Life in Daisen — Kira Hahn-Ventrell

Daisen city was never a destination I had in mind for where I thought I was going in life. Like most ALTs who get placed here, I knew nothing about Daisen city or Akita prefecture. I had heard of Akita dogs, but I knew absolutely nothing else about this place so far up north. Before arriving in Daisen, I was extremely nervous but also thrilled to start my first job after undergrad. I had no expectations other than to embrace discomfort and the notion that I was going to be eating pounds and pounds of local rice.

I tried to imagine what my new home would look like, and I thought of the “moving in” scene of My Neighbor Totoro. In that scene, Satsuki and Mei are riding in the back of their truck moving to a new town, as their father drives them on roads alongside endless glistening fields of rice and vegetables and little houses tucked in between tree lines. And on my first ride into Daisen city, I felt that scene start to merge with reality.

I remember my first views of Daisen, my eyes glued to the window of the car, awestruck at the vast fields of rice that seemed to go on for miles and miles to meet the surrounding mountains. It was August, and the tall green stalks seemed to roll like brilliant emerald waves in the wind. Before coming to Daisen, I had never seen a rice field in person, and all of a sudden I was surrounded by miles and miles of them, completely overwhelmed.

I had no idea what I was getting into. I had never lived in a place where I was surrounded by acres and acres of farms. I grew up in the suburbs outside of Washington D.C., so a majority of farmers I saw were at the weekly farmer’s markets I would frequent for fruits and vegetables. I’ve always preferred big cities to small towns and countryside living, so the idea that a majority of my coworkers had their own farms was hard to grasp. “These people have full-time jobs and multiple miles of farmland to take care of?” I thought it was crazy, but for them, this was the norm.

When fall came around, my coworkers insisted that I try to embrace the crazy and join the students in cutting the rice and harvesting the sweet potatoes next to the school grounds. It was hilarious to see my students compete for who could carry the most rice stalks, or dig out the biggest sweet potato without breaking any pieces off. I made the mistake of asking if I could take a single potato home because it led to my coworkers sending me home with gigantic bags full of produce from their own farms to mark the harvest season such as persimmons, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, and more. My kitchen/dining room looked like a giant’s cornucopia had exploded.

Locals are intensely dedicated to hard work and excellence here, and it’s easy to see this through foods in Daisen. I didn’t know about a majority of special dishes in the area, so one day my coworkers brought in natto soup, rakkyo, iburigakko, and sour plums for me to try. I definitely enjoyed some better than others, but it was a sweet (also sour) introduction to some regional delicacies. As I got more comfortable, I tried out other various dishes and restaurants even if I couldn’t read the menu and didn’t know what I was getting.

Navigating Daisen started to feel more natural with my rotation of restaurants, an easy commute through rice fields, and my new relationships in the city. Right when I thought I was getting the hang of things, winter arrived. I have never liked winter or any cold weather for that matter. The icy, dry winds and gray skies combined with the multiple feet of snow I had to scrape off my car daily were not easy to embrace. Before living here, I did everything in my power to distance myself from snow and snow sports, but when you live so close to the slopes, how can you resist? After many slips, slides, and crashes into piles of powder, I ended up falling in love with snowboarding. The best days in winter have been the days I spent carving S’s down a mountain and soaking in a hot spring afterward with friends.

Now, as the snow is melting and the new school year approaches, it’s been quite a year to look back on. There were no festivals to celebrate, no enkais to enjoy, and the fireworks were few and far between. We have all had to make adjustments, and nothing about this situation has been easy. In these times of uncertainty, I’m thankful that I’ve been able to live and work in such a unique setting. It boggles my mind to think that I’ve been here for almost two years. They say the more you learn, the less you know. I’ve learned so much from my time in Daisen, and there are far too many things that I don’t understand about the culture, the food, and the language.

In the end, the best part of my time in Daisen has been the people. From my students to my coworkers, and my new friends to the kind strangers who helped shovel out my car when I got stuck in the snow. The weather may be freezing cold, but the generosity and compassionate gestures of the locals have been incredibly heartwarming.

 Kira Hahn-Ventrell

Life in Daisen