Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A little over a month ago, or less than a week before the earthquake it was a beautiful afternoon so we drove out to the other side of Fuji to spend an interesting Sunday afternoon in a traditional Japanese restaurant Kominka.

My wife & Keiko had spent the previous afternoon there, talking with the elderly but very energetic owner - who'd been keen to share his experiences with renewing an old building. He'd restored this little old house in mostly traditional style, with some charming results.

We had a traditional Oodong noodle lunch and as the restaurant closed he came to sit with us and talk. The conversation led into traditional Japanese life and what he remembered as a child, which I couldn't help but find fascinating:

He described life during shortages of food & fuel, etc. In those days in this very village that was now pretty much deserted life had thrived. Small open houses built close to one another had been common in the village and each family knew it's neighbours intimately.
The father would be home from work early to eat with his family and they'd all go to bed at the same time, sleeping in the same room with futons lined next to one another. Because everybody lived so close, people had to be considerate of their neighbour as well as those in his family. The community spirit was strong. People would share their produce from the food they grew & they were humble, but it was a proper way to live. Marriage was usually arranged by the parents to someone they thought the best for their son or daughter. This kind of Japanese lifestyle existed for hundreds of years and it's not hard to realise this history was the cause of Japanese people's ingrained humility, considerate attitude and honesty in general today, especially amongst people in their 70's or even older.

He talked about today's young Japanese generations, who to him seem to have lost much of that tradition. Most young people choose to move to the larger cities for work and end up being in a much lonlier place as a result. Neighbours are replaced with talk shows on TV and people rarely if ever interact when out and about in city roads. Their best chance of meeting friends is through work.

It's as if what we call progress is actually going backwards as people are more stressed, less happy and in modern society often feel loneliness and a lack of sense of purpose. I couldn't help but agree that consideration of others we live near as part of a community is a lot healthier than caring primarily for oneself. Are today's modernised ways really progress?

Here's an interesting video of why today's two parent working families are much more likely to fail. Although it compares what families did in the 1970's to now, it seems traditional ways had better answers to cope with inevitable difficulties than modern society & dare I say it, western influences: The coming collapse of the middle class.

In the last few weeks I was remembering what he'd said whilst observing so much change in Japan from tsunami & earthquake damage with Fukushima now a main priority to get completely under control.

After the 2nd world war there was no food in Japan, so people then made it by working within communities thereby making a unified country to rebuild whilst sacrificing what they had to. Their collective efforts & resultant strength made Japan become truly great within a short space of time as a result. These ancestors knew life’s not about helping ourselves first & foremost – it's about grace to one another. Influence by example can be the greatest way of effecting change.

Watching & reading about progress in the North of Japan, I've been encouraged to notice these values remain within the Japanese from hundreds of years of Japanese civilisation. It was heartening to see it so evident in the face of life changing losses. In these food & fuel shortages there were no squabbles or fighting when supplies were short, even the worst hit areas in the North. Instead people have found kindness with food left on their doorsteps overnight from neighbours & help in rebuilding and picking themselves up. Many have helped one another despite enduring unimaginable grief & losses themselves. Who can but admire such attitude.

Compare with what happened in Japan when there were shortages to the States with Katrina or what would happen in the UK given similar circumstances of no supply & desperate people.

In difficult times we can expect the Japanese to remain humble, helpful and self-disciplined, not riot, fight and climb over one another to be first. It’s response like this that the news should be reporting on and showing examples of, not scaremongering in order to sell news. If anything this low quality of reporting shows the state of today's media. Although it's meant to be there to inform us of the truth it doesn't always show an unbiassed opinion.
Days before completing we weren't sure, so Faith, our close friend suggested I prayed to ask God if it was the right thing to do. As I cruised the bike home on an empty highway one cold night I said a little prayer. The response I got was strong and immediate - a resounding "Yes" with encouragement. I smiled to myself, knowing we were safe and opened up the throttle in celebration. It was as if God was riding on my shoulders that evening.

There’s a lot of reasons for our buying this house & land. Luxury living isn’t the vision, although it’ll make a very nice place when it's done.

From what we plan to achieve, we hope it'll inspire others to do similar things and in a modern way, return to traditional values of growing natural foods (using modern permaculture – which is much less work intensive), help support a community and return to healthy habits and avoid the traps of eating supermarket foods that increasingly have growth hormones, antibiotics & genetic modification – since these would be a possible route to poor health in later years. Being aware of the main dangers, it would seem stupid not to do something… whilst we still can.

On 30th March we went to a small Sumitomo bank in Sakura town, Chiba and met the people involved with this transaction, taking care to ask all the questions I could think of that might be important. Within just over an hour the purchase had been completed.
It was a relief as finally the uncertainty ended and the action could begin.

