Kenshūsei: becoming a farming apprentice in Japan Part 2 – Sainone

You can read part 1 here:

Arriving at Sainone-batake さいのね畑

I received a reply rapidly from Takekawa Hidenori-san 竹川英識 of Sainone: he said he wanted to make it clear that he spoke no English but added that, providing I was able to communicate in Japanese, he would be happy for me to come along for a nōgyō-taiken 農業体験 preliminary farming experience and did still have a place for a kenshūsei 研修生 intern. I took that as a good sign and got back to him straight away, making a phone call to reassure him that my Japanese was good enough to understand orders and engage in ordinary conversation. That seemed to do the trick, so I arranged to come visit the following friday, getting the early (arriving at 8.24) train from Tokyo to Kazusa Ichinomiya Station 上総一ノ宮駅 where Takekawa Maiko-san 竹川麻衣子, Hidenori’s wife, picked me up in her car, small son in tow.

After a short drive back through what looked like a pretty classic Japanese rural village – a patchwork of farm houses, greenhouses in various states of disrepair, disreputable jinja 神社 shintō shrines and fields of random shapes and sizes – we arrived at the nōka 農家 (yes, the word means both farmer and farmhouse!) farmhouse Hidenori had inherited from an aunt, allowing the young couple (both still in their thirties) to relocate to Chiba Prefecture 千葉県. A rather large Japanese-style single storey building with bright blue tiled roof, large garden and agricultural outbuildings, the farmhouse was surprisingly attractive (many Japanese farmhouses are either falling rapidly into disrepair or have been very badly – both hastily and cheaply – restored with basic and unattractive materials). Everyone was already at work in the fields (planting potatoes), so I got changed into my farming gear behind a curtain – teetering inelegantly on a palette as I tried hard to guide my feet from shoes to rubber wellies without either falling over or making the inexcusable gaffe of either stepping on the dirt ground in my socks or else on the “clean area” in my boots – in a corner of one of the outbuildings and got ready.

Just as on most farms in Japan, Sainone is a collection of different fields, some owned, some rented, but all in different locations, some near and some quite far from the farmhouse: as a result, doing anything anywhere requires both good planning and a car, and so that is how to we got to where the potatoes were being planted.

Getting my hands (and feet) in the dirt

When I got out of the car in the field where the potato-planting was going on (Hidenori-san and three or four young people – kenshūsei?), I got an immediate impression of the land that was being farmed and a sure confirmation of what I had seen on Google Maps before coming: soft, sandy soil under my feet and a strong, bracing wind in my hair were just what you would expect to encounter on farmland just over a kilometre from the Pacific Ocean. This was February in Chiba Prefecture, an otherwise balmy time of year (at least for a northener like me), but I was glad I was wearing stout boots, thick trousers and a waterproof jacket: the sandy soil would be tiring to walk on, and that wind would wear anyone down foolish enough to not covered themself up properly.

Everyone had obviously been at work for a few hours already – the trenchs were dug, cardboard potato boxes lay empty by a car and everyone was engaged in different jobs: some carrying about bags of fertiliser, others filling in trenches with hoes, others planting potatoes. I recognised Hidenori-san down the far end of the field and he waved to me as Maiko-san introduced to me to a young intern and gave me a bag of chicken manure fertiliser to spread in the trenches. This didn’t take long to do so (despite having huge amounts of fertiliser blown into my face by the wind), after a line or two, I switched to filling in the trenches, alternating sides as I went up and down, first pulling the earth over from my left, then switching hands to pull it from the right, so as to not do my back in straight away. As this was my first time back in the fields since arriving in Japan, I wasn’t sure how well I would do, or how long I would last, but it sure felt good! I didn’t have to worry, however, as at about 10.30 everyone stopped for a break: Maiko-san with help from her young son brought over bottles of coffee and green tea for everyone, and I was introduced to everybody. There was one young man who had been traveling all over Japan, working in exchange for food and board, spending no more than two or three months at each farm he came to before moving on again; there was a university graduate who had given up on his designated career path after only a few months, realising that what he had spent four years studying in lecture halls had in no way pr pared him for life in the real world; there was a young girl just about to finish her second and final year as a nōgyō-kenshūsei and about to leave to work on her own farm; and then there was another young man who, just like me, was visiting to get a feel for the farm with a possible to view to enrolling as an intern. In response to questions I was being asked, I was careful to point out that I was not so much new to farming as new to Japanese farming, telling them about my time in France and some of what I had learned there. Everybody seemed young and enthusiastic, but this was not France: Hidenori-san, despite for all intents and purposes seeming to be a perfectly jovial character, probably no older than me, was obviously considered by his staff to be the boss, someone to be respected, not joked with or teased.

