House of Wonders and the Nocturnal Rooster

Here’s the fourth chapter of my mini-adventure story.  To briefly summarize my previous three posts, I have arrived in the tiny village of Ooshima in Nagano Prefecture after a long and hair-raising day of travel, attended a festival and chugged up a muddy mountain in a broken-down van.  I have met Hiromi and Geta-san, owners of the organic farm called the Fresh Start School, and heard the story of their daughter Haru; she and her husband Junpei fled Tokyo with their newborn twin boys after the Great East Japan Earthquake and have remained on the farm since then.  I have feasted on fried cubes of goat cheese, hearty miso soup, brown rice and beans, and some unidentified but delicious greens…..and that is where today’s post begins.

Solar panels on the main house are clearly visible from this vantage point ( or at least they are if you enlarge the picture).

So let me start off this new post with a description of the main house at the Fresh Start School. Upon first glance, the large wooden house appears to be thrown together rather than constructed, but although the wood is weathered and unfinished, a closer look reveals that it is in fact quite nicely built. “It’s sturdier than it looks,” my daughter had assured me, and I trusted that it was.  Solar panels attached to the roof produce more than enough power to run the household. “I can’t be bothered with batteries big enough to store all that power, ” admitted Geta, ” so I sell it to the local electric company instead. Then I buy back from them the small amount that our family needs. Heh-heh. Cheap and easy. ” So in fact the Fresh Start School IS connected to the grid, but just barely. The rest of the farm is self-sufficient.

One side of the veranda reveals gourds, laundry, and crates full of dried , salted cherry blossoms.

The veranda is chock full of potted flowers, rubber boots, hanging laundry, hanging gourds, milk crates, and a glorious mishmash of containers and baskets full of mysterious contents. I wondered how they got all these items indoors in a hurry before a typhoon, but did not ask. And from the crazy and colorful chaos of the veranda, the door opens into the main living area, a large central space used for cooking, dining, and relaxing.

My immediate impression of the interior was of a combination Indian bazaar and dimly-lit-but-inviting used bookstore. Naked light bulbs hung from the ceiling, one in each area, revealing floor to ceiling shelves literally stuffed with books (overflows stacked on the floor), as well as statues and souvenirs from various countries. The “entertainment system” consisted of an old analog TV and a dusty shelf of videocassettes. The main room looked to be heated by a good-sized wood stove into which the babies had been peering during our dinner, sifting through the ashes and experimenting freely. Two well-worn sofas with a rough hewn coffee table in between formed a cozy nook for reading or conversation.

The dining area consisted of two low coffee tables pushed together, and the kitchen was a rather uninviting dark alcove with a small sink from which cold water flowed, a gas stove with pull-out fish grill, and a wooden center island heaped with jars of pickles, sauces, teas and condiments.  No store-bought salad dressing, jam or boxes of tea, as literally everything stored (or jumbled together) in the kitchen area had been made from ingredients grown or found on the farm and concocted by Hiromi, Mama Haru or one of the acolytes who come and go according to the season.  “Well, what about things like soy sauce?” you ask.  The answer is the same. Shoyu is home-made, beginning with the soy beans, which are then harvested, cooked, mixed with flour, allowed to ferment and become moldy, and finally squeezed into liquid through a cheesecloth. The whole process takes from six months (according to Wikipedia) to several years (according to my daughter, who insists that the fermentation process cannot be completed so quickly) and is not for the faint of heart who, I surmise, do not last long at the Fresh Start School.

Mini-bird carved by my Ellen now perches on the “viewing shelf” in front of the composting toilet.

