Just a quick note.

I’m starting to put my photos up on a Flickr page. There’s a link to it on the right. Enjoy!

More coming soon…

OK bye for now.

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WWOOFing in Gunma

Okay, I finally made it to my second post and it’s a long one. I’ve been pretty busy lately so its hard to find time to write. Hopefully after I’ve gotten caught up they’ll come more often.

First off, for those of you that don’t know or only know bits and pieces, the reason I’m here in Japan is for an exchange program called World Wide Opportunities in Organic Farming (WWOOF). WWOOFing (as it’s usually known as) can be done in around 50+ countries around the world. Most countries have a national program that you can get a membership to. Here’s the premise, straight from the WWOOF website ( “WWOOF organisations link people who want to volunteer on organic farms or smallholdings with people who are looking for volunteer help.” In return for the help, the host provides accommodations and food. Its a really great way to travel on the cheap. Where I am now, if I could spend absolutely no money to live here if I needed to. If the word “organic farm” scares off some of you, not all places are farms. Hosts range from small berry farms and vegetable gardens to nature schools, inns, cafés, and outdoor sports centers but most all of them have some sort of organic, environmental, or self-sufficient aspect to them.

The host I’m staying with now makes their money off of allowing people to fish on their property and running a fly-fishing school every once in a while. The Komoriyas are a family of 5 that live in the mountains in Gunma prefecture.

Here’s a map of the prefecture I am in relative to the rest:

Hiro is the father, the one that makes us do all the work. He’s super energetic when it comes to working. Maybe a bit too much cause he gets ahead of himself sometimes. Reiko is the mother and the one that I had contact with when making arrangements. She works in the train station 5 minutes down the mountain from the house. Their kids are Anri, super adorable 6 year old girl, Ryoma, really loud 8 year old boy, and their older sister Karin, age 10. Hiro and Reiko speak enough English to get along. As for the kids they’re all fun to be around even though I have no idea what they’re saying 99.999% of the time.

And when I talk about “us” I’m talking about the two other WWOOFers that are staying here as well. Kevin, who is originally from New Hampshire but has lived in Japan on and off for the past 8 years and has been living around East Asian for the past 20 and Joris, from Holland, who has just come to Japan for the first time like me and is WWOOFing here for 3 months.

Initially, my plan was to teach English in South Korea starting September 2008. Thats a pretty big step, no leap, for someone like me who has never even left the country, let alone taught English. So when I found out about WWOOF I thought that it would be a great way to immerse myself in another culture and prepare for teaching. Now the plan is this: WWOOF in Japan until December, WWOOF in Korea until February, then teach English in Korea starting in March and lasting a year.

Anyway, here are some pictures of where I’m staying. The first one is Yamaneko lodge, the place where WWOOFers stay. We sleep in on the top floor on 3-inch thick futons and meager pillows. The location is really nice. Loads of beautiful scenery around the stream.

And here’s the “bridge” we walk over to get from Yamaneko lodge to where the Komoriyas live. An accident waiting to happen.

This is how the light looks on every clear morning from the porch of the lodge.

Just down the stream next to the little bridge we walk across every morning.

The front of the Komoriya’s new house from the road.

Kevin and Hiro taking a break on the inside

One of these days (I don’t remember which but I think it was the first week), I rode a bike up the road that goes past the house, where the only traffic is that of government workers that ride up and check weather instruments. There are many points where water comes out of the mountain and across the road under a small grate. Usually its a tiny waterfall that spits out of a hole but a ways up, I found this in a miniature grotto. It was one of of those little moments in life that was really special.

We get all of our meals cooked for us, which is really nice. They always consist of rice or noodles with a bunch of other vegetables, which sometimes makes me miss meat. Usually everything is so good though, that I don’t even think about it. I’ve gotten to try a bunch of new foods, which is exciting. Here’s a few:

Natto - Fermented soybeans. A traditional Japanese food but definitely an acquired taste. Smells like a toilet.

Japanese mayonnaise - If American style mayonnaise tasted like this, I think more people would like it. It has an egg-like taste and we eat it with green beans.

Plum wine
- Hiro makes his own plum wine. The one in this container was actually really good.

Japanese Pears - Delicious! I don't like the pears you usually get in America but these are awesome. Sweeter and aren't textured like sand.

Bitter Melon - Like the name says. Not my thing.

Umeboshi - Pickled ume fruits. Also gross.

Mamma Africa's Zulu Peri Peri sauce - Not Japanese, but I still tried it. 9/10 hot like it says on the side. 2 drops was spicy enough. Pretty good too.

Moving on from a very tasty subject to a not so tasty one, if theres one thing that this place has a lot of, its spiders. They say the average person eats about 20 spiders a year. My guess is that I’ll reach my yearly quota with no problem in the time that I’m here. The lodge I’m staying in (Yamaneko lodge) is practically covered in them, inside and out. Most of the ones inside are house spiders but some of the ones outside are freaking huge orb weavers. The one outside the downstairs window was dark gray and about the size of a Susan B. Anthony dollar. Scary…

I got a picture of this one in the new house we’re working on. I found it right above me as I was looking for a place to put a light.

So I think that’s all for this post. I really want to go to bed but I really want to be done with this, so I’m going to stop now and leave more for next time. Should be some more pictures coming up of the surrounding area too.

Daily Observation!

(and yes, I realize this is more like bi-monthly observation)

75% of cars in the cities I’ve been to look brand new and the other 25% is last year’s model. And I’ve been to a lot of small, old towns so it’s not like this is downtown Tokyo I’m talking about. See an old run down house with weeds growing everywhere? There’s likely a shiny new car in the driveway.

