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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


2-Jun-2018

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


9-Jun-2018

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


10-Jun-2018

When Seina first asks me if I want to come and watch Eren perform at a local festival, I am not sure what to expect, but since I want to experience Japanese culture, I am quick to agree. At the beginning it doesn’t look like much as the kids of Eren’s jumping rope gymnastics class Happy Jump (ハッピージャンプ) assemble…


…but before long I realize that I have walked into a major regional festivity here as we start passing scores of troupes in elaborate and colourful Happi (法被 “livery coat”) and Yukata (浴衣 “bath garment”) on the way to Eren’s first performance stage.


The Yosakoi Soran Matsuri of Sapporo is a local adaption of the original Yosakoi Matsuri of Kochi (高知 “High Knowledge”). It is entirely centred on the Yosakoi dance, which is a unique and energetic style of group dancing featuring not only colourful outfits, but also huge flags. One defining element of the dance is the use of Naruko (鳴子 “Sound Child”), little wooden clappers once used in the Kochi prefecture to scare birds away from fields. I wonder if the flags were used for the same reason? Anyway, as a result of this, the official mascots of the Yosakoi Soran Matsuri are birds.


Today, the Yosakoi dance connects traditional Japanese dancing with modern music in the form of complex choreographies performed by huge teams up to 150 people strong, and I have the high honour of being right in the middle of it, able to see a number of amazing performances at various stages, or even in the middle of roads.



Between performances, I should have the chance to see some of the landmarks of Sapporo that I missed during my earlier visit, such as the iconic Sapporo Clock Tower…


…the former Sapporo Government Building…


…and whatever the hell that is supposed to be.


Now back to the main reason we’ve come here today: Seeing Eren perform. Happy Jumpy should star a total of three performances at different stages, which I think is quite a lot to ask of children age 6 or younger. Their performance might not be as stellar as those of the older dancers, but given their young age I still believe that Eren and her troupe held up admirably. At the very least I know that I wouldn’t have been able to pull of something like that at that age.



Afterwards, we have a nice little picnic in Oodori Kouen together with Seina's parents…


…surrounded on all the sides by colourful troupes of dancers who are having a well-deserved rest before their next performance.


One common giveaway at those festivals are little hand fans, and as such, Yosakoi Soran Matsuri fans are being handed out by the dozen.


Afterwards, the kids get their well-earned reward in the form of a visit to the Sapporo Pokémon Centre…


…which is pretty much a store exclusively full of Pokémon merchandise…


…perhaps most notable of which are the Minecraft-Pokémon. I wonder if Mojang sued them over this?


For the kids, the highlight to this visit should be the chance to participate in a round of Pokémon Bingo. Unfortunately, neither of them wins a price, but they still get a cardboard Pokémon magazine file as a consolation prize each.


And with that, our visit to the Yosakoi Soran Matsuri draws to a close. However, there are still many curiosities to be found here in Sapporo, so let us talk about…

The Flair


Let us begin with something I should encounter during the Yosakoi Soran Matsuri: You all know these wooden board cut-outs where you can have a photo of yourself taken, with your head appearing on the body of someone (or something) else, but it is only ere that you can have a photo taken of yourself as a box of Yakisoba-bento, Hokkaido’s famous local brand of cup noodles. I actually unwittingly had a serving of those back in Asahikawa! It’s the ones that feature a serving of Misoshiru that you prepare by pouring the hot water from the cup noodles into a separate cup.


In other parts of the city, there are huge vintage sci-fi posters to be found…


…as well as a store that somehow appears to be missing a letter.


Naturally, Sapporo also has its very own design for manhole covers.


Every there and then, there are displays at the side of the road advocating driving safely. They are held in an interesting combination of Japanese and some English. The looping displays read: STOP THE Koutsu Jikoi (STOP THE 交通事故 “stop the traffic accidents”), Spiid Daun (スピードダウン “speed down”) and Shiitoberuto (シートベルト “Seatbelt”).


And then there are the bus stops of Sapporo’s inexorably horrible bus system. Good luck trying to find out where this bus is going or where its other stops are.


Makes one wonder if it wouldn’t be easier to just get a car. Don’t let the low numbers at the car dealers’ fool you though: Those are all displayed in 万円 (man-en, “ten thousand Yen”).


Now, to the implications of having a pile of kids lying around.


For one, it makes visits to the supermarket a lot more interesting.


