Tuesday, 27 April 2010


That'll teach them for leaving me on the climb

The recent council announcement about being careful about landslides and avalanches seemed a little over the top in these first tentative days of spring, until my exploration of which mountain roads are now clear was halted by this minor inconvenience. Of course each one of those slabs of compacted snow would be enough to break your legs, and all together they would both preserve and slim your figure, in as much as you would be a frozen and flattened corpse, not on my preferred cycling agenda. Still, last time out with the club I was dropped on a hill, and oh what a terrible shame it would have been if the breakaway were passing underneath just as the snow itself broke away. Think of the wasted equipment.

This is the first time I have been turned back by an actual avalanche, and it looked as if the snow plough driver had the same idea when he came back and saw it. I climbed over with my bike, ever the optimist but only a few yards on the other side were clear.

Obviously, I need to invest in one of these:

On the way home I passed our very own mini Matterhorn, Gamou-Dake, from which the panorama used for the page title above was taken on a summer's day, big black butterflies in the air all around on the summit.

Gamou Dake, Aizu, above the Tadami river and route 252


Being picky

Elite SWAT litter picking team (Shall We All Try?)

Try organising a litter picking session in my home town in England and you risk being branded a 'do gooder,' which is a somewhat confusing insult when you think about it. Go on, think about it. Group and community activity is one of the things that suffers in urban life - possibly because anonymity and keeping yourself to yourself is one of the freedoms of being in a city. All being well, the city dweller has their own network, based on work or a shared interest, that creates a virtual village, albeit geographically scattered.

It has its major fairground attractions, but the price of living a door-to-car existence and not knowing your neighbours can also be a kind of brittle loneliness and a disconnectedness from the ground beneath your feet. Who do you know better? People on television, or your neighbours?  You can't ask Brad Pitt to feed the cat while you are away, and Jennifer Aniston is unlikely to attend your birthday barbeque. And that sofa dumped on the corner and the litter blowing around the street? Probably the council will see to it. Probably. Someone else, anyway.

In Kaneyama-machi today was litter-picking day. The area is divided into villages, and the villages into 'hans,' small sections responsible for their own patch. News of this kind travels fast (without the help of the internet) via an information clipboard which is read then handed on to the next house, and a village newsletter. Just to make sure, an announcement system  echoes round the mountains, chiming at 6am, 12 noon, and 9pm, and adds news of festivals, fire, flood and bear sightings, filling in any gaps. There is also a thriving grapevine. When we first arrived last year, I went for a run at lunchtime. When my wife phoned her mum 250km away in Tokyo at 4pm that day, she already knew. Running in the rain is big news, apparently, and anonymity is assuredly not assured. They are installing a fibre-optic high speed internet cable this year, but I'm not sure it will speed things up that much. Old style analogue valley-wide-web-cams have a thousand eyes and five hundred mouths.

At 5.45am everyone gathers at their village hall, then splits off to deal with their patch. At first I thought there couldn't be much to find. It is a small village and everyone here is pretty tidy, but we all managed to pick up enough to fill a bag, mainly with cans and bottles chucked out by passing motorists, the dirty gits. As funny as the contradictory need for both privacy and community is the droll love of seeking out beautiful places, then despoiling them in a casual, trivial, unconscious sort of way. The window winds down, the hand extends, the coffee can arcs outwards, and is forgotten before it hits the ground. Is the countryside the unconscious of the city? Errmmm, excuse me, hello....does this belong to you?

For myself, I am enjoying knowing my neighbours a little better. In our little group were the grandfather of a boy my son plays with, the grandmother from the house behind ours whose granddaughter plays too, the husband of the woman who runs the shop (related to my wife in some complicated way), the mayor's wife (spotted shovelling snow off their high roof in the winter), the woman from across the road (spotted high up a tree hacking at a branch - a theme is developing), my next door neighbour who took me to gather wild vegetables last year, and two ladies it will be much easier to get to know now that I met them doing this. While I am being picky, I will pick this. I can always go to the city to behave badly.


Sunday, 25 April 2010

Melt, can't you?

Rice husks help to melt the snow on a rice field

Nobody understands the weather any more. After one of the snowier winters in recent years, spring was late, and has had several false starts. These were ended by great dumps of the white stuff, sufficient to bring the ploughs out. 

Dazed insects confused by the household heat flew heavily out into the white in search of flowers. 

People were starting to sniff the warmer air behind the clouds, looking out of windows, or standing by allotments with arms folded, appraising the melt. Would they be able to plant any time soon? After months inside, they were itching to be at it, and had to be satisfied with tidying and picking at the edges uncovered by the sun. To help it along, they spread rice husks, ashes, vegetable leaves and peelings on the snow. Anything that is darker will warm more quickly and speed things up. The very keen could not resist breaking up the snow with spades, and even using machines to chop it up and spray it to one side. The growing season is six or eight weeks shorter than elsewhere, and this year it is going to be late starting. But everyone is on the starting blocks, and everything green is ready to leap at the solar signal.



