--------------------------------------------------- "Vanishing Point" Exhibit Dates ---------------------------------------------------

None currently scheduled.

------------------------------------------------------- Upcoming Special Events -------------------------------------------------------


None currently scheduled.

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About Us

Photoji Project is: photographer Elizabeth Barbush, writer Gabriel DellaVecchia, interviewer/coordinator Makie Sugawara, interviewer/community liaison Takaharu Saito, and photographer Maki Otomo. Although we come from various backgrounds and two different countries, the five of us share a commitment to cultural sustainability and to the power of art as a tool for education and social change.

In August 2010, we spent three weeks documenting, through photographs, interviews, and audio recordings, the historically important onsen hot spring town of Naruko in the Tohoku region of Japan. We centered our explorations on the concept of toji: the traditional ritual of staying in a hot spring town for an extended period for the purposes of rejuvenation.

The original intention of the project was to exhibit our findings in Sendai, the largest city in the region, to highlight for the people there a fading cultural treasure located in their own backyard.

Then came the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11th, 2011. Over the course of one terrible, bitterly cold winter afternoon, everything in this region of the world changed.

In a strange twist of fate, fading Naruko, home to hundreds of usually empty hotel rooms, became a refuge for 1000 tsunami victims, relocated there by the prefectural government. The ritual of toji, staying in an onsen town for an extended period in order to heal, has taken on an entirely new meaning.

Photoji Project returned to Naruko in May and June 2011, nearly one year after our original visit, to document how a place that was written off has now become safe haven for hundreds of families.

We are currently planning to share our exhibit "Vanishing Point" at two locations in California: first at the Little Tokyo Koban and Visitors' Center in Los Angeles (August 2011) and then at Elsewhere Gallery in the Bay Area (September 2011), during which we hope to raise money for the struggling businesses and tsunami refugees in Naruko.

Please share this blog and help us spread the word about this overlooked corner of Japan.

Photoji Project(フォトージ・プロジェクト)は、写真担当のエリザベス・バーブッシュ、ライターのガブリエル・デラベキア、取材/コーディネーターの菅原牧枝、取材/コミュニティ・リエゾンの齋藤高晴、写真担当の大友眞妃からなるプロジェクトです。
出身国も経歴も異なるメンバーに共通しているのは、教育や社会問題解決手段としてのアートの可能性や、文化の持続可能性に強く関心を持っていること。湯治文化の残る宮城県大崎市鳴子温泉で、湯治旅館やこけし職人等、30名以上の方々に写真撮影とインタビューを行ってきました。
2010年秋に、鳴子温泉駅での写真展「The Future of Tradition」を開催。
2011年夏には、ロサンゼルスとサンフランシスコで写真展「Vanishing Point」を開催予定です。

Thursday

The Source

My name is Gabe and I’m an American living in Sendai, Japan. Unlike the teeming technological marvel of Tokyo, Sendai is more like a village that got really big. Sure, the main shopping arcade features an Apple Store and a Disney Store and certainly Starbucks has made its mark. But crouching in the shadows of those international behemoths are mom-and-pop shops that look like they have been in business longer than America has been a country. I am continually baffled as to how the little shops stay in business, especially since a glance inside them usually reveals an inventory comprising some faded boxes of laundry products and a clutch of wilted carrots.

While walking past these shops with my Japanese friend Taka, I express to him my confusion as to this seeming economic miracle. How is it possible that these tiny shops are still in operation? Who are their customers? What are their plans for the future? Don't they feel a need to sell something more desirable than sun-bleached bleach and flabby root vegetables?

Taka is amused that I think these small business owners have it bad. In his opinion, at least they have the benefit of foot traffic.

He then tells me about Naruko…

In the mountains of western Miyagi Prefecture, about an hour outside of Sendai, is a small town famous for its medicinal hot springs. Now, while that would be a big deal in America, where the only water coming out of the ground is coming up in pipes and whose only medicinal properties are trace amounts of OxyContin, hot springs are a common natural phenomenon in Japan.

But Naruko is special. Concentrated in one tiny mountain village are hot springs with nine different compositions. Some sources are high in iron, some sulfur, others bicarbonate of soda. Each different spring is useful in the treatment of a different malady. Not only that, but soaking in particular springs purportedly makes women more fertile. After years of disappointment, a descendant of Date Masamune, the feudal lord of Sendai, was able to conceive twins after a visit.

For over 1,200 years, people have made pilgrimages to Naruko to soak in the baths. For many, this would take the form of toji: a traditional method of recuperation by soaking in the baths many times a day over the course of weeks, perhaps even a month. This was the perfect solution in decades past, when most of the population of Japan was involved in farming or fishing. After the fall harvest, or after the season’s catch, these exhausted manual laborers would check into a ryokan (Japanese inn) and soak themselves back to health. In the same way that the earth had drained their bodies of strength, the earth would heal them again. The cycle of work and rest would mirror the cycle of the seasons.

By the 1970s, the Japanese economy was in overdrive. The constantly swelling armies of salarymen followed the cycle of the stock market, not of the seasons. The fortunes of Naruko fell. Even with the collapse of the bubble economy in 1991, the damage was done and visitors to Naruko were a fraction of what they had been. These days, a visit to the onsen is laughed off as a pursuit of the elderly or infirm. Younger people, if they take any time off at all, would rather go to Tokyo Disney...

Taka has been working in Naruko for more than a year with a collection of artists and business people trying to reignite interest in the town and in toji culture. Now, more than ever, with long hours and an urban lifestyle, Japanese people stand to benefit from slowing down and taking care of their health.

But the health of Naruko itself is in a bad way. Businesses are closing at an alarming rate. Most of the young people have moved away, looking for employment opportunities in the cities. Just like the trees found in the rain forest that contain cancer-fighting compounds but are threatened by clear-cutting, Naruko and its healing waters are a natural cure for what ails Japanese society, but which might be pushed out of existence. 

Taka and I decide that the small businesses in Sendai will have to wait, and we will research the story of Naruko.

Photoji Project is born.

February 2010

Monday

Not a "vacation" destination, but definitely a trip.

Do you ever get the feeling that you are Alice and you have just tumbled down the rabbit hole?

With tentative ideas for a multimedia documentary project swirling in our heads, Taka and I visit Naruko for our first scouting expedition.

What is this place he has told me so much about?

We leave Sendai at about 8:30am and spend 1.5 hours traveling increasingly smaller roads. The journey there is pretty, if unremarkable: a typically Japanese mix of rice fields, suburban homes, and convenience stores. Even as we pull into the town itself, my first thought is... "This is it?"

When I imagined a rustic hot spring resort, I was thinking temple-like wooden inns tucked in shady groves of towering cedar. You know, like this:


This town looks more like a truck stop in Pennsylvania.


We park in the lot of a restaurant called Big Star. It used to be a typical noodle restaurant with karaoke, complete with an ugly sign on the roof declaring KA-RA-O-KE. The owner's daughter moved back to Naruko from Tokyo about two years ago and took over the place. She decided to take the place upscale, kicking-and-screaming: she had the karaoke sign torn down and introduced organic vegetables.

I thought perhaps we were going to meet her, or at least eat at the restaurant. But no... it's just a convenient place to meet our tour guide for the day: Oba Yoko-san.

At first, I thought she was just a friend of Taka's with some time on her hands and who was kind enough to sorta show us around. Nope. A Tokyo transplant married to a local onsen owner, she has the passion of a true convert and has planned the day to the minute, complete with a typed itinerary.

After Oba-san hops in the backseat, Taka maneuvers the car over the icy roads to the top of a small peak so we can see Katanuma Lake. Fed by hot springs, it smells like sulfur and is a brilliant turquoise. We are the only ones there, the lake surrounded by half a metre of untouched snow.

