My Japanese Experience
Having spent most of my childhood in the US and a memorable experience of adapting to life in Indonesia, I’ve always had a huge interest in learning other cultures. For me, one of the main factors that drive nations to greatness is its culture. One of the countries I’ve always wanted to experience is Japan. I couldn't just go there for an 8-day sightseeing trip, because I wanted to experience living the Japanese life. One of the best ways to do so is to live in a small town with a local family. So when I heard about WWOOF, I immediately gained huge interest to take part of it.
Part 1: First Day of WWOOFing
WWOOF is short for Worldwide Opportunities for Organic Farming, which offers the chance to experience farm life in Japan’s countryside with free accommodation and meals. You can select a host based on their location and profile. I chose to volunteer at a farm with one of the most appealing profiles: has 4 years of hosting experience, speaks fluent English, offers airport pick-up and was only an hour bus ride from Tokyo. The host, Rika Itabashi, was so fast in responding my messages.
Two days before my flight, Rika-san told me she would pick me up at 10am. And she came to Narita airport exactly at 10.00 am. What a way to show Japanese punctuality! On the way to the farm, I was amazed to see how advanced the rural side was compared to my country. Rika-san gave me an orientation in the car and I got to learn more about her. She earned her bachelors in Kyoto and masters in Munich, worked in Heidelberg, Germany for 4 years then the North American branch for 1 year, moved to Sony and worked in procurement for 12 years which also allowed her to travel the world, she was also stationed in South Africa for some period, and she finally retired to enjoy the peaceful farm life. She has also traveled to Indonesia 4 times and absolutely loves it (well, she only went to Bali but still).
When we arrived at the house, my jaw dropped. It was a magnificent traditional Japanese house with a real Japanese garden and an enormous cedar-bamboo forest as the background. The house has beautiful wooden floors, traditional sliding wooden and paper doors, a hallway between the façade windows and rooms that gives a more spacious feel, and a classic sitting room with a kokatsu (a Japanese heating table). The kitchen is super spacious with a dishwasher and drinkable water from the tap, things I haven’t seen since life in the US. The toilet is super modern; it has all those buttons and motion sensors so it automatically opens when you come near it (this made me jump out of my socks). While Rika-san was showing me around, Annie’s “I think I’m gonna like it here” song kept playing in my head.
Shortly after orientation, I met the other 3 volunteers or WWOOFers: Michael from Australia, Aurora from Italy and Pierre from France. It’s always an awesome feeling making new friends from different countries. Rika-san served lunch and it was really restaurant class. She plates the food gracefully and the taste is amazing. The dish was grilled mackerel with fresh garden salad and miso soup on the side. We watched local TV while eating and commenting on every weird commercial, which was all of them.
I joined the second work shift after lunch. The manager, Fumiko-san, told us to do some weeding in the eggplant greenhouse. Although she was speaking in Japanese, I could understand her from her gestures and was used to such work from helping my late mother in our garden back home.
The tomato greenhouse and produce shop
After work, I took a short bike ride around the town. Coming from a developing country, I found it really special. Seeing all the nice Japanese homes, clean and organized roads, vending machines in every corner, modern convenient stores and a post office with automatic sliding doors amazed me because you won’t find this in Indonesia’s rural areas. Cycling in Japan is so relaxing and safe; most roads have a bordered bike lane and cars won’t honk or drive too close to you in roads without one. The speed limit is 40 km/h and you really won’t find any cars exceeding it or overtaking each other despite the clear road (something rarely found back home).
Cycling around the town
Dinner was a big surprise for me, a sushi party! Rika-san served assorted sashimi: salmon, tuna, yellowtail, prawns, and crabsticks; rice; nori sheets; wasabi and even natto. Mitsuru-san, the head of the farm and Rika-san’s husband, invited some of his childhood friends over and we had enjoyed making our own sushi rolls (or maybe cone is the right word). Being the first Indonesian WWOOFer, I got to talk a lot about my country. I brought a traditional wooden puppet from my hometown as a souvenir that really caught their interest. Mitsuru-san showed it to every other dinner guest, which gave me a nice feeling of sharing my cultural arts.
I slept in a futon, which was amazingly comfortable. I just realized that I was super exhausting having taken the overnight flight so I doze off at around 9.30pm and woke up 10 hours later.
