When Hila Gay Kajiyama set out on a journey to India and Nepal at the age of 30, she never imagined she would meet her soon-to-be husband, a traditional bamboo farmer, and move to a small Japanese village.
This image: Hila working in front of her home with guests.
While hers sounds like a life turned upside down, she says she now can’t imagine her days being spent any other way. We chat to Hila about life in the Japanese countryside, where her Israeli background and the culture of the country she now calls home have been blended into a thing of rare beauty.
LU: Hila, where in Israel did you grow up?
HGK: I grew up in the outskirts of Jerusalem in a small neighbourhood.
LU: At what age did you start travelling?
HGK: Actually, I did not travel much. At 18 years old I went for the first time to India, only for three months. Then it was only after I turned 30, I went travelling again to India and a little in Nepal. It’s there I met Daisuke.
LU: What year did you first visit Japan? Did you instantly know that you didn’t want to leave?
HGK: I visited Japan for the first time in 2012 after I met Daisuke in Nepal, so I could see his hometown. From that first visit I loved Japan and felt like it would be a dream to live here. Japan is a very special place filled with beauty and kind people. They are very thorough at everything they do and I find that very inspiring. I love what I see here – and it is so clean and organised.
“Japan is a very special place filled with beauty and kind people. They are very thorough at everything they do and I find that very inspiring.”
LU: Why did you decide to stay? And how did this decision change your life in the most profound ways?
HGK: Being here from the beginning was so exciting. I didn’t really need to decide to stay because I just loved everything here and did not want to leave. Everything was going so well around me with the people I met and the beautiful natural environment.
Daisuke’s family was so nice, kind and welcoming. Our village neighbours were also so nice.
It is a very special opportunity to start life in a new place and to experience a very unique and beautiful culture. I wish Israel and Japan would be closer so that I could visit more. It’s very special to live in a culture that you were not born into.
This image: Hila and husband, Daisuke (Dai)
“I didn’t really need to decide to stay because I just loved everything here and did not want to leave.”
LU: In what ways has fitting into Japanese culture been the most challenging for you?
HGK: I think the language is the most difficult thing. It has been very hard for me to learn Japanese.
It is very interesting to see how the culture you are born into is so ingrained in you. I’m able to see a bit of it now, living in another culture.
It’s in the small things. For example in Israel your default is to run to be first, where in Japan you will make way for others. Sometimes I’m running to be first in the line at the supermarket but everybody else stops and let me go through… it’s a funny moment.
In Israel we are more open at getting close to each other. You can be very direct with people. In Japan it’s a bit more closed and you need to think twice before asking personal questions.
LU: Do you go home to see friends and family often? Do you miss Israel?
HGK: Yes. I try to go once a year, I wish I could go twice, or once a month for a long weekend! Yes for sure, I miss my family, friends and food.
This image: Dai with the harvested Bamboo shoots.
LU: You and Dai run a small bamboo farming business. Can you tell us a bit more about this?
HGK: Bamboo is an important part of our lives. There are natural bamboo forests all around our area. Within our bamboo farming business we have two projects:
The first is harvesting edible bamboo shoots or bamboo sprouts.
We harvest in spring, from late March to early May. Young shoots are highly sought after due to their crisp texture and sweet taste.
After a long cold winter, at the beginning of spring deep within the forests of Asahina, our village, bamboo shoots burst forth. This is only visible to the trained eye as they are camouflaged by the forest floor. Each morning at the break of dawn, farmers in Asahina grab a sack and a pointed hoe and head to the forest to look for new growth.
They are quick-growing shoots so it’s important to check every day in order to pick them before they become too woody. To pick a bamboo shoot actually involves precision extraction with a pointy-nose hoe.
The idea is to remove the shoot unbroken and leave the remainder of the root in the ground for future year’s harvest.
Once picked we head back to the house and hose off the colour-staining outer leaves along with any dirt or bugs. The longer they are kept uncooked, the more the bitterness increases. Now they are ready to braise in a sturdy cast-iron pot for hours to soften their texture, remove bitterness and add aromatic flavour. Cooking slowly with rice bran flour – called nuka (nooka) in Japan or sodium bicarbonate – allows all of this to happen without damaging the delicate flavours and textures.
The rice bran’s starch removes absorbs the toxin from bamboo shoot during cooking. This is a traditional process that works really well.
After harvest we sell our raw harvested bamboo shoots to JA – Japan Agricultural Cooperatives, in the village, who then offer it for sale in Tokyo’s markets.
The second part of our business is harvesting and drying three- to four-year-old bamboo for craft making.
We offer bamboo weaving workshops to our airbnb guests. Dai makes the bamboo strings by himself, which is the hardest part of the work. Harvesting the bamboo for crafting purposes is a careful operation. Bamboo must be grown at umbrella lengths apart to ensure the denseness of the grove does not produce bruising or scarring of the culms when they are cut.
Fresh harvested culms are cut in equal lengths between November and January when the bamboo has minimal water content. They are then split in half, internal nodes removed, and boiled for 15-30 minutes in a bath of hot ash and soda lye to remove sap, oil and dirt. After this they are dried for 3-4 weeks then stripped into 1cm wide pieces of string with a knife.