And now for the bathroom! It was set off from the kitchen in its own  private space below the staircase leading to Geta and Hiromi-san’s bedroom. Pushing open the door, the standard Japanese bathroom slippers are set out, and a quite regular-looking porcelain toilet sits squarely in the middle of a good-sized room. The quite regular-looking toilet also has the standard fuzzy knitted seat warmer (readers abroad must imagine it), and only the smell gives a clue that this is actually a composting toilet–no flush, no pipes, and a deep hole in the ground at the bottom. The toilet is set with its back toward the door, facing a long shelf attached to the wall. The shelf , which is laden with tiny objects, is the perfect level for viewing when perched on the toilet seat; one can relax and contemplate shells, leaves, small trinkets, and carved wooden objects several times a day, and presumably the odor gets easier to ignore over time. I was delighted to spy a small wooden bird that resembled one of my daughter’s creations among the objects set out for viewing, and Hiromi later confirmed that this was so.

My obsessively neat mother-in-law and most of my Japanese housewife friends would consider the entire interior of the house “migurushii” , or “painful to look at”, simply because things were out in the open rather than stored neatly away in cupboards or closets.  “Oh, the dust!” they would say. And no doubt, any potential acolyte with a house dust allergy would not last 30 minutes inside the main house. Me? I was fine. Like the babies, my eyes were pulled this way and that as I admired knick-knacks, peered into containers, and strained to read book titles in the dim light. Dust was inconsequential.

Of course, unlike the babies, I took care to appear casual and polite rather than open-mouthed and curious. I was also desperately in need of sleep, stifling my yawns with only mixed success.  Hiromi, noting my distress, remarked, “Hmmmm….where should we put you tonight? ”

I immediately offered to sleep in the same cabin that my daughter had used the previous month, if it was available.

“I don’t know…it’s really….primitive…” said Hiromi doubtfully (testing me?).

This, of course, caused my spine to straighten automatically as I protested, “No, no, I’ll be fine! Just point me in the right direction!” ( Is she intimating that I’m a Princess?  I can do “primitive” with no problem.  I’m just out of practice, that’s all…)

“Good, good. The cabin is just past the Octagonal House. Follow the path and you’ll find it, even in the dark, ” said Grampa Geta-san cheerfully. He had taken out his false teeth with a great sigh of relief and looked ready for bed himself.

My room for the night, as seen in daylight.

So I set off alone into the black night, wondering exactly what my landmark was, as I had not understood “Octagonal House” in Japanese. Really, it does not come up in everyday conversation. Squelching down the muddy path in my rubber boots, I made my way toward what appeared to be a lighted building (I did not notice its unique shape as I passed by, though from the sounds I understood that Haru, Junpei and the babies lived here) and literally bumped into my destination, which was a tiny shack at the end of the path. My room for the night.

There was no knob, no latch and the door was not tightly fitted.  I simply pulled it open and stumbled in, fumbling to get out of my muddy boots. Thankfully, I could make out a lightbulb with a string attached, and thankfully it worked when I gave it a hopeful tug. I took stock of my surroundings in the light: enough room to set my backpack on the floor, a flimsy shelf for my glasses and iPhone, and a ratty-looking futon laid out on a wooden pallet.  Literally no room to move about, so sleeping was the only option here. “This is the cabin that my daughter adored,” I thought, seeing her through new eyes. By the foot of the futon was a pile of rather musty-smelling quilts which I spread out, ignoring the odor.  At this point, any aesthetic preferences were pointless and I only hoped to spend a pain-free and relatively comfortable night.

Now I am not only a good sleeper but I am a determined sleeper as well, especially when faced with the prospect of an early morning in unfamiliar circumstances. So without bothering to change into fresh clothes I fell into my makeshift bed, pulled up the covers, and was sound asleep within a matter of minutes.

The first few hours were blissful. Or I assume they were, as I have no memory of them. I cannot, however, forget my rude awakening at an ungodly hour by a hoarse cry that seemed to come from outside my window. Despite being sleep-befuddled, I soon identified it as….a rooster!  Wait–roosters mean morning! ….Was it morning?? ….Where was my iPhone? And I had to pee!! ….Suddenly, I was wide awake, and fumbling for my faithful iPhone, which read 3 a.m.  Noooooo.  I stumbled into my rubber boots, pushed open the door, and immediately wished for a penis. It was seriously cold, and the grass was high and wet. I did my best to pee neatly and discreetly (the rooster might be watching) in the muddy grass outside the cabin.  Then back inside, out of the boots again and into bed, I determined to return to sleep. I am good about being able to do that.

