The original idea for this trip was to spend several months in Japan to learn what it’s like to live and work somewhere very different to the UK and Japan is supposed to be one of the most opposite countries. The JR Pass has been invaluable and saved us a lot of money by being able to travel up and down and the islands. The second month we choose to volunteer at a resort in the countryside mostly popular with domestic tourists.
This resort was our home for a month and it was a great month. August is their busiest time with cleaning cabins almost everyday and reaching 10 workawayers at one stage. It was hard work at times in the heat but our last week was much quieter and with more treats to make up for it. The set up was four hours of work for food and accommodation. Our cabin in the woods wasn’t the most modern or cleanest at first but it became comfortable. We slept in a tatami room on futons with blankets made from beautiful fabrics. The food was amazing home cooked lunch and dinner every day by either the staff or other workawayers. However I particularly struggled with the cooking which I did not expect, it wasn’t the huge numbers to cook for but the lack of an oven! Without realising it most of my go-to meals to impress people are oven based, so given only hobs and a toaster it was a challenge. One of my favourite meals was “flowing noodles” (nagashi soumen) prepared and constructed by the staff. The cold noodles were sent down a water slide and the eaters had to try and grab them using chopsticks before they fall off the slide into a pan, to be sent down again!
Over our time there I saw the biggest bugs I’ve ever seen in real life – cicadas, dragonflies, frogs, moths, ants, praying mantis and spiders. Posionous spiders existed (red ones) but never seen and hornet’s nests were dotted around the place with one workawayer being “stabbed” by one. Ticks were spotted and riversides had to be navigated carefully to avoid snakes. We were deep in the countryside of Ehime and it was glorious.
The resort has a duck pond where guests can fish and the staff will cook what you catch. Across from this are several old buildings that are many centuries old and were moved here from the mountains a few decades ago. A museum of a local artist is in one of the buildings and his art is drawn on shoji doors. Another building houses Mr. Wada’s cafe, a relaxing place for great company, delicious matcha tea and my first ever zen moment – catching a glimpse of nature’s flow.
At the back on the hill is the newly built castle and planetarium. One night was spent lying on the grass with 100 or so other people staring at the sky watching the Perseid meteor shower while the staff from the planetarium talked for a good hour with music for ambience. The castle itself has amazing views from the top showing how contained the resort is being surrounded on all sides by lush green foresty mountains.
Ultimately the best part of our time was the people. The Japanese staff were wonderfully welcoming with their varying levels of English and encouraged us to learn some basic Japanese. They were fun to work with and looked after us well. We also made some great friends with other workawayers, shout out to brilliant hitchhikers Rachel and Isaac who are working around Japan for a year – check out their experiences here.
Hitchhiking became the norm and a really enjoyable way of getting around in Ehime and to the nearest town of Kumakogen. We always got picked up, I think 15 minutes was the longest wait, and once a car stopped to ask us where we wanted to go they always took us, even driving out of their way for us. It was a fun way to practice our simple Japanese and meet locals. Once the priest from Temple 44 persuaded a follower to help us, one woman told Mischa his name was “kawaii” (cute) and my favourite trip involved playing Pokémon Go with the driver’s five year old son.
Our first walk outside the resort was to the nearby waterfalls for a swim. A fifteen minute walk took us to the closest post office and another 45 minutes or so at a steady pace up a hill along the quiet road we found a sign pointing into the woods. A short walk led us to the waterfall and a scramble down (before we knew about the snakes) to a pool was a perfect swimming spot to cool off.
Temples 44 and 45 on the Shikuko 88 Temple Pilgramige
Being sandwiched between these two temples gave us two nice walks. After a lift to Kumakogen we walked up to Temple 44. It is said once you’ve seen one temple you’ve seen them all, and although the gate entrance to Temple 44 is impressive surrounded by the trees, the temple itself is not the most spectacular. It was however nice to see the statues with their bibs and hats on keeping warm.
We followed the henro (pilgrim) trail out of the temple on towards Temple 45. A gruelling climb was necessary taking us over the hill which the road simply drives through via a tunnel. The views were beautiful coming down the otherside and partially walking along the road.
The walk to Temple 45 was longer and had two instances of strenuous uphills. It was however a nicer walk, less on the main road and the pilgrimage trail was partly paved and had steps along a small river.
After the second uphill the path heads down into the back of the temple, past many small shrines and through many spiderwebs across the path. Some of the temple buildings are built into the cliff face making it a much more enjoyable and beautiful temple than 44.
Some of you might have heard of or remember us talking about Gunkanjima in Nagasaki. It is the island used in the James Bond film Skyfall the one which looks like a warship. Gunkaniwa on the other hand is a rock formation which looks like a warship only 15 km away from the resort. We grabbed the bikes and chose our route. It was mostly downhill all the way on a country lane through a valley with spectacular views.
