Photo courtesy of Hana-Ichiban
Having grown up in sunny South Florida I’ve spent my entire life surrounded by a year-round abundance of fresh produce, never realizing how unique that was. As a kid my grandmother even kept chickens, which meant part of my daily chores involved feeding them and gathering their fresh eggs. Then in my teen years I tended the ever-growing garden she kept in her backyard. We had papayas, tangerines, sweet potatoes, spinach, cucumbers, elderberries, mulberries, eggplants, tomatoes, avocados, asparagus, all varieties of herbs and spices, and even concord grapes. Looking back now I guess it’s no wonder that I’ve come to have such a strong interest in food and a small (yet growing) dream of working on or operating a small community-based farm someday.
When I applied to the JET program two years ago and I was waiting to hear back about my placement, oddly enough, my concerns weren’t centered around how far I’d be from the city or where the nearest manga café was, but rather whether I’d get the chance to get my hands dirty on a farm of if I’d be able to get out into nature and surround myself with the life of the countryside, or inaka. Dreams of being surrounded by lush mountains and swaying rice paddies had been far stronger than the neon lights and constant energy of Tokyo or Osaka. Luckily for me, my placement was a small town nestled in the mountains of Wakayama, surrounded by evergreens, large rolling rice fields and citrus farms. Just the image of what I’d signed up for.
After arriving, there was rarely a weekend I didn’t spend a day hiking around those mountains, passing through fields and orchards, greeting the old farmers, and even stumbling upon a hunting party while I was out on run through the backwoods.
Even still, I never got the opportunity to live out my farmstead dreams of planting rice seedlings and pruning peach trees in my time there. So, when I had the opportunity to travel back to my second hometown this spring, I made a point to ask around beforehand whether there were any homestays or farm-stays that might be available.
My original intention for the trip had been to conduct some research on inaka life, interviewing and photographing the farmers in the small town I call my second home. However, after asking around before my trip I discovered that wouldn’t be quite possible. Instead I settled on a brief stay at a guest house, or minshuku, called Hana-ichiban.
Although not technically a farm (except in persimmon season when its large groves of bent and twisting trees produces bushels of fruit), Hana-ichiban is a sprawling garden and guest house meant to be experienced in its full beauty during the height of spring and cherry blossom season. Unfortunately for me, the blooming happened to end the week just before my arrival. Fortunately for me though, word traveled quickly, as it is wont to do in small towns, that I’d been inquiring about working on a farm. And so the owner of the garden caught wind of my interests and with my reservation assured me he could find some work to be done during my stay.
So, aside from that small amount of information, I puttered through the winding mountain roads towards Hana-ichiban with my friend and fellow English teacher, a Scotsman named Michael, and a growing curiosity for what waited for me in the mountains.
Photo courtesy of Hana-Ichiban
When we arrived, we were greeted by the owner Kazu at the entrance, standing beside a weathered hand-painted sign and wearing the warm perma-grin he’d have etched into his features throughout my time there. Bowing and uncharacteristically shaking hands, he introduced himself warmly, and in Japanese fashion, gave us each a business card, but unlike other cards one might receive, his were printed on pale pink paper the color of sakura blossoms.
Photo courtesy of Hana-Ichiban
After introductions were made, Kazu kindly led us into the gardens, each of us bending under a latticed archway growing thick with creeping vines before stepping inside. As we entered, we stepped onto a small stone path which broke off in three directions, the right towards the garden, the center towards the guest-house, and off to the left Kazu told us the path bent around towards the café/restaurant and general gathering area for the garden’s events. Upon mentioning this, Kazu took the opportunity to invite Michael to come back later that evening to share in the barbecue we would apparently be having. With surprised thanks and an exchanging of contact info, my fellow teacher gladly accepted the offer before excusing himself, as he was still technically working on the clock.
Seeing him off back through the entrance Kazu and I set forth on my tour of the grounds.
Photo courtesy of Hana-Ichiban
Following the path off to the right, the weathered stones soon disappeared, becoming a well-trodden, winding dirt path meandering through the beginning of the garden’s pruned hedges, manicured trees, and beds of flowers. As Kazu and I strolled down the breathtaking trail, he explained like a tour guide what each plant was and giving the English name if he knew what it was. There was certainly a contagious, joyful warmth to hear him speak with such pride about his garden, and it was even more astounding to see how well kept everything was. The plants were neither left too much to their own devices to become unruly and overgrown, yet they weren’t too trimmed to seem artificial. When I told him as much, his smile seemed to grow, as if that was even possible, and humbly agreed that it took a great deal of work to strike that delicate balance between being embraced by the warmth of nature but not so much to make it uncomfortable.
