Our final days on Jeju

We slept very well after our long hike. Eric arrived in the morning to collect us and we went to pick up some more noodles for the pigs and cut some more grass for them. They loved it! It was great seeing them snorting and prancing about in their beds. We spent the rest of the day disassembling the metal skeleton of a collapsed barn and making a start on sorting out the junk that was trampled into the mud beneath it. June was having a very needy day and kept miaowing loudly for attention. When he got it, he would purr loudly and roll on his back, only to resume his shouting again once we got back to work.

As the sun began to dip, we went for a hike to the top of the oreum at the back of the farm. The firegrass really comes into its own at the end of the day. When you look straight at it, it is a beautiful golden colour, with the last light highlighting the feathery tips, but if you peep out of the corner of your eye, it seems rimmed with a reddish haze, like an echo of its autumn splendour. The land stretched out before us like a frying pancake; flat, but interspersed with little bubbles of volcanic hills, and we all sat a while in silent appreciation, watching the sun sinking into the horizon like melting butter.

That night, we set up the cinema again for a documentary called ‘Food Inc.’ Rest assured, after seeing this, you will feel guilty whenever you set foot into a fast food outlet. It is a fascinating, if somewhat depressing, investigation into the dark underbelly of the American food industry, but is relevant to all of us as the huge companies involved hold sway across the globe. It definitely provides food for thought (excuse the pun, I couldn’t resist it); it is hard-hitting, upsetting at times and encourages viewers to be conscientious consumers. I encourage you to set aside some time, watch it and then rethink your larder!

The next morning we cooked ourselves a Korean style breakfast, not dissimilar to bibimbap, then spent a good few hours more working on the collapsed barn, trying to clear out all of the rubbish. There was a crazy assortment of items – huge numbers of Cass beer bottle openers, plates, stacks of corroded cake tins and silicon moulds, hundreds of rusty nails, bolts, rotting clothes, rubber sleeves, wellies, old trainers (none of which seemed to be in pairs), thousands of cable ties, piles of napkin dispensers, broken and rusted tools…all mired in mud.  It was an awful waste as very little was salvageable. We sorted the items into piles, so that as much of it could be recycled as possible.

The owner of the farm was due back soon and would need her car back. The truck was supposed to be Eric’s to use, but the key had gone missing just before we arrived (thought to have been eaten by a pig, who thoughtfully unlocked the door as it chomped on it). He had some things to sort out to do with the truck in town, so after dinner and a trip to the supermarket, he left us at the farm overnight. We watched a silly comedy film and had hot chocolate and buttered toast as a secret treat, feeling like naughty children (Eric tries to avoid refined sugar). That night it was very windy, so even though it wasn’t the season, we pulled across the hurricane doors and fell asleep to the sound of the wind whooshing violently around the house.

The house survived the night unscathed and we continued with the barn project in the morning until we were driven inside again by hail. Eric returned just as we finished making lunch, but had to leave afterwards to see to the truck again. He said we could have a go at knocking down the tea roasters in the tea barn, so in his absence, we determined to complete the job and turned demolition team, having great fun with the sledgehammer. Eric returned and we moved all the bricks and swept the floor, and it was like they had never been there; we felt very pleased with ourselves. That night we were alone in the house again, so that Eric could perform a kind of driving logic puzzle in the morning whereby all the vehicles would end up in the right places. June gave us a bit of a scare just before bed by yowling like he was being attacked, and we were a bit concerned as we couldn’t find him. The next day he was roly poly and purry as ever, like nothing had happened.

We dragged the gas heater into the bathroom the next morning to take the edge off the biting cold and treated ourselves to a shower, having figured out the pump and boiler combination. Breakfast was sweetened rice with banana and apple, which was reminiscent of baby food, although quite pleasant. We had planned to cut more grass for the pigs whilst waiting for Eric to return, but it was blizzardy weather outside, so not ideal. We fed and watered them and Eric returned just as we were finishing up, driving the repaired van. He had brought another volunteer with him, Vanessa, a Canadian girl who is teaching English at a school on Jeju. She was impressed with the changes in the tea barn. Today was to be a fun day, we were pleased to discover, and we talked about where we could visit and made a plan.

We decided we would all like to see some lava tubes, so we piled into the front of the van (a tight squeeze!) and made our way to the Jeju World Natural Heritage Centre and Geomunoreum. We were issued with tickets to a 4d film on arrival and had about forty minutes to zip around the museum before the showing. Unfortunately we were too late for the hike around the lava tube area, but we still managed to discover a few things about lava tubes in the museum and the models were pretty good. The 4d film was brilliant! I had imagined it was going to be an educational film about volcanology, but it was in fact a high budget 20 minute drama full of special effects. The title was ‘Jeju: Land of the Gods’ and it was about a boy who goes hiking with his granddad around Mount Hallasan in search of the Siromi fruit to obtain a cure for his mother’s illness. He is swept into a war between Daebyulwang, who wants to destroy Jeju, and the gods who are trying to protect it. The action was in 3d, but the seats we sat on would wobble and sweep around as the characters flew or rocks exploded and occasionally the wind would blow past our faces and bats fly between our legs. It was totally unexpected and very enjoyable, all be it a little silly and badly dubbed! Of course, the boy saves the day and is imbued with a new love of Jeju to boot.

After this epic film, we made our way to the Jeju Peace Memorial Museum for a more sombre experience. We were surprised to find a section of the Berlin wall in the grounds – I have never seen it before and I certainly didn’t expect to come across it on an island in South Korea!

The Peace museum was extremely moving. We had no idea of the hardship the people of Jeju endured in the years during and following World War II. Korea, including Jeju, had been under Japanese rule since 1910. After WWII, it was declared that Japan should relinquish governance of those countries it had taken by force. For Koreans, it seemed as if they could have an independent country once more. However, in the interim, the country was divided between the Russians (who occupied the north) and the Americans (who occupied the south), as part of a trusteeship scheme. The aim was ostensibly to allow formation of a Korean provincial government. However, due to disagreements between Russia and the USA, elections for the whole of Korea never came to pass and two separate governments began to evolve, with communism in the north and (supposedly) democracy in the south. The differing political alliances backed by opposing superpowers led to the Korean War of 1950-1953, with each side claiming to be the rightful government of Korea. The end of the Korean War saw the formalisation of the split between North and South Korea.

