Otamamura – Japan’s Machu Picchu

Despite no longer being an English teacher, I was lucky enough to be able to spend October 14th with some local elementary children to find out what they like about their hometown Otamamura, whilst picking sweet potatoes in the school’s plot.

Otamamura is a small town near Dake Onsen and Nihonmatsu. A large proportion of families that live in Otamamura have connections with the farming industry, if they don’t, in fact, own their own plot of land.

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The town is stunning. Especially in Autumn. The gold of the rice fields shimmers brightly as the strands shuffle in the wind. Old women go about their farming tasks at their own pace, with no soundtrack of cars or trains to accompany them. They carry out old-fashioned techniques of drying rice that make it taste so much better than machine-dried equivalent.

It’s so quiet, so peaceful, yet not far at all – only 10km – from Nihonmatsu City.

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I wasn’t expecting to fall in love with this place as much as I did. After a busy and stressful week, I was feeling pretty tired by the time that Friday rolled around, but immediately felt relaxed and refreshed as we stopped our car at a photo spot.

At Otamamura’s elementary school, myself and the volunteers who would teach the children about picking potatoes and “huckleberries” introduced ourselves. The kids, in 4th grade, were so sweet and funny, that I immediately felt a pang of pining for the school children that – until recently – I was teaching.

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When I asked the kids what their favourite things were about Otamamura, there were a number of answers…

  • “Well, the nature is nice”

  • “Everyone is kind”

  • “Potatoes!”

  • “Our rice”

Another answer was pretty interesting:

  • “Otamamura is the sister town of Machu Pichu”

It may be hard to believe that a quiet, sleepy town like Otamamura, in the middle of Fukushima Prefecture, slap-bang in the middle of Japan has a link to Machu Picchu.

In 1917, Yokichi Nouchi – born in Otamamura – moved to Machu Picchu to work on installing railway tracks in the town, helped to build a water plant and a hotel, and remained closely involved with promoting tourism to the Peruvian World Heritage Site until his death. Otamamura was officially appointed Machu Picchu’s sister town last year.

Moving back to the present day, the next couple of hours consisted of me having a chat with the 9-year-olds as we picked curiously named berries and dug around for sweet potatoes the size and weight of a baby elephant.

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Ok they weren’t really that big.

I had lots of fun chatting to the kids about a number of topics, including digging techniques (one girl insisted that digging like a dog got the best results, and she wasn’t wrong), whether green peppers are disgusting or not, and roller-skating (the popular pastime in the town it seems).

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The 6th graders came to join us a bit later. They were a bit confused about why a strange blonde foreign lady they had never seen before was doubled over laughing whilst a child chased one of her colleagues around with a lizard. But after asking me the only important question, in the eyes of a Japanese elementary school kid (“Are you American?”) we quickly got back to the hard task of finding all of the sweet potatoes.

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After being bribed by a small boy to carry the potatoes back to the school, I attempted to clean up my muddy trousers before reentering the school.

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I was moved to learn that many of the children from the town eat food that is produced within 1km of their houses every day. This feeling of the town’s children being close to nature was furthered by the fact that no one mentioned gaming consoles or computers when I asked them about their hobbies, but mostly talked about playing outside with friends.

After our goodbyes, I was presented by their teacher with two sweet potatoes and a bag of popular Japanese snacks. On the way back to the office, we stopped off to get some taiyaki (fish-shaped pastry filled with sweet red bean paste), and ate them whilst watching the sun set over the mountains.

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Not a bad way to end my week. Not bad at all.

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