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...

Friday, June 25, 2010

A trip south

Ohisashiburi desu - long time no see! I'm now back from two weeks of traveling with my boyfriend, Eric, and I'm ready to give a trip report of my time "in Japan":

We first went to Okinawa, the southern-most islands of the Japanese archipelago famous for their white coral beaches and their people's warm hospitality. I wanted to go to Okinawa for two reasons. First, I had never been to the tropics, and, as I planned this trip on cold March evenings, I found that the pictures of coral and white beaches and transparent turquoise water had an irresistible attraction. Second, I had heard that the culture of the islands was very different from that of mainland Japan - that the food was more Chinese than Japanese in taste, that the traditional music was different, that people were supposed to be more open - so I wanted to see this "other" part of Japan.

Okinawa occupies an interesting place in Japanese history. The islands originally formed an independent kingdom, known as the Ryukyu Kingdom, with its own people (the Ryukyu people, who are believed to share a common ancestor with the mainland Japanese people - although the identify of this ancestor is still hotly debated) and its own cultures and languages. For most of its history, the Ryukyu Kingdom was a tribute state of China - its principle commercial and cultural ties were thus with Beijing rather than with Tokyo. The Ryukyu Islands only became part of Japan in 1879, when the Meiji government forcibly annexed the islands and renamed the Kingdom the Okinawa Prefecture. Ever since annexation, the relationship between Okinawa and mainland Japan has been difficult. Okinawans faced discrimination from mainland Japanese throughout the prewar period, as many mainland Japanese felt the Ryukyu people were ethnically inferior to the "pure" Yamato people of the main islands; traditional Okinawan languages and culture almost disappeared due to Tokyo's efforts to impose the Japanese language and cultural identity on the islanders. During World War II, the islands saw the infamous Battle of Okinawa, which cost the lives of over 100,000 American and Japanese soldiers and an almost equal number of Okinawan civilians (about one-quarter of the prewar population), who were ordered by the Japanese government to kill themselves and their families rather than surrender to the American forces. After the war, Okinawa remained under the exclusive jurisdiction of the U.S. military for an incredible 20 years longer than the rest of Japan, due to the strategic importance of Okinawa as the United States' military foothold in the Pacific - many Okinawans believed that Tokyo in fact sacrificed Okinawa to the United States in order to end the Allied occupation of mainland Japan in 1952. The relationship between Okinawa and Tokyo remains tense due to these longstanding disagreements over the American military presence in Okinawa, which today accounts for over ten percent of total land usage on the islands. One American base in particular, Futenma Marine Air Corps Station near the prefectural capital city of Naha, has recently strained relations between Okinawa and Tokyo. Many Okinawans want Tokyo to get Futenma removed from the islands, but Washington will only discuss moving the base to another, less residential location within Okinawa. Prime Minister Hatoyama failed to fulfill his campaign pledge to resolve this issue, and resigned earlier this month as a result.

We spent our first day in Okinawa in Naha. As soon as we stepped out of the Naha airport, we were greeted by the incredible, physical humidity of the tropics - the kind of humidity that you have to swim against, that tastes of the ocean. We were also greeted by the pleasant Naha monorail, the three-car elevated trolley that serves as the main means of public transportation in the capital. After the sleek Metro systems of mainland Japan, with their twenty-car trains with designated "people pushers" for rush times, it was refreshing to visit a city that only needed a three-car capacity for its public transportation system. Already, I sensed that we were in a different Japan.

We spent most of our time in Naha wandering the streets and sampling Okinawan cuisine: mango ice cream, Okinawan soba noodles with pickled ginger, and Okinawan stir-fry with pork and bitter gourd... we declined the specialty chiraga, pig's face. Actually, we found the heat and humidity a little difficult to bear, so we had to do our sight-seeing in short bursts as we scuttled from air-conditioned store to air-conditioned store. And even after one day in Naha, we found that the American military presence was very noticeable - the city was crawling with American soldiers on leave, we heard large jets taking off from nearby Futenma Air Station at least once an hour, and the ubiquitous vending machines had Mug's Root Beer and other American brands that hadn't yet reached the main island.

