A few words regarding Covid-19

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Hello everyone,

There has been a long silence here and I deeply apologize for that.
Spring has arrived safely here in Aso, Kumamoto and the fresh grass is greener and more beautiful than ever!

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that even life in this small mountain village has been a bit crazy with the Covid-19 pandemic. And even though things finally seem to have calmed down slightly, we are still far from being in the clear.

The tour business that I spent most of last year building up and launching has, of course, taken quite a hit. Right as we went into selling our product, we were lucky enough to get some attention, had our first few inquiries, and believe it or not, even a couple of reservations! During this crucial time, Corona swept over the world only to leave a deep and silent void in its path. Needless to say, neither inquiries nor reservations resulted in anything.

Obviously, my struggles are nothing compared to the pain and suffering caused around the world at the hands of this vicious virus, and everything that needs to be done to stop its onslaught should be done. That is why, even though the strain that is put on the travel industry is literally unbearable, it is unavoidable and completely necessary.

With that said, we have once again opened up to accept reservations for tours but to be completely honest, we don’t expect any visitors until at least next year. And that is fine. This time should be about carefully figuring out the path forward.

Let me also touch a bit on Japan in a broader sense.
Japan which has had an explosion of tourism since 2015 has now plummeted and in April, normally the busiest time of year, 1256 foreign travelers entered Japan. This is a 99,9% (!!!!) drop since last year. I think this number fairly well displays the gravity of the situation. Especially considering the fact that Japan is a land that, more than ever before, depends on tourism to support its struggling economy.

In Kumamoto prefecture where I live, we still only have 48 confirmed infections and 3 deaths making us blessed compared to many other areas. Personally, I do believe that the unrecorded number of infections is far higher than the official numbers. But still, the fact that their have been few deaths is something to be thankful for.

The “State of Emergency Declaration” has been pulled back since first June and slowly, life starts to return to normal. I guess a more correct phrashing would be that everyone is desperately trying to grasp at what the new “post-corona-normal” is. Everyone fear the second wave and are trying to adapt with the correct countermeasures to both prevent further spreading of Corona while also allowing people to live a life outside of their homes.

This is a situation that has never been seen before and it’s hard to guess at what the future holds. When the situation truly calms down, hopefully, the world will be ready for a responsible form of travel. Small groups, awareness of local impact, exchange of ideas, a form of travel that promotes sustainable development, and preserves cultures and resources.

I will finish this before it turns into a rant, but I’m still here, Aso is still here, hopefully you will also be here in a not too far away future.

Stay safe, stay healthy!

Sincerely,

Max

 

3 days of Minamioguni adventures!

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Woop woop! I’m still alive!!! Sorry for the looooong time away! I’ve been a busy bee and even though I’ve had some time off here and there, that time has been spent face down in my bed.

So, let’s start off by saying that we have finally launched our website for the guided private tours we will do here in Minamioguni! Check it out!
https://satoyama-journey.jp/

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And on that note, at the end of last month, we invited three visitors who came all the way from France and Greece to act as test subjects for 4 whole days here in Aso (3 days in Minamioguni)!

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Let me introduce our guests! Feel free to skip me to the far left! First, we have Angeliki from Greece, then, Kelly from France, and to the far right Angeliki’s husband Nikola who is born in France but lives together with Angeliki in Greece.

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This also happens to be right at the start of our first day together and we are just about to set out on our first adventure. This tour focuses on enjoying the changing scenery of Minamioguni as you bike down the mountain while learning about the culture of this small town.

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Blessed with perfect weather we biked surrounded by green meadows and the Japanese pampas grass that dominates the scenery during this time of year. In the distance, you can see the five peaks of the volcano Aso towering proudly. If you look close enough you can even see a hint of the smoke rising from the active crater.

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After passing through grasslands and forests we arrive at a small community called Yoshiwara for our first break.

DSC_0028And here, the sweet and beautiful Noriko-san came out to greet us! 😍

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After dropping off our bicycles, time to hit the fields and gather some ingredients for our lunch!

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This is Noriko-san’s husband, Yukiharu-san! He taught us about the ample art of digging Satoimo from the ground. Satoimo? Well, the closest translation would be something like “village potato”! You find them hidden away beneath those large leaves that you see behind Yukiharu-san.

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And here we have Kelly harvesting some fresh spinach!

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After gathering our ingredients it was finally time for cooking!

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Noriko-san taking the lead, teaching traditional home-cooked Japanese food.

