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Sunday, 15 July 2018

Book II ~ Chapter 7 ~ The Sapporo Strawberry Stay

1-Jun-2018 – 30-Jun-2018

So, after being on the road for almost a full month, it’s now finally time for me to settle down a bit in…

…and yes, I promise you that there is a perfectly natural explanation for the Easter Island Statues being here that certainly does not involve Japan actually being a gaping rift in the space-time continuum (although that would explain a good number of things).

Anyway, I’ve already talked a lot about Hokkaido and Sapporo in the previous chapters, so let’s skip straight to the part where I tell you just where in Sapporo the winds of fate have blown me. My host family lives in Kiyota-Ku (清田区 “Pure Rice Field Ward”), which is the southeasternmost of Sapporo’s wards. As such, my home for this next month is actually going to be right at the border to the nearby town of Kitahiroshima (北広島 “North Spacious Island”).

It is here that I should begin…

A HelpX Homestay in Hokkaido

When I asked WorldUnite about whether there was something like WWOOFing or HelpX in Japan, they said no.

They lied to me.

It may not be as widespread as in New Zealand, but both WWOOFing and HelpX exist in Japan, and it was via HelpX that I found this nice host family in Sapporo that was willing to take me in for a month in exchange for my regular assistance.

My hosts are Seina and her husband Kouji, who have left behind their corporate jobs in favour of a more ecological lifestyle here in Japan. They primarily offer their place for paid homestays, and have only recently started looking for helpers since work at the farm is getting busy. And so it happens that I'm once again the first helper at a place. I hope I can give them a positive first impression of HelpX.

Their daughter – an energetic and smart 6-year old – goes by the name of Eren, and is already in School. Even her Japanese is better than mine, but at least I am ahead in the number of Kanji I'm proficient with.

And then there’s the 3-year old identical twin boys Issei and Kaito, and for the love of the Sage Gethnaya, don’t ask me which one is which. Their parents might be able to tell them apart, but for me, a month is simply too short a time to be able to tell the subtle differences between those two.

I should become a part of the family within only a few short days, one of the most notable events in which would be the time at the park…

…during which I should witness young Eren’s first successful unassisted bike ride. It should last only a few short seconds, but be a notable milestone in her growth nonetheless.

So much for the people here, now let’s talk about…

The Place

Seina’s and Kouji’s place is located in a very green part of the town. There’s a park right across from the house…

…and the entire neighbourhood is pretty much surrounded on three sides by Satotsuka Reien (里塚霊園 “Village Mound Cemetery”), so there’s pretty much greenery all around.

As a direct consequence, there are also quite a number of stone masons around. Unlike in Germany, however, their selection is not limited to gravestones. Far from it!

In these artisan enterprises, you can commission everything from grave markers to soccer-owl statues.

But back to the place I'm staying in. I have yet to give you the traditional tour of the place.

A few details are especially noteworthy. For one, since Eren is nearing the end of her first year in school, there are learning sheets for both Kana and Romaji to be found around the house…

…though somehow I find the stroke order for the Romaji rather questionable, or how many people do you know who write an “M” with four (!) strokes? Or an "I" with three, for that matter?

There’s also a stove in the house, though fortunately we don’t need it since Sapporo is reasonably warm in June.

On second thought, make that “should be reasonably warm”, for we do get a bit of a cold spell around the 13th - just to drive home that whole "Vladivostok"-thing. Since the stove remains faithfully inactive even during that time, I am instantly reminded of the cool times I spent in New Zealand.

Then, this place has a very interesting musical clock that plays a short melody and display every full hour…

…as well as something which is absolutely essential to every Japanese household: a TV!

This great altar of passive entertainment is nearly constantly in use while the family is at home, be it during mornings or evenings, breakfast or dinner. As a result I should soon become accustomed to the peculiarities of Japanese television, such as a series featuring anthropomorphic chairs…

…as well as over-the-top quiz shows like a crazy train ride or the Hyper English Braintower that does an absolutely wonderful job of illustrating the English skills of the average adult Japanese. And then there’s always Issei and Kaito enhancing the program in their own exuberant way.

