Pick blueberries. Get a free watermelon.
For a country with such a futuristic, industrialised image, my best experiences in Japan keep happening on farms. Two weeks ago, I rode past a sign advertising a come and pick your own blueberries experience. A short way up an unpromising looking laneway, I found a lone old man sheltering from the blasting summer sun under a wooden pergola, and behind him 1200 blueberry bushes were waiting. Surprised and slightly apprehensive at being the only visitor, which meant I was about to get a rigorous session of Mie-ben speaking practice (the oldies love using the local dialect), I parked my bike and approached the old man as he valiantly fanned himself trying to fend off the heat.
With skin tanned practically to leather by countless hours toiling in the sun, Akira Suzuki seemed unfazed by the sun’s current onslaught. His weathered face cracked into a broad smile as he sprang up from his log stump seat, ushering me into the field with cries of ‘tada, tada’ (free entry). The affable Akira wasted no time beginning to regale me with the whole story of his prized berry patch as we headed out into the sun. That’s when the sampling began and it didn’t stop, with the sprightly ojichan (grandpa) chastising me whenever my taste testing slowed down.
As we wandered among the berry-laden bushes it felt like I was 8 years old again, pottering away in the veggie patch with my granddad, listening to the sage knowledge of one who’s spent a lifetime working the land. Around us, sparrows fluttered from the bushes as we approached, retreating to line the telephone wires on the edge of the field to wait us out. Akira was undecided if they were after the berries or the bugs. Plenty of spiders and caterpillars were calling the bushes home for the summer, suggesting that Akira isn’t heavy handed with his pesticides – something that I was really glad to see.
My personalised grand tour over, Akira armed me with looked like a kid’s toy shopping basket in which to collect my berry harvest. He left me to enjoy my berry picking in quiet solitude, but he didn’t retreat to his shady pergola. Not content to keep my company to himself, Akira went to share the news of my arrival with his neighbour, the mandarin orange farmer Mr Kusagawa. In the typically generous style of Japanese people in the countryside, Mr Kusagawa arrived, introduced himself then loaded me up with an armful of fresh goodies to take home for free: Cucumbers, eggplants, green peppers… and a 5.8kg watermelon.
And so my challenge was set: To accomplish the almost 8km ride home with my green ‘bowling ball’ stuffed into my tiny 15L backpack, to squeeze my DLSR into said backpack as well and to somehow keep my berries out of harm’s way carrying them on my handlebars in a bag with the rest of my veggie haul. Sounds a mite dangerous but given that I’d just been gifted at least $20 worth of watermelon, I was hardly going to turn down such generosity. (Watermelon is super expensive in Japan, with ¼ or smaller slices of small melons usually selling for about AUD$5.)
With a wave to Akira and Kusagawa, I set off hanging onto the handlebars with only my fingertips, sitting as straight as possible because as soon as I leaned forward, the watermelon pressed none too kindly against my bony, curved spine. Try as I might to minimise its assault, every little bump I crept over turned the odds in the watermelon’s favour, battering it against my back and of course, the road home was beyond bumpy. Never been gladder to get off my bike than when I got home. My poor bruised spine.
So the moral of this story is? Always ride with a large, well padded backpack in case of freebies.