Yamanashi Prefecture: Agri-Culture
Mr. Natsui leans down and pats the earth. He's lean and tan like a Japanese corporate marathon runner, doped up on organic produce. “Everything here has a purpose,” Mr. Natsui says. "Look."
At first, I’m puzzled: Mr. Natsui points to a huge plot of land overgrown with weeds. But then I look carefully and recognize the small yellow flowers of cucumber plants lined up in rows. And then I notice the basil and marigolds, scattered erratically throughout the field.
"Those are the companion plants,” Mr. Natsui explains. “They help the crops grow. It's a little complicated, but it's all symbiotic with the bugs: pests come, and their predators come with the plants. I don't use pesticides. The most natural and constructive way is by far the tastiest way."
Mr. Natsui hands me a cucumber. I rinse it off in the old, field-side sink and take a bite. It crunches and snaps with cuke juice. And in this moment, with a warm cucumber in my hand, I'm happy. Albeit, a bit sunburnt. It's the best damn cucumber I've had in my life, and Mr. Natsui knows it. It’s not just an aesthetic, it’s a philosophy. He laughs, and I can only furiously nod and smile, my own awkward take on Japanese mannerisms. I'm not sure how to express how grateful I am for such a cucumber and the philosophy behind its being. I respond with an emphatic “Arigatou-gozaimasu.”
Through inclines and paved roads and mountain tunnels, Mr. Natsui's business partner Mr. Nezu drives us to a coffee shop, Doukei-an. It's a beautiful hundred year old structure with a thatched roof. We take off our shoes and enter the guts of the hut, a thatched smoker's lung. Through the years, it has absorbed carbon from the open woodfire stove, suspended from high on the ceiling and set low in the middle of white ash pit. The sturdy, light wooden structure breathes and creaks.
“Let me show you guys something,” Mr. Sugi, the shopkeeper, says. He's a slim, trendy man in his mid sixties with white hair and a tan complexion. He walks into the next room over and pushes a small television along the tatami floor. "NHK filmed this special for foreign networks to advertise the Kawaguchiko area. Tell me what you think."
He turns on the television as we sip our iced coffee. The camera pans out from the familiar thatched roof. The host, a red haired German girl, knocks on the door. "Konnichiwa!" she exclaims. The program takes the host for a night at the coffee shop; she chops her own wood (off-camera) to fuel the traditional cast iron bath in its facility; she tours the mountain community where a little bundled up local woman with a contagious smile serves the girl hoto-nabe, telling stories of her youth. But this program fails to reveal the harsh realities in the community. As we sit comfortably on our zabuton, the ice in our coffee settles. Mr. Sugi puts an arm on the counter and shakes his head.
“The video didn’t really do much, you see,” he says. “People are leaving this area. This town is dying. The average age of a farmer here is around eighty; all the young people leave. I came here because I love this place. There aren’t many people like me, coming in from Tokyo.” Mr. Sugi pauses.
“Let me pose a question to you.” he says. “What does the Linear Motor-Car train system do for this community? I hear you saw the testing this morning.”
“Well, I suppose it increases accessibility to the region,” says one of our interns.
“Alright, that’s all very good. The government has been spending trillions of yen on this train system over a course of forty, and then fifty, sixty years, great, progress for the country. But is it right to ignore the rapid disintegration of farming villages like Kawaguchiko? Just twenty kilometers away, this town is disappearing, and with that, its essence, history and culture. It’s a terrible waste. Don’t you feel this is wrong, to not value this? What do you think we should value?”
Witnessing both the holistic philosophy behind organic farming and the degradation of the rural, Yamanashi villages, I’ve found a new perspective on both Japan and myself. It’s easy for one to immerse themselves into the fast-paced urban life and forget about the residents in rural Japan, or even internationally. This is a global dilemma. I can write about these issues comfortably in my grandmother’s Futako Tamagawa attic, as I am right now. I can ponder, research, philosophize about Mr. Sugi's question, as I am now. I can talk to my co-workers at Connect House about his question, as I am now. But I can’t ignore this question. It’s an imminent problem that this generation will have to consider.