We had expected that working on the farm might be challenging given that we did not speak Japanese, but we quickly settled in. Takao-san’s English was excellent, so our instructions were clear, and he was full of fascinating stories. We learned his English was so good because he had spent two years in Zambia with the Japanese-equivalent of the Peace Corps. He arrived having not spoken English since high school more than ten years before and left fluent. By contrast Hisami-san and Grandpa did not speak much, if any English, but they still made us feel welcome. And little Mi-chan kept us entertained. She was the most animated person we have met… possibly ever! Eric thought she was just like a real-life anime character. She could be hilariously silly, but she could also go from calm to mad in a single second. This was all the more amusing because we never had any idea what she was mad about.
The traditional farm house they live in has lots of rooms with sliding doors separating them. It is not insulated which meant it was very cold most of the time we were there! They had a kerosene heater for the small room where we ate most of our meals and the room Hisami-san uses for her restaurant, and an electric heater for the bathroom. In front of the heater, it was cozy, but everywhere else it was cold, and we wore our coats and hats morning till night no matter what we were doing. The only time we ever took our jackets off was in the middle of the day when the sun was out and we were working. It was so cold in the evenings, we were snuggled in our futon beds on the floor every night by 9pm and sometimes by 8pm. We slept ten hours almost every night at the farm and we slept well!
The farm had a structured schedule, so we easily fell into a routine even though the work each day was different. Breakfast was served every morning at 6:30am. We had lunch around noon and dinner around 6:30pm. At roughly 10am and 3:30pm every day, everyone gathered together for teatime – a delightful tradition on this farm in which we interrupted our work to have tea and cookies. We usually had some free time between 4pm and 6pm which we would use for reading, practicing Japanese, daily yoga, and occasionally nap time.
Meals, at least in the beginning, consisted of white rice, miso soup, boiled vegetables and barley tea. The rice and tea were only ever hot in the morning, an added incentive to get out of a cozy bed. Even though Takao-san and Hisami-san had coffee in the kitchen before breakfast, they did not offer us any. We suffered through our caffeine withdrawal headaches on the second day on the farm and were fine after that. On the eighth day, Takao-san made us coffee for teatime because he was heating water for the quail chicks’ hot water bottle anyway. It was a lovely treat!
After the first few days of white rice and miso soup three times a day, we were pretty hungry and wondering how we were going to last the week. Just as we were thinking that, it happened to be Takao-san’s birthday and Hisami-san made him a fancy birthday dinner. We had duck legs with potatoes and white rice. It was the first time we had seen any duck meat and we were pretty excited! There were six people and five duck legs, so we shared one to leave one for each of the rest of them. Towards the end of the meal, one duck leg was still sitting on the plate. We were hoping Hisami-san would take hers, but Grandpa reached in and took a second leg! If we had known that is what was going to happen, we would have eaten it from the start!
Mi-chan had also made turkey sandwich cones with egg salad and cheese from a kid’s cookbook. She was pretty excited about them, and they were “oishi” (delicious). Mi-chan also made her dad a beautiful birthday cake decorated with globs of cream, fruit slices, and silver balls, into which she stuck these hilariously long candles. She was so proud of it!
We ate well that night and realized the meals might have been very light in the beginning partly to see what kind of guests we were going to be. It would be possible for WWOOFers to eat them out of house and home if they were not careful. There was still white rice with almost every meal, but slowly more variety was added in. One evening we had delicious homemade bread with smoked duck, carrots, and lettuce. No rice! Another evening, Mi-chan had a fit about something right before dinner. We are pretty sure it was about not wanting rice again, but we may have been projecting our own feelings. In the end, it seemed like Mi-chan won though because we had spaghetti bolognese.
On his birthday, Takao-san opened a bottle of red wine and poured us each a glass. He drank most of the rest of the bottle but left a small glass or two in the bottom. We did not have red wine again, so the splash sat in the bottle on the floor of the kitchen waiting for the next special occasion. Takao-san told us the wine was from the local winery and that he takes their leftover grape skins and seeds and puts them in his fields. It is neither particularly good nor particularly bad for the rice, but the winery would have to pay to dispose of the waste, so by taking it, he can help them keep the price of the wine lower. This was one of many stories Takao-san told us that demonstrated how community-minded he is.
Takao-san has a total of 22 fields and he wishes he had more like six. The community in the village is aging, and as people are finding they cannot tend to their fields, they donate them to Takao-san. He has fields in random places all over town. On at least eight of his fields he does not have to pay rent and can keep all of the profits. This sounds good for him, but people seem to give him lots of things that result in more work for him. Luckily, he is quite adept at making use of WWOOFers so he can manage it all.
