Well, today was our first day back from our big trip. Golden Week is a long holiday made up of a variety of single-day national holidays: emperor's birthday, boy's day, citizen day, etc...
We had been invited to go to the other side of the island to the Nagano prefecture (state) to participate in a volunteer project and stay with a couple who were involved with the event. Kevin (American) and Tomoe (Japanese) live up in the mountains and run a small eco/cultural tourism business called Onelife (www.onelife.org). They host people and take them on hikes and bicycle rides around the area. They also offer the opportunity to meet local people and see how they live and what they do. It is a pretty cool idea and pretty successful, too, Kevin says. They also do most of their own farming, especially rice.
Joan had connected with them via email back when she was researching gardening and vegetables in Tokyo. They started reading Joan's blog (www.popcornhomestead.blogspot.com) and liked what they saw, so they invited us out to help with re-thatching a traditional Japanese house in a nearby village and to help them on their farm. It seemed like a great chance to get out into another part of Japan and see something different and learn about Japanese culture.
So, we reserved tickets on the shinkansen (bullet train) and packed our bags. Half an hour on the Chuo line train got us to Tokyo station where we transferred to the aerodynamic shinkansen.
One a half hours of really fast traveling got us through the mountains by tunnel and into the west side of the main island to the town of Eichigo Yuzawa. Another hour on a local bus up into the mountains got us to Kevin's village where Kevin met us and drove us further into the mountains in his little four-wheel drive van. We arrived just in time for lunch and a half day of work.
The village was in charge of the re-thatching project and was bringing in volunteers to help with the work and to promote tourism and interest in their community. They had brought in some professional thatchers to do the actual thatching, while the volunteers helped prepare the materials, bring it to the pros, and help with other manual labor. Some of the volunteers came from other projects and events that Onelife had organized before, and some where just random volunteers who had found out about the project. We were the only foreigners that we saw. The area in general had many out of town visitors as Golden Week is the big holiday when everyone goes home to visit family.
Onelife had organized a volunteer project the year before to harvest the 'kaya' or long grass that was being used as thatch. It had been drying inside the old house for quiet some time. Overall, it will take at least a year to rethatch the whole house.
The pros had already built a scaffold out of logs and ropes and had removed the old thatch where necessary. The bundles of thatch were laid vertically on the slope and tied to thin bamboo poles laid horizontally across the roof. Then, with a thatch master pushing a large metal needle with a hooked tip and some one on the inside, wire was woven through the thatch and bamboo, pulling it all together. At one point, they had five or six of us all pulling in unison on rope handles attached to wires to tighten up the thatch. Another thatch master took a large wooden hammer and tapped the ends of all the thatch grass to create the correct pitch for water runoff.
It was a pretty interesting project, and we were able to practice our limited Japanese, although mostly in the context of thatching. We hope to return another time to help.
Near 6 pm, we and three other 'volunteer' guests wrapped up for the day and headed up the hill to the 'ryokan' (Japanese style inn) where we were staying.
We quickly dropped our bags in our tatami rooms, grabbed our bathing supplies, and walked a bit further up the hill to the 'onsen' (natural hot springs bath). We scrubbed up and soaked in the hot, cloudy brown water. The water felt a little silky from all the minerals and eased any muscle pains.
Then it was dinner time. Dinner. It almost defies description. The hostess of the inn is a superb cook who specializes in cooking extremely healthy, vegetable focused food that is produced almost exclusively from local products and farms. It featured many dishes made from the edible wild plants of the mountains. The dishes just kept coming and coming. I think we counted at least 17
different items. Joan tried to take photos of everything and frantically wrote down notes and descriptions of the names, ingredients, and flavors. I'll let you read her description of the meal on her blog.
We also had some cold beer and then opened a huge bottle of sake that the group had been given local government official. It had a subtle plum flavor and was much better than the usual cheap sake we have sampled so far. It went down very smoothly and warmed
us up. It also greatly improved our ability to communicate in Japanese!
Eventually very full and more than slightly tipsy, we tottered off to our tatami room and spread the futons out on the floor. Not surprisingly, we slept very soundly...