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...