Thursday, February 28, 2013

Holidays on the windy farm by the sea

Slotted goat eyes peering at me as I walk to breakfast, tofu and pumpkin pig feed mixed with my hands, and soy sauce spaghetti are a far cry from a Currier and Ives Christmas. In Japan, an ideal Christmas Day is hard to come by anyway, so this past Christmas, my friend Julie and I went all-out for an unusual and absolute non-Christmas. We made our way to a farm called Doroko Mura, or the Muddy Farm, and the only Chrsitmasy things we did were sing Christmas songs to each other while we worked, Youtube “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” and wear a Santa hat while petting a goat. But somehow, it was the perfect Christmas, and hit at the core of the Christmas Spirit.

It was Julie’s idea. Julie is actually the teacher that replaced me at the conversation school I used to work at when I left last Spring to be an elementary school English teacher. She’s a bit of a free spirit and dresses like a summer camp councilor or Eric Carle’s Mixed-up Chameleon. Her life experiences are a bit of a curious Eric Carle hodge-podge collage, too—sometimes bright and sometimes dark, but together a picture of an interesting piece of fruit or an animal (..or something a bit more poignant). She’s super sturdy and the most down to earth person.

Julie's lust for lust for new experiences and back-breaking hard work brought her to the WWOOF's Japanese Web site. WWOOF stands for Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms. It’s an organization that connects people, especially travelers, to farms where they can work in exchange for free room and board. Since our friends were all fragmented and dispersed across Japan and the rest of the globe this Christmas, at Julie’s suggestion, I quickly registered on the WWOOF Web site and soon was all set to join her in some Christmastime farm work.

The point of destination was one of the closest farms to where we live in Tahara city to the east of us on the Atsumi Pennisula. Doronko Mura is an organic farm and cake shop combination. They also run a small cafe and a farm stay experience program on the premises. These people are busy. Little did we know how involved in these different aspects of the Muddy Village we would become (or how much of that fresh, organic cake we would be eating...).

We arrived by bus on Saturday December 22 to freshly fallen rain, and actually to the farmer and Mrs. Farmer of the house out on business. We were welcomed in by the Mrs. Farmer's sister (Emi), and the farmer's mother (Grandma), who was jolly and eager to tell everyone's stories... We learned that this farm was the same location of her and her husband's farm, and so where the farmer, Hiroshi Ogasawara, grew up, raising pigs from the time he was a kid. Also staying on the farm were two resident workers who had recently graduated from university... One, Shin, a Tokyo-ite, was learning the ways of organic farming, and in the middle of a two-year stay.. after meeting him and then later checking out his facebook... it's very curious why he would leave his life in Tokyo, move way out here, and learn organic farming. The other, Ichinisanshiro, was an aspiring writer from the nearby Toyohashi, and had been on the farm for about six months, due to stay on for another half a year. Later we learned the book he was working on was a sort of science fiction... His choice to stay on this farm is curious, too. Emi, the sister, was here for a diet. Don't know exactly how that works out with all the cake-eating, but it is a noble cause. And right off the bat, throughout our chatting we consumed copious amounts of the farm's soft, fluffy chiffon cake and delicious organic coffee ^_^

After getting settled in our room--which included cleaning it, as it apparently hadn't been lived in in years... not since the little girl who's picture was on the wall had left we gathered, we explored our toilet and bathroom, which were both separate from our room, and met the goats just outside. Then we headed out to the field with Shin and Ichinisanshiro. We spent the afternoon tying cabbages,

separating out spinach, and feeding the pigs, goats, dogs, and cats.

Since they don't use fertilizers on the produce, we made friends with some fat caterpillars munching air holes in the leaves. (I couldn't help but get Joni Mitchell stuck in my head: "Hey farmer, farmer, put away your DDT. I don't care about spots on my apples, leave me the birds and the bees please. Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you got till it's gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot" ^_^)

After a hearty dinner (of course, like all our dinners, made with the farm's produce and pork), a couple of college girls arrived for a short work stay, like us. They were on their way back to university from their winter holiday spent volunteering at an assisted living center. We enjoyed talking with them and the the farmer and his wife, and we learned more about the farmer and his wife's perspective on life and their reasons for farming organically. Their two most important points are to respect where our food comes from, and the equality of life; and to respect the never-ending circle life flows in. For example, the phrase ittadakimasu. Before we eat in Japan, we always say this. Literally, it simply means "receive." But it is important to not say it only as an empty habit, but to take a moment to remember the work involved and the life in the food that gives you life. "Receive," but remember where you are receiving it from. With this respect, we can be better stewards of our planet, better members of the circle of life.

