Yahiko-6501 弥彦神社 Yahiko Shrine

16 tips for travelling rural Japan

japanese countryside tokushima

View of Sanagouchi, the last village in Tokushima Prefecture — Photo by Athena Lam

0. Some Tips & resources:

These may make more sense after reading through the explanations below. But in case this piece is too long to read, I’ve listed some resources here first:

1. Business hours are recommendations.

Time has a different meaning in the rural areas. While websites may give specific opening times, sometimes shops close because an owner needs to run an errand or the restaurant has sold out for the day. The words “営業中” is pronounced eigyo-chu, which means they a place is currently serving customers.

2. Use cash.

For a super advanced technology and service country, Japan has some things that remain resolutely analogue. Payments in cash is one of them. Since Japan is a safe place, people regularly carry north of ¥20,000 (US$200) on them. For some years, it was a popular style for men to have long wallets waving out of their back pockets. Of course, use common sense such as splitting up your cash between your wallet and a safe spot in your bag.

When getting Japanese Yen, I suggest you get ¥10,000 (US$100) bills. It will save you a massive pile of money (¥10,000 / US$1000 is only 10 bills!). Then, break your change at a 24/7 convenience store or train station. There is no minimum purchase to break a bill, so you can buy a ¥100 (US$ 1) bottled drink and they will give you ¥9,900 back in bills and coins.

Unless you’ve pre-paid for your accommodations and transportation, I would suggest bringing enough cash to cover both that and your daily food and activity expenses. My Mastercards didn’t work half the time in Japan; AE worked if it was accepted. I was using cash most of my year in Tokyo, too.

3. Local trains and buses are reliably…sparse.

shikoku JR yosan line ishizuchi train

Rural areas also have special scenic train lines — Photo by Athena Lam

Many local trains wind through mountains and sail along the coast. Unlike the Shinkansen, bullet trains, that race through the urban centres, local trains stop at every sleepy village along their routes. However, many of the most untouched rural areas also have infrequent service. Trains heading from main stations to the countryside may stop at different stations. For example, some will only travel half-way, and some may travel turn at a fork along a different route.

If you are adventurous and want to try reading the signs (which are in Japanese), look up your stop in Japanese first to save the name. Then, check all the stops along the train route to see whether your station is along all the trains passing through.

Tip: Stick to the train you searched on Hyperdia or Google Maps.

For buses: Take buses only if you are prepared. Prepared means knowing your exact bus times and stops, and having the name of your destination printed in Japanese to show the bus driver. Japanese bus drivers are super polite and try earnestly to help, but they also cannot be expected to understand English (written or spoken). They probably cannot answer any questions in English. As long as you can show them your exact bus stop (not just an address of where you want to go, because they may not know which is the closest stop), they will make sure to stop for you and signal to you.

4. Drive…if you can.

The highlight of rural Japan is the scenery, which is easiest to access with a car.

Note that Japan drives on the left side of the road like the British system. Also note that you need an international driver’s license to rent a car.

The great news about driving in Japan is that everything is much slower. In cities, many local roads have a 30 km/hr limit and drivers always yield to cyclists and pedestrians. There’s rarely honking, so you can take your time to figure out where you’re going.

Many of Japan’s most scenic spots are in the rural areas, such as in the mountains or along coastal routes. I would highly recommend driving in places like Hokkaido so that you can maximise enjoying the scenery at the most optimal time rather than trying to catch the one bus that goes somewhere.

National car rental companies include: ORIX, Nippon-Rent-a-Car and Toyota-Rent-a-Car.

5. Use a map.

Reception is sometimes unreliable in rural areas, so having a backup is always good! I recommend the offline Maps.me (available on iOS and Android) and downloading an area map before leaving the city. Google Maps also has ‘geo-tags’ for spots, so you can copy your favourite places into your new app to see the pins.

Offline maps are particularly useful for hiking in remote areas to find trail heads.

6. Eat what you can’t read.

Hotel Gujo hachiman ホテル郡上八幡

Gujo Hachiman is also just as good for Hida beef — Photo by Athena Lam

Japan’s local villages may look similar on the surface with their tiled roofs, wooden structures, and tatami mat rooms. However, the real charm is in their hidden specialities, such as katsuo tataki in Kochi Prefecture or Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki with yakisoba. Japanese communities are proud of their traditions and show them off with posters and stores on the main street. If you see a line-up, join in and order whatever everyone else is ordering (most places have one signature food).

7. Take maps with a big grain of salt.

map of mount ishizuchi shrine

Japanese maps are general ideas, this one of Ishizuchi — Photo by Athena Lam

Many of rural Japan’s most scenic spots have no English signage. Famous spots usually have Japanese signs, so be sure to copy the Japanese text onto your phone before heading out so you can recognise them later.

Don’t only look for signage! Stop and you will probably be at a breathtaking vista or look out the train window! Whether you are in the Japanese Alps or facing the Sea of Japan, rural Japan will instantly charm you with its hills, valleys, rushing rivers, rice paddies, and splatter of houses.

8. Use daylight

6698 Mount Yahiko Sunset 弥彦山 夕方

Sunset over the Sea of Japan on top of Mount Yahiko, Niigata – Photo by Athena Lam

While Tokyo is known for its city lights and 24-hour life, Japan’s rural areas are known for their harmony with nature. Farmers rise at dawn between 4-6am. Many famous sights are also known for a view at a specific time of the day. Some places are known for their golden sunsets, others for their evening birdsong. Some villages set up community dances and activities in the evening.

The bottom line is, follow what locals normally do to get the fullest experience of the Japanese countryside.

9. Please learn some Japanese

A few Japanese phrases will take you a long way. People are kind and often friendly. In addition to the functional phrases in pocketbook guides, many easy expressions will make locals feel like you understand them a little bit better.

Daijyobu – It’s okay / I’m fine.

Osusume wa? – What would you recommend?

Kaikei onegaishimasu – Bill please.

Arigatou – Thank you.

Artigatogozaimasu – Thank you very much!

Pro Tips:

Sumimasen – Excuse me. But this phrase is used in many contexts, and often before or as in replacement of thank you. You can use it when someone gives you their seat, offers you a drink, and of course if you need to get attention.

Gochisosama – Thank you for the meal / that was a feast. Personally, I think this makes chefs and restaurant people even more happy than if you tell them oishii (it’s delicious). A common expression when leaving a restaurant.

10. Download a translator

Yomiwa and Google Translate (Japanese offline package) are life savers for translating individual words. Type simple sentences (preferably 3-5 words) to get a more accurate translation.

They are invaluable for translating menus and signs. Yomiwa is good for taking screenshots. Google Translate can only take screenshots if you are online. For writing Chinese characters that are often used for signs, you can do a handwritten Chinese input to draw in the character that you see as common Chinese and Japanese characters are mostly interchangeable.

11. The countryside is…not Tokyo, Osaka, or any Japanese city.

Traditional Japanese house that I stayed in

The countryside has plenty of traditional Japanese houses amongst the farms.

In the Japanese countryside, the pace of life is more relaxed and people are friendly because everyone knows each other. Houses are often not locked and neighbours will often stop by to drop off fresh picks from the garden. Shopkeepers may pause to greet someone who walks in even though they’re helping you. In this case, don’t be offended, as they will come back to you!

Strangers will often say ‘ohaiyo‘ (good morning) or ‘konichi wa‘ (hello). Say hello back!

For travellers going off the beaten track, the villages you encounter may not see many (if any) foreign visitors. If you have light skin and hair colour, you may be stared at. The locals do not mean to be rude; they are just a little surprised!

For onsen visitors, note that country onsens may have young boys in the women’s area. As going to the onsen is usually a family outing, grandmothers may bring in their grandsons who could be up to 10 years old. Tattoos are often frowned upon as they are associated with yakuza, Japanese gangs. If you have a small tattoo in a discrete area, use your towel to cover it.

12. Restaurants are houses 

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Flags with these characters mean restaurant.

Truly rural Japan is basically made up of only houses, traditional or modern. Many shop keepers live right above the shop, just like they have done for generations. お食事 indicate food. Because these restaurants are often traditional houses, they may also have a raised genkan area where guests are expected to take off their shoes.

13. Pretty rice paddies and mountains are homes for bugs, too.

japanese rice paddy

Fall rice growing during summer for Fall harvest — Photo by Athena Lam

The Japanese countryside means nature, which also means some crawly friends! Whether you are up in the mountains or down in the fields, be prepared for mosquitos! One of the best mosquito repellents is local Japanese incense that looks like a spiral that is called ka-tori-senko. Alternatively, just bring a bottle of bug spray to keep the critters away.

