(18/02 edit: Noticed some major errors when I read the post again! Sorry and fixed!)
Hello! Sunday again and I’m here with another update! This has been one intensive week packed with new and fun experiences. To start it off, this Monday, the 11th of February, I had the pleasure of arranging my first event here in Minamioguni. Eight university students, who right now do their internship at the company Recruit (https://recruit-holdings.com), and two of their supervisors, came from afar to pay a visit to the small but lovely Minamioguni. The reason for their visit was to gain inspiration for their final project during the internship. The project itself was to present an idea of how to boost foreign tourism in rural areas of Kyushu (Japans southernmost island). I had the honor of putting together a 3-hour package that would let them experience the food, culture, and nature of the Japanese countryside.
Of course, I could not even dream of providing this experience by myself so I jumped on my shiny red bicycle and rode off to consult with two of my favorite people in Minamioguni! Akio-san and Haruko-san. This lovely married couple runs a small farmstay establishment called Irifune in an old rebuilt granary. They mostly host middle-schoolers (but anyone is welcome) and teach them about farming and life in the countryside. In addition to that, they also have restaurant permit and gladly serve hungry visitors such as myself. In fact, Haruko-san was one of the first people I met in Minamioguni when I first visited last year. Her hospitality and warmth were one of the big reasons that I fell in love with this place.
Together with the help of Haruko-san and Akio-san, we put together a 3-hour experience that I’m proud to present through pictures down below. Sadly my camera decided to rebel at me during this day resulting in less than perfect pictures. Sorry!
Since our guests arrived at 12:30 the day naturally started off with a bountiful lunch consisting of Haruko-san’s famous homemade food made from local ingredients, mostly grown by Akio-san and Haruko-san themselves. Above we have a local favorite, Haruko-san’s duck hot pot! I think the picture says enough!
And this is what it looks like after it’s done! Oh, and Haruko-sans food isn’t only famous for its supreme taste but also for the never-ending amount of food that seems to keep on coming endlessly.
Here we have our guests happily feasting away on the locally produced, home-made, countryside cuisine! And you can see Akio-san in the middle happily attending to the guests while charming them with his bright smile and sometimes questionable humor.
I and my superior Kitaoka-san ate together with our guests and it was a great opportunity to get to know everyone a bit. Our young guests were so nice and excited about their visit to Minamioguni. They had been traveling for a few days but this was their first opportunity to actually meet and interact with local people which they were all thrilled about.
Typical Japanese politeness pouring tea for each other.
It was quite challenging to find space to eat the food because our young university students were so into gathering information about their project that they kept shooting at me with one question after the other. And their passion was so encouraging that I couldn’t help but prioritizing giving answers, even over Haruko-san’s food!
After both a spiritually and physically fulfilling meal, we had our young explorers dress up in some dashing wellingtons and gather up outside to prepare for some light outdoor adventures. Time to greet the god of the forest, Konpira-sugi!
Minamioguni and Oguni are famous for the so-called Oguni-sugi which is a variety of Japanese cedar unique to this area. And here we have the number one representative, Konpira-sugi which is a 1200-year-old cedar tree sitting proudly about a 15-minute walk into the mountains from Akio-san and Haruko-san’s place. Akio-san is actually the owner of the land where Konpira-sugi stands and such its guardian. His ancestors bought the land during the Edo period (1603 – 1868) and Akio-san is the 9th in line to watch over and care for this majestic tree.
If it’s hard to gauge the size of this beast you can compare the width of Konpira-sugi to me standing next to it in this picture. Konpira-sugi is roughly 28 meters tall and as you can see it has suffered quite some damage over the years. You know the old saying that “lightning never strikes the same place twice”? Well, Konpira-sugi must have had some bad luck because it did here. Once around the year 1700 (exact date unsure) which split the trunk into two separate branches, and once in 1929 starting a fire in the cavity created by the first lightning strike. Thanks to the desperate efforts of the local people the fire was put out and even though Konpira-sugi got burned badly, the tree still lives on thanks to the care of the people of Minamioguni.
And thanks to those efforts, young and old people of today can still enjoy visiting this perfect example of natures beauty and give Konpira-sugi a big hug while absorbing some of its natural energy and power!
But trees aren’t only for hugging!
They are also for growing mushrooms! More specifically Shiitake. Shiitake is one of the most common mushrooms used in Japanese cuisine and it is normally grown on the Kunugi tree, in English known as Sawtooth oak, which is a tree originally native to East Asia. Since Shiitake is very commonly produced in Minamioguni it has been the last boss that I’ve had to overcome in regards to my mushroom-fear. Now… I’m mostly over it!
The process of growing Shiitake is commonly done through Genboku saibai which is cultivation using unprocessed wood. The process is rather long, spanning over about 2,5 years from cutting down the tree to actually being able to harvest any Shiitake. But once they start popping out, the branch or trunk will keep producing mushrooms for 2-4 years depending on its size.
This sight of upraised branches and trunks is actually the last step of the process which is done about half a year before you can actually start harvest any Shiitake. Even though February is right before the best period for harvesting Shiitake begins, our guest thoroughly seemed to enjoy the experience of searching out some sweet and juicy shrooms.
Oh, fun fact! Shiitake can mainly be harvested during two seasons, spring and autumn. The words for spring and autumn in Japanese is haru and aki. Do you remember the name of our lovely hosts who grow all these Shiitake? Haru-ko and Aki-o! 🙂
On to the next event, big surprise, it involves trees!
Another part of living with the mountains and the forest in Minamioguni is tending to the trees, which is mainly done through something called Eda-uchi, branch-hitting, or branch-cutting. By trimming of young branches at an early stage from the trees you will prevent the formation of knots around the base of the branches as they grow larger. If you don’t do this the branches will eventually fall off naturally leaving a so-called dead-knot which is an area where the tree is weaker and will often end up causing holes in the planks when the wood is processed.
Forestry is one of the main industries in Minamioguni. Since Japan for a long time built most of its structures using wood the high-quality cedar trees of Minamioguni sold for very high prices. That is why making sure that the trees on your land grew into strong beautiful trees fitting for building houses and structures was vital. Lately, the cedar trees have dropped in value but even so the tradition of eda-uchi lives on. And it might be even more important now to ensure that you get the best price possible for the trees you sell.
Our young challengers gladly took on the task of cleaning up Akio-san’s forest.
This was clearly a win-win situation as our young guests enjoyed relieving some stress by trimming these trees into shape with scary-looking axes and knives while also relieving Akio-san from some of his physical daily work.
Ops, it seems I couldn’t help but join in for some of the fun as well! But to be honest, I was pretty lousy at it.
After our little venture into the forest, we headed back to Akio-san and Haruko-san’s place to finish the day off with some talking and the opportunity for everyone to ask my superior and me any questions they thought might help them with their project. All while Akio-san fried up the freshly picked Shiitake in soy and mayonnaise creating the perfect junky snack!
Lastly, to round off the day in Japanese style, we stopped by the farmers market Kiyora Kaasa since everyone wanted to do some souvenir shopping! Thank you!
And thank you all for coming and visiting Minamioguni. I really hope this gave you some insight and inspiration for your project.
It was truly great to spend 3-4 hours with all of you and get to absorb some of your passion, curiosity and positive energy. It was also an important learning experience for me since it was the first event I was in charge of planning and executing. I will definitely learn from this and keep improving. But more than anything it was just really fun to share Minamioguni that I like so much with all of you and see how you all seemed to enjoy it just as much as I do. I truly hope and wish that I get to see you all here again someday. Or who knows, maybe somewhere else! And good luck with your project and all other future endeavors that life might throw at you! 🙂