On our fourth and final night near Nagoya, we had sushi. The night before, Kuni, our WWOOF host, had asked us what our favorite Japanese food was, and we had both responded that we both especially loved sushi. The question had come unprompted and the conversation had sort of died there, but I hadn't registered it as abnormal. Conversation with Kuni, bounded by questionable English and limited common experience, often went this way. English sentences were typically preceded by a look of intense concentration, usually accompanied by nodding, and were always exceptionally polite— “maybe you could please do weeding here, maaa… if that’s ok? ok.” To which we would respond, “yes, ok” and he would look satisfied, and the conversation would be over. So after the question about our favorite food, lapsing back into awkward silence around the dinner table felt, if anything, sort of natural, and my mind simply passed it by, wandering off in search of the next topic of “conversation” that I might use to fill the silence.
So when I walked in the next night to find Kuni and his wife Kaori slicing fish, I felt a mix of emotions. First, surprise and gratitude. It was a generous gesture that said more than all the broken sentences we had exchanged thus far. Second, relief. I couldn’t help but feel relief at not having to face another meal of carbs. By day 2 of our stay, both Alex’s and my digestive systems had ground to a screeching halt. Rice and miso soup for breakfast, pasta for lunch, and rice with stir fried vegetables for dinner, supplemented only by the meager proteins Alex and I could scavenge on a walk to the convenience store in our rest hour after lunch. One fun fact that I learned from the other American who was staying with the family: apparently it is a widely believed myth in Japan that Japanese people have longer intestines than the rest of the world (which they evolved because they ate so many veggies historically), and that these longer intestines explain their longer digestion times. In reality of course it’s just that they’re all constipated because they eat so much rice. For us, even with our shorter intestine, the rice was a struggle and sushi a welcome change.
Simultaneously, I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty, particularly when Kuni proudly announced that sushi was something they usually reserved for birthdays. Our host family lived simply (their primary expense was probably seeds, which they grew into vegetables which they then ate), so sushi grade fish, even from the supermarket, was clearly a luxury. It felt like whatever positive economic value we might have provided over our brief four days of amateurish farming, they were handing back in a single meal, and I just wished I could turn back the clock 24 hours to pick “udon” or “yakitori” or some other delicious Japanese food that wasn’t reserved for birthdays.
On the other hand, tempering the guilt was the budding realization that WWOOFing, and the life they lived, was definitely not about the money. I had already spent significant time bent over the weeds in the lettuce patch on our first day pondering the economics of the whole situation: why didn’t they invest in farm equipment? why not plant more land? what crops were highest ROI? At least initially, I couldn’t help but project my view of how I would run a farm— bigger, more efficient, less manual labor— and I couldn’t help but be confused at how Kuni could spend hours every day planting, weeding, harvesting, etc., by himself, in silence (by day 2 Alex and I had resorted to podcasts) and not scheme to improve the process. But with more time, it became clear: he and his wife and his adorable two-year-old Aoi-chan (pronounced Ow-wee chan—“chan” is a term of endearment used towards babies or young girls/women who have childlike, “cute” qualities) really are happy. Kuni tackles the farm labor with a Zen-like calm that I’m sure we could all learn from, and they make enough to pay the bills and buy things here and there. So if they want to cap our four-day stay with our favorite food, we should join in the celebration and eat as much of it as we can. Which we did. And the sushi was delicious.
Our four days of WWOOFing were an exceptional experience because they gave us this window into Japan that you can’t get on the tourist track, presenting little gems of culture that have reinforced our understanding of this place and how fun and weird it can be. This post is already too long, but I’ll share some highlights:
- We went to the Japanese version of Home Depot, where we got to gawk at the semi-correct English signage; we went to the grocery store, where we marveled at the whole fish in the frozen food section and bought delicious snacks we couldn’t identify.
- We met Anpanman! Anpanman (see Alex’s recent instagram / wikipedia for more) is a Japanese cartoon superhero made of anpan (bean-paste-filled bread) who saves hungry children by feeding them a piece of his head. He was also the only word that Aoi-chan, the two year old, knew (she was still working on “Mom” and “Dad”) and her stuffed Anpanman doll was by far her favorite toy, so we became intimately acquainted with him during our stay.
- We watched Japanese TV. Every evening during dinner and afterward as we lounged around on the floor in the living room, the TV was on in the background, presenting a nonstop barrage of talk shows, news broadcasts and reality shows studded with mascots and slapstick comedy. In one show that Kuni liked, the premise was simply having the host approach non-Asian people in the airport arriving in Japan, ask them why they came to Japan and then follow them when they go to a Japanese restaurant. They filter for foreigners who can speak some Japanese, which the Japanese people find tremendously entertaining (though not if they speak it too fluently; we were told that there is a Black talk show host who fakes an African accent because it plays better. Some people apparently get weirded out when foreigners speak perfect Japanese). During the news hour they aired a government press conference live, which featured three men at the podium— two in business suits, presenting, and a third dude is a wizard mascot costume, apparently there to help hype the prefecture that he represented. (For more on this, watch the first 4 mins of this amazing clip from John Oliver). We watched a drama featuring some classic Japanese ijime, or bullying, (according to our teacher friend a pretty massive problem in Japanese schools), where one teenage girl bullies another into breaking up with her boyfriend, but the boyfriend overhears the bully talking about it, so then he goes and gets back together. The climax was an emotional make up scene, where after talking for a couple mins, he pats her head and they go their separate ways. The head pat (it can only be described as a head pat) is apparently the way to show affection in public. As our American WWOOFer friend put it, “girls here just love a good head pat.” Also, side note but in all of these shows, you watch alongside a famous talk-show host whose face sits in the corner of screen, showing their reaction to whatever is onscreen. It’s a totally bizarre, more-sophisticated version of a laugh-track that is everywhere in Japanese TV.
For those looking for a different way to travel and really experience a place, WWOOFing is a great option. It was definitely not the most fun part of our travels and we’re definitely not cut out to be Japanese farmers (surprise, surprise), but we’re really happy to have tried it. Let us know if you consider it and we’d be happy to pass on more specific advice. Also, check out our photos page for further documentation of our time WWOOFing!
We miss you all! Off to Seoul on Tuesday!