How I went from hiking to owning a vegetable plot.
I'm walking up the familiar path to the top of my local mountain, Tsuneyama. But this time, I'm wearing a summer dress. I look out of place, a bright yellow spot amidst the mosquitoes, the spiderwebs, the mushrooms coming up from last night's rain, the mud dug up by the wild boars.
A hundred years ago, I might have been more at home. I saw an old photo of a poster in an informational pamphlet at the library that had an illustration of this mountain showing people going up in down in their kimono to enjoy the cherry blossoms. Young men drawn as tiny stick figures pulled rickshaws where people could take a comfortable ride in the open air. There were those old buggy cars putting up and down, and a steam train bringing passengers to the shore below, where shops were waiting to supply them with their picnic before they made their way to the top. When I saw that poster, I decided I wanted to see it in real life.
A long time ago someone name Mr. Ono decided to build a path to the top of this mountain for the pleasure of the people. He wasn't a politician and he didn't have money to lend, but he gathered together enough volunteers and he created a way for people to enjoy nature for the simple pleasure of it. In a country where most people were concerned with the daily ups and downs of farm life, the idea of hiking for fun, instead of for logging or foraging, seems almost like a waste of time. But there were people who did it. I think Mr. Ono might have been a lot like me. He had ambition, and passion, and he managed to create rituals that lasted beyond his lifetime.
One of the rituals was designing a dance to honor our local fallen hero, Princess Tsuruhime, who donned her husbands armor and challenged his killer to a duel on the top of this mountain, with 30 female warriors backing her up. A musician wrote a song for the dance and someone came up with lyrics. Each year a festival is held, and all the local people living at the base of Tsuneyama are expected to participate. Think of that: you take a beautiful location, design a festival for it, and after a few years it takes a life of it's own. Shops sprout up. The word is spread. A community forms.
The original organization in charge of the mountain is now down to about 8 people. I found this group one day while I was out hiking, and immediately decided to find a way to weasel my way in. (Becoming part of other people's business is one of my pastimes) Through a few chance meetings and lucky timing, I've been able to tentatively join this one. I don't remember everyone's names yet, but there's the guy who also came from Kobe, the history guy, and the other Mr. Ono, the grandson of the original Mr. Ono.
"Ask Mr. Ono about the poster," said the history guy. "He probably has a copy in his house."
My conspicuous trek up the mountain on the day of the festival doesn't go unnoticed. A car passes by filled with dancers in their traditional indigo kimono. They wave at me. A second car slows down and stops. "Need a ride?" a man in his 50s asks. I'm faced with a dilemma, do I give up a really nice hike, today's exercise, and jump in a car with a stranger, as my mother has always told me not to do? Or do I continue with my original plan. The choice is obvious. I hop in to the passenger seat. It turns out this guy is some kind of politician, and his kids go to the same school as my friend's kids. Whenever people meet me, they always find some kind of roundabout way to make it feel like we're in the same social circle.
At the top of the mountain I find a spot to stand near the history guy, who tells me about how researchers at his university put together all the artifacts that made up the library display about Tsuneyama. When Mr. Ono shows up, I try to find a way to bring up the poster that I saw. Does he have the real 100 year old print, or a copy? I can't find a way to bring it up.
The dance begins. The steps are easy so some kids join as well. One man sings while another plays the drum. The singer bows out and a flutist takes his place. The song changes. A woman sings and the first singer takes the role of the drum beater. As much as I try to hear the words, I can't understand them at all.
At the end of the dance, the politician gives a speech and also thanks our group for cleaning up the area so that everyone could have a pleasant time on the mountain without having to dance amidst weeds and bamboo shoots. He asks how long it took us and the man next to him modestly answers, "Three days." Actually it was three months. Three full days were spent on the mountain, one each month, and in the meantime we gathered materials, set up an electric fence to protect the graves from wild boars, and I did my part on my days off to keep the mountain clean. Then there was the test run, to make sure the cars could get up with the dancers and set up the speakers and drum. The last day of work, I left my camera in Mr. Ono's car.
It's really weird calling someone in a foreign language that you barely know for such a stupid reason. But he came to my house the next day to drop it off. "Actually I'm on my way to my vegetable plot. I haven't touched it since I planted stuff there. Did you want to come along and see if there's anything worth picking?"