14. Ryokan and minshuku are experiences, not hotels

Hotel Gujo hachiman ホテル郡上八幡

A traditional ryokan room at Gujo Hachiman, Gifu Prefecture — Photo by Athena Lam

Ryokan and minshuku are the traditional bed and breakfasts of Japan. Some are large country houses while others have expanded to have more modern amenities like spa and game rooms. The important thing to remember is that ryokan and minshuku offer excellent service, but are not run like hotels for convenience. Many are still traditional and family run. Here are some tips on what to do:

  • Pay on arrival
  • Cash only: independent, family-run places don’t take credit cards
  • Usually one or two meals (usually dinner, and maybe breakfast) are included in the price. Some places accept sudomari (bookings without meals).
  • Make same day bookings by noon (after that, the places do not have enough time to prepare your dinner)
  • If there is a same-day cancellation, there’s an expectation you will pay the full fare.
  • Don’t arrive until after 3pm. Preparations are being made.
  • Arrive by 5pm because they need to serve your dinner!
  • Take off your shoes in your room and leave them by the door
  • Use the provided slippers to walk around the ryokan or minshuku rather than your street shoes

15. Accept generosity by graciously refusing, then accepting

The rule with receiving gifts is first to pretend that you don’t want it. You can gesture this by maybe shaking your head mildly and a gentle “stop” sign. You might also add a smile and say, “dayjoubu” (I’m fine), as a rough explanation. If they stop after your first smile and gentle refusal, don’t feel offended if they don’t offer again.

But, generally the approach is to refuse not once, but a few, times. If they still insist, they probably mean it, so just say “sumimasen” (excuse me) with a slight bow and “arigato-gozaimasu” (thank you very much). It won’t hurt to say it a few times, such as when you’re getting up to leave, putting on your shoes, and as you do your final goodbye (close the door to the restaurant or walk down the block).

People in the rural areas can be mind-bogglingly generous and I’ve gotten everything from free drinks at vending machines, to rides, full day tours, off the menu fresh catches, and even hand-made crafts.

16. Natural, not polished.

japanese vegetarian

Fresh foraged bamboo shoot in my friend’s backyard — Photo by Athena Lam

Don’t always expect to be wow’d. Rural Japan is quaint more than grand. Ryokan can be quite simple, even rough around the edges. If you want a polished establishment, choose one of the bigger places with English websites on Rakuten Travel. The food likely not dazzle in the same way Osaka does, impress with its delicacy as in Kyoto, or show the same innovation as Tokyo. But your food will be served an honest fare with vegetables that are picked within a day or two and fish that probably comes from the closest river. I say this only to manage expectations because I love rural Japan. I am even more at home in the rice paddies and on mountain lodges than Tokyo. But just bring no expectations and enjoy yourself!

If you are looking for other tips, check out my post Top 10 Apps to Travel in Japan like a Local.

Rural Japan
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Gujo-Hachiman in 80 Photos

I found out about Gujo-Hachiman’s existence at Friday at 3pm, bought tickets by 5pm, and got up the next day at 6am to catch the Shinkansen. I’d banked on the weekend to work and pack (moving again), but instead I got a paid weekend holiday in a mountain town I’d never heard of. Such is life: happy problems. 

In this photo essay you’ll find:

Getting there on the Nagatetsu – Nagara River Railway

Gujo-Hachiman is about 4.5 hours from Tokyo with the Shinkansen, but much of the route is quite scenic. In fact, the Nagara River Railway, known as the “Nagatetsu”, is the only rail route into our destination. I took so many photos, it will become a separate post.

Tips for ad hoc weekenders from Tokyo: get your tickets, know your transfers (preferably the platform too), get your breakfast for the express train, and enjoy the ride.

Nagara River Railway Nagatetsu 長良川鉄道

View from the front of the Nagatetsu

Everyone stared while I wobbled my way up to the front of the swaying and clattering one-compartment train. After I finished getting my shots, everyone else herded to the front. By then, I was mesmerized by the conductor driving the polished-clean driving room.

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Nagatetsu train conductor.

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The travellers only interested in the destination and avoiding the sun.

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The “Wanman” = One man train ワンマン opened in 2016

Gujo-Hachiman Station

The destination was a small town deep inland in the shadow of one of Japan’s 3 holy mountains, Hakusan – the White Mountain. Even though the line was opened recently, the station has a venerable air about its modest wooden planks.

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My soft spot for little station outposts.

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This place transports me back to the mines of British Columbia during the Gold rush.

Gujo Hachiman 郡上八幡 Nagatetsu 長良川鉄道

Nagatetsu  (長良川鉄道) heading off.

I was part of a trip arranged by the JTB (Japan Travel Bureau) that was aiming to promote this historic town – famous for its summer Odori dance festival – to international cultural visitors. I only knew to meet someone at the train station by 1:00pm. When was the last time I’d arranged to meet somewhere, hoping intuition and anxious looking would direct me to the people I was to meet? In some ways, the arrangement is a refreshing change.

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Drop off before our walking tour.

Our local guide was Takada-san and our JTB guides were Hirose-san and Sakai-san. In total, our monitor group had 5 people from entirely different backgrounds: two JETs, two married Americans, and me.

With introductions finished, we waited for the city shuttle bus to take us to the town centre.

The Streets of Gujo Hachiman

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Our local guide, Takada-san who explained the details of the village.

Gujo is quaint and small. Give yourself an hour, and you’ve not only traversed the entire town, but are on your way to the next mountain village. Given only an hour, our monitor group – with iPhones and cameras ready – barely managed the expanse of a street.

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Public washroom in the middle of town.

You can tell a lot about a place by how the people treat their washrooms. Of course, my fascinations left me lagging perpetually behind.

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The Odori lanterns hung throughout the shops in the old and new town.

Gujo Hachiman Ohmamiya Candy 郡上八幡 桜間見屋 黑肉桂

Ohmamiya Candy Shop making Cinnamon candy for 120+ years (桜間見屋)

Most shop patrons were not like this. We were an atypical troop armed with briefcases and cameras. At every corner and shop, we swooped in, looking for that magic angle to highlight. (More on this candy shop later).

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Sake shop interior

Gujo-Hachiman sits at the convergence of three fast-flowing rivers. That translates to great water for sake!

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One of the low-key shops just one street over with perfectly kept boards above its gutter.

We actually started on a quieter street with shops that were neither open nor shuttered. They were a mysterious, well-kept bunch. Takada-san took us through and pointed out small details such as the thick wooden boards above the shops.

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Natural accents everywhere

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Daily living tools also readily available!

The town sees many visitors since Japan is quite good about educating its people on regional history and scenic places. However, this felt like a town that wasn’t dependent on memories. While half the newer shops and restaurants catered to weekend urbanites’ tastes, the other half are content to serve their neighbours who need their usual tools, gadgets, and materials.

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The local geta (wooden clogs) shops

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Handmade geta (traditional wooden clogs)

The geta stacks in the shelves would have seemed like the souvenirs to my ignorant eye. However, once I walked into the back, I saw a local sitting down to chat while waiting for her shoes to be fixed.

Takada-san told us she’d just remade geta a few days ago. Her daughter had worn through the straps already after dancing all night last week, so they had to take them in to replace them as well. One thing I love about Japan is that fixing an item is often a matter of course.

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Small details like shop curtains set the mood.

Gujo Water

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Igawakomichi 井川小道 – the small backyard canals

Cool emerald streams flow through the town, bringing with them shade and a breeze that hugs the water. This tree-lined canal section is officially called the Igawakomichi, the Igawa little water lane.

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Feed the Koi (carp) with ¥100 fish food packets!

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A platform on top the canals to wash vegetables in preparation for pickling.

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Names of the community canal caretakers written in ink.

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Segi-ita are barriers for diverting water as needed.

One of the first things Takada-san showed us the water system. The gutters of the town were crystal clear. Some filter to wash vegetables. Others are for drinking. Neighbourhood groups are responsible for keeping them clean.

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Everything in clean water just looks tastier.

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Drinkable water is indicated by public cups. Wash after drinking!

Help yourself to the cups laid out in front of public fountains. Signs (in Japanese) mention when water is not drinkable. Part of me wonders if it’s just high standards because the water in the wheel below looked about the same as the fountain just in front.

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Old-school water wheel.

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Down it goes!

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Soji-sui spring covered by its shrine and the three pools that flow into the river.

The Soji-sui spring is perhaps the clearest demonstration of water segregation that has kept the systems clean for three centuries. The water pool closest to the spring is for drinking, the second for washing vegetables and cooling drinks, and the third for washing dishes. These practices have been kept since the village was first settled by a warlord who built the Hachiman castle here.

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Soji-Sui Spring 宗祇水

River Life

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A view that could make you momentarily forget the incredible summer heat.

The town sits at the confluence of the Yoshida, Nagara, and small Kodara Rivers. Bridges criss-cross various ends of the town, providing a pristine view of the clear, deep-bottomed river. These rivers are the lifeblood of the town, providing fish, water for crops, sake, tofu, soba, and also textile dying. But beyond its utilitarian purposes, the river is also the best source of entertainment and recreation.

