WWOOFing in Japan: Living the Dream!

Triggered by boredom and maybe stress, my friend and I planned for an impromptu trip. I know that sounds convoluted, but the trip was mostly unplanned. First we were thinking to do the trans-Siberian railway, but I pulled away because it would require considerable amount of resources in terms of money and time. That route is still in my bucket list though. My friend N is into organic farming, and she heard about World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) from someone she knew. It’s an organization that connects growers (hosts) with volunteers looking to expand their life experiences in new places. WWOOF. To be connected, both parties need to be registered in the country’s WWOOF organization.

N suggested WWOOF Japan, and she picked Hokkaido as place to start. What? Hokkaido? I would never say no because it’s in my top list for places to visit in Japan. And it would a totally new traveling experience – staying with the locals for a week (the duration can vary) and enjoying the nature in slow pace. So, we signed up for a-year membership, contacted potential hosts to ask if they would accept us, and bought the flight to Hokkaido.

We landed in a small town in Hokkaido. Our host, W-san picked us up in the train station. ‘Konnichiwa,’ he greeted us. I remembered he was wearing a T-shirt with some Thai characters. N who is Thai asked him if he knew what was on T-shirt. He didn’t know, but he later found out. It was about 10-15 minute drive to his house. Along the way, there were a lot of rice fields and almost no one around.

Dream house

Dream house

His house is on the foot of a mountain, and in front of the house, there was a flower garden. When I was little, that was how I pictured my dream house would be. His house looked quite westernized, and inside was even better. It looked very rustic and homey. N and I were totally mesmerized. Thank God we were there.

The first night got even better. There was a Japanese girl who was also WWOOFing there, but it was her last night. We had a FEAST and everything was homemade. For N and I, it was like coming from a posh restaurant made by a skilled chef. We wondered if every dinner was going to be like that. Although it did not, every meal was always delicious and satisfying. We were also introduced to W-san’s small family. There was his wife, his mother who we called obaa-chan (grandma), and his two dogs. He also has a teenage daughter, but she was going to school in a different town.

Potato and sweet potato croquettes

Potato and sweet potato croquettes

We stayed in a small lodge in the mountain made by W-san himself instead of staying in his house. Yamagoya 『山小屋』was what he called it. Inside there was a bunk bad attached to the wall and the roof, some chairs, notes and other basic stationery, a small portable stove, a cooler, a sink, and a clothesline. There was also a compost toilet outside, which uses soil to cover things up. To our surprise, the toilet was pretty good except that we sometimes had wild imagination, such as spiders and weird insects would come out and bite us. Nothing like that ever happened though.

View from the mountain

View from the mountain

A bench to sit on at night to enjoy the summer starry sky

A bench to sit on at night to enjoy the summer starry sky

There was no water and electricity in the lodge, but we were welcomed to shower and charge our phones in his house. We always had our breakfast in the lodge and were supplied with milk, white bread, eggs, butter, honey and jam spread. I know it would sound exaggerating but every morning when we had our breakfast, we never got tired of what we had. The honey was from the bees he was raising, and the rhubarb and haskap berry jams were from the produce he grew. All natural and organic :)

We usually went down around 9 am to help out. W-san would tell us what to do and equip us with necessary tools and protective garments such as long sleeve coats and rubber boots. On one day we might harvest some potatoes, and on some days we would help him out maintaining the mountain’s walking paths. We would take a break at noon time for lunch and continue a couple more hours. In the afternoon, he might ask us to walk Ken-chan, an old mountain dog Obaa-chan found ten years ago. We also had a chance to go cycling around and went to catch sunset.

Camomile for the tea

Camomile for the tea

Some edible mushrooms

Some edible mushrooms

Catching sunset

Catching sunset

If I were to write everything down, it would be really long, but some of the best highlights were going mushroom picking in the woods, having fresh and sweet edamames (the sweetness decreases over time after being picked), and cooking our country’s food and meeting W-san’s friends.

I am so grateful for W-san’s and his family’s generosity although we actually did not help much with the work at all. I saw a man who was passionate about what he was doing, willing to take strangers in and share his experience and life with them although he did not receive much in return.

~each encounter is really a blessing!

Hiking on a cloudy day. Thank God it didn't rain!

