Tuesday, September 7, 2010

ただいま: I'm back

I left Japan one month ago. Since then, I've been in Virginia, North Carolina, Texas, and Massachusetts. I've spent time with family and friends; I've unpacked and repacked and trucked my worldly possessions across several state borders; I've sailed around Cape Ann, Massachusetts; and I've eaten sushi at least three times. I've gone through culture shock (as the stereotypes tell us, Americans are indeed much louder than the Japanese) and farm deprivation (plastic-wrapped vegetables?!), and I've enjoyed being back in a culture whose rules are more relaxed, more fluid. I've a lot thought about what ARI meant to me while I was in Japan, about what it means to me now, and about how my experience at ARI will shape my future plans.

With my sister and mother in North Carolina

I learned a lot from ARI. I learned about farming and about how to live more simply; I learned how to interact and how to form meaningful relationships with people from drastically different backgrounds; I learned more about what makes me happy, about what I truly need. ARI is a radical place (I often refer to it as my Japanese hippy commune), and I loved it for its radical message of (paraphrasing from Ghandi here) living simply, so that others may simply live.

Most importantly, my time at ARI reminded me of the importance of slowing down. Not slowing down physically or mentally, but slowing down your pace of living – taking the time to appreciate the world around you, to appreciate the gifts and the challenges of the moment, to appreciate people. At ARI, we’re forced to pay attention to the natural world, a world that many of us are far removed from in our daily lives. We’re asked to adjust our working pace to the pace of growing vegetables and livestock; we’re asked to adjust our speaking to the English abilities of our Japanese and Indian and Indonesian friends; we’re asked to adjust our eating to the rhythm of the seasons. I especially loved eating in season, even though that sometimes meant eating inordinate quantities of carrots and sweet potatoes or doing without onions or tomatoes.

I would like to share a passage from a book called The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka, a Japanese farmer who rebelled against the industrialization and commercialization of food production that occurred in Japan after the end of World War II. In this passage, Fukuoka-san describes the commercial production of mikan, or Japanese mandarin oranges.
Farming out of season is becoming more and more popular all the time. To have mandarin oranges just one month earlier, the people in the city seem happy enough to pay for the farmer’s extra investment in labor and equipment. But if you ask how important it is for human beings to have this fruit a month earlier, the truth is that it is not important at all, and money is not the only price paid for such indulgence.

Furthermore, a coloring agent, not used a few years ago, is now being used. With this chemical, the fruit becomes fully colored one week earlier. Depending on whether the fruit is sold a week before or after the 10th of October, the price either doubles or falls by half, so the farmer applies color-accelerating chemicals, and after the harvest places the fruit in a ripening room for gas treatment.

But when the fruit is shipped out early, it is not sweet enough, and so artificial sweeteners are used. It is generally though that chemical sweeteners have been prohibited, but the artificial sweetener sprayed on citrus trees has not been specifically outlawed. The question is whether or not is falls into the category of ‘agricultural chemicals.’ In any case, almost everybody is using it.

The fruit is then taken to the co-op fruit-sorting center. In order to separate the fruit into large and small sizes, each one is sent rolling several hundred yards down a long conveyor. Bruising is common… After a water washing, the mandarin oranges are sprayed with preservatives and a coloring agent is brushed on. Finally, as a finishing touch, a paraffin wax solution is applied and the fruit is polished to a glossy shine…

So from the time just before the fruit has been harvested to the time it is shipped out and put on the display counter, five or six chemicals are used. This is not to mention the chemical fertilizers and sprays that were used while the crops were growing in the orchard. And this is all because the consumer wants to buy fruit just a little more attractive. This little edge of preference has put the farmer in a real predicament.

… Fruit which is not wax treated no longer brings so high a price. In two or three years waxing is taken up all over the country. The competition then brings the prices down, and all that is left to the farmer is the burden of hard work and the added costs of supplies and equipment. Now he must apply the wax.

Of course the consumer suffers as a result. Food that is not fresh can be sold because it looks fresh… until there is a reversal of the sense of values which cares more for size and appearance than for quality, there will be no solving the problem of food pollution.
I like what Fukuoka-san says about slowing down our desires. Before coming to ARI, I had never eaten in season. Like most Americans, I had eaten tomatoes, kiwis, and spinach all year round – barely even aware that vegetables and fruits have seasons, or that, outside of industrialized countries, you must reconcile your desires with the progression of the seasons. By eating in season, I had more appreciation for the variety of nature, and I felt more connected to the rhythms of the year. I found that I could do without many things I had thought essential, and that I felt healthier and more balanced for it. And, most importantly, I didn’t take food for granted anymore.

I want to keep these ARI lessons close as I start a new life up here in New England. I want to always remember to appreciate the soil, the food that it supports, and the people who cultivate it. I want to always remember to slow down enough to really appreciate the friends and family around me. I want to always seek ways to build connections within my community.

This will be my last blog entry, but I'm working on compiling an ARI cookbook (in the form of a website) that will also include more information on what the ARI farm produces and how we produce it. I'll be sending out the online link for that sometime before Thanksgiving. So to everyone who supported me financially, who read my blog or sent me an email, who thought about me while I was across the Pacific: Thank you, again, for an incredible year. I hope to pay it forward.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, a large city in western Japan. I recently read several Japanese accounts of the bombing, and I'd like to share a section from one novel, Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse, which is a fictionalized compilation of bomb victims' diaries. In this section, the main character has just emerged from Yokogawa station, about 1 mile from the epicenter of the blast, minutes after the bomb was dropped:
"I was shocked to find that almost every house adjoining the station had been knocked flat, covering the ground about with an undulating sea of tiles. A few houses away from the station a young woman of marriageable age, the upper half of her body emerging from the rubble, was throwing tiles as rapidly as she could lay hands on them and screaming in a shrill voice. She probably thought she was crying 'Help,' but the sound that emerged was no intelligible human speech...

In the grounds of the Yokogawa Shrine... nothing remained of the main sanctuary save a number of naked uprights. The worship hall in front of it had vanished, leaving only its clay foundation, a bare and ugly hump.

The people in the street by the shrine ground were all covered over their heads and shoulders with something resembling dust or ash. There was not one of them who was not bleeding. They bled from the head, from the face, from the hands; those who were naked bled from the chest, from the back, from the thighs, from any place from which it was possible to bleed. One woman, her cheeks so swollen that they drooped on either side in heavy pouches, walked with her arms stretched out before her, hands drooping forlornly, like a ghost. A man without a stitch of clothing on came jogging along the road with his body bent forward and his hands between his legs, for all the world like someone about to enter the communal tub at a public bathhouse. There was a woman in her slip who ran wearily along the road groaning as she went. Another carrying a baby in her arms, crying, 'Water! Water!' and constantly wiping at the baby's eyes between her cries. Its eyes were clogged with some substance like ash... A man plumped down by the side of the road with his arms thrust skywards, waving them frantically. An elderly woman sitting earnestly praying with her eyes closed, her hands pressed together in supplication, beside a pile of tiles that had slid off the roof. A half-naked man who came along at a trot, cannoned into her and ran on cursing her foully. A man in white trousers who crept along a little at a time on all fours, weeping noisily to himself as he went...

All these I saw in less than two hundred yards as I walked from Yokogawa Station along the highway."
If you have a chance, I highly recommend Black Rain as a powerful, beautifully detailed, insightful account of wartime Japan and of the lasting effects of the bomb on postwar Japanese society.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Homeward bound

I will be leaving Japan in just over a week, on Monday, August 9th.

I'm leaving ARI a few weeks early so that I have time to rest, process my experience, and spend time with my family and friends in the Washington area before heading up to Boston for the next step in early September. I'm hoping to find work in Boston related to international development and/or the promotion of sustainable food systems - but I don't have any fixed plans at the moment, and I'm heading north with an open mind. If you have any insights or brainwaves, or if you have contacts in those fields, please drop me a line!

I'll write a more comprehensive overview of my year at ARI later, once I've had time to think and talk with friends and adjust to the culture shock that I know is coming. Now I'll just share a few photos from this past month - I hope you can feel something of the energy of ARI through these photos.

Sunrise in the paddy

Butog (the Philippines) on harvest day

Summer veggies

Chinese cabbage harvest

Our spring onion harvest

A sayonara party at a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant

Thank you, everyone, for all your support during this past year. My ARI experience will shape my thinking and my actions for a long time to come - thank you for blessing me with such a rich, thought-provoking, fun, life-changing year.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


Several weekends ago, I fulfilled my New Year's resolution to hike Mount Fuji! Mount Fuji, or Fuji-san, is the highest mountain in Japan at 3776 m (12,388 ft) and is still an active volcano, although the last eruption occurred a comfortable 300 years ago. For most of Japanese history, Fuji-san was considered a sacred mountain; until the late nineteenth century, climbing Fuji-san was an act of pilgrimage forbidden to women. Now, around 200,000 people climb Fuji every year during the short official season that runs from July 1st through August 31st (the summit is covered with snow for the other 10 months of the year), and most people climb through the night in order to reach the summit in time to see the sun rise. What used to be a sacred ceremony has become a heavily commercialized adventure, but still a highlight of any stay in Japan.

My volunteer friends and I had been talking about climbing Fuji since last winter, so, as the climbing season approached, we set aside a weekend in July for an expedition to the holy mountain. The seven of us (three Americans, two Germans, and two Japanese) left ARI on a stormy Saturday afternoon in a tiny rental car filled to bursting with backpacks, hiking gear, iPods, and hiking snacks for a very squished ride to Shizuoka Prefecture, west of Tokyo. We reached the foot of the mountain around 7 pm, grabbed a quick dinner at one of Japan's ubiquitous 7-11's, and started driving up to the 5th hiking station, which, at 7,900 ft, is where the paved road ends and where most people start climbing. The forest at the base of Fuji is infamous as a popular suicide spot, and as we started driving through the tall, dense cedars, I began to understand why - the cedars formed black walls on either side of the winding mountain road, and a thick, low fog played with the shapes of the trees. Finally, just before the 5th station, we drove out of the fog into a clear night, and, when we got out of the car at the 5th station, I was surprised by the cool air that greeted us - it felt like somehow stepping from a humid August day in Virginia into a crisp September evening in Hanover. We threw on some layers, enjoyed our convenience store sushi dinners, and walked around the souvenir shops (where you can buy Fuji-shaped stuffed toys, Fuji lollipops, Fuji-emblazoned plates, Fuji chopsticks...) as we let our bodies acclimate to the altitude. Finally, around 9:30 pm, we started climbing.

This was my first experience in a low-oxygen environment, and I was shocked by how hard it was to hike those first few minutes. The path was not very steep, but just five minutes of walking left me as tired as running a mile. I started to get a little worried about the remaining 3 miles to the summit, and I quickly adopted the "zombie method" of the Japanese hikers around us, who shuffled slowly over the ground in order to conserve energy. But the mountain was beautiful in the starlight - black rock cutting into the blue-black sky, pale silver stars lighting the trail. I felt strangely suspended above the mountains and valleys below us, as if I could just step off the sharp edge of the black volcano and into the misty darkness below.

As we continued up Fuji, my body gradually adjusted to the thinner mountain air and the hiking became easier. We also took long acclimation breaks at the regularly-spaced rest stations, which were fully outfitted with mini-restaurants, souvenir shops, and vending machines - modern Japanese convenience at exorbitant prices. At the 5th station, I had thought such niceties were superfluous, but by the time we reached the penultimate 9th station in the windy predawn cold, I was very happy for a warm cup of oshiruko (sweet red bean soup). Sometimes it's hard to deny Japanese uber-convenience.

The 9th station hut at 2 am

Felix (Germany) enjoying a cup of oshiruko

Around 3:30 am, we started the final ascent to the summit, hoping to arrive just before sunrise at 4:30. We shuffled slowly up the mountain, leaning against a cold wind that was sometimes strong enough to knock us off balance. At this point, we had been awake for almost 24 hours and were a little loopy from exhaustion - I certainly felt as if I were in a dream state, somehow separated from the person climbing up the slopes of loose volcanic rock and ash. As we approached the summit, the trail became very congested with hundreds of other sunrise climbers. Looking both up and down the mountain, you could see a bright line of stationary headlamps winding up the trail. Frustrated, impatient, I asked my Japanese friend if it was impolite to hike past the people standing in front of us using the narrow margins of the trail. "Hmm, maybe okay," he said - which means, I think, that passing is impolite, but we can go ahead since our group is mostly foreigners, and foreigners aren't always expected to follow the same rules as the Japanese (which can be very liberating). So we practically sprinted the remaining distance, reaching the summit tori just as the sky started to lighten.


The summit was spectacular. A deep, snow-lined crater is surrounded by many-layered peaks of rock, which rear up against the pre-dawn sky with an alien redness. Here and there, small wooden tori gates mark the summit as sacred ground. Looking down, you see all of Japan spread out before you - mountains, hilly tea fields, and wide rice paddies, stretching all the way to the silver Pacific. And everywhere, clouds. As the sun slowly rose over the Pacific, it touched the clouds with purple red orange pink in the most beautiful display of color and light I have ever seen.


The group - Felix (Germany), Rachel (U.S.), Mori (Japan), Me, Gabe (U.S.), Pascal (Germany)

Dawn over Japan

The crater at the summit

After the exhilarating sunrise, we then hiked back down the mountain - or, rather, stumbled down, so sleep-deprived that I was worried that some of our group would literally fall asleep while walking - and drove back to our little corner of Japan in Nishinasuno. A wonderful weekend adventure, and definitely a high point of my time in Japan.

4:30 am

Last week, the rainy season finally broke - not in the gradual way I had expected, but in a startling transformation from humid white haze to hot glorious blue. We're enjoying seeing the sun again, but the intense summer heat (think Washington at its worst hot-humid moments) makes farm work during the afternoon almost unbearable. So the farm volunteers have decided to adopt a new summer schedule: wake up with the sun and enjoy a siesta during the afternoon. The sun rises in Japan at around 4:30 am, and we can enjoy about an hour of cool(ish) dawn weather before we start sweating again.

