Stay with us and listen to the grapes grow.
~ Coco Farm and Winery
It all started in the 1950's when a man by the name of Noboru Kawata, a teacher of special needs individuals, purchased land in Ashikaga about two hours north of Tokyo. Over the next few decades, he and his students worked to clear the land on a big hillside and planted grapes. Then in 1969, Kawata established Kokoromi Gakuen, a residential facility for intellectually disabled individuals. Today Coco Farm and Winery produces wine, has a picturesque cafe with delicious food, and provides a place for over 100 special people to live and work. I had the extreme privilege of being a part of their lives for five days this past week. It was a truly amazing and unforgettable week.
First of all, the train ride north was absolutely beautiful. At a certain point, the scenery changes distinctly from city to countryside and in no time at all, the train was puttering easily through vibrant green rice fields and quaint country homes. As much as I love what I've been doing in Tokyo, I felt immediately refreshed to leave the big city, the crowded trains, and the seemingly endless consumerism.
When I arrived I got to start working immediately with some of the residents helping out with the daily laundry. I was greeted with a huge hug from a sweet older lady named Junko who, like many of the residents, was enamored with the foreigner. As the week went on, it was hit or miss whether my new friends called me Hannah-san or Gaijin-san (foreigner in Japanese). I didn't mind too much because whatever they called me they did it with a big smile on their face, always happy to see me. I had to laugh though because oftentimes when I asked their name, they lifted up the hem of their shirt and showed me their name, written on their clothing as a means to identify what is theirs. Of course, the name is written in Japanese... a small, but endearing, dilemma.
At dinner that night, I was shown to my assigned seat. All the residents have a particular spot in the cafeteria so I too got my own seat and met my delightful meal buddies. Junko, who greeted me so warmly when I first arrived sat at a table in front of me. At most meals, I caught her turning around to glance at me. I waved back and she would just grin from ear to ear. At one point, I started making funny faces whenever she turned around and she just cracked up! We had a fun time together.
|Typical Junko. I guess I'm pretty funny looking. :)|
|Her beautiful smile filled my heart everyday.|
My second day on the farm was the longest, most grueling day of physical labor I have ever done in my life. Most of the vineyard is covered in big long nets to keep the birds out. These were taken down and then I worked with a group of residents to untangle the nets and roll them back up neatly.
|We utilized the big hill. The nets were really long...|
|The bird net crew!|
Rolling the nets wasn't too taxing, but after lunch we were given gloves and a cutting tool and taken up into the vineyard to cut away the weeds and grass growing underneath the grape vines. Now, let me explain that this vineyard is on a hill, a huge mountainside really. Check it out:
We drove all the way to the top and started to work, in the hot sun, unable to stand upright at all because well... you're on a big hill! I don't think I have ever sweat so much in my life. Whew! It was hard work! Very different from the hard work I did at Mudd the last four years...
But two things made the work tolerable, even enjoyable. First, this was the view from our spot under the grape vines:
The picture doesn't even do it justice, it was breathtaking. No sign of tall buildings, crowds, or stores trying to sell me cute clothing that I can't buy. Just green hills, blue sky, white clouds, and rice fields. I loved it!
My dear friend Yamada-san also made this day of hard manual labor pleasantly bearable. Yamada-san was incredibly friendly and from the beginning of the morning, when I was assigned to work in his group, he made sure I knew where I was going and encouraged me along the way. I should point out again that I don't speak Japanese... and the residents don't speak English... but Yamada-san and I got along splendidly with our limited vocabulary. No problem! As we worked he always asked me "Daijoubu?" meaning "Are you alright?" It was so sweet! Yamada-san is a very hard worker and it was fun for me to see the pride he has in his work and his ability to show me the ropes. My ineptness allowed him to be a leader and I was grateful for his help.
|Yamada-san at home amidst the grapes.|
That night my muscles yelled at me with even the slightest movement. So, I was quite grateful that I got to work in the kitchen the following day. I'm not cut out for manual labor... it's a good thing I've got grad school lined up. Anyway, working in the kitchen was really interesting! It is an amazing feat to cook three meals a day for 150+ people. There is chopping for days in that kitchen. I think I chopped cucumbers for about two hours in the morning, it was A LOT of cucumbers. Again, I managed alright with my limited Japanese vocabulary. I was very grateful for the kitchen staff's kindness and patience. We had fun chopping, packing bento boxes, and cleaning together!
|The kitchen crew! Lookin' good in our hats and aprons!|
Oh! Funny story! So, one of the residents has the highly esteemed job of hanging out in the vineyard banging a wooden spoon on a tin can to scare away birds. I call him the ching ching man. You can hear the ching ching throughout the farm. Rain or shine, this dedicated man makes his way up the hillside for this important job.
Well, one day during free time I decided to walk to the top of the mountain and take pictures of the beautiful view and do a little reading on the picnic tables they have up there. About half way up, the ching ching man let me take a couple pictures of him and I was allowed to proceed up the hill. Once at the top I got some great pictures and was enjoying some rest after a long day when I saw the ching ching man coming toward me. He was gesturing pretty emphatically and made it quite clear that he wanted me to head back down the hill. I tried to convince him that it was ok for me to stay a bit longer, but that wasn't going to happen. The mountain was his turf and I didn't belong. I know well not to push my luck, I had disturbed the routine enough. So I followed him back down the hill. He walked a bit faster than I did and I caught him turning around to make sure I was still headed down. The whole situation was really quite amusing. :) It illustrated for me again the ownership and significance that the residents have in their work and in the farm.
The last night I was there I said a brief parting message to the whole group that was kindly translated into Japanese. I tried to convey how grateful I was for the opportunity and how much I appreciated their bright and smiling faces every day. After we were dismissed from dinner I was literally mobbed with people wanting to say goodbye to me. I got so many hugs and handshakes. I felt like a celebrity, it was so sweet.
Again, I feel so privileged that I got to be a part of these special individuals' lives. Truthfully, I didn't quite know what to expect before I arrived. What I found at Coco Farm was a place that runs incredibly smoothly and a place that has created a routine that works well for the residents. It is a place where they feel safe, comfortable, and significant. Coco Farm is home.
In the end, it was really hard to say sayonara. But I am back in Tokyo now with a farmer's tan and a full and happy heart. :)