Korean history is extremely complex, and I am unlikely to do it justice here, but I found this museum a real eye opener. It clearly told things from a Jeju islander’s perspective, but nonetheless, this is part of a bigger story. The separate trusteeships of the north and south were obviously unpopular, as many families were divided and more to the point, why should a country united by language and culture be split at all? Many Koreans pushed for unified elections and Jeju islanders were a big part of this.

On arriving in Jeju, American army officials had organised the police force and local government. The simplest way to do this was to reinstate those who had been in control under Japanese rule. However, much resentment was borne towards these people and so loyalties were split. Many islanders were sympathetic to communist ideals. The initial protest in 1947 was intended as a peaceful rally, but police fired into the crowd after the people were riled when a police horse kicked a child. From then on, things became nasty. Over the following years, many islanders rebelled against the regime, and those in power and the South Korean army responded with brutal force. The US military did nothing to intervene and even praised the South Korean army for their efficient handling of the uprising. In a classic communist witch hunt, entire villages were slain because of suspected red connections. As the army were concerned that villagers in central Jeju were providing assistance to the rebels, they issued a decree that only the 5km of land inwards from the coast was allowed to be occupied. Anyone found inland of this narrow strip would be branded as a rebel sympathiser and killed. Many villages in the centre of Jeju were burnt to the ground, and many people were tortured; there are stories of villages where the men were all killed and the women raped over a two week period before being killed themselves. Recently, a cave was discovered containing the corpses of hiding villagers who had been suffocated by smoke from a fire lit by their pursuers. To think that all this was happening whilst much of the world was enjoying peace in the aftermath of WWII.

Well into the 20th century, people were harassed because of suspected communist links in their past. It is only in 2006 that the South Korean government admitted culpability and issued a formal apology. However, it is clear that some of the blame also lies with the USA and their handling of the situation. Jeju is now a special self-governing province of South Korea. I think the museum is a remarkable step forward; a frank way of confronting an uncomfortable past. It is extremely well put together; poignant and shocking. Jeju has since been designated an island of peace, and part of the exhibit examines massacres in other parts of the world.

Somewhat subdued by the museum, we headed back to the house, where we comforted ourselves with uplifting music, good conversation and a magnificent dinner of noodly stir fry and salad, mulled wine and delicious homemade cookies, made by Vanessa in the toaster oven.

The following day was our last on the farm, and the day when we were going to meet the owner for the first time! We spent the morning finishing off sorting and moving all the boxes of junk from the collapsed barn to the roadside. In the meantime, the owner arrived and cooked us a wonderful traditional beef bone broth whilst Eric filled her in with the progress we had made. She was a very sweet lady, with a calm, gentle nature. It was lovely to meet her finally!

After the meal, Luke and I went to visit the pigs for the last time. We felt a bit bad as they had grown to associate our visits with food and we hadn’t come with any this time! We enjoyed watching them snuffling and squeaking and snorting, then went back to help pack tea bags with the others in the tea barn. It was very easy to lose count when counting 200 of them! The owner gave us a beautiful box of Jeju orange tea bags as a thank you, which we planned to save as a Christmas treat.

We then loaded our backs into the back of the truck and piled into the front again. Eric dropped us at his flat where we were to stay the night before catching the bus to the airport the following day. We had dinner and makkoli at our favourite over the road restaurant and made plans to meet up with our friend Son, whom we had met in Russia, once we were back on the mainland. We were all very excited at the prospect of meeting up again!


Jeju part 2 – in which we knock things down and climb a mountain.

I am sorry to say that I have not yet introduced you to June the cat. June is a pear-shaped tabby cat with beautiful green eyes and a rather large tummy that resides at the farm. He lives in the tea barn, but clearly loves having people around and is extremely noisy and likes to make his presence known by miaowing constantly until you give him some attention. He is also very indecisive, a trait he shares with many of our feline friends. The main crux of his indecision is whether outside is better or worse than inside, which, when you have spent the last hour trying to heat the house with a small gas heater, is rather irritating! Nevertheless, we enjoyed having him around.

The following day, we started work on making the house more livable, and we began to understand the scale of the task Eric had before him. It sometimes felt like an episode of Rogue Traders, as we pulled down brick cladding that had been glued in place with the tiniest blobs of cement. A makeshift fireplace had been installed next to the front door, and one of our jobs was to knock this down as the position was less than ideal. We attacked it with a sledgehammer, which was very fun, and the bricks came down like badly stacked Lego. I think Lego would actually have been sturdier. Worryingly, as we got down to the base of the fireplace, we discovered that the thin tiles were charred. When we lifted them up, we found that the wooden floorboards underneath had caught light with the heat produced and had completely burnt through, leaving a large hole and evidence that the fire had started to spread outwards. It was extremely lucky that the house hadn’t burnt down!

On our way to complete errands in town, we stopped for lunch at the restaurant near Eric’s flat. I had realised that I had lost my mittens that I had bought in Mongolia and was feeling a little despondent as I had grown rather fond of them. Luckily I had left them in that very same restaurant, and the staff had kept them for me! Eric told us that stories of lost items being returned to their rightful owners are commonplace in South Korea – you could lose a wallet full of cash, and it would turn up again with the money untouched; it is a very honest culture in this respect. Feeling much happier, I gobbled up a bowl of bibimbap, which is a rice and vegetable dish. You get a bowlful of rice which is covered in different types of vegetables – for instance carrots, beansprouts, kimchi, and a dollop of spicy sauce. It arrived looking like a pie chart of chopped veg. It usually comes with an egg, and this may be cooked already, or if your rice is hot, you may be given a raw egg to crack into your dish. You then give it a really good stir, and once it is all mixed together nicely, you tuck in.

After lunch, we finished pulling down some shelving and removed lots of old nails from the wood, before tidying, sweeping and mopping the floor. Eric and Luke then moved a massive fridge into the house from the barn, that both of them had spent a long time cleaning out, only to discover that it didn’t work! This didn’t really matter as the house was fridge temperature anyway!

