Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Smell of Rice in August

[Preface: I recently wrote this about a trip I took in August 2013 for a Japanese tourism contest, but I got carried away and eventually turned it into something that didn't really fit with the contest's description, so I couldn't use it. But, I put some time and effort into this and it is about a very special, very memorable day in my life, so I figured I'd put it up somewhere, and somewhere is here.]

Do you know what rice paddies smell like in August? Yeah, I didn’t either. In fact, everyone I have asked since I discovered it didn’t really know what I was talking about. Maybe it is just my imagination; maybe I just fabricated the smell and attached it to this memory. Regardless, it’s a beautiful smell. It is the smell of earth and water, growth and late summer. It is the smell of Kyushu. It is the smell of Kumamoto and Kagoshima. It is the fragrance that will always and forever be attached to August 2013 in my memory.

I really understand those people who claim that the journey is the reward, not the destination. The destination in this case was pretty disappointing. I spent a week in Kagoshima City farming through a program called WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). WWOOF is a pretty cool organization where you can contact farms around the world and work for them for some amount of time in exchange for a place to stay, food to eat and education in the realm of organic farming. My destination was a small farm that provided fresh produce for their partner cafes. Although my focus was farming, I unfortunately spent a lot of the time washing dishes in the cafes. It wasn’t all boring though. Sakurajima, Kagoshima’s highlight volcano, had an enormous eruption while I was there, turning a bright sunny day into late evening with plumes of smoke and ash covering the city and my ice cream cone, which I stupidly decided to eat outside. It made international news, but the only effect it had on the local populous was making them a little more disgruntled that they had even more ash than usual to brush off their cars and patios. While the slightly disappointing aspect of the destination contributes to why the journey was so much better, even if I had had a fantastic time there, the journey would still have taken the cake on this trip.

The drive down to Kagoshima was okay, but real thrill of the trip was the drive home. I had no time schedule to stick to, a full tank of gas and a smart phone to guide to me anywhere I pleased (yet, many of the most memorable moments were lucky finds and the smart phone only helped me get out of jams when I made wrong turns). I took off in the morning, leaving an ash-covered city in my rearview window, following a road that hugged the seashore a little more closely than I was comfortable with. 

A sucker for locally produced goods, I stopped first at a roadside seller of the local mochi treat, Jumbo Mochi, a warm rice cake on a stick, covered in a sticky sauce.  With a warm treat in my belly, I continued on, racing a train on one side and waves on the other.

My first destination was Ryumontaki, a waterfall only about an hour drive away, hidden under the expressway and around a few tight corners. I reached it eventually and was so glad I did. It was summer vacation, but early enough in the day that the local kids hadn’t come out to play, or maybe they actually heeded the signs warning against swimming. I followed a gentle river to the bottom of the biggest waterfall I’d seen in Japan yet, and I love waterfalls, so I’ve seen a lot. The water gushed out from an alcove of giant rocks, forming a deep and enticing pool. Did I mention it was hot? I mean, really hot. It was easily 100F (38C) and more humid than any human should have to withstand and the air-conditioner in my little car didn’t work. With sweat dripping down my face just sitting in my car, relaxing next to a raging waterfall felt like heaven on Earth. Being alone, I heeded the warning signs and only went so far as to climb barefoot around the rocks and dip my feet into the cool, clear water; I wouldn’t want to be pulled into the depths with no one around to call to for help.

After my refreshing half-dip, I followed a map to a path that I assumed would take me to the top of the waterfall, so I could gain a new perspective of the height and grandeur of the scene.  Instead it led me through a forest filled with mosquitoes that sucked more of my blood than when I donated to the Red Cross a few years back. Spider webs crossed the path to the extent that if I was in any other country, I would think the path had been abandoned for months, but summer on Kyushu just has so many spiders that the webs are endless. The top of the path was confusing and overgrown. I could hear the waterfall clearly, but it remained hidden and out of reach. It was too hot for this, so I headed back down, hopped rocks back over the river and took my car up the mountain where other signs promised more waterfalls.

I never made it to the top of Ryumontaki, but what came next made up for it.  I think it’s important to note here that while I am an adventurous person, I can be shy and hesitant if I don’t know what I’m getting myself into. Well, that was the case at this part of the story, but if this trip was important for any reason, it was helping me grow brave and even more adventurous (although, this trip was important for me in many more ways).  

The next waterfall I found was an underwhelming falls created by a man-made dam. It was still nice to walk down a lightly wooded, lightly mosquito-ed path. I was getting hungry. I’m not much of a foodie, so much not-so that when traveling by myself I sometimes forget to eat all together. On the way to this second waterfall though, while driving down a small, gravel road, I saw a hand-painted sign of kanji that I couldn’t make out, but I figured was advertising a restaurant. I paid it no mind and went on. After leaving the waterfall, I headed out back towards a big road to take me on my way, but I passed another one of the same sign. I took it as an omen that I should go there, so I went with my gut.  