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Kodara River 小駄良川

Gujo Hachiman River 郡上八幡

Floating downriver

One of my rare moments of envy. If I wasn’t already shown the town’s historical gems, I’d have gone on strike and just slid down with the kids.

Determined to cool down and actually enjoy (not just admire) the water, I took my time marching across to the other side. I’d worn sandals because I was determined to soak in mountain river water, whether it was part of the itinerary or not. Taking photos was just an excuse.

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Families soaking in the Kodara River in their backyard. 

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Appreciating nature with refinement. Lay out the mats and put your feet in!

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Even the dog can enjoy it, why are we walking again?!

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The Yoshida River 吉田川

The next day, while admiring the view from the bridge connecting the old and new towns of Hachiman, we learned that the townspeople had various levels for playing in the river. The young ones began in the shallow one I stepped into. Then, they graduated to jumping off a distant rock in the photo above, just below the white school building. Next, the adventurous ones jumped off Gakkoubashi, the School Bridge in front of the school. The last stage was off the bridge I stood on.

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The three local guys that were jumping from Shinbashi 新橋 above the Yoshida River

My second moment of envy: these guys not only got to enjoy the water, they could climb the rockface with impunity while I roasted in the afternoon sun. Actually, they were climbing up to do me a favour, they were going to jump again just for me to take a photo.

Gujo Life

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Anyoji, the largest temple in the town

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Otemon leading to Hachiman Castle

To this day, one sign of modernity is ubiquitous in its absence: traffic lights. Hachiman’s drivers are in no rush and pause at every intersection.

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Flower pole

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What struck me about Gujo is how clean it was, even by Japanese standards. This is a village that has the pragmaticism to hang onions and the aesthetics to keep their ikebana, natural flower arrangement, fresh. Traditional Japanese houses use natural wood that usually are not oiled. Half of these houses have water-proof coats or used water-resistant hardwood.

firework's maybe

Fireworks?

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Streets.

Gujo Food

Water is essential to great food, and Hachiman has made great use of its three rivers. The local fish is called ayu and can be grilled, braised, eaten and as sashimi.

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Grilled ayu from the river

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Hida beef. Hida is the historical name of the region, which includes the more famous Hida-Takayama.

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Ayu, the local river fish, on tofu noodles

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Ayu sashimi

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Hotel Gujo-Hachiman gave us a full-course washoku dinner

Hotel Gujo hachiman ホテル郡上八幡

Winter melon is a summer vegetable in Japan, just saying.

Hida Beef 飛騨牛肉 郡上八幡-6985

Beef seared to your taste, with ample butter and a bit of sauce.

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Dessert

The town is known for its ayu river fish, sake, soba and I’ve heard they like their tofu. I saw fishermen all throughout the area patiently waiting with their poles and wading into the water to get a good spot. The fish they caught were deposited into a bag at their hip (which I assume had holes so the fish could survive).

One other item the town is famous for is cinnamon candy, which is probably an acquired taste. The candy is hard, and while distinctly cinnamon-y, also comes with a spicy punch!

Ohmamiya Cinnamon candy 桜間見屋 黑肉桂 肉桂玉

Ohmamiya Cinnamon candy is 120+ years old and a bit spicy! 桜間見屋 黑肉桂 肉桂玉

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Soba Buckwheat Noodles

Local fish

Soba Buckwheat Noodles with a local fish

Ryokan Culture

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First thing, make tea and relax in the room. Futons will be laid out at night.

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Waiting out the storm in the Hotel Gujo Hachiman (ホテル郡上八幡) lobby.

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Old friends not the least ruffled by the storm that’s delaying their odori dancing.

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The owner, Nakashima-san, waiting out the storm with us!

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Traditional Gujo fabric and dying technique on display in the hotel.

One figure was a fixture in the lobby: Nakashima-san gets up around 6am every day and comes to work soon after. I struck up conversation with him while waiting to check-out and he introduced the kimono on display to me. He told me if the place burned down, the three pieces were the first things he’d save. When I pointed out the phoenix design at a door, he told me it was the emblem of Gujo-Hachiman. Later, he even showed us the winter community odori practices and told us about the monthly cultural gatherings the hotel hosted. In January, the hotel also hosts a paper mache making event and the lobby is covered with creations of all shapes and sizes.

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Nakashima-san is fond of this odori miniature that represents his cultural heritage

Gujo Culture and Dance

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Odori lanterns hung throughout the street

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What it looks like at night! (Look out for a special Odori photo essay)

I’ll cover the Gujo Odori dances in another photo essay because I think the experience is incredible. As a non-dancer, it was easy to join in and feel a part. For this photo essay, I’ll talk a bit more about the cultural centre and how you can learn more about the different styles of dance.

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Gujo Hachiman Odori lanterns that I would see later throughout town

The only thing I knew about the trip was that it involved trying on yukata, and without context I was dreading an imitation of the popularised Kyoto tourism activity. I was way off the mark. The yukata is for Gujo’s famous 30 days of odori community dancing.

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Odori schedule, listing the date, location, and name for each day.

These panels show the sequence of steps for each odori dance. The text beside is the story that each dance represents and many of them reference historical events. For example one of the dances we were taught shows the events of the Gujo Incident – the one successful uprising during Edo Japan where the peasants petitioned the government and overturned a tax increase. Even though there were only a handful of steps, each gesture suddenly re-enacted an event.

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Gujo Hachiman Odori dance demonstration at the cultural centre (郡上 八幡博覧館 )

Geta essential for keeping rhythm in odori dancing.

Geta essential for keeping the rhythm in Odori dancing.

The sequence is much easier to learn interactively, so the museum has professionals do an explanation of the festival’s various dance styles (in Japanese) before demonstrating them. At the end, attendees are invited to join along and try. Language isn’t a barrier: just follow!

The steps are easy to pick up and accommodating to people of all skills, but difficult to perfectly time!

Gujo Hachiman Fabric Dyes 郡上 八幡博覧館

Gujo Hachiman Fabric Dyes on display at the cultural centre.

Up until a century or two ago, many places were mostly self-sufficient. Gujo is also famous for its textiles, but only one traditional master is left.

Gujo Hachiman Fake Food 郡上 八幡博覧館

Food replicas were invented by a Gujo native.

Mention Gujo to a Japanese national, and you will get one of three answers:

  • a blank stare
  • Odori!
  • food replicas

In reality, imitation food was created in Osaka, but the creator, Takizo Iwasaki, hails from this Edo mountain village.

Around the Area

limestone cave Gujo Hachiman

Limestone caves in the area

limestone cave Gujo Hachiman

Modern Fudoson carving

limestone cave Gujo Hachiman

Car bringing us to the cave

Coffee

After our tour officially ended, I had a few hours to finally wander the town at my own pace and revisit places that had previously caught my eye. One of them was the Yoshida River, where I took more photos and stood on a stream. My other must-do was to just sit down and enjoy a break while sipping ice-cold coffee.

gujo-hachiman water

More water, while on the search for coffee. Take off your shoes.

Fortunately, I bumped into Robert, who also opted to wander around, and he agreed to a cafe hunt with me as we meandered our way back to the train station. Everything caught our eye en route, including yet another play-canal. Take off your shoes before entering this one. 🙂

Cafe Machiya Saito カフェ・町家さいとう

Cafe Machiya Saito looks like a well-kept traditional Japanese store

Traditional Japanese shops don’t give much away. They have curtains, then closed slated windows, and a deep, dark entrance. Still, the menus at entrances and photos of food are obvious signs.

Cafe Machiya Saito カフェ・町家さいとう

Entrance reception area where you order first

I will sum up the Cafe Machiya-Saito experience as: never judge a Japanese restaurant by its entrance. They have a photo menu, so English-speakers feel welcome! Order, take a seat with your ticket, and give the ticket to the server after you’re seated.

Gujo Hachiman 郡上八幡 street-1120245

Many old houses are cafes, and old shops are still used as modern shops.

Gujo Hachiman 郡上八幡 street-1120245

The symbol of Gujo-Hachiman

Gujo Hachiman 郡上八幡 street-1120245

Gold-leaf poetry casually gracing the walls of a cafe.

In the end, Robert and I basically had to inhale our coffee because we spent so much time gasping at the interior. Even so, no regrets that we came! We could even have taken seats in the outside garden! After that, we speed-walked through the ‘new town’ to get back to our station and hop on the train home.

Gujo Hachiman 郡上八幡 street-1120245

Traditional shops have openings for carts to enter.

The local Nagatetsu takes just over an hour to get back to the main interchange, but we ended up standing most of the time taking photos of the spots I’d marked as scenic. (Tip to photographers, star the towns you pass so you can take the perfect photo on the way back!)

I’ll finish off with a small moment I stumbled upon just before running into Robert again and going off on our coffee hunt and train-catching speed-walk.

