October 2010

Barbara J. King

features

Japan Stories: In Search of a Differently-Paced Life

My habit for years has been to sign emails to colleagues and acquaintances with the phrase “Best, Barbara.” I type fast, and usually accurately, but in the last few weeks I’ve been startled to see appearing on my screen the sign-off “Beset, Barbara.”

In some ways I do feel beset: by too much work, and too much challenge in finding time for family, friends, books, films, and quiet reflection. I’m hardly alone in this sense that it takes incredible energy just to resist being engulfed by culture’s great forces. It’s become thoroughly unremarkable to feel stoop-shouldered with work, glassy-eyed from the assault of information’s flow through electronic outlets, and snared, if only momentarily, by the fast-moving consumer currents in which last year’s big screen TV or iPod Touch suddenly goes lame alongside a 3D TV or Nano.

When “beset” threatens to overwhelm, I head for the sunroom in our house. Just walking in, seeing my hundreds of books on their cherrywood shelves, the cats in various degrees of stupor soaking up sun-shafts, and no technology whatsoever, allows my ribcage expand and my heart rate to slow. The glass doors open onto the now-overgrown summer garden, and the surrounding territory of Our Nemesis The Groundhog and song-making yardbirds.  

Many of us may seek micro-escapes like this, fixing ourselves to a spot in our home or yard, or in a nearby park or beach, that invites us to think, read, talk with others, or do something old-fashioned and creative with our hands. In such a place, our vision may clear long enough to daydream a fuller resistance to the prevailing hamster wheel. At such times, a good book to have is Andy Couturier’s A Different Kind of Luxury: Japanese Lessons in Simple Living and Inner Abundance.

Couturier, when living in Japan, interviewed eleven people who embrace a differently-paced life. Don’t be put off by the tired memes of the title, “simple living” and “inner abundance”; this is no New Age self-help volume, but rather an engagement with men and women who have rejected society’s money chase. They thrive even as they continue to grapple with the consequences of their choices.

Koichi Yamashita was once a professor of literature and philosophy and is now a farmer in a remote area of southern Shikoku. His family embraces food self-sufficiency. “I would like to be an artist of farming,” he told Couturier, “to achieve the same level of artistry and creation of beauty as does a novelist or a painter.”

Two comments that Yamashita offered up to Couturier caused me to close the book for a few moments, and simply sit with his thoughts.

When he’s out in the rice fields, Yamashita is, he says, “simply glad. I understand that I myself am living, that I am in possession of a living spirit. In the rice paddy with the plants you just naturally develop a feeling of compassion, of sympathy…”  

I understand that I myself am living. Only rarely, this profound realization comes to me, too, as a kind of emotional lightning strike. For me, it happens when I am with animals. That it may occur for others when they are around plants is an expansive realization.

In one of his hand-created newsletters shared with Couturier, Yamashita makes mention of the ancient age of the Earth. “Everyone knows” this age, he writes. (Clearly he’s never been to Kentucky’s Creation Museum.) Every person, and every seed of rice or wheat, then, is the fruit of all those millennia of life on Earth; realizing this, Yamashita was profoundly affected. “When I understood, or rather felt, this fact,” he wrote, “I was so delighted that I had no words at all to explain it.”

Occasionally, Couturier succumbs to an unwelcome romanticizing. He comments that Yamashita and his partner “seem to be suffused in timelessness, in an endless present.” Well, hardly. Farmers can’t afford to exist in the present. And the nature of the rice plant causes a need for particularly precise strategizing. Once there was a typhoon at exactly the wrong time. Yamashita explains: “The flower on a rice plant only opens for three hours. Then it closes. That’s it. And one year the forty-eight hours of wind and rain overlapped that period exactly. So the rice wasn’t pollinated… Every year you think about this in advance and put away some extra in reserve for next year. That’s what we did that year. The barley did well, and we had a lot of that, and some corn.”

What I like best about the Yamashita chapter is its direct engagement with the costs of this kind of living: it’s not all mystical meshing with the Earth and its living creatures. Yamashita’s work is hard. He cares also for an organic tea plantation high in the mountains, and the weeds require constant attention. To weed one row of the plants takes four hours; to weed one full section takes a week. And there are twelve sections in all.

It’s physically strenuous, it’s time-consuming, and together with the rice-field work, it leaves Yamashita without enough free time. “I do feel,” he notes, "that I don’t have enough time to read and write for myself.” Here we learn that “simple living” does not equate -- as it might in the popular imagination -- to a leisurely freedom.

Yamashita muses about reading and writing books in a wholly fascinating way. Equally engrossing are the fruits of Couturier’s interaction with Jinko Kaneko, a painter and textile artist living in the distant shadow of Mt. Fuji. Couturier describes Kaneko as “one of those rare people who has not only been able to contact the mystic energy in nature but can also communicate what it feels like in the paintings and fabric work she makes.” She embodies, to me, a mix of practical sensibility and airy thinking, and, like Yamashita, a mix too of happy choices and hard sacrifices.

At one point Kaneko makes a reference to feeling “a gathering of thousands of fairies” all around her, a point that Couturier regrettably does not press. Yet she’s a keenly realistic person too; she runs a curry restaurant as well as creates art. It’s not that she exactly craves the doing of all these things at once. “This restaurant is my Buddhist training in patience,” she laughs. Like Yamashita, she’s pressed for time. “I actually want more quiet time,” she says, “more painting and art-making time.”

The book reproduces some of her art; even in small black-and-white squares, the trees, flowers, mountains, and skies offer a sense of her fusing with nature as she paints. It’s a kind of slow art, too, in the making. The colors, Kaneko explains, are made from ground stones, and materials like mica, pearls, silver and gold. The whites, for instance, come from ground-up oyster shells, and the adhesive from cow- or deer-bone marrow.

Kaneko speaks about the challenges of being both a woman and an outsider. She comes originally from a different region of Japan, meaning that now she’s perceived as beneath not only all the men where she lives and works, but all the women too. “I am at the bottom of the ranking… It’s tiring. The village mindset is narrow, and there are all kind of tasks to do that take me away from my painting. I feel drained.” Yet there is joy, too, in her words, and in her art, and in her choices. Kaneko speaks vibrantly about her imagined futures, and of keeping the sacred in her life. 

I’ve been dipping, at a graceful pace (and feeling not at all beset), into the nine other chapters in A Different Kind of Luxury. Sitting with the book in my sunroom, the view out to our garden expands, and I imagine I can see much, much farther, even a little way into the lives of people in Japan I’ll never meet.  

-- Barbara J. King tweets simply and abundantly @bjkingape.