Another opportunity to be driven off to the middle of nowhere by a stranger? YES! I grabbed a pair of gloves and a hat, and off we went. It's actually a 2 minute walk from my house. The vegetable plot has an amazing view. Amidst the tall weeds we found potatoes, yams, pumpkin, cucumbers, and basil. I left with a huge box of vegetables, but we weren't done picking everything. I asked if he wanted me to help with weeding the garden. Then we talked about other ways I could help.
In the end, we decided that I'd take care of it, and he'd show me how to plant things, and we could both eat the vegetables. I was introduced to the neighbors, so now it's official. I sorta co-own a vegetable plot. I made a list of things I want to grow, and Mr. Ono is going to help me do it!
The local news agency covered our little festival and Yossi's mom cut out the article for me. I made a friend at the festival who lives literally a 2 minute walk away, so now I feel safe that if our area floods or a drop my keys the gutter when Yossi's away, I'll always have someone to run to.
I made some pumpkin scones with the pumpkin from Ono's garden, and I decided to take them over to his house. I'd see the place before.. It's a big white wall surrounding who knows what. I had no idea what might be on the other side, but I could see some tiled roofs. By chance, his sister was there to help his 94 year old mother to go to the rehab center that day, so they let me come inside and have some tea.
Passing through the front gates was like traveling back in time. The house is just the way it was 100 years ago, with only a few modifications, like electrical outlets, a modern kitchen, and a couple of hand rails for the mother so she doesn't have to worry about slipping when she goes out in the garden.
One thing I noticed immediately was the size of the entrance area. Most entrances of Japanese houses give you barely enough room to take off your shoes. This one was big enough to let in a horse. It turns out that back in the day, you needed all that space to store your weapons and armor. It was standard for a while, even after that era, for a respectable home to have a large entrance. The entrance then led in to the kitchen, which was on the ground level, so that you didn't have to take off your shoes and the floor could be dirtied with soot, spillage, and then cleaned with water, unlike the tatami rooms in the living area. People sat around a hearth in the middle of the kitchen that let smoke in to the room. Food was stored in the attic above, and the smoke from the hearth kept the area sterile.
Now they've built a modern kitchen over that whole area, walled it up, and stuck in an air conditioner. But the hearth is still there, under the floorboards.
Stepping up in to the tatami room, my eyes shoot to the window through which I can see a very traditional Japanese garden. There is a wooden walkway bordering the house called a "nurien" because it would get wet in the rain, which was seen as connecting people with nature. A cat crosses my path and then lays down in the dappled sunlight. I notice that further down the nurien are a few more structures. I was a bit surprised. In the US, a traditional house would simply be built bigger, with more floors, but it seems in Japan the houses just have more and more buildings added on to the property without them necessarily being together. And so there is a very nice bedroom entirely separate from the rest of the house, and servants quarters, a traditionally styled storehouse with the original tiles, and the gardening house: all separate, all connected by this outside walkway.
That is so cool!
They even have a well. Their own well, with water still at the bottom, which they don't really use anymore.
Coming back in to the house, Mr. Ono was excited that I was so excited, and said he'd go get some old photographs to show me. In the meantime, his sister sat me down in the room facing the garden with some tea. I turned my head and guess what I saw propped against the wall - That Poster.
I just stopped and stared. There it was. That treasure I'd been pining to see. A 100 year old color print of the area I now live in, an appeal to the local people to enjoy the mountain and enjoy nature. I could see all the little stick people with their parasols, their rickshaws, their buggy cars, their steam boats, the tea houses that no longer stand there, the beach that no longer is in front of my house. . .
And I started gushing about it. I told Mr. Ono about how I'd seen a tiny picture of it in a brochure in the library, and how I'd been wanting to see this poster for so long. Mr. Ono was touched and took the poster to our sitting table. His mother told us history while we flipped through ancient photographs. Portraits of their ancestors hung on the walls, and we referenced them while talking about the relationship between modern times, and recent history. But I couldn't stay forever. I had to get to work at some point, and the morning of discovery had to end.
Mr. Ono told me not to worry, that I'm free to come over at any time, and that the poster is all mine.
Did I hear you right, sir?
Apparently so. . .
The poster is mine.
It's in my house now.
I'm still reeling a bit every time I look at it.