Mementos: Tottori Japan Life at Enokitake (mushroom) Farm etc

Mementos: Japan Enokitake farm: view entering the farm compound in Saji - note this photo was used in Japan Times in an article about changes in rural Japan Mementos: Japan Enokitake farm: view entering the farm compound in Saji, Tottoria

Note: Above photo published in Japan Times article: Modernity and magical realism in rural Japan By JAMES HADFIELD

Story: Sometime around 1993, I ended up working as a mushroom farmhand (enokitake and shiitake) in a small mountain village called Saji in Tottori-ken (prefecture), Yazu-gun (county) .

Sometimes, i’d haul soggy Shittake logs around in the forest. The culture is injected as plugs into the wood and then grows from one log to another into meandering perpetuity

A sorta friend of friend of my brother was seeking a foreign worker (at the time, Japan’s economy was in a “bubble” with abundant wealth and no one wanted to do the crappy jobs it turns out). They would pay my airfare and so on, I had just finished a stint hitching and drifting around Europe and before the Grateful Dead tour and thought this would be an interesting adventure.

The turn off to the farm which was a warehouse sorta structure with a variety of indoor/outdoor-ish rooms and shelters with various equipments, storage, supplies etc.

I was in-country on a working-holiday visa and thought I’d be able to enjoy the country, travel around some, meet some pals, ya know… have fun. But the job was 6 (sometimes 7) days a week, and after working the long day, I would deliver the crated enokis to a market in Tottori city (a warehouse full of other produce), then go back to a crappy apartment in Kawabara (or Kawabata, now amalgamated into Tottori city) to attempt to feed myself.

stop to look at the graves at the turn off to the farm. note: self-timer feature utilized

Soon after i arrived was New Year holiday and *everything* was closed including grocery stores and i couldn’t get kerosene for my little apartment heater. This is when i learned the importance of vending machines for sustenance. Was confusing at first and later, just weird.

Delivering the enokitake in a “K-truck” the countryside was rugged and beautiful in many ways though i usually only saw in passing. note: Grateful Dead sticker on truck

My pay was comically low by Japanese standards and I lived alone in a “mansion” apartment – which, in itself wasn’t terrible but was located next to a concrete-making factory.

inside my “mansion” apartment which was worker’s housing for a concrete plant – i decorated with clippings from magazine and newspapers and read a lot of books

Anyhow, the enoki mushrooms were grown in an indoor barn-like facility with a series of (7-9?) rooms ranging from very hot and humid (to sterilize the rice bran and sawdust mixture in which the inoculated culture grew) to a degree above freezing to stop the growth and prepare for packaging. The packaging was done by Kaneda-san and Fujiwara-san, two ladies in their 70s who worked with remarkable speed and dexterity.

Fujiwara-san and Kaneda-san worked with exceptional swiftness – they were my only 2 co-workers and most days, i only people i spoke to…
In fact, among my first words was “kukei” which means “breaktime” in which i’d receive a scalding hot cup of green tea and try to drink it in 5 mins before “kukei owata” or “breaktime over! get back to work hippie”

I did the “heavy work” including pushing the heavy racks of mushrooms from room to room, pulling out the trays, running them through various machines, moving the sawdust and rice bran by front loader and, cleaning equipment.

Me, at the controls of a front loader – a job for which i was not well-suited frankly, yet i persisted or something. note: Vancouver Canucks jersey

None of these tasks suited my skillset but I persisted and worked hard. However, the boss was a jerk who constantly yelled English epithets learned while an exchange farm worker in Couer d’lene Idaho in the 1970s.

Me, moving racks of enokitake mushrooms from one room to another and than the ones in that room to another and so on…

He left for a few weeks to USA for a surgery leaving me to run the enterprise. Not cool. I decided to leave but he basically “owned” me and I had limited options. I borrowed a bicycle from 2 lovely foreign friends (one of whom was teaching English in another village, the other an erstwhile community activist), stashed it in the back of the little “K-truck” I drove up to the farm and told the boss I was leaving.

Drove the little K-truck to Kyoto which was a huge ummm bad call. The little 650cc motor while intrepid on mountain roads was not well suited for long distance highway travel and two foreigners crammed into the cab made for a funny sight. note: Grateful Dead sticker and cat

He yelled and screamed “you don’t have a visa, you can’t speak the language, you don’t have a plane ticket to leave!” and tried to charge me crazy money for some long-distance bills (indeed, I was partially at fault but was also left in an untenable situation).

I finally split and rode the bike 20+ kilometres in my rubber boots to friend’s who helped me sort my stuff out and then i headed out hitch-hiking. I have a few scattered slices of photographic evidence from that time which was both ummm enlightening and influential on my subsequent life (especially learning colloquial Japanese for survival and quite falling in love with many – but not all – aspects of Japanese life and culture.  Alas, at the time, the gig was a total degrading and un-fun drag.

Update: But… i then headed out on epic adventures, mostly by hitchhike, including Okayama, Shikoku, Nagano, Hiroshima, Yamaguchi learning the “old ways” of culture, squatting in abandoned homes, opening a small shop for a bit… so much to tell.

Update: Returned in 2015 to visit Kyoto, Okayama, Sakura, and again in 2017 for stops from Hokkaido to Kyushu, again in 2018 to Okayama, Tottori (including a return to the mushroom farm and the crappy apartment) and Shimane… all these topics will (eventually) be addressed under separate cover. Oh you can see a map of my “Tottori World” and other related artifacts scattered around this archive.

Update: so much! i moved to Japan full-time in 2019 and married an awesome human named Ryoko. This is all extensively documented in this archive. 

The ruggedness and cheerfulness of the Japanese “obaachans” (grannys) was a hugely pleasant surprise and some sorta became my guardian angels

Note: some of these photos were taken with an early-version of a panorama camera i found on sale at Topos discount store. I often developed the 35mm film in standard size (to save money) which results in the cinematic blacks bars framing the photos. I enjoy the unique layout in general.

Another intrepid obaachan in the lovely hills of Saji village

Bonus:  Found these additional slices of photo evidence of my apartment in forgotten albums and shoeboxes recently (2018) and snapped terrible photos of photos… but including nonetheless for documentary purposes:

Kawabata “mansion” apartment tatami/bedroom, complete with drying socks
the entrance way to the Kawabata “mansion” apartment which served as worker’s housing for a concrete factory
the concrete factory as seen from the apartment in Kawabata, Yazu, Tottori, 1994
The K-truck and a blue van (which i crashed into a rocky ditch) parked at the mushroom farm in Saji village during the (obv) winter months

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