As we continued, I began to feel that there was something more to his humble explanation. Along with the balance, there was undoubtedly a certain storybook quality to walking through the arching, bending trees as their limbs stretched out towards one another just overhead, clumps of colorful flowers decorating their roots. There was also magically calming feeling in the sound of crunching earth under our feet, the reverberating shrill cry of the uguisu, and the wind rustling through the mountains. And there was something somewhat storybook about Kazu himself, a plump, cheerful man living out in the woods and working his magic on the beautiful trees and plants that lived there. One got the impression that he wasn’t bending nature to his will, but rather working alongside it, facilitating its growth and helping everything bloom in comfortable beauty.
Photo courtesy of Hana-Ichiban
During our tour Kazu also took pride in occasionally plucking leaves and small blossoms and handing them over to me to smell or simply feel. Along with these, he also offered handfuls of ripe kinkan, kumquats, and a few different varieties of unripe plums for me to taste. The kinkan had a sharp sweetness, not unlike an orange, and slightly bitter tang like that of a grapefruit, while the plums were far too underripe to be anything other than inedible. Nevertheless, Kazu proffered them gladly and took little nibbles of their hard flesh as well before spitting out what little he’d bitten off and tossing the fruit back under the tree, encouraging me to do the same.
Further into the garden, the mountain path rose and fell and twisted and turned until we came to a clearing, at the center of which was a small bench and wooden fence overlooking the rolling mountainside below. Approaching the fence, I noticed that at the bottom of the steep slope was another of Kazu’s prides, the persimmon grove. Carefully making our way down a side path, we strolled among the trees as he explained that each tree required ten years of tending before it was ready to bear fruit properly. Things move more slowly in the countryside and in nature, he reminded me, and one should live a life that reflected that. It was the way we were meant to live. Being there and sharing in the magic of the garden, I couldn’t help but feel the same way.
After climbing back up to the clearing, we followed the path as it circled off to the left, rising back towards the café and barbecue areas. It was then that I discovered what my promised work would be. For the rest of the day and following morning we’d be trimming the garden’s fujiwara, or wisteria, tunnels, which seemed less like work and more a privilege, one I did not take lightly.
And so, as we climbed the path I saw that the tunnels of vines stretched along the opposite side of the barbecue pits, creating a sort of secret hideaway for visitors where they could cook over their coals while taking in the view of the sloping mountains on the other side. Having arrived just after their blooming season, however, there were only several clusters left dotting the shaded archways where I could see the pale purple flowers dangled elegantly in the breeze. Either way, it made for an incredible, magical view.
As we approached, I saw that there were already two short ladders, some buckets, and pruning shears waiting for us at the entrance of the arches. Despite how mundane and boring it might seem to some, I felt an excitement as I took the shears and set up my ladder to work.
So, with careful instruction Kazu explained to me the day’s task and showed me how and where to trim any unwanted vines and most importantly the seed pods that the fujiwaraproduced after blooming. Without removing these, he explained, the flowers of the following year wouldn’t be as beautiful and new plants would be sprouting up all along the path in places that he’d rather they not. And so, we both got to work. We snipped and clipped seeds and stray curling vines, pruning the new growth back into shape. Every so often we would climb down from our ladders, gather up our trimmings, place them in our buckets, and carry them a short distance over to where Sakura, the garden’s little mountain goat, lived. There we would empty our buckets to Sakura’s delight. By the end of our work, however, there was a pile seemingly even too large for the most voracious goat to munch through.
As we worked, we talked about life in the countryside and how Kazu, apparently a former salaryman, had come to open Hana-ichiban. He also happily dispensed more wise words and advice on life to someone who was certainly eager and in need of some wherever he could get it.
When the sun began to descend beyond the mountain peaks, tucking itself in for the night, Kazu and I decided to call it a day, dumping the last of our clippings for Sakura’s dinner before heading off to prepare our own.
Working together we took one of the homemade barbecues lining the path beside the fujiwara tunnel and carried itover to the cement patio in front of the café. Then we set to lighting a fire with some local binchotan, or Japanese coals. After several attempts, a few sheets of old newspaper, two sets of very watery eyes, and some serious flapping with a paper fan, we managed to get a good fire burning. That task complete we headed inside the little wooden café building to gather the ingredients for the feast.
Kneeling behind the café’s bar, Kazu began pulling out tray after tray of food from the reach-in fridges below, setting them on the countertop between us. There were slices of steak, cutlets of chicken, fat mushrooms, slabs of tofu, hotdogs skewered on sticks, massive rectangular blocks of mochi, a whole red sea bream or tai, and even foil packages of onions with dollops of cheese in the middle of each one.
