Thursday, 29 July 2010

Unravelling Japan's Mysteries: A Very Good Way to spend the Summer!

By various turns of fate, I have had the good fortune come to a most wonderful place:

For two and a half weeks, I have been living on a family-run fruit farm in a rural part of Fukushima city in the south part of northern Japan. The farm is called Ankaju which is short for Anzai Kajuen, or Anzai Fruit Tree Garden (I have notified Shinya the farmer of this overly literal translation, but I have to admit that Orchard, while being a good word in its own right, doesn't sound quite as poetic as Fruit Tree Garden).

I am engaged on what is essentially a working homestay - I am essentially a WOOFer without having gone through the official WWOOF channel. In exchange for food and board, I help with the plethora of tasks that need to be done to keep the farm and household running. The farmer and the other workers start at around 4:30 in the morning. I have convinced them - as I have convinced myself - that I would not be able to function without a decent amount of sleep, so I am allowed the luxury of getting up as late as 6:30 in time to help prepare breakfast for 7.

The family of 6 spans 60 years: the 61-year-old patriarch - whose wife runs a pottery shop in the front room - has passed the farm management onto their 32-year-old son, Shinya, who is married to Akiko from Kamakura. Their 4-year-old son Sou-kun is interested in everything but only for brief periods, and their 1-year-old daughter is just on the verge of talking - she can now say "Yes", "Hello" and "Thank You" (suggestions for new words to teach her would be most welcome!) A couple of names must be mentioned: the almost-talkative daughter is called Momo-chan (Little Miss Peach), and the dog is called Ringo-chan (Little Miss Apple). Another family of young cousins lives in a house next door. There are three of us extra labourers - Oonishi from Kamakura who I am sharing a room with, and Ryuusuke from Fukushima, who drives here every day.

Being here is almost like being in Japan for the first time again, only with answers to the questions. Many of the mysteries that have puzzled me about Japan over the years are starting to unravel.

On the first morning, I learnt why Japanese apples are so big and expensive: after blossoming, as the apples start to develop, the majority of the apples are removed from the tree, leaving the biggest and best to grow even bigger and better. It might seem better economic sense to leave more apples to grow, and sell more smaller apples slightly cheaper, but the problem here is that there is simply no market for small apples. Also, apple wood is very brittle, and the apples get too heavy for the branches - we have had at least two broken branches in the last few days.

The majority of the work I have been doing has so far focussed around the cutting away of these smaller apples, as well as the removal of many many hungry leaf-eating hairy caterpillars from the leaves of the trees in the one "experimental" organic field. At my suggestion, we have started feeding the caterpillars to the chickens, which seems to fit in with the household's "waste not want not" attitude. (Organic farming and vegetarianism makes for many a moral dilemma). As well as caterpillars, the trees are populated by a plethora of small creatures, the quantity and variety of which is astounding. Frogs are plentiful - yesterday a huge frog sat contentedly on an apple for an hour or so, occasionally glancing around, but otherwise still, while we cut the smaller apples from around it. Mosquitoes also abound - I am half way between being able to tolerate or ignore the itchiness of their bites and having to resort to magical menthol-based substances to soothe the itches.

The most evident creatures at the moment are the セミ (semi, or cicadas), which cling to trees and rub their wings together, producing a screeching sound. The combined effect of hundreds of these insects is a deafening background white noise (something like a hyper-active string orchestra with tuning difficulties) which is actually louder than the traffic on the main road, albeit much higher pitched. When they are not attached to trees, the semi fly in between trees, making a sort of croaking noise, and since they are about the size of small bats or tiny birds, this can be potentially hazardous to the unsuspecting farm worker. Every now and then a semi will land on one of us, clinging on with its sharp claws, and then suddenly realise one is not a tree, and fly off with a shriek.

An aspect of the Japanese countryside that puzzled me right from the first time I visited 13 years ago is the presence in any given town of sirens or tunes echoing out three times a day from a few strategically placed loudspeakers. I have now learnt from experience that when one is working in the fields, it is most useful to know when it is 12 noon, or 5 pm, so as to be able to return to the house knowing with confidence that it is time to help prepare lunch or supper.