Hiking on a cloudy day. Thank God it didn’t rain!

Another hiking view

Another hiking view

South Korea: Annyeong (안녕)

Having unfinished posts is like owing someone money. There is always some lingering feeling that I somehow have to get the job done. So, this post should hopefully end that feeling.

Day 5

Place visited: Seongsan Ilchulbong, Orange Farm, Chilsimni Food Street, Jeongbang Falls

Accommodation: Sum Guesthouse

I think I am a person who aims high, but also being pragmatic (or easily giving up) once one or two things do not go in my way. For instance, I was planning to watch sunrise at Seongsan Ilchulbong, which is also known as the Sunrise Peak. I thought that would be awesome, but winter was the problem. It was cold, which made it hard to rise early in the morning. As expected, we didn’t go watch sunrise that day, but we still headed to Seongsan Ilchulbong. Along the way, we spotted some middle-aged women in diving suits. These ‘sea women’ or haenyeo are literally wonder women who dive in the cold, deep sea to harvest seafood without any breathing equipment. During the 17th century, a lot of men were gone because of the war, forcing women to do the job. Since then, diving in Jeju has exclusively become women’s job. However, the number of the sea women is decreasing because it is dangerous and does not give much in return. Amazingly some old ladies even in their eighties are still active in the sea, indicating that they are worthy to be listed as Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Our climb to Seongsan Ilchulbong was welcomed by light drizzle and cold breeze, but like other visitors, we were not discouraged. Seongsan Ilchulbong is the result of hydrovolcanic eruptions with  a bowl-like crater on the top. It is a easy climb to the top through the stairs, and toilets are even available half way. After reaching the peak, I could see the crater and it did not look anything spectacular. I guess having an aerial view of the whole place will be much better. We headed back and rewarded ourselves with some hot fish cake and fried sausage before heading to our next destination.

Seoungsan Ilchulbong

Seoungsan Ilchulbong

View from height

We were going for orange picking! Jeju is well known for its citrus fruit. In fact, you can see the symbol carved everywhere including at the bus stops. I had  a problem finding the address of orange farms, and the only one I could find  online was The Orange Farm, which claims to be the most southernmost orange farm. The address is 164 Namwinamseong-ro, Namwon-eup, Seogwipo-si, Jeju-do. Along the way, we could see many orange and mandarin trees on the side of the streets or in the yards of some residents. The sun was out, too, although it was still cold. We parked our car and directly headed to buy ticket. It cost 8,000 won per person, and we could pick 1 kg of mandarins (no oranges) to bring home and eat as much as we could on the spot. Besides that, we were given some food to feed the animals in the farm.

The Orange Farm

The Orange Farm

Mandarins!

Mandarins!

The place was a bit empty. I was not sure if it was because of the end of the orange/mandarin season, so we gave ourselves a tour. At first, we some some animals such as ducks, bunnies, deer, and donkey. It was a great joy to feed them as they finished everything we gave. Along the route, there were some greenhouses with orange/mandarin trees inside, but they were not for picking. Our mandarin trees were just located at the end, and we could see they were not at their best condition. Still we had a lot of fun. Since the weather was cold, the mandarins were as if they were kept in the fridge. We were told that we could not throw what had been picked,  so we either had to bring it home or eat it. My family just went wild and we had picnic under the trees, eating the mandarins. The highest record went to my uncle who probably had a dozen of oranges that day. Before finishing, the person who was looking after the farm gave us a mandarin that was put on top of a fireplace. I guess we could call it roasted mandarin. The taste just surprised me because it tasted just like roasted sweet potato.

Mom feeding ducks

Mom feeding ducks

Brother with approximately 2 kgs of mandarins

Brother with approximately 2 kgs of mandarins

The farm also sold some other Jeju specialties such as flavored rice krispies and cactus chocolate. However, I later found out some other places actually have better deal, so I do not recommend getting them there. After that, we went looking for real food and found ourselves in Chilsimni food street. I actually imagined there would be a lot of food vendors in the street, but the streets were quite empty because it was not dinner time yet. There were many restaurants to choose for, but we picked one that served fish. Our family is fish and seafood lovers, so we really enjoyed it. After that, we quickly headed to Jeongbang Falls before sunset. It is said that Jeongbang Falls is the only waterfall in Asia that falls directly into the ocean. But, in terms of water volume or height, nothing was special for this waterfall. We spotted some ladies who probably dived in the ocean selling fresh seafood. They cleaned and sliced some sea cucumbers and served them with some dipping sauce. It should have tasted fresh and sweet, but unfortunately we did not get to try it.