Eric made us a lovely warm chicken salad for tea, which we served on a huge plate we had found stashed away, and we drank makkoli to wash it down. Makkoli is a milky sort of rice based alcoholic drink. We had also tried soju, which is more like Japanese sake and is more of a spirit, also traditionally made form rice. Makkoli has a gentler, sweeter flavour and is not so potent, so I found it more pleasant to drink. Eric had shown us how to serve drinks properly – for makkoli, you have to swirl the bottle first several times by rotating your wrist so the sediment disperses. Then you pour the drink out for each person in turn (starting with the oldest first), holding the sleeve of your pouring arm to show you have nothing concealed there (and to stop your cuffs dipping in the person’s drink). The person receiving the drink should do so holding the cup off the table with both hands. After everyone has been served, someone else should serve you – it is considered rude to pour your own drink. That night I remembered all my manners and poured the makkoli correctly.

The next day we found the sun was shining brightly, the snow on the plantation had melted, and it looked like the perfect day for cutting firegrass for the pigs. I cobbled together some potato cakes for breakfast, turning into a gluey handed dough monster in the process. We spent a rather pastoral morning making hay whilst the sun shone. Eric used the weed whacker to scalp the fields, whilst we went along behind gathering armfuls of firegrass in a wheelbarrow and throwing it into the pig pen. The pigs were out exploring, so didn’t know about their comfy new bedding. Once we had a small mountain in the pen, we went for lunch at a small café in a nearby village for breaded pork cutlets and a delicious radishy salad.

In the afternoon we went on an expedition. Jeju is a peculiar place, full of hidden gems and abandoned curiosities. There are all sorts of museums, for it is a prime tourist destination, and there is even a ‘mysterious road’. Apparently if you park your car on the hill, and then take off the handbrake, the car will roll upwards, not downwards. Why? That is part of the mystery of Jeju. We drove past the mysterious road on our way to our next port of call, but it appeared to me just like any other nondescript strip of tarmac.

The car was parked next to a tangled, overgrown field and we clambered through piles of junk, until we saw what appeared to be an abandoned castle, or stately home. It looked rather incongruous in the middle of the Jeju countryside, surrounded by Grecian pillars, covered in white plaster, and with a series of pools and archways leading up to the main entrance. We could see a chandelier in the hall and furniture laid out as if someone had been living there, but had hastily upped sticks. In fact, the whole thing was built as a film set and once filming had ceased, had subsequently been left to nature. It was enormous, and even though the building materials must have been temporary, it would have been a huge investment to build something of that size. It had a forlorn, battered appearance and we gazed at it for some time from different vantage points, marvelling that someone would create something so vast, only to leave it marooned like a deserted luxury yacht that had been caught in a storm and had come to rest on distant, uncharted soil.

We spent that night on our own at Eric’s flat as we had been given a day off to climb Mount Halla, the highest mountain in Korea, and Eric arranged to collect us the day after that. We took the opportunity to have a shower, something we had been loath to do at the farm as it was so chilly!

The following day dawned bright and clear. We rose early, donned several layers appropriate for mountain climbing, and set off for the bus stop. As the bus neared the start point, the scenery grew more and more snowy. When we disembarked, we found the car park was a slippery ice rink of frozen snow. We stopped at a small shop and after long debate purchased a single pair of crampons to go over my shoes. Luke was deemed to have better balance and we could only afford one pair!

It was the perfect day for a hike, and fairly quiet at first, most people having set off somewhat earlier so they could make it to the checkpoint for 12 o’clock. This meant that we had to march up the snowy trail to be sure we would get there in time – if you are late, you are not allowed to continue to the summit. However, our training with our heavy rucksacks did us proud and we made it to the checkpoint with ten minutes to spare, where we encountered hordes of brightly dressed Koreans in top of the range hiking outfits tucking into instant noodles. Unfortunately, a rancid smell was emanating from the toilets, polluting the fresh mountain air, so we didn’t hang around. Hiking is a favourite activity in Korea, and in Busan we had noted the high street was packed with outdoor clothing shops. Korea is a Gore-Tex lover’s paradise! Everyone seemed to have crampons, high tech trousers, expensive jackets, gaiters, and hiking sticks.

Higher up, the trail grew steeper, the snow deeper and the fir trees that flanked the path were smothered in white, making the whole look like a scene from a Royal icing frosted Christmas cake. The closer we got to the summit, the more people we encountered, until eventually we were walking in single file, a multi-coloured procession picked out brightly against the snow. The trees thinned out, and the wind whipped cruelly about our ears. The fences were frosted with a thick layer of icicles that seemed to defy gravity, swept and carved by the wind. They clung on at bizarre angles, as if frozen in time – if set in motion again, they would fly through the air like a flurry of arrows.

The views from the top were breath-taking. As Hallasan lies at the centre of the island, we could see the sea nearly all the way around, and could admire the bumpy oreum-peppered landscape. We gazed in wonder, then climbed a little further to the lip of the crater. In warmer seasons, there is a crater lake, but this was frozen and covered in in snow. There was a flock of crows at the top and they made a dramatic contrast flying across the huge sweeping hollow of the crater, black against white. The summit was pretty busy, but the atmosphere was fantastic. I can’t describe how lucky we felt to have chosen this day above all others to do the hike. The sky was a perfect blue and we could see for miles around. We had a picnic of bread and cheese and were pleasantly surprised to discover that the enormous apple we had to share was in fact an Asian pear – something we had never come across before, but that is utterly delicious and definitely best appreciated at the top of a volcano in winter. Needless to say, we got cold pretty quickly and the layers we had peeled off with the heat of the hike were duly replaced. We started down just as the mountain rangers got their megaphones out to chivvy people along. I was thankful of my crampons as the compacted snow was rather slippery and it was very steep. Meanwhile, Luke was enjoying slipping and sliding his way down like the groups of shrieking school children, so we were both happy. Halfway down though, Luke had worn a small hole in one of his soles and found he had a shoe full of ice. I resolved to buy him a new pair of trekking shoes for Christmas!

We strayed from the main path to visit another frozen volcanic lake, and sat watching the crows galloping comically in the snow. When we got out our crackers, the watchers became the watched and they perched on the fence, regarding us in that curious sideways fashion that birds have, that is engaging and unnerving in equal measures. We cautiously fed them a few crumbs to enable photo opportunities and actually found their table manners to be rather better than expected.

