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20 December 2015

Wwoofing in Yufuin

A month of volunteering in the middle of the onsen smokes in the small Youth Hostel Country Road.
Yufuin, Kyûshû, Japan © Claire Blumenfeld
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My first two weeks of woofing at Youth Hostel Country Road went very well. I originally planned to leave on Monday December 21, but I will finally stay a few more days. I really like Yufuin and Ryo-san offered to accompany them (him, Tomomi-san and their children) to see the festivities planned for December 23 at Beppu, on Christmas.

Ryo-san and his wife Tomomi-san are very nice. They speak good English which greatly facilitates exchanges. They are very energetic, always doing lots of things and telling me a lot of anecdotes about Yufuin or the other woofers before me. I feel them much more open than the Japanese living in the city (it may be precisely because they live close to nature and run an inn). Ryo-san also lived three years in Africa and has traveled to China and South America. They have three children: Shikie, (girl, 14), Inase (boy, 9) and Waun (girl, 4). The children are resourceful, full of energy and always smiling. Ryo-San and Tomomi-san have run Youth Hostel Country Road for the past decade or so. It is the inn highly located in Yufuin, on the slopes of Yufudake Volcano. Surrounded by tall, leafy pines, the inn gives the impression of being the last refuge before the wild mountain, especially at night when the lights with colored tones shine like a beacon in the darkness. The hostel is very friendly and warm. There are small Christmas decorations everywhere. It has a living room with a picture window which offers a magnificent view of the valley and Yufuin below. The hostel has seen rooms (3 dormitory style, 4 traditional style) for up to 21 people and has two small onsens. Ryo-san puts music in the living room and onsens: jazz, Christmas music, French or American songs. The more time I spend at the inn, the more I enjoy it.

Every evening at around 8:00 pm, Ryo-san offers a “Night tour” for hotel guests: going to see the stars, visiting some of the most expensive hotels in Yufuin or doing a night tour of Yufuin. Wednesday and Friday is also the “soccer” evening. Ryo-san brings customers (and woofers) to one of Yufuin’s gym for physical exercises, ball games, and a soccer game. This allowed me to exchange with several customers of the hostel, in particular Kim Kang Chul, a Korean and Sprite and Mei, two Thai and to make pretty memories (and acquaintances for future trips to Korea and Thailand maybe?)

Each time a customer leaves, Ryo-san and Tomomi-san sing the first verse from Take Me Home, Country Roads. Song of John Denver, it also appears in the credits of one of the films of the studio Ghibli, Whisper of the heart by Yoshifumi Kondo released in 1995! Emotion seized me when I heard them singing for the first time.

For the first two weeks, Sen, a young Taiwanese girl also wwoofed at the inn. Very nice, speaking very good Japanese and a little English, we had a lot of discussion. I really enjoyed working with her. This past week, Sen having returned to Tokyo, another woofer arrived, Marco, from Hong Kong. Tomomi-san and Ryo-san are constantly hosting woofers. I am the 266th person to come!

My work starts around 7 am to set the table for breakfast, bring the dishes and take the plunge. The morning is spent cleaning the rooms and the inn (with something different every day: scrubing the onsens, cleaning the windows, sweeping the parking lot, making trash bags out of newspaper, etc.). At 10am we all take a break together (Ryo-san, Tomomi-san, me and the other woofer) in order to snack and chat. From 11 am it is free time. Work resumes around 6 p.m. Peeling the vegetables, setting the table, bringing the dishes, plunging to finish work around 8 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. The kitchen is a real mess at first glance but everything is very tidy. Tomomi-san and Ryo-san offer breakfast and dinner. It is homemade Japanese food. Very very good. My only complaint concerns the fact that almost all meals contain meat, mashed potatoes or salad and pasta.

During my first weekend at Youth Hostel Country Road, there was a Christmas Camp for the children of Yufuin. The hostel welcomed 24 children from 3 to 10 years old. The children were divided into four teams, each supervised by a leader, including me! I admit that I was a little apprehensive given my little (very small) level of Japanese, but the weekend went very well. Inevitably the children were very excited and noisy and surprised to find a European working at the hostel. I did not talk much with them, but their little faces touched me a lot. They appear both very mature and very young. We did various activities: cooking, making small cardboard baskets with Christmas decorations, writing messages for parents, creating small bouquets and Ryo-san taught them the first verse of Douce Nuit in French (of course the pronunciation was not great).

