PART 1 of 4
Kirinosato Takahara hotel, my third and final WWOOFing location in Japan, was a bit of a faff to get to but very much worth it! It’s hidden deep in the Kii mountains in Wakayama Prefecture, still a 45-minute bus ride away after stepping off the train at Kii-Tanabe. The hotel is a popular stopping point for intrepid walkers tackling the Kumano Kodo trail, a centuries-old pilgrimage route dotted with many shrines, and also a World Heritage site due to its special significance in the cultural landscape.
The eco-credentials of the hotel aren’t bad. The food is mostly organic and locally-sourced, in fact Jian enjoys going out and digging up bamboo shoots in his leisure hours, to serve at dinner later! The staff are all from Takahara village or close by; the hotel is the hub of the village economy; they do a bit of recycling, if not masses! It’s more a place where people go to rest, bathe and have a great meal after a five- or six-hour trek on the Kumano Kodo. The mountain views are phenomenal, especially early in the morning when the valley is filled with a sea of mist.
Jian makes a point, every morning, of changing the water in the shrine at the hotel entrance. And also – very important – replacing the cones of salt inside (placed next to a full sake bottle) with fresh ones. “Salt cleans people”, he explains, and he is referring to the souls and consciences of his guests, not their personal hygiene. “By doing this I make sure only good, clean people come here.” And maybe it’s working, or maybe it’s just that the World Heritage walking and pilgrimage trail practically passing the front door attracts a certain kind of gentle, peace-loving guest... but Jian certainly struck up a great rapport with every guest I met during my stay.
I remark that there’s an electric vehicle charging station in the hotel car park. He laughs and says there are no electric cars in the village, so it’s never used. However, he plans to change that. In the short term, he’ll use the hotel website to inform potential guests that they can charge vehicles (so they can hire an electric car for their visit, and with that flexibility and non-reliance on buses, stay an extra night). And in the longer term, he will buy a small electric car (or two!) and then rent them out to guests by the day. Again, enabling them to stay a couple of nights rather than just one as a pit-stop between trekking days.
My job as a volunteer at the hotel was to help prepare food, wait tables and wash up at breakfast (7 until 9.30 am), and then for the evening meal (5 until 9 or 10 pm). My first evening there was crazy... I got off the bus at 5.15 pm, was in Jian’s van at 5.20, and by 5.40 I’d dumped my bags in the dark earthbag house (no chance to change or shower or even worry whether my passport would be safe), pulled on an apron and was putting together plates of sashimi, in a kitchen full of mysteries, with people I’d barely met! The view over the mountains was phenomenal. The pizza oven was glowing red hot, on a night that was already far too warm for the time of year. Within two days, though, those 20 degrees had given way to snow.
After breakfast the next morning, when I suddenly had all day to myself, I realised how much I liked the place, from my own selfish “what I need right now” perspective. Here, I had TIME. I was left alone to spend my free time as I wished, and far from distractions (no nearby city or town, no shops, hardly any Wi-Fi but enough for emergency contact and the occasional hello). I had a breathtaking mountain view outside my door. A night sky ablaze with stars. Three fantastic meals a day, for free! Use of the hotel’s onsen spa bath – again, for free (and I was usually alone in there – the ultimate privilege!).
For seven hours each day, nobody expected anything of me or sought me out for anything. I had my own little “house”, with a World Heritage trail a matter of metres from the front door. A washing machine and a warm room to dry clothes quickly (let’s just ignore the gargantuan spider that lives in there... possibly the granddad of the monster one behind the kitchen teacups). Fun, busy shifts with great people, and a variety of guests to look after. There was even a shrine in the village itself, a five-minute walk away – one of the oldest in Japan. And it had stone lions! Which I took (with my highly subjective view) as the final confirmation that I was just where I was supposed to be.
While at Kirinosato Takahara, I also worked with a young chef called Ryo – one of the lads from the village, and at just 26 he’s already in his element when preparing beautiful, tasty, professional-looking dishes. Then there’s Yukino, a cleaner and kitchen lady who, at 65, is already (11 months ahead) in training for the December 2016 Honolulu marathon! She has already run one marathon, when she was a mere 60 years old, and is determined to beat her time in December. Amazing! Then there’s Shinobu, Jian’s wife, who is extremely sweet, highly capable and never happier than when chatting to her regular guests who pop in for coffee.
And then there’s the queen of the kitchen! Morimoto-san, a tremendous cook who appreciated all my efforts even though we really struggled to communicate. As we worked together I usually found myself looking at her middle, through the gap in the counter that separated us, and at the end of my final evening shift I was particularly aware of this. As I ate the meal she had thoughtfully prepared for me (me first, before Jian or herself) – at least the 6th such meal of hers I had enjoyed during my time there – I was watching her busy hands, visible between the worktop and a shelf, as she peeled the skin off boiled potatoes. Methodical. One by one, holding the hot potato in a towel. Her plump, red-raw, expert hands. I realised that the few times she and I have made eye contact, Morimoto-san has been trying to explain something – something very simple, using pretty simple Japanese words to explain a crystal-clear (to her) Japanese concept – but despairing at my lack of understanding! I lost count of the number of times I just had to say (in English) “I’m sorry, but I’ve no idea what you’re saying to me”, knowing she wouldn’t understand that any more than I was understanding her...
But as I watched her hands, I felt the maternal affection with which she looks after all of us. I had never expected to feel loved, here. But I did. And as she served up a second plateful (a tomato-rice-stuffed omelette like the one I’d just devoured) and handed it to Jian, I bit into the first of a few orange segments she had cut for me... and realised the fruity flesh had been cut away from the peel to make it easier to eat. Was that the Japanese way? Or just Morimoto-san’s affectionate way?
PART 4 of 4
My final evening shift involved alcohol (I won’t deny it!) – served by the boss though so it must be ok :) Hot, white Gluhwein. Red wine (he’s sneaky, that Jian!). Sake. During one little lull in the proceedings, I looked around at the guests and realised I’d met a LOT of people this week, whose reactions to me had tended to vary depending on where they were from. The Japanese ones were baffled at my lack of jovial communication as I waited their tables... until one or other said to his buddies that I had “no nihongo” or something along those lines (i.e. “she doesn’t speak Japanese”). The Aussie and Chinese ones – chatty and friendly in English, and curious as to what on earth a westerner was doing working there. One night there were four guests from France, and I enjoyed chatting with them on my frequent visits to their table. And then there was one Mr Talaba (Japanese) who had come to stay following a visit to the Hongu shrine, his key destination in order that he could pray for his daughter, who was very ill.
Jian then decided to share with Mr Talaba the story about what had led ME to travel and end up in the Japanese mountains: losing my mum, back in July. How I also had followed his advice and visited Hongu, looking for a new perspective (or a better grip on the one I had). How it’s a good thing to do, how it helps people find the strength to move forward. Jian then asked me to come and speak to the gentleman – he would translate – to “give a good word for his daughter”. We all charged our glasses. The man seemed so young to have a very sick daughter... she could only be about 10 or 15, I guessed. I said something about how I wished his daughter peace, and happiness in herself, and that I hope she will be well soon. And then they can come back to Kirinosato together and share the path to Hongu to give thanks.
For a day or two I’d known how lucky I had been to end up in such a place without even looking into anything other than where it happened to be located on the map. I’d even started to wish I was going to stay a few more days (despite the sore cracks in my thumbs from hours of washing up each day!). But on this day, I felt I belonged, fitted right into this happy family of people.
Ok, ok, I’ll go easy on the sake next time ;)