Words & Photos by PRIYA MU
2020, Late July Remote mountain village in Japan
It had been three weeks since I moved to Yamagata from Tokyo for five months of fieldwork. The first two weeks went away in self-isolation. I was hoping to drive and look around the area during the third week, but my plans were put on hold by the heavy rain forecast. I was warned by the villagers to stock up, as the roads usually ended up blocked due to landslides, and the closest supermarket was a good 45-minute drive down the hill. The villagers had been kind enough to stop by and check up on me over the weeks. Not sure if they were on a quest to make me hate cucumbers, but every time they came by, they brought with them a bag full of cucumbers. I managed to get my grocery shopping done before the rains got heavier and stuffed them in my fridge, along with the overflowing mountain of cucumbers.
There was no Internet connection. Pocket Wi- Fi doesn’t work there and a LAN connection could take months to get set up. My only access to the outside world was a TV, and whatever that was left of my 5GB monthly mobile data. The TV had NHK and some local channels. It was a revelation for me to learn that one Asadora episode was re-telecasted three times in the same day. Asadora is a 15-minute-per-day serial TV novel that usually goes on for about 6 months. It used to be a year. For someone who was a proud child of the binge-watching era, the idea of having to wait 24-hours to watch a 15-minute episode was mind-blowing.
Oh yes, I also had a radio. The staff at the town hall had lent it to me when I moved in. I was supposed to keep it on for emergency announcements. They even gave me some batteries; they must have guessed I was never going to buy them, and they were right. I couldn’t be bothered to learn how to use it, plus I had my emergency apps on my phone. Not that I trust those apps, but I felt that the radio wasn’t going to do any better.
The rain started to get heavier over the days and I kept a check on the river right across the road from my house to see if I should turn on that radio. The river never screamed emergency, so I never turned it on. More than the rain, it was the lack of Internet that felt like the end of the world to me. Luckily I had some anime on my hard disk that served as my lifeline. I decided to re-watch Mushishi for some reason. It wasn’t one of my favorites at that time, but watching it from a house tucked away in a mountain with constant rain and valley fog, I fell in love with every frame of it. More than anything else, the anime helped prepare my heart for the multi-legged visitors who frequented my house.
The rain stopped after a few days and I could finally go to the local village hall, where I could use the high-speed unlimited internet that was hardly given the reverence it deserved. The staff were kind enough to give me a designated space in their office but I mostly worked from home, unless I had to do video calls or use the Internet for other work purposes. And of course, to stock up on my Netflix downloads that got me through the weekends.
I had just finished that day’s work, downloaded “seventy-seven cool cucumber recipes” and was about to leave, when the lady who was working there asked me if I was free. She was about to go around the village to check for rain damage and asked me if I was interested in joining her. I took her delightful offer and went on the free guided tour.
We started from the central areas – she showed me the homes of people she knew I had met previously, and also the homes of people who had moved in from outside. They celebrated the people who immigrated from other places, as there were only around 200 people left in the village. I used to wonder why people moved to such remote places when they could have it easy in a city or a town, but being there, especially during a time when it was hard to breathe in the cities across the world that were under lockdown, I could understand it a little bit more. Though village life seemed to be filled mostly with mundane repetitions of the previous day, there was, at the same time, a sense of a promise that they would still get to do the same things the next day.
We had covered all of the districts except for one. It was one of those districts that would soon be added to the list of disappeared districts as it had just one household remaining. Off the main road, we had to drive along a smaller road for about 5 kilometers that led exclusively to that one house. There was an onsen a further 10 kilometers into the mountains that was shut down several years back. Yamagata Prefecture has very heavy snowfall that can reach over 3 meters high, and the road workers having to plow the snow every day for the 5 kilometers stretch just to provide access to that one house was no ordinary feat.
We kept driving, slowing down at every small bridge as they were all pretty old. Abandoned houses and abandoned graves every few hundred meters added character to the road that ran alongside a river. There were little stone houses that I had never seen before and asked the lady what they were – she said they were shrines.
Slowly our destination came into sight. It was an old Japanese house, where an aged couple in their nineties was living. All their children had moved out to cities near and far but “comfort” was not a convincing enough reason for them to leave. They couldn’t drive far, so once a week their son would come in and stock up food and other supplies. The village medical center arranged pick-up and drop-off services for their health check-ups when needed. God bless the health service people!
The lady stepped out to check how the couple was doing and ask if everything was okay. I decided to stay back in the car, as she said it wouldn’t take long. As she walked closer to the house, an elderly woman peeped out curiously to find out who the rare visitor was. For a while I watched them talk, but soon switched my gaze to the surroundings, as I could hardly hear anything. With broken roof tiles and torn shoji paper, the house, probably older than its owners, needed a lot of fixing. But for some strange reason, it looked complete. The flowers that probably grew on their own, and the forest in their backyard, which seemed endless, added more beauty to the house. It took me a while to realize that it was the first time I’d ever seen wild lavenders. I could see hints of their lifestyle in the cute green truck (kei-truck) and in all other things that were around. It was like everything had a soul of its own.
The lady returned, told me they were “genki (doing great!)”, and started the car so we could get back. The old lady was still peeping out, watching us leave. It was too far for my zoom lens to clearly read the expressions on her face, which added to the mystery and my curiosity about what it meant to be living there in your nineties. As I watched the house drift away in the rearview mirror, I had a thought: perhaps this is what they mean when they say “Furusato”, a word in Japanese which translates to “hometown” in a literal context, but is often read in every other context as, “Home of the Heart”....
And something told me, that in the months ahead, I would be learning a lot more than just seventy-seven cool cucumber recipes.
Priya Mu is a postgraduate student in the Information, Technology, and Society in Asia (ITASIA) program.
THE KOMABA TIMES ISSUE 11, APRIL 2022