Wednesday, 10 June 2015

One governor, one mayor, a vision and the future

Recently, we were honoured and delighted to welcome the Governor of Oita Prefecture, Hirose san, and Mayor of Kitsuki, Nagamatsu san, to our quiet corner of Oita in Kitsuki. The culmination of a series of visits by staff from offices of both the Prefecture and City, the Governor and Mayor came to learn first-hand of our activities with locals and how we are providing employment to people relocating to the area. By all accounts the visit was a great success and helped establish our credentials with the bureaucracy - important in almost any country but vital in Japan - and deepen the relationship we have with our immediate neighbours.

Welcoming the Governor of Oita Prefecture (left) as the Mayor of Kitsuki (centre) looks on.

As related previously in this blog and in many reports on Japan, the nation is experiencing rapid decline and the ageing of its population. The situation is acute in most rural areas and as things stand the implications for maintaining a healthily functioning society in the countryside are poor. Walk Japan's Community Project is, in part, about showing, through example, the great opportunities available in Japan's countryside to establish businesses and lead satisfying lives, to be a meaningful part of a local community and help sustain it into the future.

Watanabe san and myself presenting what we are
 doing together and our vision for our local school.

Watanabe san and his colleagues at the local farming co-operative and myself described how we go about our businesses, respectively agriculture and tourism, and how we combine our skills in bringing local experiences of Japan and the Japanese to overseas visitors. We also made the first public announcement of our joint vision for the redevelopment of the disused, local elementary school. Our proposal, which is still in its early stages, is to re-establish the school as a locus of business, housing, local cuisine, education and wider community interaction; a centre of sustainability both of society, economy and environment.

The last students left the school in April 2014.

A school anywhere is an important symbol of the health of any society. Ours closed in 2014 but is just one of the many thousands that have shut their doors for good in recent years throughout Japan. Established over 100 years ago, it was where many of our neighbours including Watanabe san began their education and the school's closure is a poignant symbol of how, leaving things as they are, the underpinnings of our community are disappearing. No longer hearing the sound of the children playing in the school yard directly equates to the reduced vitality and eventually ending of a community; No youngsters to sustain the neighbourhood into the decades ahead. Just perhaps, though, we have found a way to bring life back to the old school, nurture a future for our locality and be an example to others of what is possible.

A few days subsequent to the Governor and Mayor's visit, we met with more civil servants to describe in greater detail our proposals for the school. With the backing of local government, hopefully, we can soon start to realise our vision over the coming months. Please look out for developments in forthcoming posts.

P.S. We currently employ over ten members of staff in our local office in Kunisaki who have moved from other parts of Japan, principally the Kanto region around Tokyo. In addition, we have another four, non-Japanese members of staff hailing from the UK and USA while a fifth will join us soon from Hong Kong. Many of our staff have children.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Feathers in our caps?

A recently sealed agreement with Oita Prefecture marks a pivotal moment in our Community Project. The deal agreed is to revive and maintain prefectural government land in the neighbourhood of our Community Project. The plot is only two tan (approximately one-fifth of a hectare or about half an acre) but the significance of the deal is much larger in Japan, and especially rural Japan, where the bureaucracy has been at the core of society since the Edo Period (1603 - 1868). The significance is all the greater given that the Prefecture made the agreement with a non-Japanese person, myself.

It has been some while since we last made an entry in this blog over eight months ago. However, it was not for lack of things to write about, just a lack of time and a smidgen of procrastination on my part. The agreement mentioned above was only the latest development in our Project. Since our last post we have: made good progress in rebuilding a farmhouse as family accommodation;

Are developing a relationship with a local farming co-operative to pool our resources and assist each other in farming land that we both own; have been bringing more schools to Kunisaki to explore the peninsula and work on the Project; obtained another run-down house - one that featured in a past blog - for development as a secondary office and residential space;

In early discussions for the redevelopment of the site of a redundant local school as a facility combining small businesses, educational spaces and accommodation; brought in our first harvest of rice and planted winter wheat;

Have successfully brought our first group of Japanese, including top architects and designers, from Tokyo to visit Kunisaki and the Project; made a significant contribution to the labours of local farmers in coppicing Japanese oak trees and processing them for shiitake mushroom production;

Completed an extension to Koumori-tei and, in our office’s grounds, the final stone retaining wall is beginning to take shape.

