Where Are We At?
September 9, 2010
The train from the coast winds its way west through the steep forested mountains. Ten minutes and we are at a small village situated at the convergence of two major valleys. A train station and a handful of houses, nothing more. We take the road that rises up above the eastern end of the village. A road to nowhere, as far as we know. Around a bend that takes the village from sight we follow a narrow path into the forest. The coolness of the forest path is a welcome relief from the unbearable heat radiating from the road surface. “Its really hot, isn’t it” becomes the common form of greeting at this time of the year. The air is heavy with humidity. Even without moving one perspires.
The narrow path winds its way up a river valley. Half way up the waterfall gives icy showers before continuing. Its maybe a ten minute walk but in this heat everything is longer, slower. We skirt the edge of the bamboo forest gently swaying with the slightest of breezes in vibrant green. The path opens out onto over grown tanada (terraces). Its ten years since the last gardeners left and two metre tall keiya grass has been holding the space. Here and there some chestnuts have come up and wild camellias. There are loquats, citrus and cherry. Mountain potato vines and wisteria climb many trees. Across the terraces a small wooden house camoflaged in camellia and vines.
The house, in typical Japanese fashion, is built for summer comfort. Large roof overhangs and removable sliding doors that open up whole sides of rooms. Windows situated to catch whatever breeze might be coming from whatever direction. Although not a really traditional house it has certain traditional features aside from the ‘sliding walls.’ In the middle of the main space there is an irori (an open fire pit where food can be cooked and water for tea boiled, usually with charcoal). There is a tatami mat room, cool to sleep on in the summer. The structure is built from un-milled logs harvested from the surrounding forest. The steep narrow path traversable only on foot necessitates such resourcefulness. And, all important to the Japanese, the bath. It is a slightly too small (but no doubt the perfect size for the original inhabitants) metal tub with an earth/rock surround heated from a fire place in the kitchen. It is superbly efficient. Around six or seven pieces of split bamboo heat the tub, large enough for us to soak in – with our knees tucked under our chins. We light the bath fire only every second day as the water is still warm enough the following evening to bathe comfortably.
To the south of the house is a steep slope the lower portion covered by ‘natural’ associates of the region: oaks, chestnuts, laurels, walnuts, camellias and also sakura (cherry blossom trees). Above are semi-neglected timber plantations of sugi and hinoki, barely resisting the gathering strength of the native forest. Passing over the ridge of this hill mature native forest thrives with all the accompanying fungi and herbs. In the heat of the day the deep dark forest is certainly the place to be.
To the north of the house the remnants of ancient terraces cut across the slope. At the top of the terraces, some 50 metres from the house, is the dragon cave. From the unknown depths of the dragon cave delicious cool water, filtered by the earth, springs forth. Daily we visit the dragon for our drinking water, feeling the coolness emanating from the cave as we approach it, in itself vitally refreshing.
To the left of the dragon cave is the bamboo forest with its mysterious creaking and promise of abundant takanome (bamboo shoots) for spring feasts. To the right more mixed forest giving way to more timber plantations higher up the slope.
To the east of the house trickles a creek, crossing the creek is a small log cabin built twenty years ago and looking a little worse for wear. Beyond the cabin more terraces now occupied solely by chestnut trees and grasses. At the top of the terraces the remains of a shiitake mushroom operation. Following the stream up through the terraces and we’re back in the forest. Here plantations of sugi reach right to the edge of the terraces. These plantations seem to have been largely neglected for some time and are overcrowded and sickly looking. Wiry trees desperately reaching for the sun while the rotting remains of all those that didn’t make it fall everywhere. The plantations are hardly up to the task of handling the torrential rains that sometimes fall here and the scars of scouring and erosion can be seen. In this plantation are the stone remains of two charcoal making furnaces and as we reach the top of the mountain we come to a mixed forest dominated by species used for charcoal making. These once carefully managed forests have also been long neglected.
We are not the only inhabitants here. Descending the slope we are careful not to tread on snakes. We see the signs of wild boar. There are raccoons and in spring and autumn groups of monkeys will pass through the valley. The stripped bark of the loquats suggests the occasional presence of deer also. In the morning light over the pink flowered ‘monkey slip’ tree directly in front of the house hangs a cloud of bees. The valley resounds at all hours with all manner of insects. When you stop to really listen this insect cacophony reaches a near deafening volume but mostly it has the sound of silence. But really listening is best. It is such a strange and wild sound-world.
In the house live two monstrously large spiders, helping with the house keeping. Tiny white crabs appear from under every rock. Daily we are treated to wonderful displays of flying prowess by brilliantly coloured dragonflies. But then there are also the abu, large blow-fly type creatures that tear away parts of your skin as they bite.
As if the splendor of the flora and fauna weren’t enough there is also an intriguingly auspicious human connection, completely coincidental to our being here. The house in which we sleep was built by a couple of natural farming advocates, friends of Masanobu Fukuoka, who were deeply involved in the Japanese ‘back-to-the-land’ counter culture of the 1970’s. We spend evenings flicking through photo albums of long haired youths building huts in the forest, protesting in front of American military outposts, sitting in a circle learning traditional skills from an elderly gentleman in front of a blackboard with the inscription “we are future primitives of an unknown culture.” We wonder what happened to all the faces in these photographs. Of course their “unknown culture” was named, recuperated and put to death at a profit. Still, something in the spirit of these photographs, like this land, resonates with us.
Looking to the west of the house, in the direction of the path we took to get here we look out over terraces rising steeply to the north. From below the house the land is terraced more gently to the east. To better view the topography we cut the keiya grass and after mulching all the terraces this is what we saw: Below the large chestnut tree to the south-west of the house we saw rice paddies with taro and water chestnuts, occupying two small terraces. On the terrace above the paddies to the north we saw a large vegetable garden. On smaller terraces we saw pumpkin and potato patches. On terrace edges we saw edible and medicinal herbs and tea plants, perennial food plants and flowers. In moist nooks we saw subtropical ‘food forests’ and at the forest edges we saw nuts and berries. In the shade of the forest we saw shiitake and nameko. We saw monkeys, deer, boar and raccoons too. We saw diverse and vital forests regenerating where timber monocultures currently stand. We saw the forest under-storey lush with wild foods and fungi. We saw ourselves participating in the reclamation of an anarchically abundant earth.
We may just have found our place.