Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Rice, Rivers and Rafts

One of the things I love in Japan almost as much as I love the food is the countryside. Japanese countryside can have it all - incredible hiking, volcanoes, quaint cafes with tables set under trees (ha, ok, that's not a standard thing, but something we have stumbled upon), hot springs, wide rivers to swim in, cute grannies hauling heavy loads of vegetables, local produce stands, pachinko parlors (the pseudo gambling known as pachinko seems to be the countryman's pasttime), temples and shrines, and a whole host of attractions waiting to be discovered by curious foreigners.

Thanks to Justin's car and our combined inquisitiveness, we have been lucky to get to know the countrysides of Kyushu, Shikoku and Hokkaido.
This last weekend we were invited to plant rice with my co-worker's family. They own two of the visible rice paddies and it feeds all of their extended family (in rice) for a year.
Justin was outfitted with these special rice planting rubber tabi, but as my feet are too big for women's shoes and slightly smaller than men's, I had to slop around in the mud barefoot. Which felt really good...
First we were instructed to prepare the rice by sprinkling some good old chemicals on it.
A neighbor hand plants the edge of his tanbo (rice field).
These days, rice fields are no longer completely planted by hand. A machine that is basically a lawn mower with hands plucks bunches of the plants from the flats they have grow in and punches them into the soft mud. First we had to lay out the flats of rice along the edge of the field where the machine could pick them up. (My coworker and I)
My coworker's family doesn't sprout their own rice anymore, but buys it from a local farm store.
We took a break at lunch time and walked over to my coworker's grandmother's house down the street and had a simple and delicious Japanese feast.
All of the water that feeds the field is from a stream up in the nearby mountains. It was clear and fresh and the neighbor caught a fish in one of the aqueducts that looked like the cross of an eel and a catfish.
In these hot, sticky days, it is so lovely to sit with the windows open where the house meets the garden and eat together.
The ramen delivery man. The neighbors had ramen delivered to them after planting their rice, and I love this ramen balancing device. The ramen noodles and broth are assembled and cooked at the restaurant, then driven to the customer and this device keeps the bowls perfectly upright so that they don't spill.
Right, so the rice planting machine. You can't see them, but on the bottom of the machine are basically two hands that grab a perfect about of rice stalks and plant them into the mud. The mud is super squishy and soft, so its really easy to push the plants in. Like most things, driving the machine looks easy but is actually really difficult. The machine propels itself, but you have to keep it going in a straight line, through thick soft mud which wants to pull it in any direction.

This is my coworker's cousin in-law and she explained that when he first married into the family one of his first tests was whether or not he could plant a rice field. He apparently struggled a lot with it while everyone laughed at him except his father in-law, who stood at the edge of the field in disapointment.
Mid-afternoon we broke for a snack alongside the field. Oh delicious Japanese watermelon, you are soooo おいしい (oishi which means delicious!)! I really love the Japanese custom of eating pickled things when you are tired. Apparently something in pickled plums and vegetables is purported to perk you up. Fine by me, I just love pickles.
Justin drives the rice planter. Everyone LOVED how concentrated he was, in the way that it is always fun to watch a novice try their hardest at something you have mastered.

The machine isn't perfect, so you have to go in by hand and plant spaces it has missed as well as rows along the edges. It was tiring work, but a lot of fun.

In November they will harvest the rice with another ingenious machine that cuts the rice and ties it in bundles. The rice will hang to dry for about ten days and then another machine separates the rice from the stalk. On our countryside drives, I have often noticed small buildings that house what looks like a funnel and a mill, and after asking a local I found out that these are rice mills. Like paying for water at the store, you pay in kilograms to put your rice through the mill and have the husk removed. You can set the machine to "white rice" or "brown rice" settings depending on how you like your grains.

