June 9, 2011

There’s nothing quite like waking up three thousand feet somewhere above the pacific ocean.

Shuffling through five airports for a marathon day, the night lasting six hours longer than it should have, watching the land and the sea roll by with perfect strangeness; it passed as a waking dream. Raleigh to Chicago to Los Angeles, long waits, huddling travelers, fluorescent lights giving the whole scene a clinical mood. Travelling, it’s  serious business. Los Angeles to Tokyo, passing through customs at 3 in the morning (“where is your baggage? what’s your address in Japan?”) in some new time zone, stepping out into a cold, soft rain in front of an airport possibly designed by Apple, with an aria softly playing over the overhead speakers. Whatever, I’m just glad to be out of the US. I bought a toothbrush.

Tokyo to Osaka, desperate for a change of clothes (someone had lost my luggage), some kind of nori-wrapped finger food, keeping those calories up. Pulling out the pocket translator: ” Sasayamaguchi e-ki wa do-no sen des ka?” “So chi ra.” First a train into the thicket of Osaka. Immediately, I noticed that most every undeveloped piece of land (not much is this dense urbia, but it added up to a significant amount) beautifully hilled and growing vegetables of all kinds.

The city. Carnival games for peanuts

I threw some yen into a payphone.

“Gen, I’m in Osaka”

“When does the next train leave?”

“I’m watching it go right now.”

20 minutes for the next train. A few thousand people walked by. Walked on, sat down.

Looking through the train window, I watched the dense sprawl scatter into endless rice fields, neat rectangular plots roughly a hundred feet squared, flooded with fresh shoots being dropped in the mud by a machine that looked like it should be in a 1980’s b-rate science fiction movie. We darted in and out of mountain tunnels while a couple of Japanese girls talked in giggles across from me.

I got to Sasayama sometime that afternoon, which was sometime in the middle of the night for my internal clock, wearing the same ratty jeans and t-shirt, musty from the long, temperature-controlled sedentary flights, without my proper luggage and no real grip on the language.


So what am I doing in Japan? Well, to start, the sustainable agriculture program I’ve been hacking away at requires a “co-op experience” credit; a summer internship in some way related to agriculture. I thought well, why not a foreign country? I chose Japan for a few reasons. 1. Food. Over the last few months I have been learning different fermentation techniques, especially in regards to a macrobiotic (simple, whole foods) diet, a concept based on traditional Japanese cuisine. There is not much about Japanese food that I don’t like (excluding the more modern over processed, over packaged snack foods, but even some of those are at least interesting.) 2. Rice production. Rice can only successfully be grown on a small scale, something that has kept it from being over-industrialized a la wheat and corn. Grains and other dry staples are often missing from the small-scale local farm. Even today, rice production does not rely as heavily on pesticides and fertilizer, just because of the way it is grown. It’s delicious too. 3. Masanobu Fukuoka, author of the one-straw revolution, who birthed the concept of “natural farming”. More of an esoteric reason for travelling here, as, from what I’ve heard, his farm has gone downhill since his death. There is at least one farmer in the area using his techniques, whom I will meet next week. Add to this list the music, the aesthetics, the meticulous culture, and the opportunity to have my world upended and that is why I’m here.

But then there is Fukushima and the tsunami, you ask. I am five-hundred or so miles away from Fukushima and frankly, chances are the water you are drinking and the food you are eating are filled with their own toxins, carcinogens and nastiness to keep your nightmares fresh every night. I have been assured that I’m far enough away to avoid any serious health concerns, and the food and atmosphere I’m surrounded by on a daily basis are healthier than anything I’ve come across in the states. Though Midori, the Sasayama household matriarch, has warned me that latent radiation could cause some kind of laziness disorder. Like the people around Hiroshima. I’ll take my chances.

I finally got a decent nights sleep.

The next morning was one of those mornings where things are too unreal to fully wake up to, where you act like you know exactly what you’re doing, getting out of bed (who’s bed?), splashing some water on my face (it’s my face, but who’s mirror?), walking into the kitchen (who’s kitchen?). It’s a travel hangover. Out on the front porch (who’s porch?) I sat down , not really sure what to make of it all yet.

The farm’s name is “Nou-en” roughly translated to “agricultural help,” and is run by a couple of superhuman freaks, Anna Lodico and Gen Garyu. They’ve been at it for only a couple of years, and from the snips of stories and the visual history of the place, there hasn’t been much down time. There are two main fields, a couple of goats, a hobby garden that has a life of it’s own, a hand-built, cedar-framed house in the works (with hand-plastered mud walls), an english school (there were two, but one closed after the teachers left the country in the wake of the tsunami), and a rental property to host volunteers in. They send these volunteers around the community to help the aging farmers with different tasks. A planting that would have normally taken an entire day for one person is done in a matter of minutes, giving the farmers a much needed break. The average age of the farming population around here seems to be between 60 and 80, and is in rapid decline as fields go fallow and kids leave for the city.

There are three other workers here with me, Masa and Hanako from Japan, and Chrissy from Maryland. Masa knows everything (ever), Hanako is a piece of heavy machinery, and Chrissy can’t stop being enthusiastic. Gen and Anna have a daugter, Mio, who thoroughly enjoys reorganizing the kitchen onto the floor, making farting sounds, and trying to drink from the dog bowl. Midori, the mom, keeps us all in shape.

So far the biggest problem seems to be the low doorways, which I have hit my head on far too many times, so I’ve made it a habit to walk through the house somewhat stooped.

Now let me tell you about the food.

There is a wall of pickled and fermented things. Umeboshi, misos of all sorts, beer-pickled daikon, pickled okra, beans, beets, carrots. Oh my god. There is a wood-fired oven outside for the weekly bread bake. There is a constant supply of fresh vegetables, and bags of rice given by the farmers they have helped. So basically everything is either grown here or grown near here. Masa and Hanako are both amazing in the kitchen, and dinner every night is a monumental affair. My standards of living are starting to shoot through the roof and I either have the option of learning how to cook like this or live the rest of my life in the looming shadow of wild-boar curry, homemade umeboshi, and Hanako’s sweet-pea soup. This week we’ll make cheese and natto, among other things.

So that’s life right now; in the fields, eat, in the fields, eat, sleep, eat , in the fields…

Here are some intermittent pictures:

The main house; Ka sa gai


Hilled potatoes, Anna, Mio, Masa

Hornet's nests

Some neighborly farmers. They haven't tilled their fields in two years, practicing a "natural farming" technique. They also gave some insight on rice growing.


Yesterday I had the day to relax, so Midori, Anna and I went to see Midori’s guitar teacher, who also teaches Koto, Shamisen and a handful of other instruments. He played some songs for us and then gave me a quick introduction to playing. Here he is doing what he does:

Ok, I’m  off to go “dispatch” a troublesome rooster who has been beating up the hens.


4 Responses to “Japandrew”

  1. Laziness disorder… I just shared a pan of brownies with Erick Beebe.

  2. Celeste Honaker said

    Andrew, this is so fascinating! I enjoyed your biking blog and feel now like I am experiencing some of Japan. Have been praying for you and will continue to do so. Glad you made it. Celeste (your Mom’s friend). 🙂

  3. Hannah said

    I love that you went to japan! Keep me updates, miss you a ton!

  4. Debbie Sineath said

    I never leave the Carolinas so I really am enjoying being in Japan via your blog. I especially love the pictures. You need to write a book about this experience as well as the bike trip across the USA. Keeping you in prayer. Debbie Sineath

    PS Am looking forward to seeing all the bees at your parent’s house soon.

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