Leaving “Civilization” for a fresh start in Nagano

I have a secret.

…….it’s my hidden stash of colorful hippie clothes. My secret stash, the clothes hidden away in a clear plastic storage tub, are treasures-that-cannot-be-worn in my daily life: anything tie-died; anything with camisole straps; anything boasting beads, fringe, pom-poms, tiny bells, or excessive amounts of lace.

My friend Mizue: a perfect example of appropriate dress for women of a certain age. Her clothes are of modest cut, loose-fitting, clean and pressed, and provide protection from the sun.

Why do I keep my treasures hidden? Why do I not wear them? Well, it’s complicated. In my world (not Tokyo, mind you. The big city is what comes to mind when foreigners think of Japan, but Tokyo is actually a separate world within Japan itself ), ladies of a certain age dress modestly and conservatively, and I’d rather fit in than stand out here, appearance-wise.  I’m no tourist; I live here, and facing the stares of curious or disapproving neighbors  on a daily basis would wear me down. I need to belong, and part of belonging is a recognition of and obedience to unwritten social conventions.

As a foreigner, however, I have a bit of leeway.  I am excused for minor fashion errors in light of my nationality ( Americans can’t be expected to know any better), and I do take full advantage of this. The clothes I wear to work everyday  in the summer are in no way standard for women my age (neckline too low and showing too much–gasp–bare arm) , and neither are they professional. In my defense, I believe they are appropriate for the work environment since it’s MY cram school after all, and I’m allowed to make the rules.

Here I am, in my typical summer garb, wearing far less clothing than any of my students. This is about the wildest I can get and still pass inspection with the mothers (note my yellow No Nukes! button).

The mothers of my students seem to accept this as well, and I feel no waves of disapproval on parent visitation days.  In deference to these same mothers (whose monthly fees translate to my monthly salary, and whose adorable children keep me engaged and entertained on a daily basis) I am also careful not to push the envelope too far: no jeans with holes at work, and lacy slipper-socks rather than bare feet (remember that this is Japan; my English school is a “shoes off” environment. Shoes inside would be unthinkable, but bare feet are not appropriate, either. Socks or slippers must hide naked feet).  Anything item of clothing that might cause the mothers of my students to whisper together or raise an eyebrow goes into the plastic tub, to be saved for summer vacations in the US.  Once there, I dress just as I please.

But now, I’ve found a place to wear my tie-died leggings (they are pink and purple) that is not Tokyo….as long as I don’t mind getting them dirty.

Let me tell you about it.

It’s a village (population less than 1,000 people) in the mountains of Nagano, called Ooshima.  My daughter Ellen discovered it first.  Looking for an interesting place to learn about organic farming and self-sufficiency, she found the “Furidashi Juku”, or “Fresh Start School”, via WWOOF (Worldwide Organization of Organic Farmers). For those of you unfamiliar with the organization, WWOOF  farmers are often, by Japanese standards, unconventional: eager to experiment with both new and old methods of farming, they are always looking for youthful volunteers to lend a hand with their projects.  Yet even among the WWOOF farmers listed online , the folks at “Fresh Start” sounded radically different.  Take their name, for instance.  Japan is not a great place for “fresh starts”, as a fresh start implies a previous failure to function within the system.  Dropping out and withdrawing from that system is often easier than admitting failure and bucking up to try again in an inflexible society that quickly stigmatizers “losers”.  Here was a place, then, that set out to welcome those folks otherwise deemed as “losers”, as well as drawing from the ranks of “normal” energetic and curious young people possessed of a strong work ethic.

The “Fresh Start” message, in a nutshell, seemed to be this: “Have you made a mess of your life? Gone after the wrong things and ended up disillusioned?  Try again, from scratch. Go back to living as simply as possible, and make a fresh start. You’ll find what you’re looking for.” My daughter, at eighteen, has not seen enough of life to be disillusioned,  nor would I describe her life as a mess.  She is, however, passionately devoted to the idea of interacting with the natural environment in an ethical way, and “starting from scratch” sounded perfect for a Japanese teenager who had known nothing but books and tests until her high school graduation.  Ellen had had enough of books already, and was raring to go.

High school graduates at Tokyo’s International Christian High School. It’s an elite school with an excellent English education: still, very few graduates choose to go abroad for college.

Now let me explain one more thing.  My daughter had the freedom to set off on this adventure because she was in a “gap”: graduated from high school in Japan (ceremony in March) and accepted into college in the US ( beginning in September).  Very few Japanese students choose to go directly to a four-year college abroad, and her friends had all begun college in Japan.  She was in a strange world populated by adults and babies, the only ones not in school, so an adventure seemed like the thing to do. My husband and I were all for it, especially since she was financing the trip with her own money saved from part-time jobs (clever girl!),  but my friends were astonished. “She’s going….by herself? And it’s manual labor? You don’t know the farming family personally? And it’s so far away…..”  Well, yes was the answer to all those questions, but none of them seemed like a valid reason not to let her go. Japanese mothers tend to keep even their “adult children” close to home, but in this family, we value independence.  Soooo…..off you go, Ellen!

Sakura the goat and her companions provide milk for the coffee at the Fresh Start Juku. Ellen got up close and personal with Sakura.

My daughter got herself to Nagano ( a full day’s journey from Hadano) via a complicated combination of trains and busses.  Once there, she learned to work hard,  made “cho ii tomodachi”  (or “wicked good friends”), and tested herself daily.  Family and friends eagerly devoured her facebook posts describing the goats ( “I get to milk them!”), the rooster (“My legs are black and blue from being attacked…” ), the rabbits ( “They live in an old, abandoned car..” ), the rice paddies (“We’re doing all the planting by hand!  No machines! One seedling at a time…” ), and the couple who built and ran the farm (“They’ve been to India!  Their house is full of things from all around the world. It’s like a bazaar…” ) . She slept in a “shack”, bathed every other day, used the communal composting toilet,  drank goat’s milk for dinner and home-made herbal tea for breakfast.  She baked bread, took up wood-carving, and talked environmental policy.  Six weeks later, she returned home.

