Trip duration: 8 days
Hosts: Kazuo and Yuko Yamaguchi and family (four generations of the Yamaguchi family live in the immediate vicinity. )
Kazuo Yamaguchi on his strawberry farming ambitions:
“A world of just strawberries isn’t enough. If you start thinking about the fruit only as a business, it stops being interesting. That’s why I want to do more.”
I decided to take advantage of the Seishun 18 kippu to travel by train from Yokohama to Karatsu, on the southernmost island of Kyushu. The journey would normally have taken three days of nearly nonstop train travel each way, but because that was a bit much to stomach, I cheated and took the bullet train from Yokohama to Kyoto on the way down, and from Hakata to Kurashiki on the way back, cutting the journey down to 2 days on each side. It was a very scenic trip, but not exactly restful with all the train transfers (over 20 each way). Still, the Seishun 18 kippu is an amazing deal, and a great way to catch a glimpse of Japan’s unique train culture.
Impressions of the work:
Karatsu, and Kyushu in general, had a very different feel to me than any place I have experienced in Japan thus far. Generally speaking, people seemed more informal and direct. Karatsu, even in the dead of winter, had brave surfers on its beaches and an impressive array of mikan orchards and strawberry greenhouses dotting its environs. This was my first solo farm stay, and the longest one I have done to date. After meeting Kazuo Yamaguchi at the station, my anxieties about the farm stay immediately disappeared. He and the rest of the family were so welcoming and friendly that by the end of the week, I felt like they were my own family. I spent many of my mornings working in one of the dozen or so pleasantly warm greenhouses owned by the Yamaguchi family, pulling weeds from the strawberry plants as the wind howled outside. The family produces both regular strawberries and the gigantic “Ai berry”, a lime-sized strawberry that is astonishingly juicy and sweet. Six of the giant berries, totaling 150 grams in weight, typically sell for about 3000 yen ( about 40USD). After getting accustomed to working closely with strawberries of different varieties, sizes, and varying shades of ripeness, Kazuo Yamaguchi showed me how to identify strawberries that had reached optimal sweetness. Apparently, as the green leaves crowning the top of a berry start to curl upward, the berry gets sweeter. Once they are visible curled away from the berry, it is time to pick them. A berry will continue to redden after being picked, but it will not grow any sweeter or more flavorful.
My time in Karatsu happened to coincide with the Christmas holiday, a particularly busy and festive time in Japan. Many Japanese consumers buy Christmas cake on Christmas, a shortcake that is covered in strawberries. In the days leading up to the holiday, I spent my days packaging and wrapping up perfect-looking berries to be shipped to Tokyo and other big cities across Japan. Having only eaten watery and relatively underwhelming strawberries in the U.S., both the Ai berries and the regular strawberries were a revelation. The berries tasted like they had been injected with strawberry juice. They had not. I checked.
Perhaps as admirable as the berries was Kazuo Yamaguchi’s vision for living well and enjoying life. He holds a patent for a machine he designed at age 30 to repair greenhouses, and his work ethic and thoughtful approach to farming were clearly illustrated by the time he spent inspecting his plants and trying to improve them. Yet, he told me that farming was an occupation he had stumbled into, not a calling, and that he was hoping to turn his strawberry business into an opportunity to serve the community. Yamaguchi is hoping to start a program at his orchard to employ mentally handicapped young people, both as farm hands and perhaps to run a cafe or coffee shop.