Tuesday, 17 October 2006

To you it’s a potato, to me it’s a potato, but to Sir Walter bloody Raleigh...

So on Saturday we did something that was quintessentially both Japanese and autumnal, and luckily it involved mud. The Japanese, you see, are really, at heart, all sons and daughters of the soil. If you listen to any Enka song (enka = original Japanese pop music, or maybe folk music. Maybe folk/pop music. Not sure about this one, but it is very 50s, I suppose, but without Elvis style pelvic thrusts, but with men in bad suits, women in kimono and a lot of heartfelt wailing. It is also phenomenally popular and was the reason for karaoke. I digress). So, if you listen to any, or pretty much any, enka song it will be about a wistful longing to jack in the salaryman lifestyle and return to the ancestral rice fields of Toyama, or other such rurally depopulated for very good reasons place, and retake the reins of the rice/shiitake/sea cucumber farm, or whatever you do to take control of one. No one really does this, of course, because being a farmer is bloody hard work and is, like most things in life, better left to the professionals, so come Monday morning the salaryman is back selling flood insurance to the selfsame rice farmers because it is what he is good at. So that’s enka.

Anyway part of the Japanese psyche is this desire to return to the soil (not in the literal sense of being buried in it, but to till it), but as most people don’t do it, mainly, as mentioned, because it is hard work, they kind of give it a go in spring, when little kids (and adults too) go off and plant rice er, saplings? Sprouts? Little baby rice plants at least, for a couple of hours until they realise that it is back-breaking work and best left to the professionals (whereupon the professional farmer, who is a darned sight cleverer than the dumb townies, gets out his Acme rice planter and lets the machinery get on with it). But in autumn, much like harvests everywhere across the world, everyone gets the urge to pull things out of the ground, which is what we did.

Now Japan and the Japanese are quite big on potatoes. They like to chip them, and bake them, and do the usual things that you do with potatoes – however the humble spud will never replace rice as the staple accompaniment to every meal. But sweet potatoes, now they are a different kettle of fish (to use an unrelated metaphor). Sweet potatoes, or satsuma-imo, (yes that is Satsuma as in the place and type of orange and no I don’t know why a potato should be named after it as they certainly aren’t orange but they may originally have come from Kagoshima where Satsuma is so that might have something to do with it) are big in Japan, in a literal and a metaphorical sense, and apparently pulling them out of the ground in October creates a massive nostalgia trip for everyone as it is what you used to do as a kid. So on Saturday morning we embarked on a trip to Asakadai, to the north of Kawaguchi, to do just that.

Now if you, or indeed I, think of potato farms you think large rolling fields, big machinery to pull the goods from the ground and generally things on an oversized scale. But this is Japan and unless you go to Hokkaido, or possible Toyama, farms can be quite small scale. Indeed they can be in the middle of a town, like Asakadai. So it is a 10am start there so about an 830 start for us as although it isn’t that far, there is a change of trains and a spell on the Musashino line which, in very un-Japanese fashion, only has a train about once every 10 minutes! Very poor service, that. Also there is a bus to catch as the farm isn’t very near the station (though only about 15 minutes walk away, as we found on the way back). This particular jaunt has been organized by a local (I think) group that organizes things for kids to do and so is aimed at those from 0 to 2 years old, though quite what a 1 month old kid would want to do in a potato field is beyond me). On getting the bus it was obvious that this was the bus for the potato picking as there were lots of parents and sprogs, all looking eager.

The farm was owned by Mr & Mrs Watanabe, they had a nice old farmhouse and a bit of land surrounding it. They also had another bit of land over the road. Another bit behind the apartment block to the left. And the right. And some more bits round the corner. And so on. They probably had enough land for a large, rolling field, but it was spread over the whole of Saitama prefecture, so the average size of one of his fields was about the size of a large garden. All very odd. Anyway we go there and there are about 30 families, with kids and as this is being arranged through the community centre, and as we have some of the community centre ladies there, we have to do some songs. I didn’t know any of the songs we do, though I did recognize one tune, but every single other person not only knew the words but also all the actions that went with them. All very confusing for your poor reporter – it felt a bit like trying to learn bon-odori dancing that I wrote about somewhere, but this time all the kids knew what to do as well. Stil it was fun. Then we had a little play about pulling sweet potatoes out of the ground. Typical thing, big potato, won’t come out, need extra help to pull, so audience participation is de rigeur. So, 30 families, one foreigner, you work out the odds of me being dragged to the front.

That’s correct. Ladbrokes would not give you odds as it is a sure fire guarantee, more likely to happen that an England one-day batting collapse. Luckily no photographic evidence exists as I was holding the camera, but for some reason, known only to Japanese, I had to put a cat mask on and help pull the recalcitrant sweet potato whilst the young ‘un looked on bemused..

Then we strolled about 10 minutes to field 42a to pull up the sweet potatoes. In typically organized Japanese fashion not only had the irritating stuff like undergrowth been pushed back, but little plot had been marked with chalk dust so you knew you were getting five plants. Now this being a field you expect a bit of mud, so most people, knowing this, would not a) wear trainers or b) well at least not their best ones. But no, most people did so we had the odd sight of adults tying plastic bags over their shoes and around their ankles to protect their designer footwear from the brown stuff. Me? I just wore a pair of old boots and got on with it. And get on with it we did. On our little plot of five plants we found a veritable treasure trove of medium to large sized sweet potatoes. I must admit that it was quite therapeutic, in a get your hands a bit dirty sort of way, mostly as you never get to get muddy in Tokyo. The little ‘un, on the other hand, wasn’t really interested in the whole potato thing at all, but he was into pouring mud over himself and everything around him, which was fun. It wasn’t so much fun for the little girl next to us, who was into finding potatoes. She didn’t find the mud thing a problem, but their 5 plants yielded only a few small spuds, nothing like the half-a-hundredweight that we yanked out, so we donated a whole load to her, which made mum happy but you could see the little girl was far more into the pulling, which she didn’t get to do. Oh well.

And that was about it. Back to the farmhouse for baked sweet potatoes and hand washing, which was fine, and a bit of a picnic. And then, for some reason, they gave us a bag of ordinary potatoes as a kind of souvenir. Not really sure about that, though they were tasty on Saturday evening.

But there you go, fun on the farm. Pity I don’t actually like sweet potatoes...


Had the at-the-back-totally-wrong-angle-tooth out last night. Dentist told me it would take about 50 minutes. Over two hours later I finally left the surgery. Am in a reasonable amount of pain, mainly from, I think, the muscle strain of keeping my mouth open all that time and him pushing down so hard on my lower jaw for leverage. Had plenty of anaesthetic, which was good, but even that couldn’t hide the times when, getting a bit of tooth out, he twisted and twisted until the piece snapped off. Back next Monday to have the stitches out, but fair play to the bloke, he called here earlier this evening to check I was ok. But now he wants to be my friend and go out drinking.

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