This detour had allowed us to fall behind the crowds, so we had the rest of the walk virtually to ourselves, and seized the opportunity to sing Christmas carols at the tops of our voices. Only one man was fortunate enough to witness this impromptu concert.

Back at the flat, we were delighted to hear the news that our neighbours, David and Joanna, were engaged! We had heard on the day we visited Mount Fuji that our friends Cas and Steven had also got engaged and began to wonder if in visiting these iconic volcanoes we somehow were triggering eruptions of affection. We returned to the restaurant we had visited twice before, and had Korean barbecue to celebrate and drank a toast of makkoli to our newly betrothed friends, surprising all the staff with our knowledge of makkoli etiquette.

Jeju farming – island life

We arrived in Jeju rather earlier than our WWOOFing manager, Eric, had anticipated and he was still on the farm when he got our message. Eric had been the subject of some debate – what would he look like? Was he Korean and was Eric simply his Anglicised name? We killed time in a café in arrivals and got rather well acquainted with a very cute Korean baby girl, who kept peering and beaming at us. As usual, Luke’s hairy features were a hit. Her mother explained to us that they had been on a family holiday in Jeju to celebrate her 1st birthday, and showed us photographs of her party. There was a great feast and she was dressed in a traditional Korean gown and looking very pleased with herself. First birthday celebrations are a major event in Korea; the ceremonies and rituals are to wish the child good health and a long life.

Eric duly arrived in a purple SUV, and we discovered that he was, in fact, a young American chap, who was passionate about environmental issues. He had spent time in Guatemala working on an Earthship project (sustainable eco-houses made from recycled materials) and time in Vietnam working for a biogas company. He immediately made us feel at ease, and any worries about our first WWOOFing experience began to dissipate. However, one of the first things he made clear was that the farm itself was in quite a state of disarray. Eric had arrived on the farm when the previous manager was still in charge, but the farm had not been reaching its full potential. Eric had intended to work with him to help move things forward, but the farm’s owner, a Seoul businesswoman, had decided it would be best if Eric took sole charge, which placed him in a rather difficult situation, although one full of exciting possibilities.

Our first stop was Eric’s flat in Jeju-si, where we encountered three enormous teddy bears. He jokingly said that it was because he had lot of girlfriends, before explaining that the bears had all been found in rubbish dumps. Jeju is famed as an island for lovers, and many Korean couples come here on romantic weekends away or for their honeymoon. Giant cuddly bears are a favourite way for lovers to express devotion to one another, but unfortunately the bears themselves often do not survive the honeymoon period. Eric hates to see waste and decided to rescue the bears, who looked rather content snuggled up next to one another on the sofa.

We went for our first Korean barbecue at a restaurant across the road from his flat. This would rank amongst my favourite meals so far. The wonderful thing about a Korean barbecue is the sheer volume of greenery! The hot coals are stacked in the middle of the table, below the griddle and a chimney is pulled down to take the smoke away. They brought out a plate of very thinly sliced pork, several bowls of kimchi, a large bowl of hot broth, rice, vegetables and a long platter of salad leaves, all beautifully arranged in a row. These ranged from your usual lettuce and cabbage leaves to dandelion and sesame leaves, which were rather tangy and aniseed-like. The meat sizzled away along with cloves of garlic, and when ready, you took a salad leaf and layered it with meat, vegetables, kimchi and sauces, bundled it all up and tried to stuff it in your mouth all at once! Delicious! The salad leaves take the place of bread, and they are definitely a flavoursome improvement on the soft rolls you get at British barbecues, and much healthier too.

He told us a little more about the farm we were to be working on. The main produce is tea, but Jeju black pigs and chickens are also bred on the farm and play an important role in the tea production process. There used to be other animals on the farm as well, but cut backs had been necessary. The growth of tea plants is encouraged by the manure produced by the pigs and chickens and the rooting of pig noses and scratching of chicken feet help to strengthen the roots whilst helping keep the surrounding area free of weeds. This means that no artificial fertilisers are needed and so the farm is organic. The current herd of pigs is quite small – only one boar, one breeding sow, Betty, and two litters of piglets, and when we arrived it was quite difficult to see the tea plants for the firegrass. The firegrass was beautiful though – really tall, with tips like feather dusters that were really soft when brushed across your face. In autumn it turns an orangey red colour, but we arrived in winter as the colour had faded to a wheaten yellow. There was still snow on the ground and occasional flurries and the wind was icy as it swept through the farm. The pigs, like all Jeju pigs, were all black, and they seemed inquisitive, but wary. They were still quite skittish as they hadn’t got used to a feeding routine yet, although Eric had started to feed them rejected noodles from a noodle factory to supplement their diet whilst things were getting sorted out. They were all able to escape from the ramshackle pen and wander through the tea plantation as they wished, and their bedding area was pretty miserable and muddy, so one of our tasks was to cut down some firegrass for them to nest in and do some repairs of the fence so their roaming could be regulated.

The surrounding landscape was quite bizarre – flat areas punctuated by small pointed hills, known as oreum. These are parasitic volcanic cones, and Jeju has some 368 of them. Hallasan is a dormant shield volcano and the highest mountain in South Korea, which occupies the centre of the island. Shield volcanoes are so named because their profile resembles a shield lying on the ground. They are formed from solidification of highly fluid lava flows, which can travel long distances, creating a wide, low mountainous structure.The oreum were formed by eruptions along the unstable flank of the volcano, with the lava solidifying into the peculiar hills you can see today. Underground, there are numerous lava tubes. Eruption from a magma chamber causes molten rock to leave in channels. The centre of these channels remains very hot, but the outer parts cool and solidify, forming a wall around the flow of magma. When the flow ceases, molten rock at the surface may flow back down the channel, leaving a tunnel behind – this is a lava tube. (Magma and lava are basically the same thing – magma is molten rock found in the earth’s crust; lava is molten rock on the earth’s surface).

