I have never written about my long, deep love affair with Japan. The place that stole a little piece of my heart many years ago…
I was 15 the first time I went to Japan. I had been studying Japanese in high school and was offered to do a six week exchange program. It was arranged that I would stay with a host family in a little town called Heguri, not far from Nara. Not that that meant anything to me at the time! I was also told that my host family consisted of two host sisters, Noriko and Yukiko, host Mum, Machiko, and Dad, Toshio.. These four people welcomed me into their home and their hearts. My Japanese family became my family and because of them I feel in love with the extraordinary people, the rich culture, the delicious food. I fell in love with Japan.
When I was four years old I started dance classes. Dance became my life. I had lessons several times a week from primary school age and as the years went past, was regularly performing and competing with my dance studio up until my final years of high school. After finishing high school I auditioned with a international dance company that took dance troupes overseas. I was fortunate enough to do two contracts in Japan. It was such an incredible time. I was performing each night and during the day I would be explore the local towns, take Japanese lessons, and sometimes work in the hotel cafe. It really felt like a home away from home. A place where I felt so deeply connected to the people and their beautiful way of life. My love deepened.
Twenty years passed until I would return to Japan. This time I took my Benji, for his 40th birthday. He had never been to Japan and I wanted to show him the Japan that I remembered. The Japan I loved. I wanted him to see the amazing cities and the tiny onsen towns, I wanted him to meet the kind, considerate, fascinating people. We spent a few nights in Tokyo, Kyoto, one of my favourite towns, Kinosaki Onsen, and then the absolute highlight was going back to Heguri and spending a couple of nights with my host family!!
I can’t tell you what it meant to see them again and for my Benji to meet them.
It was everything.
Benji fell in love with Japan that trip. I asked him yesterday if there was one thing that stole his heart and he said, ‘ it wasn’t one thing, it was all the little things. All those little things combined make Japan Japan’.
I wholeheartedly agree.
So when Benji read the article about Japan’s housing crisis and the drastic decline in the population it deeply concerned us. Is there something that we could do? Perhaps by buying an Akiya we could restore life back into an old home and save a little piece of Japanese history. Could we find a way to help rebuild these rural communities that are being left and forgotten? Benji has worked with small rural towns here in Australia that are struggling with diminishing population. Maybe together we could a find way to help….
The homes we saw were so beautiful. So beautiful. Some were over 100 years old. Most were farmer’s homes.
The craftsmanship was exquisite. There are no screws or nails used in most these traditional homes so you can imagine the detail and structural precision. There were massive exposed wooden beams spanning rooms, shoji screens made with bamboo and rice paper, tatami mats that smelt of rice straw, a sunken hearth that reminded me of how heating and cooking was traditionally done and hand painted doors of typical traditional scenes that I stood drinking in, trying to take in all the intricate details. As I walked around these homes, taking in the beauty of all these gorgeous features, I was also confronted with the sad reality that not only were the physical structures of these buildings being left to decay but a significant part of a person’s life. Someone’s home.
Some of these homes were still filled with the owners belongings. Completely left as if he or she would be returning later in the day. Bowls on the tables. Slippers at the entrance. Family photos hanging on the walls.
It was devastating to see not just a house, but a person’s home being completely abandoned.
I would have loved to have bought all the Akiyas we saw. I wanted to save them all. I wanted to bring light, warmth, laughter and memories into these homes. I wanted to do this for the previous owners and for my Japan.
We didn’t buy one this trip. Some of the houses were beyond repair or required a lot of money to repair.
Some of the houses were situated in places with extremely difficult access or on a busy road. Also, the prefecture we decided to focus on, Nagano, gets a substantial amount of snow during winter and the reality of that became obvious when we were there in Spring as it was still very, very cold. We could still see the dampness on the houses from the snow, which had caused a lot of rot. There was no insulation in the homes and very little heating which would again require a lot of work and expense. As much as I wanted to buy one of those beautiful homes I also feel a deep sense of responsibility to make sure we buy the right one…sure it will be wonderful to have a home in Japan but for us it is so much more than that…
Love Tash xxx
P..S. We are heading back to Japan soon as we can and explore further south where it is warmer…