Part 2: Life at the Farm
The next morning, Rika-san trained me to do the main task: harvesting eggplants or nasu in Japanese. It seemed simple but turned out to be more complicated than I thought. I was given a sample of a minimum sized nasu, it should weigh between 80-110 grams otherwise it’s unsellable. When cutting off the nasu fruit, you must identify the main stem and the nearest baby sprout. If you don’t cut it properly, branches will wildly grow without any new fruits giving too much hassle to prune. The remaining stem needs to be cut 5mm from the fruit, too short will make it easier to be infected by bacteria and too long looks ugly. You also need to carefully examine each tree, if you missed a right sized one it will overgrow and become unsellable. This work really enhanced my eye for detail and taught me an essential part of Japanese work culture: precision and perfection. The markets there only sell fruits and vegetables in packs, not by weight like in other countries, which is why everything is in a certain size. This actually really makes sense if you think about it, people always choose a certain size that is most convenient to serve and cook.
Another task was harvesting cherry tomatoes, which was fun because it was like berry picking. It was not as complex as nasu, just pick the non-squishy orange to red colored. We also helped pack the vegetables, spray the greenhouses, prune the plants, pull out all the weeds and load rice plants for the fields.
|The rice plantation process|
One task that was fun but I could never do right was cutting the grass along the rice fields. The family owned so many fields that if combined would be bigger than Tokyo Dome! It was such a nice and relaxing atmosphere to be in one. But the lawn mower was too advanced for me and the terrain was really uneven. Mitsuru-san wants a good-job-well-done. So missing a few spots is highly unacceptable. He often got out of his tractor and pushed me aside to show how it’s really done. He also told me to watch YouTube videos about it. I still couldn’t master control it the second time so he decided it’s not suitable for me. He eventually told me only 2 out of 5 WWOOFers could really do it.
It was really interesting to learn how they manage the rice fields; it was way more advance than Indonesia. The rice seedlings grow in trays in the greenhouses. Once ready, they are loaded into a special tractor that plants them neatly in the fields. Mitsuru-san’s parents, we call them Otosan and Okasan, help him run the fields. They are both over 75 years old but still work 10 hours a day and 7 days a week even though they actually don’t need to. Otosan told me they use a hybrid technique to grow the rice which is only done in this town. Japan Agriculture Association controls the distribution process so well that they don’t need to worry much about sales. He also told me that he was once visited by the Indonesian military asking to import it. It does taste super good, like the type you have in Japanese restaurants but better. This shows that the issue in my country is not lack of resources but knowledge and management. Instead of importing, what we should do is send our farmers to learn from people like Otosan and apply it back home.
The farm also had a small shop for extra produce. There was no shopkeeper, so what customers did was take the veggies and place money in the jar according to the price list. No one ever stole anything, not even the jar full of money. This is an example that shows Japan is one of the safest countries to live in. People never lock their gates or doors. I once left my bike for one full day and it was still there when I got back.
The most valuable experience of all was simply living in the countryside. The house was super comfortable with all the Japanese signature aspects and really felt like home. I loved warming up in the kokatsu, reading in the garden, drinking fresh water from the tap and just enjoying the beauty of the house. I often take walks and bike rides to explore the town. Walking through the bamboo and cedar forests remind me of Miyazaki films. I saw effective use of solar power and was surprised to see a number of factories since there are no pollution. I found a modern housing neighborhood near the factory, probably for the worker’s convenience. There was also a big school building that had its own swimming pool. There is a large drugstore called Welcia that has everything you need and the cash registers are high-tech: just put the money in and change will come out automatically. Sometimes Mitsuru-san took us to nearby shrines and old towns that were really beautiful. This is the most meaningful for me, to embrace the developed economic environment and well-maintained cultural heritage.
|Top: Mitsuru-san, me, Rika-san|
Bottom: me, Otosan, Okasan
During my WWOOFing period, I’ve met so many other WWOOFers from around the world and different backgrounds because everyone had different schedules and the Itabashi house was really big. After Pierre, Aurora and Michael; there was Lily from England, Lasse from Germany, Benedict from Austria and Troy from the US. There were also Japanese WWOOFers who were making use of their day offs: Hiroshi, Himochi and Yuko. It was funny that in the beginning I was the only WWOOFer from Southeast Asia until my last week where I was joined by Carmunn from Malaysia, siblings Opo and Arpo from Thailand and Phuc (I think that’s how it’s spelled, it’s pronounce fook) from Vietnam.