Gujo Hachiman Yoshida River 郡上八幡 吉田川

Caught a couple watching the Yoshida

Gujo Hachiman Yoshida River 郡上八幡 吉田川

Under the bridge

Thanks for checking this out! I’ve made a map of most of the spots I went to.

Other resources:

If you liked this series, look out for additional posts about Gujo Hachiman in the future.

In the meantime, you can check out my photo essay of Rural Japan in Yahiko.

Rural Japan
Yahiko 弥彦村-6824

Rural Japan: Yahiko Now and Then in 40 Photos

It’s a truism that some things change, and some just don’t. What makes each place unique is what goes into the basket of stays. I wasn’t thinking history when I slid into the cab at 7:00am in the morning. I was just thinking breakfast(!) at Teradomari Fish Market a quick drive away from Yahiko.

Some of you already know that I default to walking, even if it takes an entire day to get somewhere. Thanks to Odigo Japan, I could experience a different way of travel for my Yahiko Weekend Getaway Day 2: car convenience. You can see my itinerary at the end of the post.

Teradomari Fish Market 寺泊魚市場

After cruising about 20 minutes through the rice fields, we wound through a small set of hills that rolled down into Teradomari town. Even though we (my colleague Delilah came along, too) arrived early, the shops were already half setup and early birds were already savouring their skewers.

Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟 Seafood-6743

Octopus! 

My jaw dropped when I saw the sizes of the skewers. One was effectively half a meal and is best shared if one wants to sample enough! As with most seafood, the highlight is the delicate freshness, accentuated with simple sauces or garnish. Fresh octopus is chewy instead of rubbery, soft instead of mushy, and sweet with a smokey tentacle finish.

Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟 Seafood

Massive fresh scallops

Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟 Seafood

Whole fishes,in skewers and fillets

Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟 Seafood

Filleted and grilled

A whole fish is around ¥600-800 depending on the type. If I had a few days here, I’d work my way there, but that day, I just oogled at the silver crisp skin and imagined what the white moist meat would taste like with salt sprinkled lightly over. (PS: Fish skin is a popular menu item in Shantou, China, where my paternal side is from)

上げ持ち Agemochi

Grilled mochi

Octopus Tako Skewer

Huge chunks of octopus

Agemochi 揚げもち

Agemochi 揚げもち

The 3 shots above were so good they deserved undignified snapshots. Agemochi, fried mochi, is apparently a specialty in the area. Another option is grilled mochi and comes with thin smokey skin enveloping the soft, chewy interior. A thin soy sauce and syrup glaze is brushed on top, while the octopus skewer is given a in a light savoury dip before serving.

Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟 Seafood

Shrimp – you’re supposed to eat the heads! Mini crabs also available too!

Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟 Seafood

Teradomari’s fish market in full swing

The food stalls are at the front, but the real good stuff is inside. Of course, the seafood on sale here needs to be prepared, but it’s worth going in to look. The large shells that look like snails (don’t ever call them snails to a Japanese friend) are called kai, and grow on rocks by the shore. Also, they have a softer or crunchier texture to snails depending on the preparation (as someone who eats both). Other things to look out for are the scallops, abalone, and various types of fish.

Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟 Seafood

Freshly prepared fillets

So, this photo might gross people out, but it’s the already cleaned-up version (internals removed). The seafood industry starts early. Fishermen head out to sea at in the morning dark hours, returning shortly after sunrise. The fish stalls usually get to work around 4 or 5am to prepare fish (like the ones above) for the market to open at 7 or 8am. By noon, some places get too hot to leave the pieces out.

My earliest childhood memories are of butchers and fishmongers in Chinatown, so what interests me when I go down the isles is whether pieces look fresh or not. You can tell by how moist the flesh is, or how glazed over the eyes are. Fresh seafood places like this do not have that ‘fishy’ smell.

Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟 Seafood

Early morning set-up.

Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟 Seafood

This gentleman will spend a good hour filling these two shelves with crab.

I’m glad we arrived before the official opening of the market to watch how the stalls set up. This gentleman examined the crabs before he placed them in a massive pile in front of the shop.

Homing in on him, made me think of how shop setup probably hasn’t changed much in the past decades. Teradomari is part of inaka –, the countryside – still an hour’s walk from the closest train station. Places like this are slow to reap the benefits that Tokyo took for granted even 50 years ago. In the past half-century, these shops probably got their first freezers, air conditioners, and grills. Even now, someone needs to spend an hour wheeling the crates to the front and loading the shelves.

Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟 Seafood

Grilled scallop

Back to food. I asked the grill-master running around if he’d mind me taking a photo. He said, ‘Dozo. Go ahead.’

Then, I asked him, here too? He nodded, so I went behind the counter and shot the scallops as their juices bubbled and their colours ripened.

Eventually, I got yelled at by the elderly lady manning the crab soup side of the shop. ‘Abunaiyo! It’s dangerous, yo!’

Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟 Seafood

Holding down the fort grilling skewers systematically in anticipation of orders.

Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟 Seafood

Skewers

Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟 Seafood

Crab soup

When the crab soup lady walked off to help someone, I stuck my camera in her shop too and took a photo of the heavy-duty traditional soup cauldron that was sizzling and guzzling.

Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟 Seafood

Abalone

After troubling the people at the stall so much, of course, we got more items. The sea-hued shell fresh abalone shell caught our eye and was also one of the most expensive items on offer. Before cooking, they have a flat, dusty texture. With one score down the middle and patient grilling with some juice, they take on this beautiful curved shape.

Toto's Cafe Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟

Custard buns fresh out of the oven!

Yakitate means freshly baked. Yakitate Japan is a Japanese anime that makes a pun on freshly made bread (pan). When I saw the obaa-san pulling one home-made set out of the oven, I was sold.

Toto's Cafe Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟

Toto’s Cafe at Terodomari 寺泊 新潟

Actually, that was a lie. I was first sold by this view when I looked up from the kitchenware section into this cut-out in the same building.

Toto's Cafe Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟

Toto’s Cafe Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟

Such coffee equipment here, in a seafood market, of all places. Truth be told, my rural Japan has been a minefield of such out-of-place discoveries that delightfully blast out my expectations.

Toto's Cafe Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟

Toto’s Cafe Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟

Of course, paired with the open, down-to-earth kitchen just behind.

Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟 Crab Seafood

Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟

By the time we finished, the fishmonger had finished his stacking too. I wondered how long the ice would last as the sun continued to climb.

Japanese Rural Village Life

Flatlands are rare in Japan, so it’s no wonder that Niigata Prefecture’s plains are dotted with villages, connected like constellations against the tapestry of rice fields that feed much of Kanto down south. Teradomari may once have seemed a day’s journey from Yahiko, but with the advent of the car, it’s become an easy breakfast excursion.

Yahiko 弥彦村-6818

The mini torii with a disproportionately thick rope (i.e. super important).

Yahiko 弥彦村-6824

Sakurai Jinja

The shrine I ended up at was an unusual destination right by the side of the main road, sandwiched in between vegetable plots. I came to the Sakurai Jinja because it was on Odigo’s spot list and marched through a tilled garden to get to the small stone torii gate.

In Shinto, the shimenawa rope and paper shide are believed to attract spirits within a sacred vessel. The emphasis isn’t on a human object, but the marked natural form. In the same way, this modest torii gestured to the half-hollow gigantic tree. Walking through, I found a secluded grove with yet another modest shrine. This green bubble in the middle of fields, houses, and concrete is easily overlooked, too still, naturally invisible to the modern eye trained by flashing lights and whizzing sights.

The shrine’s size may seem unimpressive, but walk closer, and the protective tree above it is. This spot is one of the contenders for the former Ichinomiya Shrine of Echigo Province. I paused on that thought and extended the village houses still left to imagine a lively town with kids playing on unpaved dirt roads while horses clattered by.

Yahiko 弥彦村-6833 旧武石家住宅

The bell tower, storehouse, and former Takeishi residence behind the trees

The remaining nondescript cluster of houses hugging the hills had other stories to share. My next treasure hunt item was the former Takeishi Residence. Again, it was one of those places that I was perfectly prepared to move on from after a quick poke-around.

Former Takeishi Residence 旧武石家住宅

Former Takeishi Residence 旧武石家住宅

Former Takeishi Residence 旧武石家住宅

The fireplace is kept alive with embers, that are knocked into a fire for visitors.

Former Takeishi Residence 旧武石家住宅

Smoke fills the open barn-like house if the doors are closed.

Former Takeishi Residence 旧武石家住宅

Smoke also prevents insects and mould in the thatched roof.

Former Takeishi Residence 旧武石家住宅

The house, dismantled, moved, and returned, still has the original hardwood beams.

I was probably the only visitor that day. I paid the ¥200 admission and the caretaker took his time giving me a receipt. He stayed in a small modern cabin to the side that was decked with a kitchenette and stove. In the middle, a chair and small table were arranged for afternoon tea and napping.