Speaking of which, there are entire isles in these things directed at children, featuring sweets in tiny denominations at incredibly low prices (remember: 1¥ < 1¢).


Just like most other countries, Japan has its own set of timeless mascot characters prominently starring in children’s shows, one of which would be Doraemon, the robotic cat from the future…


…and the other being Anpanman, a superhero with an Anpan (餡パン “Red Bean Paste Bread Roll”) for a head who fights the evil Baikinman (ばいきんまん “Germ Man”), leader of the Viruses from Germ Planet.


Apart from that, however, there are also some clear American influences around, such as English Mickey Mouse books with an audio playback device that the kids just love using over and over again. Thus, before long, I know all those stories by heart.


The kids are also highly interested into my game of Ecchnasi, and despite her young age and my poor Japanese skills, Eren is quick to pick up the rules and gives me a surprisingly good match. With that, I can now officially confirm the legitimateness of my claimed minimum age of 6 years for Ecchnasi.


Issei and Kaito meanwhile are more interested in the game pieces as such and not in the rules. Hence, I have to keep a keen eye on the individual pieces lest one of them go missing forever.


Speaking of children, there’s a rural school right next to the farm, and their syllabus includes a number of hands-on lessons, such as rice planting.


That sure is one way to get your shoes dirty. And speaking of which, be it from all the walks I’ve done in Tokyo or from working on the farm, my own shoes have sort of reached the end of their life span, and my makeshift fixes can extend their durability only by a fraction.


As such, I have no other choice but to go… *shudder* …shopping. Since I tend to have certain fancy requirements for my wardrobe that are apparently impossible to fulfil in the 21st century (such as that shirts and trousers be colourful or that shoes have Velcro, which in Japanese is called Majikku Teepu (マジックテープ “Magic Tape”)), I am used to my shopping trips being long, tedious and possibly fruitless. Here in Japan that entire dilemma gets cranked up another notch by the fact that the Japanese have significantly smaller feet than Westerners and since I was already ranging near the upper limit of the spectrum back in Germany, that makes it near impossible to find shoes for me here at all, much less shoes that I’m happy with.

Nonetheless, circumstances have forced my hand, and now I have to do my best, and quite possibly make a compromise that will probably haunt me. My first port of call is a store by the promising name of Shoe Plaza Chiyoda…


…which is big enough that it has an entire dozen of “Big Size” shoes, one of which even features the Velcro that I so desire.


So, jackpot? Far from it! Much to my dismay I have to learn that even the “Big Size” is not necessarily big enough for me, and while my feet do fit into each of the three pairs of 30cm shoes they have to offer, the Velcro-shoes are regretfully only available in 29cm, and my feet are very clear about not wanting to wear such a tight fit for my intended multiple-kilometre walks.

So, I leave this place behind, and being the ambitious boy I am, I walk all the way over to Kitahiroshima…


…where the Mitsui Outlet Park – a reasonably large shopping mall – is located.


Unfortunately, even though they have at least a dozen of shoe stores, none of them have what I am looking for.


It defies my comprehension. If you have this many stores selling effectively the same product on such a small space, should not the laws of economy dictate that they would have to diversify their palette in order not to needlessly compete with one another? Instead, there is maybe 4 stores selling the same bland leather business shoes, 4 stores selling somehow more diverse and sparkly (yet highly impractical) women’s shoes, and another 4 stores selling casual shoes. However, there is not a single store that specialises or even pays heightened attention to Velcro shoes. Instead, they all focus on the prehistoric technology of shoelaces.


Anyway, eventually I compromise on sturdy Neanderthal-Shoes that at the very least have a colour that I can identify with.


…knowing fully well that after a week at the farm, they would look like this:


Oh well, such is the way of things. And if it hadn’t been at the farm, they would have gotten dirty during one of my many trips. At the very least the colours are bright enough to shine even through the layers of dust and dirt. It almost justifies the steep price I paid for them, and the fact that putting them on now takes at least five times as long as with my old shoes. At the very least I did not have to make my shopping trip in this kind of weather.


Now, to some more tasty news, there is delicious chocolate to be found even here in Japan…


…though like most Japanese snacks, its somewhat on the light side. Quite literally, this time, for the chocolate is so thin that I'm afraid I might break it by speaking too loudly.


