is an online magazine of the literary arts.

2 March 2004 | Vol. 4, No. 1

A Quiet Life

In the dark early morning of a heavy snow there is the sound of metal against rock, a scraping, low at first but relentless, insinuating. It worms itself into my dream, insisting that I awake. Outside it is dark but I can make out the figure of a man with a shovel. He stands in the snow, gaunt in a white greatcoat, the chinstrap of a World War I campaign hat framing a face of slight proportions. Is it a boy playing tricks, or the lone soldier of a ghost battalion? The form seems elderly but its motions are strong and determined as it lifts great shovels full of snow and tosses them behind. From a gray haze of sleep comes the slow realization that an old man has been shoveling snow from my driveway while I slept. I look more carefully into the dark. It is Ojisan, the retired farmer who lives across the street. Have I slept too late? It's only five a.m., still hours from first light, not an unreasonable time to be in bed, even in rural Japan. Will there be gossip about the lazy foreigner who sleeps late? I will him to go away before the neighbors look out at their own snow covered sidewalks. Ojisan keeps on shoveling, working his way closer to the house. I open the front door. It scrapes up a mound of wet snow. Ojisan is bent over, leaning his weight into the shovel. He looks up, startled. I invite him in, but he refuses, shyly backing away, bowing, bowing, until he is across the road and obscured by falling snow. Later that afternoon there is a knock at the door. It is Ojisan with an offering of saké and potato cakes.

"I'm disturbing you," he says, more a greeting than an apology. He takes off his boots and places them neatly facing outward in the entryway. For the first time I see his face close up. His eyes are deep-set, contemplative, inward looking. The thin line of his nose, his sharp, angled cheekbones are bird-like. His face is dwarfed under the wide brim of his campaign hat, revealing the hairline of a young man. With a callused hand he combs back a gray crew cut. He fills my saké cup and I take the bottle, as it is done in Japan, and fill his. We toast, "Campai." Ojisan sits silently drumming his long fingers on the table. They are farmer's fingers, roughened from decades of tending sugar beets and potatoes. He laughs a low, self-satisfied laugh and looks around the room, immensely pleased with himself. He has crossed over. He is in the house of the foreigner.

Looking down on the village from Kanayama mountain, past the eighty-one steps that climb to a small Buddhist temple nestled in a grove of larch, two houses, one large, one small, can be seen opposite each other on the street below. The larger one is a modern, multi-room dwelling with a new metal roof, aluminum siding, and a freshly blacktopped driveway. Built into a small hill, it sits slightly above its neighbors, making it seem separate and aloof. It looks like a place where rich people might live. But this house was never intended for the rich. It is the house provided by the town for their invited foreigners, their gaikokujin. It is where I am living with my wife and young daughter while making a documentary film about life in this rural village. The small frame structure across the street is old, weather beaten and bleached white from decades of sun and rain. It's a one-room house with ornate sliding doors made of glass and paper screens long ago turned brown with age. A patch of tarpaper torn up by the wind hangs from the roof in shreds. There is a certain neatness to the disrepair. Someone has attended to a collapsing doorjamb, replaced rotting sideboards and re-papered a section of roof. But eventually, even the most meticulous repairs, like cosmetics and creams, cannot hide age. The old house has a deep, settled look, as if its roots were planted before the town arrived, before there were farms and people in these mountains, long before foreigners thought of coming.

The man who lives in the house could be as old as the place itself. His name is Osamu Miyamatsu, a retired farmer who lives alone. Everyone calls him "Ojisan," which means Uncle, and is what all old men in Japan are called. It's an honorary title, a trophy of warm and public familiarity awarded for living to be old. For an entire month before we spoke, I watched him on his early morning walks, his gait oddly soldier-like, his old legs cutting a trail through deep snow or trudging up the eighty-one steps to the log shrine where a statue of Buddha sits serenely in the cold. If he isn't walking by first light, he is hoisting his 85-year-old bones up onto the roof of his small house. Balancing on the roof he shovels a few inches of accumulated snow, one end of a rope tied around his waist, the other around the stovepipe . From the peak of this lookout he waits for passersby, and in a small ritual of familiarity, neighbors, old themselves, exaggerate their alarm and admonish him to be careful. Ojisan waves them off, laughs, checks his balance and continues to push snow over the eaves.

Ojisan sits at the table, unsure of what to do. He considers the map of the world on our kitchen wall. On this map, borrowed from the local elementary school, the Japanese archipelago is in the exact center. America is an orange mass near the right edge, which bisects the Atlantic Ocean. It is a disorienting view of the world for a North American. Ojisan carefully studies the outline of America, as if pieces to the puzzle of these foreigners could be found there.