Finishing the break, we all moved away from the edge of the field where we had been talking in the shelter provided by some trees, and got back to work, carrying out the same tasks – sowing potatoes (three or four different varieties) in the trenches, adding chicken manure, and covering with earth – for roughly the next hour and a half until lunch time.

Finding out about the farm

Lunch was back at the farmhouse: four or five people squeezed under a low table, sitting on ragged zabuton 座布団 cushions whilst another two made the dishes in the adjoined kitchen and ferried plates backwards and forwards. As everyone helped themselves from the dishes, using chopsticks to fill their bowls, and the Takekawas’s son asserted himself in typical Japanese toddler fashion, I learned a little more about the farm. Totalling a little under two and a half hectares, divided between three main plots, the land produced enough to supply some 120 odd families with a weekly vegetable box (in one of two formats: eight to ten different vegetables for 3000 yen, or five to seven for 2000 yen) each, as well as a number of restaurants not just in the local area, but in Tokyo as well. While the farm was not certified organic, it was worked without any chemicals or synthetic fertilisers, and roughly half of the seeds used were heirloom varieties (the other half being organic F1), quite a large percentage, as I was to come to realise. Hidenori-san told me that most of the land was rented, simply because it made little financial sense to buy: 10 ares cost roughly 900,000 yen to buy but only 10,000 yen to rent for a year. As he pointed out, why spend the equivalent of 90 years of rent when it wasn’t at all sure that his son (and grandson) would ever want to take on the farm after him. As the couple were both still young, and presumably not earning much as farmers, I assumed they probably didn’t have very much money to spend anyway.

As lunch came to an end and the staff moved off to have a rest before the afternoon shift, Hidenori-san asked me to stay so we could talk about the kenshūsei situation. Because I was still a little unsure of what the system entailed and what was necessary, I asked him to explain a little. He told me that it was a one or two year programme, that there was one day off per week – Monday in their case – that the apprentices all shared the sleeping spaces: one room for boys, one for girls, and that the basic allowance was 10,000 yen per month. He also added that it was relatively hard to find a house and land in the area: because they were comparitively close to Tokyo, many houses were being used as weekend homes, and the land was either used to build no or else rented out to farmers already installed. A this point I hadn’t realised that there was financial help available from the government (the 1,500,000 yen I mentioned in part 1 of this series), so he promised to send me a link to information about that later on.

I took this little talk as a sign that he liked me enough to consider having me as an apprentice, but I also wondered whether most farmers weren’t just desperate for free (well, 10,000 yen per month allowance and three meals a day aside) help. Either way, he said it would be good if I spent the afternoon going round the farm with his wife who could answer any questions I might have and help me get a feel for the place. And so, with her son running on ahead, Maiko-san took me to see the chicken coop to begin her tour.

