My success with workaway experiences is beyond my imagination, and there are still so many opportunities available. It might be a little premature, but based on my track record, workaway attracts a certain kind of individual, both host and guest, that epitomizes the essence of traveling and trying new experiences. I find volunteering while traveling a highlight of every adventure, just like couchsurfing, you are instantly introduced into a new culture with friends and a network that often bring you fabulous new experiences. This time I am helping in a Japanese/Vietnamese cafe a few hours train ride from Tokyo, Japan. Yaizu is a small town in which it would never have crossed my mind to visit, but it isn’t the local attractions that grab your attention, its the wealth of open minded and well traveled Japanese people that will end up making this stay memorable.
I happen to have hit the traveling jackpot, being dropped into work at a little cafe in which the owner and clientele form a well rounded network of interested Japanese who wish to share various kinds of experiences with me, the foreigner. Oddly enough, I have met a fair amount of foreigners already in this small town, mostly of the ilk who have married into Japan and now live here as their primary residence. It may just be that I am 8 years older than my last visit to Japan, but everyone seems to take my presence as quite normal, often starting off in perfect Japanese as I should be expected to know the language. This is quite a difference from the last visit, where being a foreigner was more of a rare experience, and perhaps has to do with a maturity level that shows clearly on my face. This grouping of people however, mostly speak at least two languages if not four, and have traveled about as well as I have. The feeling about the place is like a grouping of friends living the small town life, but each bringing something interesting to the table.
I recall saying an interesting thing in regards to work versus play when quitting my job two years ago; I would be happy to sling noodles in Japan and not call it work, because it is a new experience for me, and that is play. It’s strange little thoughts and desires like that, which you might only be saying off hand, which the universe always finds an interesting way to answer. I find myself laughing because each day the number one dish being served is pho; Vietnamese noodle soup. While not what I imagined, it is what I asked for. As for other kitchen skills, I am now a master of spring rolls after having done well over 100 of them. No more the sloppy, lightly rolled behemoths I started with, they are well shaped, firm and dainty.
While the learning curve for Vietnamese food isn’t very strenuous, due to my love of food and working in the kitchen, the language curve is. Thankfully my host intuitively understands how to speak Japanese to me and also speaks much better English than my level of Japanese. She has me interacting with customers from day one, and after I release my fears of speaking English or messy Japanese, I am getting along quite well. Every day a new friend comes into the cafe for lunch and I get to introduce myself and use as much communication as is possible, mostly listening, but answering when I can. Of the many friends who visit, a few expand my experience by taking me out for various things.
One day, I got to attend a tea ceremony practice session, kimono dress up and all. Watching a tea ceremony is great, as long as your legs don’t hurt too badly from sitting on them, but watching a teacher instruct students on the proper movements and etiquette is well worth attending.
I was able to attend an after school program for the ubiquitous experience of playing with a bunch of over interested kids, wearing me out playing soccer and tag. There was a house party where everyone got to make okonomiyaki, the Osaka famous pancake. There was a ramen fest going on in the next city, Shizuoka, and I sampled these delicious variations.
I visited a yoga studio for a free class and my first kirtan, complete with a harmonium for the real Indian musical feel. Oddly enough I never experienced kirtan in India, the joyous chanting of Sanskrit, something I feel a bit remiss about and will remedy soon. Along the musical avenue, I was also fortunate to be in town for a djembe concert put on by the owners of the yoga studio.
I was also fortunate enough to meet a new friend, Dai, who owns a traditional Japanese home over 90 years old. Dai is also a world traveler and English speaker, who uses air bnb to rent out half his property to entertain excited guests, and also works in the numerous bamboo forests, cutting 50 foot tall stalks. I was happy to visit his home and experience the beauty of this traditional cabin, if I may use that word. We were also so like minded that we surprised each other by stating we will be visiting Mooji in Rishikesh at the same time this February for the wonderful experience of darshan.
I was also lucky enough to be here at the right season for something wonderfully fall, and close to every Japanese heart; Inekari, the fall rice harvest. Once the rice has gone through the laborious process of being sprouted and planted, the mature plant is then cut down and hung over bamboo to dry. Traditionally this was done by hand which I experienced, but modern technology has produced the combine which goes to town cutting and bundling together the rice while you walk behind it. Its a family fun event which makes the work a lot easier with friends. There are all kind of bugs whose homes we are destroying so the kids have plenty to do when helping is no longer fun. Catching frogs, grasshoppers, and playing in the mud seems to be fond memories of many children in this country. With the help of about 15 people we finished two small fields which each produce about 120kg of rice. Each field is enough to feed two people for a year when only eating rice, or perhaps 3 now with bread and noodles included in the diet. It was a beautiful day that truly felt like fall to me and an experience I am grateful for.
I would be remiss if I didn’t share my honest experience which has made this workaway something truly special. While everything I have done as part of my volunteer experience has been everything a workaway experience could be, I have been gifted something more. There is a special energy about this particular cafe, and in truth, stems from the owner. Haru-san, my wonderful host, has a special energy about her, one of tremendous joy and mirth, laughing constantly all day with many smiles, even while working long hours. This is slightly askew from the typical Japanese personality, but like everyone I’ve met through this cafe, people are a bit more open and ready to share themselves. I find myself overwhelmingly excited to wake up each day, not knowing what new experience will be offered to me today, but certain that much laughter, dancing, and smiles will accompany it. It is this overwhelmingly simple joy that surprisingly catches us both off guard and from which we begin our relationship.
*Haru is on the right
Having been a couchsurfing host for over 200 people, I am well aware of my feelings about this type of thing in a host/guest type relationship. It has always been my private understanding that as a host I never initiate anything because that would violate the unspoken rules of providing an emotionally safe space for my guest. I am also aware that many hosts and guests end up together for various reasons which rely heavily on their mutual feelings, something I have not experienced till now. However, a guest is free to do as they please and honoring my own beliefs, shared my feelings with my host because they were honest and I would have done so no matter the outcome. Strangely enough this wonderful and busy woman, whom for her own reasons has not had time or inclination to start a relationship in recent years, surprises herself and says yes to me. This obviously changes my workaway experience in quite large terms, but I honor the ways in which the universe works and for the opportunities in which new experiences of all kinds may enter my life.
Traveling is exactly this experience. Setting your intention to go somewhere and then allowing the experience to unfold before your very eyes. It includes all those little voices of desire in your mind, and with hindsight, find that what you had asked for, was neatly wrapped up in a joyous experience you could not have planned or predicted, because originality is the joy of being surprised. As its been often said, letting new experiences happen is the key to joy. Anyone can plan a perfectly well organized vacation and pull it off, but you won’t really experience something new and worthwhile. This is key for your life lesson, let go of control, be vulnerable, and trust in yourself that whatever happens you can respond with your whole being and it will work out for the best.
Wandering into uncharted territory; the foreign relationship.