A local mixed onsen by the Tadami river

He staggers stiffly out of the onsen, into the changing room, steam rising from his bent back, puffing and grunting over to the weighing machine. In his eighties, he walks as if his tendons hold him prisoner, bound into a hunched position, legs and arms unable to straighten. His body bears all the marks of a life in the fields, hands and face deep red, body blue-white, belly balanced between narrow ribcage and thighs. Chatting to nobody in particular, he swings round and walks to the bench, swatting himself with his thin towel. "Hot, isn't it?" He begins to dress. He is old enough to wear a cloth tied round his loins, a hfundoshi, of the kind you see in woodcuts from the Edo period. On top of this go a generous pair of woollen shorts.

He sits down on the wooden bench, wafting and swatting, swatting and wafting, grinning now with the sociable relaxation particular to the onsen. It is now, with his shoulders thrown back and his muscles awoken by the swinging of the towel, that his true, ageless physicality begins to ripple beneath his skin. Corded muscles, defined and working beneath plump veins tell the story of every working day and every crop, a thousand blows, a million cuts, ten million steps. People here don't just live a long time, they endure.


Monday, 5 April 2010

Tokyo homeless

Tokyo, not quite so cool when you are unemployed

That most of the men sleeping rough in Tokyo's streets and parks were born in beautiful country areas of Japan, like Aizu, somehow makes it more painful. They had to leave home because there were too many children to feed in the post-war years of struggle, there was no prospect of work locally, and farming was in any case in decline. Now after years of hard work in the construction industry and other areas of temporary and insecure employment, they are too old or ill to compete in the recession-shrunk labour market. With a dire lack of social housing and a draconian rented sector it is not hard to fall off the housing ladder here - and the bottom rungs are broken. Large deposits are required, and a guarantor, both a tough ask for people with no savings or family support. The vulnerably housed are also preyed on by various scamming businesses which turn a profit and increase insecurity and poverty.

Everyone is busy or on a night out - but you will be out all night
Younger people are appearing in the parks at feeding stations in greater numbers too, their 'bed' of choice often being a chair in an all night internet cafe. Young people in the countryside still suffer from 'The Tokyo illusion,' according to Tsuyoshi Inaba. He is a founder member of Shinjuku Renrakukai, Japan's first homeless support group, and chairs Moyai, an NPO that tries to provide and campaign for routes back into accommodation and a semblance of ordinary life. He explained their unrealistic expectations. 'We get lots of calls from young people in the countryside. They are not getting on with their family, so they say they are thinking of coming to Tokyo to work. We tell them not to come, as there is very little work here, and they might have to sleep rough.'

How about here? There is enough space, but no cover and it might rain

I joined the homeless patrol on a cold night in Shinjuku last week, and the changes over the ten years since I first did so were obvious, with a wider age range, fewer shelters allowed in the parks, and more people bedding down wherever they could on the pavement and under bridges with nothing more than cardboard boxes, if that. Although campaigners have succeeded in persuading the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to provide more temporary apartments in return for negotiating a reduction in people living in the parks, it isn't enough. The recession has made it worse, and NGO's like Moyai are under severe pressure from the numbers asking form help.

Maybe here? Too near the station, the police won' t like it

After 400 people had been fed, three teams assembled to check the whole Shinjuku area. They consisted of homeless and ex homeless people, volunteers and group members. They count the numbers sleeping rough, and speak to everyone to make sure they know how to ask for further assistance, to identify people who might need medical treatment, and to make the social connections that make life on the street more bearable.

Ok, this is under a bridge - not too many people

I was angry all over again at the gulf between the often negative perception of homeless people in Japan and the reality. This was ironically underlined by one of the men sleeping rough with a mate in a quiet side street. "When I was working building the subways I used to look down on the homeless and fight them."

I was particularly impressed with a man standing in a compound just big enough to lie down in, a futon walled with cardboard against the wind . Next to him was a man lying on the bare pavement, tightly swaddled like an Egyptian mummy from head to foot, even his face eerily covered. "I am OK," said the first man, "I have  a shelter, but I am really worried about this man next to me - he doesn't have anything."

This is it for the night. Move on in the morning if you are left alone that long

This need to care for others is apparently a deeply ingrained part of our self-hood. It is abundant in country areas like Aizu and it is surprisingly intact on the streets here. Some men were simply sitting down on benches. You can't lie on them as the authorities have kindly bolted dividers on any horizontal surface. One man on his own on a park bench was grinning broadly in the dark. A thin mewling cry went up, and between his big hands was cradled a new-born kitten. He was feeding it with milk from a straw. Others were in a blanket-covered box, and he reached deep into his coat and brought another out from his armpit, then more from pockets. They had been abandoned in the park, and their new parent, abandoned himself, was going to see to it that they lived. He didn't need anything from us just then, and we left him, still smiling.

Another dash of incongruous white moved in the darkened park: a white rabbit. Abandoned three years ago, it has survived against the odds surrounded by hungry people. Inaba-san said "They often say that they want to eat it, but no-one ever does." Well, perhaps there is nothing so strange about that - it certainly isn't as strange as one of the richest countries in the world letting its young and old people down so badly.

Visit Moyai's English homepage
Have a look at my portraits of Japanese homeless people:
in English, or in Japanese