We have also been receiving enquiries from individuals who wish to participate in the Project. If you would like to join in please contact us.

We will also try make posts on a more regular basis!

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Talk, thought and action

We recently held our company-wide seminar, an annual event, this year in Kunisaki and welcomed Walk Japan staff from Hong Kong, Singapore, UK, USA and other regions of Japan. We were also honoured and delighted to welcome Shin’ichi Tsuji (a.k.a. Keibo Oiwa) to join us as guest speaker. Tsuji san is a cultural anthropologist, environmentalist and founder of the Sloth Club, the leading Slow Life environmental group in Japan. He authored the influential book Slow is Beautiful (スロー・イズ・ビューティフル), which has been acclaimed as the bible for the Slow Movement in Japan, and become the leader of Japanese activists for a fairer and more sustainable society.
Slow is Beautiful
Tsuji san at Koumori-tei surrounded by Mihoko & Paul Christie
Tsuji san teaches International Studies at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo and his interests encompass the environment, food culture, socially responsible business, grassroots activism and distinct ethnic societies including African Americans, Jewish, Native Canadian and his own compatriots, the Japanese. He brought these broad interests to bear on his presentation to us which, amongst many other things, made us think more deeply about our Community Project and how we can make it a more progressive, meaningful activity both locally and in wider society. An early result is that we are determined to incorporate the Project more into our tours for schools and the Kunisaki Trek. We have been bringing schools to Japan for over 16 years and the first came to Kunisaki in November 2013. More schools look set to follow in 2014~15.

With everyone gathered in Kunisaki we took the opportunity to guide them through our Community Project to deepen their understanding of what it is and how it helps underpin our commitment to our tours, Japan and society in general. After visiting Koumori-tei, a Japanese farmhouse refurbished as our main office, Tsuji san left us with great words of encouragement and, through him, some extremely valuable connections to others who are similarly working at grass-root levels.

Tsuji san counts among his friends renowned Canadian science broadcaster David Suzuki, with whom he collaborated on the book The Japan We Never Knew - A Journey of Discovery (a.k.a The Other Japan); C. W. Nicol, who is very well-known in Japan as an environmentalist, passionate restorer of the nation’s woodlands and founder of the Afan Woodland Trust; Satish Kumar, editor of Resurgence & Ecologist magazine and the head of Schumacher College in the UK; and the scientist and environmental activist Vandana Shiva.

Another milestone in our Community Project was reached when we gained ownership of our first paddy fields. This is important for two reasons. Firstly, the aged owners were unable to look after them anymore and without us taking them over there is no one else to do so. The paddies would have been left fallow and eventually fallen into overgrown disuse. And secondly, through doing so we have established credibility with the local government, which is vital in further developing the agricultural side of our Community Project.

The rice seedlings have been planted and, with the summer weather now beginning in earnest, our fields will become a green haven for waterborne wildlife including frogs, dragonflies and egrets.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Update: A stone wall & a new home

The final stone

In Puzzled in stone, posted in May 2012, I wrote about progress in building a stone wall in the grounds of Koumori-tei, Walk Japan's main office in Japan. It was finished, finally, over the recent new year; fully one year later than my original optimistic thoughts of completion by the end of 2012. Starting in June 2011, the whole edifice has taken two and a half years of intermittent toil between my regular job at Walk Japan; the heat and humidity of the summer months when it is too enervating to attempt much labour; rainy days when it impossible to see how well or not the stones are placed together; and, also, those times when I just could not face another day of the seemingly endless task of adding yet another stone.
The wall retains a grassy bank...
and provides a more comfortable access route to Koumori-tei.
This summer the grass will return to the bare earth...
and the wall will soon look like it has been here for many years. 

I estimate about 100,000 stones, all placed by hand, were used in construction. 99% of these are smaller ones hidden behind the front stones and are vital in maintaining the integrity of the structure. With a bit of luck the whole wall will remain standing for over 100 years and now finished my thoughts turn to other projects.....

A new house

In Decay and renewal, posted one year ago, I highlighted the mouldering state of a great swathe of the Japanese housing stock and how this is impacting rural communities. Contrary to the situation I wrote about then, however, we have been lucky enough to purchase an empty and spacious property in the village. This is the second one to come into our hands, the first being the old farmhouse in the same neighbourhood we have renovated for use as our office.