Here’s Ellen, slogging about in the rice paddy in Nagano.

After working in the rice paddy up until the afternoon of her last day, she had boarded the bus to Shinjuku without a chance to bathe. When she arrived home that evening, my eyes flew immediately to her right arm; it was  stained brown up to the elbow from planting rice seedlings in the muck. The two tiny muscles she had earned volunteering in Ishinomaki looked significantly bigger as well–indications that she was now a quite a different Ellen.  My schoolgirl was now….a farmgirl? Or at least a farmgirl-in-the-making.

And so, we welcomed Ellen back to civililization and the world of flush-toilets. She was glad to be home, but sorry to leave her new family in Nagano and bursting with stories and new ideas. In the next few weeks, she spent enough time talking about her experience to get me on board as well.  Mom wants an adventure, too!  I took a notion to see the Fresh Start School for myself, and to personally thank the couple who had taken my shy, inexperienced daughter into their home and given her a measure of courage and real-life experience.  So Ellen called them, we talked by phone, and  the owners of the Furidashi Juku agreed to my idea of a one-day visit. Since the trip itself takes a full day, a one-day visit could hardly be considered worth the time and trouble, but a weekend was all I had to spare and there was no stopping me.

……..Off you go, Ruthie!  One month later, printed route schedule in hand, it was my turn to depart for Nagano by train.  Leaving from Hadano, I got myself to Shinjuku ( the heart of Tokyo, where everyone transfers trains) , then switched lines to board the express train to Matsumoto.  From that point on, I began to leave the city behind and the scenery became steadily greener and more mountainous. Butterflies and moths flitted in and out of the train car at every stop, and wildflowers and weeds lined the train tracks. The lush green mountains closed in on either side; some of them we traversed by tunnel. Finally, at a tiny station called Ina-Ooshima, I boarded the local bus and began the most dramatic part of the journey.  It was one of my worst nightmares: a large bus,  traversing a narrow curving mountain road with barely enough room for a car coming from the opposite direction to squeeze by, and a steep ravine to the right, with only a flimsy-looking guardrail to quell my anxiety.  Below?? A river gorge that turned into a reservoir that turned into a massive dam and

Whew!  Down from the mountains and into the village.

then back into a river again. The driver handled the next thirty minutes of precarious curves cooly and cheerfully, and I willed myself to relax. We descended the mountain, crossed the river, and entered the village of Ooshika, where I was let off at a stop called “Kashio”, or “Salt Lick”.

So there I was, standing on the side of the road, dressed like a college student in T-shirt, jeans, backpack, and organic cotton tote bag from an Eric Clapton concert. I was dressed sensibly, for hard work, yet I felt slightly ridiculous ( I’m 50. I should have outgrown this way of travelling already. Normal people go by car and carry proper luggage, etc. ).  Still, I was determined to meet my host with a big beaming smile. His name was “Geta-san”, and my daughter had said he would come for my pick-up in a very large, very dirty camping van.

I waited nervously along the road (no benches at the bus stop), but no Geta-san.  I began to feel more than slightly ridiculous.  Afternoon had turned to evening and a cool breeze was blowing; even so, I was sweating from the weight of my pack and from the unaccustomed restriction of short sleeves and a high necked shirt (Remember? I spend the summer sleeveless, flaunting my decolletage).  Finally, after what seemed like ages, a young couple pushing a heavy-duty double stroller came into view.  Twin boys with solemn face were standing precariously on the stroller bed, and I realized, from my daughter’s detailed descriptions of the family, that Geta-san’s daughter and her husband had come in his stead.

My pick-up: father Junpei-san and his twins, Sane and Mitsu.

Once our identities had been formally established, the couple wasted no time on unnecessary words of welcome.  Announcing, “There’s a festival tonight so we’ll go have a look around,” they set off in the lead, taking care not to jounce the babies out onto the roadside. Within minutes, we reached what looked to be the center of the village, where a good-sized crowd was gathered, including children in yukata (summer kimono), village grandfathers in cotton festival clothes and tabi, and……earthy-crunchy-looking people!  Although no-one stared at me, I was trying hard not to stare at the unfamiliar sight of women dressed in baggy, organic cotton trousers with colorful bandannas and teeny-tiny tank tops. Where was I?? And why did I come in the wrong clothes?? I wanted the contents of my plastic treasure tubs immediately!  Aaah, no matter–I would enjoy myself anyhow.  But you must wait until the next post for the details.

Don’t worry–I will not throw my hard-earned career (or my husband and the in-laws, Grandma and Grandpa Iida) to the wind and take up life in a commune in Nagano….but I may be tempted.  Stay tuned, and thank you again for reading.

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5 thoughts on “Leaving “Civilization” for a fresh start in Nagano

    • Thank you, Pat. And you, too. Every family has their stories, and it’s sad if there’s no-one to be the family record-keeper or story-teller. My Dad was officially both for most of his life, and I’m doing my best to continue the tradition.

  1. What’s holding us back

    Is it something we all lack

    Like a special knack

    Hiding in the pack

    Except when we’re in the sack

    Thinking changing tack

    So try something new

    Just show the World the real you

    It’s not hard to do

    To set oneself Free

    Just being, for all to see

    Hello World, it’s Me

    • Thanks, Joseph. Leaving me by the side of the road was one option….I wanted to get back to CLOTHES, however, which will be one of the themes of the continuing story. Just wait!

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