This time, however, my determination was most severely tested by the rooster, who had convinced himself that it was morning and was now obligated to alert the rest of the world. The persistant fowl squawked and crowed intermittently until at last it truly WAS morning, at which point he was joined by a chorus of bleating goats.  And then I knew that I was up for the day as well.

So passed my first and only night at the Fresh Start School. Having spent the last few hours in a torturous cycle of sleeping and waking, I gave up the fight. Shouldering my backpack and grabbing my glasses and phone, I and threw open the door to the cabin to face the day ahead. My daughter had warned me that bathing was an “event” occurring every third day since bathwater had to be heated by making a fire, so I knew there would be no refreshing shower to start the morning. Instead, I trudged back through the squelching mud and up to the main house, where I would spend the day working at whatever tasks were set out for me. But that will be my next and final post. Until then, take good care and thank you again for reading.

Morning on the veranda of the main house.

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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.

Lion Dancing and Treacherous Navigation

When you last saw me, I had been deposited in the middle of a festival.  Dressed like a (US) college student, I was surrounded by earthy-crunchy people and wishing desperately that I was dressed like them.  I own clothes like that, too- I just didn’t bring them.

Haru-san and her friend with their babies. Can you tell that babies at this stage are interested in Mom rather than finding friends?

While I was busy ogling the festival-goers, my hosts had already moved off to chat with friends, taking the placid baby boys with them. No problem. It seemed that Junpei and Haru were not the “Come meet my friends!  I’ll show you around!” types, so it was up to me to strike out on my own and navigate the festival.  Truthfully, what I really wanted was to get to the farm already, have something to eat, and find my bearings (Cue to my nagging conscience: “No, no, never mind what you really want!  That’s not what you signed up for. You’re here for the experience.” ).  And conscience won, of course,  since the other alternatives would have been either faking exhaustion and pleading a delicate constitution (nope–not with my pride at stake), or stating baldly that I did not want to have fun, and insist on going straight home (spoiling their fun, and making no friends from the outset).  I knew that it was best to buck up, plunge into the crowd, and pretend to be at ease.  So I did.

Children willingly getting their heads chomped by Shishimai.

It was a short but action-packed little festival featuring, among other things, a group of grandfathers performing the “Shishimai Odori”–or Lion Dance.  Draping themselves in a huge Chinese-patterned cloth and resembling a many-legged snake or dragon with a large wooden Lion’s head , the men gamboled freely about the festival grounds.  Note: I always feel uneasy when Japanese monsters chase small children (this is a staple attraction at many different festivals, and caused my own children undue anxiety in their toddler years), but at this event–in an interesting reversal– the children were gleefully chasing the lion!  “Why?” I asked the woman next to me, in a brave attempt to make friends and figure out what was happening.  “Well, they want to get their heads bitten,” was the reply. (Oh, right. Of course.)  My neighbor elucidated, and I learned that a head-bite from the Shishimai is supposed to increase brain power.  Still, it was rather unnerving to see parents ignore the howling  as they eagerly rushed to pop their babies’ heads into the clacking wooden jaws of the Lion.  Babies will need the extra brain-power to help them rationalize their inexplicable fear of snakes and lions later on, right?

The many-legged Shishimai, looking for a head to nibble.

Along with the head-nibbling, there were also Taiko performances by schoolchildren, and an African drumming performance by both kids and adults (something that would never happen in Hadano–it’s not “traditional”).  The African drumming was wildly popular, and I was mesmerized by one young mother who happily abandoned her baby to a friend, leaped into the performer’s area and began dancing wildly while the other mothers clapped out the rhythm. With all the excitement going on around me, I could not get a proper photo of her, so I will leave readers to imagine the scene.

