NARA: Spiritual Permaculture Village Project
and now presenting..........Mayumi Oda--her art, her friends, and her vision.
Above, Mayumi looking up at one of her paintings after the paper framer gave the finishing touches.
Doug Bullock encouraged me to meet his good friend Mayumi on the Big Island before I left for Japan. I think they know each other back from when the Bullocks lived in Hawaii as "feral hippies". She has been a dedicated activist on socio-environmental issues and nuclear abolition, both areas I have been involved in the West Coast.
This past winter I visited her retreat center, farm and home, Ginger Hill, near Kealakekua bay.
The site is exceptionally beautiful and lush with tropical plants, a mandala garden and a tropical food forest designed by Doug. Similar to the Bullocks, she started with very little and has tirelessly developed the land to the delightful refuge that it is today.
Ginger Hill Website: http://gingerhillfarm.com/
Mayumi offers a program she calls "Goddess Training", a spiritual journey through yoga, meditation, healing foods (e.g. taro), organic gardening, coaching, and various other activities to develop a deep connection with the inner-self and the world. She is an extremely generous person, actively promoting peace and sustainability through various channels such as art, Goddess training, activism, etc. It seems like she has an extensive social network of alternative people from Hawaiian sovereignty activists to traditional Japanese crafts people, to people like Paul Hawken and Masanobu Fukuoka.
Mayumi contacted me this winter to visit Morokino, a rural village in Nara prefecture. In fact, I was with her on the way to this village when the big earthquake and tsunami hit on March 11.
Here is part of a letter Mayumi wrote:
Her vision is of a "buddhist utopia" (not necessarily the religion but a practice of mindfulness) designed to support youth from across the world to experience community living espousing the values of peace and sustainability. I've also been hoping to find or create a permaculture community site with a solid mindful living practice for some time now. Both Deer Park Monastery in San Diego and the Bullocks Permaculture Homestead on Orcas have been major influences on my vision.
It was a new experience for me to watch artists nerd out on their trades and finished products. A very stimulating moment of passionate artists sharing their excitements, much like the Bullocks talking about plants and tools.
I think his (the man pictured) trade is called "hyouguya". Most likely a dying trade like many other Japanese arts. His job is to draw out the beauty of the art piece, often calligraphy,
through the use of various fancy decorative papers. As this is his passion, he started to pull out many of these handmade papers and shared his excitement. Some of these papers are actually made of thin silver, gold, and even platinum threads. Extremely intricate and luxurious, and the price per foot was shocking!
The serving of tea and snacks is called omotenashi and is a common hospitality practice. It brings me great joy to be a guest in Japan, and to serve guests with omotenashi.
We visited three different sets of people on this trip and each presented us with hot tea and sweets from their region.
And now we head to Morokino village......
Snow capped ume (prunus mume) flowers greet us at the entrance.
Morokino village rice terraces covered in powdery snow.
The village is enclosed by a dense sugi (Japanese Cedar or Cryptomeria japonica) forest like many parts of Japan. The forest gives off a feeling of isolation from the rest of the world, not unlike the Bullocks Permaculture Homestead on Orcas Island.
Sugi is very beautiful and an awesome resource base as a construction material among other things. It is the national tree of Japan; there are some that are thousands of years old known as yakusugi. I remember visiting a hemp baron's house in Tochigi Prefecture with three "rouka" (hallways/corridors) made of yakusugi boards, each at a value of hundred-million yen (over a million dollars)!
Like many rural villages in Japan, Morokino is challenged with an ageing population and few to no youth. I've heard of shrines and other old structures being deconstructed in some villages because they have become safety hazards, as none of the residents are fit enough to rake the snow off roofs and do yearly structural maintenance.
After cakes, tea snacks, tea, coffee, and a discussion about the future of Morokino Village,
we stopped by the house of a paint brush craftsman. His brushes are specifically designed for different styles of calligraphy, and Mayumi was looking to get one for her upcoming children's book.
He taught us about the various animal hairs he combines to get the ideal mix for the various purposes associated to calligraphy. Its really interesting to explore different peoples' passions and refined crafts. I love it. I also appreciate meeting artists and realising so much common ground between my vision and their lives.
The following day, we visited a dormant farm that is quite close to Nara Station. After driving past a series of terraced rice paddies surrounded by a large sugi forest, we arrived at the scene above.
The property includes a large dilapidated house, tractor shed with a tractor, barn, and a few terraces for gardening. They are looking for people to live and farm it rent free! It is actually not uncommon for cheap or rent free farms in rural areas of Japan as most of the local youth have moved to urban cores for "better opportunities". Farming is out of style in modern Japan, like many places in the world. I think about what Vandana Shiva said,
Work is energy. Two crises of our times are intimately connected — the climate crisis and the unemployment crisis.....To make the energy transition beyond oil, we need to bring people back into the economy, bring human energy back into production, respect physical work, and give it dignity.
My friend Mai, currently attending University of Kyoto, shares similar visions and values with me. I met her on a permaculture farm, Finca Bona Fide, on Isla de Ometepe in Nicaragua. It was a wonderful serendipitous moment as we are both "halfs" (half Japanese half X) of the same age who were on a small island in Nicaragua getting initiated into the world of permaculture.
Mai, my partner Seico, and I are all trying to figure out how to best integrate into Japan where we do not easily blend in, while practicing our values of sustainable living. In some ways, its nice to be treated as an outsider because I think it's easier to be different and not to worry about assimilating. I feel encouraged to be weird and live alternatively. Its much harder to do that when you are expected to be like everybody else.
Permaculture Principle: Embrace and encourage diversity
So, I've been brainstorming the possibility of living in Nara. The Morokino project is very attractive, and the above pictured farm would be a potential site for starting a permaculture homestead/eco-village. Moreover, Nara is a hotspot for natural farming given Kawaguchi lives there and the natural farming free school, Akame juku, is on the border of Nara and Mie.
I will be returning to Japan in two weeks for an entrance interview at the University of Tokyo's Graduate Program in Sustainability Sciences. While I'm in Japan, I plan to strengthen my connection with the Oes in Yamanashi Prefecture and the Morokino Village Project in Nara Prefecture. I'm also interested in exploring the alternative culture and urban permaculture opportunities in Tokyo. And.....I need a job, ideally related to my passions in permaculture and/or group process.
These are some places I hope to visit in the near future:
1. Azumino Permaculture School in Nagano
2. Konohano Family Eco-village in Shizuoka
3. "Miracle Apple" natural farmer Akinori Kimura's orchard in Aomori
4. Shodoshima as a potential homesteading site
5. Yakushima to be awed by the mystical forest with some of the oldest organisms in the world!
6. I heard that there was a vibrant alternative movement in Southern Chiba so that is also something I'd like to investigate.
Please get in touch with me if you'd like to collaborate in some way, some day.