I’m sure I mentioned before that the Japanese people are big on recycling. Well, that actually goes up to the point that bottles of sauces and dressings have to have their plastic inset part removed. But fear not, conveniently, most bottles feature a really ingenious mechanism where the entire feat can be achieved in one fluid motion. Even more conveniently, thanks to a really easy to understand illustration, even I can figure out how to do it with my humble Japanese skills.


As for other skills, I’m starting to get reasonably good at the art of eating Japanese food with chopsticks. However, I am nowhere near Seina’s level of skill, who manages to eat Yakisoba using only one chopstick.


I should also get the chance to put my handicraft skills to good use. You see, there’s a really cute little fox toy the kids use…


…and if you were going to say that this tail looks like its going to break off sooner rather than later, then you’re absolutely right.


Naturally, I can’t let this stand, so I get to work with some of the supplies I keep in my backpack, and before long, the fox is in command of its tail again. Probably not for long, but at the very least for some time.


Speaking of foxes… It’s on 28-Jun-2018 at 4:55 that I get woken up by the incessant cawing of ravens outside. Eventually, I make my way to the window to see what this ruckus is all about, and then I see it: A little fox is gracefully slinking through our garden, upsetting the corvines. Before I can get my camera, it has gracefully jumped over the wall to the neighbour’s property and slunk out of sight around a corner. That would make this day the 4th time in my life that I’ve seen an actual wild fox, and I’ll treasure the memory forever.

And finally, I think I’ve kept you guessing for long enough now, there’s an interesting place alongside the alternative route to the farm, known as Makomanai Takino Reien (真駒内滝野霊園 “True Pony Inside Waterfall Field Cemetery”), also known as Monument Cemetery.


It is here that I encounter the rows of gentlemen that you ordinarily would expect to be located on an island 13,531 km roughly to the southeast. But hey, Japan! Why would you need to go anywhere in the world if you’ve got the entire world neatly distributed around the country?


So much for the flair, now let’s wrap this up with some…

Interlude: Civilized Camping


16-Jun-2018

As a sort of late birthday present for the twins, Seina and Kouji have decided to take them and Eren camping, and have invited me along on the trip. The place is actually not far away from Sapporo, and in the same direction as the farm ¬– only about twice as far away. In fact, Seina and Kouji drop by the farm prior to us continuing to the campsite in order to get a few things done.


It’s even technically still part of Sapporo, though that statement needs to come with a big asterisk: ★ Sapporo’s Minami-Ku (南区 “South Ward”) is a mostly rural area in the mountains that occupies about 60% of Sapporo’s entire area. In other words, its 150% as big as the “actual” city wards, and about twice the size of the city area of Munich.


On the way, we should eat something I haven’t eaten in over four months. Much to the kids’ delight, we get our lunch from McDonald’s. Since we’re only going through the Drive-Through and I don’t have time to look at the menu, I just order a cheeseburger, fries and some Chicken McNuggets. These timeless classics taste exactly the same as in Germany or New Zealand, but one thing is different: Because 5 is a lucky number in Japan, Chicken McNuggets come in packs of 5 here as opposed to the six-packs I'm used to.


From there, it takes us about half a hour along the mountainous route 230 to get to the gates of the campground…


…and maybe 15 more minutes to get from the carpark to the actual campsite while pulling our equipment on old-fashioned carts. I offer to pull one of them, but young Eren is quite adamant about pulling one of the carts herself, and the other two are already occupied by Seina and Kouji, so I just walk along and make sure nothing falls off the carts.


The place where we’re staying is known as Sapporo-Shi Jouzankei Shizen-no Mura (札幌市定山渓自然の村 “Sapporo City Established Mountain Valley Nature Village”), often abbreviated to Jouzankei Nature Village.


It’s actually a quite small areal, not even one hectare in size…


…and in addition to tent sites also features cottages and so-called Hoshi-no Ie (星の家 “Star House”), which are somewhat reminiscent of Yurts. Different from what I was bracing myself for, we’re actually staying in one of those. I’m not quite sure what to say to that. On one hand I'm kinda relieved since I don’t have many fond memories of camping, but on the other hand it kind of feels like cheating. But then again, I suppose that’s just the Japanese way.


On the inside, the Hoshi-no Ie is actually quite bright, and features an oven, electrical light and several power outlets. Given that much, I'm half surprised it doesn’t have cable TV as well, but maybe that’s just for the cottages.