Someone dancing at a festival? My sister from New Orleans would wonder why I bother to record such a mundane observation.  In the US, people breaking into spontaneous dance does not make news. In the 13 years I’ve lived in Hadano, however, I’m always startled to see a child dance spontaneously in public. I usually assume they’re second or third generation Japanese kids from Brazil or Peru, and most times I’m right.  I’ve never seen spontaneous dancing anywhere from an adult. So may I please be excused for gaping during the performance? I really could not help it.

Into the van with you, babies!

Shortly after the drumming stopped and the enthusiastic mother in baggy pants was reunited with her baby, the festival drew to a close. My hosts, Junpei and Haru, finally disengaged themselves from their conversations and prepared to pack up the van my daughter had warned me about (very large, very dirty).  Between the babies, the folding stroller, baby bags, backbacks and such, this took time, but at last we were settled in.

The van was indeed dirty.  And it was what my grandparents might have called a  “contraption” rather than a vehicle, since the entire back had been ripped apart to make a large seating area.  No actual seats or cushions, but a nice flat bed and plenty of room for multiple passengers.  I was fine with this, as I had done my “Kokoro no Junbi” (literally, “preparing the heart” in Japanese).  Preparing the heart for what?  Well, for any possible consequences, especially negative ones.  In this case, based on Ellen’s description, I had imagined the worst sort of rattle-trap-rusted-out monster-of-a-van and envisioned myself sitting serenely in the seat, as if I did this every day. Well, in fact I did do that every day during my senior year of college, so I knew I could do it again.

I had neglected, however, to envision the lack of seatbelts. There were none in the van at all, and I forced myself to swallow hard and look unconcerned.  Even the awful thing I had driven during college had had seatbelts, and I’d been grateful for them many times. My inner coward was protesting, but I knew I couldn’t expect my hosts to produce seat belts  out of thin air. I was in no position to be all hoity-toity and refuse their ride home, either.   Somehow, my reserve supply of fortitude had not yet been exhausted, and I managed to  feign a devil-may-care attitude: “Seatbelts? Pish-posh! Who worries about such things?” while waiting for Papa Junpei to get the engine started.  My place was next to the driver’s seat. Haru, mother of the two solemn baby boys, was seated cross-legged on the back floorboards with both babies on her lap, surrounded by the stroller, boxes of festival food, and who knows what else.  The engine started right up and off we went, into the setting sun.  Just like a movie.

Off we go…and we’re headed for those mountains.

After only a few minutes of driving along a riverside, we turned onto a narrow dirt road leading up a hill and into a forest.  After ten minutes of slogging up the hill (the dirt was rapidly becoming mud), I decided it was a mountain.  Darkness descended, and it was not just dark, it was completely and totally dark with only the stars and the headlights for illumination. Up until this point, Haru and the babies had been sitting quietly in the back; either Sane or Mitsu was nursing (I could not tell which) and the other twin was eating crackers.  If the driving conditions got no worse than this I could almost relax, though the mud seemed to be getting more treacherous and the van moving more slowly.  Then one of the twins began to fuss.  Not a BIG fuss, but a small insistant whimper of discontent.

“Shall I take one of them?” asked Papa Junpei from the driver’s seat (“No, no!” I thought).

“Oh, yes, please,” said Mama Haru from the back, and one of the good-sized baby boys was pushed gently toward the front.

“I’ll take him,” I said immediately, intercepting the baton pass. Again, I’m not sure which of the twins I got, but he was happy on my lap…..for approximately five seconds.  Then the howling started, and this time it WAS a big fuss. Reluctantly, I returned the baby to his rightful owner (Papa Junpei), whereupon his tears dissolved instantaneously.  I bit my tongue at the sight of Baby Sane (or Mitsu) now behind the steering wheel, jumping

For the record: This is a “tanuki”, or raccoon dog.

excitedly up and down while his father calmly kept one hand on the child, one hand on the wheel, and one eye on the road.  Our path continued to wind upward with the van moving at a snail’s pace through the mud, while one twin happily cavorted about the driver’s seat and the other nursed blissfully in the back.  Both parents were serene. “Look! There’s a tanuki!” said Papa Junpei, pointing at a mangy dog-like animal seen in the headlights.  I was appropriately impressed, having never seen one up close before, but still wished that the driver had fewer distractions.

