TEXT AND PHOTOS BY VICKY BROWN
April 20, 2016
For more than a decade now spring has meant one thing to me. Babies. Baby goats primarily, but also baby sheep and baby chickens.
Life has changed.
With no babies on the farm this spring my husband, Tom felt it was important to do something drastic to distract me from the baby-less-ness of our farm. Checking our work schedules and airline miles, confirming a detail or two with his brother and locking down a farm-sitter, about six weeks ago we booked a trip to Japan. JAPAN!
It’s been a challenge to get off the farm for dinner since we opened our dairy, and now we were planning a trip to visit my brother-in-law and his family in Japan.
If you’re a close friend you know this already. People at work or that share the studio at Whidbey Art Escape didn’t have a choice but knowing. I answered every question I was asked with “Japan!” I started every statement with “I’m going to Japan.” Fortunately, my friends are great sports.
Leaving our island in the spring was harder than I thought it would be, but arriving on the other, great big island of Japan was easier than I could have imagined. Even with a language barrier (English is not as common or widely spoken there as you might have been led to believe), navigation was clear. People were helpful and went out of their way to make sure we were in the right spot, didn’t need help and felt comfortable.
After a plane, then a bigger plane, a night in an airport hotel, a smaller plane and a bus drive we found ourselves at the transit center in downtown Kyoto, Japan. As we fumbled with our luggage towards the taxi stand a silver haired woman stopped Tom by touching his sleeve before they passed on the sidewalk. “Thank you for coming to Japan.” She greeted him with a deep bow from her already bent state, then using her cane to help support her crooked frame she shuffled off. It nearly brought tears to our eyes. The citizens were genuinely grateful to have us visit, and showed us each day of our visit with their words and deeds. We had certainly picked the right destination for our first vacation in years.
We also picked the right time of year for our vacation. In Kyoto, sakura season was at its peak. The cherry blossoms filled the senses and the magic of this harbinger of spring had the air alive with joy and abundance. It seems we joined half the world’s population in ushering in the season with the festive appreciation of the sakura, also known as Hanami.
In Kyoto no one is immune to the joy. The businesses bustled, women dressed in traditional kimonos and men in their yukata. The markets were full of shoppers. The shrines were full of appreciative visitors and locals alike.
If you make it to Kyoto, whether it is sakura season or not, I hope you’ll take the time to walk the Philosopher’s Path. Shrine after shrine, each holding a different meaning and offering different, exquisite feasts for your senses. Our biggest failing was not allowing enough time in Kyoto for sightseeing and jet lag. We had some exhausting days overwhelmed by beauty, filled with delicious food, spurred on by the exotic sights and smells. Of course being a 16-hour time zone away from home took its toll too.
Because we booked less than a month from the time we left and it was the height of sakura season (this is a really big deal in Japan), the hotels were all full or priced way out of our range. We stayed in a traditional Japanese “Love Hotel.”
Let me tell you what we were told this means. In the Japanese culture it is common for multiple generations to live together under one roof with rice-paper thin walls. Young couples that are looking for a little private romantic time use these hotels to disappear from their families for a bit.
The room is at least five times the size of a typical Japanese hotel room. It was the amenities of the Love Hotel we found to be, um, interesting. It was equipped with things you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find in a hotel room… like a reclining massage chair. Or a slot machine. Or an ATM. Or a hard-wired “personal massager.” (Yes, you are reading that correctly!)
The service was top-notch and the bed, a traditional thin futon over a wood frame, was clean. We decided to actively ignore the amenities we weren’t so comfortable with.
We ate and shopped and walked and visited and even took time to stop and throw a bowl at a potter’s studio, all in three days. It wasn’t enough time, but it was time to catch the Bullet Train and head to Tokyo and connect with my husband’s brother and his family.
In Tokyo, Tom and his brother went up the tall tower (think Space Needle only higher) to get a perspective of this city with a population of 38 million people. Afterward we stopped for some delicious lunch, including a tower of shrimp (actually huge tempura prawns) and the best katsu don I’ve ever enjoyed and then spent the rest of the afternoon and evening being true tourists.
The next day we did a little more sightseeing and then got to meet our nephew for the first time. This one-year-old boy already has the ability to steal a heart with a smile. And he smiles all of the time.
With more walking and touring and visiting and eating, the days quickly melded together into an amalgamation of once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
We took the train/subway often, and taxis occasionally. Both were exceptional ways to get around. In Kyoto we used the buses too, but in Tokyo everywhere we wanted to go was a few blocks from a rail stop.
Monday we went to the world famous Tsukiji Fish Market. By 9 a.m. many of the vendors were finishing up for the day, but there was still plenty to see. And after the market we took a sushi-making class.
We visited more shrines and more parks and more hanami under the last of the Ueno Park cherry blossoms. And we ate more sushi.
We drove out of town and to the mountains to see the famous Kegon Falls (this is where you want to get souvenirs, half the price of the ones in Tokyo and a fourth the price of the ones in Kyoto), which drops water a breathtaking 318 feet. There were still spots where the snow hadn’t melted. I was hoping to catch sight of the snow monkeys while we were there, but no such luck, just the occasional monkey crossing signs.
On another day we went out to Edo Wonderland to see what the ninjas were all about. With a bit of fun this restored Edo-era town gave us an amusement park-style glimpse into their history. This was another fantastic spot to pick up souvenirs. As we were the only non-Asian visitors that I saw that day, it seems that this was more a favorite spot for locals than for Western tourists.
Before we headed back to the airport we stopped by a saké brewer and were led by the brew master on a private tour through the heart of the facility, getting to witness everything from the cleaning of the rice to the growing of the koji (yeast cultures) to develop the flavor and alcohol.
The Japanese were so friendly and helpful to us, often stopping to ask us if we were okay, needed help or—in one case—“What’s wrong with you?” It was easy to forgive their broken English as I was visiting their country with a vocabulary of less than a dozen Japanese words.
We were comfortable even surrounded by language we couldn’t understand, consuming foods that weren’t always familiar to us and witnessing traditions we knew little about. Japan has earned a place in our hearts.
Now with our boots back on the farm, after the bustle of Tokyo, it seems practically desolate without baby goats.
However, the pitter-pat of baby feet won’t be too far away… they will just be the pitter-pats of our first grandbaby’s toes instead of hooves. Now that I can quit telling everyone “I’m going to Japan” I can instead boast with my proudest grandma joy “I’m going to be a Grandma!” We will be welcoming my daughter’s baby to our humble farm this fall.
What a happy, momentous time for our farm, which has always been missing a young child to make it complete; our children-visitors for baby goat bottle-feeding were as close as we have been able to get. We have indeed made Whidbey Island our home. Putting down generational roots here is highest praise for this jewel of a community. We are excited to be having our grandbaby raised here, where the community already knows—it takes a village… how thrilled our family is to be adding one to the population of our brilliant little “village” of Whidbey Island.
Bonus Japan photos, because I can’t decide what to leave out…
Vicky Brown, Chief Milkmaid (mostly retired) at the Little Brown Farm, puts her passions on the page writing about food, agriculture and the tender web of community.
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