By Alec Siegel
We had been driving for 40 minutes when we pulled off the expressway into a nondescript narrow dirt path that wound up a hill.
Four crates of freshly picked persimmon rattled in the trunk of the car.
Earlier that morning, Michael and I had been ready to spend the day harvesting the fruit when Yoshio, our current WWOOF host, threw us for a loop.
“We will drive to Fukuoka at 9:30,” he said, while sorting through and packaging persimmon on the bed of his white farm truck, “Sell persimmon.” He gestured to four crates of the orange fruit on the ground a few feet away.
It was 9:15 in the morning. 15 minutes later, we packed his car with our inventory and sped off through the hills of Ukiha City toward Fukuoka to the northwest. Not a cloud in the sky. D’Angelo’s “Black Messiah” album played as we cut through recently harvested rice fields and tiny villages.
I stopped the music when we approached the dirt path 40 minutes later. Yoshio tenderly guided his car off the road and up the hill.
At the top of the hill was an empty lot the size of a football field. Two white tents were set-up. Twenty-five or so people milled about, all wearing caps and white vests with the words “Umi Club” printed in green on the back.
We had arrived at the stomping ground of the Umi City ground golf club. Ground golf is a popular Japanese leisure activity, essentially a hybrid of croquet and miniature golf.
Yoshio instructed us to bring the crates over to a card table that was under one of the white tents. As soon as we dumped off the first crate, a flock of club members-all above the age of 60-converged on our merchandise.
Over the next 20 minutes, three crates of persimmon were emptied. Most were bought, 500 Yen per bag of 5 fruit. The rest was raffled off.
After our pop-up persimmon sale, a few ladies from the club invited the three of us out to lunch.
Lunch was delicious-fried chicken and coffee-and full of enlightening conversation.
“Do they speak English in Chicago and New York?” One lady asked us, via our translator, Yoshio.
And so on.
John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” played as we made our way back home.
Three of our persimmon crates had been emptied, and the last remaining one was only about half full.
The sky was no longer cloudless. In fact, there was nothing but clouds.
10 minutes into our ride home, Yoshio pulled into a dense residential area. All of the homes were built with traditional Japanese roofs: two crisscrossing panels made of a thick layer of hay as the base, with a protective outer layer of stone shingles.
The roads in this neighborhood were narrow, barely wide enough for one car, and the homes were large, with Japanese gardens in the front and backyards.
“My tennis friend’s house,” Yoshio said as we pulled into the driveway of an especially large home. Yoshio filled a plastic bag with an armful of persimmons and knocked on the door.
The home belonged to Yoshio’s tennis friend of 40 years and his wife, who answered the door and ushered us in.
The home was gorgeous, traditionally built with a dash of modern convenience. There were sliding doors to all the rooms, tatami mats covering the floors, an elaborate shrine, pottery, paintings.
There was also a treadmill, a Calloway golf bag, old tennis trophies gathering dust on a bookshelf.
After the bag of persimmon was handed over, we were asked to sit down in the kitchen by Yoshio’s friend’s wife. While a local high school basketball game played on the television (one team was coached by Muggsy Bogues), the five of us sat and chatted over green tea and crackers.
An ancient looking man walked past us at one point, down a long dark hallway. He was 90 years old.
“My father,” Yoshio’s friend said.
After tea, we migrated to the living room, where we sat cross-legged on cushions, talked for awhile longer. There was an ornate hawk perched on a tree that carved into a wooden panel at the top of a sliding door.
When it was time to continue our journey, we were handed a bag full of clothes as a gift, and told to “please visit again”. I promised we would.
The Old Dog
Our last crate had only a handful of persimmons left. I was hopped up on caffeine as we hit the road.
No more than 10 minutes after leaving, we pulled off into a gravel driveway that had three signposts that said “No parking” in English.
“It says ‘no parking’”, I warned Yoshio. He laughed and parked the car.
Around the corner from the lot was a large metal slide door that was locked from the bottom, like the ones that protect storefronts during closing hours. Yoshio, a bag of persimmons in tow, knocked on the door.
A minute passed before an old man in a baseball cap peaked his head under the door.
He stared at the three of us with a blank expression for a few moments, and then smiled as he finally registered who Yoshio was-an old ground golf buddy.
He invited us into a room that had the feel of a tool shed, dark, dusty and crammed with random items from floor to ceiling.
There was a bin of 10 or so umbrellas by the door, bags of cat food piled off to the right. A dog paced around the left corner, chained to the wall. The dog looked tired and old, with a tricky to read demeanor. Was he looking for a rub behind the ears or a few fingers to bite off?
His name was Momo, and he was 13 years old, and as it turns out, as sweet as could be.
Our drop-offs complete, Yoshio decided it was time to take us sightseeing.
We sped up a nearby mountain, past shrines, streams and red forests, and then followed the curvy road down to the town below-Dazaifu.
It was about 4 O’clock in the evening, gray and chilly. We pulled up to the Tenman-gu temple, a famous Shinto shrine dating to the year 905, parked in a 30 minute spot, hurried to the main prayer site, performed a quick prayer (two bows, two claps, one more bow), hopped back in the car, and then sped off for home in Ukiha. It was a fitting capper to a whirlwind day.
This was a Monday. So much for the Monday blues.