Fuji Fire Festival

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(Mount Fuji in the distance seen from our campsite.)  With the smell of burning wood on us this morning it is the best time to write about our first festival in Japan. The Japanese Fire Festival held in Fujiyoshida, at the base of Mount Fuji, is a 500 year-old tradition used to honor the Fuji Goddess and keep her from erupting. We think that is the meaning, but there are many intricacies of this ceremony to understand. At the main shrine in town, surrounded by 1,000 year-old IMG_3672cedar trees, are where two mikotishas (huge shrines that are carried on the shoulders of local men) are held; one representing Fuji and the other of the Goddess. These 2 ton floats are removed once a year and carried through the streets of Fujiyoshida. One expat we met said the Yakuza (Japanese mafia) carry the Fuji float and other teams of men wearing a different color carry the goddess. Before dark the teams gather at the shrine and drink a lot of sake from buckets, as if it were water. We think they do this to numb the pain of carrying these huge floats, it does create a spectacle. A swaying two ton float going down steps and through the streets packed with people. We learned very early that you don’t want to get too close. Now for the fire… once the ceremony at the shrine took place and the floats were lifted onto the shoulders of about 30 drunk men carried them to the city center and then fire runners carried a flame to huge, tree-like IMG_3792torches that were spread out in the streets all the way back to the shrine. These giant torches burned into the night as food vendors sold squid balls (not what you are IMG_3776thinking…squid baked with batter into a sphere shape), noodles, blue covered bananas with sprinkles, fish on a stick or anything else you could imagine on a stick. I enjoyed a purple squid on a stick that was grilled with a teriyaki sauce. There were games for children, drumming, fire spinning and excitement as these torches burn. The event is broadcast on national news and Andy made his cameo debut as he purposefully walked in to the background of a priest being interviewed. The festivities concluded today as the floats were returned to the shrine and another ceremony took place. Tired from a night of walking and eating we sit here in the train station drinking coffee and are ready for another day at another one of the 5 lakes neat Mt. Fuji. If you want to learn more about this unique festival please check out this link: http://www.city.fujiyoshida.yamanashi.jp/div/english/html/firefest.html

Since the fire festival we have made it to our next farm near Osaka. We plan to be here for 2 weeks and will post more blogs soon. I plan to do an entire blog about food soon!! I promise.

Mountains and War

IMG_3136During the Obon festival we had three days off. For the holiday everyone travels back home to be with family and to remember and honor their ancestors. It is a big deal, kind of like Christmas in the States.

Rachel and I, along with two other WWOOFers (Margot from Austria and Chloe from Australia), decided it would be best to give the family some space and let them celebrate without us pesky foreigners hanging around. Thus we went camping. Kanda-san dropped us off at a trailhead to climb Mt. Kushigatayama. Walking back to his car he said, “watch out for big back flies!” in the car he said, “Oh! And watch out for bears!” We looked up the trail to see a few hundred stone stairs that climbed steadily upward to a Shinto Shrine, which are easily recognized by their Torii Gates of Vermillion Red, and a 1200 year old O-Sugi Cedar tree. The trail continued from there and was steep but shady and the coolness of the higher elevation was truly refreshing. We stopped for a short break and then movedIMG_3206 onward, eventually making it to a road crossing. We stashed our packs on the side of the road (gotta love that about Japan! Nobody will bother your stuff) and headed to a waterfall that Kanda had told us about. We found a small lookout for it weren’t that impressed because we were so far away. Therefore we traversed back to the river and followed it all the way down to the edge of the waterfall. We stayed at the spot where the waterfall dropped into a valley for some time. This must be where zen happens. We pulled ourselves away and made it back to the packs so that we could reach the hut. Chloe and Margot slept in the hut and Rachel and I opted for our tent because it was cooler and we were tired of the heat from the farm. We had a light meal and went to bed early to arise at 4am for the sunrise hike. We managed with two headlamps and made it to the summit just as the sun was breaking over the valley. We even caught our first glimpse of Mt. Fuji, just a faint outline in the far distance. We ate a breakfast of oats (very different than oatmeal in the states we learned) and returned to camp and packed and headed back down. No black flies and no bears.

We easily reached the start of the trail and traipsed in to the neighboring town to try and hitchhike back to the farm which was 20 minutes down the mountain. Along the way an old man polishing tomatoes flagged us down. We went over to him and he started talking to us. Luckily for us, Chloe knows quite a bit of Japanese and could translate for the rest of us. He gave us all tomatoes and then spoke of being alone on Obon and how he was too old to grow many crops any more. Due to the drought he had a small yield of tomatoes this year. This made us feel bad for eating them even though he offered them to us, but glad we could offer some company at the same time. He then gave us a bag of tomatoes to go! We said our goodbyes and wondered what other people we would meet along the way.