We also work with the traditional bamboo craft of Suruga Sensuji Takezaiku. These words literally mean “a thousand lines”. This craft work is Japan’s national heritage. It is a special weave using a round bamboo splint that has profound antiquity from the Yayoi period. During that time they were making cricket cages, which were common even in Tokyo until 1700. Today this craft is used for making baskets, bags, light shades and more.
This image: The guesthouse
LU: You are constantly hosting airbnb guests in your traditional Japanese house. How did this come about?
HGK: Daisuke was travelling the world for seven years and during this time he realised that Japan is a good country to live in and that he wanted to go back to live in the countryside and not the city. His dream was to find a traditional Japanese house in the mountains and to host world travellers there. It is not easy in Japan to get permission from the owners of a traditional house to live, buy, or rent if it is not your family house. Usually the house is passed from generation to generation and if the family move to another house and the house is in bad condition they will destroy it. If it’s in good condition it will be very expensive.
So our challenge was to find a traditional house in bad condition that was meant for demolition with a flexible owner that will allow us to rent it. Dai was literally driving around villages asking people if there were are any available houses. In one village, one old lady showed him the house where we live today – Yui Valley. The house was empty for seven years and really broken down, but what was left of it was very beautiful under the layers of dirt and mess. We took the challenge… or the challenge took us!
This image: The traditional house before renovations.
LU: Where is your accommodation located and what is so special about the house and the whole experience?
HGK: Yui Valley is the name of our accommodation. It is a refreshing stop for tourists visiting Japan, conveniently located just between Tokyo and Kyoto.
We are In the countryside which has such a beautiful landscape surrounded by lush green mountains, bamboo forests, rivers and tea fields. Our guests can relax and also enjoy different activities such as hiking with view of Mt. Fuji, a walk across a bamboo grove and tea fields, a traditional green tea ceremony, hot springs and more.
Yui valley is a simple farmers house which is 96 years old. The experience is authentic -the house has shoji (paper doors) and tatami (woven floor mats) and you really feel like you’ve been sent back in time..
It is common in Japan for families to renovate the house with the first son’s marriage. The new wife will come to live with her husband’s family and his parents will fix the house in preparation for her arrival and for the new young family to come.
This tradition did not happen in our house so the original building was kept. Some of the furniture is as old as the house and some of the ceramics we use we found in the house when we started to renovate it eight years ago.
When you leave the house and go for a walk around the village you see old farmers working in their fields. It is so beautiful.
After visiting tourist places, guests come back here and they are so happy to be alone in the traditional house surrounded by the beautiful forest. Maybe you know the movie, My Neighbor Totoro, by studio Ghibili? It’s a 1988 Japanese animated fantasy film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki and animated by Studio Ghibli for Tokuma Shoten. Many of our guests come here because they feel our house is like the Totoro house.
We enjoy hosting very much and we try to do the best we can. We pick up our guests from the nearest train station and then we go to the supermarket together. Visiting the local supermarket is a unique experience in itself. Our traditional house has a kitchen, and many of our guests enjoy cooking, and also enjoy trying to cook Japanese food. There is a very big selection of sashimi which makes many guests happy. We help with choosing the fish, miso, and nice fish stock for soup or recommending good sake or plum wine. Guests can also order dinner from us if they like and we will cook them freestyle Japanese food, which they can enjoy in their room.
I remember the first time I stayed in a Ryokan (Japanese traditional inn) and was served dinner in my room. It was such a special feeling to eat in private.
Dinner is a great time to meet with guests and have conversations about their day in the village and their impressions of Japan in general.
This image: Breakfast time at the guest house.
This image: The house after renovations.
We cook as much as we can with local products – we use our own grown organic rice. We also use fresh vegetables that we receive from our neighbours. They know we cook for our guests and they are happy to share their vegetables with them, like lettuce, sticky potatoes, garlic, onion, cucumber, eggplant, and pumpkin. One of them is 88 years old!
We also have two grandmothers in the village who make Japanese pickles and share them with us. They pickle ume plums from our trees (there are so many plum trees around) or rakyo from their gardens. The taste is very strong but it is a good traditional food experience.
The ume plant has been part of Japanese culture for centuries. Umeboshi (pickled plum) was first brought to Japan around 1500 years ago as a medicine made from the ume fruit. The effectiveness of Umeboshi has been documented in Chinese medicine books as far back as 3000 years ago. Its use first became popular among priests and samurai warriors after the 12th century.
During the war period of the 15th and 16th centuries, samurai warriors held Umeboshi in high esteem, carrying it to revive themselves, even from the brink of death. At this point Umeboshi was still considered as a medicine only. It was not until the 17th century that individual families began to make Umeboshi in their homes.
We can also cook Israeli breakfast for the guests. We enjoy bringing some Israeli flavors like tahini, hummus and fresh salad. You don’t see fresh salad at all in Japanese meals.
Recently we opened a new home for guests to stay – Yui Valley guests unit.
LU: In what ways do you love the life you are living right now? What do you love about Japan?
HGK: I love my life now in so many ways. Japan is a great country to live in. My village is so beautiful and I enjoy being home and working at home with Dai, hosting special guests from many different countries.
Our place is unique and great for certain types of people that are attracted to nature and a more rural experience.
I like the view from my living room.
I like the food.
I like to work at home and have my own place to create and host guests.
I love going to hot springs. We have a good one 30 minutes drive from the house on a mountain road.