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June 21, 2011 / Karen Hill Anton

Living in a ‘mountain haven’

Our farmhouse at Futokoro-yama, circa 1976


(December 27, 1990)            

The first house we lived in here was on top of a mountain. It was an old abandoned farmhouse that no one had lived in for more than ten years. All the shoji and tatami had to be replaced, and a new bath put in. The inside of the wooden futon closets had rotted, exposing the stone wall the house was built against. Parts of the roof revealed the heavens.

It was a big house, built to easily accommodate three generations of a family. Our genkan (entry hall) and storage room were larger than many apartments here, the bathroom larger than most kitchens. It took weeks to clean the house and months to fix it up, but after awhile we were able to call it home.

The house was located in a beautiful area north of the Tenryu River in Shizuoka prefecture. The address said it was Tenryu “city”, though we had only one neighbor, and what we saw from our front yard was a panorama of bamboo groves, tea fields and rice paddies, and the uninhabitable foothills that are the beginning of the southern Japan Alps.

Visitors would often say how “lucky” we were to be living there, but not many wanted to be lucky to build a fire to heat their bath, lucky not to have plumbing, lucky to empty their benjo. We would also hear “I’ve always wanted to live in a house like this, far from the city.” But after a day, sometimes just a few hours, we’d see them checking their train schedules for a way out of that “mountain haven”. But everyone appreciated the simple joys of awakening to a beautiful sunrise, breathing sharp pine-scented air, drinking water that came into the house from the mountain stream above us.

The rainy season and summer months brought an array of insects of every size, shape and color. I was fascinated with these creatures and their antics outside of the house, but it was another thing altogether when they came inside – which they were free to do. As everyone knows, the traditional Japanese house was built with little or no thought of keeping these creepy elements of nature out. This idea was fine with me when the butterflies and even swallows flew through the house, but something else again when it came to giant spiders, poisonous centipedes, land crabs, frogs, and even snakes.

That house was the coolest place to be in summer because its open structure always afforded a breeze. To be sure, that same breeze blew through the house in winter. The kitchen was cold and drafty — hardly a place you wanted to spend time in. It was soon evident how farmhouse one-pot cooking at the table had evolved.

All the other people in that area were farmers, without exception, and I was fascinated by their easy relationship with nature. If they planted something, they expected it to grow, while for me gardening meant fighting with weeds, and food and flowers growing from seeds was akin to magic. Like farmers all over the world, they worked from dawn to dusk, and it sometimes seemed they were even busier when it rained.

My nearest neighbor could always be found in her kitchen on a rainy day making tofu, soy sauce, or perhaps konnyaku. Or she might be sewing kimono or futon, or spinning straw. I could hardly imagine where she found the time for all that and still manage to have the wood trim and flooring in her house gleaming like that in temples from the daily wiping.

About this time of year we’d often see wild rabbits, and occasionally a weasel would raid our kitchen. One starry late autumn evening I went out to find a fox nibbling at a pumpkin pie I’d put out to cool. When I told my neighbor the next day, her reaction was more of wonder and astonishment at what I’d done to the kabocha she’d given me than the part about the fox.

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POSTSCRIPT

That house is still there.

It was empty for years after we left. Then a couple (whose house had been destroyed in a landslide) lived there for several years. Then they moved out and the house was again empty for several years. The last time I was there, there was a new couple living in it. I was told they’d come from Tokyo and were trying to get away from city life.

I still go to there from time to time. Usually to take visiting friends to show them where, and how, we used to live.

If I’m lucky, the old woman next door will be there and we can have a little chat.

She no longer lives their full time. Her husband died. And then her husband’s brother, who had always lived with them, also died. When I saw her a few months ago, she said she wondered when her husband was “coming to get” her.

They never had children. So naturally something had to be decided about who would inherit their land and property. I learned they adopted a family. A man, his wife, and three children. I believe they are distantly related. She lives with them in a neighboring city, and on occasion, they bring her to the house – so she can tend the graves, and the household shrine. She no longer farms. But the last time I was there, she was drying shiitake. She said she had so many and gave me a bunch.

As I was leaving, I ran into her son-in-law on the road. He was just coming back from harvesting shiitake – and he also gave me a bag! (I made an afternoon snack of them, sautéed with a little butter, salt and pepper.) He’s a teacher and will retire next year. He says when he does, he will move to Futokoro-yama full time.

Certainly that will be good for the house. These old farmhouses do not appreciate not being lived in. At a minimum, they need to be regularly aired.

Ooishi-san told me she was now 80 years old.

I remember thinking: I always thought of her as an old woman. But when I first met her, now more than 30 years ago, she was younger than I am now.

I am glad we had the experience of living in that house. There are fewer and fewer of those old farmhouses around. And although I love them for their simple, rustic beauty, I have no romantic notions about old Japanese farmhouses. Simply put, they are inconvenient and impractical for modern day living. They are hard to keep clean, and require a lot of daily work and maintenance. I do not miss anything about not having hot water, not being able to flush the toilet, living with the elements in every season.

My son Mario is now living in such a house in Kyushu at this moment. Billy and I love to visit – and see our grandson Umi. But a life lived with the elements and all the rest of it is not for us – anymore.

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© Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” 1990-2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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