After Hiroshima and according to our plans, we headed towards the westernmost of the 4 mains islands that compose Japan: Kyushu. We had planned to spend two weeks wwoofing, working on a rice farm. On our way there, we briefly stopped in Fukuoka and had Goma Saba, aka raw mackerel with a thick sesame sauce. Turns out this is the local specialty and is rarely found even in Japan because it has to be extremely fresh. The fish was very tender and buttery, and the sauce gave it a nice roasted kick.
We made it to Hita, a small town in the center of Kyushu and our home for the next two weeks. Our host, Hideki, 68 years old, lives with his wife and father (103 years old!) in a traditional house that was once in the middle of rice fields but is now surrounded by other houses. Hideki introduced us to his greatgreatgrandfather – OK, only on a picture hanging above the family shrine – and told us the family’s story, including how his uncle died on the frontlines and how his father was sent to Mandchuria just one month before the end of the war only to be made prisoner by the Soviets and sent to Siberia for two years.
Hideki mainly grows organic rice and we were actually lucky to come during the season where you have a lot of different steps to do, so we got a great insight into how rice is grown. We first had to prepare the rice for seeding, which means sorting the good ones from the bad ones (using salty water to remove the light ones) before sterilizing them in 60°C water and drying them on tatami mats.
Then, we had to prepare the fields. Luckily, there’s a machine for this… unless the earth is too wet… So we armed ourselves with hoes and shovels to dig the trenches by hand!
We then lived a kid’s dream: After filling up the field with water, we had to straighten the levels of the soon-to-be rice beds. So we took off our boots and jumped in the mud! It was between fun and hard work, but after a few blisters and some hours wading around in the mud, we had finally created a little kindergarten for the rice babies to grow up!
Next step was filling up the seeding boxes with soil. Within just a few hours, we had managed to fill precisely 156’800 holes – that’s probably more than my dentist and Rocco Siffredi during their whole career. Hum… For the seeding, we had 60 cute Japanese middleschoolers (aged 10-12) coming to learn about the process of rice farming. They come 4 times throughout the year to learn about the different steps. Interested, cute and super disciplined (shouting in unison, sitting in neat rows), they filled a few seeding boxes by hand, putting 2 to 3 rice grains per hole. We joked about the work it would represent if we had to do all of it by hand, until the next day when Hideki told us that the seeding machine was not working well and that, well, we would do it all by hand…
We’d like to give you some more numbers since it’s just so fascinating: According to our farmer Hideki, you can harvest about 3000-4000 rice grains from one single seed! It made us understand why he was so strict about every single grain that had to be seeded correctly. Nothing should be lost. Still, that actually represents only one cup of rice! Yet, while seeding we sometimes caught ourselves thinking that we were ready to feed the world – except that, Hideki’s entire harvest wouldn’t even feed his 103-year old father for a whole life…
Every morning, we had to get up early to walk the dogs. First, we were convinced that walking the dog wouldn’t feel like work. Wrong. Even though the dogs are super disciplined when it comes to eating – they will wait in front of their food until you give them the OK to start eating – they are not at all when it comes to going for a walk. We found ourselves being pulled and spinning around most of the time. The wonderful countryside made up for it though 😉
Hideki also brought us to the local blacksmith when he heard that Quentin loved hand-forged knives. We got to admire the blacksmith (btw, the 8th generation…) at work and we even bought some extra knives.
One of the best parts of our stay was, obviously, food. Besides the hard but rewarding work, we were also rewarded with plenty of typical Japanese food so we always looked forward to the next meal. Japanese meals often come in lots of small dishes, usually including rice (to fill you up), miso soup (for the umami flavour), and tsukemono (to rinse your palate), to which you add some extras such as sily tofu, salad, tempura, etc. As main dish we had grilled fish, meat, cold noodles, curry, etc.
During our day off we chose to visit Beppu which is famous for it’s ~3000 natural volcanic hot springs (thus said to be “the most geothermic town in the world”). As we walked through the streets of the city, steam gushed out of some sewer drains, and some old rusty chimneys redirecting the steam of some onsens gave the city some sort of dramatic steampunk atmosphere. The city also offers some funny attractions such as legs-steaming booths or a pool, fittingly called “Hell’s of Beppu”, that reaches the temperature of 98°C (no bathing allowed 😉 – only for eggs). We spent the evening in a gigantic onsen, also having a volcanic sand bath, and tasted eggs and sweet potatoes cooked in natural volcanic steam. Cerise sur le gateau, we even went to a Yaki-Niku, where we could grill think slices of meat before dipping them in a delicious sauce.