The house at the farm was a metal building, clad with brick and wooden planking. There was no central heating, save for underfloor heating upstairs which we used whilst sleeping, and the house still had some draughty areas that needed fixing, so it was pretty chilly. It was still a bit bare inside when we first arrived, but the open plan kitchen/dining/lounge area really had potential to become quite homely. That first night, Eric surprised us by getting out a film projector and screen and we sat in our makeshift cinema with mugs of hot tea and watched a thought-provoking and moving documentary about the Edhi Foundation. This Pakistani charity was set up by Abdul Sattar Edhi in 1951, and provides a 24 hour emergency service to help orphans, provide free medical care, legal aid and free shrouding and burial amongst other things. The film followed the stories of a group of lost boys and their journeys to find their families again. The volunteers that work there do a wonderful job in difficult circumstances.

After the film, we headed upstairs, having put the underfloor heating on so our bed on the floor was nice and toasty. We hadn’t quite got the setting right though, as I woke in the middle of night feeling like I was being boiled alive!

The next morning, we talked about the logo design for the farm over breakfast and Luke started to work on some of Eric’s ideas on his laptop. Eric then showed us into the tea barn, where there was a room stacked with boxes of dried tea leaves in plastic bags, all dated and typed like a connoisseur’s wine cellar. He told us that our first task was to sniff bin liners of tea and decide whether they were rejects or not. I think we were both a bit anxious that our noses wouldn’t be up to task and had visions of carelessly discarding a vintage batch of tea worth hundreds of pounds. However, we needn’t have worried. After a couple of sniffs, it was clear which teas were keepers and which had gone bad, due to the musty smell. The rejects amounted to several kilos, and were to be sent to a chicken farmer on the mainland. I’m not quite sure what the chickens do with tea leaves, but I hope they enjoy it.

With plans for a lot of renovation work, it was necessary for us to buy some new tools. Once we were equipped with boiler suits, a sledge hammer and gloves, Eric told us about a plan he had for building a desk out of piping and a huge slab of hardwood he had found at the farm. We spent about forty minutes in the hardware shop fiddling with the piping as if it was a giant Meccano set, before settling on a design. It didn’t look anything like a sensible plumbing system, so goodness knows what the owners thought the crazy foreigners were up to!

We collected sacks of noodles for the pigs and went to the supermarket to stock up on supplies for ourselves. I was delighted with the salad leaf section – just like in the restaurant, the leaves were beautifully overlapped, this time with icy steam wafting over them. Is it wrong to get this excited about salad? It was too dark to do any other farm work when we got back, save for feeding the pigs, so we made a hearty soup and talked some more about Eric’s vision for the farm. Eventually they hope to have a café onsite, increase the pig herd size and have the farm as an open enterprise where visitors can look around and learn about organic farming and how by keeping livestock on the land, the soil quality can be improved.

Eric is adamantly in favour of a farming technique called intensive rotational grazing. This is a broad category and something I dimly remember learning about at vet school, but the system he was particularly advocating is that devised by a man called Allan Savory, and is more specifically known as holistic management planned grazing. This topic is going to be quite difficult to put across in a nutshell, but I shall try. The idea behind intensive rotational grazing is to divide land into small sections and move the grazing herd on a regular basis. This should result in grazing becoming less selective and the quality of the forage improves as a result. It also has the benefit of leaving parasites behind as the animals move to the new land.

Now try and think about this more broadly. The vast deserts of the world are increasing in size, a process known as desertification. This loss of grassland results in reduced take up of carbon dioxide, and higher CO2 levels contribute to global warming. We have lost significant numbers of ‘natural’ grazers, such as wildebeest in Africa and bison in the USA. These animals exist in enormous herds and are known as keystone species. They (and their predators) play an important role in the maintenance of the grasslands they inhabit; as their numbers dwindle and their behaviour changes as a result of this, the soil quality of the vast plains decreases and the deserts gain ground.

The intention of holistic management planned grazing is to create a farming system whereby livestock can fill the role of the keystone species, by encouraging them to graze in a way which is beneficial for the land, thereby taking up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and slowing the global warming effect. It has been shown that land can be reclaimed from the desert in this way, and advocates are spreading the technique to ‘conventional’ farms. Some believe that it is the only way to save the planet!

There is a camp of environmentalists that would argue that farming, and cattle farming in particular, is one of the biggest producers of carbon dioxide, and many people have become vegetarian because of these concerns. Certainly this may be true given that much current livestock management doesn’t even involve allowing cattle to graze on pastures, but relies on feeding concentrates like corn. However, if the holistic group are to be believed, a seismic shift in the way we manage our farms and grasslands would mean that livestock farming is actually necessary to reverse the worrying changes we are seeing. Of course there is a lot of controversy surrounding this subject; consider this a brief introduction, do read into it and see what you think! Suffice to say that this is something Eric is passionate about, and he would love to incorporate some of these practices into the Jeju farm and introduce this concept of farming to South Koreans.

Off to South Korea!

We set off for the port rather earlier than we needed to and so had quite a bit of time to kill at the terminal. We had a large quantity of very small value coins and I spent a long time in the shop trying to find a bag of crisps that would allow me to use every single one, feeling very pleased with myself when I succeeded. I then made up for the small change by giving our supply of onion, garlic and fresh ginger to the check-out girl, as we couldn’t take them into South Korea.

Boarding time was creeping closer, when we saw a familiar face – the nice Korean man we had met on the train a couple of days before was also catching our ferry, and he came up to say hello. We found out his name was Injae, had a nice chat and he said he would come to find us on the ferry as our seats were in different locations. The ferry was quite small, but nippy. It is called Kobee or the Beetle, and is a joint venture between the Japanese and the South Koreans. It seems to be powered by some sort of jet engine, and the bottom of the boat is perched upon blades, which cut through the water, so when seen from the side, the boat seems to glide just above the water’s surface. We had been travelling about half an hour, when our Korean friend paid us a visit. Unsurprisingly, Luke was fast asleep, as seems to happen on just about any form of transport we take – he is not the most scintillating travelling companion! It was especially funny as he had also fallen asleep on the train where we met Injae, and he had taken a photo of us: Luke having a snooze and me looking bored. He has since e-mailed the photo to us and labelled it, ‘sleeping Jesus and angel couple’ – ha ha! So there we were, in the same tableau as before. He had come with three cans of Tropicana and a box of Pringles, our very own wise man bearing gifts. We were very grateful as we hadn’t eaten or drunk since breakfast. We talked some more, and he said that we should pay him and his family a visit when we are near to Seoul. When we disembarked at Busan, he took us to the tourist information office and got them to show us where the port was for the ferry to Jeju, then hailed a taxi for us and arranged the fare with the driver, telling us how much it would cost. It was very kind of him and we look forward to meeting him later in December.

