“Oh, honey…you can just sit down over there and watch,” an energetic, eccentric, spiky-haired woman in her sixties told me with a smile, “We don’t have a pair of rain boots for you to use.” All around her, four or five older men and women were shoveling light brown, sandy dirt from a large mound on the side of a small square garden located behind a Japanese-style house. As I watched them bend over to transfer dirt from the mound into a wheel barrel, to then roll over to the center of the garden to dump, I was reminded of Grandma and Grandpa and the whole family gathering back home to plant or to harvest…and I itched so much to help out.
I was in a country-side town in the Chiba prefecture – about an hour’s drive from Tokyo – nearby the Pacific Ocean. Yet I was not with my usual companions – Saki-chan and Akiko-san – but together with the Nakamura family, which consists of Hyuma-san (father), Yuko-san (mother) and their three-year old son, Yushin-kun. Yuko-san is pregnant with another baby boy and is due this month. I am living with this host family for about a week, since last Thursday, when I finished my eleven final tests, and until the end of this week. On Sunday, we went down to Hyuma-san’s parents’ home to visit and found them working to help level off a garden.
Back at the small field, I began to beg to help – since I found it unfair that Hyuma-san was helping but not me – and finally, Hyuma-san’s father – a calm, comforting man with kind eyes – lent me an extra shovel. Soon I was piling dirt into a wheel barrel with the others, using my arm muscles as much as possible in order not to hurt my back. It had been too long since I had last handled dirt, so I was rusty at first, but soon I was making a rhythm out of digging and dumping…and farm girl Zoe was officially back! It felt so natural to be working in dirt that before I knew it, I was smiling and laughing. The other men and women were talking and laughing as well and from time to time I would hear them say, “Well, would you look at her!” or, “How quickly she can work!” and another voice would answer, “It’s because she’s still young, she has energy.” Overhearing this, my smile would grow wider.
After I rolled a couple heavy wheel barrels over to the center, Yushin-kun, who had been sitting shyly at the side of the garden, watching everyone work with his mother, got up to announce that he wanted to help, as well. Thus, he began to put dirt into a tiny bucket he had brought with him and dumping its contents into the wheel barrel, which was the same height as him. His grandparents watched him with adoring eyes and we all clapped to cheer him on, which made him jump up and down in glee.
Hyuma-san’s mother (lovingly called ‘Baaba’ by Yushin-kun) began to roll the wheel barrel for us, but she would run away with it when it would get to be not even halfway full, causing us to laugh hilariously…and I realized then that this atmosphere – of simple laughs and being covered in dirt, breathing in fresh, good, country air – was what I missed most. In the populous city of Tokyo, I always feel as if everyone is staring off into different directions, lost in separate worlds..and I have realized that my happiness lies in the black, fertile soil of the Bottomland. Perhaps those walking the crowded streets of Tokyo are just as happy as me, without being surrounded by nature. But living in Tokyo for seven months has taught me that there are invisible strings always pulling me back to the farm.
Soon, the mound disappeared and the garden was flat – ready for some potatoes to be planted.
After a ramen lunch at a local restaurant, Hyuma-san took me to the ocean. The beaches there are called Kujukuri. ‘Kujuku’ means ninety-nine, a number that symbolizes infinity, and ‘ri’ is an old Japanese distance measurement from the Edo times, so the name means that the beaches seem to go on forever. The area there is popular for surfing, especially during the winter, according to Hyuma-san.
When we arrived home, I helped Baaba make chirashizushi (mixed rice) for dinner and she asked me to start talking to her only in English, since she would like to be able to speak it in order to communicate during the many trips she and her husband take across the world. They had just got back from India (they showed me pictures of the Taj Mahal) and Korea – such an energetic couple! Her husband works at the Narita airport as an electrical engineer and therefore is able to travel a lot.
In between our English conversation and cooking, Baaba showed me the contents of her garden. They not only grow lemons but oranges, plums and cherries. For veggies, they grow peas, broccoli, spinach, celery and more, even during the winter, which made me a bit jealous. All, Baaba told me proudly, are grown without the use of pesticides.
Then Baaba got a sparkle in her eyes and brought over a couple of rotten-looking oranges. She peeled one and gave me a slice to eat. It did not taste like any orange I had ever eaten before – but deeper and sweeter, like the orange was putting out every last ounce of the sugar and goodness it had left before it was too late. “Oranges taste the best when the outside looks rotten like this,” Baaba explained with a smile. I believed her – not only because it was indeed delicious, but because I remembered how back home, half rotten tomatoes and apples – those veggies and fruits deemed ‘for-us-es’ – were in fact the most delicious.
When we went inside agin, I squeezed the lemons that I had harvested earlier to add to the rice, and watched as Baaba made a gorgeous, colorful arrangement out of the bed of white rice (grown locally, she told me proudly) and red pieces of smoked salmon, thinly sliced cucumbers, scrambled eggs and black seaweed sprinkled on top.
After devouring the delicious dinner and being forced to watch a toy car commercial DVD over and over by a car-crazy Yushin-kun, Yushin-kun and Gan-chan (a nickname for Yushin-kun’s grandfather) took a bath together followed by the rest of us.
Then we waited as Hyuma-san readied the car for to leave. Baaba got out a map of the United States and I showed her where Central Illinois was. Soon, though, Yushin-kun trampled over to “show” us where his house was on the map – apparently in the middle of Kansas.
We all laughed as he showed us where Baaba and Ganchan lived (Tennessee) and I was filled to the brim with sweet, peaceful contentment.
That feeling continued as we left the house in the darkness – me pulling Yushin-kun’s sleepy hand – as I stared up into the gorgeous lights of the stars (something Tokyo skies lack) and waved goodbye to Baaba and Ganchan…and as I finally lay my head against the glass of the car window to sleep.