The next morning, the girls and Julie and I got up extra early and took a chilly stroll to the ocean. The wind on this farm is so severe. All day and especially at night it blows fiercely. The beach was even more intense. It was quite nice, especially so early in the morning. But we didn't stay much longer than to snap a few pictures, and then hurried back to the warm common room for breakfast, followed, of course by delicious cake and coffee ^_^

And then it was time to start a new day of work. It just so happened that they were working on remodeling their cafe that week. A hippie worker, Ippei-san, who had actually worked to build the place with a bunch of French travelers about ten years before, was back to work on it once again. Julie and I's job was tiling. LOL. Didn't know I was a tiler, did you? We scrubbed the cement floor as smooth and we could, and then started in covering it with the odds-and-ends tiles they had acquired, and cement grout. All the while, we chatted with Ippei about all kinds of things... the spiritual path everyone must find, meditation inside of a steaming pot, the rich rewards of working while traveling... and also listening to his rich singing. We chimed in here and there, but it was more fun just to listen his voice recreate Japanese folk songs, American folk songs, Eastern Indian folk songs, and all the other songs that seemed to go along with the tile and cement and cold, long cabin-esque cafe (and the odd-smelling smoke wafting from Ippei-san's direction ^_^). We were quite proud of our progress on the floor by the end of the day:

The girls left before dinner, so again it was the eight of us eating together. And again we feasted on a bit of cake and coffee. During the day, Ippei-san had invited us to a party with a bunch of people he knew at a nearby cafe. So that evening, off we went to a big, Atsumi Peninsula hippie Christmas party. So tired, but such a great, relaxing night. Yes, that's a girl belly dancing with a candelabra on her head.

In the Christmas gift exchange, I got a hard warmer, very useful on the farm; and Julie got... a box of cake. XD We got three square cake and coffes a day, but, we still ate this cake, too ^_^

The next day, we headed out of our room just as the farmer and his wife were milking the goats. Fresh, warm goat milk ^_^

That day, we continued work in the cafe. By that evening, it looked like it wouldn't be done in time, so Ippei-san called some of his friends up, and the Hippie Brigade headed over and helped us fly through a big portion of the flooring. What great friends.

And then, Christmas came. We originally had planned on leaving Christmas Day, but they told us a group of kids were going to stay Christmas Day and the next two days after, so we should stay if we could. So, we got up early, and wished the ocean a Merry Christmas

and the goats

and then started our last day of solid work. We were back in the cafe again. This time, Julie and I sung as many Christmas carols and Christmas songs as we could remember words to ^_^ Also, for the last half of the morning, Ichinisanshiro was in the cafe working with us. This is when we quite got to know him more. He and Julie practiced kendo while we were waiting for the floor to dry ^_^

And then. The kids came. First cake of the farm stay:

They did not hold back on cutting themselves cake... about the size of your head seemed to be the general rule of thumb. All the kids had stayed on the farm before--for one kid, it was his tenth time! With the kids came two other new characters: Kinpatsu Obaachan and Kurokuro Obaachan, Granny Blondie Head and Granny Curly Top... Julie and I respectively ^_^

From the time the kids came, we didn't do any real work... just played some ridiculous make-believe or chased a chicken in between the kids activities. The farmer's wife really wanted us to speak to them in English, so we tried to have fun with that.. some of the kids were really into it. Hopefully a good experience for them.

We did some farm chores with the kids the first day... I went with Shin and a group of kids to feed the pigs and the other animals. The food we fed the pigs was almost fit for humans: the leftovers from the tofu-making process, called okara, with miso and pumpkin mixed in. Looked great until we mixed in the scraps from the dinner table and around the farm. We had fun mixing it with our hands, well, sort of... so cold! This time we also went over to the chicken house, too, where they also have a couple of emu and a peacock! Wish we could be there the day the Emu decides to lay an egg... sounds delicious. These chickens are free-range of course, and not fed extra hormones, so collectively they only lay a few eggs a day in the winter. It's natural for chickens to lay eggs in the spring and warm months, and not so much in the winter. I didn't know that.

