Friday May 20, 2011 – Yamazaki-san invited me to come along with him on some errands he had to run at the elementary schools in the area. We drove to Nozuka Elementary, Hizoka Elementary, and even Yobetsu Elementary, along the way making small talk in half-English/half-Japanese, as Yamazaki and I tend to do. It was pretty fun, and I was quite pleased at the amount of Japanese that I was able to use. On the way back, Yamazaki surprised me by stopping at some of the local organic farms.
As it turns out, not far outside of the village of Bikuni (美国町) where I live, there are several organic farms. These farms are part of WWOOF, a network of organizations that facilitates worker exchanges from country to country, all over the world. (WWOOF – World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) Basically, people can volunteer to work on an organic farm to learn how organic agriculture is done. In exchange for their labor, the farms provide room and board. While it’s all about sharing information and experience, it doesn’t make you any money. What’s really cool about the program is that they have organizations in so many countries around the world, so there are tons of possibilities, if you have the time and desire to do it. WWOOF can’t help you get a work visa though, so typically workers will be in a country for about 3 months, until their tourist visa expires.
I already knew all about WWOOF, for having become a fairly hippified Seattleite, I had paid close attention to matters of food and agriculture. In fact, while in the midst of quarter-life crisis, I had seriously considering quitting my office job to volunteer with WWOOF. I had figured that would go to either Japan or Italy. It’s actually pretty ironic that having followed my Plan A (teaching English in Japan) that I would end up coming to essentially the same place as my Plan B (volunteering on an organic farm in a foreign country).
The first farm that Yamazaki brought me to actually had two foreigners cutting potatoes near the road. One fellow was from Taiwan and the other was from Chicago! Having been told that I was the only foreigner ever to register for residence in my village, I was shocked to see another white guy so close to my new home, especially another Midwest native. The American was named Dave, and he was visiting Japan on the regular tourist visa. He planned to work at this particular farm for about one month, then move on to another. At some point before his visa ran out, he was going to go hang out with friends south of Hokkaido. Maybe I was just super impressed with the fact that he was really living the WWOOF life, but I thought he was pretty cool guy.
Yamazaki then took me to a second farm run by the Abe family and that one just blew me away. The dirt road we took to get there was steep and winding, and Yamazaki’s minivan seemed to just barely make the climb without sliding off. When we reached the top of the hill, the trees parted to reveal that we were in a mountain valley, and at the top of the hill was quaint little log cabin-esque house.
The hill on which the house stood was situated seemingly at the center of valley, creating a spectacular view in all directions. The rolling hills made for a picturesque landscape, like a stereotypical fictional farm scene from the packaging of an American dairy product. However, the rolling hills were surrounded by mountains, some of which still had snow at their peaks, which made for an awesome background on a Lord of the Rings scale. I was kicking myself for not bringing my camera, because the thought occurred to me that this might be the single most beautiful place that I had ever seen…and I’ve been to Hawaii.
Yamazaki-san and I stopped at the idyllic farm house, and Mrs. Abe came out to greet us. To my surprise, she spoke English quite well! After showing me some rows of garlic that they were growing, she showed us inside. The inside of the house was very interesting. It definitely had a mountain cabin feel to it, but it was didn’t seem especially Japanese. Yamazaki asked me if it was made in the western style, and I told him that thought it was probably somewhere in between.
Mrs. Abe put on some water for tea and spoke with me a bit in English. As she explained, every summer, foreigners from all around the world would come to work on the Abe Farm, through the WWOOF program. Typically these workers didn’t know any Japanese, so the Abe family had gotten pretty good at conversing in English. She asked me about my family and told me a bit about her kids. Eventually, Mrs. Abe and Yamazaki-san got talking about the town in Japanese, and I found myself unable to understand much of what was being said. After a while, Yamazaki said that it was getting late and we needed to leave. Everyone had been so fixed on conversation that we didn’t actually brew any tea.