Despite Injae’s best efforts, our driver still charged us twice the amount for the journey and when we tried to protest, he garbled at us in an incredulous manner in Korean, as if we had deeply offended him. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any change, so we just had to suck it up. He dropped us at the correct port, but as we approached the terminal, we noticed the building had a suspiciously deserted appearance. The door however, was open, and there two or three people inside, one of whom informed us that the Jeju ferry had been cancelled due to rough sea conditions. This left us in a bit of a pickle. We had nowhere to stay in Busan, no internet access, our phone wouldn’t work for phone calls in South Korea and we had no guidebook. Luckily, a man had noticed we were looking lost and offered to help. He had meant to catch the same ferry to go on a cycling tour of Jeju. He spoke a bit of English, and offered to find us a place to stay. We explained that it needed to be somewhere fairly cheap. He looked up accommodation on his phone and found Blue Boat Hostel, a short walk away from where we were and close to the town centre. He phoned them for us and checked that they had space, then walked us there. We said that we’d like to buy him a drink to say thank you and he waited whilst we checked in and sorted our rooms out. He really had done well for us; the hostel was lovely inside, very cheap, had a calf massager (amazing) and a great free breakfast. I don’t think we could have found better if we’d tried. He then took us to a local restaurant where we ate a meal of hot and spicy kimchee soup (kimchee is spicy pickled cabbage) and he introduced us to Soju, a sort of rice based alcoholic drink, similar to sake. We tried to pay, but he wasn’t having any of it, and insisted on paying for both of us! The goodwill didn’t stop there either. After dinner, Juseong took us for a sight-seeing walk and we went to Dragon Hill Park. There were many escalators up to the top of a big hill, which commanded fantastic views over the city and the estuary. There was a tall tower at the top which you could go up, but you didn’t really feel the need as the views from the hill were brilliant anyway – the shifting multi-coloured lights of the bridges were especially beautiful. There was also an elaborately painted temple with a huge bell, and an area for lovers to padlock hearts on to the railings and pose for cheesy photos on a bench framed by a neon love heart. Of course, we posed for the requisite photo! We then made our way back down and he walked us to our hostel before bidding us goodbye. We hoped we would bump into Juseong on the ferry the following night if they were running, but in the morning the girl on reception phoned the terminal and they said it was possible it might be cancelled again. We were keen to get to Jeju and start our WWOOFing experience, so we decided to investigate other options and found several cheap flights were running that day.

After some time spent in debate, we decided we would just try and get to the airport as quickly as possible and purchase tickets for the next flight. We arrived about half an hour before check in closed, and found out that tickets bought at the desk were almost twice as much as those bought online and that our checked bags had to be 5kg lighter, whilst our hand luggage could be 5kg heavier than the previous flight we had taken. We quickly found WiFi access and purchased cheaper tickets whilst in full view of the check in desk, hurriedly transferred what we thought to be 5kg from both big bags to our smaller ones and feeling quite smug, we obtained our boarding passes with a couple of minutes to spare! We felt we were starting to make up for our mixed up airport debacle at the start of our trip!

Aso back to Fukuoka

On our last night in Aso, I made soup from the left over veg we had in the fridge. I tried adding egg to the soup Japanese style, but this had the unfortunate effect of making it resemble a bowlful of vomit. Thankfully it tasted marginally better.

The next morning we went to the local onsen. Ah…. Lovely. In both the male and female sections there were the usual showering areas, then an indoor hot spring pool, a sauna, a cold pool and an outdoor hot spring pool. It started to gently snow, which made the outdoor pool experience all the more invigorating! I think there’s a lot to be said for communal bathing. At first it is a bit daunting and you feel quite self-conscious. However, once you know the basic rules and where everything is, you can start to relax and you realise no one really cares about what you look like, as long as you have washed yourself properly. There is no such thing as ‘normal’, there is no ideal. People come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and you’re just one part of that beautiful collage. So let’s all get naked and rejoice in our own skin! Ha ha! I do wonder if there was a culture like this in the UK if we would have a healthier attitude to body image. Would it lessen the anxiety of the teenage years or would it magnify it? Discuss.

(We were talking about English GCSE this morning, so I have come over all teachery. However, I really would be interested to know your opinions!)

Emerging sparkling from the onsen, we got ourselves contentedly lost in the back streets of Aso, the refreshing icy wind stinging our faces and numbing our fingers. The mountains were dusted with snow, and the highest peaks were still huddled in cloud, but there were patches of blue sky emerging and we could clearly see the walls of the caldera stretching around us. We found a wonderful little restaurant down a secluded lane made of dark wood, insulated with a mud-based plaster. Set about the room were low tables, each with a central fire pit and cushions to sit on. We sat ourselves down and the waiter came over with a bucket of red hot coals, carefully adding them one by one to the pit. We ordered our meal and cooked it in a leisurely manner over the grill, thankful for the opportunity to warm our hands at the same time.

Fuelled for the next stage of our journey, we collected our rucksacks and made our way to the train station. We had seen a lot of pictures of a black cartoon bear, with a white muzzle and rosy red cheeks whilst in the Kumamoto region. Every shop we went to in Aso seemed to stock packs of biscuits, bags of sweets and trinkets with him on. Luke asked the lady at the tourist information centre and she told us he is called ‘Kumamon’, which means ‘Mr Bear’, and he is the mascot of Kumamoto prefecture. She then gave us a poster of a map showing the cartoon mascots of all the Japanese prefectures. Cute culture again! Kumamon was created in 2010 to try and encourage tourism in the region. He was so popular, that he beat all the other mascots in a 2011 competition to find the nation’s favourite mascot. He is truly a force to be reckoned with, and is thought to have made over ¥120 billion in his first two years of heading up the Kumamoto tourism campaign. It just goes to show the power of a clever marketing strategy. We even saw a black car with a Kumamon face on it – it looked pretty good!