By now, we had probably been on the same winding uphill road for at least twenty minutes, and were moving so slowly I had forgotten to be anxious about the lack of seatbelts. The worst thing that could happen seemed to be toppling over into the forest in very slow motion, or (more probably) getting irrevocably stuck and making the rest of the trek on foot.  Either of those options was preferable to careening off the edge of a cliff at high speed, so I began to relax in earnest. Besides, I was too tired to sustain a genuine state of anxiety for long.  The van chugged along through the mud, the babies crowed happily, and just as I was beginning to feel seriously drowsy, we turned off onto a still smaller road which led to our final destination–the farm itself.

And here is where I leave you for the moment. You will see and read about the farm itself in the next post, for it deserves its own post rather than a few lines at the end of this one. It has taken two full posts just to arrive at the Fresh Start Farm, but as it took me a full day to get there via train-bus-festival-and contraption, I think that’s appropriate.  So hang tight: we’re in Nagano, and the next part of the adventure is about to begin.  Good night, and thank you for reading!

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.

A Weekend in Miyagi: Batty Bingo, Big Pumpkin, and Broken Promises

From the time of the quake, it has taken me six months to get to Tohoku as a volunteer, and nearly another month to write about the experience. I will not go into great detail as to why , except to say that not everyone is cut out to shovel sludge or clear debris for hours on end.  I have nothing but respect for those who can do the heavy manual labor that has been required in cities like Ishinomaki and Kessenuma, and even greater respect for those who have volunteered their time in Fukushima, where the risk to one’s own health is significantly greater. Though I don’t qualify as a Geezer (yet), I am prone to both “gikkuri-

Clearing gutters in Ishinomaki. Volunteering is hard and nasty work.

goshi” (throwing one’s back out) and water-on-the-knee.  Knowing that a recurrence of either would render me not only useless but a burden to any volunteer team, I’ve laid low and waited for a chance to do something in Tohoku that did not involve brute strength, and that would not conflict with my full-time teaching job here in Hadano City.  If you count fund-raising (I’m darn good at it!) , waving signs at demonstrations, blogging, and keeping the conversation going around me, I suppose I have been contributing all along, but it certainly is a strange feeling to be blogging about a place you’ve never actually been to. Mind you, this has not stopped any number of bloggers, but it was disturbing to me.  So when the opportunity came, I seized it with enthusiasm.

It was Linda who gave me the opportunity; she and her yoga group were headed to Miyagi Prefecture to put together a Halloween event for children, with the assistance of an NPO from Sendai. The storyteller, Jocelyn, had suffered a bad fall and was unable to go, so would I take her place?  Oh, would I!  Children?  Stories?  Just let me loose, I thought.  Stifling a pang of self-consciousness ( I would be the only group member not in the yoga school, looking and feeling significantly plumper than the other women), I signed on almost immediately: a commitment of two days and twenty thousand yen ( the equivalent of two hundred dollars) to cover the cost of the hotel, mini-van, and a faithful driver who would stick with us throughout the trip. There was really no reason NOT to go, and I looked forward to the weekend, choosing my costume and storytelling accessories well in advance.

On the morning of October 1st, most of us were up at four a.m., and everyone was assembled outside of Linda’s house right on schedule, by five forty-five. By six o’ clock, our mini-van had arrived and we had loaded up and were on the road, the van packed to the gills with candy, presents, games to be assembled at the event, costumes, and our overnight bags. It was approximately a six-hour drive, with two rest stops, and there was no dozing. We were eight women, wide awake and excited to be starting an adventure, and one silent but capable Ojisan (i.e. regular middle-aged guy) driver.  We were, in fact, so loquacious that the driver remarked in Japanese, “Man, it’s quite an experience to drive a van full of women. Whenever I drive a group of men, they’re asleep within minutes. The only time they talk is when someone’s cell phone rings; then they put on their so-called working face and talk to their boss or colleagues back at the company.  You ladies are powerful!”  We were pleased by that assessment at the time, but still unaware of how far the limits of our “power” would be tested in the next few days.