As we were leaving, Mrs. Abe told me that I was welcome to come out to their farm anytime. In fact, if I wanted to do some farm work, WWOOF-style as it were, she said that I could help out whenever I wanted! As a parting gift, Mrs. Abe sent me home with some organic eggs, laid by her farm’s chickens that morning. I’m honestly pretty anxious to go back.
Friday evening (May 20th), I walked out to Fuji Sushi just before 10:00pm. I needed to drop off the contract for my apartment to landlord, Mrs. Sato, who runs the sushi restaurant. My timing was very bad, however, because Fuji Sushi was closed and there didn’t seem to be anyone inside.
The weather in Shakotan was just starting to warm up a bit. For the first time I could remember, the air was still. Usually, a chill sea breeze would be making my walk fairly miserable, but at the moment the winds had calmed. While it was a bit misty out, I actually felt comfortable in just a track jacket. In fact, it made me think of Seattle. Since I was already out, and had literally nothing to do, I decided to just wander around town and enjoy the night air.
Amid my wandering, I walked past a restaurant called マミ(Mommy). Across the narrow street from the restaurant, there was a minivan with its lights on. Inside, it appeared that a mother and son were either packing the car for a trip, or cleaning it out. I recognized the kid as one of my students from the Junior High and said a polite “Konbanwa” as I walked by. It took the student a moment to recognize me in the dark, but then is a confused voice he asked, “Lucas-sensei? Mr. Lucas?!” and came bounding out of the van to greet me. I had planned to walk on by, but since he seemed pumped to talk with me, I stopped and chatted for a bit.
The student was named Hasegawa, and was in his third year at the junior high. (Japan’s educational system is 6-3-3, so the third year of junior high is ninth grade.) He explained to me, as best he could in English, that the restaurant was run by his family, and he actually lived in the same building. He introduced me to mother Hasegawa (the “Mommy” from whom the restaurant derived its name) and as one would expect, she was very kind. The student asked me where I was going and I explained that I was just going for a walk, which must have seemed a little weird.
We weren’t chatting outside the restaurant for long before a younger Hasegawa brother appeared. He was only a fourth grader at the elementary school, but he was able to say “hello”, “my name is…”, and “nice to meet you”. After the elder brother forced him introduce himself to me, he was off again. It wasn’t long before a middle Hasegawa brother appeared as well. He was in his first year of junior high (7th grade) and once he came into the light, I also recognized him from class. Seeing the two brothers together, the family resemblance was very clear.
Mother Hasegawa even brought Grandma outside to meet me. It was a real treat to meet the whole Hasegawa clan. Then Mother Hasegawa game me an espresso drink for the road. (The Japanese are really into giving gifts.) The espresso drink proved to be an instant wave of nostalgia, not just because it was a pre-packaged iced latte, but also because the brand name was “Mt. Rainier”. The packaging looked like your stereotypical café take-away cup, with a green color scheme and a picture of Seattle’s mountain on it.
I tried to leave a couple times, but the elder Hasegawa was really excited to talk about a badminton tournament that he was competing in the following day, as well as asking me questions about the differences between American and Japanese schools. Eventually, another student who lived next door also came out to chat. At this point, the elder Hasegawa asked me if I played badminton. When I told him that didn’t, he said “One moment, please” and disappeared into the restaurant. He returned a moment later with two badminton rackets and a birdie. (By the way, did you know that the proper name for a badminton birdie is “shuttlecock”? I think I just discovered the title of my memoirs.)
In the street, at around 10pm at night, the junior high students showed me the basics of badminton. It was quite the unlikely scene, hitting the birdie back and forth in the light of the street lamp. We did our best to be quiet and kept alert of cars (although none ever drove by). Each of the three students jumped in at some point to play.
Eventually, the elder Hasegawa said that he had to be getting to bed because they were driving to Otaru early the next morning for the tournament. I was honestly shocked that I had stuck around so long. I thanked the students for the lesson, thanked Mother Hasegawa for the coffee, and was on my way.