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Everyone taking part in, and enjoying, the preparation of our newly picked vegetables!

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The finishing touch in any Japanese dish is, of course, the Miso soup!

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Voila, today’s menu is:
1. Gameni, chicken stew with burdock, satoimo, carrots, lotus root, etc.
2. Shirae, spinach salad dressed with tofu, white sesame, and white miso
3. Home-made tofu
4. Miso soup
5. Pickled vegetables
6. Fresh rice from this year’s crop
And of course, everything is made from locally sourced vegetables!

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After lunch, we leisurely keep biking down the mountain, stopping and exploring whatever catches our interest.

Which can be anything from small mysterious shrines by the wayside to some adorable ponies craving our attention. The course continues down into the center of Minamioguni where it finishes at around 6,5 hours.

Since I’m trying to cover many days in one post here I’ll focus on the highlights and take the freedom of jumping straight into day 2!
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This time we will head into the mountains!

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More specifically, the forest! Our second tour which has been featured slightly on the blog before zoom in on the theme of forestry. Minamioguni has a deep history of forestry, especially growing Cedar trees. But the situation is complicated, and the forestry industry faces many challenges.

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The first person who will teach us about this during the tour is the head of the forestry association in Minamioguni, Sato-san.


Together, Sato-san and I cooperate to teach the in’s and out’s of how you fell a tree and explain why felling trees are actually an important part of protecting and keeping the forest healthy.

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After that, we use that same tree to create simple log constructions in the forest.

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For example, we might create something like this little log table where we enjoy a break and some hot coffee enveloped by the relaxing atmosphere of the forest.

After having worked up an appetite through our forest adventures we head to our next destination to restock on energy!
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Akio-san and Haruko-san, my favorite couple in Minamioguni!

As expected, our guests were blown away by their heartwarming hospitality and the amazingly tasty local home-made food! And as always when you visit Haruko-san and Akio-san at Irifune, you will gain a couple of kilos and literally roll out of the restaurant.

DSC_0227For the second part of our forestry tour, we visit the local lumbermill run by the Anai family. This is Rina-san and Shunsuke-san, they are some of the first people I had the pleasure of getting to know in Minamioguni and they cheered me on while I tried to apply for my working visa so I’m very happy to collaborate with them in this tour!

Shunsuke-san takes us on a small tour of the lumbermill talking about their feelings towards forestry, this town, and of course, explaining about the process that turns a tree into lumber.

After this, we head to their small workshop where Rina-san introduces one way to bring new value to the local forestry. They do this by making aroma oil from the needles of the cedar tree that otherwise only go to waste or might even damage the vegetation of the forest floor.

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This oil which contains the wonderful fragrant of cedar can be used for many things. One is to make these very fashionable aroma candles!

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Which we, of course, try out as well! This activity is fun, creative, and interactive. Our three adventurers became very focused on their tasks as they used dried flowers and such to design their personal candles which they then get to bring with them home.

On to our final day! And this time the theme is water!DSC_5608
Water is plentiful in Kumamoto and Aso! There are tons of natural springs that produce crystal clean mineral water around Aso. Thanks to a very intricate and fascinating water system Aso provides over a million people with their drinking water solely from groundwater. This water is the foundation for life in Aso and it seeps into every aspect of life here. Oh, and the water is good for posing as well!

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Anyway! What better place to start a water-themed tour than the idyllic Tateiwa suigen which hosts one of the river sources for the longest river in Kyushu!

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This natural water spring produces an overwhelming 380 tons of water every day and is protected and maintained by the 13 households that live in its vicinity.

To start off our exploration of this area we see what the water god has in store for us through water fortune-tellings. Dip the sheets in the water and watch as the words magically appear!

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Keep exploring! We walk along rice fields enjoying the rural landscapes.

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Capture some fish for our lunch at one of the local’s house.

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Learn more about the water of Aso as we walk through the serene moss-covered nature.

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After a while, we meet up with another local, the lovely Tamiyo-san. She teaches us about vegetables and lets us pick some more ingredients for our lunch.

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Everything from salad…

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…to root vegetables and even peanuts! It’s a great feeling to get down and dirty in the earth and pick your own food!

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After having explored and gathered all the ingredients we need for a plentiful lunch it’s time for a Japanese local cooking-school!

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The result, a feast fit for a king! There was so much food that it was nearly impossible to finish it all! But our hands just seemed to keep shoving food into our mouths until our stomaches were on the verge of bursting!