We fix that, as the three of us tramp off looking for a shrine on the far side of the lake (which we fail to find).

Once back in downtown Naruko, we soak our snow-numbed feet in the onsen foot bath just outside the train station. Grand Central, this is not.

We have lunch in a tiny little soba restaurant. Like many dining establishments in Japan, it boasts only four tables. Unlike most restaurants in Japan, or at least in Sendai, everyone seems to know each other. As Naruko only has about 9,000 permanent residents spread between five distinct villages, and few restaurants, I suppose you would have to try mightily not to run into your neighbors. The happy chatter ceases momentarily as the jolt of a minor earthquake hits as we eat, but as soon as the ground stops quivering and we are sure it is not the Big One, we all go back to slurping our noodles in the polite Japanese way.

After a short visit to a shrine dedicated to the God of the Hot Springs (I had no idea there was such a Shinto deity, but it strikes me as being a better gig than being the God of Jellyfish or the God of War), we stop for coffee in a shop run by an elderly couple. The man is a Beatles fanatic: Beatles books line the shelves, an Abbey Road sign hangs proudly on the wall, guitars all over... and although in his late 60s/early 70s, the proprietor sports a Beatles moptop.

Full of soba and caffeine, we drive across the river and up the tallest mountain in the area.

We stop by a junior high school that had been closed due to low enrollment. Just recently, it has been reborn as a cultural center (it is so new, they are still finding staff). No one is around, so we move on.

We end up at the regional government building. The residents refused to have an ugly concrete building, so it is entirely built from local timber. It is gorgeous, all blond wood and full of light. Through sheer chance, the building is hosting a bunkasai (cultural festival).

The festival is split by gender: all of the food-related booths are in the lobby, and all are staffed by women.

One lady, noticeably younger than the rest, is selling rice bread. She is apparently locally famous for rice bread pizza, with organic toppings, that she sells from a truck. Now, before I left America, I was living in Portland, Oregon, home to hippies and food trucks, and to my knowledge, none of them are selling organic rice dough pizza.

We find the men in an inner room. One elderly gentleman is carving kokeshi dolls, two weave mats, and an ANCIENT old man is carving wooden buckets with a hacksaw. I fear for his fingers, but I suppose he has carved a forest's worth of buckets by this point in his life.

The man in charge of the room, who is also carving wooden benches, is Ohnuma Yukio-san. Again, by coincidence, he is the one in charge of the new cultural center at the former junior high school. We have unwittingly solved the mystery of why no one was there when we dropped by. He hands me a glass of sake, which I sip as Taka explains our project.




Leaving the bunkasai, we drive deep into the woods to Hell Valley, where the hot springs have not been tapped.


The road is covered by about one metre of snow, so we abandon the car and push our way through the deep drifts. The snow is untouched, we have the valley to ourselves. The springs are truly untamed: gushing cracks in the hillside, geysers, boiling puddles, you name it... With all of the smoke and smell of sulfur, the place really does resemble hell, albeit one that is slightly frozen over.






We boil some eggs (which Taka had thoughtfully brought along for just such a purpose) in a puddle.


(I later learn that the water is high in radon, and eggs boiled in the water, often sold as souvenirs in Naruko, never go bad. I don't see this as a selling point: eggs SHOULD go bad! )


The snow starts falling more heavily as we stand on the path, munching our radioactive eggs in the deserted valley.




Back in town, I am introduced to Oba-san's husband, Ohnuma Shinji-san, owner of Ryokan Ohnuma. He tells me about the concepts behind toji culture and of his efforts to revive it. One scheme involves offering a "toji special" - allowing people to stay at his inn for a month for about US$500...

An idea flashes into my head: what better way to explore toji culture than to participate in toji myself?

I make a mental note to discuss the idea with Taka later. I get the opportunity sooner than I expect. Although it is nearly dark, Ohnuma-san drives Taka and me to his famous outdoor bath. The bath is SO famous that if you go to Wikipedia and search "onsen", not only is it a picture of Naruko that comes up, not only is it a picture of Ryokan Ohnuma, but it is the EXACT bath that Taka and I were in!!

As Taka and I soak and chat, I see story after story unfolding... the Beatles coffee shop owner, Oba-san the sake composer, the organic pizza maker, the fellow in charge of the cultural center... and those are people I managed to meet in a single day!

So many stories to tell...

March 22, 2010

Thursday

All the way from Baltimore, MD

Elizabeth Barbush, community artist and photographer, joined our fledgling project today. For many years, Beth has been working in America and abroad on projects documenting struggling communities. She will join us in Japan for the entire month of August. We are so glad to have her as part of the team!

April 15, 2010

Sunday

Food Does Not Come From A Box

Another scouting visit to Naruko, this time to participate in the Naruko No Kome project...

The mountains of Onikoube, looming over the rest of Naruko, have historically been too cold to grow high-quality rice. But, in the difficult days after World War II, the people of this area didn't worry themselves too much about the taste of the rice they were growing, they just knew they needed food. So, they carved rice fields out of the forests and were glad enough to produce something to eat.

Onikoube, like the rest of Naruko and like rural Japan as a whole, is experiencing significant population loss due to migration to the city. On top of the population decline has come a decline in the price of rice, with cheap imported rice from the rest of Asia flooding the markets in spite of high tariffs. With children increasingly deciding not to continue the family business, farms are disappearing at an alarming rate.

The brainchild of local politician Gotou-san and a committee of local residents, Naruko No Kome is an attempt at halting the loss of these farms. The aim of this project is to add enough value to the rice produced  in the area to allow the farmers  to remain in business.

The first plan of action by Naruko No Kome to boost the value of their product was to defy the Japanese Agricultural Society and to choose their own variety of rice to plant. They went to a rice lab and found a strain specifically designed to grow best in colder climates. So, the Onikoube farmers switched to that rice, and found it to be far superior to what they had planted previously. Suddenly, they were producing a premium rice that could command about twice the previous price. But, that was still not enough.

The solution was to try to link the consumers with the producers. In a type of Agricultural Tourism, Naruko No Kome invites city residents to come out to the rural area for a day to plant rice. The thinking is that once they have had a hand in producing the rice, they will be much more likely to purchase it if they see it on a store shelf.

We roll up our pants and plant rice for a few hours. With the planting complete, we sit down to plentiful onigiri made from the previous year's harvest and explain to the assembled farmers-for-a-day what has brought us to Onikoube.

A young mother stands up, pulling her shy 10-year-old daughter to her feet as well.

"My daughter is growing up in Sendai and has never seen a farm. I don't want her to grow up and think that food comes from a box. It comes from the ground, and people put it there..."

Listening to the smiling people, all covered in mud and glowing with pride at our collective accomplishment, I find myself thinking about "progress." Progress is often defined by larger buildings, more concrete, more cables and wires and blinking lights.

But perhaps "progress" means going back to something that worked before....

May 30, 2010

Saturday

Field Trip For Foreigners

In an attempt at reigniting interest in Naruko, Ohnuma-san from Ryokan Ohnuma has been brainstorming ideas to introduce the concepts of toji to a new audience. In his thinking, Japanese workers are no longer able to take the month-long vacations that their fisherman and farmer ancestors were able to take. So, who gets to have 2 or 3 weeks of vacation time?

Foreigners.

So, Taka and I recruit five friends from Sendai for the first ever Naruko Bus Tour.

Along for the ride is Makie Sugawara, the newest addition to our project. Makie works for an organization called Yururu that supports NPOs and volunteer organizations throughout Miyagi prefecture. As part of her job, she often interviews NPO staff for articles in her organization's monthly magazine. She has joined our group to help schedule and conduct interviews. This is her first trip to Naruko as part of the project.

The bus tour hits many of the same stops as our trip back in snowy March: Katanuma Lake (now a lovely emerald green), Miyamoto's Beatles-themed coffee shop, Big Star for dinner, and a soak in the baths at Ryokan Ohnuma.