Matcha-flavored chocolate

Matcha-flavored chocolate

Grilled fish served!

Grilled fish served!

Tastiest fish dish of the day

Tastiest fish dish of the day

Jeongbang Falls

Jeongbang Falls

View near the falls

View near the falls

That concluded our Jeju trip.

Day 6

Place visited: Bukchon Hanok Village

Accommodation: Hostel KW, Hongdae

Despite taking a morning flight from Jeju to Seoul, we only got a half day left to explore Seoul. So, we went to Bukchon Hanok Village to get a feel of how traditional Korean neighborhood was like. I was impressed at the willingness of the government as well as the residents to preserve the traditional architecture. Visitors were welcomed to roam free but advised to keep the noise down. Some of the houses were actually museums, galleries, craft workshop, and restaurants. So, there were things to do and see besides the building architecture itself. N Seoul Tower or Namsan Tower is also clearly visible from here, and it’s a common stop for people who are visiting this area. We just wondered around, and skipped Namsan Tower altogether because my dad was not fond of height. I remembered we visited the Empire State Building in New York, and bought the ticket to the observation deck. He probably just spent a second looking down, and decided it was not for him. Anyway, Namsan Tower is famous for its padlocks left by couples as a symbol of locking their love. I guess it is a more appropriate place for couples because of its romantic atmosphere. Day quickly turned to night. We went back to Hongdae area for dinner. Since we were quite traumatic with our BBQ dining experience, we opted for something different. We ended up at a place for chicken and beer, which was somewhat inspired by the drama ‘My Love from Another Star.’ For Indonesians, there is always something missing in a restaurant if it does not serve rice. Although rice is almost everywhere in South Korea, but it is not as ubiquitous as it is in Indonesia. Try visit McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, and any fast-food chains in Indonesia, and they will have rice. So, my family definitely complained about just having chicken and salad. When we went back to the hostel, they had another round of dinner with rice, of course. By definition, for an Indonesian to eat is to have rice (period).

Bukchon Hanok Village

Bukchon Hanok Village

 

Day 6

Place visited: Myeong dong, Nangdaemun Market

Accommodation: Hostel KW, Hongdae

Finally one last day was left to explore Seoul. We took our day easy, and the plan was only to go shopping. My aunt had a long list of cosmetics to buy from my cousins. So, our destination was Myeong-dong. It is a shopping district with lots of cosmetics stores, such as Etude House, The Face Shop, Nature Republic, and many more. Each offered a lot of freebies with purchase, so it was hard to resist. The boys were not interested in cosmetics, so they went off wandering by themselves. We also went to Nangdaemun afterwards, but ended up stopping at one stall buying umbrellas only. You can bargain at the market, especially when you buy more than one item. I find bargaining is a lot of fun, but usually I am not the type to take initiative. With the aunties around, I had no choice but to be their translator to do the transaction. Also notice that many items were not made in Korea, so always ask if you care about it. Comparing items made in China with those made in Korea, I notice that the later have better quality, but they also come with price. There is always a trade-off, so make your own decision.

Freshly made cream puff. Yummo!

Freshly made cream puff. Yummo!

Myeong dong

Myeong dong

Cute stuff

Cute stuff

Egg bread

Egg bread

 For dinner, we were just planning to have something different. There is a small Italian restaurant, so my brother and I thought we could buy some to-go. Apparently, they only have dine-in, so we ended up ordering a bit for 6 of us. After finishing the meal, we also dropped by a local supermarket for a last minute shopping for  snacks. I bought a bottle of soju, and when I paid I was shocked! It only cost 1,200 won (~1.20 USD), so for a second, I thought I grabbed a bottle of sparkling water or something. I asked the cashier if it was soju, and he nodded with a smile. I felt silly and thought maybe one was too little since it was that cheap. But, no one was into drinking, and I bought it for the experience purpose. We had a round of sipping the soju with every person trying to imitate the expression ‘Ahhhhh’ after drinking soju I found in K drama. That was a lot of fun. With that, our ended our excursion in Seoul.