Since we struck up conversation, he took it upon himself to show me the grounds, explaining the traditional interiors that have been preserved for centuries, the use of the fire, the miso out-house, and the settlers that came from Ishikawa Prefecture down south.

School Time!

The caretaker also directed me to the elementary school, saying it was free and a must-visit because it showed traditional village life. Having been to other such museums, I told myself I’d take a 5-minute peak and call it a day.

Former Elementary School

Former Yahiko Elementary School downstairs hallway

Yahiko Former Elementary School

An elementary school classroom

The unattended museum was kept in immaculate condition. Visitors are to take off their shoes and use the one pair of slippers provided if they wanted. The wooden planks and furniture looked as if they’d been used (and cleaned) yesterday – a yesterday five decades ago.

Yahiko Former Elementary School

A traditional woven basket

Yahiko Former Elementary School

Straw slippers

Yahiko Former Elementary School

Former Yahiko Elementary School

The sandals, laced with colourful modern cloth, were likely the result of a modern elementary school project. They sat neatly under the windows in the hallway, conjuring the voices of students racing through, sweeping up their shoes, and laughing as they headed home.

Yahiko Former Elementary School

Themed information sessions on the villager’s daily lives and homes

The rooms had displays of the daily items probably last picked up only a century ago: farm tools, a village hearth, cooking utensils, and public infrastructure. Woven baskets and straw sandals showed off the austere beauty of workmanship that had a direct impact on comfort. These items seemed as though they could be picked up today for the plots still growing rice.

The cool air in these rooms sat a little thicker, as if stirred delicately by the fresh breeze blowing through the open windows left open during public hours.

Yahiko Former Elementary School

Former Yahiko Elementary School classroom – colour.

Yahiko Former Elementary School

Upstairs hallway

Yahiko Former Elementary School

Upstairs math classroom

Yahiko Former Elementary School

Former Yahiko Elementary School

Needless to say, I spent much more than 5-minutes walking the halls conjuring decade-old memories that belong to others. The smell of crisp tatami mats waft out of the classroom as I slide open a door. Daylight streams in through the windows in tandem with the light breeze. There are rooms to imagine, then there are neatly arranged corners to learn.

Historical appetite satisfied, I marched down the rest of the village to a resort onsen. Even though it was fast approaching noon, a good outdoor soak with the mountain breeze wouldn’t go amiss!

Modernity: The Reach of Coffee

After floating like a prune from pool to onsen pool, I finally extracted myself and napped (Sakura no Yu was a modern onsen resort complete with yukata options, restaurants, and lounge areas). And when I finished that, I hopped in a cab that whisked me off to coffee and cake.

Tsubame Coffee ツバメコーヒー

My coffee ad moment.

Tsubame Coffee ツバメコーヒー

Scandinavian-inspired interior

Tsubame Coffee seems like it wants to stay hidden behind its garden, as if it were worried the whole town would flood in if they knew such a great indie coffee shop existed. I spent a good hour or two here enjoying the Scandinavian lounge chairs, typing up notes on my phone and Bluetooth keyboard. One section was the cafe bar, which was half a storage area. The cafe’s black shiba dog lounged in air condition comfort by the semi-open door and trotted outside whenever benevolent-looking guests opted to dine in the lawn instead.

Tsubame Coffee ツバメコーヒー

Tsubame Coffee’s counter

A lifestyle store section sold handmade goods and crafts that seemed like they were from the area. This unabashed mish-mash was all camouflaged in a modern, round glass building in the middle-of-what-seemed-like -nowhere!

Tsubame Coffee ツバメコーヒー

The greenhouse entrance into the main seating area.

When the time came, I phoned another cab and headed back towards the train station. The heat had killed my appetite, so I bought snacks at the gift shop instead. Soon after boarding the train, I passed out.

Another thing about rural life: not much seems to be done, yet one never feels like anything is left undone.

Thanks for checking this out!

My itinerary was made with Odigo Japan, and I’d highly recommend you rent a car or at least budget a few taxi rides to enjoy all this! By the way, things I didn’t make it to, but also highly recommend are the sake sampling at a local brewery (reservation required) and making your own letter opener at a metal gallery.

You can check out my Yahiko Village Day 1 photos.

Rural Japan
6718 Yahiko Shrine Night 弥彦神社

Rural Japan: Yahiko Village in 40 Photos

At 7:48, when the morning sun was still reflecting off Tokyo Station’s silver towers, the Shinkansen Max Toki 305 slid from the platform. Sleep deprived because I accidentally discovered Olympics badminton the night before, I went straight to napping.

Yahiko is about a 3-hour, super comfortable, train ride from Tokyo. Japan’s Shinkansen make me love long train trips.

My destination lay right under a mountain that faced the sea. It’s not what you think. Yahiko Village is on the fertile Niigata plains that stretch between the Japanese Alps and the Sea of Japan. On this flatland, a small mountain range forms a mini wall against the sea, and the holy mountain is none other than Mount Yahiko. I was visiting using travel tips from Odigo Japan, and you can see my itinerary at the end of the post.

First, arrival and food!

Yahiko Bunsuido 弥彦村 分水堂

Pandayaki (パンダ焼き) is a specialty of Bunsuido.

Yahiko Pandayaki 弥彦村 パンダ焼き

Pandayaki (パンダ焼き)

Yahiko-6431 Pandayaki 弥彦村 パンダ焼き

Soy bean Pandayaki (パンダ焼き) is Bunsuido’s signature sweet.

It’s one of those assuming shops, Bunsuido, but it makes a famous snack called panda-yaki, a panda-shaped stick-rice pancake with various fillings. The most creative one is the edamame flavour, which has a subtle, savoury soy flavour to compliment the sugar in this sweet. I also recommend their matcha green tea soft ice cream, which is also not too sweet!

In my eagerness to eat, I dropped my lense cap into the sewer and spent a good 15-minutes getting it back out. Thankfully, it didn’t have running water, or I’d have been quite despondent the entire trip.

Yahiko-6457 弥彦村

Old-school, *ahem* traditional, wine caskets

Yahiko Shrine-6460 弥彦神社

Iconic Yahiko Shrine Bridge

I entered Yahiko Shrine, the main attraction of the town, close to noon. The shrine grounds, which is a well-tended expanse of cedars sprinkled with younger saplings, offered instant reprieve from the over-active sun. Most of the visitors aglomerated here.

Being used to small and even abandoned shrines, part of me reflexively cringes when I see more than 10 people. Still, the families, tour groups, young couples, and elderly pairs created a harmless air of bubbly ambience. The shrine approach is wide enough for several horses to march side by side and had plenty of space to accommodate the ebb and flow of traffic.

弥彦神社 Yahiko Shrine

The thing that caught my eye.

弥彦神社

And the sound that caught my imagination.

弥彦神社 Yahiko Shrine

The Fujifilm X100 gave me black and white again.

I wanted to find something about the shrine that was personal, whatever that meant. Shrines in Kyoto and Nikko are impressive feats of human skill gathered by wealth and power. I like studying that type of workmanship. The shrine at Miyajima commands attention, drawing the visitor inwards. Shrines like Yahiko are better for highlighting the surrounding area.

弥彦神社 Yahiko Shrine

Final approach to the main worship hall.

弥彦神社 Yahiko Shrine

The courtyard and the prayer hall where visitors make their prayers.

For photographers, dawn and dusk are the best time to photograph temples, in my opinion. The daylight creates too much contrast for photography. It doesn’t dampen the spirits of the visitors, though. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the families coming through the gates. This struck a balance of casual ambience and reverence.

Yahiko-6493 弥彦神社 Yahiko Shrine

Ame no Kagoyama no Mikoto, great-grandson of Amaterasu Omikami, is the enshrine deity here.

201608 Yahiko-6494

The usual sake offerings found in big temples. Each is from a local brewer.

After clapping my hands (mistakenly twice, instead of the special 4 claps for Yahiko Shrine), offering my coin, and saying a prayer, I moved off to explore the rest of the grounds.

Yahiko-6501 弥彦神社 Yahiko Shrine

A private moment at a specific shrine.

弥彦神社 Yahiko Shrine Shinto

May this lengthy wish come true.

弥彦神社 Yahiko Shrine Shinto

A modest auxilary shrine belies the might of the kami to grant our wishes.

The best way to enjoy them, in my opinion, is to find the perfect moment. Perfect moments are different for everyone.

I stumbled upon a lady who laid her wishes before a specific kami, spirit / god. Just 50 metres away, over a hundred people walked by the main boulevard while she prayed. Many major shrines (and temples) also have smaller shrines. These more modest structures are auxiliary shrines that act as conduits for spirits housed elsewhere.

弥彦神社 Yahiko Shrine National Treasure-6508

This small moss-covered thatch hut is a national treasure.

弥彦神社 Yahiko Shrine Shinto Stone Guardian

Stone guardians

Then, being a history junkie, I headed off into the Treasure Hall. Places have more dimension once I place them in history. History becomes more anchored when I can see artifacts and read stories.