My little team consisted of Takumi, Ryosuke, Sumire (all three around 12-13 years old I think) and Yuki (rather 6-8 years old I would say). I do not know if it is due to the fact that they are Japanese (or so with all the children of the world it is the same) but I felt them a little distrustful or not quite knowing how to address me at start to finally become much more extroverted and smiling during the treasure hunt that we did on Sunday morning. For a good hour we left (all the teams) to criss-cross the surroundings of the hostel in order to answer some forty questions prepared by Ryo-san. (Fortunately he had shown me the way and given the answers to the questions a few days before). My best moments from Christmas Camp come from this moment. Me, alone with my four little comrades, exchanging half-Japanese, half-English, all smiling, hand in hand with Yuki-chan, under the sun, I would have liked that the treasure hunt lasted longer and that I knew speak Japanese better.

The children left on Sunday around 1 p.m. Sen and I were entitled to our day off until 6 am the next day (return to work). We went with Ryo-san and his family to Beppu in the evening to do some shopping and eat at a sushi restaurant. It is a recently opened chain that offers sushi at reasonable prices. Not being a fan of sushi (yes yes I know, paradox for someone traveling to Japan), I tested different dishes based on sweet potatoes, omelettes, meat and salad. It was really good.

Yufuin is the second city in Japan famous for its onsens after Beppu. It is home to some of the most expensive ryokans and hotels in Japan. Some offer rooms at 70,000 yen a night (around 528 euros). It is located 1500m above sea level so in winter it is not very hot despite the fact that we are on Kyushu. Surrounded by green mountains, the place is truly magnificent. I have no words to describe how I feel except that I really like it. The air of nature, the mountains surrounding the village, the imposing and superb Yufudake volcano, the small rivers, the mixture of dwellings and plantations, the fog clinging to the mountains in the morning, the peaceful atmosphere of the touristy street, the small stalls, the smoke of the onsens everywhere, the small lanterns with yellow tones at night, the pretty lake, the small bamboo groves… The whole has a particular charm which makes the place magnificent. I really enjoyed walking around Yufuin and its surroundings.

I also went to visit the Showa Retro Themepark, a small museum that houses reproductions of homes and shops from the Showa era (1926-1989). Period of great changes (evolution of the lifestyle, development of sciences and economy, abandonment of traditional clothes for a western style), the Showa era opened Japan to modernity. The museum houses a whole bunch of objects from the period, which are very similar to those that could be found in France at the same time. My favorites were the posters and photos of the time. This is where I felt the Japanese spirit the most, I found.

I also gave in to the call of memories. I went back to the store selling products derived from the Ghibli studio. Here is my little collection (I had already bought some in Tokyo): A cup without handle with the effigy of the characters from Spirited Away, pins (two from My Neighbour Totoro, one from Porco Rosso), a holder Totoro key and four small mini Totoro statuettes (a total of eight different colors can be collected). The pins and mini-statuettes are obtained at random. One buys a pin’s or a statuette (contained in a packaging, very pretty by the way) without knowing which one he will fall on. It is a surprise!

I saw Yufuin in all possible weather: beautiful sun, gray weather, rainy, under fog and even under snow. And the night. At night, Yufuin shows a completely different aspect of the day. Few public lights, only a few lanterns with yellow tones light up the night. One of my most beautiful views of the village took place a few days before, when I accompanied Ryo-san and the clients for the “Night tour” on a particularly cold evening. Ryo-san took us to the center of Yufuin near Lake Kirin to visit one of the oldest ryokans in the village. All in wood, lighting up the night with small lanterns, the place was magnificent. We then went to see the lake and I witnessed one of the most beautiful views I have ever seen. The lake was smoking! Lake Kirin is actually an onsen! Part of its water comes from hot springs and the rest from mountain waters. The water is warm and stays at the same temperature all year round. At night, lit only by lantern light, the view of the lake and its small traditional wooden bridges bathed in swirls of steam was absolutely fantastic. I felt like I was transported to the past, where samurai, spirits and youkai could have arisen at any time. In summer the place is filled with fireflies! My great misfortune is that I did not take my camera. Stupid me !! I returned two days later, but since it was warmer, the lake smoked less. My last three days will be peaceful since the hostel is closed for Christmas. Tomorrow we are going to Beppu to see the Christmas festival (music and fireworks), Thursday, I will climb the Yufudake volcano and Friday I leave Yufuin to go to Aso, the village located on the slopes of Mount Aso , another volcano in Kyushu, the largest in Japan and very active. Merry Christmas !

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