Anyway, since the Jouzankei Nature Village is not all that big, I might as well give you a tour of the entire place.



As you can probably gather, my possibilities for exploration are rather limited in this place, and the surrounding area doesn’t offer much in terms of hiking possibilities either. Maybe the most interesting things around here are the fox-proof garbage chests that are intended to prevent wildlife from feeding on the campers’ leftovers at night.


Oh well, might as well relax for one afternoon. The main event here is the extremely safe activity of grilling inside the insect canopy anyway.


Apart from all sorts of delicious meat products, we should also grill huge snails. Curious as I am I try one… and immediately regret it. It’s hard to describe just what it tastes like, but roughly put, I’d say imagine the most yucky thing you’ve ever tasted, and then multiply it a hundredfold.


Later that night, a campfire is being lit in the nearby fire pit. However, like all things Japanese, the campfire can only be labelled as “cute”.


They also have thrilling campfire activities such as “standing around the fire in a circle, and moving left, right, back, or forth according to the instructions of the entertainer. The incredible complexity of this intricate game is so breath-taking that I almost fall asleep from excitement, so eventually I decide to just call it an early night and go to bed in our humble three-star yurt.


Put plainly: I'm not too upset that we leave early the next morning, and seeing as how the canopy did not even manage to remain standing for a single night, I decide that I'm actually quite glad we stayed inside the Hoshi-no Ie. Still, the Japanese idea of camping is vastly different from what I imagine when I hear the term. At least I get to pull one of the carts part of the way back to the car.


And that pretty much sums up the extent of my experiences here in Sapporo. Now, let us proceed to…

The Retrospective


Looking back at my stay with Seina and Kouji, I’d say I’ve hit it off with a place that was good, and almost great. Almost!

The accommodation, while sparsely furnished, was private and made for a good workspace, and maybe most notably of all, the futon was nice and soft. That’s not a given! It got a little bit cold during the cold snap though, so I'm glad I came here during the summer.

The food was regular and plenty, generally tasty, and on top of it all, I got invited to a total of four Japanese restaurants, none of which I could have handled myself. The drawbacks were that I had to get some lunches for myself, and – this is probably going to be a consistent drawback during my time in Japan however – that dishes which included whole fish were more like work than enjoyment to me, since I had a tough time de-boning them using Hashi.

Work-wise, I mostly learned that I’d rather be eaten by bears than work 8 hours a day on a vegetable farm or an orchard. That is one point I am definitely going to keep in mind when looking for future hosts. I do not regret making that experience, however, and add it to the list of things I’ve tried once, and do not wish to try again.

The atmosphere was generally nice and welcoming, and although the kids could get quite boisterous at times, it was still good to have them around and be part of a family.

Facility wise, this place had some drawbacks such as the lack of a dishwasher or dryer, but more than made up for it with good WiFi and a proper bathtub.

In the recreation category, Seina and Kouji score strongly with the many trips we made while I was there, the sole drawback being that I had no bike to explore the surrounding area which – paired with Sapporo’s inexorably horrible bus system – meant I was more or less confined to that corner of Sapporo. Good thing I did not have to much spare time here, eh?

Which brings us to the last point: The work-value ratio. With all this place has given me, I’d say that maybe 26 hours of help a week would be justified. Unfortunately, counting the commute to the farm, the work here kept me busy an average of 38 hours a week, costing this place dearly in this category. By the way, I am going to count commuting as work time for the sake of comparing work places and determining Work-Value-Ratios because that is the best way to directly compare the benefits of on-site jobs with the drawbacks of off-site jobs.

Altogether, that nets Seina’s and Kouji’s Farm a solid 3.5 star rating, and lands them on rank 11 of 21 for the places I’ve visited thus far in New Zealand and Japan. That is one rank below the Woodstock Royal Mail Hotel (see Book I ~ Chapter 17 ~ Wild & Woody) and one rank above Stuart’s Lifestyle Property in Blenheim (see Book I ~ Chapter 9 ~ Blending into Blenheim).


Naturally, I should also prepare a piece of gift artwork for them in my little room. One advantage of working at ground-level, as I should find out, is that I always have enough space to spread out my pencils.


And thus, step by step, a piece of crude art begins to form, featuring Issei and Kaito as a monkey and pig respectively (in accordance with the nicknames given to them by their parents), Eren as a rabbit, Seina as a polar bear and Kouji as a kangaroo. I think this picture marks my new record for most species I have not drawn before.