No car passed us until we hit the busy main road for the last few kilometres. Thinking the jam sandwiches Mischa had made might not be enough for the day out, we stopped at a petrol station. That’s when we found out petrol stations don’t always carry food or snacks. We were beckoned on another kilometre with the promise of food and found a cafe and shop selling local food and souvenirs. Ehime Prefecture is famous for mandarins so a big bottle of fresh orange juice from the fridge was quickly bought. Mischa also went for a grey blob of what looked like mochi (sticky rice balls) but turns out, after already taking a bite, that it was potato starch with a fishy aftertaste known as devils tongue when chopped up into dishes. Oops.
Gunkaniwa itself was at the intersection of roads and rivers. The river swept around the bottom of the rock whereas the roads above partly on the steep hill and partly by bridge. We waded across to a some rocks in the shade for lunch and spent a good couple of hours swimming and reading. The water was deep enough in some parts to dive into and there were many different types of fish – including foot long black carp.
We took a different route back via Temple 45. It was mostly up hill of course and it was a struggle at times as the bikes were old, heavy and mine was gear-less. The first time I got off to push up a hill a car drove past me and pulled up along side Mischa at the top. A local got out and without saying anything handed Mischa two big juicy tomatoes before quickly driving off! I was very thankful for the extra energy, the biggest hill was last and pushing the heavy bike in the sun was not fun, especially after spotting a 2ft long black snake in my path.
Our two days off took us to Matsuyama, the most populated city on Shikoku. It is famous for two things: the castle and the onsen. Matsuyama castle stands high above the city on a hill. A steep yet shaded climb for 15 minutes gets you to the top though there is of course the option of a cable car or a chair lift. The views from the top were amazing, the sea with its island in front and behind the mountains towards Kumakogen and the resort. Instead of paying the entrance fee of the castle we bought ice creams and chatted with an American couple of Japanese descent.
After walking back down we jumped on a streetcar towards Dogo Onsen. This onsen is supposed to be the one that the bath house in the Studio Ghibli (pronounced “ji-bu-ri”) film Spirited Away is based on. We intended to go in but given the crowds and having heard it’s not one of the better ones anyway, we decided against it and spent the money on Dogo Brewery orange beer instead.
The next day we met up with friends and took the train north to O-Ura station for a day at the beach. The water was perfect and the views of the islands in the distance made me think of more tropical places. I had no idea Japan had places like this.
Tokyo vs. Ehime
One of the most different experiences in Japan was going to a football game. Pretty standard I thought, I have seen Plymouth Argyle many times and seen both the Sheffield teams play but nothing compares to Japanese fans. They are unbelievably polite. There is no swearing, no rude chants about the guy fallen over or the referree making bad decisions. Both sides chant positive messages and the home fans even quietened down to let the away side fans have their chants heard too. The game was played in Tobe city and Tokyo won 3-0 against Ehime Prefecture in this J2 game.
After the crowds of guests had died down once school holidays had ended, the staff squeezed us into the people carrier and drove us to Omogo river. It was already established that we liked water which was amusing to the staff. The river is dammed and the gorge the river has made is stunning with tremendously high cliffs on one side. There was a giant deep pool perfect for swimming and diving in.
Behind the pool the water is shallow for paddling. It was extremely clear and fairly cold but still swimmable. The smooth rocks that the water has eroded over centuries was beautiful with the turquoise colours. Mischa spent a lot of his time jumping into the deepest part that a waterfall had made.
At the resort is Kentaro’s kitchen, he is the local chef and makes great melon pan (bread). On our last Saturday we took the Happy Pan van to the festival in the field below the castle and helped to sell melon pans – 320 were sold in the end! The day was hot in the sun, it being at least 3 degrees hotter down in Matsuyama than in the mountains, but it was great fun. As well as encouraging people to the stall, time was spent arm wrestling the champion of Japan (to win ¥30,000 for beating him), following mascots around and eating burritos from the van next to us. Five months is too long to go without a burrito.
As mentioned in a previous post, mascots are very popular in Japan and most towns and prefectures will have one. Mikyan is the orange dog mascot for Ehime Prefecture as mandarins are grown here. My second favourite mascot is … the egg man. All the festival stewards had his picture on their bright pink vests. I think everyone’s least favourite mascot was Sanpuku Trinity Housing man who belonged to one of the sponsors. He wasn’t just a little odd and out of place, he actually made children cry. The adults thought this was hilarious and continuously pushed their crying children towards him.
It would only be right to say a big thanks again to the staff at Furusato for making us feel at home and becoming friends. At first we were looking forward to moving on and continuing our journey, but as we spent more time there the more we didn’t want to leave. We have a lot of fond memories we won’t forget anytime soon and will miss the people and the place. If anyone is thinking of doing a workaway in Japan then I highly recommend this resort! Here’s a few photos of some fun times 🙂
Complete Kumakogen Photos
Photos from our month at Furusato.
Complete Matsuyama Photos
Photos from our two days off in Matsuyama.