Monday, April 28, 2008


“Golden Week” has started here in Japan. It’s a series of holidays at the beginning of May that ends up giving people about a week off from work or school. Since I have no formal job I was a bit oblivious to it and was trying to go about my work as usual today, but found everywhere closed. So, errands will probably have to wait until after the holiday.

People here in Otaki are still out working in their fields—no golden week for them. I will be returning to Kyoto for a bit on May 2nd and will be back here by the 10th because there is a festival on the 11th that I have been asked to participate in. Not totally sure what all the festival consists of. I know it takes place at a small shrine up on the hillside above the village-center, and I know we will be cooking takoyaki たこ焼き and yakisoba やきそば, which are customary festival treats these days. I’m sure there will also be plenty of drinking. In addition, I was delighted to find out that the “second party” (the second bar of the night essentially) is held at someone’s house in the village—basically you don’t even need one hand to count the number of bars in Otaki. . . so homes have to do!

Interesting fact that came from my conversations with I-san in Takigoshi yesterday: he and his wife have a 5 year old child and apparently it is the first child to have been born in that hamlet in 32 years!! I-san also told me about some of the history of Takigoshi hamlet. In the furthest back part of the hamlet there is a dam called Miura Dam; it was built prior to the war using forced laborers from Korea and China during Japan’s occupation of those countries. Apparently there used to be quite a town back there, including a movie theater and various other types of entertainment for the workers. There is a mountain in Takigoshi that is also called “Miura” and I-san told me that nearly everyone in the hamlet carries that last name Miura, written 三浦, as well.

I was also told that here in the Kiso Region houses, not families, but the houses themselves have names (apparently this may be common across Japan). I-san suggested to me that for this reason many villagers may not feel comfortable offering personal views or opinions in as far as that they tend to think of themselves as part of a larger household, not simply as individuals. It will be interesting to see how true this is; my hope is that, even if this is so, villagers may feel more comfortable opening up to a foreigner who—in a very real way—stands outside of village society and therefore presents less of a threat in terms of social reprisals for stating one’s opinions.

Sounds like gas is going to jump about 30 yen here from tomorrow—good time to be living in a small village. . .with a good pair of shoes!

Takigoshi  滝越

Good Evening Ontake-san!!
Today I visited a section of Otaki called Takigoshi 滝越, which is located about 10 kilometers from the village center at the back of a canyon that rolls out from Ontake-san's southwestern slope. This section was the hardest hit by a landslide caused by a large earthquake in 1984. A section of the hillside that had collapsed and carried a house away with it was pointed out to me, as was a statue that commemorates the site where a mother and her child were buried and killed.

My neighbor had invited me out to Takigoshi to visit a small park called Suikouen 水交園. The park is run by a man and his wife, both of whom are in their thirties and have lived in Otaki for a decade. Both were very fascinating to talk with. They live nearby the park in a minshuku 民宿, which is like a Japanese B&B, that was built about fifty years ago. The house is heated by a wood burning stove and they bath in a home-made tub that is also wood-burning--It's also open-air. . .fun in the winter I'm sure.

At Suikouen the couple sells homemade soba, which is buckwheat noodles served cold and dipped in a soy-sauce based broth, and also mountain vegetables served tempura-style. I forgot to take a photo of the soba. . .it was just too good, ate it all up. . .but here are photos of the tempura and some of the veggies they served us.

In addition to the great food, I was also treated to some great stories about the Takigoshi area and Otaki in general. I'll save those for later.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Magome 馬籠 and Tsumago 妻籠

Spent the day today in Nagiso town on the border of Gifu prefecture visiting two post-towns called Magome 馬籠and Tsumago 妻籠. The residents of the towns try to maintain a feeling of the Edo Period (1603-1867) when a foot path led from Miyako (Kyoto) to Edo 江戸 (Tokyo); part of the foot path, known as the Nakasendo 中山道, still exists, connecting the two small post-towns.

The Japanese novelist, Shimazaki Toson, spent part of his life in Magome and a museum dedicated to his life still stands there today. Toson wrote novels that focused on the lives of peasant farmers and how they experienced the transfer from Daimyo power in the Edo Period to a national government that came with the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

Along the road between the two villages we stopped by a pair of waterfalls, one a “male” waterfall and the other a “female” one. We also stopped briefly at a clearing where a stature of Kannon Buddha is located. The statue was surrounded by cherry blossom trees that were in full bloom, which was a special treat.

Kind of a long day, so that’s all I have in me for today.

Goodnight Ontake-san.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Into the village

Made some good progress today on a couple of fronts. We still lack a washing machine, so the day started--as many do--with washing clothes by hand in the sink and then rinsing them in the bathtub. There's something satisfying about the work. . .my wife and I both comment about how hungry we feel and how much we look forward to lunch everyday--there's a sanctity to the menial tasks humans have sought be free from.

While hanging our sloshy clothes we were serenaded by bird songs. The indescribably delightful "ho-hokekyo" of the Japanese Bush Warbler that starts low and rides the cool canyon winds up and into one's ears. We also heard and spotted several Citrine Wagtails, wonderful yellow bodied birds with long, thin tails that swoop through the air in a series of dives and climbs resembling an Olympic swimmer doing the breaststroke. It's hard to put into words just how joyous it is to once again be privy to the moods and songs of mountain birds.

After finishing with the laundry we took a walk into the valley that stretches northwest towards Ontake-san from where we live. The road follows a river that bends and arches its way up to the wide snow fields that blanket Ontake's upper slopes, carrying meltwater down to the azure lake that caresses Otaki's eastern border. Several homes occupy broader sections of the valley adjacent to the river, their red roofs accentuated against the square swaths of black, loamy soil that lay ready for planting and the white snows of Ontake in the distance.