Much to my delight, my humble piece of art manages to bring the entire family together even over the lure of Shin-Chan running on TV when I present it to them on our last evening together…


…and they promptly add it to their special gift artwork wall below the melodious clock, which already features a number of works from homestay guests.


And thus, my stay here in Sapporo comes to an end, and it is now time to look forward to…

The Road Ahead


30-Jun-2018

I continue my journey early on the morning of the last day of June. Unable to contain my excitement about what I have planned for next, I get up at 4:00, just in time to see the sun rise, and am on the road by 6:15.


Even though Seina picked me up from Shin-Sapporo station, she has made it “Japanese-clear” (which is about as clear a declination as you’ll get from a friendly Japanese) that it would inconveniate her and Kouji greatly to drop me off at that station again. Thus, I have no choice but to… *shudder* …brave the inexorably horrible bus system of Sapporo. After I am unable to find a reasonable bus connection with the nearby Chuou buses even with Seina and Kouji helping me navigate their websites, I eventually resign myself to walking to the nearest JR bus station, which is a good half hour away.


This must be the furthest I have hiked with all my luggage since moving all the way to the Golden Bay Barefoot Backpackers in Takaka from Autumn Farm entirely on foot (see Book I ~ Chapter 19 ~ The Takaka Tales). However, in the end I should not only walk the 1.9km long direct route, but actually take the 2.3km scenic route which should let me walk past the last few places in the neighbourhood that I have not seen before.


One of them would be the Utsukushigaoka Kibou Kouen(美しが丘希望公園 “Beautiful Hill Aspiration Park”) – also known as the Gorilla Park – past which I’ve walked a few times when going shopping, which I have never traversed so far though…


…and the other being this curious inter-road walkway.


Along that walkway there is an interesting construction that might once have become a bus station if only the public transport and gardening departments had communicated a bit better.


Eventually, I arrive at Oomagari-Eki (大曲駅 ”Big Curve Station”)…


…and since a combination of over-eagerness and safety buffer have made me arrive half an hour early, I spontaneously decide to keep on walking for one more station, and then another, and another (the bus stations are imbecilicly close together in this part of the city, probably to bring up the average station density, considering that there are no stations at all in a 2km radius around Seina’s place), until I end up another kilometre down the road and right across from Kouji’s parents’ sushi restaurant and home, from where we’ve picked up Kouji’s generous brother on our restaurant visits. This station, by the way, goes by the resounding name of Oomagari Suehiro Sanchome Eki (大曲末広三丁目駅 ”Big Curve Spread Out District 3 Station”).


By then, other people start to arrive at the bus station as well, so I join them in waiting for the bus, and eventually get in. Payment is quite easy if you have an IC card: You tag on by holding the card to the reader as you get into the bus at the back door, and tag off at the front door when getting off, and the fare is automatically deducted from the card.


Now, you may recall that both Robert’s and my Pasmo cards got locked during our adventures in Touhoku (see Book II ~ Chapter 5 ~ A Trip Together), and due to thevarious companies that make up the Japan Railway Network being incapable together, they still are. That is why by now I have acquired a Kitaca – which is the Sapporo equivalent of Pasmo – which allows me to partake in that convenience.


This is actually the first time I’m riding a local bus in Japan, and I notice a number of differences right away: Just like in trains, there are fewer seats to free up more standing space. Also, in order to further improve the inexorable horribleness of the bus system, there is no route plan to be found anywhere in the bus, which makes me glad that I simply have to go all the way to the last stop: Shin Sapporo Eki.


Much like in the Wanmans, there’s a screen at the front that shows your due fare in dependence of where you got onto the bus. If you don’t have an IC card, you have to draw a ticket when getting on the bus and pay in cash when getting off.


One familiar sight, however, are the stop buttons, which are excessively abundant: There is one at every seat, and one at every beam, ensuring you can always get to one even if the bus is crowded. Also, in a streak of high-tech affinity, these buttons actually collectively light up if the bus is approaching a non-mandatory stop station, letting the passengers know they have to press the button if they want to get off there.


Finally, the circle closes as we reach Shin Sapporo Eki. This should be my point of departure for a very special venture that first got started when Arasawa-san gave me a very special piece of information back in Asahikawa. Do you want to know what it was she told me? Then make sure to read the next chapter of the Travelling Fox Blog!

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