The highlight of the day is a performance of Oba-san's award-winning "Symphony for Frogs" - the music broadcast on speakers in a field surrounded by the small amphibians that inspired the piece in the first place.

June 26, 2010

Friday

Celebration


With Beth now in Japan, the four members of Photoji Project meet together for the first time.

Tomorrow we depart for Naruko. The project is really and truly underway!

July 30, 2010

Saturday

Clean living, hard work, and lots of milk: Welcome to Naruko

We step off the bus from Sendai and stand in the middle of the street in Higashi Naruko, the historical heart of toji culture in the area and our base for the next three weeks.

Everything is still and quiet, except for the cicadas, who are celebrating the middle of summer with loud buzzing.

Either that, or they are just complaining that it is hot. Because it is hot. Really hot. The hottest summer in recent memory.

Who takes a vacation in a hot spring town in the middle of the summer?

The answer seems to be "only us" because other than the barber in the shop next to our ryokan peering hopefully through his curtains for customers who are not coming, and the ever-present buzzing of the cicadas, not a creature is stirring...

We check into our ryokan and try to decide on a plan of action. We have no interviews scheduled, we don't really know anyone, and we really don't even know where to start. It's not like you can take an entire town out to lunch...

But while that may be a metaphysical impossibility, we decide that lunch sounds like a wonderful idea. We pay a visit to the lovely onigiri shop that functions as a retail outlet for the rice grown by the Naruko No Kome project that Taka and I had planted with a few months earlier.

After a tasty lunch of rice balls, we talk to the charming manager of the shop. I am interested in interviewing the farmer whose fields I had planted in. Other than being a source of positive change in the community, he had also serenaded the rice planters with a beautiful song on the day of the planting which I want to record.

We squint at photos on the wall documenting the rice planting, trying to determine which farmer is the one I want to interview. After much squinting, we find the man in question. The manager gives us his contact information, and just like that, we have another interview scheduled.

The lone other customer in the shop overhears us discussing our project. She offers to give us a lift to a scenic road near her house, leading to a tree that the manager of the onigiri shop had described as her favorite place in Naruko.

During the three-minute drive, the woman tells us that she was born in Naruko, but had moved to Tokyo, like so many other people from rural Japan. However, the charms of big city life were lost on her, and she had recently returned. Even though her employment prospects were slim, she had found temp work in an office, and is glad to be away from the big city.

Suddenly she stops.

She tells us she can drive further, but that would be spoiling the majesty, and it would be better to approach on foot. So, we pile out of her car, thank her, and she drives away. We don't even know her name.

But, as we round the bend, and spot the lone tree standing in the rice field in the shadow of a mountain, we know her suggestion is a good one: it is majestic to approach on foot.

Makie and I are also surprised to see how familiar the place looks: it was under the same tree that we had listened to the frog symphony only a few weeks before.

We walk slowly down the road, surrounded by more shades of green than even the Crayola company produces.

Curving around another bend, we stop at an impossibly old house. Surrounded by a fence and with army of high grass in the yard, it looks like it hadn't been occupied in some time.

A pickup truck approaches and out clambers an old farmer who looks to be about as old as the house. He glares at us accusingly, then speaks rapidly to Makie.

"He wants to know if we have a problem with his grandmother's house..."

Although the rice farmer is about 164 years old and a full head shorter than me, I have a feeling he could beat me up if he felt like it. I don't want him to think we are making fun of his grandmother.

"Tell him we find it interesting..."

After Makie assures the man that we are merely curious tourists, not teenage vandals, he begins to talk. And talk. We are all flagging in the afternoon heat, but the man doesn't seem to notice. I suppose that's what happens when you spend decades working in the sun...

It turns out the house is over 200 years old, and was last occupied by his grandmother. He now uses it for storage. He gestures across his fields and across the highway to a huge, red-roofed house. "That is where I live now."

He points to a greenhouse elsewhere in the distance.

"...and that is where I keep my equipment. Over ten million yen worth..."

His face finally cracks into a smile.

He hops back into his truck and speeds off.

As we continue down the road, we pass the greenhouse, and the old rice farmer is sitting in the entrance to his sanctuary, cleaning some tools. This time, he smiles at us as we approach.

He ushers us inside his treasure trove. As he said, it is full of equipment, all of it immaculately clean ("Isn't this farm equipment?" I think each time we pass another meticulously maintained piece of machinery). He proudly describes to us what each. and. every. one. is used for.

The inside of the greenhouse is about 45 degrees Celsius, but the farmer doesn't seem to notice.

"Is he solar-powered?" I wonder.

No, milk-powered, as it turns out.

The farmer proudly declares his diet and daily regimen. No alcohol. Lots of natto, rice, and milk. LOTS of milk. 400cc every day. I have no idea how much that is, but he cackles as he says it. He then proffers an arm, poking at his rope-like veins proudly.

"The nurses never have trouble giving me an injection!" he boasts. "Not that I need them... I never go to the hospital. I never get sick!"

At 85, he still gets up every day at 4:30am and is out in the fields by 5:30am. Nothing but clean living, hard work, and lots of milk.

As we leave, the farmer mentions his son who, at 52, had decided to quit his job as a teacher in Sendai three years previously to come back and help on the farm. Our collective ears perk up. Someone who had decided to leave the city for the farm? We are intrigued, and ask if we can talk to his son. The farmer seems shocked that we would want to talk to his son, but admits that we can probably see him the following weekend if we really want to. We note his contact details and leave the greenhouse, all of us worried that we have sweated out a few kilos of water.

But rather than wanting water, all of us are craving milk....

July 31, 2010

Asahi Art Festival in Higashi-Naruko: The sound of four kids laughing

During our stay in Naruko, we will be staying at both Ryokan Ohnuma and Ryokan Kanshichiyu. For the past five years, both inns have been participating in the Asahi Art Festival, an annual program wherein Asahi Beer gives about 20 community arts groups throughout Japan a small grant and promotion for their efforts. The push of the festival is to get art out of the galleries and out to everyday people, a mission we can truly get behind.

This year, the Naruko AAF project is called 1000 Toji and it is an attempt to recognize the one thousand years that toji culture has existed in Japan and  is an effort to help it exist for another thousand. Again, a mission that dovetails with what we are trying to accomplish with the "Vanishing Point" project.

In the boom days of the 1950s, Kanshichiyu was busy enough to open an annex building. But, with the number of guests falling year after year, the annex was shuttered five years ago. Last year, new life was briefly breathed into the building during the AAF event when it was used as an art gallery. Today, the annex is home to a 1000 Toji event called "Childrens' Ryokan."

This year, the whole building has been transformed into a playground for kids. Inside are onsen baths full of packing peanuts, a Collector's Room with both a stuffed cobra AND a spaceship made of bottles, a room with a racetrack for battery-powered cars, a small library... on and on.

It looks like lots of fun, but only four kids are running around. They seem to be enjoying themselves, and it is only the first day of the project, but it doesn't look like the next one thousand years of toji culture. It looks more like a daycare center gone to seed.

But it is heartwarming to hear the laughter of children echoing in the normally empty halls. Two days into our stay in Naruko, and we are already realizing that the median age of the people we are seeing on the streets seems to be about 70.

Where are all the young people?

August 1, 2010

If even the pachinko parlor is out of business...?

Without a translator today, Beth and I decide to walk from Higashi-Naruko to the next town over, Kawatabi.

Higashi-Naruko, where we are staying, is the more traditional part of town and not to be confused with Naruko proper, which is where all the 8-story hotels are located.  Higashi-Naruko hit its peak in the mid-1950s. Kanshichiyu, where we are staying, was popular enough back then to add its now-shuttered an annex in 1958. Most of the buildings in Higashi-Naruko were built or enlarged in the '50s, '60s, or '70s, but at this point, the neighborhood is essentially lifeless.