After returning to the house for lunch we went to the village social welfare office to inquire about volunteer opportunities. The response we received was great--feels my wife and I are on our way to becoming "regular" villagers. I will likely begin volunteering to deliver boxed lunches and dinners to elderly residents who are unable to cook for themselves, and my wife is looking into an after school program for looking after children until their parents finish work.

The mood in the village center is always friendly, children run around and talk freely with everyone, as if they belong to the community as a whole. People in the village are constantly reminding my wife and I to call if we need anything. This sense of interconnection and interdependence seems to me an essential feature of village life, one that makes that life possible for insiders and somewhat difficult for outsiders. After today, I feel as if I've taken my first steps into the village.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

In the fields

Rain today. . .thin strings of mist rise up and out of the valleys, clinging to the tree tops before flowing into the gray swirl of clouds overhead.

I spent the day yesterday introducing myself and talking with villagers. Most people were out working in their fields, so it was a bit difficult to interrupt. Also, it's hard to describe the look that comes over people's faces when a white guy suddenly walks up and begins speaking Japanese. So, I'm thinking I need to revise my tactics a bit. At the same time, in a town of 1,000 I'm sure that most people now know who I am, and have a semblance of what it is I'm up to.

Because Otaki used to be a forestry town, I haven't seen many rice paddies in production--though these may begin being planted towards the end of next month. Most people grow vegetables in fairly small field plots. Red turnips 赤かぶ are a major crop here, but planting must come later because I haven't seen any yet. Most people seem to be planting long onions at the moment.

The residents who are planting tend to be older, in their 60's or 70's, and it is not uncommon to see electric wheelchairs parked adjacent to fields. While working outdoors people dress to protect themselves from the sun. Women wear long pants and long shirts with aprons that tie in the back covering their upper bodies. Most cover their heads with bonnets or conical shaped straw hats. Men tend to wear long pants and shirts with either a wide-brimmed straw hat or a regular baseball cap (often embossed with a "JA"--Japan Agriculture--label). Men and women often wear rubber boots that come up to their mid-calf.

Today I am going to Ina across the mountains to the east. The agricultural college of Shinshu University is located there and I am going to meet with a professor who works with GIS and satellite imagery in forestry applications. The majority of Otaki land area is comprised of steep slopes that are difficult to get to, so I'm hoping that there may be some digital data that help me assess the condition of forests here.

Ontake-san was peeking it's head out of the clouds a bit yesterday. . ."Hi Ontake!"

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Rites of Spring

Had to run up to Matsumoto yesterday to do some errands. Luckily, the cherry blossoms on the hillsides were in full bloom.

Woke this morning to the sound of children yelling "ohayou, Ontake-san"--"Good morning Ontake!". They are part of some sort of program taking place; will have to go check it out today if I get a chance.

Later this week the village-owned forests will be closed to all but village residents, who gather edible plants there. Using communal forests is an old tradition in Japan, but one that has been difficult in Otaki due to the high value of their forests for timber, which has brought external control.

Today I'm going to be out in the village trying to meet as many people as possible. In a village of 1,000 I'm guessing that news of a foreigner living here has already passed most people's ears. So, I'd better get my face out there so people can start figuring out just what the hell I am doing.

Monday, April 21, 2008

王滝村の紹介  An Introduction to Otaki Village

Today, the wifey and I had a chance to look around Otaki a bit.

However, before I get into that, allow me to give some orientation as to Otaki's location in Japan.

The village is located a little over 200 kilometers west of Tokyo, in the southwest of Nagano prefecture, along the border with Gifu Prefecture.

Otaki lays at the southeastern foot of Mt. Ontake 御嶽山. This volcanic mountain is revered by many who come to make pilgrimages and worship at various shrines and spots of natural wonder. In 1984 a strong earthquake caused a section of the mountain to crumble and flow into Otaki, killing several people. Ontake is definitely alive and well, greeting us with a small tremor on our first night in the village.

Here's a depiction of Ontake showing the various shrines and pilgrimage stages.

So, that's where I'm located.

Next, a few photos of the new bungalow.

The house is located a bit west of the village center, below a "children's forest", where kids used to come to learn about forestry (another well intentioned--well funded project, that doesn't seem to have panned out).

Today we also visited Otaki's Mt. Ontake shrine--a set of stone stairs leading to a small alcove where visitors can collect water flowing from the mountain. Finally, we visited "kiyotaki" (清滝) waterfall, where those strong in body and spirit don special white clothes and step below the falls to brave the freezing meltwater.

As we traversed the hills and valleys of Otaki, the one constant was Ontake itself, sitting solid like a cross-legged monk--peacefully oblivious to all the comings and goings below.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Otaki Life . . . "sta-to" (start)

Finally arrived in Otaki yesterday!!! Fieldwork has officially begun I suppose. Though yesterday and today were spent getting the house straight. The wife and I are staying in a house built by the village to accommodate people interested in possibly living in the village. It's a nice little place--we have great views of the hillsides that lay to the south of Otaki. No leaves yet, but summer is just around the corner.

Tomorrow I need to go get some things sorted out at the village office, and then it's on to some anthropologicatin'. I'll begin introducing myself to as many people as possible, and trying to find potential interview subjects. Still don't know how the "gaijin"--foreigner--will be received here in Otaki, so things might take a little time to get going. But, the process should be just as informative as anything else.

It's very quiet here in the village. Woke up this morning to the sounds of songbirds--a very pleasant way to wake indeed.