After planting was done, the entire family loaded into the car and we went to a local hot spring. My coworker's mother scrubbed all the women in the family down with a scrubby and then came over to me and asked if I'd like a scrub down. That naked hot spring scrub down made me feel close to them and part of something. Ha, a big I love you from Japan.
On another note, 露 (tsuyu) the rainy season started recently and it feels more like a monsoon this year than it did last year. It rains in buckets all day, all night. I woke up recently and felt different and realized it was because the rain had stopped... for a few hours. The moisture is making my house grow and when I go swimming at the gym it feels like I have just given in to the state of moisture that is around me all day long.
We over optimistically tried to go to the beach on a rain day. Snorkeling in the rain, we found out that the shallows are also effected by rain, no one seemed happy (though we did see a bunch of rays and an eel). Here we are trying to look warm, about to go hop in a hot spring to actually get warm.
Before the rain started, we headed out to northern Kagoshima and had this river beach all to ourselves. After swimming we ate somen noodles out of a machine that swirls them around a racetrack on your table, by far the best way to eat noodles ever invented.
On another sunny day of long ago, we met some interesting folks who were ocean kayaking and brought us some awabi (abalone) to barbeque and told us about their travels as medics and teachers to Ghana.
Justin built a raft out of bamboo collected from the forest around his town and set off to sea...

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Warm Heart of Africa

Due to considerably lower airfare options if one chooses to change planes innumerable times, our journey began with a comparative tour of the airport systems of five countries. The Hong Kong airport looked like the future and in true Indian fashion it took an hour to move through a 20 foot security check line in Mumbai.Our destination: South Africa, and later Swaziland and a bit of Mozambique. The travel was worth it all when we finally got to relax on a walk into the hills where Justin was tickled by a chongolo crawling across his palm.
We started off in Johannesburg and then headed quickly out to Hazyview, a town bordering Kruger National Park. Hippos lumbering out of the river, zip-lining through the tree tops, and massive breakfasts!
We stayed in a rondavel, which is a southern African style of house that is made of stones and mud with a thatched roof. It was interesting to compare to our earlier Big Sur yurt experience.

Making friends with the locals.
We then headed into Kruger National Park, which is larger than Wales and one of the biggest game reserves in Africa (and the site of the infamous "Battle at Kruger" video)! When in Kruger you stay in "camp" that is a fenced safe zone (safe from the animals of the park) and at night we could hear the hyenas yipping and the hippos snorting in the river nearby. This is another version of a rondavel that we stayed in.
The ceiling of the rondavel.
I have to admit that going on safari has never been something I lusted for and and envisioned in the way I fantasize about other travel experiences I want to have, however after having experienced it I feel almost addicted! There really is nothing like being out there and stumbling across animals as they are in the middle of their own routines - by comparison, zoo animals seem dead, or props at a nature theme park.

We went on dusk and dawn drives with guides into the park, as well as a dawn hike into the bush.

I learned that cats like to use the roads as their highways because they don't like walking through vegetation that has collected dew (how alike all cats are!) and because they can walk almost silently on a road. We came across a small pride of lions one morning as they were laying in the road, bellies full of the night's catch. We would inch up on them in the jeep until they got uncomfortable (and so did I) and walked a few meters away and laid down again, at which point we would creep up again.

The guide explained that as long as you don't make exaggerated movements or stand up out of the vehicle, the animals tend to view the vehicle as one unit, rather than as a car full of potential lunch. But at one point, a woman in the car with us couldn't resist and stood up for a close shot of a lioness near us and the lioness feinted an attack and I almost peed my pants! Half the time we were near the lions I kept cursing humans for being so secure in ourselves that we put ourselves in situations to purposely make ourselves less secure.
The taking pictures of animals you see on a safari is a little mysterious to me. You can find much better pictures of the same animals anywhere (in gift shops, online, in magazine, etc.) but I guess it makes a difference to take the picture because you were actually there next to that animal. Also, a picture of an animal can never really convey how incredible it is to see them out there doing their thing, full of so much spunk and energy!

I include these two pictures because 1) man! just look at that pattern on the giraffe! Stellar! 2) This bird was sooooo cool! So I guess the taking picture of animals sickness gets us all in the end.