"It's a miracle I'm still around," Ojisan says in his sing-song rural accent. "Considering everything that's happened—the war and the bombings, the floods from the Sorachi River that took our house and crops. My wife had a premonition that I wouldn't come back from the war," Ojisan says. "In a dream she saw me floating dead in the sea. She thought she would never see me again, so she sold our fields and sold our horse. What good is a farm and a horse to a woman alone with little children? But I did come back. I came back and there was nothing. The land was gone, sold. My wife had a few thousand yen, but it was worthless because there was nothing to buy. We couldn't even buy a pair of socks or a towel. What good is money when you don't have land? I cleared a garden patch deep in the mountains where I could plant pumpkins and potatoes. The only reason we didn't starve is because I'm a farmer and can make things grow. I don't talk to my children about the past, because when I do their eyes glaze over. They look at each other and say, 'There goes Father again.'"

The next day at the Farmer's Co-op store, Sato wraps up my fish and says, "So, you had a visitor last night." Nakaseko, the school principal, telephones to express his appreciation for my kind treatment of Ojisan. While I am out walking, longhaired Otani, the town headman, stops to chat and smiles approvingly. "I understand that you like Japanese saké," he says, his white hair fluttering in the wind coming down from Kanayama mountain.

When I first see Kanayama village, densely clustered along the green Sorachi River valley, I am drawn to its serene, pastoral beauty. The reception I receive there is markedly different than in other Japanese towns. I sense no fear or apprehension. I meet with the Rojin Kai, the Elders' Association, whose members, many well into their nineties, line up to shake my hand. I meet with the PTA, its young members are shy but soon get up the courage to try out some English phrases. Intuition tells me that this is the right place.

I propose to the Kanayama Council that I come to their town with my family and equipment, to live and work for one year. I explain that I want to make a documentary film about the community, starting at the school and following the concentric circles that wind from there into the lives of the village families. I explain that I am looking for a partnership rather than "permission." They are astonished. They are alarmed. No foreigners have ever lived here before. What would we eat? How would we live? I assure them that we need no special care, that we can eat what everyone else eats and can live the same way every family in the village lives. Discussions are held, the school principal and the mayor consulted, the Elders Association and the PTA called in for opinions. After the logistical considerations are dealt with, the film project itself is discussed. The idea of being the subject of a film, of having the town, their own town, framed in the distinctive light of a movie screen, becomes intriguing and then flattering.

The town fathers have our best interests at heart. Once their decision is made, their commitment to the project seems unshakable. The old village clinic, abandoned years before when a real hospital was built twenty miles away, is refurbished at considerable expense and given the benevolent name of "International Friendship House." This will be our home for the next year. It is an ideal location, one block from the school and in the middle of everything. Our house will be rent-free. The town will pay for utilities and provide us with a car.

Out of genuine kindness and a particular Japanese solicitude, they want us to be comfortable in the way that foreigners like to be comfortable. Only no one really knows what that way is. It has to be imagined. A combination of materials are assembled for the house: new wood floors and new tatami mats smelling of fresh cut grass; a sit-down flush toilet installed and fitted with a heated seat and musical toilet paper roller that plays "Sakura, Sakura" every time the paper is pulled. An odd assortment of furniture is rented for the year—a long kitchen table, several folding chairs, a black vinyl sofa, a metal desk and two large console televisions. The house takes on a strange ambience, an amalgamation of elegant Japanese simplicity and utilitarian motel room decor.

Every few days, Ojisan returns, always carrying a bottle of saké and a plate of food. In what has become a ritual, he walks into the kitchen, places his hat on the table, pours saké and begins to talk. Soon, though, the ritual changes. He starts coming every day, earlier and earlier, until finally the doorbell rings while I am still in bed. Julie, who has been up since six with our daughter, opens the sliding door to our tatami room and shakes me awake.

"Time for your saké party," she says. "Ojisan is here." It's seven a.m.

He starts bringing friends, elderly farmers and their wives whom he proudly leads across the frontier, into the house, directly to the kitchen where he supervises the laying out of food and the seating arrangements. The visitors politely sip saké and look around, dutifully impressed with Ojisan's new role as international ambassador, their heads bobbing in abbreviated bows whenever our eyes meet, unable to hide their amazement at being in the house of a foreigner.

Above Kanayama, moist, heavy air blown north from the warm Pacific collides with a steady, uncompromising Arctic flow moving south from Siberia. The violent mixing produces turbulence and snow, three feet by December, nine by March. First, a white powdering over the sugar-beet and potato fields, then a steady fall, day after day until Kanayama is a place of monochrome views, its streets a twisting network of white tunnels. On sunny days the town is a cacophony of shovel blades scraping at snow, pushing and pulling it in ever