Further down the road we saw a sign for a gallery. Kanda said his friend ran the place and that we should stop in on the way back, so we veered off yet again in search of the place. We found some men out working and asked them for directions. They yelled over to a woman across the way hanging up her laundry to dry on the road guards. She apparently ran the place and replied the gallery was closed. We turned around but before we made it 5 steps, she invited us in for IMG_3246coffee. We entered her house, removed our shoes and sat on tatami mats around a table. At the table already sat an older man in a chair eating lunch. Chloe spoke with him while his wife served us a decadent cup of coffee and local sweets adorned by flowers from her garden. Through Chloe I asked the man what the book was on the table because there were many copies of it. He explained to us it was about the Korean War. His parents were brought from Korea to Japan as slaves and forced to work. Once the war was over they were set free, but could not return to their home. They had to live in Japan and were despised by the locals. He and his wife grew up in Japan and the kids threw rocks at them and taunted them. Now, since many years have passed, Koreans are not treated like that and many have married in to and integrated in to the Japanese way of life. While he shared his story I became incredibly touched and emotional. I felt bad for him and his family and the hardships they endured. In this man I saw the Korean counterpart of my own grandpa who fought in the Korean War. I had Chloe try and convey my sentiments and hopefully some of it got through. Who knew I would have had such an experience just by chance, it is miraculous to see in someone from another culture, someone so familiar to me and know that both stood on opposite sides of a war in two totally different cultures. He then spoke of peace and moving forward. Much more was conveyed even though I could not understand the words he spoke. IMG_3265While all this happened an alarm sounded throughout the entire town, possibly Japan, to commemorate the people who died during WWII. I never imagined such a day when I woke up that morning on the mountain. Then as if they hadn’t done enough, they asked us if we liked waterfalls because there was one nearby. We said we did and asked what direction to walk. They said it was too hot for us to walk and she said would drive us there herself since she hadn’t been to it in a while. Chloe tried to politely say no, but it is very difficult to say no to a Japanese offer, at least without severely offending them. We piled in to her little car and sped around the curved roads as she told us about the mountains. Next we followed her up, down and around metal staircases suspended above a river below to reach the waterfall. We drank straight from the pool below and cooled off as wind, created by the falling water, rushed around us. It was such a powerful place. We thanked her very much for showing us around on the drive back and then she insisted we try some local cuisine. Again there was no saying no, Chloe tried. We slurped Soba noodles and drank Sapporo beer. We then went to pay and the waitress refused our money and told us the woman with us put it on her tab. They gave so much to complete strangers and asked for nothing in return. As she drove away we bowed until the car was out sight, we were still in disbelief. I felt part guilt, part amazement that she would drop everything for strangers. This is Japan.

IMG_3284Back on the street, feeling full and happy we began walking towards the farm with our thumbs stretched out to cars passing by. I stuck my thumb out when I heard a car behind me and realized to the delight of my traveling companions that it is better to look at who you are waving down. I had flagged an ambulance! The driver had the biggest grin on his face as he passed. Along the way Margot began to feel ill and her face went pale. She said her chest was heavy and tight. We managed to flag down a car, probably the smallest one around, and we all hopped in. The lady was driving to work, but was running late. She offered to drive us to the hospital by her work. Margot was still not well so we decided that would be best. Luckily by the time we arrived there she was filling better and just wanted to go home and rest. We think she was dehydrated and exhausted from the hike. Having miles of trail and pavement under our feet we struck out towards Kanda’s which was all the way across town. We eventually made it home and that night we relived our glorious day while slurping the rest our camp food under the stars. These are the days that make traveling a love of mine, a reminder that we are on a journey that gives us precious memories to savor and one that has many bountiful experiences in store.