Enjoying Okinawan soba noodles

Naha at night

After Naha, we took a ferry to Zamami Island, a small island about 30 miles from Naha with around 700 residents. Zamami was nothing short of charming. The island's population is centered around the southern port village, which is a labyrinth of quiet houses and overgrown gardens behind crumbling stones walls, and the island itself is a scorched jungle bordered by white coral beaches. Zamami felt very removed from the bustle of Naha - and since we were traveling at the end of the Okinawan rainy season, we had almost the entire island to ourselves! We stayed on the island for four days, exploring the village, the port, and the beaches. The highlight of our Zamami stay was a sea kayaking trip, which included a lunch of traditional Okinawan soba on the beach, snorkeling above a coral forest (I got to see clown fish, sea cucumbers, and star fish!), and a short exploration of an uninhabited island in search of goats - all narrated by our incredibly enthusiastic guide, Mami, who was so amazed by Eric's height that she spent the first five minutes of our orientation comparing her 5' to his 6'4" with ever louder exclamations of surprise and delight.

Zamami Island

Snorkeling above the coral forest

Sea kayaking!

After Zamami, we headed back to the main island of Japan for a brief stop at ARI. Eric worked on the farm for two days as a working visitor - we spent both days in the rice paddies, doing supplemental transplanting and weeding by hand. The first month after transplanting rice largely determines the success of the harvest, so the farm section has to spend many hours in the paddy, carefully removing weeds and millet (a grain that competes with rice) so that the seedlings have space to grow and develop. Tough work, but very important!

One of eight ARI paddies

Taking a break from the paddy

After hours in the paddy, we were ready for the second leg of our vacation, a trip down to Yokohama. Just 20 miles south of Tokyo, Yokohama is a lovely city with shady parks, a lively port, interesting neighborhoods, and a very international feel, as the port has been a center of foreign commerce ever since the forced opening of Japan by Admiral Perry in 1853. In our three days in Yokohama, we explored China Town, wandered around nineteenth-century mansions of foreign merchants, did some boat-watching along the port... and I enjoyed window shopping at some of the specialty food stores (Granola! Camembert cheese! Fettuccine! Crunchy peanut butter!). I must say that I much preferred Yokohama to Tokyo - it has a breezier, more open feel than the towering, claustrophobic capital, and people seem less hurried.

Eric in China Town

China Town

Overlooking the port

A wonderful two weeks! I really enjoyed seeing more of Japan, especially as I've now accumulated enough Japanese to actually communicate with our hostel hosts and even random strangers. So much fun! I particularly remember one conservation with a Japanese man on the train down to Yokohama. I was trying to describe ARI and the work we do, but I only knew isolated words: yuuki nougyou o benkyoshimasu (study organic agriculture), gaijin gakusei (foreign students), tanbo (rice paddy)... I could tell he didn't really understand what kind of work I did, so finally I just told him that we had been working in the paddy that morning. His eyes widened - I could tell he was thinking, "What are a pair of foreigners doing working in a rice paddy in Japan??" Sometimes I wonder, too, about the strange and wonderful twists of fate that brought me to the paddies of ARI...

Thursday, June 3, 2010

8 months

In a way, I've now come full circle at ARI. Last week, we transplanted rice using the seedlings from the grains that I helped harvest last year during my first day of work. Comparing the "October Lizzie" to the "June Lizzie," I can sense many changes. In October, I was confused about the technical side of harvesting ("You want me to distinguish between normal rice and sticky rice? And what is sticky rice again...?"), and I felt a little at sea among the boisterous strangers of the ARI community. Now, eight months later, I helped coordinate the transplanting process, and I felt wonderfully comfortable working with people whom I now know as friends. I'm even starting to develop a love of rice - I crave onigiri (rice balls) wrapped in salty nori (seaweed), and I always have tamago-gohan (raw egg over rice with soy sauce - much more delicious than it sounds!) for breakfast on the weekends.

Here are some pictures from the community transplanting day, when the entire ARI community (volunteers, staff, and participants) got to wade into the paddies for some muddy fun.

Zippo (India) with rice seedlings

Participants transplanting

The whole community!

I'll be away from ARI and from this blog until the end of June, as I'll be traveling around Japan with my boyfriend, Eric. We'll spend time in Okinawa, ARI, and Yokohama - expect a trip report soon...

Monday, May 31, 2010

Je vous presente: John Nday

Meet John Nday: A 30-something community-development worker with the United Methodist Church OR from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo)- a tall, lean man with a quick smile and a gentle voice. Over the past two months, I've gotten to know John through our regular conversations en français (French is still the national language of the DR Congo, a living reminder of its colonial past) over dinner or in the field. I wanted to share some of his comments with you, hoping that learning more about one of the participants and his home context will make ARI a little more real to my readers at home. After all, ARI was created for the participants - you cannot really understand ARI and its mission without understanding the participants and their struggles.

