Which way is that way

by Michael Secular

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The day began at 6:30, our usual wake up. But our routine of breakfast and house chores had ended. We were now packing and cleaning up to move on to our next destination: Kyoto.

We said our various goodbyes to friends made over the course of three weeks and some over the past few days. The goodbyes were quick. We took a few photos, and shook a few hands, but life on the farm continued on without us. Our host, Akio-San, dropped us off at the entrance of a highway. We have our final farewell and continue on our way.

Hitchhiking began at 9. We had two signs. One in English, one in Japanese, both with the words “going to Kyoto” written on it. Each of us took a sign and began waiting on the side of the road. In the beginning, the sight of each new car drew excitement of a potential ride. But soon, passing cars became a common sight.

Many would look at the signs with confused expressions, some pointed and laughed; others gave us a thumbs up. One man stopped and read the sign carefully, and upon realizing it said “Kyoto”, shook his head indicating he was not going in that direction, put his hand up to apologize, and continued on his route.

After 3 hours with zero success, a highway patrol man came by wearing a helmet, radio in his ear, and holding a flag. He tried to communicate with us, however, the lack of English made it impossible. He took out a laminated book filled with tiny pictures that resembled a children’s story.He pointed to a picture with a caption that said “not safe police coming soon”. He lead us off the highway, and communicated we should go in front of a 7/11.

Outside of the 7/ 11 we sat on the side of the road under a tree, eating curry, sushi and chocolate. The sun began to dim. We took shifts, one of us holding the sign while the other read or slept on the sidewalk. After two and a half hours we made the decision to call it a day.

Carrying our giant backpacks the two of us headed to the train station. Upon our arrival we learned the cheapest train to Kyoto was leaving in less than 10 minutes.  We rushed to buy tickets and ran to the track. After getting on we looked at each other, unsure if we had even got on the right train. Thankfully we did. Our minds relaxed with the chaos of the day behind us.

The train ride was a perfect substitute for our failure. The train swept through valleys and farmlands; over rivers and small dams and tiny bamboo forests. Small towns passed through our view with everyday people going about their lives. The train sped forward toward the south of the country, chasing the sun. Its final golden rays cast out among the land leaving large shadows. A day’s end was coming near, and a small stage of a long journey closing. Today was a big realization that so much lies ahead. The train makes for a bad metaphor for our long voyage in Japan. Kyoto waits in the distance.

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All OK

by Alec Siegel

Kei-san's notes
Kei-san’s notes

I’m bent over the sink washing dishes from dinner when the bald Buddhist monk walks up to me.

“What religion are you?” he asks.

The question hangs in the air as I mindlessly scrub a miso soup bowl.

Kei-san, a monk of four years and proprietor of the Setsukeian Guest House, located in the hills of Nantan, Japan, did not ask me this question as dish time small talk. Let me rewind.

There were five of us at dinner: four volunteer farmers (three Americans and one Frenchman) and Kei-san. Dinner started unusually early, at around six-thirty. After dinner-beef stuffed cabbage, rice and miso soup-we cleared the plates off to the side,and he motioned for us to gather around.

He pulled out a piece of paper and scribbled some bubbles, connected them with lines, and jotted down some Japanese characters. “Kei-san here,” he said, pointing to a small dot at the bottom of the page. He had sketched a family tree.

In Japan, Kei-san said, showing appreciation and respect for one’s ancestors is a central part of the culture, something that is ingrained in most Japanese people and is practiced both inside and outside the home.

The four of us nodded, waiting for more, for a larger point, for the nugget of Buddhist wisdom we had hoped to collect. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and then switched gears altogether.

“Christian, Jewish, Islam, no religion. All OK,” he suddenly said, his round face scrunched up, each word delivered with urgency, as if Buddha himself had used him as a conduit.

Eventually he comes back to his core message: culture and tradition and customs are important, very important. So important in fact that he spells each word out on top of his family tree.

“In Japan there are two religions,” he said, “very hard for foreigners to understand.”

He jots the word “Buda” (Buddha) at the top right of the page, and “god” at the top left. He connects the two with a straight line. In Japan, an ancient religion called Shinto colors the religious outlook of a majority of the country. “God” is the universe and everything in it-humans, trees, rice, fruits, vegetables, etc. It does not indicate a creator or deity with any specific name or form. The lesson ends as abruptly as it began, and we are dismissed for our nightly chores.

I’m on dish duty, so as the other three sort rice from their rice husks at the dinner table, I head to the kitchen, stewing over what he had just said.

Do I appreciate my ancestors enough? Can’t we all-Jews, Muslims, Christians, every living human being-live by the words “All OK”?

Before I could mull these questions over any further, Kei-san burst into the kitchen and looked at me with a wide grin, far from the stern and meditative caricature of a Buddhist monk.