Soju

Soju ~ Ahhhhh!

Small Italian restaurant near where we stayed!

Small Italian restaurant near where we stayed!

Pasta with olive oil and garlic (Aglio et Olio)

Pasta with olive oil and garlic (Aglio et Olio)

Day 7

Flying home! Annyeong! It was great fun, and I knew I was gonna miss it. And I did. Hope I would have another opportunity to explore more and to experience what the locals have to offer.

Last words, all picture credits go to my brother. Thanks bro… I won’t be able to finish the writing without you!

South Korea: A Love Affair

I didn’t think my post about the trip will be this long. But since I can still recall the details, why not to put as much as I can.

Day 3

Place visited: Pyeongchang, Hongdae Area

Accommodation: Sis N Bro Guesthouse

Method of Transport to guesthouse from Pyeongchang: taxi to Japngpyeong, then bus to Dong Seoul Terminal (Gangbyeon), and subway to Hongik University.

The bed was so comfortable. In fact, all of us had a hard time waking up early. When we looked out from the balcony, I was amazed that we made it Pyeongchang despite the we had to face. The view was all white because of the fresh snow. My parents were excited as it was their first time seeing and experiencing snow that they could only imagine or see on TV before. We did not have sufficient time to try skiing, and my dad was too old for sledding (the upper age limit is 55). So, we just enjoyed what we could: Snow ball fight!

View from hotel room

View from hotel room

Photo Feb 07, 6 33 43 PM Photo Feb 07, 7 09 55 PM

It was heaps of fun and we were quite geared up for the snow, so no complain at all regarding the weather. I guess snow has its own magic that makes all of us young at hearts. Saying that, have you watched Frozen yet? You should if you haven’t :)

After having lunch, we had to leave Pyeongchang for Seoul. It was short, but sweet. I’m just grateful for time we as family could spend together and for the good memories we made.

Bibimbap

Bibimbap

When we arrived in Seoul, it was snowing! Since the temperature in Seoul was higher, the snow just melted as it touched the ground, giving an impression as rain rather than snow. We had to go get our luggages that we left at Banana Backpackers and moved to Sis N Bro guesthouse located in Hongik University (Hongdae) area. Maybe you are wondering why we had to stay in that area. The next day all of us had to fly,  I just came across Hongdae when researching the most convenient place to stay to catch the train to the airports.

Sis N Bro Guesthouse is quite unique. It also has a heated floor, something that is apparently very common in South Korea. Even when it was during the old times, the palace, for example, already had heated flooring. At that time, the building was built on top of  a stove. To make sure they were not burning themselves, the floor was supported by stones, rather than wood. By burning firewood, the heat was transferred to floor, and the smoke was exhausted through chimneys. In the modern days, they use heated water pipes instead of flow of heat generated from burning wood. My younger brother thought the concept was awesome, and he might incorporate this idea in his future home. If that’s the case, I shall visit you often, brother!

Korean traditional fireplace to heat the floor

Korean traditional fireplace to heat the floor

The chimney to exhaust the smoke from the underground passage.

The chimney to exhaust the smoke from the underground passage.

We had some take-out food for dinner. Yep, don’t say take-away or food to-go because people there may not understand you. The word ‘take-out’ will save your night. I think we bought some fried rice and some pizza from a local shop. The pizza was so good, but from the standpoint of people who had rice continuously for three days. Rice is just everywhere in South Korea.

Spicy Chicken Pizza

Spicy Chicken Pizza

 

Day 4

Place visited: Gimpo International Airport, Jeju Island

Accommodation: Sum Guesthouse

Method of Transport in Jeju: rental car

A new day was dawning; we were set to a much awaited adventure – Jeju Island. My youngest brother had to bid goodbye first to South Korea as he had to start school. The rest of us headed to Gimpo for our flight to Jeju. We used T’way Airlines, which is a budget airlines that offers domestic route from Seoul to Jeju. We booked our tickets online and got the promotion price. The website was only in Korean, but with the help of Google translate, we somehow could manage the reservation. Jeju Air has a website in English, making the booking easier. However, at the time of the reservation, we couldn’t find any flights.