Last year, John was selected by his employer, a Congolese branch of the United Methodist Committee on Relief called UMCOR-NGO, to participate in the ARI training program, an intensive nine-month course in sustainable, organic agricultural and in community development. UMCOR-NGO mostly works through micro-finance projects, providing funding and training for local, small-scale income-generation projects in villages throughout rural DR Congo. In all their projects, UMCOR-NGO development workers first meet with village representatives (or, if there is no preexisting representative group, ask that a village committee be formed) and ask them to decide, as a community, how to use the donated funds. UMCOR-NGO then provides basic training related to the project (practical training in agricultural skills or in sanitation techniques), with the goal of enabling the community members to independently manage the project once the UMCOR-NGO workers leave.

I asked John to identify some of the problems facing communities in his area. He described the chronic food and water shortages; the lack of health care or even basic sanitation facilities; the economic and psychological traumas caused by the civil wars that wracked Congo during the 1990s (many of the people who fled their homes almost 20 years ago are still afraid of going back - they now live in permanent-temporary communities in the countryside, "lacking almost everything"). But the biggest problem, according to John, "is poverty, because there are no factories, no industries around, so there are no job opportunities. For these people to survive, it's quite difficult. Most of the people are just farming. We have a lot of resources - we have a lot of land, we've got rivers and streams - but people still continue to suffer. The reason is a lack of knowledge, a lack of knowledge in agricultural skills. We set up projects to empower these people by teaching them agricultural skills." As a project manager, John specialized in agricultural projects that distributed seeds, tools, and food-processing equipment to struggling rural communities. He also led training sessions, giving demonstrations of different agricultural skills (from transplanting to plowing) and teaching communities how to process and sell the foods they produced (sunflower oil seems to be a particularly successful endeavor). Please see UMCOR's website for more details about their work in DR Congo.

Before coming to ARI, John had already studied agriculture at a university in Zimbabwe, but he said that the university program "trained us to become workers in big agricultural companies, maybe companies using chemicals. We cannot apply [that knowledge] to our small communities - where will they find the money to buy chemicals?" So in March, John left his wife and two infant sons in the DR Congo to travel to Japan for the ARI training course, which teaches the theory and practice of sustainable, organic farming. John says that he already finds finds the ARI training must more suited to local conditions than his university studies. "ARI training teaches us to do organic farming using local resources - using bokashi [organic fertilizer] or compost, things you can make." The focus of the training course is not on teaching specific technical skills, but on "teaching us how to think," as another participant said, so that participants can more effectively use their community resources - the people and materials available locally - rather than relying on imported products or imported solutions.

My conservations with John reminded me of an interesting article I read in this past April's National Geographic about water scarcity in northern Kenya. The article described the failed attempts of many-an-NGO to provide the villages of rural Kenya with reliable access to clean water:
"The villages of Konso [in northern Kenya] are littered with the ghosts of water projects past. In Konsos around the developing world, the biggest problem with water schemes is that about half of them fall into disrepair soon after the groups that built them move on. Sometimes technology is used that can't be repaired locally, or spare parts are available only in the capital... The 2007 survey of Konso found that only nine projects out of 35 built were functioning."
But the article gave cause for hope, saying that some international aid groups are starting to change the way they implement development projects. "The real innovation," according to the article, "is [to treat] technology as only part of the solution. Just as important is involving the local community in designing, building, and maintaining new projects." ARI was built on the belief that sustainable social change, whether in Kenya or the Philippines or in Japan, must come through local community action rather than imported fixes. John's organization in DRC, UMCOR-NGO, operates on the same principles. Watching this class of participants learn and grow as leaders, I find hope for this world in the belief that they will go back and inspire their communities to develop in ways that are sustainable and appropriate to their local contexts.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

My garden

This is my garden, my own small piece of ARI land that I cultivated from the grass growing in front of the women's dorm. It measures about 4' by 6', and it's conveniently located just underneath my window (yup, that's my laundry drying in the picture). I planted beets about one week ago, and I'm also going to plant edamame (that green bean you often see at Japanese restaurants), chili, spinach, and bell pepper... which means I'll have to expand at some point. I'm hoping this tiny piece of land will supply me with enough veggies for weekend lunches during the summer months. Wish me luck!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Summer revelries

Last weekend, some of the volunteers "went to Japan," as we like to say - in other words, we ventured off the ARI campus for a wonderful afternoon of Japanese hospitality (sushi! tea ceremony!) at a commuting volunteer's house, followed by a relaxing night of camping by a nearby river. What a way to start the summer!