On the train, we got talking to a South Korean man. He was mostly retired, but was on a short trip for a small export business he runs. He currently lives in Australia, but has also lived in New Zealand. We talked about differences between oriental and western cultures and he told us how he and his wife spend a lot of time with their grandchildren, so that they can learn the Korean language and culture and really feel it is part of their background. Luke gave him our poster of the Japanese mascots as a souvenir for them.

Things were still rocking at the Christmas market as we made our way to our bargainous hotel for the night. We were pretty tired, so we just snuck take away food into our room and watched cartoons!

We had a Japanese buffet breakfast at the hotel the next morning, a cold mixture of fried vegetables, noodles, rice and plenty of fruit, before catching the subway and heading for Robosquare, a kind of small robot museum. Some robots were designed to stimulate the elderly and reduce feelings of loneliness, by conducting short conversations and one even sang traditional Japanese songs. This one looked like a cute alien baby and would light up with an LED smile when it was happy. There was also a Hello Kitty robot, but she didn’t understand my Japanese, so our conversation was limited. To be honest, I don’t think she’s a particularly great conversationalist anyway. There was a robot made for marketing (apparently if you have a robot handing out leaflets, people are more likely to take them), robot vacuum cleaners and a search and rescue robot that can crawl through spaces humans can’t access looking for earthquake victims. It was interesting, but much of it seemed a bit dated and not as cutting edge as we had expected. This might have been because the newest looking robots were simply on display with text explaining their functions; those that you could interact with used technology we were already familiar with. At the end of our visit, we were treated to a song and dance act by four robot dogs, two of which had Christmas antlers attached. They played ‘Last Christmas’ by George Michael and boogied in unison, wiggling their bottoms, waving their legs and wagging their tails. It was pretty funny; I found the choice of song quite amusing! They followed it up with an encore of another Christmas song, but I don’t recall which it was.

After slurping some more noodles and eating more cake, we both got a little overexcited in a stationery shop – so much lovely coloured paper! Beautiful pens with fine tips perfect for sketching! A magnificent choice of brush pens! We have only found brush pens in one shop in England – Broad Canvas in Oxford, and they only stock one variety, made in Japan. Since being in China and Japan, we have seen lots of these pens, as they are perfect for doing Calligraphy. However, they are also really nice to draw with. Essentially, they are like a fountain pen, but instead of a nib, they have a brush. You can draw very thin lines or very fat lines without having to constantly dip your brush in ink. We spent our last night in Japan happily experimenting with our new materials!

There are a couple of other things I have neglected to mention so far about our impressions of Japan. One of the more obvious things is the frequency with which you see people wearing face masks. In China, this seemed like a sensible precaution, as the cities were so full of smog. Indeed we wore masks ourselves from time to time. In Japan, the reason was not so clear. The city air seemed quite clean, so it was unlikely to be because of pollution. Alex, with whom we had couchsurfed at the beginning of our stay in Japan, had told us people wore masks to prevent them catching diseases and also to prevent them spreading germs to others if they had a cold. Personally, I can’t see the attraction in wearing a mask when you have a streaming cold. You are imprisoning yourself with your own snot! That is true altruism for you. If you’re struggling to breathe anyway, why make it worse for yourself? As for whether mask wearing significantly lowers the risk of catching airborne disease from others, I would have to do some internet research to find out (and as I write this, I don’t have access for a few days!). Regardless, the use of masks is commonplace and cross-generational, and every convenience store has a small rack of mask brands to choose from, so the marketing is clearly working well.

Another noticeable difference is in the general orderliness. The Japanese can outdo the English at queuing; sometimes they form voluntary queues where it seems this will improve efficiency and they always seem to wait for the green man before crossing the road, even when there are no cars coming.

We have really enjoyed our weeks in Japan. It has been the most expensive country to travel in so far, but we are both really glad we decided to go for it. We have found the Japanese people extremely friendly and helpful; sometimes a bit reserved, but with a rather silly sense of humour which we could relate to quite easily. And of course, we will miss the toilets.

Aso – volcano in the mist

After a few train changes we arrived in Aso later in the afternoon. The scenery had become more mountainous, and the towns were smaller. The Aso Kuju National Park is home to the largest active volcano in Japan and has one of the biggest calderas in the world. We paid a visit to the tourist information centre to get advice about hiking, and were told that the volcano had recently been elevated to a grade 2, which meant you weren’t allowed within 1km of the crater. We had hoped to peer into it, but having seen the amount of brown smoke puffing out, we agreed that wasn’t going to be the best plan! The lady told us that there were 4 grades, 4 being the highest and most dangerous. We picked up some maps and headed up the road to check in to our hostel. We had been walking for a couple of minutes, when the lady ran after us, shouting, ‘Wait! Wait! No! Grade FIVE!’ For a moment, stood between the station and the smoking mountain, we thought she had come to tell us there had been a mistake and we were going to be imminently engulfed in lava. However, it soon transpired that she had come out merely to tell us that there were five grades in the warning system, not four! Relieved we wouldn’t have to try and outrun a lava flow, we thanked her, and continued on our way.

The hostel was really more of a luxury hotel with cooking facilities. It was beautifully furnished and spotlessly clean, there was a choice of five different types of free tea to try, a bookshelf full of Japanese Manga novels, a wood-burning stove and a Christmas tree! We went out to buy provisions for dinner and I bought some new and interesting vegetables – a bag full of mucky hairy potato like things (a type of yam?) and a giant white radish! We had heard a lot about giant radish on Sakurajima, as they are a speciality of the island, so when I saw it, I had to buy it. I cooked a massive gingery garlicky vegetable risotto, which turned out pretty tasty.

The next day we had planned to take the bus and go for a hike around the Mount Aso area. However, by the time we set out, the weather was looking decidedly dodgy. We equipped ourselves with waterproof trousers as well as our coats and walking shoes, and set out regardless. As the bus climbed, the rain started to patter down. The audio guide on the bus helpfully pointed out some of the sights as we passed them, ‘If you look to your left you will the Aso caldera spread out below you’ – we looked left. Rolling mist and stormy skies. ‘Now we are approaching a beautiful mountain, shaped like a pile of rice.’ More mist, with a taunting little crest of brown peeping out of the top. Nevertheless, we decided to press on. We had paid £3 to get up this mountain and we would have to pay £3 to get down, so we were damn well going to go for a walk! Well, there is a time to persevere, and there is a time to quit. Let’s just say we misjudged this time. The inclement weather worsened as we started our walk, trudging up paths shrouded in cloud, searching in vain for signs of the beautiful scenery we had promised ourselves and exciting views of the volcano. On another day, I may have been able to bear this in good spirits. Today was not one of those days. I was already feeling tired and as my clothes dampened, so did my mood. When the water began to slosh in my shoes and I started to have the sneaking suspicion that my prized waterproof jacket was not behaving as it should be, I began to gnash my teeth and clench my fists. After a brief episode of roaring into the wind in a childish outburst, I felt rather better (if a little foolish) and we decided it was best we admit defeat and head back to shelter. Luke of course bore all this with good humour!