“What religion are you?”

I pull out the Star of David necklace from under my shirt and launch into an explanation of my Jewish upbringing, and how I identify as a cultural and ethnic Jew, but religiously I’m a bit up in the air. I’m talking in circles, trying to convey a complex concept to a Japanese monk with a puzzled look on his face.

I’m rounding out my “cultural Jew” dissertation, using chopsticks to show how Jewish identity can be separated between a culture and a religion, when he suddenly laughs, signals for me to stop, and pats me on the shoulder.

“Christian, Jewish, Islam, no religion. All OK,” he said.

The Girl Who Knows Nothing

Tama-Chan harvesting tomatoes
Tama-chan harvesting tomatoes

It’s dinnertime at the Ogurayama Farm, and Tama-chan settles into her usual seat toward the end of the 10-seat table. The meal starts, like all meals in Japan do, with a show of appreciation to the food being served. Not a prayer to a god or a word of gratuity to the chef, but simply acknowledging the food’s existence in nature.

For Tama-chan, the ritual does not end there. She tastes the food in front of her-steamed rice, tofu, a chestnut-and her face beams with delight.

“Oishiiiiii”, she says, dragging out the word (“delicious”) with unadulterated joy, like each bite is the first she has ever tasted. This happens at every meal, and at snack time in between.

With her permanently tousled hair, dirt-stained pink zip-up sweatshirt and baggy pants that came from Charlie Chaplin’s wardrobe, Tama-chan looks like she sprung from a garden, as natural to this landscape as a suit and tie is to a city.

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Her English is comparable to a 4th grade student in America, though her diction can show surprising depth: “I’m famished” or “I’m not photogenic”. This, combined with her pixie-esque sense of wonder and simple world outlook, can often result in snatches of profundity. What attracted her to farming? “I like being outside,” she said.

Born in Seoul, South Korea to a Korean mother and a Japanese father, Tama-chan (it’s formal to attach “chan” to the given name of young females in Japan) has been engaged in a work exchange program at the Ogurayama Farm in Azumino, Japan for four months. She lives with a family of five on a farm that is surrounded by the Japanese Alps, where she wears a number of hats: cook, nanny, farmhand, vital resource to foreigners.

Her 29-year path to the Ogurayama Farm has been transformative. A city girl who was always first in her class to a farm girl whose callused hands can weed an apple orchard with the hardiest of men.

Tama-chan grew up alone with her mother in a small city in Shiga Prefecture, near Kyoto. Her mother left Seoul-and Tama-chan’s father-for Japan when she was a few months old. She studied nutrition (why? “I like to eat”) at Shiga Prefecture University for four years before landing a job teaching nutrition to kindergarten students. Trouble finding work in the nutrition field led to Tama-chan testing her hand as a freelance photographer when she was 26.

Around this time, in 2012, an earthquake decimated towns across the country and resulted in the infamous nuclear incident in Fukushima. This was the first of two major turning points of her life; an event of death and destruction for many infused her with life.

Her first move was to get married. There was a man who she had met through her photography work, and at 26, Tama-chan decided it was time to get hitched, lest another catastrophe occur. It was then that she quit her photography gig and began to look toward Japan’s farms for work.

She bounced around seven farms, from Kyoto Prefecture to Nagano, when her second turning point occurred. At a guesthouse in Nagano, a ten-minute walk from Ogurayama Farm, her host showed her gentleness and open-heartedness she had never thought Japanese people capable of.

She adopted a sunnier disposition and a sense of humor that crosses cultural boundaries. As apart of her evolution, she changed her name from Miho-chan to Tama-chan, and ended her marriage of three years.

The man she married was 42, and “not a good person”. So why did she marry him? “I was not a good person”, she says. It’s hard to believe that this woman-who sits cross-legged at night while brushing her teeth to gaze at the stars and treats an apple like it’s a newborn child-was once, as she described, “not a good person”.

“My heart was closed,” she tells me, forming a heart with her fingers and then crushing the heart with her fist. Her mother never supported the marriage, and it was a decision she looks back on with the hindsight of a woman who finally knows who she is and what she wants. “Now I’m free”, she said.

Tama-chan, the girl who cooks a mean tofu stir-fry, who takes midday naps in a field of tall grasses, who says “thank you very much” when you show her a picture of your dog, is wise well beyond her years.

It’s a running joke at the Ogurayama Farm that she is a mountain spirit that has been alive for centuries, in control of weather patterns and the future. She has a crystal ball on a desk in her room, lending a shred of credibility to this theory.

With a toothy smile and a shrug of her shoulders, Tama-chan brushes aside any compliment of her wit and wild theories about her origins. “I know nothing!” she exclaims. But that’s far from the truth.

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