At one point we drove on our own around the park (mines armed guides) and crossed paths with another small pride of lions who were crossing the road and heading into the bush. A few hundred meters later there was a lookout point where we stopped the car and we all got out. By we I mean, not me, because whaaaat there were just lions there and now we're just going to get out of the car and let them pounce us? No way, nah uh.
The best way to experience the park was hiking into the bush at dawn. After riding around in jeeps and harassing animals with the sound of the car, it was great to be on the ground and walk quietly (ok, never quietly because humans are incapable of being that quiet) through the bush in the hopes of finding someone interesting. On ground level you can see all the beautiful flowers and inspect all the kinds of poo (did you know that hyena's poo is often white because they eat and can digest bones?).
Our guide showing us how coarse elephant dung is. He explained that elephants can only digest a little over half of what they eat. They will pass huge thorns through their system and people drive over the dung in the road and get a flat tire and don't know why.

Elephants only have a set amount of teeth and so they run out of teeth by around 60 and die of starvation.

Our guide letting us know it was safe to approach a river.
From Kruger we drove to Swaziland! The change from South Africa to Swaziland could be felt on many levels. Everything and one became more colorful and cheerful and suddenly we began to climb a big mountain range. In Mbabane we stayed with Justin's dad's incredibly amazing friends who live in one of the most incredible houses that I have ever seen (which they built).
Their house was sort of a modern, hippie, art house version of a rondavel and was set in a valley where at night the only lights were all the way in the opposite hills.
I could have spent days exploring nooks and crannies, and we spent hours running around with their daughter Sophia, chasing the dogs chasing the chickens.


A view of Pine Valley from the back of the house.
Outside wall detail.
Swaziland is home to one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world, and Sibebe (right across the road from where we were staying) is the largest exposed granite dome in the world.
We hiked around the area - a lot of Swaziland looks like a giant scattered fist fulls of huge boulders everywhere.
It's amazing how when you stay with someone in a new place, your knowledge/impression of that place really is shaped by that person's version of life in that place. For me, Swaziland became a sort of hippie paradise where it seemed that if you had the will you could make any project happen.
From Mbabane we crossed the border back into South Africa and then into Mozambique, where we stayed in Ponta d'Ouro. Ponta is a low key beach town mostly frequented by South Africans and famous for its resident dolphins. We went out one dawn with guides from an NGO who have been studying the areas dolphins for 16 years. We found a pod of wild dolphins and joined them in the water and it was a truly spiritual experience (pictured above). It would be much more accurate to say that the dolphins were investigating and interacting with us than we them - a dolphin would sort of choose you and the two of you would would have a partner swim until another individual or group of dolphins would choose you. They swam alongside me, under me with their bellies up or did circles all around me! So incredible. I could go one for hours with tears in my eyes about it, but this picture basically captures it all. Ha, no but really...
The place we stayed seemed like a remnant from a bygone era, but it had its rustic charm.

Wandering around the market at Ponta.


One "charm" being brown water and a cockroach that ate my soap in the night. But in the evening, the bats that lived in the eaves of the buildings flew out to see and it was a beautiful exodus to behold.
When we were out at sea we saw several beautiful butterflies and our guide told us that the winder winds blow all the coastal butterflies out to sea in the morning and they spend all day chugging back to land. You can be several miles out to see and come across a huge cloud of butterflies slowly fighting their way back.
We drank cider and played bananagrams in the evenings before feasting on fish and prawns.

John looks out at the sunset.

Oh hot African sun, and open spaces! I think come from the States really allowed me to appreciate all the open space, all the wild land. Japan or the UK are packed in comparison.

We drove back for a quick trip to Swaziland where we parted ways with Justin's family and took a van to Johannesburg. The neighborhood of the friends we stayed with - in the right corner you can see the hut for the guard who is stationed on the street. I had a hard time separating my preconceived ideas about Joburg from what I was actually observing, but I have to honestly say that for me it was a city with a very strange vibe. Luckily the friends we stayed with were incredible - walking encyclopedias of African histories, politics and culture. I could have listened to their stories for years and eaten one million ostrich burgers with them and their kids!
But alas, five different airports and Kagoshima called us home. I am still thinking about it all, letting it sift through me and settle as it will, but this trip was huge.