A Timeless Cultural Experience in Iwamizawa
By Kyle Von Lanken
On August 26, 2015
As many teachers in Japan may already know, students in Japan have recently been enjoying summer break, and subsequently so have many of us teachers. While many may have taken the opportunity to just relax or go traveling either domestic or foreign, I decided to use this time to not only drink in an important aspect of Hokkaido’s culture but also make a little extra cash on the side as well with some part-time agricultural work.
My wife is an office worker for a particular agricultural company in the area, and the person in charge of the physical agricultural work had mentioned they were looking for help. My wife mentioned my name and thought this was a financially sound move to work while on vacation, so I agreed.
After getting a new pair of つなぎ (jumpsuit style overalls) and boots, I started my day at around 10:00 AM, and was surprised that everyone was already taking a lunch break. The manager told me to have a seat and handed me a sports drink and a snack.
“I haven’t done anything yet, should I really be taking a break?” I asked. “This is also a part of the job,” she told me. Granted, from what I gathered later this is not normal for agricultural work, so don’t expect it if you decide to try it out for yourself.
I was very surprised by how relaxed everyone was, and their general attitude towards the importance of worker well-being. They make sure to do everything possible to keep heat stroke far away with frequent drink breaks, and seem to also value camaraderie among everyone working with friendly conversation.
The vegetable we focused on while I was with them was かぼちゃ (Japanese pumpkin), and the first order of business was for the inexperienced workers to carry baskets that were filled with pumpkins to the side of the aisles to be picked up by the little company truck.
After lunch break and a quick shower (as I was drenched in sweat from the unrelenting heat), I returned to the fields to follow my experienced partner who was snipping pumpkins from their stems, at which point she would hand them to me and I carried them to the aforementioned baskets.
While we did this we exchanged pleasantries one would expect in this job: 暑いね！ (“It sure is hot!”) and まだ若いね！ (These aren’t ripe yet!), etc.
Finally, we moved all of the pumpkins to a storehouse where we lined them up in front of electric fans to dry the freshly cut stems. While there was no way I could judge the pumpkins based on quality yet, the manager was very informative in her explanation of what made for an A grade or B grade pumpkin.
The more aesthetically appealing pumpkins which were decent in size, very circular and bulbous and had one damaged part of less are considered A grade. Those that had 2 damaged parts and were lopsided are considered B grade, and those that were damaged any more than that are used for different purposes.
There was simply something about this atmosphere that I found invigorating. While it was hard work, working with the soil and learning about the proper handling of the plants while simultaneously gaining knowledge of and from my coworkers made my first experience working in Japanese agriculture an overwhelmingly positive one.