August is never a popular season for onsen visits, but we see almost no one on the streets. No customers…

We wander into a kokeshi factory at the end of the street and browse inside for 30 minutes, but no one comes to greet us. Everything is covered in dust, and many of the items for sale are faded and cracking, as if the last tourist to even pick up an item was sometime during the 1980s. Their most notable souvenir is a set of 6 erotic glasses: nestled on a shelf with wooden childrens’ toys. All feature white, Western women with big '80s hair, bad '80s lingerie… that disappear when liquid is poured inside. The glasses are so old that the plastic boxes containing them have yellowed and cracked and the price tags have faded entirely to white.




Other than Ryokan Ohnuma, which is always a hive of activity, and Kanshichiyu, it is difficult to tell what shops are even open. There’s a bakery that has about 10 things for sale and a grocery store with a few people inside, but we pass a ramen shop still sporting a poster from Asahi Art Festival 2005. Some buildings have windows open, so people are apparently at home, but no economic activity at all.  For all intents and purposes, it looks like a ghost town.

With this project, if anyone from the outside were to hop off the bus and take a peek, they would assume the town is dead, beyond dead, but I have met people doing interesting things… there are hints of life. As we look at these particular buildings, it is clear the town hit the peak of its popularity 40 years ago, and while it may never reach those heady heights again, hopefully all is not lost. Perhaps some of the empty buildings could be razed and planted as formal gardens and let the town go back to being less dense and more scenic. But who knows who owns all of those buildings, and for some, people are still living upstairs even if the ground floor is empty, so it’s a complex problem.

On our walk, we stumble upon “DL” – the Dream Lucky Pachinko Parlor.

It has been out of business for a long time. Pachinko, a strange sort of vertical pinball machine, is the national gambling obsession of Japan. Very little strategy is involved… you feed little ball-bearing-size balls into the machine, you twist the level just so, and you try to shoot the balls into holes, winning more balls. Although it involves little strategy and even less thinking, pachinko parlors are typically crammed with row upon row of glassy-eyed players.

Considering that pachinko is THE major hobby of most Japanese over the age of about 40, the fact that this town caters mostly to elderly people and they could not keep a pachinko parlor open is a sign of serious problems. That would be like Las Vegas only having one casino and having it close due to lack of interest.

August 2, 2010

The Classical Composer

We start the day talking with Oba-san, the wife of the owner of Ryokan Ohnuma and a contemporary classical composer. She has written music to be played while sake ferments as well as a symphony for frogs, which in my mind is more fun than the kind of classical music played for old ladies in pearls in halls that smell of Chanel No. 5.

We visit her in a former shed, almost under the JR tracks. The room is mostly empty. Other than the dirt floor, the walls have been painted an immaculate white. A large very minimalist shelf stands behind a desk, the shelf covered in spotless glasses and plates. A projector is playing looped scenes of Naruko and Oba-san's music tinkles in the background. The room is an impromptu café, a free space, to sit around with your thoughts while drinking fresh blueberry juice.

There she sits, surrounded by stark white walls and a dirt floor, like an artistic monk. The room is her contribution to the 5th edition of the Asahi Arts Fest in Naruko. It turns out that SIX years ago, Oba-san was involved in a different AAF project. While at that year's kick-off party, she met her future husband promoting his 2006 project. While therefore a meaningful event for the newly-married couple, we asked her why they keep at it, since attendance has not increased in the five years they have been working on the AAF events in Naruko together.

During her life in Tokyo, Oba-san was frustrated that whenever she mounted a performance of one of her pieces, it was always the same audience. It felt stifling and far from the reasons she started to compose. When she mounted her first performance in Naruko, the audience was no bigger than in Tokyo, but for them it was perhaps the first performance they had ever seen. The music was something special for them, and consequently, the music again felt special to Oba-san as well.

August 3, 2010

The Beatles Guy

We visit the largest coffee shop in the main part of Naruko, run by Miyamoto-san, whom we all know as The Beatles Guy.

His café is a monument to his obsessions, chief among them The Beatles. Beatles posters, guitars, and postcards are crammed throughout the room. He functions on something of a Beatles Philosophy of Life, incorporating their ideas on peace and connectivity as well as some wild theories on how the band uses Japanese tonality and Zen concepts in their songs.

As we sit down, he tells us that the business has been in his family for 140 years. Since he runs a coffee shop, I have a hard time picturing samurai dropping in for a quick cup of joe 140 years ago.

But of course it wasn't always a coffee shop: it has been a restaurant, it has been a laundry... the business has changed its shape and purpose over the decades based on the needs of the people. Miyamoto-san's son currently lives in Seattle. He doesn’t know whether his son will return to run the business or not, but if he does, he doesn’t feel the business has to remain a coffee shop. The main point is that the family has roots there, they have a business there, and that if the son decides the needs of the town are different, it is wise to change the business to reflect the current needs. It was a great insight: that you can stay in the same place but still change direction.

But that change doesn't happen quickly. When he opened the shop 29 years ago, the locals had no idea what a "coffee shop" was or why you would want to go to one. Even three decades on, the locals STILL don’t really get what it is all about, so the shop caters primarily to foreign tourists. Apparently, Naruko operates on geologic time instead of human time, where something can be "new" for decades!

August 3, 2010

The Prophet of Slow Food

We journey by rickety bus to the mountain village of Onikoube, the "one of these is not like the other" part of Naruko.

Our destination is Yamagakko (“Mountain School”) Community Center. A former JHS built in the 1930s and closed due to low enrollment about 5 years ago, the building was resurrected as a community center shortly thereafter. The center has gained traction this year with the addition of a dozen staff members, hired with money from a government grant.

One of those new hires is Kimura-san. A former organic pizza chef, she has transformed a former science lab into the lair of a mad food scientist, still somewhat recognizable as a place where kids once dissected frogs, but now decorated with baskets of vegetables and bunches of drying herbs.

After urging us to sit down, she busies herself with preparing a meal for us. She is a ball of energy as she bustles from one end of the room to the other, pulling a near gourmet meal out of thin air. We’d look one way, and there’d be a bowl of pesto spaghetti, then another blur and suddenly there would be freshly baked bread in front of us.

Kimura-san's job is to interact with the locals in an ongoing exchange of ideas. She has no set job description, so she focuses on teaching cooking because that is her passion. In return, it is part of her task to learn things from the local people. Currently, she is learning to make rice balls wrapped in a bamboo leaf, a very ancient style. The rice inside stays good for about a week with no refrigeration or preservatives, as the bamboo leaf has anti-bacterial properties. The wrapper is biodegradable, so no waste. She proudly declares that, although they look old-fashioned, they are actually the food of the future.

August 4, 2010

The Steward of the Mountain School



After our long, rambling, and very delicious, meeting with Kimura-san, we meet with Ohnuma-san (Ohnuma Yukio-san, not to be confused with Ohnuma Shinji-san, the owner of Ohnuma Ryokan - no relation). I met this Ohnuma-san back in March at a Cultural Festival at the local government office. That was the same month he resigned as a local government official to take over as the director of Yamagakko Community Center full-time.

As he shows us around, he explains the programs: a taiko drumming class, a traditional dance class… one classroom remains preserved as it was when the school was in session. One room is entirely for drinking sake… there is still a wood shop. Weaving is done. In the gym, tracks are set up for people who race R/C cars. The center is not entirely for traditional crafts, it’s a place for entertainment and education. However, the place operates without a set schedule of classes. The twelve staff members hired with the government grant do whatever they want, whenever they want. They are very free to do anything they feel appropriate.