Also, not all of the content is passive. Some of the quiz shows allow the viewers to participate too via interactive digital teletext, and then there’s an interactive version of Janken (Paper-Rock-Scissors), in which the viewers have 60 seconds time to pick their move which is then opposed by a move from a local celebrity. Depending on whether you win, lose, or get a draw, you get a certain number of points that are reset on a regular basis. I'm not entirely sure what you can trade these point for, but I think it’s something like free pay-per-view movies. Either way, the kids love participating in this little game. On that not, did you know that the original form of this game stems from ancient China, where it featured slugs, frogs and snakes? There is also an early Japanese version featuring foxes: The fox tricks the village elder, the village elder reprimands the hunter, and the hunter captures the fox.

There’s also a few of Shrines and Temples in the vicinity. However, it’s nothing near what I’m used to from Tokyo, and with no means to travel long distances from this place (like a bike), this should result in this month being the one with the least Shrines and Temple visits thus far.

But this place is only half of what there is to see, for Seina and Kouji also own a farm at the outskirts of Sapporo, in Minami-Ku (南区 ”South Ward”) to be exact. Unfortunately, it’s quite some ways away, so we have a daily commute of about one hour each way when we want to get to the farm.

The landscape along the way is nice and scenic though.

The farm itself is located at the edge of a green valley, and is quite idyllic…

…especially in good weather, when the beautiful white-blue sky can be quite distracting.

Seina and Kouji have rented this farm from the elderly people who live here, but utilize only a small section of the grounds for gardening. As a result, our base of operations on this farm is not the house, but rather a shed behind the house.

Inside the shed, we sometimes get a little visitor in the form of a Suzume (雀 “Sparrow”) who apparent likes scavenging in the hay.

A toilet also exists, but it is very... uhhhnnnnnngggggg. That’s right, uhhhnnnnnngggggg. Not only is it technically very complicated to use – especially if you are of European size – but the smell is... uhhhnnnnnngggggg. The best way to use it is not at all, and during my stay at this place I learn to regulate my metabolism in a way such as to minimize toilet usage at the farm.

But anyway, back to the more farm-like facilities. Naturally, there are fields…

…as well as an orchard featuring cherries, apples and prunes.

However, the main features are the tarp-covered greenhouses…

…which around this time of the year are mostly filled with delicious Ichigo (苺 “strawberries”) (though there are also as of yet unripe tomato plants in one of them).

In fact, the Ichigo are so delicious that they draw local wildlife such as Tanukis to snack on them at night, leaving only prints in the mud and missing Ichigo as signs of their visit.

Notably, there is also a Shrine by the name of Shirakawa Jinja (白川神社 “White River Shrine”) and some sacred stones right next to the farm.

Since the Shrine is partway up the forested hillside, that means there’s a great view of the farm from there.

And naturally, where there’s a forest, there will always be birds ready to shower me with shrill chirps, well-hidden by the canopy, yet clearly audible to all.

As you’ve probably gathered by now, my work here should be all about helping out at the farm. However, before I go into detail about just what I did there, let me tell you about…

Interlude: The South Sapporo Stray


I should have a little time before things start getting busy, so I decide to use it to explore the surrounding area of my new home. Letting myself be guided primarily by Shrines and Geocaches (and Geocaches near Shrines), I should end up walking a total of 17km, most of which would actually be in the territory of Kitahiroshima.

My stray should take me through the back yard gate, across the cemetery…

…and into the nearby valley, where I should follow the road through the fields for a bit.

Apart from fields, there’s also a colourful flower garden along the way…

…as well as Ariake Jinja (有明神社 “Dawn Shrine”), yet another typical example of Hokkaido-Style Shrines.

Afterwards, I take a left turn and cross over into Kitahiroshima by means of a scenic forest road.

But hark! What is this? Mysterious thundering noises resound through the forest in irregular intervals like a giant’s footsteps. Sometimes they are only a few seconds apart, and sometimes a full minute passes without one before they resume again. Whatver could they mean? I would later ask Seina about them, and not even she has an idea, though she supposes the noises might be coming from a nearby base of the Japanese Self Defence Force.

Eventually, I arrive at the other side on the hill and follow the road through fertile farmland for quite a while.

In the valley of Niseibetsugawa (仁井別川 “Virtuous Well Branch River”), I come across a little roadside Temple featuring a Jizou (地蔵 “Earth Owner”)…

…and then, there’s this really skewed old barn that has probably seen one earthquake too many.

