I was stalked home by a white cat the other night. It was exceptionally odd- the cat would walk in the shadow at the edge of the path. When I turned away, the cat would start sprinting towards me; I would suddenly turn back and the cat would screech to a halt a little too late, its piercing eyes fixed on mine. I’m not one for the supernatural, but I felt like that cat knew me.
I bring this up not to emphasise that I’ve gone completely fucking mental, although y’know, it only takes a week in the country to bring home how much of a city kid I really am. It’s just that I’ve spent a lot of the last week communing with animals. Take Juicy, the grand old pig with a colossal flat nose who doesn’t see too well but sniffs around everywhere, and who has a deep bond of affection with our host Kaz. Or Pinya, the surprisingly cuddly goat who’ll tear a tree to shreds given half a chance and likes to make eye contact with you while he’s shitting, which is a bit disconcerting. There are roosters that steal the pig’s food, and a turkey who always seems to hang out in the same patch of mud and gives me the creeps.
It feels a long way from the city, out here in Yufuin where the wild flowers clutter every roadside. In the mornings we wake up early and feed the animals, sometimes take the goat for a wander. We hack at the garden with tools I don’t know the names of, using rotating blades and strings to slice through a warm, wet summer’s worth of overgrown grasses. We tidy the verges and clean the irrigation channels, and give Pinya the pick of the weeds to eat. I enjoy the earthy practicality of the work, and working outdoors, which still doesn’t come naturally to me.
The ‘farm’ isn’t really a farm at all, more of a country garden in need of some attention. Our host, Kaz, divides his own attention between it and his guesthouse and his developing drone business, both teaching for hobbyists and renting for agricultural uses. This is the countryside, where change appears superficially slow but rental drones spray the fields with pesticides remotely now.
The guesthouse is wood-panelled, with its own tiny outdoor onsen and a guest suite. When there are guests, we prep the rooms (traditional tatami rooms, with minimal furniture). We make sure everything is spotless and well-organised and the futons are made. In theory, we prepare dinner and breakfast, although because the kitchen isn’t big and we don’t want to trip over each other’s feet, I haven’t done much of that. When we didn’t have guests, I learnt to make okonomiyaki, grating gloopy yamaimo into rich batter and adding bean sprouts, bonito and optional kimchi for effect.
Speaking honestly, with four of us here there really isn’t a ton of essential work to do. Out of the peak season, and with tensions building between Japan and South Korea, the guesthouse is uncharacteristically quiet. Our host says there’s always more to do, and I’m sure there is, but sometimes for me it’s hard to know where to start. Because I’m so fundamentally a city kid and I’ve hardly touched a toolkit, I feel a bit lost, like an interloper who wants to work but doesn’t always know how.
The Town Mouse
That said, I am learning, slowly, about the countryside. The crimson flowers that mark the boundaries between the rice fields are planted because they have thick, poisonous roots and stop burrowing critters from getting into the rice fields. The rice is mid-harvest at the moment, even though nobody told the weather- it’s still sunny and upwards of twenty degrees at ten in the morning. At this time, the mountain wildflowers are thickly blooming, and there are insects everywhere: butterflies flitting about in black, orange, yellow and red, giant cockroaches and omnipresent mosquitos. The persimmon (kaki) trees are heavy with fruit, while more tropical crops are grown in greenhouses at the roadsides. Without a door-to-door recycling service, Kaz drives his cans, glass and burnable waste up to a processing facility up in the hills.
For all the undeniable beauty of the place, though, I’m having a lot of trouble adapting to the countryside. I spent the summer at camp in a constant fizz of activity, and then spent a month travelling about, cities disappearing behind me in the window of each highway bus or local train. Being out in the countryside, with few limits on my time, hardly any money left, and without a clear picture has been a surprisingly painful adjustment. In a week I’ve already had to escape to nearby Beppu a couple of times. After all the movement of summer, I’ve found hanging around the house and garden to be a weird adrenaline crash, so I suddenly feel sluggish and unmotivated. My sleep is helpfully fucked again- nah, I don’t know which causes which either. Probably a bit of both.
Then there’s the social difficulties inherent to country living in Japan. Even my host Kaz, who loves this place, admits that it takes longer for people to get to know you, and trust you, in the countryside. As a gaijin*, you’re always an outsider in Japan, but you can hide in the anonymity of the city, where many people are outsiders in different ways. In the countryside, I feel doubly an outsider, a foreigner both to Japan and to a way of life I don’t have a feel for. I try to talk to people, but I struggle with the pace of conversations, and my spoken Japanese really isn’t improving. And in my darker moments I worry that the dream is curdling and I wonder what I’m doing here.
I get into these places sometimes, but I really like my workaway buddies. My host is an interesting guy who’s taught me a lot about life in rural Japan and took us to a wild mountain onsen and to do karaoke together. Perhaps I need more time to adjust. We’ll see how things go, and I should have at least one more blog from Yufuin before I’m on to my next placement. I’ll leave you with some pictures from my hike on Yufudake, the spectacular mountain that overlooks the town.
From your correspondent in the boondocks.
* I actually really dislike this word, which literally means ‘foreigner’. It’s not always used pejoratively, but it’s tiresome being lumped together. It’s an ever-present reminder that you don’t belong.