The commuting volunteer, Ito-san, is a retired Japanese gentleman who lives up in the mountains surrounding ARI. His houses sits among small rice paddies, patches of bamboo forest, and 19th century family cemeteries - the perfect image of rural Japan. Before beginning our sushi feast, we got a tour of Ito-san's garden / home farm, where he grows onions, beans, taro, broccoli, cabbage, and other kitchen veggies on the quarter-acre of land surrounding his house. (Related side note: One of the striking things about Japanese development is the way the Japanese incorporate agricultural land into their towns and cities. Because land is very scarce, agricultural land is not separated from residential or commercial land the way it is in the U.S. - rice paddies abut major highways, family garden plots sit next to restaurants, even larger commercial farming enterprises can be found under overpasses or next to residential neighborhoods. It makes for an interestingly mixed landscape.) After the tour, we got down to the more important work of making and eating temaki-zushi, or hand-made sushi rolls, using nori (sheets of seaweed), sushi rice (white rice mixed with a little vinegar), slices of raw fish (tuna! mackerel! salmon!), wasabi, and pickled vegetables. And then, after three hours of eating and talking, Ito-san's wife performed a casual tea ceremony, offering us macha (powdered green tea) and seasonal mochi (rice cake) sweets. ほんとにおいしかたです (really delicious!).

After dinner, feeling wonderfully stuffed with fish, we drove down to one of the rivers around ARI and set up camp for the night. We pitched some tents (although one tent turned out to just be a rain cover... ahem), pulled some bamboo out from the woods for a fire, and settled down to an evening of talking, eating smoked garlic bread, and enjoying the warm summer night. Just like camping in the States, except we ate rice balls instead of bagels for breakfast.

Mori (Japan)

The view from our campsite

Nami (Japan)

That weekend of eating and camping adventures made me realize how happy, how lucky I am to be at ARI. I love the people here, I love the lifestyle, I love the opportunity to learn new things every day. I hope you're also enjoying good food (maybe even sushi?) and warm summer nights with friends...

Sunday, May 2, 2010

A taste of ARI

Last week, I finished my second month of kitchen duty - which means that for almost a third of my time here, I've helped make breakfast and dinner every day for the entire ARI community. ARI food is a unique combination of cuisines, informed by the personal tastes of our participants and volunteers and by the selection of ingredients we have on hand (right now that means tons of carrots - so we eat carrots at every meal). During my two months in the kitchen, I've learned that recipes are overrated, that "curry" means a dozen different things to a dozen different participants, and that almost everything tastes better when you add a little cooking sake. To give you a little taste of ARI cooking, I've included four recipes for a typical ARI dinner below. The quantities listed are roughly for four people, but beware - I made up the quantities, since we usually cook for around 60 people, and we never measure anything.

Sri Lankan carrot stir-fry
- Carrots, peeled and cut julienne (into small sticks)
- 1 onion, cut julienne
- Olive oil
- 4 cloves of garlic, minced
- Turmeric
- Garam masala
- Chili (either powder or whole, to your spice tolerance - Sri Lankans like it hot)
- Salt
  1. Sauté the onions and garlic in oil for 3 to 5 minutes, until the onions become translucent.
  2. Add generous amounts of turmeric and garam masala, and sauté for 2 to 3 minutes to bring out the flavor of the spices. If you wish to add chili, add with the other spices.
  3. Add the carrots. Continue to sauté until the carrots are tender.
  4. Adjust spices and salt to taste, and serve.
Filipino pork adobo
- 2 lbs. pork, chopped into cubes
- 1/2 lbs. potatoes, chopped
- 1/2 onion, diced
- 1/2 cup soy sauce
- 1 cup vinegar
- 2 cups water
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 5 laurel leaves (bay leaves)
- 2 tablespoons minced ginger
- 1 head garlic, minced
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- Salt, black pepper to taste
- 3 tablespoons of water
  1. In a big sauce pan or wok, heat 2 tablespoons of oil then sauté the minced garlic, ginger, and onions.
  2. Add the pork and the potatoes to the pan. Add 2 cups of water, 1/4 cup of soy sauce, vinegar, paprika and the bay leaves. Bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes or when meat is tender and potatoes are cooked.
  3. Remove the pork from the sauce pan and on another pan, heat cooking oil and brown the pork for a few minutes.
  4. Mix the browned pork back to the sauce and add cornstarch dissolved in water to thicken.
  5. Add salt and pepper if desired
  6. Bring to a boil then simmer for an additional 5 minutes.
  7. Serve hot with the adobo gravy and rice.
Deep-fried curry tofu (for the vegetarians)
- Hard (momen) tofu, cut into large cubes
- Soy sauce
- Mirin (sweet cooking sake)
- Garam masala
- Turmeric
- Flour
- Baking soda
  1. Prepare a half-and-half mixture of soy sauce and mirin, and add a generous quantity (several tablespoons) of garam masala and a little turmeric.
  2. Briefly marinate the tofu cubes in the sauce
  3. Coat the tofu with a half-and-half mixture of flour and baking soda.
  4. Deep-fry and serve, either plain or over rice.
Japanese miso soup
- Sweet potatoes (or potatoes or yams), cut into bite-sized pieces
- Carrots, thinly sliced
- Shitake mushrooms, sliced
- Komatsuna (any leafy green vegetable will do - spinach, cabbage, etc.), in large pieces
- Miso paste
  1. Fill a pot with enough water for four servings of soup. Add the prepared sweet potatoes and carrots, and bring the water to a boil.
  2. After the carrots and potatoes are fully cooked, add the shitake mushrooms.
  3. After the mushrooms are tender, add the leafy green vegetable. Cook for about 1 minute, then turn off the heat (careful - if you cook leafy vegetables too long, they will wilt).
  4. Immediately add the miso paste to taste by stirring the miso into the soup through a strainer. Place the miso in a strainer, then hold the strainer over the soup so that the miso is just submerged - using a wooden spoon, stir the miso until it dissolves. (Miso will lose its flavor if cooked too long, so make sure to add the miso right before serving.)
  5. Serve immediately.
Good luck, and enjoy!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Why local food matters