As he continued to pull this endless feast seemingly from nowhere, two thoughts simultaneously went through my mind: “This is going to be delicious,” and “How are we possibly going to eat all this?”
Slowly we took the trays outside, carefully slipping out of one pair of sandals for another as we made our way back and forth from inside to outside, balancing the platters across our hands and forearms as we went.
Once the spread was arranged on a bench beside the fire, we fetched and cleaned a small set of white lawn furniture from a shed, which we arranged close to the barbecue, and rigged some lights for the dining area in the process. And despite the cool spring breeze we got a few mosquito coils burning for good measure. Then, with the coals crackling away, we ducked back inside the café for one more essential item in any inakabarbecue experience: alcohol.
Now I am not a drinker. I don’t drink beer or sake or wine or anything really aside from water and tea, a choice that can be difficult to navigate when in a social setting, particularly in Japan. That being said, I’m not entirely opposed to having a taste of something every now and then, and when the opportunity affords itself to try some of the homemade liquor of an aging Japanese man in the countryside, one doesn’t simply let that opportunity pass by.
So, when we ventured back into the café and Kazu lifted the seat of what appeared to be an ordinary bench, only to reveal a hinged cushion hiding a stash of some eight jugs of fermenting liquids, I felt a mixture of apprehension and excitement.
With the same fatherly pride that radiated from him when discussing his garden, Kazu began to explain what each jar contained, how long they had been fermenting and which fruits he’d used to make them. It turned out that all of them were some variation of umeshu,or plum wine, and all used the different plums from his own gardens. Unable to decide which to open for the occasion, he allowed me the honor, asking me to pick a number from one to eight and then selecting the according jar from his list.
What he pulled up, upon checking with slight confusion which jar corresponded to number seven, was a clear plastic jug containing a lightly cloudy liquid, not unlike a thick peach or pear fruit juice. With excitement he twisted off the red plastic lid and bent over to take a big whiff, sighing with pleasure and gesturing for me to do the same. Eagerly I leaned forward and took a big breath of it. The first thing that hit me was the expected sting that I can only assume comes with the territory of homebrewed liquors. Then, however, the initial alcoholic vapors gave way to a sweet and tart aroma that I would soon discover, was mirrored in its taste.
With four clinking glasses of umeshu in hand, we made our way back to the barbecue just in time to see Kazu’s wife and company coming up the front path. To my surprise it turned out she was a teacher at one of the local preschools I occasionally taught at as well as the grandmother of one of my former elementary school students. Following behind her with small gift of thanks for the night’s coming meal and entertainment was Michael and another teacher who also worked at the preschool.
After exchanging the night’s greeting, we all settled around the plastic table with as little delay as possible, or so it seemed, and all except Kazu’s wife (the evening’s designated driver) raised our glasses of umeshu with a loud “Kampai!”
Then we were off. With the first slices of steak sizzling on the grate over the fire, we had begun the food marathon that would stretch on for the next several hours. Bites of meat and chicken, veggies, and fish were continually barbecued and placed on communal plates at the center of the table, occasionally distributed by Kazu or his wife when we couldn’t quite keep up with the pace and the plates needed to be cleared for new morsels of food to take their places.
As the meal wound on, the enticing aromas of grilling meat and fish helping to power through our natural senses of satiation, we chatted and laughed, the conversation flowing freely. This was of course aided by the steadily growing maze of empty beer and chūhaicans, chūhaishort for shōchū highball or a mixture of shōchū and flavored carbonated waters, that were gathering in front of Kazu and the other preschool teacher.
In between bites we spoke about the world, about music, about Japan, the US, and Scotland, and even touched liberally on the usually taboo topic of politics. There was a fair amount of laughter, a number of times to tears, as the older man’s already difficult to decipher country mumble became more indecipherable as the night went on. Then as the spring chill crept in and we were remined by Kazu’s wife that both Kazu and I had to be up early the next morning to continue our work and the other three teachers needed to be ready for school the following day, we decided to turn in for the night.
With overly filled bellies, we cleaned up the table and exchanged farewells before going our separate ways. Then somehow still surefooted enough to make his way through the darkness, Kazu showed me the way to the guesthouse.
It was a short walk just around the path before we came to the squat wooden building I’d caught a glimpse of earlier in the day. Stepping inside and shutting the door against the night’s chill, I saw that despite the humble exterior of the little house, it had an immaculately designed and furnished interior that possessed the remarkably Japanese blend of the past and present that’s both simple and elegant.