The food here is amazing: three solid meals a day, proper real farm food mostly prepared from scratch using freshly picked or bartered vegetables. The other day, someone came around with two huge boxes of なす nasu - aubergines (my favourite vegetable) and since then, every meal has included 3-5 dishes of nasu prepared in different ways - deep fried nasu, shallow fried nasu, salt nasu, sky blue pickled nasu, miso pickled nasu, spicy pickled nasu, nasu fried with miso, nasu tempura, sliced nasu, diced nasu, with new combinations appearing every day. I have just eaten the first meal for days in which nasu was not the main part of the main course (there was a side dish of spicy pickled nasu, left over from last night), and it seemed very strange.

On the occasions when I have helped to pick peaches, I have found it impossible not to think of Roald Dahl's fantastic story James and the Giant Peach... especially when discovering peaches that have either been infested by beetles or have mysterious holes bitten into them...

Another job I have been helping with from time to time is tending the fruit stall, which at the moment is selling the first of this year's peaches, and the last of last year's apple juice. Fruit-hunting tourists drive along the road (part of a rural bypass route called the "Fruit Line") and many of them - especially those who stop - are astounded to find a foreigner tending the stall (let alone one who can *actually* speak Japanese, ask them if they want to taste a peach, etc...). "Are You tending this stall?" "You actually work here?" etc,,, and wondering how i came to be here - Shinya and I are also not entirely sure how I came to be here - or if we are, it's a long story...

Selling peaches is not simply a matter of handing over the goods and accepting the cash. For a start, the peaches are laid out in baskets and boxes in such a way as to look appealing to the passer-by. Those who approach the stall are welcomed in the typical Japanese shop manner, いらっしゃいませ~! and invited to taste a sample. But simply cutting a bit out of a peach and proffering it will not do. Different parts of a peach are different sweetnesses. You may already have noticed that the flesh further away from the stone is sweeter, but did you know that the sweetest part of a peach is about two thirds of the way down just next to the side opposite the line linking the top (stalk) and the bottom? To expose this section to the customer, the peach is cut with the stalk facing the customer, and the line facing the floor. A small segment is cut, and slid out towards the customer. If all goes according to plan, the customer takes the part that is nearest to them, and rotates it towards them, biting into the part that is furthest away, which is the sweetest part. Furthermore, the peach (or at least the part offered to the customer) must be peeled, as in these parts, fruit peel is not generally considered to be consumable. I had this wrong for a while, as to my way of thinking, the sweetest flesh is that nearest the skin, which is therefore worth eating, and the fuzziness of the skin creates a pleasant textural contrast. Alas, however, I cannot share these delights with my Japanese customers, as the proper way to eat peach here does not involve consumption of fuzzy textures.

I am sitting in the peach stall area, surrounded by boxes containing the biggest, fattest, juiciest and most expensive peaches I have ever seen. I am astounded that many of the people who come to the stall exclaim "How cheap!" when confronted with a box of 6 or 7 peaches costing the equivalent of 10 British pounds. Many people also complain that the peaches are still far too small. I try to explain to them that the peaches we buy in the UK are around the size of the very smallest ones we are selling here, but they are having none of it. Shinya the farmer has tried to convince me that next week's peaches will be even bigger and sweeter - but I have yet to see or taste them.

Shinya has suggested that it would be a good idea for me to stay around for the majority of the peach harvest - until around mid-August - to help sell peaches and entertain the customers. Now we have finished apple-thinning, I have also been helping put reflective sheets down in the peach field (to help the peaches ripen more quickly and from below), helping to lay a concrete floor in the peach stall, and building wooden garden furniture for peach-tasting customers to perch on while they wait to fill in mail-order forms...

I am learning such a lot here - how to make things, how to say things, how to sell things, how to be good in a community.... This seems to me to be a very good way to spend a summer, so I may be here for a few weeks yet.

No comments: