Sunday, December 27, 2009

Merry Christmas!

Sorry for the long absence - I left the farm for a two-week tour of Japan with my boyfriend, Eric. Kyoto, Takayama, and Tokyo! I enjoyed getting a taste of the Japan outside of ARI - Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, big cities and quiet mountains towns, udon and mochi sweets. Japan is a beautiful country, and I'm looking forward to exploring more during my remaining nine months here.

Some things I learned about Japan:

- The Japanese are extremely generous people. When I had trouble using a public pay phone to call home, one Japanese woman spent twenty minutes helping me figure out the right calling codes! Twenty minutes! Once when we were consulting our map in Kyoto, one Japanese man stopped without being asked to see if we needed help... And the examples go on.

- If you travel with a 6'4" guy, people will come up to you in the supermarket and ask if you're American - just because, as one Japanese gentlemen said, "you're so tall!"

- Offering cheap packaged junk food at temples and shrines seems to be totally acceptable. We saw so many lovely old Buddhist stone deities surrounded by 7-11 sweets!

- Japan is not ARI. I already knew this, but it was reinforced by seeing the incredible amount of packaging that went into everything, the American-like commercial emphasis on newer and better, the constant consumption.

Now I'm back at ARI, although it's very different from the ARI I left two weeks ago. The participants have all returned to their home countries, so we (the staff and volunteers) now face a three month hiatus before the next class arrives in April. I'm hoping the slower winter pace will give me time to learn more about farming and about how ARI operates.

Merry Christmas to all!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A splendid vegetation

This week, the participants presented their dreams for the future of their communities. The one theme uniting all of the presentations was the need for food security - moving from a reliance on imported food toward true self-sufficiency in food production at the local level. Toward a splendid vegetation.
Ezekiel 34: 26I will make them and the region around my hill a blessing; and I will send down the showers in their season; they shall be showers of blessing. 27The trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase. They shall be secure on their soil; and they shall know that I am the Lord, when I break the bars of their yoke, and save them from the hands of those who enslaved them. 28They shall no more be plunder for the nations, nor shall the animals of the land devour them; they shall live in safety, and no one shall make them afraid. 29I will provide for them splendid vegetation, so that they shall no more be consumed with hunger in the land, and no longer suffer the insults of the nations. 30They shall know that I, the Lord their God, am with them.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


Today, it seems like the word "organic" is on everyone's lips. It's in the grocery stores, in ads, in the newspapers. Before I came to ARI, I was interested in organic food and organic farming, but I suspected the organic movement might be the child of the non-farming middle-class - certainly a well-meaning, even admirable project, but maybe not economically sound for the majority of farmers in the Philippines or Kenya or China. Organic food in New Hampshire was almost always more expensive than the non-organic option. Organic restaurants (like the delicious Farmer's Dinner in Queeche, for those still in the area) could only be occasional treats for college students like me. How could farmers in poor communities afford to grow such expensive crops?

At ARI, I'm gradually learning what the label "organic" actually means. It means using non-chemical fertilizer - what we call bokashi at ARI, a fertilizer made of chicken manure, soil, rice husk charcoal, microorganisms, and fermented plant juice. It means weeding each bed, rather than just applying pesticides. It means time-intensive work, but delicious vegetables - the carrots here are so sweet, you can smell them as you pull them out of the soil!

But does organic farming actually benefit farmers?

I'm starting to think so. Today, I listened to some of the participants talk about how they will use the training in organic farming and community organizing they received at ARI in their home countries. One woman from Sri Lanka talked about the problems in her community related to the use of agricultural chemicals - about how chemicals had caused strange health conditions (headaches, fatigue, and even paralysis!) and had exhausted the soil. For her community, organic farming is simply safer and smarter than chemical farming. It will protect both the health and the future livelihood of her children. Living in the US, relatively protected from industrial or agricultural chemicals, I often forget about the harmful effects chemicals have on both the human and natural environment. I forget that for many farmers, organic farming is not just about a healthier or tastier product, but about a safe and sustainable lifestyle. Going organic can also reduce farmers' expenses. Chemical fertilizer must be bought, and it is often expensive. Organic fertilizer can be produced by the farmer using local resources (chicken manure if the farmer raises chickens, pig manure if he raises pigs, etc.) at very low cost. Of course producing organic fertilizer takes more time and labor than simply buying chemical fertilizer, but it could ultimately help farmers become more economically self-sufficient.

That being said, I'm also learning at ARI that the spirit behind the organic label matters. One staff member shared parts of the book The Omnivore's Dilemma with us last week. In that book, the author talks about "oil-soaked organic lettuce," lettuce produced by enormous organic farms in the United States that are simply conventional farms without the chemicals. The farms may not use chemical fertilizers or pesticides, but they still use huge quantities of oil to fuel their farm equipment, and they exhaust the soil by monocropping (growing only one type of vegetable instead of rotating crops annually). Environmentally, they don't quite give off the fuzzy green glow that the organic label suggests...

So it's a complicated issue. And right now, I feel very much uniformed. I'm trying to educate myself about farming and about how farming impacts the current discussions about environmental sustainability, energy security, and green living - and most importantly about how farming can become a tool for development, for improving the lives of the participants I am lucky enough to live with.

Wishing everyone a happy weekend!
And: "Slow down. It's Advent."

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Meet the participants

Every morning, ARI comes together after breakfast for morning gathering, which is a chance for one of the community members (participants, staff, volunteers) to share something about his- or herself. It's a time to reflect about our time here at ARI and about what we want to do after ARI. This morning, one of the participants spoke about the political situation in his country. First, he asked everyone to put away their digital cameras (most participants record the morning gatherings), because he was afraid that someone would post the video online and that his government would find it. "If they find it, I go to heaven too soon," he joked. "I don't want to go to heaven, I want to do development." He then talked about growing up in a country without an effective government. He talked about political turmoil, about fleeing his village with his family as a child due to government persecution, about demonstrating as a student, about hiding and fighting in the jungle as a rebel. He said that, after years of armed resistance, he decided to turn to development work. As he described it, both seek to build community in a country without an independent civil society, but development work is more effective because the government doesn't try to kill development workers.

I had read in the papers about the political situation in this participant's country, but hearing about day-to-day life under a violent, despotic government from an actual person was shocking. This man will return to his country in three weeks and continue his work with an NGO - his courage amazes me. He knows that when he enters his country, his USB drives will be wiped, his email will again be subject to surveillance, his organization will be monitored by the government. "Sometimes I still want to fight," he told me. I asked if he thought development work is more effective than fighting. "Yes," he replied, "because then no one dies."

The participants here at ARI are amazing, inspiring people. They left their countries nine months ago to participate in an intensive community development training project in rural Japan. Most of them had never left their countries before - leaving their families and communities required a huge leap of faith. All of them have a deep commitment to service in their communities, whether that service be through agricultural or development work, through teaching, or through religious leadership. The man I wrote about above works for an NGO involved in providing rural communities with access to education. Others work with micro-financing operations, with liaison offices connecting farmers with the government, with public schools, with churches and individual parishes.

Pikolo from Kenya

Shelia from Myanmar

Maiko from Japan and Marie from the Philippines

Kingsley from Ghana and Ruth from Myanmar at the Halloween party

The participants will return to their countries in just two weeks! After two months in ARI, I feel like I'm just starting to know these people - I wish they could stay in Japan a little longer.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Welcome to the farm

I thought I would take advantage of the gorgeous fall weather to take some pictures of the ARI farm. The ARI campus is not just the farm (the main office, kitchen, chapel, and dorms are also on campus), but the farm is the focus of my life here as a farm volunteer.

Crops and veggies: ARI has fields both on ARI campus and around the town of Nasushiobara. We grow over twenty different types of crops, ranging from rice and wheat to sweet potatoes and broccoli to persimmons and kiwi. Our harvest goes to feed the ARI community (we supplied an estimated $150,000 in food to the ARI kitchen last year!) and to local consumers (so the farm section generates income for ARI). For the participants, the farm functions as their outdoor classroom - they have morning and evening farm work, and they also manage their own plots of land. But since the participants also have classroom work and cannot always be on the farm, volunteers like me provide the extra hands needed to keep the farm running. During my two months at ARI, I've sown Chinese cabbage and spinach, harvested tomatoes and carrots, dug storage trenches for taro, cleared fields, threshed soybeans... it's an ever-changing job!

Soy beans in the greenhouse, post threshing

A participant field, the "Garden of Rejoice"

A row of broccoli in the field

The vegetable harvest arranged for the kitchen

Livestock: ARI also raises chickens, ducks, fish, cows, and pigs. We have 900 chickens, around 50 ducks, two ponds of carp, and around 30 pigs. ARI butchers our own chickens and ducks, but the pigs are sent out to the local slaughter house due to government regulations (which suits me - I'd rather not have to slaughter a 400 pound pig!). Just like with the crops and veggies, participants are responsible for managing portions of the livestock section as part of their training. Volunteers rotate sections every month - this month, I'm in Fish and Duck, which means that I feed the ducks and the fish every morning and evening with one of the participants.

The view down to the duck pen from my bedroom window

One of the pigpens

Piglets! Just over 2 months old.

The entrance to the fish pond area

A ukokkei chicken, a special Japanese breed of chicken

So welcome to the farm!

Playing catch-up

First, apologies for my long absence! November was a very busy month at ARI - the participants left for a tour of western Japan, leaving the staff and volunteers with a little extra work around campus. So now you get several backlogged blogs at once!

I went to Tokyo last weekend to attend a missionary conference in celebration of 150 years of Protestantism in Japan. My first trip to the big city! We started the weekend with a general meeting of the Protestant Church in Japan (the Anglican Church in Japan is actually not included in this grouping of Protestant denominations, but I got to attend the meeting anyway). The meeting, oddly enough, took place in a church in the middle of Shibuya, the equivalent of Times Square in New York City - across from the Apple store, between the Disney Store and the Gap! Although the entire meeting was in Japanese, I still enjoyed the service and learning a little about the history and the activities of Protestants in Japan. I also got to meet a lovely Japanese organist, who, after I told her that I used to play the organ, played my favorite Bach hymn for me! It made me miss playing for services at St. Mary's, my home parish in Virginia.

I also got to do a little sightseeing while in Tokyo - Shibuya, Ginza, Asakusa. Each section of Tokyo that I visited was dramatically different from the last. I'm looking forward to visiting again soon and exploring more! (Although, after the weekend, I was definitely glad to get out of the noise of the city and back to quieter Tochigi prefecture...)

Asakusa shrine

Me and Heejean, a Korean volunteer, in Asakusa

A standard Tokyo scene - a traditional Kabuki theater next to skyscrapers and construction projects

Otherwise, it's pretty much life as usual at ARI. During the participants' trip to western Japan, I got a little taste of what ARI will be like after this year's participants return to their countries in December - quieter, certainly, but also cozier in some ways, as the smaller numbers encourage people to talk more and to share more. I think that by the time the next class of participants arrive in April 2010, I'll know the Japanese staff and the other volunteers much better than I do now.

I hope everyone had a very happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 5, 2009


ARI, as I wrote about in my first post, is a training center for rural leaders, a type of agricultural school for those who work with or who advocate for farmers in their home communities. Most of the participants are not actually farmers, but NGO workers in the field of agriculture or community development. They're interested in learning about different agricultural techniques can that benefit their home communities - better ways of irrigating rice, of raising livestock, of processing crops. So the ARI curriculum involves work with vegetable crops (rice, wheat, tomatoes, soy beans, Japanese pumpkin, komatsuna...) and with livestock (chickens, ducks, fish, cows, and pigs).

After a month of working with the veggies, I got to help with the chickens for the first time this week. ARI has over 900 chickens. Participants help incubate and hatch the eggs, raise the chickens, and then butcher the birds for the ARI kitchen. I started with the end of the cycle, as I was asked to help butcher one pen of chickens with some of the other volunteers. (Vegetarian friends and family, please forgive me!) We butchered 44 chickens within two hours - first cutting their windpipes, then plucking them, then disemboweling them and preparing them for the kitchen. I was exhausted by the end, both physically and mentally, but it was a good learning experience. I now have a greater appreciation for every piece of chicken I eat. And a greater understanding of chicken anatomy!

Later in the week, I spent time with some live chickens, collecting eggs and preparing feed and cleaning out the pens. At first, I didn't really enjoy working in the chicken house. Chickens are not very endearing animals. In fact, they remind me of the velociraptors from Jurassic Park, except without the smarts - just try grabbing an egg from under an angry hen, you'll get quite the glare. Then Jackson, a teaching assistant and ARI graduate from Myanmar, started talking about why ARI raises chickens, and I gained a new appreciation for the little dinosaurs.

First, many of the participants have some experience raising chickens, since the birds are a relatively easy source of revenue. But the participants (or their communities) often rely on imported goods to raise their chickens, which makes them dependent on outside resources - so ARI tries to teach the participants how to utilize local resources to make their communities more self-sufficient when it comes to raising chickens. For example, many participants' home communities rely on concentrated feed, which must be imported and is therefore very expensive. So ARI introduces the participants to fermented feed, which is simply fermented food garbage (i.e. compost) from the ARI kitchen - it works just as well as concentrated feed and costs nothing. In addition to basic feed, chickens also need nutritional supplements to help harden their egg shells. Traditionally, many farmers use crushed oyster shells or some other type of imported shell, but ARI uses our own crushed egg shells, collected from the kitchen, as a cost-free alternative. Many of the participants' home communities also buy their chicks rather than incubating eggs from their existing flocks. ARI teaches the participants how to incubate eggs (using both electric and non-electric heaters) in order to reduce costs and resource self-sufficiency. Jackson told me that before coming to ARI, he had bought all his chicks. After graduating from ARI, he was able to hatch his own chicks, and he wrote an article teaching other farmers within his community how to do the same. So there's a lot to learn from these feisty birds (although I still prefer working with the veggies).

In other and totally unrelated news, I got to go hiking! Last weekend, I went to Shiobara with some of the other volunteers to see the beautiful kouyou (changing leaves). Shiobara offered some interesting insights into Japanese culture. First, the Japanese are huge nature enthusiasts - it seemed like half of Tokyo had joined us on this pilgrimage into the mountains. But in spite of this, or perhaps because of this, the nature was not very far removed from all the trappings of modern life. The highways continue almost to the very peaks of the mountains, and all the hiking trails were only a stone's throw from the traffic and restaurants and souvenir shops. Yet somehow, it was still a beautiful place and a very peaceful experience. As the German volunteer on the trip said, "The Japanese have a wonderful ability to block out the ugly things and only see the beautiful" - I guess I was able to enter into that spirit and just enjoy the beauty of the trail, which wound through autumn kouyou and tall cedars, past waterfalls and forest onsen (natural hot springs). The day ended with some delicious soba and my first onsen experience (so relaxing!). All in all, a wonderful day of natural and cultural adventures.

That's the news from Lake Woebegone! Thanks to everyone for all the recent letters and emails - it's so nice to know that people are reading and to hear what's going on back home. I'm thinking of you all...

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween!

They say that Americans abroad are often the most American - I certainly found myself more excited about Halloween this year than I have been since I was five and I got to dress up as a ballerina bunny. So I decided to introduce ARI to our strange American ways by throwing a Halloween party, complete with candy, costumes, and more candy! With the help of some very enthusiastic Japanese volunteers, I made sugar cookies, pumpkin pie (using fresh Japanese pumpkin (kabocha) and fresh orange pumpkin), roasted pumpkin seeds, and caramel - a recipe for an ARI-wide sugar-high. And then we carved pumpkins! Or, as Marie from the Philippines put it, we made "mottainai (wasteful) pumpkins." (I'm hoping to remedy the mottainai factor by chopping up the pumpkins tomorrow and cooking them.) Here are a few pictures of the prep work:

Collecting pumpkin seeds

Nazi from the Philippines

Swae from Thailand carving his pumpkin

My roommate Ayumi and me

The final products!

And the party, to my relief, was a big success! Everyone loved the jack-o'lanterns and the sweets, and most people even showed up in costume. I unfortunately chose the wrong costume - I was a rainbow (wearing every color, including a wonderfully bright yellow jacket), but the participants thought I hadn't dressed up at all! Which tells you a little about ARI fashion. Finally, I place where I can wear all my favorite, bright clothes without attracting odd stares...

Halloween dance party ARI-style! Just imagine a mix of Indian hip-hop, Lady Gaga, and "Country Roads" (for some reason, it's wildly popular in Asia).

Chunxia and Thsushara exchange traditional dresses

I hope everyone back in the States is having a good Halloween weekend!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A good morning

Today started with one of those mornings that makes you pause and give thanks for the beautiful world around you.

I start every morning in the field, working among the veggies against a backdrop of distant blue mountains. This morning, the peaks of the mountains were covered in storm clouds, while the foothills were glowing in the morning sun. Gorgeous. As I harvested wing beans and red chilies and Chinese cabbage, I felt very close to the mountains. I felt very thankful for my time at ARI.

The pictures don't do justice to the morning light, but here are a few anyway:

Now time for breakfast - itadakimasu!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Almost one month!

Sometimes I almost forget that I'm in Japan. I'm busy working with people from 20 different countries, learning about how chili sauce is prepared in Myanmar or what plants grow in Nepal or how anti-malaria programs work in Kenya. And tonight we (the Euro-American volunteers) made baguettes with cheese fondue for dinner! True, I hear a lot of Japanese, but I feel very removed from Japanese culture.

And then I go running. Running past fields of rice (harvested earlier this month) and broccoli and cabbage (still un-harvested), past the vending machine pit-stops, past the stunning Nasu mountains. That's when I experience the deepest sense of dislocation - I'm listening to the same running playlist (with M.I.A. and Kayne West, I must admit) but I'm in a totally foreign world. The landscape is different, the buildings are different, even the light is different. That's when I start to think about how I got here. If someone had told me four years ago that I'd spend the year after Dartmouth volunteering as a farm hand in Japan, I don't think I'd have believed them. Me? This Lizzie, the girl from suburban Washington who hates yard work?

So what am I doing here?

Mostly I'm learning. Learning how to distinguish between sweet potato varieties, how to harvest winged bean and egoma, how to make green tomato jam, how to back out of a room so as to properly line up my slippers. Learning how to communicate and share with people from completely different backgrounds and with completely different world views. Learning how to walk rather than dash through life. I'm struggling a little with the last one. I'm a very future-oriented person - always planning for the future, my mind disengaged from the moment (that's why I'm so hopelessly oblivious to my physical surroundings...). At ARI, I sometimes have trouble being truly present. Especially during repetitive farm work, my mind is often off to the next meal or the next day or the next year back in the U.S. - not on the opportunities at hand or the friends present. Not to say that I think I should concentrate on every single edamame that I shuck, but I think my tendency to focus on the next thing prevents me from fully taking advantage of the present. So I need to slow down. I struggled with the same problem during the first few days of Trip to the Sea, a week-long canoe trip that I did last spring down the Connecticut River. We paddled for six to ten hours every day, usually in two- to three-hour stretches. At first, the hours of uninterrupted paddling seemed endless - the same motion repeated again and again, the same scenery sliding by at a walking pace. But then I learned to accept the speed of the canoe and enjoy the slow scenery and the quiet passage of time. I learned to be present on the river. I'm still working on being present in the farm shop...

I'm also here to serve, although most of the time I feel like I'm receiving much more than I'm giving. But the volunteers do help keep the farm running, since the participants divide their time between classroom and field instruction. With the staff, we're often the ones finishing the harvest or processing the crops (today, for example, I threshed egoma, a seed similar to sesame that's used to make cooking oil, and helped husk the rice harvest). And as I learn more about how the farm works, I'm able to be more useful.

Some highlights from the past two weeks:

I turned 23! Thanks to everyone who sent me birthday wishes - it was so wonderful to hear from you all! One of the staff members made me a delicious banana cake, so it was a good day.

Learning how to make jam and yogurt. (Now I can satisfy my yogurt cravings when I get back to the U.S.!)

Celebrating Halloween with some local Japanese children. I was given a Snow White costume (as if I don't already look young enough...), and I handed out chocolates to an adorable parade of pumpkins and black cats.

Looking forward to:

Halloween party! (I'm organizing it with some of the other volunteers, so we'll see what happens. Dancing, sugar cookies, and Japanese sweets will be involved.) Hiking in nearby Nikko. Learning how to drive the farm trucks (although it could be a little hazardous with me behind the wheel of a stick vehicle...).

Right now my stomach is full (onaka ipai!) of delicious cheese fondue, my fingers smell like onion, and my hands are stained from the sweet potato harvest. I'm ready to go to sleep to the sound of the typhoon rain. O yasaumi nasai, friends!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Week two

Hello again, dear friends!

As I enter my second week at ARI, I'm still processing what this place is - what ARI means to the participants, what ARI means to the staff, what ARI will mean to me. That will be an ongoing process. Right now, all I have to offer are some fragmented thoughts...

Highlights of the past week:

Learning how to make Chinese sesame balls (delicious!). Dishing out dozens of Sri Lankan egg hoppers (basically crepes with fried egg) to customers during the Harvest Thanksgiving Celebration (HTC) - and speaking broken Japanese in the process! Seeing the participants' pride in their HTC. Singing a Thai folk song. Seeing Nasu mountain for the first time while working in the fields one clear, sunny morning. Laughing, cooking, exploring.

Not-so-great moments:

Getting sick! I've been sick for three days now - not fun. (And what is that special Mother-power that enables my mom to see that I'm sick over Skype?) At least it gives me time to work on my Japanese... I just hope that I get better in time for the farewell party (involving kareoke!) for the volunteers who are leaving this weekend.

Thinking about:

The concept of "mottainai," waste and wastefulness. Dartmouth (particularly the student chaplains at the Episcopal Student Center) really opened my eyes to the idea of resource conservation on a local, individual scale. Simple things, like composting, taking your own bag to the grocery store or your own mug to the dining halls, buying your vegetables locally, covering your windows with plastic insulation and turning down the heat. ARI takes that concepts and institutionalizes it. The office uses only used or recycled paper, the pig feed comes from the cafeteria leftovers of local schools, and we put old egg shells in the chickens' feed to strengthen the next crop of eggs. During HTC, ARI provided regular dishes and asked the guests to wash their own dishes - as a result, all the trash for an event involving over 1000 people could have fit in my kitchen trash can at home! It's impressive what an organization can do when it really embraces the concept of no mottainai.

Also thinking about the Japanese system of counting - why is it so complicated?? There are different "counter words" for numbers, time, flat objects, round objects, days of the month, days of the week... yikes. Wish me luck!

And Haruki Murakami. I'm about half-way through The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which is a crazy, gripping, trippy, wonderful book set in 1980's Tokyo ( / an alternate universe of Murakami's imagination...). I definitely recommend it!


I don't have very many at the moment (since I'm very bad about bringing my camera around), but here are a few from this past weekend's Harvest Thanksgiving Celebration.

Opening worship

Tsusara (from Sri Lanka) and me making egg hoppers

Bai-bai for now.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Welcome to ARI

Konnichiwa from Japan!

After 29 hours of traveling, I finally arrived at the Asian Rural Institute (ARI) in Nasushiobara, Japan on Friday night. (For a full description of ARI’s mission, please see my first post below) I immediately discovered, just as past volunteers had told me, that ARI is not Japan, but a wonderful and sometimes eccentric mix of cultures. The customs, cuisines, and languages of the participants and the volunteers all blend together to create something uniquely ARI – everyone refers to “ARI English” (a somewhat confusing mix of English and Japanese) or “ARI food” (a fusion that depends on the nationality of that meal’s cook). Since I haven’t yet had a chance to explore what lies beyond the ARI campus, I sometimes find it hard to remember that I’m in Japan!

I was a little at loose ends for my first few days, since participants and volunteers have the weekend off. Fortunately, several of the volunteers (from Germany and Korea) took me under their wing and gave me a bike tour of downtown Nasushiobara. Nasushiobara, I was surprised to discover, is actually a fairly big city with some significant urban sprawl. In some ways, Nasushiobara could be mistaken for any American city, with its Burger Kings and 7-11’s and pizza places. But the architectural details are distinctly Japanese, Shinto shrines edge the major roads, and everyone drives on the left side of the road (a fact that this jet-lagged bicyclist kept forgetting…). I got to practice my new knowledge of the katakana alphabet (used for foreign or import words) in the local department store, which was a strange mix of foreign and familiar. I discovered that many commercial items in Japan use the American name – conditioner becomes “kondishyona” and shampoo becomes “shanpu.” More importantly, I was able to buy the all-essential slippers. I knew that the Japanese only wear slippers inside the house, but I didn’t realize that I would need to keep a pair of slippers in every building at ARI!

I finally started work on Monday. Work at ARI is focused around the concept of “foodlife,” a term coined by the institute’s founder to emphasize the connection between the food needed to support life and life needed to produce food. Every member of the ARI community, not just the participants receiving training, helps with the daily work of managing our crops and livestock and of preparing the meals. I was assigned to crops and vegetables for my first month, so I’ll be working in the ARI fields, harvesting and weeding.

A “typical” day at ARI (based on my two days of experience…):

- 6:30 am: Morning exercise – stretching to a Japanese radio program! We all gather in the courtyard to stretch and do jumping jacks in unison. Not quite my usual morning yoga, but still a good (and pretty amusing) way to start the day.

- 6:40 am: Foodlife work. For me, that means field work – harvesting veggies for our meals, weeding, etc.

- 8:15 am: Breakfast. Rice, vegetables, miso soup, and homemade yogurt (my favorite part).

- 9:15 am: Morning gathering. Sometimes worship, sometimes community time.

- 10:00 am – 12:15 pm: Morning activity. This week is an unusual one for ARI because the whole community is preparing for the annual Harvest Thanksgiving Celebration (HTC), so I’ve just been helping out where needed. I think I’ll have more field duties during this time after HTC has finished.

- 12:30 pm: Lunch. Rice, some sort of hot dish (often curry!), soup, etc.

- 1:50 pm – 4:15 pm: Afternoon activity. At the moment, more HTC preparation…

- 4:15 pm – 5:15 pm: Afternoon foodlife work. Back to the fields!

- 6:30 pm: Dinner. More rice!

- And then free time for the rest of the evening. A chance to relax and possibly learn some Japanese or a Thai song or an Indian dance (which is what I'm off to do this evening in preparing for HTC)...

I’m still adjusting to life at ARI, which can be a little overwhelming at times. But after five days, I can distinguish between white rice and sticky rice during the harvest, I find changing my shoes constantly almost normal, and I’m already picking up some of the catch-phrases of ARI English. ARI is a lively, warm community – I’m starting to find my place within it.

A big shout of thanks to everyone supporting me in this adventure in mission, especially my home parish St. Mary’s and my dear friends and family. Arigato gozaimasu (thank you)!

O yasumi nasai (goodnight) for now.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Hello, friends!

I just completed two weeks of orientation in Chicago with the folks from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Reformed Church of America, the Capuchin Franciscan Volunteer Corps, and the Presbyterians (I missed my program's orientation in June, so I got to join the greater ecumenical party...). Reflecting on the orientation, I find myself more mentally prepared for my radical relocation than I was two weeks ago. Most importantly, I've fully realized that this is indeed a "radical" step for me - I'm starting to get down to the reality of this next year. I found it difficult to really propel myself forward into my new context while sailing in Maine. I needed to talk with other mission workers, start learning Japanese, take some time to reflect and question... (the fruit of which you can see in my first post here).

And now I'll have many friends in Japan! There are a bunch of mission workers from the other denominations teaching English in Japan next year, so I'll have some support when I arrive in October.

Speaking of October, I've attached a picture of the fall leaves in my town, Nasushiobara in the Nasu District. Looks like they rival New Hampshire's stunning foliage! (Yes, Dartmouth friends, I'm becoming a leaf-peeper...) The more I learn about Japan, the more excited I am to get there!

In closing:
"Let us pursue knowledge and wisdom, for mutual understanding.
Let us pursue respect and compassion, for mutual up-building.
Let us pursue justice and peace, for mutual reconciliation."
(See link for a great video of dancing around the globe and through communities!)

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Current happenings

I'm trying to educate myself about Japan and some of its current public debates - I thought I might share some resources in case others are interested!
  • Patrick Smith, Japan: A Reinterpretation, (1997). A great book (admittedly, I'm only about half way through... but it's wonderful so far!) from a career journalist who lived in Japan for many years. Smith works through the Western myths and misconceptions about Japan, particularly related to the reconstruction era following the war. He also explores some of the cultural pillars of Japan - the educational system, the status of women, the evolving definition of public versus private space, the "salaryman" culture, the place of history in current political debates... a really interesting cultural and intellectual survey.
  • Tracy Kidder, Mountains Beyond Mountains (2004). Not about Japan, but a great read about global poverty issues (in the context of Haiti, Russia, and Rwanda) and how poverty is fundamentally linked to basic resource issues.
  • The New York Times profile on Japan. Includes links to past articles and other online resources.
Cheers for now! If you have any good reads about Japan, please drop me a line!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A journey begins...


Welcome to the first of many posts about my journey as a volunteer with the Asian Rural Institute (ARI) in Nishinasuno, Japan. I will be working at ARI through the Episcopal Church's partnership with the Anglican Communion in Japan

ARI is an international training institute for grassroots leaders from developing countries. The institute teaches leadership skills and sustainable, small-scale agriculture techniques in the hope of facilitating development in the students' home communities. Affiliated with the United Church of Christ in Japan, ARI welcomes students of any religion (as well as those of no religion) and promotes the spiritual development of its students through its philosophy that spiritual peace begins with the material peace of shared resources.

Okay. Sounds nice, but what exactly does ARI do?

ARI is a farm. A small farm that provides about 80% of the food for a community of about 60 students, teachers, and volunteers that manages the institute. The farm is designed as an experimental school that allows the students (leaders sponsored by their home communities or home parishes) to receive hands-on instruction in organic farming, animal husbandry, fish culture, etc. - and the shared management of the institute enables students to gain experience in running small-scale cooperatives and in community leadership. I think of ARI as a type of farm camp for community leaders. As a UCC affiliate, ARI also brings an interesting theological dimension to its social work. Back in 2007, the institute hosted a symposium called “Peace From the Soil." It looked at the problem of violence and war in our world and concluded: “Peace begins within and peace is possible when there is food on the table. Peace within a human being, peace of mind, and peace within a community, all require that basic needs are met so that there is security of life and livelihood, and the opportunity for physical, mental and spiritual health." We are stewards of creation - yet we have abused our environment and must now work to repair some of the damage. ARI seeks to provide its students with the means of caring for their part of creation.

For some color, ARI stats from the current YASC volunteer there, Mike from Texas:
  • 30 participants from 18 different countries (China, Japan, Indonesia, Philippines, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Kenya, Zambia, Cameroon, Togo, Ghana, Sierra Leone). 8 volunteers (US, Germany, Japan, Korea). 12 staff (Japan, US, Ghana, Philippines, Myanmar).
  • 450 laying hens, 18 roosters, and 100 chicks
  • 5 sows, 30 piglets, and 40 growers (fatteners)
  • 3 cows
  • 2 sheep
  • Indeterminate duck population ("As," according to Mike, "we butcher the old ones from last year and continue to hatch ducklings for this years rice paddies...")
I'm still a little fuzzy myself on my daily duties, but I suspect I'll basically work as a farmhand, helping out wherever is necessary. And yes, Mom, I'll probably be asked to kill a chicken while I'm there...

I'm still struggling to clearly understand and articulate the "why" of my decision to serve as a volunteer with the Episcopal Church's Young Adult Service Corps (YASC). My motivations are mixed. During my orientation in Chicago, the facilitators asked us to identify some of our motivations within a list of options. I selected: "to have an experience, to help the poor, to pay my dues to the world, to find a new direction in my life, to really be engaged in 'mission,' to seek adventure, to teach others, to learn a new culture, to learn the gospel from others, to get away from the affluence of Americans, to enable others, to share life with others." I'd say the spiritual discomfort that nags me when I see inequity met with the intellectual need for an international adventure to compel me to seek out a program like YASC.

Why through the Epsicopal Church? One reason, frankly, is that I did not make the church an important part of my life during college, and I hope to regain the sense of faith and community I had during high school. The principle reason, however, is that I trust the church as an instrument of change and of social justice. Few institutions (of power) promote such a message of inclusion - "we are all one body." I have heard so many stories of ineffective NGOs, thwarted, despite their best intentions, by their lack of resources or organization or ability to see the larger picture. Obviously the church is not a perfect institution, but I do trust the spirit of its mission.

For example, the Episcopal Church recently redefined its mission workers as "mission partners" rather than "missionaries." On one level, this seems a cosmetic change, a bow to the pressures of our PC culture. But I believe that the change reflects an important shift in how the Episcopal Church, USA engages with the greater global church. One church official stated in June 2009 that the term articulates "a more accurate description of the role of mission personnel in the 21st century, with an emphasis on relationship building and the acknowledgement that we all mutually grow in our understanding of one another and of God when we nurture relationships with other parts of the body of Christ. The hope is that the change will help us all think about mission as being mutual and interdependent." "The reality that when we engage in work overseas, we are learning just as much from those we encounter as we are able to teach." We are invited guests and collaborators, not self-appointed fixers. And frankly, I like the change because I'm still personally uncomfortable with labeling myself as a "missionary" - a history major specializing in French colonial history, I find myself bringing too much historical bagage to that term...

Wow, I don't think this Episcopalian has ever talked so much about her faith in such a public setting! (I remember my minister from Virginia once made a crack about how uncomfortable we Episcoplians are about public displays of faith...) Thank you, dear readers, for your patience and understanding.

I leave for Japan on October 1, 2009; I will return almost exactly twelve months later. Until then, I'm working on the coast of Maine as a sailing instructor, spending time with my wonderful family and my boyfriend, Eric, and preparing for my dramatic relocation. Please keep me in your thoughts as I wrestle with the Japanese language, the paperwork of crossing national borders, and the reality that I can't take my kayak with me across the Pacific Ocean...