Kinpatsu Obaachan had gone with Ichinisanshiro to the fish shop down the road to collect the fish scraps. That added to the animal feed definitely didn't look appetizing. When we came back, she and her group had already started making dinner (our Christmas dinner). The kids wielding killer butcher knives and going to town on the veggies made my nerves stand on end a bit, but they were all right. Japan really gives kids a lot more responsibility in general that they get in the U.S--that's something that's been extremely evident in daily life at school. Together--the kids and their knives, led by the farmer's wife, Ichinisanshiro, and Shin, and Kinpatsu Obaachan and Kurokuro Obaachan running around throwing out bits of English, we made a Christmas dinner of soy sauce Spaghetti, meat sauce spaghetti, homemade pizza, and rice. All made with Doronko Mura vegetables and pork, or course. Dinner made with love eating it surrounded by ten little happy kids on a farm that cares about the details: this was a very good Christmas ^_^

That night, our last on the farm, the farmer baked sweet potatoes in the wood-burning stove in the kitchen, and after the kids went to bed, we had the chance to talk to them (and Ka-chan the little pooch) more about their farm. Really good to talk to genuine people who really care about what they're talking about--care so much they run a farm themselves, and are passionate about helping people understand this perspective, so host farm stays all the time.

The next day, our last, Julie and I both woke up with the colds that had been chasing us all week in full force. So, while the kids chased a chicken around the farm or something, we walked down to the clinic just next door to the farm. After the nurse checked us out, in came the doctor--an 86-year-old grandma. (!!) Still practicing medicine at 86?? Extremely impressed. Probably such a service to the people out in this bit of farmland, too. We got our medicine and came back to the farm just as the kids were finishing up in the fields. It was time to start making mochi! Mochi is a rice cake, simply rice cooked and beaten over and over until it becomes a sticky rice cake. So delicious!!

We made the mochi from the beginning. We plucked the rice from the plant... this is much easier said than done; some of the kids employed curious methods to de-rice the plants, including taking it outside and smashing it with rocks, etc. Then we cooked it, then smashed it with a hammer.

Soon we had delicious mochi! We also made kinako from scratch. Kinako is a mochi topping made from ground soy beans and sugar. We ground the soy beans ourselves with two mill stones. So cool actually!

This along with some udon noodles was our lunch for the day. We topped the mochi with soy sauce and grated Japanese radish, sweet red beans, ground sesame, and the freshly-ground kinako. Kinako was my favorite ^_^ We stuffed ourselves with as much mochi as possible, as you can see.

From there, we had time to snap a few pictures, and say goodbye to everyone. And then it was off to the bus stop to head back to our cities.

It was definitely a different rhythm of life on the farm. And from that warm-inside-freezing-and-windy-outside farm, with a regular eating and working schedule--but no rush for anything, where we hardly changed what we were wearing the entire five days, surrounded by wonderful and interesting people and tons of fun kids, and wholesome food and cake cake cake.... we both just could not bear the thought of going back alone to our empty apartments. We meant to, but then, I ended up getting on the train and going back to Nishio with Julie ^_^ It was a sort of small culture shock, and our bodies took a bit of time to readjust as well... I woke up the next morning to "Ruuuth! My eye is glued to the piiilloooow!" from Julie... her cold had made a home in her eyes, so we ran around the first half of that day trying to get it taken care of... And the medicine from the grandma doctor made me feel quite high, so I gave it up and worked through my cold the natural way.

But we have returned from our Christmas farm life. It was very informative to understand organic farming from the inside. I want to eat as much local and organic food as I can now. But we are limited. As the farmer's wife said, no, everyone can't have a farm like we do. We just hope that people will think about where their food and the other things they consume comes from, and will consider and respect the Others--people, animals, plants--in the process. For themselves, and for the future of our communities, and Earth.

Thanks Mr. Pig for the food, and thanks Mr. and Mrs. Farmer for the life you live, and thanks little ragamuffin kids for your pudgy bunny smiles ^_^ And thanks cake for the cake ^_^

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