After the second rest stop, we approached Fukushima Prefecture, and continued smoothly along the highway into Miyagi. Of course, I had heard of the natural beauty of Northern Japan, but still it was an unexpected pleasure to find that it wasn’t just an advertising campaign; the mountains were gorgeous, the sky was a clear, piercing blue, and all along

Miyagi Prefecture: Mt. Zao on a sunny day.

the roads, rice stalks were tied neatly into triangular bundles. The National Park where our event would be held was near Mt. Zao, an area famous for both skiing and hot springs….and traditional wooden Japanese dolls called “Kokeshi”, as we surmised when we passed over a  bridge guarded by four large doll statues.  This was the countryside, with not a single high rise or shopping plaza in sight. As we were inland, there was no tsunami damage, and no visible damage from the quake. Was the lush greenery hiding radioactive particles??  There was no knowing , but daikon radishes were being sold at road stands for as little as ten yen apiece (ten cents!)….a bumper crop, or was no-one buying the produce?  I was not about to ask.

Arriving at the park around noontime, the parking lot was only half-full. The NPO had promised to arrange for a bus to drive a group of children from Minami-Soma City in Fukushima to the park to enjoy our program (Halloween games, stories, and presents donated from an organization in Lithuania); the idea was to give children close to the evacuation area a chance to experience the festivities of another culture in a beautiful natural setting. Many Minami-Soma children have not been outside for extended periods of time since March, and this was to be a one-day excursion for their benefit. We unloaded the van, met up with the director from the NPO, and learned that in fact the busload of children would not be coming. We did not fully understand why, but (being powerful women, and cool-headed as well) decided to roll with the punches. It was understood that we would go ahead and do our program anyway, as the park would be full of other families.

“This first day will be our practice before the big event,” we told each other (the next day,

A riot of Cosmos blooming in front of the Visitor’s Center

more children were expected to be bussed in from Sendai–a couple hundred, we were informed), and cheerily began to set up. The park was a thing of beauty, with acres of lush green grass, shady wooded areas, well-groomed flower beds, and several well-cared-for traditional Japanese houses, complete with thatched roofs and verandas opening out into small garden spaces (this type of house design, I learned, is called an “Engawa”). All of us could have easily spent the rest of the day there soaking up the scenery and peeking into the houses, but our event was due to start within an hour.

Not knowing exactly what to expect or how many children would actually show up, we began choosing our spots and setting up for….Batty Bingo (Linda’s catchy name for Halloween Twister), Hunt the Pumpkin (orange ping-pong balls with intricately drawn Jack-O-Lantern faces, scattered about the wooded area for children to find and gather), Ghost Bowling,  a Trick or Treat corner, and my Storytelling.  From this point on, things became seriously busy, and I cannot report on what actually happened where, as I was immersed my own preparations, with barely enough time to throw on my many-pocketed Halloween

Here’s where I set up my story corner….

storyteller’s dress and clip on my fake orange braids. The lovely traditional house where I had hoped to do my storytelling was unavailable (again, no explanation), so I ended up on a bench in the woods, with a small leafy patch of ground for my audience to sit. The first group of children arrived (fresh from playing Batty Bingo), and plopped themselves down on the leaves in front of me; neither they nor I  knew what to expect, but I started right in, hoping for inspiration.