I almost left the moment I arrived. There was a gravel parking lot big enough for three cars and I was lucky to get one, as someone was leaving when I pulled up. But it was just a house. A house with no matching sign. I was confused. I eventually found a door on the side that I thought might pass as a door to a restaurant. In Japanese countryside-restaurant fashion, opening the door I felt like I was walking into someone’s home.  I mean, I pretty much was. Many of the restaurants out there are attached to the owners’ living quarters. The food was probably prepared in their everyday-use kitchen. The seating area was rustic with a historical feel, fitting to the old-time Japanese atmosphere; sliding, aged, wooden doors, low tables, pillows to sit on and a garden to look at on the other side of the window. The musty air was cooled by dusty electric fans. The other customers were about as old as the house and clearly long-time friends of the ancient man who brought my tea and took my order: the daily special.

So many kinds of food were placed before me that I couldn’t fit them all in the same picture. I don’t know if you can tell the difference between high-quality steamed white rice and lower quality steamed white rice, but I definitely couldn’t until I tasted this rice. I didn’t know rice could be so delicious. (I could also have just been starving, but I choose to believe it really was the quality.) Every side dish I was served was vegetarian and all ingredients were grown in the region and prepared with love and care by the grandma slaving away in the kitchen. Goya, potato salad, boiled pumpkin, miso soup, things that I didn’t even know existed but loved every bit of.

The old man started chatting me up with the normal small talk that I grew so accustomed to being a foreigner living in Japan. Where are you from? Why are you in Japan, Kagoshima? How the heck did you end up in our little shop in the middle of nowhere? They were the same questions I often got, although this time almost incomprehensible in his old-man Kagoshima dialect and he was so surprised and excited to have someone new and exciting in his humble restaurant that I answered with equal pleasure and enthusiasm in equally incomprehensible Nagasaki dialect. I was thrilled to be in their little corner of the world and I wanted to make sure they knew how happy I was to have found their secret and delicious hideaway.

Leaving my new favorite restaurant, (although I will probably never return to it), I quickly got lost. I didn’t mind though. Speeding down those country roads with a full belly, an excellent mix cd playing, the smell of growing rice wafting into my car through the open windows and the sun shining on my face made me appreciate my life more than any single moment in my life until that point, nor have I achieved such nirvana again. It was perfect. My life was perfect. I was complete.

Hours of driving through nature, winding roads cutting through nothing but cedar tree forests and fragrant rice fields. I stopped to buy a Japanese pear from a roadside stand despite not really having room for it in my tummy. “My life is perfect,” was the only thought that passed through my head for hours.

I was driving in the general direction of my home-away-from-home just over the Kagoshima border in the mountains of Kumamoto, but was free to stop when I wanted. So I did. I spotted a sign while on the road approaching the Satsuma area pointing the way to Kannondaki, yet another waterfall. How could I pass that up? Again, a few wrong turns later I ended up in this park. It had a river running through it and a few mini waterfalls along the path. But the waterfall behind the Kannon (Buddhist goddess of mercy) statue was beautiful and perfect. Some college kids were swimming in the pool,  their clothes still on, leading me to believe they were also serial subscribers to spontaneity. The bottom of the waterfall was nice and relaxing, but I finally had the opportunity to go to the top. I walked up winding, unkempt staircases until I reached the apex.

Living in Japan, my Japanese friends always talked about “power spots,” but I didn’t really believe you could draw energy from nature in real-life, but oh, how wrong I was. Standing on these rocks, the top of vertical tunnels shaped by thousands of years of rushing water, I have never felt so alive, yet so at peace. I was alone and my thoughts quickly left me, leaving me stuck in a state of awe at nature’s beauty, power and magnificence. Had I slipped, I would’ve plummeted meters down into a crevice, crushed by tons of rushing water. It was an amazing and scary feeling to be standing there in the presence of such dominating power. I’m not really sure how long I stayed there absorbing nature’s energy.  Again, complete, unadulterated happiness.

My trip that day ended in Hitoyoshi, Kumamoto, probably my favorite place on Kyushu. Before this trip I’d spent countless hours rafting down the Kumagawa River with my raft guide friends who have a relaxed and fun culture all their own and were so kind to share with me. My drive between the Kannondaki and Hitoyoshi was cooler, literally, as I weaved up mountain roads. There was the smell of rain in the air as the sun lowered in the sky. The rice fields, still emitting their scent, were fewer and far between, but the shade of the trees brought me gently back down to Earth from the clouds of elation on which I was still sitting. I had other CDs in my car, but this one mix cd played through again and again and again, the songs becoming as distinct of a part of this trip as the smell of the rice, so I could never listen to a song on it again without being taken back to this day when everything in my life was perfect. I hope one day I can have this feeling again. If I know Kyushu at all, I’m sure it has more hidden treasures that hopefully I will be able to find someday and maybe, just maybe, I can experience a day as wonderful, fulfilling and enlightening as this day in August 2013.