Wednesday, December 15, 2004


Well, I'm back in Tokyo, after a month long apprenticeship banging out buckwheat noodles in the hamlet of Isazawa. The transition was a bit of a shock. Isazawa totally exceeded my expectations of rural Japan. One of which was the doorways, conveniently located at about forehead level. I think my IQ dropped a few points from all the minor head injuries I sustained this past month. But these doorways were attached to gorgeous old style Japanese farm houses made of massive beams with broad open rooms that could swallow 3 or 4 Tokyo apartments. Altars to ancestors were always tucked away in one corner of the house and dutifully given their portions of whatever the family happened to be eating. However, Grandpa always seemed to pass on everything, and after 5 minutes or so his portion of rice would be chucked back in the rice cooker.

The people of Isazawa talked about their little valley reverently, and with a pride I haven't seen in many small Japanese villages. It is a gorgeous little corner of Japan, with old growth forests, fresh spring water and raccoon spirits that play tricks on unsuspecting humans. These days raccoon tricks consist mostly of getting into your vegetable garden or causing car accidents. The primary income of Isazawa farmers is producing high end fruit; carefully tended apples, grapes, pears and watermelons they can sell for outrageous prices. 10 kilograms of prime Isazawa apples goes for about $80. And we ate the stuff like candy.

I spent the month as an apprentice and all around gopher for the one guy too stubborn to cash in on the whole fruit thing, a knobby little guy named Kaneko-san. I never asked him about it, but one eye was always squeezed a bit tighter than the other, which made it look like he was constantly scrutinizing whatever was in front of him. Even when he laughed that right eyelid stayed firmly at half mast while the left danced around. He delighted in the not so glamorous farming of fresh green, sweet potatoes, daikon, Chinese cabbages, and of course, buckwheat. Japan was hit by a violent string of late season typhoons this year, which delayed the buckwheat harvest and meant I spent the first week and a half digging up sweet potatoes and waiting for the buckwheat to dry to a proper consistency. First day of work at the soba place and I get handed an XL size uniform, this blue bathrobe thing. I'm not exactly the biggest guy in the world, but in the Smurf Village I'm freaking Gargamel, so I guess to Papa Smurf XL seemed like a decent estimate. Instead I had to knead the buckwheat dough and bring out freshly dunked batches of noodles while swimming in this mass of fabric. Papa Smu..., er, Kaneko-san insisted it's supposed to be big on you, but I think the guy was just covering the mistake.

Kaneko-san was very hard to read. While working he only communicated with short grunty bursts. What with his Isazawa accent these weren't too easy to make out, writing in the roman alphabet it came out to something like "Mrbrbrllblbrdamedabe". Which can be roughly translated as; "Stop washing those sweet potatoes like a prissy city boy moron and hurry up so we can go eat lunch."His neighbors all seemed to regard him both with respect and bewilderment at this funny man who refused the glamorous world of grape farming for potatoes and turnips. He was however the main organizers of the local farmer's market, which had proved to be much more profitable than people had expected.

But every night Kaneko-san would open up over dinner with a few glasses of local sake. The month that I stayed with the Kaneko family they hosted not just me, but an array of Japanese out from Tokyo who were out in Isazawa for some reason or another. It was in conversations with these college students that he opened up, eagerly discussing things like the importance of local community agriculture, the future of Isazawa in it's youth (in his words, "The Hope of Isazawa"), the folly of Japan sending troops to Iraq, and that moronic comedian onTV who plays the guitar dressed in a kimono and making fun of foreigners. He would pour sake into me til I could barely make it back to my futon, and he'd still be bouncing up early every morning for work.

Turns out drinking is the official sport of Isazawa. I become an honorary member of the Isazawa Seinenkai ("Youth/Singles Group") during my time there, and we made sure to keep in practice, mostly with beer, but there was a local rice liqour called daburoku that they guzzled with abandon. Couldn't stand the stuff myself. It was thick and white with a slightly off taste to it. We also played volleyball Wednesday nights, which involved me trying not to get hit while the deadly serious and surprisingly talented twenty-somethings of Isazawa smacked that ball around like pros. Just in case you were wondering, Isazawa has a Roujinkai (Old Folks Group) as well. They also held occasional drinking parties, but I never found out if they played volleyball.

At the end of my month Kaneko-san was nice enough to hold a goodbye party for me in the soba restaurant. I was surprised at how many friends I'd made in my 5 week stay in Yamagata. There was the 50 year old apple farmer who played guitar in a surf rock band during the off season, the owner and chef of a local Chinese and Thai restaurant who had the unnerving hobby of grilling me on US State Capitals (he knew them all), one of the old women I worked with at the soba place who brews her own wine from area grapes, a graduate student from Tokyo writing his thesis on farming and composting techniques in the area, some of the regulars at the restaurant, plus 15 members of the Isazawa Youth Group. One old guy who I'd only met once or twice showed up with a few bottles of hard apple cider he'd brewed. As the night progressed he outlined his dream to make Isazawa a community where money wasn't needed and everybody cheered.

Round about 1 in the morning people started filtering off, taken home by patient spouses, taxi's and bicycles. All 12 attendees from the Isazawa Youth group piled into a 7 person van, yelling and cheering as they pulled away. The graduate student and I stood in the parking lot waving as the designated driver lurched out of first gear and sped off into the chilly night. "There goes the hope of Isazawa..." he said to me. We turned around and hurried back inside to sleep by the fireplace.

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