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And here we have three happy visitors enjoying everything from newly harvested rice, salad, newly caught fish, tempura fried vegetables, local traditional soup, dengaku and much much more!

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And here is our team of travelers together with our local hosts who help to make these awesome experiences possible!

After a short stop by a hot spring, we continue to pursue the truth behind these tasty looking shrooms!
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This is Shiitake grown on natural wood!

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And this shiitake is grown right here at Shimojo mushroom garden!

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And the young mastermind behind all of this and our host for our final stop is none other than Shimojo Ryosuke-san.

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Ryosuke-san teaches us about the process of growing shiitake mushrooms on natural wood. This is the original method of growing shiitake but in modern Japan, it actually only covers about 7 % of the total shiitake production as most shiitake today is grown on artificial wood.

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You might wonder what shiitake mushrooms have to do with water? Apart from the fact that a steady supply of water is a necessity to grow shiitake on natural wood, Ryosuke-san also uses water very innovatively to accomplish something normally impossible. But for more on that, you need to come and visit and see for yourself!

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After learning about the fascinating and long process that leads to these plump and flavorful looking mushrooms bursting out from the trees we, of course, need to do some tasting!

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And Ryosuke-san is always quick to bring out one of these small grills called shichirin! According to Ryosuke-san, charcoal-grilled shiitake with a bit of soy sauce on is the best way to enjoy the flavor. And I have to say that I agree!

We had a day 4 as well where we went around major tourist spots in the Aso area checking out the volcano, the caldera(see the first pic), famous waterfalls, and other goodies as well but I won’t go into that now! This post is long enough as it is!

But let me end with this picture that Kelly took during their ride to the airport.DSC_0583
Our visitors were very lucky with the weather. They even got to finish their visit with the sight of the sun rising over this stunning sea of clouds!

With that said, I want to thank our three guests for coming all the way here! They were on a tight schedule and had not much time for relaxation after their long flight. In spite of that, they took part in the tours wholeheartedly, not only enjoying the contents as guests but also by giving a lot of helpful and insightful feedback. Thanks to all their feedback we can improve the tours we provide here even further to ensure that visitors have the best experience possible.

But more than anything, it was simply great to get to know all three of you! All of you are amazing and inspiring people and I really feel blessed to have met you!

Kelly, Angeliki, Nikola, thank you for 4 wonderful days!

I hope to see you soon again!

Sincerely,

Max

Great escape, making miso and forest adventures! Oh and more sakura!

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Hello!! Max reporting in from Minamioguni!DSC_2483.JPG
Do you know what this is? This is a Japanese confectionary known as Yomogi mochi and it has nothing to do with the title of this week! At least almost nothing. But before that, some of you might have noticed the lack of a post from last week?

Well, that was thanks to this little angel sleeping so sweetly and innocently on my belly. Which for the record has become very soft and nice since moving to Minamioguni. The belly by the way, not the cat.
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Last Sunday I fully intended to update the blog after finishing my Sunday choirs. But that is when little miss Koko-chan who isn’t only sweet but also smart, somehow managed to open a small gap in the sliding doors that face the garden. Without consulting with me about dinner time or anything she left the security of the nest and headed out for adventures in the big wide world. I was fairly surprised and 100% in panic when I got home from the store to find the house empty. After a good 4-5 hours of diligent searching, I found about 10 rough-looking stray cats (that didn’t ease my concern) but not a single trace of Koko-chan. As it got dark I had no choice but to give up before some neighbor would call the police on me for sneaking around calling out “Koko-chan” in peoples backyards in the middle of the night. When I went to bed I left the gap in the door open and, believe it or not, just before 2 am a hungry Koko-chan burst into the house throwing herself over the cat food. There is nothing else to say then, thank god! But now she has gotten quite the taste for adventures and confused herself for an outdoor cat. Maybe it’s best to let her be outside as well? Hmmm… What to do…

Anyway, since two weeks have passed I will give you a few highlights! To start it off, the other day I had the opportunity to get a peek into the world of making Miso! Yes, the paste that is used as the base when making that delicious Miso soup we all enjoy to slurp down together with our sushi!