And really, children are children. If you can make eye contact and hold them in the spell of your words and smile, it does not matter where they are sitting, whether they know you or not, how old they are, or where they’re from. I used a book called “Big Pumpkin”, but only nominally, holding it up to show the hysterically funny illustrations while I improvised the story, mixing English and Japanese. Once the children began participating in the story, I began enjoying myself as well, egging them on with questions (“Who do you think is stronger: the Mummy, or the Vampire?” “What would you do next?”) and letting the plot line stray a bit. And so our two hours flew by, with group after group of small children running back and forth between the events, and an air of happy pandemonium. Occasionally, there was time in between groups to chat with parents and find out where

Not too old to enjoy dressing up. What a sweetie!

they had come from. The girl in this photo was from Ishinomaki; she was sweet, gentle, and uninhibited, sitting  with the smaller children to hear the story and eager to have her picture taken holding our Jack-O-Lantern.  A tsunami victim?  Possibly so, especially since she was with her grandmother rather than her parents; it was not our place to ask, however, and we did not.

By the end of the day, our group was exhausted (at least I was). Our faithful driver appeared at the appointed time to drive us to our Pension, and we sat back in the min-van to relax after a looong day. To my consternation, we did not seem to arrive at a Pension, but kept going farther and farther into the deep woods, up and up a twisting road ( Mt. Zao itself?) that was devoid of human habitation. Not to mention it was pitch dark. The driver cheerfully admitted that the Pension was “off the GPS” and he had no actual idea of where we were. If anyone else was troubled by this they did not say so, and I sputtered and fussed to Linda to calm my own tired nerves.

We did arrive at the Pension, of course, though it was–by anyone’s standards–way off the beaten track.  And dinner was abundant, and the company delightful!  We all indulged in something alcoholic as a reward for our day’s work, and I was particularly taken with the local wine. Forgetting my exhaustion, I downed a glass or two (did not guzzle, of course), and attacked my deep-fried river trout with gusto. Our mini-van driver, enjoying a tall bottle of beer, suddenly became talkative and animated, launching into a diatribe against–oh, dear–Americans.  Since he was directing his verbal tirade at me, I listened politely (matter of habit), not letting on that after the second glass of wine I had only a very general idea of what he was actually talking about. It must have been quite unpleasant, since several of the women in the group approached me afterwards with great concern, but truly, I was oblivious. I have a talent for letting the rudeness of strangers roll off my back, and this, combined with a pleasant inebriation, stood me in good stead that night.

Dinner was followed by a brief plunge into the Japanese bath–a true hot-spring-fed “ofuro”–which turned out to be hellishly hot!  Keiko-san, who took the plunge before me, was out in a flash, exclaiming, “I’m a boiled egg!”  Then into my blue flannel nightgown (Linda was surprised by this, but what can I say? I’m from New England), on with my eye mask, and I was out like a light till six a.m. the next morning.

The next day was…..phrasing things as gently as possible….not what we expected. This was the day that up to two hundred children were to be bussed into the park for our event. We had been told that not only was the park staff expecting us, but that we would have an entire large area to set up in and utilize for the day. Upon our arrival, we were again told that the children from the disaster area would not be coming. Not a single bus. Again, there was no explanation from the NPO director, who looked stressed- out herself and was not extremely communicative. Worse yet, upon entering the park, we were blasted off our feet

These two sisters stole my heart.

by loudspeakers playing cheery children’s songs at top volume. And what was this?  A giant stage set up in the middle of the park? And giant characters running about in costumes? Police cars and fire trucks parked on the lawn with “Dress-Like-a-Police Officer” photo ops for kids?  And no space set aside for our activities?  We were told that we could have “whatever space we could find”, and immediately broke up into groups to search for appropriate areas, preferably far and away from the giant costumed characters, with whom it would be difficult to compete.

The music was deafening, with speakers set up all along the central area of the park. I began setting up for storytelling (this day, I was able to use the porch of one of the old houses), but knew instinctively that any efforts to be heard over the aggressively-cheery music would be futile. In my pro-active American fashion, I went straight to the visitors center and pleaded my case in Japanese with an important-looking lady from the park. This had the opposite effect of upsetting the NPO woman (I should have made my case to her instead, it seemed) , who scolded me for “not having requested a perfectly quiet spot in the first place”.  The injustice of THAT remark caused me to bite my lip (when I wanted to howl) and say, “We don’t need PERFECT quiet. We need a REASONABLY quiet setting.” I returned to my area in a state of disgust, but–to my relief–the music was turned off in a matter of minutes, so I forced myself to simmer down and get mentally ready for the first group of Tohoku tots.  I could see them across the way, going back and forth between the Batty Bingo and the large costumed characters (I am truly sorry I do not have a photo of the characters, but I did not have that kind of free time), and knew they’d be headed my way soon.