Strangely enough, Ohnuma-san was born inside that very school. Post-WWII, it was common for students to get trapped at the school during heavy snowstorms. Selected staff members would have to stay at school to act as dorm parents. His parents were taking their turn one snowy night, and that was when his mother went into labor. After entering the world in the building, he himself attended the school when it was a junior high school. Now here he is, 50 years later, in charge of the building he was born in.

August 4, 2010

Onsen Shrine






This shrine is dedicated to the God of Onsen. In Shinto, like in Hinduism, everything has its own spirit. Nearby Katanuma Lake is actually a volcanic crater. When it last exploded, a few hundred years ago, it ejected a large stone and the ground continued to shake for weeks after. At the same time, the tectonic activity split the ground, and the hot springs appeared. Both as a way of appeasing a seemingly angry god, and as a thank you for the miraculous hot springs, the local people built this shrine. The hot springs have flowed ever since and the volcano has not erupted again.








Near the shrine is a ring for amateur sumo bouts, now sandwiched among the Toyotas in a parking lot for one of the mega-hotels.

It seems incongruous to see an ancient shrine next to tour buses and large hotels. However, while the hotels look brand-new and corporate, they are actually among the oldest businesses in Naruko and the oldest of the three has been run by the same family for fourteen generations!

August 5, 2010

The Master Kokeshi-maker

With no scheduled interview this morning, we set off to talk to the son of the milk-powered rice farmer whom we had met the week before.

As we walk by the side of a busy highway, we pass an elderly man, standing in what looks like a drive-thru window, carving kokeshi. As we watch, he carves a tiny wooden doll with a head the size of a marble. He is so engrossed in his work that he doesn’t even notice us until the head is entirely finished. As he pulls the newly created figure off the spindle, he apologizes because he has been making a doll in the style of a different part of Japan.

To make up for it, and happy to have an audience, he proceeds to carve a traditional medium-sized Naruko-style kokeshi. The head was already mostly carved, so he quickly sanded it down. He then carves the body and joins the two pieces in less than ten minutes. The dexterity and grace of his elderly hands is a marvel. I don't think I could draw a kokeshi as quickly and as effortlessly as he was able to create a three-dimensional figure.

Terayuki-san is 70 years old and has been making kokeshi for 55 years. Not wanting to be a government official like his father, or willing to continue school past high school, he apprenticed to a master craftsman when he was only fifteen. Not only did he learn to carve and paint kokeshi, he learned to make his own tools, as a master kokeshi-maker is expected to create his own.

From his little window, where he has sat for half a century, he has watched as the flow of people into Naruko has crested and ebbed. But he doesn't seem to mind the dwindling crowds, because after fifty-five years of kokeshi-making, he still enjoys creating each and every doll.

August 7, 2010

The Force of Nature - Masako-san

Right after we finished talking to Takahashi-san, we asked for his contact info. After he ushered us into his house,we were introduced to his wife Maskai-san, who was a wealth of info and our unofficla guide for the day, which we were not epecting as she came out to scribble their contact info for us. She gave us the arc of the history of Naruko. It seems that the toji “lifeline” existed pre-WWII when the farmers and fishermen would come for toji. Very traditional, very non-commercial. In the years of WWII, things were desperate for a few years. Then the economy started to pick up. More and more people came to Naruko, the town expanded rapidly . Before the 1950s, none of the onsen had more than two floors, but in the 1950s, to meet expanded demand, the hotels got larger and larger, including Kanshichiyu, where the annex was built in 1958. Masako-san described for us a Leisure Boom that hit in 1965. 20 years after the war, the economy was thriving and people found themselves with a surplus of time and money for the first time in a generation.

People came to Naruko in droves. In that same period, 1965-1970, there was a hippie movement in Japan, which meant there were many university age backpackers, known as “crabs” because of their large packs. So many of them dropped by the shop, with a hastily scrawled postcard asking her if she could bring it to the post office, she would lend them a stamp. It happened so often, the Postmaster approached her and asked if she could sell stamps, to the hippies because so many were passing through.. the kokeshi shop is still a licensed postal branch to this day for that reason.

In the late-1960s, there was a Kokeshi Boom. Like the Pet Rock, an inanimate collectible object that everyone had to have, kokeshi became the national craze. People would amass huge collections of kokeshi. Salarymen were even quitting their jobs in the cities to come out to the rural areas to join the lucrative trade in kokeshi. The ryokan and general stores would add a shelf to sell kokeshi because people couldn’t get enough. Takahashi-san himself would work all night to keep up with the demand. Between the massive influx of tourists and the kokeshi fad, things were quite plum for a few years, about 20 years.. until the mid-1980s.

The Japanese economy then took a dive and by the early 90s was mired in a recession that is still lingering. As Takahashi-san and his wife agreed, things have never been the same.

Back in the early post-WWII days, as the town was transitioning from a traditional toji destination to a vacation hotspot, there were geisha. You could hear their geta clip-clopping in the streets. There were geisha, there were prostitutes. In those years immediately after the war, there were many widows, single women with families to raise, so many women would come to Naruko to work (as prostitutes). [We had previously met a man in the nearby city of Furukawa who had grown up in Naruko and was so glad to leave. As a JHS student, he can remember the hookers beckoning from windows. So, while the town looks to its traditional past, it seems to be conveniently looking beyond the dark years of the early 1980s when the town was full of prostitution and pachinko.]

As we asked her about her favorite place, she told us her love of haiku. Basho passed through Naruko and wrote a poem there. It was her feeling that back in the day, just toji was enough to attract people. Even those hippie university students used to come for the baths alone (although it probably helped that the baths in those days were mixed gender!) She admits that the town needs more than only baths to attract people.  Naruko lacks variety: other than nature and the baths, there isn’t much to do. There are three closed pachinko parlors in Naruko, even the strip club is out of business. Other than the onsen, everything is going out of business. More entertainment for children, even a community pool, would be a draw. She admits that transportation remains a hurdle: when the shinkansen lines were laid, they bypassed Naruko entirely. The closed shinkansen station is in Furukawa. To get to Naruko, people need to transfer there to a local train, which takes an additional 30 minutes. It’s only 10 minutes from Sendai to Furukawa by shinkansen, but then another 30 minutes on the local train, which places Naruko firmly OFF the beaten path.  The other problem is that once you are in Naruko, there is no good transportation. Public buses are infrequent and taxis are expensive. Masako-san herself is so generous, about 3 years ago she had 3 confused foreigners in the shop and she drove them all the way to the top of Onikoube.

When we asked her about her favorite location and she told us about Basho, we were therefore not surprised when she revealed plans to bundle the three of us into her car to show us the path that Basho himself walked all those centuries ago.

We bid her farewell to go to another appointment, then agreed to meet her later in the afternoon.
After finished our other interview, we went to a local convenience store for a late lunch. While inside, it began to pour.  Maskao-san drove across the street to fetch us, a very kind gesture. Not only was she volunteering to be our guide, she went out of her way to do door-to-ddor service!

She truly does love Naruko and loves showing us why she thinks it is a special place. She drove us to the spot where Basho and his student stopped as they traversed Tohoku.  When Basho and his student asked for a place to stay for the night, the homeowners were unaware that it was a famous poet on their doorstep, so they told him he could sleep in the barn. When Basho went to compose his haiku, he immortalized Naruko as the place where a barrier was put up to him, where he was bitten by insects, and where he was peed on by horses. So the name of the place and the name of the haiku is The Barrier of Pee, not really the most flattering description. Naruko always seems to have one extra little hurdle on the way to fame and success! Anyway, there is a haiku written by Basho right there.

After being bundled back into the car, she took us to a second spot, part of the path walked by Basho himself. There is a parking lot there, and it is across from the frequently visited Naruko Gorge Bridge, but the entrance is behind a restroom building and not well-marked at all. As she took us down a flight of washed out stairs, she was frustrated that the government doesn’t better maintain a path walked by Basho.