Roughly one hundred feisty (they chased us out) chickens were in the coop, fed on vegetable scraps from the farm. Maiko-san explained that they were kept for eggs which were sold to their customers as an optional add-on to the vegetable boxes (six eggs for 250 yen, laughably cheap compared to Tokyo prices) and that they didn’t really eat them themselves: when they slaughtered some birds, they invariably sold the carcasses to a wholesaler, very rarely consuming meat at home. We next visited a greenhouse or, more properly speaking a hoophouse of the type typical all over Japan: transparent vinyl sheeting pulled tight over a metal tube framework and heldin place with a combination of plastic clips and wire springs. Measuring about six metres by about thirty, it was much smaller that the greenhouses I had become used to in Sologne. I assumed they would cost less, too so, curious, I asked: 500,000 to 600,000 yen new, I was told. Maiko-san also added that whilst you could buy them second hand or save money by putting them up yourself, it wasn’t recommended in the region: being so close to the sea they were frequently hit by typhoons and and they only way to have them insured was to let the wholesaler put them up for you.

As I was driven from field to field (all the while wondering how much they spent on petrol) in the little white minibus-van that so many Japanese producers use to deliver their goods in, I learnt that the main organic fertilisers used were chicken manure, ground oyster shell, vegetable powder and fish extract and marveled at the fact that all the fields were planted (that wouldn’t be possible in February where I come from, or even in France where I learnt organic farming) and that the greenhouses seemed to be used primarily as a nursery.

A colourful end to my visit

Arriving back at the farmhouse at about 4 pm, Hidenori-san asked me if I’d like to stay the night: he was having some friends over for a party and he thought I’d find them interesting. He had also obviously latched on to the fact that I had worked in the drinks industry for fifteen years and could probably be relied upon to hold a drink or two! I promptly replied that I’d love to, but pointed out that I should probably ask my wife first and so phoned home to ask if Mizue would mind. She said she didn’t (well not too much for it to be a problem!) so I went inside and helped clear some space, tidying away futons (the party was to be held in the two adjoining main rooms where the kenshūsei slept) and pulling over some tables.

The evening started gently (I was seated opposite Hidenori-san so we talked some more about farming and I dutifully played the role of potential future kenshūsei, pouring drinks and making polite convesation), but it began to take off really quickly. Before I knew it I was drinking shochu, sake and whisky – if not quite all at once, then at least in pretty fast succession – toasting with Hidenori-san and the guest of honour, an architect specialised in restoring old farmhouses with whom I had a permaculture friend in common (Hidenori-san was right that I would find him interesting) and who had plenty of advice on how to rebuild an old house for cheap. I can remember music being played and everyone dancing, I can remember drunkenly calling (actually I didn’t call him, I sent him a live video without realising it, wondering why he wasn’t answering) a friend in Niigata to tell him about this crazy place in Chiba, and then I can vaguely remember collapsing onto a pile of futon in the corner of the room, thinking that I hadn’t had that much to drink since I had left Scotland. I can also just about recall getting on famously with Hidenori-san and him – or me? – coming up with the brilliant idea of exchanging hats as a token of eternal friendship. But I can’t remember much else. And the video I sent from my phone – showing three Japanese dancing manically in the midst of a pile of childrens’ toys against the backdrop of some ink-painted sliding Japanese fusuma doors whilst another two lay hunched over a bottle of Suntory Old, could just as well have been taken by someone else, were it not for the fact that I can see my feet at the bottom of the screen (it would seem I was already on the floor at that point).

Needless to say, the morning after was rough. In fact, it was rough for everyone: an emergency day-off was declared on the grounds that no one was fit to work. I tried to drink as much water as possible, hoping I wouldn’t smell too much on the train back to Tokyo (I had slept in my clothes). Maiko-san, who had very sensibly disappeared at some early point in the evening, took me to the train station, plying me with vegetables to take with me and seeming genuinely sad to see me go. Hidenori-san, who was in the back with me, said he looked forward to seeing me again and, touched by them both, I entered the station, waving goodbye as I went.

The trip back to Tokyo was tough: before the train even appeared at the platform I had been to the bathroom twice, once aboard I asked myself as we arrived at each station whether I should not get off and wait for the next train, and in between I made regular trips to the bathroom, gripping feverishly the handbar as the sideways motion rocked my insides and bounced my brain around inside my head.

When finally I made it home, I went straight to bed thinking two thoughts: what a hellish ride home, what a wonderful place to work…


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