I was lugging these heavy old tatami mats across the pig and goat pen, to make a path over the earthen space in front of the chicken enclosure. After all, as my host Kaz said ‘after a few years, tatami will return to the land’. Suddenly, I started to think about how people use, and think about, the land beneath our feet.
This kind of philosophy of taking and giving back to the soil is essential for rural communities to survive and prosper. However, like much of the developed world, urban Japan has a complex, inconsistent and often remote relationship with the world beyond the city limits. Often, it’s easier just to forget it exists, because it raises questions which are difficult to answer. Me too (guilty as charged)- I’m very much in the process of learning about the land. Like most urbanites, it’s something I don’t concern myself with much, but definitely should. Anyway, attaching my ‘L’ plate, here’s a few observations from my time in Yufuin.
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First if not foremost, the Japanese countryside is often staggeringly beautiful. Yufuin is a case in point. The city is surrounded on most sides by low hills which blur into the distance. To the north-east is the only truly towering peak, Yufudake, which I’ve seen clothed in all colours from gold to grey to a deep, earthy maroon in the face of sunset. I climbed Yufudake, and it’s a tough hike, with steep rocky outcrops to scramble up. The views are intense and amazing, so it’s well worth it.
Even now, when much of the rice harvest is cut and hung up on metal frames, the fields glow yellow, or paler pea green with newly-planted saplings. Last time I was walking through the fields, a convoy of red and orange harvesters grazed on the fields, churning up rice. The burning times have started too- you’ll often see plumes of smoke rising from the fields. I don’t know exactly what they’re burning, but something is happening to prepare the land for next season.
Compared to the British countryside, there are few farm animals in Japan. In Yufuin, there are a few horses (possibly to feed the horse meat enthusiasts of Kumamoto), and a coterie of chickens here and there. But broadly speaking, flat land is at a premium in Japan, where 70% of the terrain is mountainous. As a result, nearly all the flat land is used for housing or arable farming. So the thin valleys just contain stunning patchworks of rice fields, and the animals are sidelined to the hills. Even here, there are few farmed animals, although there are plenty of wild mammals. In the 19th century, ordinary Japanese people only consumed meat on special occasions, but these days they import it en masse, from Australia, China and elsewhere.
The Incredible Shrinking Village
But this earthly paradise doesn’t have many inhabitants. My workaway host treads an unusual path, as a man who came out to Oita Prefecture1 in his twenties to establish a business. Most people leave the countryside when they’re young, and don’t come back. Even in Yufuin’s Yufu District, which has a thriving tourism industry, 33.4% of the population is over 65, and that figure is likely to grow2. The rural population of Japan is already one of the lowest by percentage in the world, and it’s predicted to drop by another 17% between 2018 and 2030. One recent study predicted that 896 towns and villages will simply be abandoned, unsustainable by 2040. Thousands of schools have closed across Japan since 2002, mostly in rural areas.
This social phenomenon has some unexpected knock-on effects. I vividly remember an older student telling me about his 93-year-old mother, her small mountain town, and its battle against wild boars which invade the fields and tear up the verges. It turns out that this problem is exacerbated by lack of manpower to protect and repair the fields. Bears, too, are moving into abandoned agricultural land in the north of Japan, and sometimes attacking people in close proximity. I don’t think the rewilding of some farmed land is a bad thing, but it needs to be managed carefully to protect people. Out in the countryside, there’s not always the labour presence to carry out these ambitious projects.
Yufuin isn’t exactly a typical countryside town, though. Because of its buzzing onsen scene, it got a ton of government investment, which helped give rise to art galleries and museums. The small local lake is a well-loved beauty spot, and the central street is awash with tourists. There would be even more, if the government wasn’t having one of its periodic spats with Korea, this time over war reparations. They come and go, and places like Yufuin suffer economically, and nobody learns anything. Still, Yufuin likely has a comfortable future ahead of it, growing rice, bathing in hot springs and taking life slowly. It’s not the life for me, but it’s a good life.
The Wreckage of Us
Yufuin is a sustainable community in the sense that its population shows no signs of collapse. But there are still long-term problems in need of urgent solutions.
This is what the sea brings up at Beppu. A month after the holiday season finished, I imagine nobody’s scouring the beach too carefully, but this stuff has to be in the ocean for it to wash up on these shores. And this is happening all over the country- I vividly remember my shock the first time I saw the grubby beaches at Miyajima, supposedly one of the country’s prides. A student of mine suggested that the intense typhoons of the summer were partly responsible, but the fact remains that the Setouchi Sea has a plastic problem. Meanwhile, Japan and the USA were the only countries in the G7 that refused to sign up to the Ocean Plastics Charter, promising to collect and recycle all plastics by 2030.
You might be forgiven for thinking this is an urban problem. You know, the throwaway culture of people living in apartments, disconnected from the land, buying junk they don’t need and can’t use because of their busy lives. However, the countryside isn’t so innocent on this front. Where I was staying, there was no recycling collection service. A local business offered recycling of glass, cans and plastic bottles, but to the best of my knowledge there was no comparable service for other plastics, so a huge amount of recyclable food packaging just gets thrown away into landfill (or perhaps ends up in the oceans, somehow or other). It made me really uncomfortable, watching it pile up- but you try shopping in a small rural town without gradually building up a mountain of plastic packaging. Add that to all the single-use plastic which still exists, and you have a shrink-wrapped crisis in your hands.
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It’s been an interesting couple of weeks. I learnt to fold obi (sashes for traditional dress) and to use a strimmer. I’ve carried chickens to their coop and walked a goat along the river. But I’m still not sure if I’m made for the countryside, really. I’ll get more of a chance to explore the point next week, when I head to Nakatosa in the outlands of Kochi Prefecture, to work at a local market and in another guesthouse. In the meantime, I just got back to Hiroshima again, and am busy doing some life admin. I’ll probably post something early next week, but we’ll see how things shake out.
‘Til next time,
From Your Correspondent in Japan
1- the prefecture which contains Yufuin and Beppu, and the onsen capital of Japan.
2- I want it known that I didn’t look up this statistic, I sourced the demographic figures and did the goddamn maths. Also, there are 32 centenarians in Yufu. Well done, all of you.