弥彦神社 Yahiko Shrine treasure hall Sword Katana

Many blades in the treasure hall had their hilts removed.

弥彦神社 Yahiko Shrine treasure hall Sword Katana

The blades on display in the treasure hall.

I didn’t know what to expect at the Treasure Hall. A cursory skim of the items yielded a bland cataloguing of names and dates. However, when I arrived, paid my ¥300 and headed to the second-floor, I was quite surprised. Some of the blades on display were huge (I had to stand back 5 metres to fit 2 into my frame), while others were more pragmatic sizes.

Some people may find the admission fee a turn-off, but I feel that it’s a worthwhile investment for the maintenance of not only the artefacts, but the entire shrine grounds.

With that, I headed off to more temple-hopping.

Yahiko Hoko-in 宝光院

Hoko-in temple 宝光院

Yahiko-6537 Hoko-in 宝光院

The Amitabha Buddha Hall was built in 1328

I also didn’t know what to expect of the Hoko-in, having seen my fair share of temples. Old things can be big or small, impressive or underwhelming. That a building has survived half a millennia or just been erected two decades ago rarely changes our immediate, superficial, reactions. On the surface, this temple is a well-kept, simple structure. The altar is open and visible to visitors. But it would be a disservice to say it’s a typical temple, simply because typically authentic and old temples generally make great places to sit and just watch the afternoon go by.

This temple is about a 10-minute walk from Yahiko Shrine and could be easily missed on the undulating paved road. Small signs point to the Hoko-in and the Basho Monument behind the building.

201608 Yahiko-6589

Monument to the Emperor’s visit. Momnuments are everywhere in Yahiko,

Matsuo Basho (松尾 芭蕉) is the preeminent poet of Edo Japan, famous for taking the famous 5-7-5 syllable haiku form to new heights. His masterwork Oku no Hosomichi, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, one of my favourite literary travelogues (literary aside – Basho was influenced by the Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu). The Deep North was the old Northern Frontier that loosely included places like Yahiko (you can see the full route in the map below).

Unfortunately, I didn’t find Basho’s monument. Or, perhaps I did and didn’t know it for there were many weather-worn stone graves behind the Hoko-in. The path behind the building led to a small cemetery that seemed to have grown up with the trees protecting the stones. Some were so worn they could be mistaken for boulders if it wasn’t for the shide and laurels placed carefully beside them. Some also had fresh rice laid on a leaf, a sign that a family member has visited for Obon, a summer festival to visit the dead.

Yahiko-6550 Hoko-in 宝光院 Shide 紙垂, 四手

Shide (紙垂, 四手) are paper streamers that are used in Shinto rituals, often for purification.

This cemetery is the warmest I’ve ever visited, an unexpected highlight. There’s something about the mix of freshly carved tombstones mingled with the moss-covered nameless markers, although I couldn’t place my finger on what. I moved on to find the 1000-year-old Baba Sugi deeper into the grounds.

Yahiko Hoko-in 宝光院

Natural path leading to graves behind Hoko-in

Again, it was just a place where I wanted to stop and stare. A fresh current came through the bushes without rustling the leaves. A beam illuminated the log bench where I could have sat. Looking up, this cedar’s branches seemed like they were the sky.

Yahiko Hoko-in Baba Sugi 宝光院 ばば杉

1000-year-old cedar tree watching over the graves.

Yahiko-6565 Jizo 地蔵

Jizo 地蔵 statues with faces worn with age, still cared for.

Jizo, protector of pregnant mothers and travellers. My time on Shikoku will always endear me to this protector and all those who take care of him. One of the things I love most about these rural places is how people continue to care for things, even as they accept the fading features and dissolving identities.

弥彦村 Yahiko-6612 Japanese house

Such well kept traditional houses and gardens!

弥彦村 Yahiko-6614 village house

These simple buildings aren’t so simple to maintain!

Yahiko-6611 Ivy Windows

Small moments.

Within an hour of arriving, I was taking photos of people’s front lawns and gardens. The village is a small one, and some homes are still crammed into typically small Japanese lots, but people still take time to grow things. The families that do have space tend to keep their trees trimmed and their pots filled with blooming flowers.

弥彦村 Yahiko-6615

Oh the Japanese and their cute signs

弥彦村 Yahiko-6617

My favourite alley in Yahiko Village reminded me of the Secret Garden

My favourite street was an alley (I think that was once a stream) I wandered down in search of late lunch.

弥彦村 Yahiko-6622

Warning: restaurants are disguised as houses.

Yahiko-6584 Sweets Shop

Sweets shop

I spent so much time walking, I walked past lunch hour (typically 12-2pm in the inaka, rural parts). I had the option to try more Japanese sweets or settle down somewhere to rest my feet. I was fascinated with these traditional shops, which are frequented enough to afford their upkeep. The interiors are usually a subtle juggle of maintained wooden beams, Shinto worship items, modern signage and posters, and well-kept retro items (at least for us North Americans).

Anyhow, by now, I needed food, and my options dwindled to the cafe right across from the Yahiko Shrine torii gate.

6627 Yahiko Shasaian 社彩庵

Shasaian 社彩庵 right in front of the Yahiko Torii Gate

6654 Yahiko Shasaian 社彩庵

Shasaian 社彩庵 cafe interior

Yahiko Shasaian 社彩庵 Parfai Menu

Handy photo menu. Options include parfait, cake, coffee, and anmitsu (traditional red bean dessert)

Yahiko Shasaian 社彩庵 Parfait

This kinako parfait was quite impressive!

I have to say, I was quite impressed with the kinako (roasted soy bean) parfait! It came with red bean, mochi (the chewy rice balls), cream, agar agar jelly, and a slice of fruit. It’s the perfect afternoon snack while waiting for sunset. And, because I brought my Fujifilm X100 this time, I could finally take a photo of my complete remote work station.

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Remote working setup with Android phone, bluetooth keyboard, and food!

Yahiko Shrine 弥彦神社 Shasaian 社彩庵

The big win was the view from my spot.

Shasaian had a great ambiance because the stairway up broke up the two seating areas and kept the ambiance lively, but not too loud. I lucked out by getting a window spot facing the Yahiko Shrine torii, so I could watch as visitors trickled out and the leaves turned into an orange-golden glow.

Sunset over the ocean was around 6:30, but by 5:00, the sun had already dipped below the mountain to the West. At that point, I walked down the Manyodo to the Yahiko Ropeway. The Manyodo means the Manyo Road and references the Man’yōshū 万葉集, Japan’s oldest text representing a period between roughly 600-800 AD. That Yahiko is mentioned in this poetic collection is a testament to the town’s age and importance, a great source of pride for its locals.

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Walking the ridges along Mount Yahiko

The ropeway took me directly to the top, where I could walk to the observation tower. In Japanese, the announcement told me sunset was at 6:50pm, so I had about an hour to spare. Everyone was flocking to the tower and the dining building, so I headed in the opposite direction to follow the footpaths that traced the ridges.

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Watching the shadows lengthen on the Niigata Plains.

Geographically, Mount Yahiko is an anomaly. The mountain ridge line forms a small wall against the Sea of Japan, rising out of nowhere and sliding back into the flatlands on either side. It’s no wonder that the place has been sacred for centuries.

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Sunset at 6:50 in August

After walking along both peaks, I settled on a staircase, which frames the sunset better. On this mountain, I learned something: that the most beautiful sunsets are defined by their sound. First-class sunsets are over the sea and, in my opinion, made better with an island or two. The usual soundtrack is the soothing lap of waves.

The track I had that evening was the slow waking of crickets accompanied by single crow calls. Time slowed even as the ocean air continued to flow.

Two magenta brush strokes made up Sado Island in the distance.

6698 Mount Yahiko 弥彦山 Ropeway

Going up and down the 700 metres!

With sunset over, I had a dinner to hurry to. The ropeway down brief, but fun, perhaps thanks to the family that accompanied me up and down.

At the base, a free shuttle took us from the station back to Yahiko Shrine. Since I had time, I couldn’t help but visit the grounds gain while the sky still glowed.

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Yahiko goes to sleep by nightfall.

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Yahiko Shrine at dusk, after the lanterns are lit, before the sky is black.

The lanterns were lit, lending an atmospheric glow to the cobblestone. By now, only a handful of people were making up the last visitors for the day. The laughs, shouts and clamour just hours before have been replaced by a hush.

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Iroha Sushi was the only place open! The appetizers with the sake.

By now I’m starving, but most of the village is closed. Of course, one or two establishments are still open, so my friends and I choose a restaurant on the main road. The place reminds me of the family restaurants across the street from me in Tokyo. They, too, have only a few tables on tatami mats and maybe one private room. Being able to walk past those places after dark, often with half-open doors and hearty laughter slipping out onto the streets, is what makes Tokyo homey. The menu items are handwritten and the sushi chef is just metres away behind the bar counter. At the end of a long day, spent enjoying all the things Tokyo doesn’t have, this familiar neighbourhood restaurant was the best way to feel at home on the road.