The social interaction with all the other WWOOFers was an essential part of this life-changing experience as well. After dinner time, we shared quality conversations about our countries, worldviews and travels in Japan. We talked about stuff like Western politics, world history effective foreign aid, places to visit in Japan, and the culture of our countries. Most of the western WWOOFers were unfamiliar with my country so I had the chance to represent it. I also was afraid they would have the wrong image of Islam after all the tragedies but it turns out most of them really understands it and have no issues with me being a Muslim. I shared the same feeling with Southeast Asian WWOOFers, the hope that our home countries can have the same discipline culture and clean governments of Japan. We also had a longing for spicy foods since fresh red chili peppers seemed rare. We even finished Rika-san’s chili powder stock in only two days!
|The Itabashi family's personal bamboo grove|
So that was my most treasured experience! Living life in the Japanese countryside with a lovely local family and fellow travelers from all over the world! It does sound funny that I spent a month doing farm work voluntarily. But I learned invaluable lessons from living a different culture in a new environment. The Itabashi family did not just demonstrate hard work but also how to be discipline with a system and process to achieve perfect results. Even seeing the way they maintain their home without any extra help is inspiring, I can’t even do such thing with my flat. Despite their wealth, they always showed great humility, not once did they belittle any of us and treated everyone equally. Farmers like them have an important role for Japan’s economy. It’s people like the Itabashi family that make Asia’s great nation. Therefore, it was such an honor to live with them.
Part 3: Exploring the Cities of Japan
The one word I would use to describe Tokyo is brilliant. It is such a wonder how such a large and densely populated city can be so clean, well-organized and meet the needs of everyone. The infrastructure is incredible; every neighborhood is connected with a subway station, there are several automatic parking buildings, and it is super pedestrian friendly. Even the alleyways are super clean and filled with shops. The land use is super-effective, there are no city slums or scattered single story houses. Instead, there are many medium-rise apartments located near commercial areas. The air is really clean and fresh, I assume the numerous large city parks have a role in this.
Having taken 4 day trips in this city, I would say Tokyo is the best city for solo travelling without feeling alone. The people of Tokyo seem to enjoy their own company and it is perfectly normal to wander someplace by yourself. I also noticed many locals read books in the subway or buses, even while standing up. Japanese people in general are super nice. If you ask for information of a place they don’t know, they will actually look it up on their phones. If you give your subway seat for an elder, they will thank you twice.
|One of the many spots of Shibuya|
There are so many interesting neighborhoods to wander around in Tokyo, which makes it easy to make an itinerary. These neighborhoods are really well designed and placed; I actually didn’t know what each really had to offer so it was amazing to discover the landmarks. If you want to see the more hip and modern side of Tokyo, go to the south. The first place I visited was Shibuya, where I was amazed with the famous crossing and ultimate shopping district. The district really had everything; even the alleyways were clean and filled with shops. There was also a music festival with a performance by a girl band, which was amusing to see an all guy crowd singing along to them.
|Real-life Super Mario Kart in Ginza|
For Japanese culture, go north and see Ueno, Asakusa, Ryogoku, Ikekuburo and Akihaibara. I went to Ueno Park without knowing what was there and ended up spending much time in the national
museums and children’s library. I also didn’t know what to expect from Asakusa so it felt amazing to discover the Sensoji temple and all the stalls leading to it. Unfortunately, Sumo season just past but at least I could see some wrestlers walking to the training center at Ryogoku. I went to Ikekuburo just because I haven’t been to the northeast side and it was nice to find it to be the center for arts and theather. I identify Akihaibara as the geek street, because it is filled with anime and electronic shops as well as arcades.
In conclusion, Tokyo is my favorite city because it is so brilliantly developed. If you compare it with Jakarta, it’s urban heaven. My country’s capital struggles with all the congestion and pollution while Tokyo shows how a large metropolitan ideally works. I believe this is why it is referred as the greatest city in the world along with London and New York.
|JAXA Space Center with Hasbi|
|Brother Khalil Muhammad sharing wisdom and about Islamic tolerance in Japan|
Tsukuba reminds me of my birthplace: Madison, Wisconsin. Both are comfortable university towns with complete public facilities. We visited the public library which was located in a large beautifully designed building. The librarians wore aprons and seemed to be always busy because of the countless visitors. I could find all sorts of books; manga, novels, textbooks and even old catalogues. There is also a children’s are with a special room for storytelling. This really brought back childhood memories.