One thing I see a lot around here are these boxes, which can be found along all roadways in hills. They are not very functional during summer, but provide and essential service in winter, for they contain road grit, and with snowfall levels being what they are here in Sapporo, car drivers may sometimes find themselves getting stuck in winter. At such a time, it’s good to know that there will always be one of these around in hilly terrain.

Back at the main road, I soon find myself directed to the nearest Hachiman Shrine by exactly the kind of advertising you will not find for churches in Europe. Ironically, this one is called Sapporo Hachimangu, even though it’s technically in Kitahiroshima.

On the way back I should yet run into a few more Shrines and Temples…

…as well as one of the ever-prevalent golf courses…

…and some very interesting roadside flowers the likes of which I have not seen before.

After that, it’s back to Sapporo City…

…where I find a house with very cutesy garden ornaments.

From there, it’s not much further to get back to my home here in Sapporo, where both Seina and Kouji are quite impressed to hear how far I’ve walked. The next day I should get some rest (and do some relaxing software development work), so I’d be in good shape for…

The Job

Unlike most other places I’ve been to so far, the work here is clustered into 4 days per week, each of them featuring 8 hours of work at the farm. There’s quite a number of different things to do, though the most prominent task is – and how could it be any other way – weeding, just like it was in New Zealand.

This time, it’s mostly the areas around the greenhouses that need my attention, since the weed eater can’t get the weeds right next to the structures. And whereas it was Tradescantia and Kikuyu Grass that kept me busy all over New Zealand, Hokkaido waits up with an entirely new enemy called Sugina (杉菜 “Cedar Vegetable” = “Field Horsetail”).

Apart from around the greenhouses, the asparagus plantation also needs to be weeded by hand, a dreary task if there ever was one. Hours and hours of pulling out Sugina over the days eventually make me question if it might not have been better to let myself have eaten by bears back in Wakkanai.

But there are no bears around here, only Ichigo-eating Tanukis, and little Kaeru (蛙 “Frogs”) hiding between the Sugina and Tanpopo (蒲公英 “Dandelion”).

Apart from weeding, the majority of the time I spend on this farm is either directly or indirectly related to Strawberries, such as punching holes into dozens of makeshift planter boxes, lining them up and filling them with soil before finally planting young Ichigo plants in them.

At other times, it is my job to cut bundles of hay down into straws of equal length and then use that hay to pad the Ichigo planters for whatever reason. Presumably to preserve moisture, but all I can say for sure that the straw cranks up the dreariness of weeding these from “tedious” to “I want to die”.

Another Ichigo-related task is pruning the unproductive parts of the plants, which is easier said than done since I have to manually pull out the non-productive stalks right where they separate from the mother plant without damaging any other part of this or a neighbouring plant. Also, I'm not allowed to use tools for this since apparently that makes the Ichigo plants sick. As a result, even with gloves I eventually get plant juices all over my skin, giving me a rash that burns like fire.

A task that is more to my liking is changing the soil for those spots in which the Ichigo failed to grow. We actually got the fragrant fertile fungal soil from a nearby Shiitake farm, and now it’s up to me to distribute bags of this savoury substrate around the greenhouses.

Naturally, we also have to sell the Ichigo to make money, and although the task of carefully arranging the strawberries in the boxes is much to important to be left to a clumsy western barbarian such as myself, I can at least help by sticking the price labels and a Honjitsu Toritae (本日採りたえ “picked today”) label on the boxes. Another thing I should learn from this task is that biological produce is never overpriced. Granted, I would not buy a box of Ichigo even for as low as 450¥, but given the effort we put into making these I would want to sell them for at least twice as much.

Anyway, so much for Ichigo, but there are also other things to be done around the farm (although these don’t take up nearly as much time), such as planting Edamame (枝豆 “Branch Beans” = “Green Soybeans”) and sweet corn into little planters in the greenhouses, 128 seeds at a time…

…then letting them grow for a week or two, and finally planting them out on the fields.

Since some of the days can get quite hot and dry, we occasionally also have to provide moisture to the sprouts using high-tech analogous dihydrogen-monoxide translocation and diffusion device.

