November 30th – December 13th
We set foot in Kyotango after a 3 hour bus ride ready to meet our new little family. Kyotango is situated on the west coast of Japan, in the Kansai region which is considered to be one of the central regions of the country, home to many of its main cities like Kyoto or Osaka. Kyotango however is quite different from those cities as it is not very much populated and a coastal mountain small city.
At the bus station there, we met Chie and Koki, a young couple in their 20s living in their area. As was decided beforehand online, we were to stay for 2 weeks in their company, helping them out with farm work in exchange for a place to stay and 3 meals a day, as well as a place within their “family” per say.
We received a warm welcome in the cold weather of Kyotango from the couple and were told that their house was actually not in the small city but in a village called Noma, 20 minutes ride away.
We must admit that when we arrived in Noma, we were a bit surprised, and a bit scared. Because as far as we could tell there were 5 other houses in a 2-3 kilometer radius and the house was very traditional… basically we were out of our comfort zone. This isn’t exactly a bad thing, usually it’s even a good thing, the only problem is, looking back I think it wasn’t the best way for Priya to start with Japan. This doesn’t mean we didn’t enjoy our time there though, we left after two weeks with a number of skills, and amazing memories.
Noma was a really cute village though with exactly 9 people including us. You had a sake maker, a vegetable farmer, a communist, everything!
The house was in a very traditional style; paper sliding doors enveloped the rooms, the floors were either made of polished wood or tatami. As you can imagine, with paper doors, tatami and the mountain altitude the house got pretty cold during the day and freezing at night. Thankfully, Chie and Koki gave us very warm covers as well as hot water bottles to warm us up at night. Still though, to go from Rarotonga weather to Japanese mountain weather was a bit drastic. Also getting used to the compost toilet was pretty hard…
Chie and Koki were both immensely generous and kind people who helped us settle in and feel like part of their family as well as give us a lot more than we probably gave them to be completely honest. Chie studied chinese and literature in university, as for Koki his parents are animal farmers and after some years in the cities, as well as a year travelling abroad in Europe – especially France – he wished to start his own traditional bakery. So, he bought a house in Noma, started building his oven and growing his own wheat.
The work mainly consisted of working outside in their field, which since they’ve just started is 0.2 acres. During the two weeks we would work around 5 hours a day 5 days a week, doing everything from painting their bakery’s wooden structure, weeding, planting trees, gardening, to harvesting carrots and even digging trenches for water along the onion plants (definitely the hardest). There’s always a sort of silent contract between the host and the worker in workaway; they can ask us to sometimes work a bit more, or less, in the end it’s all for mutual help and they give back in one way or another what they take extra. And although it was tough at times, we definitely enjoyed the work and the larning experience.
One cold morning, Koki took us to his teacher’s house. There, we helped him the entire day with his carrot harvest, which meant plucking, cutting the leaves off and putting it all in a basket. We got to know the other workers a little bit, and work our backs out. So much respect for vegetable farmers now, damn it hurts.
We learned a lot about Japanese food too, gotta say Chie was a really great cook.
During the two weeks there we got the chance to meet and befriend everyone in the village as well as go to neighbor dinners, sake tasting, public baths in Kyotango and even the county festival. We taught Chie and Koki poker, learned about Japanese traditions and shared stories of our travels.
Chie also took us to a calligraphy class where a Buddhist monk taught us how to write our names in Kanji, which is the 20,000+ alphabet the Japanese took from the Chinese. Each letter has a given meaning, usually more than one even, and most people in Japan never really learn more than half of all the Kanjis that exist.
Oh! And let’s not forget we met the cutest Shiba ever, Hana!
After a wonderful two weeks in their company, we left Kyotango with great memories, excited for new adventures to come.
~ Skander and Priya