At ARI, we talk a lot about strengthening or revitalizing local networks of food production, marketing, and consumption in order to provide a greater degree of food security to local communities in countries around the world (not just in developing countries, but in Japan and the United States as well). But why are local food networks important? As someone whose food now comes almost exclusively from my own community (i.e. the ARI farm), I find that eating locally produced food deepens my understanding of the seed-to-plate process and my appreciation for the food itself. I now know how onions are grown; I understand why organic food is sometimes more expensive than chemically-produced food (many extra man-hours of thinning and applying compost and weeding and weeding...); I know the difference between varieties of sweet potatoes; I know how long it takes for a spinach plant to mature.

But for many others, especially the participants and their home communities, having access to locally produced food can mean the difference between having enough food and going hungry. If there is no local source of food, communities must rely on imports, which are often prohibitively expensive. One of my high school friends, Jess, is currently studying and traveling in Africa under a Watson Fellowship - she wrote the following about her experiences at food markets in Liberia and Rwanda:
"This afternoon, I went to Nyabugogo market to pick up some fresh vegetables, and I suddenly understood in a very concrete way why farming matters in developing countries. Here in Rwanda – land of terraced hills and industrious yeoman farmers — I paid 350 Rwf (around 60 cents) for a kilo of tomatoes. In Liberia – land of rubber plantations and untouched forest – a pound of tomatoes costs 150 LD (about $2.15). Given the pound-kilo conversion, this means that Liberian tomatoes are roughly eight times the price of their Rwandan counterparts. In other words, tomatoes sold from wheelbarrows in the streets of Liberia — a country where 95% of the population lives on less than $2 a day – cost more than tomatoes in my local Safeway back home."
Due to the recent civil war and various other economic and political crises, Liberia has a very weak agricultural sector, which is mostly oriented towards export of a few cash crops rather than towards domestic consumption. The result: expensive tomatoes. Again, as Jess wrote:
"Everything is imported. This was sort of true in Aceh [Indonesia], but Monrovia [Liberia] takes it to a completely different level. A quick inventory of the groceries I bought yesterday: tea from Sri Lanka (with labeling in Sinhala and, inexplicably, Russian), rice from the US (labeled in Arabic), lemonade from Cyprus, juice from South Africa, lentils from someplace Spanish-speaking, spices and Cream of Wheat from Lebanon, and jam from Belgium. (The fresh bread, bananas, and ginger were presumably from here in Liberia.) Unsurprisingly, my grocery bills are painfully high."
Again and again, participants recount similar stories of one-crop, export-oriented farmers in their communities who can not afford to feed their own families because they must buy expensive, imported food. "How is it that farmers cannot even feed themselves?" So for me, eating local food is a way of reconnecting with the reality of natural food production - for much of the world, it's a means of survival.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

はなみ: Cherry-blossom viewing

One beautiful spring day in Japan, the farm staff took a quick break from the normal routine to enjoy the cherry blossoms...