We walked to the city center which happened to have an international food and culture fair organized by university students. There were stands and people from all over the world: Germany, Argentina, Jamaica, India, etc. The proud moment was when we come across the Indonesian stand. Their smart strategy to heat up rendang on the spot resulted in the stand with the longest line! The Indonesian students also sold nasi goreng, pempek, baso tahu and even coffee-mix sachets.
|Random shot in the city|
I think what makes Tsukuba a lot like Madison is the warm family feel. It is a small city that has well developed neighborhoods, shopping districts and parks. The roads had no signs of heavy traffic. Being there made me feel at peace. It would be an ideal place to raise a family.
Motegi and Nikko
|Asimo and I|
Honda Collection Hall has a very modern architecture and is a great place to see all the amazing innovations from the company. There’s the legendary robot Asimo, their first car, classic motorcycles and the world championship race cars. We also was Asimo perform live in action at the auditorium!
|The actual view of the circuit is much more breathtaking|
We continued to the twin ring circuit. There were several other attractions on the walk there. We wanted to try the go-karts but unfortunately you needed an international driving license. Once we got to the circuit, I saw one of the most beautiful sceneries ever! The circuit was well-constructed and surrounded by several enormous green mountains with the sun about to set in between. The main race was over so we watched some wannabes ride around the tracked. When we left the place, Hasbi took a wrong turn and almost entered the circuit! It was so funny to imagine if we really did because we spent an hour mocking all those wannabes.
|Streets of Nikko|
When I reached the end of the sidewalk, I was stunned by a red Japanese bridge over a clear water river. I’ve seen that image before from the internet and didn’t expect to come across it by surprise! It is so mesmerizing that I could look at it for a whole day!
|One of the shrines in the complex|
I went to the shrine complex in a forest where you can find Toshogu and Futarasan Shrine. Entrance fees are really expensive but seeing it from a distance in the middle of the woods is nice enough. Everywhere is packed with tourists which was one of the other reasons I didn’t enter any shrines.
After seeing shrines from a distance, I walked to the Nikko Tamozawa Imperial Villa Memorial Park.
|The garden of the villa|
I learned that Nikko was the emperor’s vacation park which is why it is really developed. The villa was so awesome that it is now one of my dream homes. It has traditional Japanese architecture and surrounded by a large Japanese garden. It even has its own bomb bunker!
Tochigi is a prefecture so worth visiting because of the blend of nature and culture. Motegi and Nikko are now the happy places in my mind for whenever I feel down. I also visited Akagashi Flower Park which was also beautiful but sadly the wisteria season has passed. Next time I go to Tochigi, I want to visit everything again during the best season and go to Nasu which is a popular camping and hot spring destination.
|My first steps in Kyoto|
One of the downsides of Kyoto is that it is super-packed with sight-seeing tourists. Exploring the city had a different approach compared to Tokyo: your itinerary is based on sights instead of neighborhoods. However, every main sight is incredible! It is the combination of beautiful Japanese architecture and nature. Every place is super accessible by public transportation, the genius factor of Japan. The second sight that I visited is my favorite: Kiyomizu-dera Temple.
|The view of Kyoto from Kiyomizu Dera taken with an iPhone 5S|
Kyoto may be one of the world’s best cities for pedestrians, as Japan takes much care in this subject. I preferred to walk 20-30 minutes to the next site than take a bus. Walking in the sidewalks of this cities just make you feel calm. There are not many vehicles on the road and the air quality seems perfect. I even got of a bus 3 stops before the golden pavilion Kinkaku-ji just to enjoy the walk there.
|Gion River at night|
|Streets of Gion|
The famous walking streets of Gion are like a super well-maintained Japanese old town. You don’t even need to go in one of the izikaya’s (Japanese pub) or restos to enjoy it, simply passing by it all and peeking in the windows is satisfying enough. It is also famous for sighting geishas. I never found one but at least I saw Chinese and SEA tourists dressed like them. The streets are also remarkable at night. Every place is lighted up by beautiful lanterns, just imagining it is awesome!
|The couchsurfing tour at Fushimi Inari (the elder person wasn't part of it)|
I also connected with other Indonesian non-tourists in Kyoto. I met one at the mosque, whom I actually saw at the halal ramen shop earlier. He was a postgrad student in international relations. We shared our struggles in adjusting to the praying and fasting times in Japan. On my bus ride back to the hostel, I had a really nice conversation about Japan’s hospitality towards Muslims with an Algerian man and Senegalese woman whom I also met at the mosque.
