Who Needs a Soup Ladle When You’ve got a Baby?

The “Furidashi Juku”, or “Fresh Start School”.

It was nearly eight p.m. when we arrived at the Fresh Start School.  Papa Junpei parked the van up next to the house and I tumbled out, straight into the mud.  It was hard to get my bearings in the dark, but the house was right there in front of my nose so I focused on getting to the wooden porch (through the squelching mud), where shoes and boots were lined up along the bottom step. Two women had come to the door to greet us. The older woman was, I guessed from my daughter’s description, the co-owner of the school, Hiromi-san.  Let me qualify “older”, though, as she was one of those women whose age is impossible to guess. Though Hiromi’s skin was brown from years of outdoor work, it was smooth, fresh and glowing; though her hair was graying, it was thick and luxurious. She looked to be in excellent shape, and was dressed in no-fuss, practical work clothes.  The other woman hovering in the background  introduced herself with a shy smile as “Akiko”, and I understood that she was an acolyte, or Fresh School student, rather than family. There was still no sign of Hiromi’s husband Geta-san, who I had expected to meet hours earlier at the bus stop.

Papa Junpei, Mama Haru and the babies piled into the house, and we all stood around looking at each other. I can’t tell you how awkward this felt. Here’s the scene I had expected:

Hiromi-san:  Welcome, welcome!  You’ve come a long way!  You must be tired…..

Me:  No, no, I’m fine. Thank you so much for having me. Please excuse my intrusion                                                into your home. I’ll be indebted to you for the weekend.

Hiromi-san: We’ve so looked forward to your coming, so please relax and make yourself at home.

Me:  Thank you. I’ll do my best not to be a pain in the neck, and help out wherever I’m needed.

That conversation is a standard ritual for visitors in Japan, yet Hiromi-san wasn’t following the rules.  I was ready to speak my lines, but “Thank you” would have been inappropriate when my hostess hadn’t yet said, “Welcome!”, so I remained uncomfortable and silent, beginning to harbor a fear that I was not, in fact, welcome at all and that this trip had been a mistake to begin with.

Instead of small talk and formal greetings, the topic was, “Where is Geta-san?”.  Apparently, Hiromi’s husband had gone “into town” for a meeting of some sort, and it was past time for his return. We sat around the low table already laden with food and began eating, but it was apparent that the family was worried about Grandpa (as the babies knew him), so I was hardly relaxed. How terrible if something had actually happened to this man I had not yet met, I thought, willing him to be on his way home after an overly-long meeting.  And as I sat there hesitantly helping myself to chunks of deep-fried goat cheese and thinking, “Hurry back,  please…”,  the door banged open and Grandpa Geta was home. Phew.

Geta-san, and his wife, Hiromi.

So at last I met the other co-owner of the Fresh Start School. Wearing a white peasant shirt and a big sheepish grin, Geta-san apologized profusely as he made his way to the table. “Well, I couldn’t help being late–they got me drinking, they did,” he explained, his sheepish grin betraying more than a hint of enjoyment and sheer mischief.  We all relaxed immediately (though I wondered how on earth he had navigated up the Mountain of Mud in his state of inebriation) and the tension dissipated. I began to enjoy the goat cheese. And I began to notice what was happening with the babies.

Mothers who like their babies snugly restrained and properly fed would have had heart palpitations watching Baby Sane and his twin brother Mitsu, who had the run of the house while the adults were eating. I watched them in fascination as they toddled about the room, making their way back to the table occasionally for a few spoonfuls (or handfuls) of rice or vegetables. When not grazing at the table, they were engaged in various “experiments”.  Mitsu was absorbed with the large pot of miso soup, which sat unsupervised upon a nearby hot plate close to the main table.  Apparently the soup had cooled considerably, since his placid expression never changed while testing the broth with his forefinger. When this grew dull, he boldly plunged his entire arm into the pot, stirring away industriously, ignored by the adults who were engrossed in Geta-san’s description of the drinking party. Meanwhile, at the other end of the room, Baby Sane had worked the lid off the wood stove and had found the (cold) ashes inside. Oh, THAT looked like fun, I thought, watching him dig about in the ashes with quiet concentration. This was not my house, neither baby was in danger, and I assumed that this was a normal mealtime scenario; I moved from relaxing a bit to enjoying myself.

I was ravenously hungry, and the kind of meal set out on the table was exactly the kind I love best: simple vegetarian cooking–no fuss and nothing fancy. Fresh, crispy lettuce leaves were set out in a bowl to be eaten as they were (my daughter loved them as finger food) or with home-made dressing; the delicious fried cubes of goat cheese; some kind of wild greens tossed lightly in a saute; a hearty miso soup with daikon and more greens; and I cannot remember what else….pickles, perhaps?  As we ate, I ventured to ask some questions and was surprised to learn that Sane and Mitsu’s parents had fled Tokyo after the 3/11 Quake, deciding to settle in at the grandparents’ place permanently.

But….but….Tokyo’s a long way from Tohoku, where the epicenter of the quake and the nuclear meltdown occurred. Were they not over-reacting?