Other produce includes radishes, asparagus and Myougatake (茗荷たけ “Tea Baggage Shoots” = “Ginger Shoots”), which also have to be processed and packaged.

And then there’s the orchard. If you think just because it’s not yet harvesting season means there’s nothing to do then think again! I should spend days out here pruning apples and… well… prunes. In the process of this we remove all but the biggest of growing fruits from the trees to make sure they grow nice and juicy, as well as to prevent the branches from breaking off by too heavy a load.

Finally, there is also one little building task to be done, and that would be nailing down anti-weed mats on the floor of the one greenhouse that does not yet have them. An enjoyable task, albeit one that should not last nearly as long as I would have liked it to.

And that concludes all there is to do here in this place, now let us celebrate…

Interlude: A Two-Fold Birthday


As fate would have it, I should arrive just in time for the twins’ fourth birthday.

Much to my delight, Seina and Kouji kindly invite me to the birthday party, which is hosted by Seina’s parents at their nearby home. The two of them are also excited to meet a traveller fromm another land, and so I end up telling them not only about my home town of Munich, but also all about my travels in New Zealand using as much Japanese as I can muster.

This place is also notable for being the home of a medium-sized turtle that lives in a terrarium in the corner.

The dinner consists of a mix of various dishes, the highlight of which is a big pizza…

…about which the kids are particularly excited. I for my part miss the opportunity to cook my own legendary tri-Tail pizza, which I have not been able to enjoy for over four months by now.

And since we’re already talking about pizza, we might as well talk about the rest of…

The Food

The days here in Sapporo routinely start with a rather western-style breakfast either toast or a bowl of cereal or Müsli with yoghurt, though occasionally sandwiches are also part of the board.

Ironically, the strawberry jam used for the toast is imported from Poland. However the hazelnut-chocolate paste is authentically Japanese.

I have to provide my own tea though, which I get to sip out of an authentic Mother Goose cup. That makes me recall Mixed-Up Mother Goose, and old game I used to play when I was Eren’s age, and before I know it I end up showing it to the kids.

One day, we also have a more authentically Japanese breakfast in the form of Soumen, which are cold noodles that you dip in a bowl of Shouyu.

For lunch, there’s a clear distinction between working days and non-working days. On non-working days I'm generally alone at home and prepare myself a dish of yakisoba with tasty self-made Inari-age.

As for working days on the farm, Seina usually prepares a hearty Bento for each of us to enjoy, featuring a variety of traditional Japanese ingredients. My favourite are the sour Umeboshi (梅干し “Pickled Plums”) which go along great with the rice. This meal is usually accompanied by a cup of hot Misoshiru (味噌汁 “Boisterous Flavour Soup” = “Miso Soup”).

However, some of the more busy days feature cup noodles.

And on one occasion, we should also go to a nearby Udon-Ya where I get to enjoy a cheap-yet-tasty meal of savoury Kitsune Udon.

Dinner should be the most varied meal of the day, and while a few too many dishes contain bony fish elements for my taste…

…I also get to enjoy a wide selection of tasty Japanese cuisine, such as Okonomiyaki…

…or Takoyaki, which are ball-shaped fried dumplings filled with octopus. For those of you who haven’t eaten octopus yet in their lives: You don’t really need to. It’s extremely chewy, and the taste is only okay, so eating it is more of a workout for your chewing muscles than enjoyment. It’s quite popular in Japan though, to the point that many families have their own Takoyaki-fryers.

Something that’s much more to my liking is Gyudon (牛丼 “Beef Bowl”), which is a bowl of rice covered with bite-sized beef strips and vegetables.

And then there’s Tonkatsu (豚カツ “Pork Cuts”), the Japanese variant of Vienna-style pork Schnitzel, the main differences being that it’s served with rice, and pre-cut into strips that can be conveniently eaten using Hashi.

Beyond that, there’s a number of other dishes, not all of which have names, but at the very least I can recognise curry rice when I see it.

On a few occasions, I should also get the opportunity to cook for Seina and her family, the first being right near the beginning and proving to be a valuable bonding experience as Seina and the kids (who are still a bit wary of me at this point) help me rip up bread rolls in preparation.

Their curiosity eventually gets the better of them though, and they are all over me as I cook up a delicious dish of Fleischpflanzerln for the entire family to enjoy.