Oh and the cars are reaaally small here. Seeing a medium sized sedan here is like seeing a limo in the US.

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How to make jet-lag

Okay. My first post. Finally.

There’s a lot to cover so I’ll be splitting it up into a few posts.

The first week has been both hectic and relaxing but overall very tiring. Lets start at the beginning. I flew out of Washington Dulles at 8:00am, meaning the day started around 4:30 in the morning. Keep this in mind because it will be important later. It was a quick hour and a half flight to Toronto Pearson airport at which time the nearly 4 hour layover began. When I got off the plane, my first stop was the international connecting flights desk. After telling nearly 90% of the people that got off the plane that their desk was for international connections and not domestic arrivals because nobody reads signs, to say they were annoyed would be an understatement. Fortunately, the woman I talked to had a sense of humor.

Me: So, my bags are being transferred to my next flight?
Her: They should be.
Me: Should be?
Her: Alright, yes. They will be.
Me: Okay, because its pretty important I keep those bags.
Her: Well, you are flying Air Canada after all.

The first thing I noticed about the airport was how nearly every store in it sold liquor. The duty free shop was about half liquor, half perfume. There was even a Bacardi Rum Bar right dead center in the terminal. If you ever want to get sauced at an airport, Toronto Pearson is the place to go. They also have this weird monolithic piece of modern art in the main terminal as well. Basically, it’s four half a foot thick, huge pieces of curved steel painted black. Pretty simple, yet cool to see in person.

This thing is huge!

This thing is huge!

A more artistic look

A more artistic look

Here’s the gate for my flight

This is where I spent a couple of hours. Absolutely nothing to do.

At around 1:20pm, with much anxiousness and excitement, I got on my first flight to Japan. I’d say I had that feeling for around 2 hours before the monotony of sitting on a plane for 12 hours kicked in. The flight wasn’t too bad though. I watched Caddyshack and City Slickers through one side of a headphone, got 4 meals, and the people next to me mostly slept the whole way. 12 hours and a couple naps later the plane touched down in Tokyo’s Narita airport. Before, when I heard the name Tokyo I immediately thought of a bustling metropolis of shiny new buildings with about as many trees as you would find on the moon. So I was certainly surprised when we landed in an almost rural area at a very plain looking airport.

The first thing I noticed when I got into the terminal was how hot it was. Air conditioning in Japan is far less of a priority than it is in America. Literally the only time that I felt a fan the entire rest of the day was for about 5 minutes on a train when a small rotating fan clicked on. From immigration and the baggage claim, I made my way to the train ticket kiosk where they quickly turned down my traveller’s checks and made me get yen.

Man, I’m so glad that I printed out the train directions in Japanese. I’d probably have ended up sleeping in a train station and gotten robbed in the middle of the night. The only way my suitcases would’ve been protected is the fact that one weighs about 70 lbs. Not exactly a quick getaway. Anyway, through some gestures and broken English, I bought a ticket on the Kesei line out of Tokyo’s Narita airport on an hour and half long ride to Takasago, which I ended up missing the first time because of this neat little facet of the train system that I wasn’t clued in on. Maybe most railways are like this. I don’t know, I’ve never had experience with good public transportation. Looking at my directions gives the indication that I get off at Takasago and then get back on the same line and go 2 stops further to Isesaki. This is sort of correct. Apparently theres an express Keisei line that I was on that stops at the bigger stations and in order to get to the smaller ones, like Isesaki, I have to hop on the “local” Keisei line. I started getting suspicious when after Takasago we blazed past Isesaki and a few others. Thanks to the help of a well…helpful…station attendant I figured out the right train to get on and backtrack to Isesaki. This pretty much exemplifies the rest of the night. Confusion. No more missed trains or stations but at each station I went through the ritual of looking very lost, tired, and confused and then asking an attendant or ticket person where the hell I’m supposed to go. Thank God for those directions in Japanese…

So yeah, the rest of the night was super tiring. Thats why there are only pictures of the Toronto airport. I just couldn’t be bothered to bring out my camera. I’ve gotten plenty of shots of train stations since then so it’s okay. I ended up at my destination, Sori station, on the smallest train I’d ridden on so far (about the size of a Greyhound bus) at around 10:30pm, Japanese time; 9:30am US time. Hiro, the head of the family at the first place I’m staying, was there to meet me, asleep in his small white van. The first thing he said to me was probably 2 or 3 sentences in Japanese. Instant panic was my reaction since I thought he knew I didn’t speak the language. Pretty soon though his Japanese was infused with a little bit of English, to my relief. We made good conversation on the way up to his house, which is a 5 minute ride up a mountain on a tiny, windy, one lane road that is supposed to support two way traffic. He showed me to the cabin that will be my home for the next month and I met the other WWOOFer named Kevin, originally from New Hampshire but now living in Japan. Hiro made us some noodles since I hadn’t eaten in about 9 hours and then off to bed around 11:30.

So, let’s recap: wake up at 4:30am on Sunday, fly/be in airports for 18 hours, ride on trains for 6 hours, and go to bed at 10:30am Monday morning (11:30pm Japan time). Thats 30 hours of hell.

Oh, and then I got up at 6:30 the next morning.

I’m sure most of you are wondering what I’m doing here exactly and where “here” is. I’ll explain more about that in the next post. For now, here’s my “Daily Observation” about Japan.

Daily Observation!
Everyone has cellphones. I mean everyone. If you’re 100 years old and don’t have a cellphone you’re not hip. Riding on the trains, its not unusual to see a a twelve year old kid next to a 60 year old man, both texting like it’s their job.

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