Of course I did not ask this, but I could not help thinking it. Conscious of my position as a guest in the house (a guest who had invited herself , to make matters even more delicate), I did not push my own opinions; instead, I listened to Mama Haru’s narrative and imagined myself in her place. “We left Tokyo the morning after the quake, ” she admitted, correctly assuming that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant would not withstand the double-punch of quake and tsunami, and determined to get her children as far out of the path of nuclear fallout as possible. Having spent her own childhood in Nagano Prefecture, Haru knew the geography well:  isolated by mountains (9 of the 12 highest mountains of Japan are found there) and situated far from the East Coast, she was certain that her parents’ home would be a safe haven.  Happily, her husband Junpei was of the same mind (“I couldn’t wait to be gone,” he said).  So the morning after the quake they threw diapers, food, and gas into the car and were on the road to Nagano before the nuclear explosions even occurred. “We were in such a rush I left behind my insurance card and all my identification,” said Haru.  “I was just thinking of the babies and getting out of Tokyo.” They drove straight inland without stopping, beating the post nuclear explosion traffic and ensuing gasoline shortage.

The sheltering mountains of Nagano Prefecture (photo from zeusbox.com).

A year and some months later, Haru, Junpei and the babies are still in Nagano (after making a brief trip back to Tokyo to retrieve their insurance cards and other valuables), with no regrets. It is now widely known that fallout from the nuclear explosions at Fukushima Daiichi did reach as far south as Tokyo, with particularly high levels reported on the day of March 15th.  Many Tokyo citizens remained indoors, glued to the news, on the 15th, but others were out and about as usual, still focused on stockpiling food, lining up to buy gas, and attempting to commute to work in spite of erratic train schedules and threats of rolling blackouts (which ultimately bypassed Tokyo and hit the suburbs).

In the year and a half since the disaster occurred, it has been determined that radiation from Fukushima Daiichi spread in several distinct plumes, stretching far southward to the prefectures of Ibaragi, Saitama, Tokyo and Kanagawa as well as westward to Tochigi and Gunma, stopping at the mountains of Nagano. In the end, an estimated 8 percent of Japan’s entire land mass was contaminated. Neighborhoods in those prefectures continue to be plagued by “hot spots” (isolated areas of abnormally high radiation levels), which are monitored constantly by citizen activist groups.  Most citizens of Tokyo and surrounding prefectures chose to stay put after the quake and nuclear crisis, but purists like Haru and Junpei (those who firmly believe that even a little radiation is too much) departed swiftly in the first weeks following the explosions and have not returned.

Nervous Tokyo citizens can relax in this “bequerel-free” cafe, equipped with a radiation detector from Belarus (photo by Miako Ichikawa, Asahi Shinbun).

Haru and Junpei were extremely lucky. They had a destination in mind, beds waiting for them, enough gas to make the journey, and no loans to repay in Tokyo. They were able to pick up and go, and had the courage and foresight to move swiftly. Safely ensconced in the tiny village of Ooshima, they are able to raise their baby boys relatively free of fear and paranoia. Parents in Tokyo continue to scrutinize labels in supermarkets and worry about the radiation level of food in restaurants, with some cafes now featuring radiation detectors on the premises to reassure customers. In a contrasting scenario, Haru, Junpei, and their children enjoy self-sufficiency, eating only their own produce and rarely buying anything “in town”. Haru stays near the house every day, devoting herself to the boys and doing most of the cooking. Papa Junpei works together with the in-laws (they all seem to get along) planting rice and vegetables, harvesting according to season, doing various construction projects, and teaching the steady stream of folks like my daughter: acolytes who come to learn practical skills and find a “fresh start”.  The acolytes, who inhabit various tiny cabins built around the main house, care for the animals (goats, chickens, and rabbits), help with the cooking and cleaning on a rotating schedule, and experience self-sufficiency first-hand. Everyone works hard, eats well, and sleeps soundly, with the exception of the rooster, who I suspect suffers from insomnia. But that’s a story for my next post.

Of course, what I’ve just described is not everyone’s idea of an idyllic life. “They live with the in-laws!” you say? Well, yes, but that’s actually no big deal.  Many Japanese couples do; it’s expected in some families, and grandparents are a great help with child-rearing. “Who wants to live out in the boonies? Is there even cell phone reception?” is the next question. Hmm. My smart phone was working just fine, even at the top of a mountain (Japan is amazing that way), and the young people I met at the festival some hours earlier seemed bursting with energy and creativity (a good many of them are potters and craftsmen, Junpei explained. He himself was a potter in his former life in Tokyo).  And though Haru sighed and asked me when mothering would become “less consuming”, she and Junpei both seemed relieved to be out of the city.  Living in Tokyo meant bearing a daily psychological burden. Living with the in-laws in Nagano meant a physically hard but relatively anxiety-free lifestyle.

I could understand Haru and Junpei’s choice.  And I was beginning to understand why my daughter loved this place. If you’re not yet ready to pack up and leave for Nagano, I will do my best to convince you in one last post. Until then, good night, take care, and thank you for reading.

2 thoughts on “Who Needs a Soup Ladle When You’ve got a Baby?

  1. Ruthie, you made my evening…

    Here I was giving my major life decisions a look-over because I didn’t quite grow up to be the two-car garage house with a 30 year home loan kind-of-guy the rest of my family instilled on me was the minimum standard for success.

    The most important thing in a family is just that…family. Not rooting down somewhere. Not fixing yourself into one place permanently. Not betting your entire future on one house, or one way of life, one solution to everything.

    The most important thing is to be flexible and be able to grow, adapt and change to the world around you, and the more you bet big on one thing working out for the rest of your life, the more likely it is that some natural or man-made disaster is gonna mess everything up.

    This made my day, reminding me that there is great value in lifestyles other than what the marketed world of model homes and brand-name venues would have us believe.

    • Whoa…I made your day! Or your evening! So glad I touched something with this post, Jonathan. What you’ve done with your life up until this point is amazing (just like the Fresh Start School), and you don’t need to be comparing your situation to any other standard of success other than your own. Hooray for the Hardly English School!

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