We walked into a hidden wonderland, overgrown and lush, with a stream running through it, all to ourselves. A few years ago in the 1980s, the government did try to play up the fact that Basho had passed through the town, but other than that one PR campaign, that was the only mention of this spot as important to Basho. She thinks PR efforts on behalf of Naruko are lacking.

As we followed in the footsteps of Basho 300 years prior, we were all impressed with Masako-san’s deep knowledge of the local flora, both names and uses, but she spoke in a high level of Japanese. Her love of poetry extends from composing haiku to being able to speak of the world in a poetic way, with a vocabulary not often encountered in a university graduate, but especially beautiful coming from the mouth of the wife of a kokeshi-maker we met on the side of the highway, in an often overlooked shop.

As we walked, she said it was powerful to show us this place, both for us and for herself, She feels she absorbs the energy of nature. She took us across the road to the famous Naruko Gorge Bridge, famous from many postcards.

She is 65, her husband is 70. Takahashi-san, whose father was a government official, had to apprentice to someone outside the family. He apprenticed with Masako-san’s uncle. In those days, you had to train for 5 years or 10 years, and lived with your master. At 15, Takahashi-san moved into Masako-san’s household, so they knew each other long before they were even married. Making sweet puppy eyes to each other over the rice bowl. It was like they were married a long time before they were even married. They have a very loving relationship and rather unique. Earlier, Takahashi-san had brought us all iced tea, and later more ice to keep it cool. It was the first time in Japan we had ever seen a man serve drinks to his wife and guests. He was very quiet, he just handed it over. Just a simple, loving gesture, the thing you see in a couple together for 50 years.
In every aspect of their being, they seem content with where they are. Takahashi-san says he enjoys nothing more than making his kokeshi. 55 years into it, he still takes pride in his work. Although Masako-san’s children may be far away and the shop isn’t doing as well as it was, she loves her husband and loves haiku and being  a poet. So these two artistic souls, hidden away in a shop hidden right in the open, it was such a beautiful pair to meet and we were so glad to have met them. We never would have had the chance except that we were on foot and decided to stop and watch Takahashi-san while he was working. We were really glad to have stopped and were so touched by the generosity of Masako-san to take us around all day.

August 7, 2010

Fugitive and the Farmer - Kitaura-san and his son

Exactly one week after meeting him, we returned to talk to Kitaura-san. After meeting him purely by chance the first time, we made an appointment to meet him at his home. We were particularly interested in meeting his son, whom he had told us had been a teacher in Sendai before returning to Naruko to help his father on the farm. We wanted to hear the story of someone who had moved back, especially someone leaving education to be a farmer.

The home was quite large, and packed to the gills with stuff, piles and piles of it. We sat down with the farmer and caught up with him, recounting that we had met many people. He then brought out his son, who is in his 50s, and it was clear that his son was very negative about the prospects for Naruko’s future and negative about just about everything.

We quickly established that he was never a teacher. He had left Naruko in his early 20s, right around the time the hippies were flooding into Naruko he fled outwards. He spent a good number of years, 30 or so, bouncing from place to place. He had lived in Osaka and Tokyo, as well as some smaller cities, before landing in Sendai where he worked in Kokubuncho for a long time. At the height of Kokubuncho’s popularity, there were about 3000 bars in the district. Currently, there are about 1500. In the closures, he lost his job and returned to Naruko to farm with his father. Although in his 50s, he has never farmed before, so these last 3 years have been a rude awakening. Where his previous job involved talking to lots of people, hustling, he now spends his days in isolation, talking to almost no one and it is tough physical labor. He is not happy to be back in Naruko. Hetried to couch his situation that people these days don’t take care of their parents, trying to insinuate that he is the prodigal son, lured back by a sense of filial duty. Whereas it is clear he was unemployed, had few options in the city, and came back against his will. He did double check with us that in America, when the going gets rough, do people go back to the family farm? We let him know that most family farms in America are gone, and that option is simply not open to us.

As the two men sat there, it was Shakespearean. The 81 year old farmer is finely-tanned, and is covered in muscles like the Hulk (which he was more than happy to show off to us the last time), and is the picture of health. His son, in his 50s, has sallow skin, sat crouched in the corner smoking cigarettes and all-in-all, it was like the Lear-like King in his huge house with all his possessions and his machines, but alone and isolated with his son, who could never hope to match his father’s lofty standards, but instead opted out and ended up a vagabond.

When we asked to take photos this time, they both refused. The son, because he has many debts and was afraid of being recognized and tracked down, not only by people in Sendai, but even by people in Tokyo. He was unhappy with the thought of his photo hanging in public display in any Japanese gallery. The father, because when estimates were done to compute taxes on the property, it should have been about 3x higher than what he paid, because of the things he owns, he didn’t want the tax assessor to see everything he has squirreled away. No photos were taken inside the house.

During the course of our rambling discussion, the son pointed out the Takahashi household across the street, where we had just come from and where we had an appointment to return later in the day. He said with no son to take over the business, as they have two daughters and a son not interested in making kokeshi, that when the elderly Takahashi passes away, the business will close and overall, there is an exodus of people from the area. He was very pessimistic about the town’s prospects.

In his estimation, at the height of Naruko’s popularity, there were about 400 geisha working in the town. He did say about 50 remain, which seemed unbelievable. As we talked, it became clear that whenever we tried to bring up something positive, it would get dragged back to the negative: towards loss of work, loss of visitors, and dimming prospects. The one highlight for them was that when the government tried to widen the road in front of the house, the residents were able to cease that development, but not until after a number of houses were seized by the government and families relocated.

We did go outside and took some pictures of the King outside his castle. He tried to show us even more of his machines, in a garage attached to his house, but we were able to demure, as Masako-san was waiting to take us on a Basho tour.

August 7, 2010

Amateur Herbalist - Yusa Souichi-san

We had made a reservation for vegetarian dinner at the Radon Onsen. Doubly unexpected: vegetarian food in such a rural area AND at a onsen that intentionally introduces radioactivity into their bath!

With his sister busy, we first met with her younger brother who was nice enough to give us a tour.
He showed us a room, 40-45 degrees Celsius, heated entirely by pipes radiating the heat of onsen water. In that room he is drying fruit, many racks, the main things now are blueberries and pineapple, although he experiements widely with other fruits, oranges, watermelon, seaweed, all sorts of things. When we asked him what he was up to in the room, he told us that his grandmother used to dry fruits to make natural medicines. He has continued the tradition. He usually makes them into teas of various types. Many of them end up being very bitter, but there is a Japanese proverb that says “Bitter medicine is good medicine” so he doesn’t think that’s a problem.

He took us back to the lobby where he allowed us to sample his teas, and while they were very bitter, if what he says is to be believed, they were all very good for us.

The Radon Onsen has been in the family for 5 generations. It is the only onsen in all of Japan that intentionally adds radon to the water. There are some that have naturally occurring radon content, but this is the only one adding it. I asked him why that was, in America where we test for radon, it is unthinkable that you would add a hazardous substance to your natural hot spring. He said that his grandfather was friends with a physician who had an onsen in Aomori, and his friend was singing the praises of radon and at some point, he was sold on the health benefits. Radon is apparently good for rheumatoid arthritis, which is why they continue to add it. I asked him if they had a spike in guests after they started adding the radon, a wave of people suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, but he said no, the same guests were already coming year after year, and there was little change.

It should be noted that compared to every other onsen we had visited thus far, the Radon Onsen was a hive of activity. There were at least 20 cars in the lot, people all around, and it was a very active place. We found that especially impressive, as Radon is in Nakayamadaira, the fathest out of the Naruko communities along the river. It was lively, especially for a Saturday night in the middle of nowhere.

