This was a summer of firsts for me; it was my first time in Japan, my first time alone in a country where I couldn’t speak the language, and it was my first time participating in a homestay programme. Quite honestly, I was terrified to the point where I was having second thoughts on the morning of my flight as I was making my way to the airport. But in the end I didn’t chicken out and I am so glad that I didn’t because this trip turned out to be one of the most incredible, inspiring and eye-opening experiences I have ever had. Here I have created a photoblog to document my time in Japan.
I found my host family through WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), an organisation that helps volunteers to find placements in rural communities, mostly on farms but also in places such as ski lodges, guesthouses and camping grounds. But rather than actively placing volunteers WWOOF acts more as an online database, to which anyone can sign up as either a WWOOFer or a host. Hence why, as I arrived in Kushiro in East Hokkaido on Monday morning I was more nervous than excited; what if it turned out there was no host family or what if they forgot to pick me up, and what would I do if that turned out to be the case? What if there was too much of a language barrier or I accidentally offended my hosts because I was not familiar enough with the culture? I was relieved of my first fear at least when my hosts shortly arrived to pick me up.
My adopted family for the next four weeks was the Hattori family, consisting of otou-san (father) Masato-san, oka-san (mother) Sachiko-san, Momoko-chan, oba-chan (grandma), Koopi the dog and Xiao Wen, another WWOOFer from Taiwan. They live in a house on a hill just outside of the village of Tsurui, officially one of Japan’s most beautiful villages, just 40 minutes from Kushiro city. Across from the house was where I would be spending most of my time, in Sachiko-san’s restaurant – Heart’n Tree.
What I hadn’t realised was that Heart’n Tree was actually quite famous and that Sachiko-san was a bit of a local celebrity. There were news articles featuring Heart’n Tree pasted along one wall in the restaurant and numerous journalists came to interview Sachiko-san whilst I was there. It wasn’t difficult to see why Heart’n Tree receives so much attention. The environment there was so relaxed and designed to evoke nostalgia; every morning there was the smell of freshly baked bread, and soft piano music would play as the customers had their meals whilst enjoying the view of the gardens.
Sachiko-san wanted to create a place where customers could feel at home; a place where they can enjoy a wholesome, delicious meal and afterwards relax with a walk through the gardens, or by meeting the goats and the pig, Buho-chan, who also live at Heart’n Tree.
In Heart’n Tree, in between some waitressing and washing up, Sachiko-san would teach Xiao Wen and I how to make everything the restaurant produces, from curries to pasta, quiche to bread, and stews to cheesecake. Sachiko-san absolutely loves cooking and is passionate about Hokkaido produce, and one of the reasons she opened Heart’n Tree was because she wanted to showcase how incredible the local produce is.
Most of the vegetables and herbs are grown in the gardens, the cheese is made onsite at the cheese factory and the milk and eggs are produced at her friends’ local farms. We were lucky enough to be allowed to visit to some of the local farms, which was an interesting experience for me as a vet student because we learn about farming systems in the UK and I was curious to see how dairy and egg farming differed in Hokkaido, particularly because even though the Hokkaido countryside is thought to be similar to the British countryside, the milk that is produced in the two regions tastes completely different. Unfortunately my Japanese wasn’t good enough to ask about feeding and rations but from the outside, the parlours and milking routine seemed very similar.
Summertime was very busy with festivals so as well as cooking for customers in the restaurant we also spent many days preparing copious amounts of food to sell at all the events that Heart’n Tree had been invited to participate at. We always made the signature Heart’n Tree breads and chiffon cake but Sachiko-san is extremely creative with food and is always being inspired by and experimenting with recipes from others countries so with each event, we always created a new dish. Here we were making gnocchi and a Croatian sauce to sell at Obon.
Of all the events, the Obon Festival in the village green was the biggest. I had previously experienced the Gion Matsuri, one of Japan’s three biggest festivals, in Kyoto but it was crowded and full of tourists, so it was really nice to be able to see a national holiday such as Obon being celebrated on a smaller, local scale. Away from the crowds and the tourists, I could comfortably enjoy the lively atmosphere and people watch to see how the locals interacted.
The highlight of Obon was the costume contest. Teams and individuals wearing homemade costumes would circle around the central Obon tent doing the Obon dance whilst the judges looked on. This year, the Heart’n Tree team had decided on the theme of brides (or more specifically ‘Come to Tsurui to find a good bride!’) and in the days leading up to Obon we managed to create some beautiful but perhaps slightly terrifying bridal costumes. On the evening of Obon, we all put the costumes on and danced together. Unfortunately we only managed third place out of three!
I loved going to these events; one of the reasons I chose to do a homestay was because I wanted to experience Japanese daily life in an authentic environment and being able to represent Heart’n Tree at several festivals meant I could meet and talk to all kinds of interesting people, from deer hunters to government officers to Japan’s first female movie camera woman, to learn more about the locals, their lives and how everyone fits together in the community.
Once the ‘working day’ at Heart’n Tree was finished, it was then family time. The Hattoris would take Xiao Wen and me out to local restaurants and one of my favourites was a sushi restaurant called Matsuri where I tried whale sushi for the first time. Matsuri, meaning festival, is a festival themed sushi belt restaurant; the staff wear festival themed costumes and there were various festival themed activities, for example every time a customer ordered the giant fish roe sushi there was a drum and chanting performance. It was such a different experience to dining at Japanese restaurants in the UK and I think I got far too overexcited every time something new happened, which the Hattoris found absolutely hilarious.
I loved spending time with the Hattoris and dinner time was a very fun and important time for us to get to know each other. Hokkaido is famous for its seafood and barbequed mutton (called Genghis Khan) and we often had barbeques with these on the terrace outside the house. Sitting around the barbeque we would talk a lot about travelling and about our respective cultures. There were lots of misconceptions that needed to be corrected; they were surprised to hear that not everyone in London is polite and gentlemanly.
The four weeks absolutely flew by. I had learned so much about food, Hokkaido and Japanese culture, and I even managed to learn some Japanese, but what I hadn’t expected to take away from the experience were life lessons. One thing you immediately notice about the Hattoris is that they are very happy people; they are always laughing and always have a very warm energy around them. I think the reason why they have such a happy family life is because they always make time for each other; after dinner, we always dimmed the lights, turned on some relaxing music and just talked and laughed together in this very intimate setting. Rather than individually going off to watch TV or use the computer, they always made sure to spend time together and to bond.
I also noticed how calm Sachiko-san was. No matter how busy it was in Heart’n Tree, Sachiko-san was never flustered; whereas I was frantically clearing plates and making salads, Sachiko-san always had a calm expression on her face. The reason behind this was because the Hattoris all live by Masato-san’s saying, ‘life is beautiful’; life is beautiful so it should be enjoyed. And in order to enjoy life we need to slow down, spend more time with our loved ones and enjoy the ‘now’.
As a vet student I am guilty of stressing too much and neglecting friends and family in favour of coursework or studying, but the Hattoris have taught me some valuable lessons in how to calm down, not let myself be overhwlmed and how to really start enjoying and loving life. I was so privileged to be accepted into their family for four weeks and I thank them for all the wonderful memories.