First up is the task of rebuilding the parts of the interior which need improvement and restoration. Japan's not an easy place to update old houses and things don't happen as smoothly as they might in other countries - but our woodworking professional friends Yuki & Arnie both made what turned out to be excellent suggestions:

Arnie suggested:

My wife & I went there and were surprised at the variety of untreated flooring wood available. She quickly pointed out her dislike for pine with knots in and I was a bit shocked to see the price of premium quality pine. About 3 times the price of the cheaper stuff with knots in!

Yuki suggested:

Ah-ha! I researched and narrowed down our choice of woods to Ash, Maple and Oak. Prices didn't seem a lot higher for these than what Royal home centre were charging for similar sized pine. Result!

So we made an appointment and the following morning just a week ago today - went to the lumber yard in Chiba. We looked at the options including other flooring they suggested, but ended up choosing 105 m2 of solid oak tongue & groove floor boards - unfinished, so we could stain & varnish after fitting. We needed 1.5cm thick plywood, but were told this was in short supply since the majority of Japan's plywood stock was finding itself going North to help build temporary housing and they didn't know when they'd be able to supply more.
Whilst of course we would agree that's a priority of course - we need plywood for underboard if we're going to get this work completed...They suggested we buy some old C grade flooring and lay it underneath - but I wasn't convinced it would give us the strength we needed.

"Just the oak then please..."

I hadn't expected to be able to negotiate on pricing, but my wife asked politely and they gave way to a good deal, on the proviso we'd collect the wood ourselves from a warehouse in Ichikawa the following week.

Our next stop was the Royal home centre in Chiba-Kita, where we were able to order 135m2 of 1.5cm plywood. The storeman suggested we needed 60 sheets based on rough sizing from tatami sizes but I'd already calculated based on actual measurements & added 10% extra for offcuts, etc. so more was ordered. We left an order and were told it would be in the following week, but were asked to please collect it without delay - as plywood was in short supply and if it wasn't available for sale, but customers saw the stock pile they might be annoyed. Plywood really is hard to get right now it seems.

So yesterday I woke up at 6.00am. 45 minutes later I was on the bike, riding to Chiba where I'd meet Dai Chan to go together & rent a 2 ton long bed truck. By 9.30 we were at the warehouse having 64 boxes of oak flooring boards forklifted on, before stopping at the home centre to have all the plywood loaded. As we still had a little space to spare, we bought scaffolding equipment too.

In the meantime Arnie and his son Shinobu had been working since 7.30am Monday morning taking down ceilings, walls, removing old tatami mats (& saving the best ones for re-coveriung and use upstairs) and generally doing terrible work!

Spot the man on top of the ladder covered in black dust from head to toe, removing ceiling boards...

As we reversed into the drive Arnie came out covered from head to toe in black dust, which had accumulated over a long time from the kotatsu fires that used to burn in the house. A mark of a man not afraid of good hard labour as a means to get to the end result envisioned.

It was beautiful to see the big wooden beams exposed which I'd known were there from seeing the large upstairs room. What a serious roof!

They'd found newspaper that was 25 years old under the Tatami mats.

Between 4 of us, unloading the truck was fast work.

After discussing aspects of the build with Arnie, as this was his first time helping his father work on a house I asked Shinobu if he could envision the end result. He couldn't. I'm sure he's going to enjoy the results of his labours as transformation takes place, ha!

I spent some time with Dai Chan showing him the land and telling him our plans.
The following 2 pictures were taken in the chestnut orchard behind our forest.

The more people we show the place to, the more I'm realising that without experience in building / re-forming of houses - most can't see the potential of what we have in mind. Even my wife can't see it. Fortunately she has blind faith and trusts my judgement. Me, I've no doubt she's going to love the results of this work.

Shinobu takes down earth & bamboo walls!

27 bags of straw, dust & soot on the floors.

At first I'd wanted my wife to play a very active part in the designing of the interior transformations, but as she can't envision the end result, it's difficult for her. So we've agreed I'll work out the building & alterations and together we can choose furniture and decoration together later.

The garden's blooming beautiful! Colours are beginning to show as blossoms of spring come out and flowers show. Cherry blossom trees that were seemingly dormant have become alive with petals and bumble bees are flying around collecting pollen and birds singing. The thought that this beautiful garden is only the beginning is exciting. Just walking around it is already relaxing.

I want to start learning what all these plants are called in the garden.. both Japanese and in English.

Have been researching lighting design (The Lighting Bible by Lucy Martin is an excellent guide with tons of colour pictures!) and have nearly finished making plans for where we'll put electrical wiring as walls and flooring are laid. Will update plans for lighting soon and tell where we get the stuff from... Having looked at the stuff in home centres and not been too impressed with quality or price, I think we may be importing electrical components from the States soon...