I started this morning plowing the egoma (a plant similar to sesame) field next to an ARI paddy, and I discovered that the world at 4:30 can be quite a beautiful place - soft pink sunrise over the ripening rice, clear blue sky touching the rocky tops of the nearby mountains. Add a nice onigiri (rice ball) as a pre-breakfast snack, and all feels right with the world...



In a more general update: I've had lots of wonderful summer adventures recently (climbing Mount Fuji, visiting a friend in the mountains of Nagano) that I hope to share with you soon - but as I'll be waking up tomorrow at 4 again, it's now time to head to bed to the sound of cicadas and a distant thunder storm...

Friday, July 2, 2010


ARI changes with each season. During my time here, I've experienced the fall harvests, the winter doldrums of food processing and farm maintenance, and the spring sowing. I've lived with three distinct ARI communities: the 2009 participant community, the staff/volunteer winter community, and now the 2010 participant community. I've watched the surrounding mountains progress through their seasonal coats of fiery red and orange, white steel, and hazy blue. And I've eaten my way through the wonderful variety of three seasons, each with its own taste: a pumpkin and radish fall ; a sweet potato, taro, and carrot winter; a wild green buds and red radish spring.

And now we're in the midst of summer, which brings a new landscape, new work, and new flavors. Summer in Japan is dominated by the annual rainy season (tsuyu), which lasts roughly six weeks, from the beginning of June to the middle of August. I'd been dreading rainy season ever since arriving at ARI last year, but (knock on wood!) tsuyu has so far proved quite manageable. It rains often, but rarely for the whole day, and we usually have one or two sunny days a week. But the humidity can be awful, masking the beautiful mountains in a bright grey haze and making farm work a very hot and sweaty affair. I almost miss the winter cold!

Tsuyu brings new farm work. In the paddies, we've finished with the spring transplanting and weeding, and now we just support the rice with occasional fertilizer boosts, applied by hand while walking through the paddies. In the fields, we're harvesting the winter wheat and preparing to harvest the potatoes next week. Our summer vegetables (tomato! bell pepper! egg plant! cucumber!) are starting to mature, and our fall and winter vegetables (pumpkin, sweet potatoes, taro, and carrots) are already growing nicely. Summer seems to be the season of watching - not a passive watching, but an active watching that involves weeding, supporting, fertilizing. As one Japanese proverb says, vegetables grow by listening to the sounds of a farmer's boots - vegetables need our attention, even if just our watchful eyes. Judging by the sorry state of the beets in my individual field, this seems to be true! I planted the beets in early May, and I could see several tiny seedlings by the time I left for vacation in early June. But when I returned in late June, all the seedlings had died! Admittedly, the seeds had expired in 2007, but I think my general neglect also had a hand in their demise... My bell peppers seedlings, however, are doing well after their recent move from the greenhouse to the field, so I hope to see at least a few fruits from my labors.

And with the coming of summer, the food on our plates also changed! After the cruelty of late spring (when all the flowers and trees were blooming, but the vegetables were still far from mature), we can finally eat our fill of vegetables again. Komatsuna, cabbage, spinach, turnip, spring chrysanthemum leaves, broccoli, celery, beets, cucumber, onion, garlic, mint, green bean, green snap pea, lettuce, Chinese leek, radish... A wonderful, delicious variety. We harvest from the participants' group fields every Tuesday and Friday, so we always have fresh vegetables in the kitchen. Here are some pictures of last week's harvest days taken by a new American volunteer, David, from Oregon:

Preparing for the harvest

A participant group field

Weighing and recording the harvest

Taking the harvest to the kitchen


With the coming of summer, I also see significant changes in the ARI community. The participants are uniformly more confident, more relaxed, and more open than when they first arrived in Japan three months ago. In conversations with them, many participants talk about how much they enjoy ARI life, about how much they're learning, about how they're beginning to see themselves and their home communities in new ways. And, as people begin to make a home here, ARI begins to feels like a real community again - as one participant put it, a "miracle" community of individuals from so many different places and walks of life, gathered together on a small farm atop a small hill in a small town in Japan.

Sumathi (Sri Lanka) enjoying ice cream during a break from farm work

Aneth (Cambodia) and Lester (the Philippines)

As this is my last season in ARI, I'm planning on enjoying it to the fullest. I'm trying to learn as much as possible before I leave - about the farm, about the participants, about Japanese culture. I'm also planning several off-campus adventures with the other volunteers, most notably an expedition to Mount Fuji, Japan's highest mountain, next weekend. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

ARI on TV!

NHK (Japanese national public television) just aired a 5-minute segment on ARI! I think the reporters did a good job describing the central mission of ARI, so please watch! I make a very brief appearance about half-way into the segment - look for a girl wearing red pants and a blue shirt when they switch to the dining hall scene...