I was invited to help out/learn from a true Miso master, Sumako-san! The lovely lady in checks to the right! Sumako-san has so much character and energy that it almost feels like sparks fly in the air around her. Sumako-san has made Miso for many years and is a certified maker so her products are first class. There is only one problem… Her dialect is so thick that many Japanese people, let alone a poor half-fledged foreigner like myself, have a hard time keeping up with what she is saying. So I can’t really claim to truly have absorbed all the secrets of her Miso paste. Yet…

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But I did get really good at kneading Miso into a bucket! And I did pick up some things though! Miso is made from soybeans often mixed with rice or some other sort of grain. The fermentation process is started through using a rice mold known as koji. Which for the record also is used when making Japanese liquor such as sake and shochu. The mixed soybeans, grains and salt are passed through a grinder turning it into a paste that you then have to pack tightly before leaving to ferment in a cool place. How long do you leave it? 6 months!! :O Remember to plan ahead if you plan on making your own Miso!  I look forward to enjoying the Miso we made in… what? Like early October I guess?

But after all our efforts you kind of want something you can eat at once right? That is why we also made the above mentioned, Yomogi mochi!

Mochi is a very classic type of Japanese sweets made from rice and often filled with red sweet bean paste. The texture of the mochi itself is soft and slightly sticky and it fits really well with the sweet and nice red bean paste that you bake into it. This type is called Yomogi mochi thanks to the plant Yomogi which is used to give the rice cake its green color. So nice to eat it freshly made since the mochi is still warm which is quite unusual!

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Finally, we finished off with a  “simple”(read: super-tasty-and-anything-but-simple) lunch that Sumako-san threw together. I can’t stress enough how this is exactly the kind of experiences I wish to provide through my work and hope to share with different people from around the world. There is so much knowledge and fantastic people here and it is truly a privilege to be able to grow through coming into contact with them.

Next! Last year in February when I came to Minamioguni for the first time I heard that all the trees planted along the small river that passes through the town are actually cherry blossom trees. This is an actual picture I took at the time.IMG_3962.JPG
I can still clearly remember the feeling of excitement and uneasiness at the dream that slowly started to take shape as I watched these naked trees lining up along the river. As much as I wanted to hope and believe in this work opportunity and the possibility to live in this place, I also made sure not to get my hopes up in fear of disappointment. But from the bottom of my heart, I always wished that I would be able to relocate here and experience a proper hanami(=flower viewing, as it is called in Japan when you enjoy the blooming sakura with friends or family) by this river, under these trees.

And miraculously, one year later…
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Somehow I managed to end up right here. Right under the blooming sakura. And I’m not alone either!
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I have made more friends than I could ever have imagined and I feel so blessed to be able to fulfill this small dream of mine together with all these amazing people! I could not have imagined a better hanami than this! Here are some more pictures I shared on Instagram the other day.

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect day than this one. And a bonus that shows of how amazing Minamioguni is, as we were walking home from the hanami we met some friends just in the middle of preparing a BBQ in the garden of their house by the river. And of course, they invited us to join so a friend and I stayed and kept the party going. The perfect ending to a perfect day. Thanks to everyone who made it possible!


The last highlight for this time is actually from yesterday. There is this place known as FIL which is a studio that uses the local Oguni cedar to produce furniture, aroma and other products. The first people I met when I came to Minamioguni last year was the owners of FIL, Shunsuke-san, and Rina-san. They don’t only run FIL but they also run a respected sawmill and play an important role in promoting and supporting the forestry of Mt. Aso. Since I want to delve deeper into forestry I asked them to let me help out at the sawmill or with anything else that could help me learn more.
And nice as they are, they allowed a complete beginner like me to help out! Even though I’m probably more in the way than helping out at this point. So what did I get to do?

It was a day full of new experiences! Everything from felling this tree…

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…to getting to learn how to operate forest machinery…

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…to go to this towering elegant forest…

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…to pick up some lumber that will be cut into planks at the sawmill. And finally…

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…to help out with some good old wood-stacking back at the sawmill!

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I even found a chainsaw from good old Husqvarna making me feel reminiscent of my beloved and missed home country Sweden!

Yet another fantastic day full of new experiences including everything from how to operate a crane to how to tie the best knot when you need to strap a whole tree’s worth of branches to the back of a truck. Once again this is a perfect example of what I wish the tours I will conduct here to be like. The contents itself doesn’t need to be all that special or well-produced, it might sound strange, but I truly believe that the opportunity to jump into the real everyday life of people here is the ultimate experience. At least that is what I have felt as of lately!

It is getting late here so I will settle here for now!

I hope you enjoyed this post!

See you soon!

Max