Upon stepping inside, the first thing that struck me was the distinct fragrance of the tatami mats. They covered the floor of the small one room space, their thatching scuffing softly as we shuffled inside.
Just to the left of entrance was the bathroom. Inside I spied a deep, long bath outfitted with massage heads and a built-in seat; surely the first place I would be heading after Kazu’s tour.
Then, passing under a hanging fabric doorway, was the main room. In the corner was a traditional tokonoma alcove, complete with hanging scroll, pottery, and flower arrangement. Just to the left of this was a pair of large sliding paper screen doors, or shoji, that opened out onto the gardens, a feature I would definitely be taking full advantage of in the morning.
And lying across the center of the room was a thick, pillowy kakebuton comforter set atop a traditional shikibuton,completed by an accompanying pillow that was much less a pillow and more simply a place to set one’s head other than the floor. Despite the lack of a more comfortable pillow, it was yet another dream realized.
Satisfied with his introduction to the space, Kazu made his leave, and I made my way to the bath, soaking for a while before brushing my teeth and lying down for a good night’s rest.
In the morning I rose with the sound of spring echoing through the countryside. Wrapping myself with the kakebutonagainst the chill, I slid open the double screen doors and took in the sights and sounds for a while, meditating on the calm and revitalizing feeling of being surrounded by nature.
Soon I could hear Kazu and his wife in the café just behind the press of trees preparing breakfast, so with a sure ease, I rose, folded up the futon and got dressed for some work.
Inside the café I found Kazu pouring over some accounting sheets and other business papers, with none of the bleary-eyed pained expression one might expect after the previous night’s festivities, while his wife shuffled around cooking behind the counter.
We chatted back and forth until breakfast was served and the three of us shared one more meal together.
Having had no mention of what was on the menu I was excited to see what we would be eating, so when Kazu’s wife brought the trays from around the counter I smiled a smiled that I’m sure had they have seen it would have made them laugh.
Grinning like a fool I saw a tray that I knew held what was without a doubt the best breakfast I’d ever eaten before I’d even tasted it. In one bowl was a thick rice porridge made from the freshest crop of local rice. In another small bowl was a warm, rich miso soup, the miso of course having come from a local producer, steam rising from it in swirling ringlets. Below that was a sizeable fillet of grilled mackerel, an assortment of house-made pickles, a couple of small sausages, some lightly blanched and seasoned vegetables, and something I didn’t recognize at all. It had the appearance of unpureed miso paste, the grains of rice and beans still visible through the glistening brown surface, but I hadn’t ever seen miso prepared (or rather not prepared) in this way so I couldn’t be sure.
As it would turn out, that was indeed what it was, a local variety of miso made by Kazu and his wife, meant to be eaten as a standalone dish rather than used as a seasoning. Needless to say, that was the first thing I tried, and I was glad for it. It had the pungent, fermented tang of miso straight from the jar, except it was milder, savorier, and less salty than regular miso. There was also an unexpected sweetness to the grains of rice and small beans, their texture soft yet still maintaining a bit of their bite.
Mixing a bit of that with the warm rice porridge alone would have made for the most memorable breakfast I’d had if not to mention how delicious everything else was.
After second helpings of both soup and porridge, the three of us clean up the table before heading off to work; Kazu and I to continue our trimming and his wife off to school.
As we made our way back to the trellises of fujiwara, an unexpected soft rain began to fall, more a mist than an actual rain. That didn’t stop us, however, as we continued our trimming and besides, if it got harder, we had the wisteria to protect us and the warmth of the meal to stave off the chill. And so, we picked up our conversation and the work where we’d left off the day before, clipping leaves and seeds and piling them up into another mountain of snacks for Sakura.
When the work was done and we were washed up, we shook hands at the entryway again, this time friends rather than strangers, and with a promise that I’d be back next spring to see the fruits of our work, I said farewell to the little garden in the middle of the mountains.
Link to Hana-Ichiban’s Facebook Page: Hana-Ichiban
About the author: The spark that lit Kevin Kilcoyne’s interest in Japanese culture began in elementary school through a friendship with his then classmate Keisuke. Since then, that passion has evolved and bloomed to encompass more than just video games and manga, leading Kevin to live in Japan as a participant of the JET program. During his time in Japan, Kevin sought out as many foods as he could, the experiences and taste memories lingering long after they had gone. Now he is forging a path to link his passions for Japanese food, history, and visual culture and is planning for his return to live in Japan once again. For now, you can find Kevin on Instagram (@kevinjkilcoyne) where he posts his photography and illustration work. Keep an eye out for more posts and updates as Kevin delves more deeply into his passions for writing and food.