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Iroha Sushi was the only place open!

After dinner, I take my long-awaited shower and pass out. I have to wake up for seafood breakfast at Teradomari tomorrow!

Thanks for checking this out!

Here is my itinerary (made with Odigo Japan), look out for my upcoming post on my Yahiko Day 2 Trip.

In the meantime, you can check out my photo essay on Japan’s Lost Pilgrimage: Kunisaki.

Rural Japan

Japan’s Organic Farms Inspire Random Scribbles

 

Before I’ve even seen all their gardens, my stay in Ono Farm is coming to an end. It’s my second WWOOFing experience in Japan, and the things I’ve learned in this past week here sheds a bit more light into not only how to grow food, why we grow it.

I will have follow-up posts to elaborate on some of my learnings in the past 2 farms I’ve volunteered on. Below are my favourite and most meaningful photos from this past week, and just some random thoughts they bring up.

A love of natural beauty. There’s something beautiful about watching a sapling grow, a peach change colour every day, and the amazing flavors of fresh produce that come in odd shapes and sizes. I was sent to harvest sumomos (sour peaches) on the afternoon of my first day in the setting evening sun. The single tree in the garden was drooping from the weight of these fruits, and some branches had even snapped.

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Teamwork. The buckets of sumomos that I got were turned into jam a few days later. My host, Masako-san started late  one night after dinner, and Shou-san and I went from being curious bystanders to helping out. That not only sped up the process, it made 3 people standing on the stove comparing our 3 pots quite fun! Eating fresh jam every day for breakfast since is even better.

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Preserving. Manual and traditional methods of food preservation are time-consuming. Yet, despite the demands of perfect weather for drying, timing for pickling, and much more, my hosts made their own umeboshi. These jars aren’t umeboshi, they are additional pickles. The closest jar is the one Shou-san started after I arrived. Within a week, the moisture was sapped out of the plums into the sugar and this funny band of liquid near the bottom. We crouched down on the floor every day to check the slowly hydrating sugar like kids. The gist is, there is so much produce that one can’t eat everything all at once, but it is another level to go to such lengths to ensure great produce isn’t wasted. I benefited by having unlimited supply of umeboshi (pickled plums) every meal.

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Sharing. On my last day, Ono Farm had lunch guests who came to mill the wheat they wanted to buy. They also whipped up lunch and brought bread, vegan Brownies and cookies. What is normally just a business transaction was much more of a community exchange, which included food, shared tips and food experiences, and growing techniques and practices. They spent a long time discussing how many seeds in agriculture today cannot be reused. Everyone’s passion for food wasn’t just limited to buying the best ingredients to make the ‘best dishes’, but in really understanding how food is produced and where it comes from.

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Tenacity. Manual farm work takes time!  In 2 days with 2 people, we have only made it through 4.5/7 rows of potatoes! My finger muscles are aching even now from the dirt digging, but there’s a simple satisfaction in discovering what potatoes are underneath each bush. It’s like treasure hunting. I’ve never been a potato fan, but these rows I will forever look proudly back on. Of course, it’s not just potatoes, it applies to gobo, tomatoes, peas, and leafy greens!

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Patience. One rainy day, I spent the entire day extracting the dried peas from the bean. These will be used as seeds for next year. It sounds boring, but I found it quite relaxing and it gave me the right balance of something to focus on doing well while letting my mind wander. Even though it’s a simple task, knowing that a year later, these will sprout into the tall stalks I’ve seen adds meaning to the task as well. I find that understanding that whatever you are preparing has implications on how something grows, is harvested, and ultimately tastes, immediately inspires more care in what you do.

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Words reclaim their meaning.The Japanese put their hands together and say ‘gochisosamitadakimasu‘ and ‘gochisosamadeshita‘ before and after every meal. They literally mean ‘I humbly receive’ and ‘that was a feast’. Even though I’m ethnically Chinese, I have a habit of mumbling gochisosamadeshita before and after every meal. They literally mean ‘I humbly receive’ and ‘that was a feast’. Even though I’m ethnically Chinese, I have a habit of mumbling’itadakimasu‘ reverently before an amazing looking meal. It somehow always felt right. I don’t mumble them here; I say them empathetically and feel better about being able to ritually express that. Shou-san really does cook up a feast every meal, and produce that’s this fresh is a luxury.

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Having a place. I guess what I mean by that is that everyone sort of naturally falls into a role in these places. We’re lucky to have another long-term WWOOFer here, Shou-san, who naturally took up the cooking for the meals and whipped up a feast hour. I didn’t see Ono-san much, but he was always busy running around doing technical work and often couldn’t join for meals. Masako-san took care of deliveries and packaging. Me – well I helped set up the table, ate, and followed Shou-san around doing simple things. I think what I liked most was that you sort of had a place no matter how much or little you talked. We had long periods of silence during meals, and after a long day spent together, it I feel natural in a way where it often wouldn’t in the city – where we only see each other in meals.

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Open and personal. Standing at the entrance, you can see through the three rooms and all the way down to the end of the house. Most of the house walls are sliding glass doors, making the house feel like an extension of the garden and work area outside. From the packaging area beside the kitchen, you can see if a car comes driving in. If I close my screen door (the middle room) I can hear when someone is home, but I also have my own space. In this farmhouse, which has warped ceiling cedar beams decades old, it feels like walls are just right for creating personal space, without shutting the world out. The sunlight floods in during the day, the wind blows through the screens, and there is the natural ‘otadaima‘ that accompanies a clack of a closed wooden door. Someone has come home, and it’s perfectly fine for you to say through the screen ‘okaeri‘. You’re home too, but you’re entitled to your own little world.

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Tomorrow, I leave to begin my walking Shikoku Pilgrimage in earnest. I’m expecting to be spending a lot of solitary time as I try to walk hundreds of miles across a historical path in Japan’s 4th largest island. Please check for updates as I am writing a diary of the experience of camping (and alone) throughout this long walk.

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Rural Japan

Want to work on a farm? 10 lessons to prep you for the challenges and rewards.

It’s the first time I’ve sat in a chair for over a week. As much as I love sitting on tatami mats, I am enjoying the small luxury of a chair to share some first  WWOOF experiences with you.

I’ve spent the past 8 days on an organic farm in Keihoku (京北, Northern Kyoto). In an open valley many turns north of Japan’s old capital city, Zenryu and Ava of Hello Farm Organics tend to 5 ‘gardens’ scattered 5-10 minutes walk away from their traditional Japanese house in a birdsong-filled town called Jyuichi (十一, Eleven).

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View from the Kanon temple just behind the house.

It sits on the side of a river, in a lush green hills wrapped in languid morning and summer shower mist.

I ended up in this off-the-map town thanks to the WWOOF Japan program, where volunteers assist on organic farm work in exchange for room and board. Much like Couchsurfing, Hospitality Club, and other travel networks, hosts and guests have profiles and can screen each other before making arrangements. I chose my hosts because they had an interesting background (Canadian in Japan and Japanese monk), and I appreciated their philosophy of reduce, reuse, recycle.

WWOOFing is a unique immersive experience while travelling in a country: living with locals, in many cases practicing the local language, and learning about how we grow the food we eat. Nonetheless, it’s not for the faint-hearted. Helping out for 5-8 hours a day on a farm can be a learning curve for city-dwellers like me, so I’ll list out my experiences here for those of you who are curious about what it’s ‘really’ like.

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Slept soundly for a week on this futon.

1. Sleep like a local.

If this appeals to you, then it doesn’t get much more local than rural country houses. I stayed in an upstairs room above the harvesting shed detatched from the main house. For those of you who have never tried, sleeping on tatami mats with one or two thin mattresses above is one of the most comfortable beds I’ve ever had. I got to listen to the 5 sparrow chicks right under me chirping endlessly for food, and many other invisible coos and whistles from other birds just outside every day.

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They had a resident pyromaniac! (me)

2. Throw city routines out the window.

The first is probably waking up around 6/7am, when morning light floods your room and right about when you should get breakfast before morning work at 8am. Farm work is time sensitive and cannot be done on a 2pm-10pm evening shift.

Another routine includes a long lunch break. Mine was 12pm-3pm, which is a great window for both meal preparation and a nap after when the sun is at its peak. A nap might seem a foreign concept given our usual 9-5 office routines, but you should take it when your eyelids begin to droop. It’s magical for the afternoon work.

My evening routine evolved into me obsessing over the fire, because this little furnace heated our bathwater! My host never asked me to, but I thoroughly enjoyed kindling a small flame from dry leaves into a crackling beast that devoured every branch I could throw at it. Usually by the time I got it to a self-sustaining size, dinner was ready. After dinner was done, the bath was ready and cleaned ourselves one by one to the routine symphonty of frog calls in the dark.