|Pak Teddy, owner of Sama-Sama|
|View from Umeda Sky Building|
Kyoto and Osaka are super close; it only takes 30 minutes by train and costs 550 JPY. I was happy that Carmunn was also in Osaka and we were staying at the same hostel. She is good company and a foodie making her a great friend to explore the city!
|The iconic running man in Dotonburi|
Our main destination was Dotonburi, the nightlife center of Osaka, which is also the location of our hostel. The district literally lights up in all sorts of colors at night. There is also a river in the middle where you can take boat tours. Every shop is decorated with neon lights. It’s also culinary center where you can find the best takoyaki, yakisoba, yakitori, Kobe beef dishes and much more!
|Takoyaki, Osaka's staple food, in preparation|
The next day we went to Osaka Castle. The commute to it was pleasant; Osaka had older subway stations so it had some sort of 80s feel to it. We passed places with splendid architecture like the National Museum of Osaka. The castle is located in the center of a huge park and surrounded by a dark blue water moat. The building design itself is magnificent indeed! It resembles a white pagoda with a pyramid structure and highlighted by its jade roof tiles. We also arrived at the best time in the morning just before the swarm of tourists.
|The escalator in Umeda Skybuilding|
Carmunn and I went separate ways after the castle since I actually went back to Kyoto for the couchsurfing walking tour (to be frank, I was going back and forth between the two cities) and she was going to her new WWOOF host in Shizouka. The next day in Osaka, I took a subway to Umeda Sky Building, as I assumed so. I learned Google maps will be your best friend when travelling somewhere new after almost entering the wrong building. It turned out I got off the wrong station but the upside was I enjoyed a 20 minute walk to get to the tower and enjoy the business district of Osaka. It’s actually free to get to the top floor of the building. The sky deck is not and expensive, 1000 JPY per person! I was satisfied enough to see the skyline from behind a glass window.
|A rustic style cafe under a bridge|
I have great love for museums, maybe because my parents always took me to them when I was a kid. It is the best place to really learn about the country’s culture and history, plus the architecture is always splendid! T found out there is a housing and urban development museum just 30 minutes by foot from the sky building. And of course, the walk towards it was even more meaningful! I got to enjoy seeing hip places of Osaka, like a 50s themed local café, a rustic style restaurant under a bridge and a coffee shop/bookstore with classic interiors. The walls were decorated with modern art murals. I got to learn that Osaka is a creative city. I thought it was like Japan’s Surabaya because it’s a harbor city and second largest economy. Turns out it’s more of a combination of it and my hometown Bandung. Both cities are still way behind but hopefully someday it can reach Osaka’s level.
|Evening walk in Tsutenkaku|
Osaka is also great place for shopping! I discovered many markets from my walks around the city. You can find all sorts of food, fashion, textile and handicrafts. Some stalls even have a welcoming robot! I was able to find affordable Japanese pottery in the market at Namba. The vendor could speak some Indonesian because his Dad was stationed in Sulawesi for Peace Corps. The food markets are really interesting too! You can find nice varieties of seafood, fruits and snacks.
|Indonesian coffee shop in Osaka|
In the evening of that day, I went to Tsutenkaku which is also a popular food district. It is quite different from Dotonburi, it’s more of a cluster of local Japanese restaurants. There is lots of sushi and tempura joints even places for Sumo portion meals! The district is marked by a famous telecommunications tower where you can also climb up for a view. I also saw a Toraja coffee shop there. It was a nice feeling to see bits of Indonesia again.
Another meaningful part of my Osaka trip is when I found out there is a praying room in Namba City Mall. To enter, you must report to the information desk and a clerk will lead you to it. You also have to fill in a ticket do avoid misuse (sleeping). Islam is a minority religion in Japan, I mean much more compared to European and North American countries. But Japan really respects all religions. The government makes sure that everyone including foreign tourists can be able to practice their faith.
From exploring the cities of Japan, I would like to point out what they all have in common: easy mobility, prioritizing pedestrians, less manual labor, safety, cleanliness and discipline of its people!
|Cities and towns I visited (clockwise from the top left): Tokyo, Tsukuba, Osaka, Inashiki, Kyoto, Nikko|
So, that was my ultimate Japanese Experience! I really got the life changing experience that I wanted! It’s kind of tough to adapt Japanese culture because of the opposite environment. But I try starting from simply following Rika-sans housework habits, always crossing the road on the zebra cross or pedestrian bridge, and even staying on the left side of the escalator. The question for me now is how I can help Indonesia someday be at the same level of this incredible nation.