One day when we were processing ducks, a farmer called and said he had some rice paddy ducks he needed to get rid of. He dropped off the crates of ducks by the butchery, but Takao-san did not have time to process them, so he had to take them back to his house and put them in his chicken coop. Takao-san will get to keep the duck meat and can sell it, but now he has twenty more ducks he has to process, and we will be gone by the time he finds time to do it. Another day, a friend was getting rid of some old laying hens, so he dropped them off at Takao-san’s house. This was a win for us because it meant we suddenly got a lot more eggs to eat. However, it also meant Takao-san now had too many chickens in his chicken coop.
The chickens were starting to look a bit gross because they were all losing their feathers. At first we wondered if they had some kind of skin disease, but after watching the chickens for a while, we decided they were just pecking at each other. There was one particularly mean chicken who kept terrorizing the new ducks. It was enough of a problem we put the chicken in isolation for a few hours, which seemed to help temporarily. It did not take long after we let her out again for her to be back to her old antics though. We suggested to Takao-san he might want to process 21 chickens on chicken day instead of 20.
The new chickens laid a lot of eggs. Every day we would gather the eggs and take them into the kitchen to wash them. If there were any eggs with cracks or other problems, we separated them for Hisami-san to deal with. We also kept the eggs separated by day so Hisami-san could sell the freshest ones. One morning just before lunch, Takao-san told us we could gather the eggs because chickens do not lay eggs after noon. That afternoon when we were spreading grass in the chicken coop, we looked in the laying area and there were so many eggs! The new chickens did not seem to know about the afternoon laying rule. Some of them had not found the laying area either, so they laid them on the ground which made for a delicate egg hunt each day.
One lovely morning we had fried eggs with our rice and miso soup. One of the eggs was very orange. Takao-san said the egg was from the new hens, and the color was from their feed. He does not feed his chickens corn, so their eggs are not as brightly colored. In a week, all the new chickens will be laying lighter eggs. Apparently, the Japanese like very orange eggs as they think it is a sign of the quality. As a result, some farmers feed their chickens marigold powder or saffron to make the yolks orange. Takao-san has a friend in Thailand who raises marigolds exclusively to sell the powder to poultry farmers in Japan!
While he will get eggs all year round, most of his other farming work drops off over winter, so he picks up shifts at one of the three local sake breweries. He explained that traditionally the workers at the brewers do not get a day off for the entire season. However, two workers who work at a different brewery from him have asked to have one day off each week. Takao-san, being who he is, has volunteered to be the rotating peg in the schedule so they can have days off.
While we were there, Takao-san had some initial meetings at the brewery to get set up for the winter work. At the first meeting, they discussed a new method of hanging the sake bags for the filtration process. The old method involved tying a rope and was time consuming. Someone suggested using a stick to tie the rope to the pole, and, of course, Takao-san volunteered to make the sticks. He cut some bamboo from his land in foot-long pieces and then broke those into ten sticks each using a hammer and chisel. Eric used the grinder and Takao-san used the edge of a circular saw to sand the sticks. Jess finished them with sandpaper so they were smooth. Takao-san remarked that this was very fancy sake, and we should think so with hand-sanded bamboo sticks! He took the sticks to the brewery at the next meeting.
There was a never-ending cycle of people dropping things off and asking for help, and Takao-san did all of it with a smile on his face. The day we were fixing the rice thresher’s fuel tank, a neighbor brought over a truck full of “firewood”. It was a bunch of old lumber with treacherous nails poking out of it everywhere. We helped unload the wood and then the neighbor pointed out he was having a problem with the gate on his truck. Takao-san and Grandpa paused their fuel tank welding project to weld the neighbor’s truck. A few minutes later, a couple showed up to pick up six bags of rice husks to use as mulch for their garden. This was the first time we had seen anyone do anything for Takao-san that did not create additional work for him or without immediately expecting something in return.
It turns out the “firewood” came in handy the very next day, so it was more helpful than we had imagined the day before. That morning we were outside bright and early, bundled up in our coats as usual, helping to set up for a university class. Like the fifth grade class project, Takao-san had offered to teach a lesson to a class of university students from Matsumoto University on turning ducks into food. Our job was to make two roaring fires and kept them stoked. One was for the feather-loosening hot water. The other was for the soup we were going to make. Takao-san was also lighting a can stove for frying. The fire starting went very well and we had two great fires going by 8am. The only problem was: the students were not arriving until 9am, and we would not be cooking soup until closer to 10am. We had started way too early and had to keep adding wood to keep the fires lit for hours. Good thing we had so much wood!
