Okutama, officially, is a town comprising the westernmost region under the vast jurisdiction of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. In reality, it is an agglomeration of villages. While metropolitan Tokyo continues to grow, Okutama, which occupies some 11% of city territory, has seen its population shrink by two thirds over a few decades.
Still, village mentality rules. Common cause, independence, tradition and enthusiastic cooperation are elements of this mentality. Fatalism and lethargy also cannot be denied.
No great industry has emerged to replace the forestry that once underpinned the regional economy. Sugi plantations cast a wet blanket over everything. Locals genuinely doubt the attractiveness of their locale for outsiders.
“Do you really want to come and live here?” friends asked us before we made the move a little over three years ago.
That’s when near-record snowfalls closed the main road and rail links for a week. In a bad year, this can be an inconvenient place to live. We arrived to snow a metre deep everywhere.
Agriculturist and universal volunteer Ohno-san had told us: “If you do come here, maybe I can tell you a thing or two about gardening.”
Accordingly, upon arrival, we made the phone-call: “We want to know what kind of fertilizer to use and where to get it.”
“Wait right there”, came the answer. Fifteen minutes later, Ohno-san hopped out of his little van with gifts in each hand.
“This is for you,” he said, proffering a large bag of fresh vegetables from his garden. In the other hand he held a home-crafted “kuwa” gardening tool: “This is for you”. I still use this device regularly (backbreaking work), and love it.
Ohno-san then drove us to the nearest handyman store, helped us load up with fertilizer and other materials, drove us home and disappeared in a hurry as if apologetic to have taken up so much of our time.
We don’t forget our debt. But it’s personal, not the formulaic tension between obligation and emotion that makes many Japanese reluctant to receive gifts. Nothing is calibrated, though everything matters.
In the end, everyone in a Japanese village owes everybody else more than can ever be repaid. The individual is glued into an engulfing mass with its own regular momentum.
If you don’t like it, go away. We love it.
Several people come occasionally to our door with a tray of “nijimasu” (rainbow trout) or “yamame” (cherry salmon), plus advice on the best preparation methods. We try to reciprocate, but have stopped trying to keep tabs or balance accounts.
“Hey! Tet-chan. Can you come to a barbecue?”
“Sure! I’ll bring a barbecue.”
True to his word, Mr. T. arrives with a barbecue kit that he has made of welded bits and heavy-duty half-pipe. This is the best kit I have ever had anywhere. Charcoal lasts longer than I ever imagined in this piece of genius.
I mention Ohno-san and Tet-chan mainly to introduce our landlord, Yuji-san, who happens to have built the residence some 40 years ago. At the outset, he did the necessary refurbishment, replacing the kitchen sink, the tatami mats and the window screens.
Since the dwelling had not been repainted for decades, not a skerrick of paint remained on parts of the exterior. While wire-brushing the surfaces, I proposed to do the painting if Yuji-san would bring me the paint. He brought five litres of paint but then said: “Wait! I’ll get a quote”. He brought in his buddies from primary school (friends of six decades or so). They did a magnificent job of the interior as well as the exterior.
We then noticed that part of the roof ridge seemed to be coming adrift. Yuji-san hauled in his roofing experts from primary-school acquaintance. They crawled all over the roof for some days, replacing the original clay with modern sealant.
My treasured bride then revealed irritation over pervasive mould within the premises. Yuji-san’s primary-school mould specialists were recruited to assess the situation.
“Well, water seeps downhill and under the house, so it will always be damp,” these gurus concluded.
About this time, Yuji-san disclosed a crucial change of mind, saying: “Before you arrived, I had basically given up on this house, but I am getting interested again.”
The result was astonishing. Our landlord and his pals (while we were absent some weeks) dug a ditch all around the house, concreted it and filled it in again. Down-flowing water goes around, not underneath, our castle.
With all that behind us, it was time to open the bathroom conversation. At the outset, a gas heater served our ofuro bathtub only, with no service to a shower, washing machine or handbasin. Yuji-san’s primary school pals proposed a new gas-heater to serve the bathroom and shower, while keeping the old ofuro heater. The deal was made. A date was set.
The evening before (a matter of just a few hours, really) the new heater was due for installation, the old heater died. With a few quick phone calls, a new configuration was designed and installed. After 20 years, had this bathroom contraption held on only half a day longer, what a mess we would have had!
We have a mess now, but it is a mess of intersecting obligation and appreciation. There is no burden, just a constant flow of reciprocation.
This is village life at its very best.