm where I’ll be working. The one in the picture is a vegetable garden. 

Wood used as firewood in the winter and for carpentry

My tasks involve things like laundry, washing dishes, folding towels, etc. as well as things on the farm, which I’ll find out about tomorrow. As of now, it doesn’t seem too difficult, but its certainly physically taxing.I have only done tasks inside the house so far, but even they have involved a fair bit of moving around, certainly more than I’m used to in Singapore. 
Sayaka-san is really friendly and said that she chose to start hosting WWOOFers so that she could spend time with backpackers and also introduce some foreigners in the Japanese countryside, which is rare as of now. 

Day 37: Kyoto encore

After a 3 hour sleep night, I walked around Kyoto excited to explore the city on my own. Kyoto is not as confusing as Tokyo in its geographic layout. It’s a grid (like New York City) and its quite easy to navigate with a map. That isn’t to say that I didn’t get lost. I did, which was great because I discovered some great places on the way.

I headed towards the Nishiki food market which was a twenty minute walk from my hostel. It was a thin row of little shops selling cooking ingredients, fish, spices, etc. I saw a diverse crowd of people there from seemingly local housewives to tourists. I loved walking around and looking at all these alien foods. I walked till the end of the lane and found myself once again at Shijo street.

Nishiki food market, Kyoto

A shop selling local snacks and sweets in Nishiki market
 There weren’t many restaurants inside the main lane but there were lots scattered just outside the area. So I chose to eat at a ramen place with a long line in front of it. It was called Ippudo and undoubtedly served the best ramen I’d ever had. The restaurant was really cute with a pleasant, lively atmosphere and friendly staff.
Inside Ippudo, a popular ramen restaurant. The decor was very well done and the restaurant played peppy music to add to the liveliness of its chatty customers. 

Below the chairs at the ramen restaurant,t here were baskets where you could place your bags and carry items. Neat, isn’t it? 

Ippudo’s original Tonkotsu broth (pork bone) with Hakata style ramen (one of the many types of ramen)

After lunch I walked back towards my hostel, stopping by at a beautiful temple and Kyoto museum.

I got back to my hostel around 4 p.m. To my surprise, I met an NUS student from Singapore there and spoke to him for some time before collecting my luggage and heading to the train station, from where I went to Nara.

Day 36: Solo Travelling

Despite two and a half more weeks in Japan, goodbyes were imminent with the end of my study abroad program. It has been exactly five weeks since I flew into Narita Airport and arrived in Tokyo. Now, I had to say goodbye to the comfort my new home and family and leave Tokyo.

Since it was a Saturday and Masaki-san was off from work, my host parents accompanied me all the way to Tokyo Station from where I would take the Shinkasen (bullet train) to Kyoto. I loved having a few last moments with them before I had to leave. It was good they came, even for practical reasons, since the ticketing machine at the train station thoroughly confused me. There were different kinds of tickets, and there were several different trains, much of which was explained in Japanese.

Goodbye Tokyo and new family!

After having said goodbye to Tokyo and to my host parents, I was on my own. This was my first time solo travelling. As I always am when I’m alone, I was more alert and more open to interacting with new people, whether through words or gestures.

I reached Kyoto around 4 p.m. in the evening and took a cab to my hostel, which was in an obscure lane of the city. Nevertheless, the hostel was cozy and comfortable, and I met some other solo travelers there. A middle aged Japanese lady who was staying at the hostel taught us how to make paper cranes. Even though she couldn’t talk to us because of the language barrier, we spent a considerable amount of time with her. After the origami session, I went to an izakaya for dinner and drinks with my three new friends: a girl from Taiwan, another from Holland and one from Germany. We were quite an internationally diverse group, also very different in personalities. That made it all the more fun. We had a lot to learn about each other and from each other.

Kyoto, unlike Tokyo, closes pretty early, and we had a hard time finding a lively izakaya. Later, we went to a convenience store and picked up some astonishingly cheap alcohol to drink back at the hostel. The sake was packaged like fruit juice. The choice of alcohol at the convenience store was incredible-there was whisky, wine, beer, everything. After spending some time drinking at the hostel, we decided that we didn’t want to leave each other’s company just yet and decided to go out clubbing. So we walked towards downtown Kyoto hoping to find a lively street. Finally, we found a place with throbbing music of different kinds and alleys leading to more bars and clubs. We made some local friends and ended up at a karoake bar, which was amazing. Even though people at the bar were all strangers, after some time, it felt like we had all known each other a life time. People were handing each other the mike as they sang global hits and people danced on top of tables. At 5 a.m. Sophie (my dutch friend) rushed to a sports bar to watch the world cup match in which Holland was playing. Bianca (my German friend) and I stumbled back to our hostel and fell asleep around 6 a.m., in the hope of catching some sleep before our checkout time at 11 a.m. I was exhausted but so satisfied. Within twelve hours of solo travel, I had already made amazing new friends and had new unexpected experiences. If there is one thing I learnt from this, it is that travelling alone can potentially be the most social part of your life if you want it to be.        

Origami at the hostel in Kyoto


Dinner and drinks with my new friends Sophie (left) and Lu (right) at an izakaya in Kyoto
My dinner: a sushi bowl, with pieces of raw fish on top of some rice
Bianca, Sophie and I with some of our new friends (blurry in the background) at a Karoake bar