Paddy Full of Rice

IMG_3392About 1 week ago we stepped into a rice paddy and out of the jet lag daze that we have been in. From the exciting streets of Tokyo, where there was something new around every corner and more, we took the local trains to Kanda’s Natural Farm in the Yamanashi Prefecture, aka countryside. Very few travelers make it to rural Japan and as we rolled further from the heart of Tokyo we saw and heard less English, it became more difficult to navigate through the train terminals to get to the connecting train, but with the help of locals and some perseverance we found ourselves at our stop. We foIMG_3125und a pay phone and called Kanda himself to pick us up. The next day we followed Kanda, a long-haired man with a gentle smile and always a towel or two wrapped around his head, into a rice paddy. Our job was to rid the paddy of 2 types of weeds. The bottom and roots of the rice sit in water until harvest time which is at the start of October. For more years than not people have grown and weeded rice paddies bare foot. We wore rain boot and the classic wide brimmed hat (see pictures). Walking in a rice paddy is not so easy and at first I thought I would fall for sure which I would hate to do, since the rows were so tight and crushing rice that is just getting ready to bloom would be disastrous on our first day! We slipped and fumbled and tried not to push the rice which were in grass like bunches, the leaves are very sharp so we wore long sleeves and gloves. Kanda squared us away and left to do other tasks. There we were in 1 of many rice paddies in a neighborhood surrounded by lush mountains. Due to the swelter, the scorching heat that is surrounding me even as I write this, IMG_3431we work from 8-11 and then take a break from 11-3 and go back in the afternoon for 3 more hours. This is the best; we escape the extreme heat of the day, but don’t worry we get a good dose of it. When we arrived we joined the ranks with 2 other WWOOFers (volunteers on organic farms): Chloe from Australia and Margot from Austria. They both helped us with the language barrier and became our Japanese teachers. We worked for 2 days in the rice paddies before the O-Bon festival began. Nobody works during this holiday which celebrates the family ancestors and everyone returns to their hometown for 3 days. The weeding of the rice was finished as well since the plants are too delicate to handle trampling over the roots. Being the nature lover that I am I loved the creatures we would find among the micro ecosystem of the paddies. Little green frogs everywhere (once a local man walked by and there was a little green frog perched on the nape of his neck…glorious!) praying mantis, grasshoppers, caterpillars, and vibrant blue, white, brown and orange dragonflies and more. After 3 days off and a camping trip with Chloe and Margot (we will tell you more about that) we got back to work and this time Andy and I were in charge of putting fencing around all of Kanda’s rice paddies to protect the budding rice from the birds. Rice is a grass and we eat the seeds when the flowers bloom the husk will open and the plant releases the seeds which we eat. The plant gets heavy with seeds and slumps over the edge of the rice paddy and birds take the opportunity to munch on it. So we hammer in stakes around the paddy, string up fishing line in two rows to hold the weeping rice and IMG_3361then tie on flashy tape to scare the birds away. We learned the way to tie and tighten the lines and we have completed almost 20 fields. We have learned, not all rice paddies are the same they are different shapes and sizes and fencing them in can be hazardous with the maze of concrete water drainages and weeds. I took a spill when I stepped down into what I thought was solid ground, but was actually a concrete ditch. Don’t worry when we were stringing the fence on a 6 foot ledge neither of us fell! Yesterday we had a break from the stake making and line stringing as Kanda needed us to fix the net around the millet fields. Yes there is a net over the entire field and it was our job to drive the stakes into the ground to hold the net away from the millet plants; millet it a nice snack for birds too. In the jungle of millet we realized the ground was very hard and the long bamboo stakes were not going into the ground and the next gusty wind would just blow it over. Birds would win. Andy, being innovative found a solution by using bigger bamboo and driving that into the ground and then placing the stake in that to hold the net. Kanda wasn’t sure what Andy was doing but gave him the freedom to try it. It ended up working very well and the net looks much better. I felt a high amount of frustration with the project, not sure if it was the jungle of millet crowding me or the insane net that would get caught on everything, especially buttons! We can see the net from our dome house and it does feel gratifying to know we improved it. Birds won’t win for now. Well, that’s a bit about our work here. We (Andy’s turn) will write more about camping, food, and other adventures of Japan.IMG_3127

“Why Japan?”

5 Story Pagaoda in Asakusa

This trip is come about through a culmination of Andy’s desire to travel to Japan, which traces back to when we first met and my idea to travel on a one-way ticket.  The culture draws us both and through our research we have met many who speak about Japan in a way that made us more determined to visit. The hiking and onsens (hot springs) that pop up all over the country were a big pull for us as well. We also come seeking a deeper connection to the people and the land. That is why we are working on local farms through a program called WWOOFing to learn about organic farming and to go beyond the big cities to the small towns. Japan, as of now, is our first destination, but we want to see Thailand, Nepal and other countries. We have yet to figure out which comes next and for what length.  We arrived in Tokyo late last night. Who knows maybe there will be a teaching job? We may find enlightenment by hiking to sacred temples. Day 1 was intense. We traveled on local, public transportation, walked and walked through the Asakusa district of Tokyo, enjoyed a fresh meal, and so much more. The path is wide open and we are ready to put one foot in front of the other. Please keep in touch through our blog, leave comments and keep us up to date with what is happening at home.