The house is largely hidden by a verdant garden.
A single-storey dwelling that is surprisingly large inside.
The latest building, which is in a grimy but good structural condition, came at a price so cheap that it belies the image of Japan as one of the most expensive countries in the world. Now, though, we have to spend several times that amount to make it a home for our growing family and to accommodate visitors. Our priority is to turn it into a space that not only appeals to us but will also intrigue others who love the idea of the countryside but do not want to give up their urban comforts. The premise being that through this and the other things happening with our Community Project we want as many people to see, understand and, hopefully, act on the great potential of Kunisaki and other struggling rural areas of Japan.

Properties in rural Japan are generally notorious for being fairly basic and draftily cold in winter. Currently, we are poring over books and magazines for ideas and inspiration ahead of preliminary building work due to commence in April. From time-to-time we will provide updates on progress.

P.S. Since we bought this property another has also been offered to us. Any takers?

Monday, 9 December 2013

One step back, one step forward

In the last month, two distinct but opposite events impacted our local community. One was a setback when a barn and a cowshed owned by the most active farmer here was engulfed in flames reducing both to ashes. Precious cattle and agricultural equipment were also lost. A large shock in any neighbourhood but an even greater one in a community so small and vulnerable to such crises. The farmer not only looked after his own land but, only in his sixties, he is the 'young' backbone of the village helping out his elderly farming neighbours plant and harvest their crops. At this stage how he and, consequently, the community recover is as yet unclear.

Yet around same time we brought a party of 30 middle and high school students from Hong Kong to Kunisaki and our community project, which is a stone's throw from the conflagration. Their week-long visit was a first for Kunisaki and our project here. If nothing else, the students' labour and their enthusiasm brought much need help and encouragement to a community that needs a lot of both.

Fruit-trees were planted in the forest garden; logs used for growing shiitake mushrooms were lifted, then transported and stacked uprighted into productive use; and potatoes uprooted. Besides contributing to our community project the students helped our immediate neighbours, a local farming couple, not just with their hard work but also with their infectious enthusiasm.

Walk Japan has been bringing students to Japan for over 15 years. But this was the first school tour of ours to visit Kunisaki. We are planning on bringing many others here to learn about rural issues, make a contribution with their efforts and, hopefully, leave a lasting and worthwhile legacy. However, it was not all hard work throughout their stay with us. The students also made soba buckwheat noodles; were entertained by a taiko drumming group; walked in the beautiful surrounding area; learnt about the ancient, esoteric buddhism of the locality; experienced sitting meditation in a temple; worked bamboo into ornaments to contain ikebana flower arrangements and stayed with local farming families. The whole experience was rounded off with a visit to a sumo wrestling tournament before returning to Hong Kong.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Almost metric

The Japanese introduced the metric system of measurement back in 1891 as part of the modernization of their nation. Some 80 years later and early in my education the UK went metric. I began school learning the British imperial system of inches, gallons, and miles and finished it immersed in centimetres, litres and kilometres. By the end of my student days I was studying the Japanese language, which was a dogged, albeit enjoyable, task of mastering new words, grammar and the writing system. Fortunately, however, the Japanese effort to go metric all those years ago meant the need to learn the Chinese based, complex measurement system of feudal Japan was long gone. Or, so I thought.

Some eleven years ago I moved to the Japanese countryside of Kunisaki. Unlike the close quarters of my old haunts of London or Tokyo, now open fields and forests surround my home. Along with talk of rice, timber and cows, many a local conversation is peppered with terms like chotantsubo and, occasionally, se. All these are measures of area but none are metric and I had no idea what a tancho, or se represented?

From conversations I sensed that a cho and tan are bigger than a tsubo, but is a cho bigger or smaller than a tan? And where does the se fit in? Recently and somewhat belatedly I have set about remedying this lack of knowledge. With the help of a dictionary and the internet, the easy bit has been understanding their relativity: one cho = 10 tan, one tan = 10 se, and one se = 30 tsubo.

All very well and good but didn't the Japanese go metric 117 years ago? Well yes, almost entirely. When the Japanese introduced the metric system there were some exceptions, including area. They tweaked part of their old system making one cho almost equal to one hectare - 0.99 hectare to be precise. At the same time the Japanese also introduce the aaru, a measure equaling the hectare. But the aaru seems to have little favour where I live and is not common currency amongst the locals.