The second meal I would prepare for them is something special. You see, there was one song they played back at Zao Kitsune Mura (see Book II ~ Chapter 5 ~ A Trip Together) that I kind of imprinted on, and I’ve been trying to figure out what it was called ever since. Seina recognized it as a song called “Honey Beat”, and thus I’ve been able to use it for my blog. As my way of thanking her, I invited them all on this dinner, paying for the ingredients myself and even going out of my way to get champignon mushrooms, which are rather expensive over here.

The result would be a tasty dish of Gamm Ligeral, and another authentic European cuisine experience for my Japanese hosts.

Beyond that, I should also prepare dishes of Naleiayafero, Käsespätzle and Rahmschwammerlngeschnetzeltes for them.

The last one would be a bit of problem though: For one, getting fresh cream is not at all easy here in Japan, and while I managed to find some back in Tokyo, I’m having significantly more trouble here in Sapporo. Eventually I settle on something that I feel might be something like cream at best, and just milk at worst. No matter what it was, though, the dish turns out fine.

Since the main ingredient of this dish is a piece of filet, I am actually quite pleased that I managed to keep the entire price of this family-feeding exotic delicacy below 2000¥ (roughly 15€). Imagine my surprise when Seina freaks out about the bill, saying it’s too expensive. Fortunately Kouji steps in and de-escalates the situation. Either way, it should be the last meal I would prepare for them.

A few times, we should also go out at night and eat in restaurants on a weekly basis. “Wait a minute…” you might now think. “They make a fuss about 2000¥ but go out to eat in restaurants?” The explanation for that is quite simple though: Kouji has a generous brother who every now and so often invites the family out to dinner, and since I have earned my place as a temporary family member by working on the farm, that invitation generously also includes myself. Also, to make a fair comparison, the bills we should rack up in those restaurants would routinely reach around 10000¥ (about 75€).

The places we should go to include an Izakaya (居酒屋 “Drink-Inside House”) restaurant by the name of Sumi Rich, which features a variety of dishes and drinks including pizza, ham slices and very interesting melon soda. The way you order in these restaurants is distinctively different than in western restaurants or even any of the places I’ve been to so far. I haven’t understood it all, but apparently first you decide on a drink plan that gives you unlimited access to a selection of drinks for 90 minutes (in our case it was something like 2x alcoholic for Kouji and his brother, and 2x non-alcoholic for Seina and me, and 3 kids packages), and after that you order food dishes that are shared by everyone. You don’t order everything all at once either, but rather keep on ordering new dishes as the old ones are finished. To facilitate this process, the dishes are usually smaller and cheaper than what you would expect in a western restaurant. By the way, the “King” of the Sumi Rich Logo is a clever adaption of the kanji for Sumi (炭 “Charcoal”).

The next restaurant we should go to would be a Yakitori (焼き鳥 “Grilled Bird”) restaurant. Despite its name, the place also serves pork and beef alongside poultry, but all its main courses have one thing in common: They are served on skewers. Also, the seating arrangements are quite peculiar: Unlike in other restaurants, you sit on benches at ground level, and the tables are placed into pits in the floor next to the benches.

One week after that, we visit a Shabushabu place. The procedure here is once again unlike anything I’ve encountered before: First, you decide on one or two sauces that will dominate the rest of the meal. Those sauces are brought before you in cooker, and you order meat by the tray and help yourself to vegetables and dips from the buffet. Then, you cook the meat and vegetables in the cooker (with elaborate tables describing what ingredients go best with which sauce), fish them out with your Hashi, let them cool our on little plates, and finally dip and eat them. Once again you just keep ordering and cooking the food until everyone is full.

Finally, we should go out for a round of fiery death Yakiniku, which for obvious reasons is quite popular with the kids. Once again I learn that the proper way to enjoy Yakiniku is just to order plate after plate of meat (or vegetables) until you’re ready to drop.

To wrap up this section, it should be mentioned that since its Ichigo there is a constant supply of Ichigo with minor blemishes that we can’t sell in the stores for the entire family to snack upon.

That having been said, it’s now time for what I would call the main event of my stay here, namely…

Interlude: The Yosakoi Souran Matsuri


[To be continued…]

The Flair

Interlude: Civilized Camping


The Retrospective

The Road Ahead