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!