I can guess approximately what a mile or a kilometre is, or calculate fairly accurately my weight from kilos to stones and pounds, and vice-versa. I can also appreciate what an area of a few ten square metres might look like and, indeed, what a tsubo represents - it is two standard tatami mats in size. (A tatami is 176cm x 85.5cm, which was considered enough space for one person to sleep on).

However, for any large area - whether an acre, hectare, a tan or cho - I have no practical idea of what they might look like in size. Similar to many who were brought up in a town house or city apartment, I had little opportunity or need to comprehend an area more than a few tens of metres, or tsubo, in size and consequently have little conception of larger areas. Not necessarily a problem in urban areas but in the country a matter of importance when chewing the cud with the local farmers. Learning the terms has been a start. Now the hard part as I try to train my eye to appreciate the size of a setan and cho, which you will remember is almost hectare. P.S. For those who work with the acre, one cho equals 2.451 acres.

Understanding area is taking on greater importance each year as our Community Project gathers pace. In addition to the property we already care for we are currently negotiating with the owners of many tan of arable fields left fallow for decades and also being asked to take charge of an largely natural forest some six cho in area.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

10 days in Kunisaki. A personal account of this beautiful and serene region of Japan

Stuart, a resident of New York, visits us regularly in Kunisaki. He kindly wrote the following after a recent visit (he has been back since).

My first encounter with Kunisaki was in late 2010 when I booked a walking holiday with Walk Japan - “The Kunisaki Trek” scheduled for April 2011. Shortly after the terrible tsunami of March 2011, Walk Japan was compelled to cancel their walking holidays and refund everyone’s money, but I very much wanted to visit Kunisaki and with the help of Walk Japan’s Paul Christie I journeyed to this little known region independently.

The author, left, mucking in with Paul, right, making a adobe earth heat-resistant wall for Koumori-tei's wood burning stove.
From the moment I arrived at Usa Station, I was captivated by the enchantment of Kunisaki.  I have returned each November and April since my first visit, to work on the Walk Japan Community Project, to help a local farming family, to walk in the splendid countryside and to visit with the wonderful people of Walk Japan at their extraordinary office at Koumori-tei.  
Following a recent visit in November 2012, I decided to write this brief report because I wanted to share the wonder of this place and to encourage others to visit and support the local community.  Rather than describe a chronological series of events during my 10 days in Kunisaki, I prefer to give a few highlights of my visit starting with the Walk Japan Community Project (the Project).
Details of the Project, its aims and achievements, can be found on the Walk Japan website, suffice to say there is always work to be done. Previously I have helped clear land of tree stumps and rocks in order to return the land to cultivation, and during this trip we moved a fence to protect the planned forest garden from deer and wild boar. We also planted the first fruit trees and harvested Yuzu, a Japanese citrus fruit.
The author clearing paths and building stone walls in Kunisaki.
Time was also spent with the a local farming family helping to prepare for the next “planting” of Shiitake mushrooms. Grown in one metre lengths of kunugi, a Japanese oak tree, the mushrooms take 3 years to mature and are very labour intensive. We spent time cutting down the oak trees (grown specifically for this purpose) and clearing last season’s oak lengths to prepare for the spring “planting”. All the work takes place in the forest where the mushrooms are grown in dark, damp places.
Part of the time I stayed with Mario, a tour leader with Walk Japan, who lives in Kunisaki in an old house formerly occupied by a priest from the nearby temple. This house is very large and very rustic (it was leaning over before Mario began renovation) and has some very attractive terraced land that needs clearing and restoring. Additional help on the land was welcomed by Mario, but there is much to do. The rest of the time I stayed at my favourite ryokan - the Fukinotou Inn - right next to the peaceful Fuki-ji (temple) - and spent many happy hours reading in the quiet of my room.
Walking is always part of the Kunisaki experience and on this trip I visited Kitsuki City, the local tea plantation (just up the road from the Fukinotou Inn) and the magnificent temple at Futago-ji, where there was a spectacular display of autumn foliage. So far I have found one new unspoilt valley each time I have visited Kunisaki and this visit was no exception as I explored the valley behind Walk Japan’s office and found a small lake and deep forest leading to who knows where.
In addition to the wonderful scenery and environment of Kunisaki, the people there make visitors very welcome and warm feelings permeate one’s soul. I recommend Kunisaki – for physical activity, for meditation, for aesthetic pleasure or just for the warm feelings.