Nohaku is a unique homestay experience where guests get to step into the lives of local families that work in […]
Homestay in Notsu.
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In the town of Notsu, homestays are quite popular. Today, I visited one of the families, Mr & Mrs Takio from “Obata no Ie” which means “The house of the big vegetable patch.”
When I first arrived at the house, I was amazed at the surrounding environment. No other houses nearby, all surrounded by mountains. Before I could even say “Konnichiwa” to the family, the father of the household, Takeo-san called, “Quickly! Obaachan (grandma) is making Konnyaku!” Before I came to the house, I had informed the family that I wanted to experience as much as possible, such as farming, cooking and making something special. I hadn’t thought we would start the very moment I arrived!
So, there I was with Obaachan making Konnyaku. Konnyaku is gummy food without so much of its own flavor, and goes well in a slow-simmered dish called “Onden”. It is made from a starchy root vegetable called “Konnyaku-imo”, known in English as “Devil’s tongue”. When I arrived, she was in the process of mixing the starch with water and kneading it.
Obbachan told me, “You have to make a shape like a ball. And shape it with your hands. Tsuru-tsuru, tsurutsuru (slippery-slippery, polish-polish).” Eventually, the smell changed and Obaachan said, “Now, time to boil the Konnyaku.”
In this house, they have a traditional, Japanese wood stove called a Kamado, which you would usually cook rice and miso-soup on. They were boiling water in a large pot over the fire. In went the Konnyaku balls and soon it was done!
Wow, that was a nice, quick experience. Then, Takeo-san said, “Hey, let’s make some bamboo chopsticks!” He took me to a shack filled with all his gadgets, one of which is for shaping bamboo chopsticks.
Starting with two slender pieces of bamboo, I followed the process of thinning, polishing, and burning off any stray fibers. In no time they were finished! I now had my own chopsticks for my meals during the homestay. Of course, you can take these as a souvenir. Takeo-san told me, “If you want to keep the nice green color of the bamboo, you need to keep them in the freezer or the color will eventually turn a yellowish-brown.”
I was very satisfied with the quality of my chopsticks and was taking photos when Takeo-san suddenly disappeared.
He returned shortly with another root vegetable and said, “Look! I dug up a Yamaimo (Japanese wild potato) for you! If you search in the forest, it has a heart-shaped leaf as you can see. We often go into mountains and forage for different mountain vegetables. You should comeback during spring! I can show you more!”
Then, as I was taking a photo of the leaves, Takeo-san disappeared again. He had gone to his Shiitake mushroom plantation, to pick Shiitake for us. “It is a good season for mushrooms! I will make a charcoal fire and grill some for you,” he said, as he bustled around.
You would think the country lifestyle is nice, calm and relaxing, but it’s actually very busy I realized as I watched Takeo-san. Hard working farmers are always busy with something. Takeo-san said he needed to prepare several things for me, so he suggested I go for a walk around his property. Walking along the trail, I saw lots of Kunugi oak trees which are used for growing Shiitake mushroom and many Kabosu citrus trees. There were also some traps set for wild boar, all manner of things to trap and grow a plethora of food, right here on the property!
I was very happy after my long walk, and when I got back, Takeo-san invited me into the living room and started making a charcoal fire.
“It is best to eat Shiitake mushrooms cooked on a charcoal fire! How would you like to eat them? Butter and soy sauce is nice, isn’t it?”
Takeo-san also started to grate the Yamaimo he dug up earlier. “Look! How sticky and thick it is! You can only eat this in this season and only wild ones have this texture! You cannot taste this in the city!”
While I was listening to Takeo-san’s explanations, his wife, Yayoi-san had been preparing dinner for us.
Sooooooo much food for just three of us (Obaachan didn’t join us), but that is the tradition for Japanese people in the countryside when they have guests. Using the bamboo chopsticks I had made I ate some of the Konnyaku which we made on my arrival.
The chopsticks had a nice green smell, and the Konnyaku was more chewy than what I usually get from the supermarket. I told Takeo-san that I liked the smell of the bamboo, and he said “Then, you must like this. Bamboo sake!” and he brought out segments of bamboo and, placing them near the charcoal, poured Sake into them. He said by doing this, the bamboo and Sake will heat up and make a “bamboo-fragrance, warm sake.” Takeo-san was always telling me, “You should eat this way! It taste better! Now try this way! This is also good.” And each time I tried what he told me and he was always right. He knew the best way to enjoy many local ingredients.
After bathing, I was shown to my bedroom…ah, futon room. Since this was winter, I was a bit worried the room might be too cold without air conditioning, but I instantly fell asleep in the comfortable bedding.
The next morning, we went to fetch local mineral water. Oita prefecture is rich with water resources and Takeo-san’s place is very close to one collection point.
We brought the water back to the house and made some coffee. It sure tasted different to what you would usually drink!
After coffee and breakfast, Takeo-san took me for a walk to visit some of his friends. He showed me the nice Bonsai garden of his friend, a field of chives, his favorite old tree, the dog who always barks at you…
Many of the neighbors invited us for a cup of tea and a chat. It was nice to meet many of the locals in this way. It was just a special moment.
When we returned from our walk, Yayoi-san was preparing lunch… homemade pizza!
Takeo-san’s friend made a special oven for pizza, Takeo-san said “It’s the best thing he’s ever made!” I felt that people in the countryside are very inventive, making things to make life more enjoyable. So, we spread the dough which Yayoi-san had made, put homemade tomato sauce, some homegrown vegetables and cheese on and here it is!
We had to be careful because it was right out of the oven and extremely hot… but it was such a special and fulfilling taste.
After lunch it was time to say goodbye. I felt like I was leaving a relative’s house, and promised everyone I would return. When I went in to say goodbye, Obaachan was examining red beans very carefully.
She said, “All the food needs to be beautiful, so you need to pay special attention to each one.” So, I thought, that was why all the food here tasted great, because of this philosophy of hers which was rooted deep in the family. When I told Obaachan that I was leaving, she wrote me a special tannka, a thirty-one syllable poem just for me!
It really was a memorable time, feeling such warmth from these people during my homestay. I guess it was a bit hectic too since I had asked to experience many special things. I highly recommend staying 2 nights to experience what I did in 1 day. You would find it hard to find a better way to experience life in the Japanese countryside.
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