Souichi has grown up on the property, so he has a long memory of the place. He sees that although business has slowed, he hasn’t seen too much change in his lifetime. They did used to host more toji customers, but they still do. The shocking thing was they have 5 guests that live in the toji wing of the ryokan, all of them over 60, some there as long as 5 years. The ryokan is their home now. I asked if any had chronic ailments and he said no, they were fairly healthy. It was therefore even more interesting that they would chose to retire to a ryokan instead of a nursing home.  Live a life of baths and nature, a pretty good place to retire…

If we asked if had a favorite spot, he told us of one bath that he considers his personal bath. He led us down the hill to the toji building, which has 40 rooms especially for toji residents, and then to an outdoor bath by the edge of the river. The outdoor bath is still a mixed gender bath. Traditionally, all baths were mixed, but as
Western concepts of morality took hold after WWII, the baths have mostly been segregated by gender. The bath is on a patio overlooking the river, and you can see the bridge over the Naruko Gorge.

We went inside to see the toji rooms, very small (4 tatami)… with a small TV and small kitchen, like monk’s quarters. Very clearly a place of meditation, of retreat… steps away from the bath on the riverside, a place of healing and of communing with nature. They do pipe the onsen water, it gets very cold there in the mountains, but the pipes are a cheap way to heat the rooms. While the rooms are geothermically heated, there was a cave outside the toji residence acting as a natural refrigerator.

As far as a place for true toji, this was pretty much as close as we have gotten of a place that matches the image we had of toji. Instead of overlooking a shabby main street, like in Higashi-Naruko, this place separates you from life, a true place of retreat. It was a great and unexpected discovery.

August 7, 2010

The Vegetarian Chef – Yusa Shizue-san

After talking to her brother, we spoke with Shizue-san. We read about her in the free newsletter, that she is a vegetarian and serves vegetarian meals. We set up an interviews, which began with a meal. In addition to the uniqueness of adding radon to the water, of the mixed gender bath , the natural heating using onsen water, antoher stiking feature is the offering of vegetarian food.which is difficult to find in a city like Sendai, let alone a rural and traditional place like Naruko.

When sittign down to the meal, it was papparent that while th meal was vegetarian, it was quite different from any vegetarian meal I had ever had in any country. There was a riuce patty, a sort of faux hamburger covered in katsup, there were two friend tofu “onion rings”, there were a few agar dishes, including a tomoto suspended in clear agar, an agar soup, and a dessert with fresh blueberries on an agar base. There was also a mayonaaise salad and a small soup with root vegetables. It was an elaborate meal in its color, texture, and arrangement.

We had time to interview Shuzue-san in the quite time after dinner. We were ushered into her kitchen… she has been a vegetarian for 13 years. Although influenced by macrobiotic principles, many of her recipes are her own and come from her own ingenuity as a chef. When asked why she went vegetarian, she said she is trying to be more “whole”… her daughters’ ballet teacher, a very impressive and active woman, once chalked up her vitality to brown rice and vegetables, which influenced the diet of Shizue-san. I asked if people came to Radon specifically for the vegetarian food… she doesn’t think so, but people do ask for it.

The inn is 5th generation, now owned by her parents, Shizue-san, and her brother. Although she grew up at the inn, she did leave for awhile. She moved away for 10 years when she was first married and had her 3 daughters.  Her husband ran a business in another town. The business went unde r and when looking for something else, he decided to join her family’s business. So, leaving the family behind, he moved to Nakayamadaira to live with his in-laws and began to learn how to run the ryokan. Tragically, he passed away at 43 years old (7 years ago now) leaving Shizue-san a widow at a very young age. But having made the decision to run the hot spring, they stayed there after his death. Her daughters are now in their 20s, 2 of them have moved to arts careers, but the youngest daughter does work at the ryokan. As part of the loss of her husband, she describes her diet as being a reflection of being more “whole”being the most whole person she can be,  a powerful thing to hear from a woman who has gone through a lot but seems to be bearing it with grace. At 50 years old, she looks 10 years younger, and she seems quite proud of the work they have accomplished in keeping the onsen a hive of activity even if the rest of the town is fading.

August 7, 2010

The Last Honest Politician - Gotou-san

On Sunday, we started our day with Gotou-san whom I first met as part of Naruko no Kome. It is his rice fields used for the planting. As it was explained to me, in the mountains of Onikoube, it is too cold to grow rice. For years, the rice from there was considered no good and was tough to sell. After years of struggle, a group of farmers got together, and although the type of rice you plant is dictated by the agricultural board, they took matters into their own hands,. They visited a rice research facility, checked out the varieties, and chose one more suitable for their climate. They brought it back to Onikoube, they planted it, and it grew wonderful rice.

The problem is that the average bowl of rice earns a farmer 8 yen. But to have a sustainable life, a farmer needs to earn about 20 yen. So, how do you almost quadruple the price you can charge for rice, especially in an economic climate where the price of rice is depressed? Very difficult to charge a higher price. Once they realized they were now growing a premium grain, they knew they could charge about double, but far short of the target income. However, if consumers (especially from the city) were brought into the process earlier, not just at the retail level but actually take part in the production, they would perhaps feel a sense of ownership, a connection with the farmer, and they would be more likely to buy that brand, to share it with family, perhaps they would enjoy it and purchase it as well. Sort of like farm ambassadors.

So, Taka and I, in late May, had travelled to Onikoube to help with the rice planting. About 40 people attended. It’s a way for the farm to raise additional funds, as the experience of planting was 1000yen for the day. (although that did include lunch and a shuttle bus to Onikoube). Interestingly enough, everyone was asked their reasons for participating. One woman stood up with her 10 year old daughter and said that the girl, living in Sendai her whole life, had never seen a field. She doesn’t want her daughter to think comes from a box, that it comes out of the ground, and she wants her to know that connection. A number of students from Tohoku University agricultural department… they do research on rice, but many of them have never been in a field. Fascinatingly enough, the scientist who developed the strain of rice we were growing had joined us: even he had never actually planted rice in a field before!

The field is so famous that it has featured in documentaries and a screenwriter wrote about it for a movie soon to be shown on NHK.

The field belongs to Gotou-san.  His 85-year-old father was also there and helping.  Knew when I met them that they would be an excellent connection both to Naruko’s past and its future.

Gotou-san was kind enough to pick us up in Higashi-Naruko and drove us the 30 minutes to his house in Onikoube. We started to speak informally during the car ride…

In addition to being a rice farmer, Gotou-san has served in the local government for about 20 years. He is currently in the department overseeing the Board of Education and is also charged with finding funds for the BoE. He was involved in the decision to close the former JHS that is now Yamagakko Community Center. The schools in Onikoube have become very small. The elementary school, grades 1~6, has only 40 students total and only about half that number of JHS students. Those 20 students now must commute daily to the JHS in Kawatabi, 30 km down at the base of the mountain.

In addition to that, he is in a traditional dance group at Yamagakko. There are 9 of them, and at 59-years-old, Gotou-san is one of the younger members. Although they are trying to preserve this tradition, they are not attracting younger members, and the dance form may disappear.

We arrived at his house, quite large and quite beautiful, overlooking his rice fields and with spectacular views of the mountains all around. When we sat down to interview Gotou-san and his father, they both indicated that for many years, Onikoube was a very hidden place, cut off even from Naruko. To get to the base of the mountain would take a full day’s walk there and a full day’s walk back. When we asked about the origins of the name of the village, he did talk about the myth of the oni, with its head popping off and landing in the town.  He is also convinced that the name was given because it is a beautiful, hidden spot, closed to the outside world, and the name is like a scarecrow, to keep people from coming in. (Sort of like the myth of the princess in Katanuma Lake that we had heard, maybe all the things in this area have been given names to scare off outsiders).

