How I came to love Japan

I was scrolling through the pictures of my trip to Japan in 2013 and there they were: cabbages, cows and a funny-looking me. Have I ever told you how I came to love Japan?
When I first went to Japan in 2008 with my boyfriend, we were about nineteen years old and the only thing I had in mind was to leave Europe and everything I knew as far behind me as possible. Although at that time I was still going to school, the decision was quickly made and my boyfriend who was studying Japanese at that time, had no choice but to come with me.

Cabbage harvest with three students from the local high school

I hadn’t read nor head a lot about Japan and thought that my boyfriend was kind of deranged for studying this strange language, to which I had no connection at all. In contrary, manga and anime were things I almost looked down at because I didn’t grew up with it and who on earth would eat raw fish? But the stranger the better for me and the adventure I was hoping for. Even less did I know and care about China, Korea or Thailand which could have been destinations as well, for the only goal was to get as far away as possible to a country and culture I didn’t know at all. The thing I knew for sure though, was that Japan has a pretty great rail and road system and that crime rate is low. As I didn’t know from the beginning if my bf would join me for sure, this was an important criteria for me and the reason why I chose Japan and not another Asian country that would have been much cheaper as well.

Murasaki hana mame (紫花豆 purple flower beans) picked by obāsan

The first time we came to Japan we stayed for six whole months. Our adventure took us from the untamed wilderness of Hokkaidō to the sandy beaches of Okinawa. Wondering how we payed for it? Well it was at a time where we spent our money much more careless and didn’t think about tomorrow. Also, we didn’t stay at too many hotels and guesthouses but rather with host families that were looking for workers, especially during the season of harvest, where we would eat and sleep in exchange for helping on the farm. It’s an organization called WWOOF (world wide organic farming) that connects the hosts with travelers from all over the world. Operating in many different countries this is a great way to discover places in a slightly different way than the usual tourist.
I’m sure that if it wasn’t for this super great and useful organization, we would never have felt so at home in Japan as we did and still do. Instead of being strangers, hopping from one attraction to another, we got the wonderful and once in a lifetime opportunity to learn to know this country from the inside in the form of family life.

ダンデリオンとミツバチ – Dandelion with honey bee

While my boyfriend already knew a little Japanese as he had just started to study the language and history of Japan at university, I was totally clueless. My Japanese language skills emerged out of necessity when the kids, the father and the grandmother of the first host family we stayed at kept talking to me in Japanese and I had to and wanted to understand. The mother however had lived abroad and is fluent in English, which helped a lot not to feel too lost. Our daily routine consisted of feeding the fifty cows, cleaning the cowshed of the young cows, harvesting cabbages and other vegetables and doing some reparation work. Daily life was exciting and hard as we had to get up at 6 am to feed the cows but each day was a surprise and unforgettable. We soon felt as a part of the family and were called oniisan (御兄さん older brother) and oneesan (お姉さん elder sister) by the three kids.

Next step: neatly packing the cabbages into boxes

After one and a half months we said goodbye and went on to our next adventure. Not only had I learned basic Japanese during this time but also about the family life in a rural area of Japan, by sharing the same food, house and part of our lives. It never mattered that we were a couple and never have I felt more appreciated for the person I am and the work I do as with this family. Almost three months had we traveled and stayed in Hokkaidō when we realized that we had fallen in love with the most northern island, to which we would return every time we visited Japan.

気持ちいい feeling good

A little side note: The picture in this blog post are from the second trip to Hokkaidō in 2013 and not from 2008 when we stayed there for the first time! All I have left on pictures of the first trip to Japan are some low resolution facebook pics because the originals went lost after an unsuccessful attempt to make a backup and due to hard disk failure. Pretty sad.

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