For some reason, the pots had been filled with water very early too, and the pot in which the soup was going to be cooked had a very small lid. This meant we had spent roughly an hour boiling the wooden lid in the soup water, and the water was now rather brown. Eric was quite concerned this was not a good idea, but Takao-san did not seem to think it was a problem. He laughed, tasted the soup water, and said, “ok, ok, more minerals.”
While we were waiting for the students to arrive, we heard a noise in the trees. Takao-san said it was monkeys and ran off to get something. Thinking he was running to get a camera, Eric went to get ours too. Takao-san came back with two cap-gun pistols and a laser pointer. The monkeys were just on the other side of Takao-san’s fence. He handed one cap gun to Jess and said, “chase, chase.” Running after monkeys while firing any kind of gun is not Jess’s preferred posture towards monkeys, so she ran rather halfheartedly behind Takao-san who was yelling and waving the laser pointer around. She pulled the trigger a few times and was a little sad about it. Eric came back with the camera and Jess had to inform him we had chased the monkeys away. Apparently the monkeys wreak all sorts of havoc on the farm, so Takao-san tries to scare them back into the forest.
With the monkeys gone, we continued setting up for the students. When they arrived, Takao-san showed them how to kill the ducks. This time he did not use the cones; he just held the duck upside down over pile of grass. One student tried to kill the second duck but was not very good at it, so Takao-san had to take over. He put the duck in the hot water, and then just like the fifth graders, the students pulled off the feathers. Takao-san burned the smallest feathers with a blowtorch and then Takao-san and Mi-chan butchered both ducks. Part of the lesson this time was cooking the duck. The students cooked the gizzards over the can stove. Hisami-san showed the students how to cook soup in the massive pot with lots of vegetables. When the soup was finished, the students handed a bowl of soup to every person including us. It was delicious!
While we were eating, the professor had some of the students say a few words. Then each member of Takao-san’s family, including Grandpa was asked to speak. Finally she looked at Jess and said, “please say something.” Jess hesitated, having no idea what anyone else had said, and the professor said “English is ok.” Well, that is a relief! Jess’s Japanese lessons had not included anything about duck butchering yet. Jess said this was a good experience for us because we do not get to see this at home and thanked the students for sharing it with us. Then Eric was asked to speak. He did not have much more to add, so he said, “thank you for the soup!”
It turns out the university lesson was quite lucrative for Takao-san. He told us excitedly the next day that the professor had come by and dropped off money from the students to compensate him for the two ducks, the vegetables he provided, and for his and Hisami-san’s time. It was clear this influx of cash was a big deal for them.
Takao-san is hugely generous with his time in the community, but it was also clear how important his family is to him. It was amazing to watch Takao-san and Hisami-san with Mi-chan at meal after meal. They had a very playful relationship with her. Every night after dinner, one of the members of the family would do an activity with her. Sometimes it was related to homework, like seeing how far she could get on a sheet of multiplication problems in one minute. This was funny to listen to because it sounded like a string of nonsense sounds to us – “roku, yonju hachi, jugo, goju yon, yaku yonju yon”. Usually after she recorded how many she got at the top of the sheet, Mi-chan would turn the tables and hold the paper up for Hisami-san or Grandpa, whoever was helping her.
Sometimes the activity was educational, like giving her a country to find on the globe. Hisami-san would say “Azerbaijan” and Mi-chan would search for it for a while and then say in Japanese, “what is it near?” After listening for a while, Jess tried to suggest she find Peru, a country name Jess was sure would be similar in Japanese. Mi-chan seemed uncertain about whether that would be a place she could find on the globe until her mom confirmed she should look for “Perū“. Sometimes Takao-san would set up a still life for them to draw together. One still life was of a pencil case with pencils and erasers in it, and Mi-chan got a bit distressed when she realized she had drawn a line in the wrong place. Every Sunday night Mi-chan watches an animal documentary before bed. We got to see two of them. The first one was about a sucker fish that grabbed on to coral and glass tanks with suction cups under its body. What a crazy creature! The second one was about bats.