My brother also booked a car equipped with a GPS in Jeju. I forgot the company’s name, but it was affiliated with Hertz. After arriving, we were transported using a shuttle to pick up the car. For your information, you will need international driver’s license to drive in Korea. It also employs right-hand traffic just like in the US.

After settling the logistics, we headed out for lunch. Jeju is famous for its seafood and black pork. I’m not sure which place to try, but using the GPS to find the closest restaurant, we came across a place serving hotpot and BBQ with black pork. The place was called Jejujangteo Pork Restaurant (제주 장 터). When I saw the menu, I thought the price was reasonable. What I meant to order was two servings of black pork hotpot and one serving of beef BBQ for my brother. I wasn’t sure about the portion, so it was better order a bit first and we could add more later. Our demographics consisted of some young women, tons of older people who have many health concerns, and one young man. You see why now I didn’t want to go all out with food. However, the restaurant people misunderstood me. We were divided into three tables. Two tables have the hotpot, and the other has the BBQ. Then, came the food. Two huge plates of thinly sliced black pork, ready to be dipped in the boiling soup, tons of fresh veggies, and complete set of condiments. The beef plate for the BBQ was also huge. I forgot which beef part it was, but it has couple-of-centimeter-width of fat part. Sure, it’d be good, but who could finish it.

I finally understood why we had so much food. They just served us 6 servings of black pork and 3 servings of BBQ beef. The food was really good; I can’t argue with that. But I felt bad not being able to finish it. They almost served us some noodle with the hotpot, but we just declined saying we couldn’t take it anymore. The beef BBQ had a strong impression on me. Grill it, wrap it using lettuce together with some sauce and other side dishes. Super tasty, but fatty.

Black pork hotpot

Black pork hotpot

The veggies

The veggies

Fatty bbq beef

Fatty bbq beef

After very satisfying lunch, we started our adventure in Jeju with the Mysterious Road (Dokkaebi Road). We had a hard time pinpointing the exact location in the GPS, but if you are going to the right direction, you’ll find brown road signs, indicating common tourist spots. Just follow the sign, and you’ll be fine. The portion of the road that appears mysterious is only 100-meter long. Do not expect too much, because even when you walk along the road, you may not find anything special about it. OK, I’ll tell you then. The road just appears slightly inclined. So, suppose if we let a bottle roll by giving it a bit of push to start with, we will expect it to roll up a little bit, and then roll back to us. Interestingly, that is not case. The bottle keeps rolling up. Is there no  gravity there? According to the law of energy, this doesn’t make any sense.

Mysterious Road

Mysterious Road

Actually we failed with the bottle experiment. We tried using the car by shifting the gear to neutral. The car was supposed to stop if the road is inclined, but it kept going albeit very slowly. Ta-da, that was the ‘mystery’ part of the road. If you wonder why, it is caused by optical illusion. The road is actually  not inclined, but the high surroundings make it look like that. According to Wikipedia, there are apparently many places around the world that exhibit similar illusion. If you are into this kind of thing, you can start a list.

Along the road, there is only one shop selling food, putting signs in English, Chinese, and surprisingly Indonesian. One of the shop attendants can even converse in basic Indonesian. I was impressed, but that just means that the road is often visited by Indonesian tour groups.

Since it was getting colder, we opted for an indoor activity at the Trick Art Museum. There are actually many museums to visit, but I was not sure which we all would enjoy. We just ended up with that one. The admission ticket was quite pricey comparing to that for visiting palaces. If you are into taking ‘cool’ pictures, it will be a great place to visit.

Trick Art Museum

Trick Art Museum

Finishing with the museum, we then visited Jeju Folk Village. It was really windy, so nobody tried to take any pictures. We just did a quick walking around, led by a friendly Korean lady who spoke to us in Korean just because she could not speak English or Indonesian. Jeju Folk Village was used as the filming site for Dae Jang Geum (Jewel in the Palace). I didn’t know that before until the Korean lady mentioned it. Jeju island is covered in volcanic rock, so the traditional houses made use of what was abundant for the their materials. The lady ended up taking us into one room where she tried selling some cactus flower jam and some kind of tea that tasted sweet. We ended up buying the tea as a way to say ‘thank you’ for giving us the tour.

After saying good bye to the lady, we headed back to the guesthouse as the day turned dark.

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