In those days before the dam, there was no road to get from the Naruko river communities to Onikoube. Although geographically close to Naruko, because of the river and mountain barrier, it was actually easier to get to Yamagata and Akita to the north rather than make the journey the few kilometers down the mountain. Maybe even culturally, Onikoube is tied more closely to the areas to the north.

The elder Gotou-san told us that when he was a young man, he went to Naruko only 3 or 4 times a year, always to go drinking, not for toji.

Gotou-san himself seems to be of the opinion that although things are declining, it is going to be difficult to increase the population of Onikoube. Part of the purpose of Naruko no Kome is to maintain what already exists , many farms have already been lost, so how to make sure no more are lost. Same with the children, with so few children left in the area, and so many elderly people, it is hard to imagine the area growing.
30% of Onikoube residents over 80-years-old are living alone, all of their family having left, because there’s no work for younger people.

He himself had wanted to leave, but in those days, it was very difficult to go to high school. There wasn’t one in the area and so it was expensive to attend one in the city. He graduated JHS, was self taught at the high school level and received a high school equivalency diploma, so to have someone in government with only a JHS degree is very impressive. A real testament to his love of the place that he has risen so far.

Although he wanted to leave Onikoube, as the first born son, he had to remain behind. It is a very common experience in the rural areas: both Ohnuma-san and Seiyu-san are first born sons, Miyamoto-san at the coffee shop, we continue to find first born sons feeling the obligation to take over the family business.

All these 1st born sons recognize that that tradition is almost gone now, and they don’t seem overly concerned with their own children leaving. They recognize that there are no jobs in the rural areas. That being said, Gotou-san said it has taken him 50 years to come to terms with the fact that he loves Onikoube more than anywhere else, and his home truly is his castle.

We did ask about geisha, they think the numbers we heard were high. They estimate there were never more than 200 geisha and that about 20 remain. They think the estimate of 50 is that some live in nearby areas and come to Naruko to perform. The youngest are in their 30s or 40s, but they are fairly sure there is at least one geisha in her 80s (!) We are interested in finding that woman….

Overall, Gotou-san stated that life, in Naruko or elsewhere, is all about perspective and thinking positively. He himself, like Masako-san, said although the area has many problems, but good things are going on and wonderful people are still living there.

Gotou-san did joke that when the road was finally put in, connecting Onikoube to the base of the mountain, as soon as the road was built, rather than bringing in the flood of people that was feared by the locals, it facilitated a mass exodus!

August 8, 2010

Vegetable Stand - Farmers' Wives

After chatting with Gotou-san, as he drove us back down the mountain, we stopped at a vegetable stand. As one of his many duties and projects, in addition to being a government official, a rice farmer, a traditional dancer, and a talented amateur singer, Gotou-san also helped found this vegetable stand, as it was his idea. Started 12 years ago, it is staffed entirely by women, 16 of them, who run it cooperatively. They raise their own vegetables or make their own crafts, bring them to the stand, and all sell them together, taking turns who staffs the shop. Their youngest member is actually a Korean woman, the wife of a local farmer, and she is 38. The oldest are in their 80s.

They were very happy to point out that business has increased every year, with the exception of this one. It has been an especially hot summer, which has both affected the crops and also the amount of traffic. They have about 30 visitors a day. They sell from late-May until November. The rest of the year is too snowy, so snowy in fact, that a curtain isn’t enough to keep the snow out. They build a wooden cocoon to protect the stand through the winter, like a suit of armor, and they dismantle it in the spring.

They sell a wide array of fruits and vegetables. They take pride in the foods being very fresh, locally sourced, and reasonably priced (as there is no middle man). The two women working that afternoon were kind enough to serve us an impromptu lunch, which was delicious. It was heartening to see a project which, although only a microenterprise, was able to report increasing business and to see a successful project in Onikoube.

August 8, 2010

The Prodigal Daughter – Chuubachi-san



Exactly a week before, while walking to Kawatabi along the highway, we stumbled upon what looked to be a brand-new restaurant. Inside, it was spotlessly clean, very simple, only 6 tables, 2 people sleeping on the floor off to the side. The menu was also simple, just soba, curry rice, and tempura, but it smelled wonderful and the service was friendly, it was cheap and delicious.

As we were leaving, the young couple that was running the place encouraged us to take a dip in their day bath, which we declined, as it was very hot out. But at the end of the day, while passing by again, we decided to give it a go. We went into the ryokan behind the restaurant, which was also spotlessly clean and looked new, and their baths were fantastic. They have both an indoor and an outdoor bath, and while the outdoor bath is close to the highway, it is cleverly concealed and feels like its own world.

The question was, in an environment where the inns are closing left and right and where business is extremely difficult, who would open a new restaurant?

So, we returned and again had their lovely lunch. Then, we asked to speak to the two young people behind the counter. It turns out that the property was founded by the woman’s grandfather. He had a leg injury which prevented him from fighting in WWII. In an effort to prove he was a productive member of the community, he found (and dug!) a few of the hot springs in town, three of them in fact. One of them services a rest home for the elderly, one of them serves on of the public baths in town, and the third feeds the baths in the ryokan. He used a handpowered bore to dig in the vicinity of 500 meters below the property, it took him 3 months to dig the onsen. For a few decades, the property was a mushroom farm, but it became a ryokan 17 years ago.

The ryokan itself looks brand-new. The restaurant IS brand-new, opened only one month! The foods were previously served only to the guests of the ryokan, but they decided they needed a way to generate a steady revenue stream. They built the new restaurant building, moved the cooking operations out there, and offer the space as a place for weary drivers to rest, even if they don’t buy anything.

The young woman is part proprietor, along with her husband, who married into the family business. What happened was that in her parents’ generation, money became more and more tight, and an outside investor came in and took over ownership of the property, including putting down the money to build the restaurant. He allowed the young couple to stay on and manage the property, to keep it in the family. I asked if the new owner was a local man or a corporation and they said no, he was from Matsushima and owns the temple there. So, he is at least from Miyagi Prefecture, and his decision to let the young couple stay on as managers makes it seem that he is sensitive to keeping the business tied to the family.
The inn, built 17 years ago, was constructed when tourism was already in decline. They didn’t know that at the time, they thought maybe it had leveled off at a lower level. We asked how they took over the property… they were away from Naruko but came back to take over management of the property. They do have a 3-year-old son, not in school yet, but they said they were fine with him attending school there, as it is a good place to grow up.

The young woman showed us around the property. The great room downstairs is fantastic, multi-colored walls and a view of rice fields, not the highway. Despite its location on the highway, it feels isolated. There are only 8 rooms, in the traditional style. The rooms are all bright and cold, the AC blasting in all of them. All you could ask for in a traditional-style inn. The largest room was spacious. When we asked if they ever had toji guests, she said it’s not a toji inn. Occassionally, someone will stay for a week, maybe two, and opt not to get the meals, but that’s not really the purpose of the ryokan.

One notable feature was that cedar panels were added to the lower half of the walls. A simple touch, but subtly modern, and it made the rooms smell wonderful. It was an inexpensive way to freshen up the place and was done during the latest round of renovations.

We had coffee with the young woman, the 3rd generation manager of the property, and we asked her how things had changed. When she was younger, there were many more businesses, inns and otherwise. The ones that remain often have different owners now, which makes her sad. She is glad to be back, she is proud of the property (with good reason).

As a child, she roamed the fields, but at 12 she had to help run the ryokan (she is therefore 29 years old). She is deeply invested in seeing the property succeed, but business has not been good. It was heartbreaking to see the amount of traffic whizzing by on the highway between Furukawa and Yamagata and to see the restaurant and baths empty.

We wished them the best… there is not much more they can do: the inn is a good size, good service, great food, great baths (indoor and out), easily accessible… the only thing missing was customers.

August 9, 2010