The children at the park were excellent listeners…no troublemakers or smart-alecks in the lot.

And in a matter of minutes, they began streaming in: kids of all ages. Babies in strollers, whole families with grandparents in tow, toothless toddlers grinning up at me, and shy older kids sitting off in the back. They were excellent listeners, with no ill-mannered interruptions, rude comments, or pushing and jostling for space. Their parents took the time to speak with me afterwards, and I made a point of asking, “Where did you come from today?” The answers were varied, but all were from Tohoku. Yamagata, Aomori, Ibaragi, and Fukushima Prefectures were represented, as well as a family from the town of Natori (in Miyagi), which was devastated by the tsunami. I was taken off guard by the woman from Natori, seeing in my mind images of the monstrous wave rolling over the highway, but before I could say a word, my partner Keiko-san quietly responded, “Otsukaresama deshita”.  This can mean anything from the literal, “You must be tired” to a deeper meaning of,  “You must have endured a very hard thing.”  I now know what to say to someone who has suffered a great loss, and I was glad to have Keiko-san  there to teach me by her example. After our own events were officially finished (we kept going through the afternoon), I strolled through the park, taking photos of some of the kids who I’d met at my story corner. They were happy to see me again, posed for pictures, and ran off again to join their parents.

And that was it. We packed up our things again, stuffed ourselves into the mini-van (it was easier this time, as we returned home minus several large bags of candy, and several boxes of coloring books and crayons), and started the long drive home to Hadano. Of course, the

These smiles made the trip worthwhile.

minute we were on the road, we had a “hansei-kai” or “summing-up” of the weekend. It was not what we had expected. We had not been met with graciousness and appreciation (except by the children themselves and their parents). There had been broken promises and poor communication. We had to ask ourselves if the trip had been worth the trouble and expense.  And of course, we agreed that it had. We had put together a fabulous event (it really was well-organized, with crafty and eye-catching hand-made games, energetic and experienced women running the show, and lovely prizes for the kids to take home), adapted to constantly-changing circumstances and setbacks, and fulfilled our end of the bargain with the NPO. While it was frustrating to not know why the promised busloads of children from the hardest-hit areas never arrived,  we accepted that the situation was out of our control, and knocked ourselves out providing a good time for the children that happened to be in the park that day.

I’m sure that there were a number of disaster victims among the people we met, but we’ll never know any more than that. That had to be okay, and it really was.  As one of the leaders, Setsuko-san, said, things in Tohoku are not running as smoothly as they are in Tokyo.  Our NPO was a small organization, and literally unable to keep its promises ( one of the directors, another woman mentioned, is himself a disaster victim, and suffers from insomnia and recurring nightmares); this was deeply disappointing, and I will always wonder what the story-behind-the-story really was, but we carried on and found ourselves energized and engaged by the children who WERE there. In the end, they were Tohoku children.  While they may not have lost homes or family members (though some assuredly did), they all lived through the quake. And  if that quake was a terrifying thing for children hours away in Kanagawa Prefecture, I can well imagine what it was like for children farther North.  I’m glad I was able to give them a story that made them laugh out loud and clamber to touch my Beanie Baby dolls (I brought the Witch, the Ghost, and the Black Cat).  Some children will soon forget, but others will retain happy memories of the crazy ladies dressed in witch costumes handing out coloring books and Hershey’s chocolates, and that’s enough for me. We counted over two hundred kids that experienced a mini-Halloween in the middle of Tohoku on a sunny weekend in October, and eight very powerful women who came away from the experience exhausted, but satisfied.

The Riverside Yoga members…and me. Awesome women, all.