Raised in the tumult of Japan’s industrial powerhouse, the 11 men and women profiled in A Different Kind of Luxury have all made the transition to sustainable, fulfilling lives. Based on Andy Couturier's popular articles in The Japan Times, this lushly designed volume has a wealth of stories about real people who have created an abundance of time for contemplation, connecting with the natural world, and contributing to their communities. In their success is a lesson for us all: live a life that matters. Read an excerpt of the book here or here. Read a review of the book here, here, or here.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Back from Research Trip in Japan, Working on Atsuko Chapter

Back from Japan, tons of research. Here are a few excerpts from the chapter I'm revising on Atsuko Watanabe.

PART ONE:""The office worker in Japan is always being used by someone or another: they have no freedom at all. I knew from when I was eleven or twelve years old that I didn't want to live that kind of life." Such blunt-edged statements are not uncommon when speaking with Atsuko Watanabe. The two of us are sitting up late sipping plum wine from small glasses at her dinner table next to the woodstove in an old farmhouse deep in the mountains of Shikoku island. The soft ticking of an antique wooden clock and the warble of night insects fade in and out of my mind during our conversation in the warmly-lit room.

We've just finished a sumptuous seven-course Indian vegetarian meal served on the Watanabes' own handmade pottery. This is not uncommon here, where the time to prepare elaborate delicacies from the sub-continent, or linger over a discussion of culture or philosophy is clearly valued more highly than getting a bit more work done.

A single light bulb hangs over the wooden table where we speak, and enigmatic line drawings of animals by Indian villagers stare at us from the wood-paneled walls. Upstairs, Atsuko's two daughters are, as usual, engrossed in their drawing, and we can hear the sounds of her husband doing the dishes in the adjacent room.

In the rice fields outside, freshly-harvested rice plants hang upside down from bamboo poles to dry. In the house, there is no television, very few electronic appliances, and almost no items made of plastic.

When I first met her, I thought the unadorned rural life that Atsuko lived was a return to the past. It was almost a magical feeling when I arrived at her house for the first time, like stepping out of a time machine. All around me I could see what I thought were living examples of a way of life long gone in Japan. Atsuko and her partner Gufu cook their meals on a wood-fired stove made of mud-and-brick, they grow much of their family's food in terraced vegetable gardens that descend from their house on the ridge top into the misty valley below, and Atsuko hand-paints flowers, birds, fruits and mythical animals onto the ceramics by which she and Gufu earn their modest income. At night they bathe in a hand-made wooden bath tub.

But when I tell her that I respect her traditional way of living, she corrects me immediately. "I am not a traditional person. I am a just a woman living a simple life in the mountains. That's all."

In fact, she says, many of the decisions she has made about her life path were in direct reaction to the negative aspects of her grandparents' ways.

"My father's parents raised him with an extremely old way of thinking. In Japan eighty years ago, it was only the eldest son who was valued at all. He was forced to study every second of his boyhood, never allowed to play or develop who he was. In a sense, he was never really completed as a human being. If you think about it, it's really quite tragic."

It is I who was being romantic and idealistic about tradition. So when I ask her about aspects of her way of living, she explains that each choice she has made was an individual one, with a particular purpose in mind, often environmental or spiritual.

In college, she studied painting in Kyoto, emphasizing the luminous, mineral-based pigments of the traditional Japanese palette. For the most part she drew botanicals and landscapes, "I would just go out to any abandoned field and sketch pictures of flowering weeds for hours at a time."

After college she traveled in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal, after being asked to join an all-female group of college students who were part of an "explorer's club." I imagine the kind of person who would just up and go to Afghanistan in 1976 simply because the party needed a fourth member.

"So you didn't have any other reason to go? You were just invited and you went?" I ask.

"Well, I had an interest in Hindu and Buddhist art, having studied it in college and this seemed like a good opportunity. "

"But was there anything else behind that?"

"Well…" she begins, and lets a long pause rest in the air. "At that time, I was utterly an atheist. I had no religion, and God … or any of that? I didn't believe in it. Then I became friends with a woman named Jinko in college. So you know how priests chant sutras? Well, I thought that kind of thing had no meaning at all. But Jinko's father was a priest, and she said that the chanting did give him some powers--depending on the prayer--some extraordinary powers to … for example change things. I started to think about that … hmmm … well, does Buddhism have some powers to it? And this extended to religion in general. Basically it was a lot of doubt for me, and I kept wondering, 'Is that really true?' "

I infer from the story that this wondering had some part in her journey to the subcontinet, though she doesn't draw the parallel directly.

Eventually the other women from the club returned to Japan, but Atsuko stayed on. For them, perhaps, the explorers club was a college-age adventure, but , it seems, something else happened with Atsuko. "In India, traveling alone, I had a lot of time to just sit and think, and to wonder about the reasons that I am here on this earth. What is it that I should do and be?


  1. From the end of this bit about Atsuko, and the next part about Nakamura, it seems these people have such open minds about life, and themselves! Like they ask questions without already having the answers in mind....

  2. Just finished reading about Atsuko.
    Interesting story she has. There is a stark contrast between what I believe to be simple living to what she believes. Does she feel she is Japanese?