While Grandpa was in town, he got in on the action too. One evening he helped with a homework assignment that required drawing triangles of certain sizes. Mi-chan did not have a compass, so Grandpa was showing her how to use a make-shift one with a pin on one end and a string tied to a pencil on the other. One of the triangles ended up the wrong size because of some imprecise measuring, so he helped her fix it. On another evening, Grandpa challenged Mi-Chan to Gomokunarabe, a game of connect five using go pieces and a go board. Grandpa won the first game and challenged Mi-chan to a second game. We could not understand what he was saying to her, but he kept laughing, and when she lost the second game, she went from happy to crying and stomping her feet animatedly in no time. To try to make her feel better, Eric played a round of Gomoku with Grandpa and lost. Then Jess tried. She did not really know what she was doing, but she won! Never mind that Grandpa had to point it out. Grandpa was so surprised Jess had won that he challenged her again, and she won again!
We loved hanging out with this family even though we could not understand much of their communication. We would often hang out in the room with the kerosene heater reading while they spent this time together. Afterwards, they would prepare for bath time, and we would retire to our room for the night.
We worked on the farm for seven days before we had an afternoon off. In a ten-day period, Takao-san would typically give his WWOOFers one day off. We had specifically asked to have the 7th off because Rory and Gen (the friends we made in South Korea) would be in Matsumoto just 30 minutes away that day. Takao-san needed our help for chicken butchering that morning, so we offered to have two afternoons off instead of a full day.
On our first free afternoon, we took the train out to meet Rory and Gen. When we saw them in Tokyo, they had forgotten to bring the blue bag we had left in the hostel in Gyeongju, South Korea, a month before and that they had been carrying around since. We obviously had to see them again! It was as fun as always to meet up with them, and most importantly, the blue bag saga had finally come to an end. They had explored Matsumoto castle in the morning, so we just wandered around the city with them visiting temples, walking down frog street, and seeing Matsumoto Castle from the outside. We told stories of our respective adventures since we had last seen each other. We had Indian food with them for dinner and then caught the train back to Azumino so Hisami-san could pick us up before everyone went to bed.
On our second free afternoon, Hisami-san drove us to the local onsen (Japanese hot spring). For Y550 ($5.08) per person, we had access to a nice facility with indoor and outdoor hot spring baths. This was a big upgrade from the free onsen we found in Hirayu. The outside baths were beautiful with pine trees and red shrubs around them. There were views of the city and mountains from the hot springs. Inside there was a sauna, a warm jacuzzi, and hot and cold baths, plus the traditional line of showers. We spent two glorious hours here warming up after days of feeling cold. We soaked up so much warmth, we did not need our top layer of coats for the rest of the evening.
On our ninth day, Takao-san had a meeting of the Organic Growers Association in Nagano prefecture, so he had to go to Obuse for the day. Since he would be gone for the whole day, he took us with him so we could explore Obuse. He also brought Mi-chan which seemed odd; we thought she would be painfully bored at a growers meeting, but she did not seem to mind. Obuse was an hour and a half drive away, and Mi-chan was helping navigate from an atlas. When we got close, the atlas was not detailed enough, so Eric had to help find the cafe where the meeting was taking place on Google Maps. Takao-san arrived at the meeting a few minutes late and rushed into the cafe telling us to meet him back there at 3pm. We had inadvertently found ourselves with another free day and an unexpected opportunity to visit another Japanese small town.
We visited the Hokusai museum dedicated to the painter of the Great Wave off Kanagawa which is one of the most recognized works of Japanese art. It is part of Katsushika Hokusai’s 36 Views of Mount Fuji series from the 1830s. The museum was beautiful and displayed a lot of Hokusai’s less well-known works. There were a couple of short films that described Hokusai’s life and his influence on Western artists. Despite having created thousands of beautiful works and being nicknamed, “the old man mad about art”, on his deathbed he said, “if only Heaven will give me just another ten years … Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter.”
After the museum, we wandered around town exploring open gardens and trying chestnut sweets the town is known for. At 3pm we met Takao-san and Mi-chan back at the car and discovered the car battery was dead! Takao-san was surprised; it was the first time in 23 years he had had a flat battery and he did not have jumper cables. We tried pushing the car to start it, but the car wheels could not get enough traction in the gravel parking lot. Pushing the car into the road to get better traction did not seem safe, so we borrowed jumper cables from someone who had attended the growers meeting and got the car started. It took us two and a half hours to get home and we returned just in time for dinner.
We were sad to say goodbye to Takao-san, Hisami-san, and Mi-chan two days later. We learned a lot from our experience working and living with them and are grateful for their generosity in opening their home to us in such a kind way.