We reached the canopy outside the café and stood for a while unsure how to proceed, soaking wet as we were. I removed my shoes and wrung out my socks and we peeled off our sodden outer layers. We then took seats inside and dripped quietly on a bench by the door, and Luke bought me some hot milk to drink whilst we waited for the next bus. On the way back, the audio guide yet again mocked us, chattering about the sights we could not see through the lashing rain.

We spent the rest of the day desperately trying to dry our clothes, passports, rail passes and Luke’s sketchbook. I was mortified to see how soggy and wrinkled the pages were – all those beautiful pictures of our travels! Luke was quite philosophical about it, saying it added to the story behind the pictures, which is true I suppose. Luckily the ink hadn’t run, and a good blasting with the hair dryer made a big difference.  We were provided with newspaper to stuff in our shoes and told we could put them behind the wood burning stove where they might stand a better chance of being wearable the next day. When you only have one pair of shoes, you value them more highly! We didn’t fancy having to wear our sandals quite yet. We were a bit irritated that we weren’t allowed to dry our wet coats and trousers indoors anywhere – the only place we were allowed to hang them was outside in the porch, which had some shelter, but had rain blowing through it. I managed to get my coat past the dripping wet stage and finished drying it off surreptitiously by the fire that evening, but Luke decided his would fare better left outside overnight. To his dismay when he got up the following morning, someone had simply dumped it in a sodden pile on a table, so it was just as wet as the day before. If it was my turn to rage the day before, it was Luke’s turn now! Thankfully it was nothing a good 20 minutes with a hair drier couldn’t sort out, and I fished out my now dry shoes from behind the stove and went out to buy a slap up breakfast. The man in the local bakery laughed when I told him about how wet we had got the day before, and it amused him still more when the notes I paid him with were still soggy!

The clouds still looked a little threatening, but it wasn’t actually raining, so we decided to brave our trip up the mountain one last time. We could see slightly more of the scenery on the way up, although much of it was still shrouded in mist. I think this would be a truly amazing place to visit in the spring or summer, and if we come back to Japan, it will definitely be on our list. Most of our knowledge of the appearance comes from photographs other people have taken, so perhaps look it up for yourselves! Thousands of years ago there had been a series of enormous eruptions that had led to the collapse of land above the magma chamber and formation of the massive Aso caldera, which is around 100km in circumference. We could see the edge of the caldera as the bus climbed; a wall of mountain surrounded the flat valley like the edge of a frying pan, and Mount Aso is still bubbling away in the centre. There are several other peaks of extinct volcanoes, some of them ridged with deep grooves from lava flows and others in appealing shapes, like the mount that resembles a pile of rice, with a dimpled top. In spring, the valley and the lower slopes are blanketed in pink flowers and in summer the area is vivid with lush green pastures grazed by cattle and horses. The town of Aso is located in the flat of the caldera, along with several other small rural towns. Pretty cool place to live eh? The volcano’s behaviour is closely monitored and warnings updated accordingly. If it reaches a grade 4, that means prepare to evacuate, 5 means evacuate immediately. So grade 2 is fairly tame really. Let’s hope it stays that way! (I am writing this whilst still in the vicinity of the volcano, so I don’t want to tempt fate! As the logs shift in the grate, I am getting a bit jumpy…).

We went for a short and windy, icy cold walk close to a couple of small volcanic lakes that drifted in and out of vision as the cloud blew around us. Driven back to shelter and a warm coffee by the weather and lack of a view (but still quite dry this time!), we waited again for the bus to take us to the 1km zone, the nearest point to the crater we were allowed to access. We had heard so much about the Aso Super Ring experience from the automated audio guide lady on the bus, that we felt it must be something really special, being the largest projection mapping facility in Japan (which meant nothing to me!). It was, let’s say, a little underwhelming, but I do like underwhelming things from time to time and it was rather fun! There was a 6m ring in the centre which contained a relief map of the Aso region, and four large cinema screens set around the room. There was an over the top countdown before the 8 minute long show started. Video footage was projected onto the relief map, so you could see how Aso changes throughout the seasons, then alongside some dramatic music and a voice over in Japanese that was sparsely subtitled in English, the screens showed a simulation of going inside a volcano, and the relief map was engulfed in mock flames. The voiceover lady made unconvincing terrified noises as if she was being swallowed by magma, then declared, ‘oh thank goodness! We have somehow been projected into outer space!’ and there, on the lumpy map of Aso, was a picture of Earth as seen from outer space. It was quite bizarre, but entertaining and didn’t cost that much. Luke said he could have done better himself!

We emerged from the Super Ring with time to kill before the final bus back. We finally managed to get hold of the South Korean ferry company we had been trying to contact for the past few days, so our time was not wasted! In a few days’ time, we plan to head to the island of Jeju, which is just south of South Korea, where we will spend around 2 weeks working on a farm in return for bed and board. It will be our first try out of WWOOFing; if it goes well, we may do more. We’re really looking forward to spending longer in one place, as moving around all the time gets exhausting after a while!

When we eventually got around to looking out of the window, the scenery had completely changed! It had snowed whilst we were inside and the ground was peppered with little white balls, making it look as if someone had punctured a giant bean bag. There was a small temple outside and several Buddhas dusted with snow. We still couldn’t see much mountain, but it was exciting to see our first white stuff of the year! That was probably the most astounding thing about the Super Ring experience! The bus driver fitted chains to the wheels and we were slowly driven back down to the town, feeling a little sad about missing out on the sights of Aso and views inside the crater, but well aware we would see plenty of other exciting things on our trip.