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Somen and snap peas with chilled sesame sauce. Fresh mixed-green salad. Tofu rice wraps. Lunch on a hot day.

3. One city day’s calorie count is one meal on the farm.

I learned after starving before lunch the first day that big breakfasts were important (for me anyway). Usually I stocked up on a bowl of rice and two pieces of toast, or 5 pieces of toast before setting off to work. Somehow, how matter how much I ate, i was always healthily hungry just before lunch,  but not in the severe fainting way.

Lunch and dinner were usually served with what would be a horrifying amount of carbs for a health-conscious city dweller. As you can tell in the picture, it usually contained a full portion of both rice and noodles. The caveat is that all these meals were vegan, as Zenryu is a Buddhist monk (& chef). We also had a feast of vegetables that would cost a fortune for in the city, always freshly picked from the gardens. For protein we had various types of tofu, beans, and for those who want super Japanese, natto, one of the healthiest foods around.
This is probably beginning to sound like a free vacation. The work part is below!
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Minutes after transplanting tomato plants into clay-like soil in last year's rice paddy!

4. Get used to dirt.

So what’s farm work actually like? A LOT of dirt. For a week, and even now, the creases in my hands and corners of my nails are stained black. Actually, it feels great, especially when you massage the dirt with  your hands. The rich soil, which has compost, manure, and other organic material can vary from ochre colour to pitch black from bed to bed depending on what each plant needs. Some beds are dense, thick, and clay-like. Others are loose, airy, like moist powder. On sunny days, most become caked ash grey and dusty. The best way to get a sense of it is to dig in with your bare hands.

Your nails will ache from being clogged with mud, so a tip is to trim them! Even if you keep your hands above ground, the rain will ensure that your hands are covered in black goop. An easy solution for both issues, and one my hosts often offered, is gloves. Gloves also offer protection from being cut by the grass and prickles when weeding. My right hand is completely bandaged, but I personally preferred improving my weeding techniques and washing often after work. You would be wise to use more preventative measures!

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No wonder jelly beans got their names. They look like these colourful bean seeds!

5. You’re back in elementary school.

Unless you have done farmwork before, you will be learning from square one. Whether it is chopping baby greens with a knife, harvesting bright pink radishes bursting from the ground or trimming tomato vines that are sprouting, everything is new. You learn to pay attention to every detail, and learn on the job after you’ve been shown something that is ‘very simple’. You learn only after harvesting mustard greens that the big tall ones are ‘volting’, and undesireable to restaurants even though they’re perfectly edible. You learn that some seeds need to be distributed an inch apart, and that some plants need to be buried extremely deep. All simple things. Yet, these small details that you make decisions on have large implications on future harvest, what is kept for consumption, and what is tossed out.

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Mai planting seeds around 1 inch apart after preparing the soil on a drizzly day.

6. Your knees (and more) will ache. Suck it up.

Much of your time is spent crouched and kneeling if there is space. Because these are organic farms, they don’t use pesticides and often have rich natural soil. This means lots of weeds. LOTS. OF. WEEDS. You will never be finished weeding, although I learned that I really enjoy it and have a great sense of accomplishment when I feel I’ve saved the produce from a green invasion. You’ll be crouched doing almost everything else too, including seeding manually for accuracy, transplanting, diggging, tying strings for vines, and harvesting.

I have a chronic injury on my lower back and bad knees, but you can find ways to deal with it. Mix up sheer focus and willpower, switching positions, resting and stretching.

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Our ongoing battle with the yoto that eat only one part of the stalk and move on.

7. Animal pets. Insect neighbours. Mini mortal enemies.

Whoever said the countryside was quiet was lying. Every night I went to bed lulled with the endless symphony of happy frogs (and the odd toad belch). A family of sparrows that nested in the harvest room, so we watched 5 chicks grow from hidden grey puffs to energetic and demanding toddlers nearly falling off their nest. There is a frog that hangs out in a little stone well close to the fireplace and washroom. The soil in the gardens is never still, teaming with everything from spiders to 5 inch earthworms (which are great for the soil).

And, there were the mortal enemies – yoto, which bury close to the roots of plants and only eat the part where the stock touches the soil, virtually logging down every single plant in sight while wasting the leaf. Wiki says ‘cabbage moth‘, but I am not sure about this. They were in many of the beds, and we often spent an afternoon digging for them and feeding them to the fishes after. Another one is the white butterfly which lays eggs on the leaves for its caterpillar offspring to devour.

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Mustard red greens. My favourite plant to harvest with its delicate stalks, gorgeous colours, and zesty fresh flavour.

8. Food never tasted so sweet.

Even the best chefs can only do so much with old produce, which is why so many world-class restaurants have their own gardens. We ate whatever was extra from our daily harvesting and packaging. These were the leaves with holes, the slightly wilted kale, the baby greens that were ‘too big’, the bursting radishes that were super sweet, or the wrinkled and fat snap peas.

To some, this may be seen as ‘lack of options’ or getting second best after the customer. The reality is that often the produce that looks less ‘perfect’ is often more ripe and flavourful. The leaves with holes have been certified by picky insects as the choice sprouts. The radishes with cracks are more mature.

On the farm, what looks delicious isn’t what’s ‘perfect’, but what is most ready.
Every meal, I had the satisfaction of knowing where my food came from, that it was harvested at the right time, and that I was saving it from wasteage because the supermarkets and restaurants wouldn’t take it.

Lastly, Zenryu was the head chef of his monastary, and cooks with both great efficiency and deep understanding of the ingredients he is using. The result is top-notch restaurant quality with 30 minutes of preparation for most meals

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Baskets for various baby greens and hanging plastic bags behind to be reused.

9. US$5 for baby salad will seem too cheap.

In their few years after moving to Keihoku, Zenryu has perfected a delicious 12-leaf baby salad mix. To make it, each type of leaf must be fresh cut, hand-sorted for holes and damage, kept moist (but not too moist), spin-dried if appropriate, and hand mixed. It takes a full day’s work and on days with large orders at least 3 people are on the job. The large plastic bags we harvested in are turned inside-out and hung to dry.

Everything is sorted by weight, and we always erred on a few grams too much on the scale. Kale was 150 grams. Mustard greens was 100 grams. So on, and so forth. The correct amount was then gently wrapped up and shuffled into a corresponding plastic bag. The leaves had to be presentable, aligned, and the tape sealed in a particular way. These were then stored before being distributed the same day. We liked the  one or two customers that wanted good produce and didn’t mind receiving their fresh goods in reusued plastic bags.

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Being carried away by the current!

10. Go out before your city brain says ‘no’.

If the city is about working mentally hard to earn the many experiences an urban hub has to offer, the countryside is about working physically hard to enjoy the subtleties of the natural experiences around you. Those, you can only get if you are out – even just sit outside rather than retreating indoors. Despite a long day’s work, I cycled to a nearby community centre every day not only to get an hour of wi-fi, but more because the evening sunset was always hazardously beautiful (I frequently came close to crashing roadside poles), whether it was a splatter of orange clouds against blue sky or a streak of magenta ripping through the tempest on a rainy day. On my day off, I cycled 42km on a borrowed bike with 3 gears through the mountains into another ‘city’ to see the thatched houses of Miyama (美山) and sit alongside a crystal clear river with jumping fish. It was exhausting in a simple, rewarding way. The water I collected in that river brought out the subtle aroma of my Tieguanyin (鐵觀音) that the highest grade mineral water in Hong Kong couldn’t do. On my last day, Zenryu made onigiri for another WWOOFer, Mai, and me and took us swimming in his favourite spot in a river 10 minutes drive away. It was worth soaking my clothes as I swam in the cold mountain water before hoping on a bus back to Kyoto: who’s to say when the next chance will be? It turns out, my clothes dried in the sun while I was waiting for the bus anyway!

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After over an hour of weeding, the baby leaves can get their sunshine!

Last Tips for Choosing Your WWOOFing Experience.

A disclaimer is that every WWOOF member farm is very different, even if they are all organic (if you find out your hosts aren’t, you should report them!). The things that vary the most are the types of hosts you get, and the environment you’re farming in (i.e. everything important!). Keep weather in mind, and check the temperatures and seasons (i.e. rainy season) for the places you are going to. Also, if you know you prefer certain styles of lodging, be honest and ask your hosts about their routine and amenities (i.e. wi-fi). 

By the way, for those of you in Japan, Hello Farm Organics has a veggie box delivery program.

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Saved these beets which are 'too small to sell' and enjoyed an amazing borscht!

WWOOFing opportunities are available worldwide and you can check the link here for a WWOOF member country you’re interested in visiting.

If you liked this post, please share. Thanks!

What were your experiences on farms?Please leave your comments and let me know!

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Rural Japan