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.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Graduating from Drinking Tea

This is a piece from about the middle of the Murata chapter, the turning point for him. Maybe one of the best ways to get at the core of this book. (One of.)

After more than a decade of this life, things began to change for him inside.

"At first, I thought I would just keep traveling, all the way 'till the end. But then," laughing at himself, "I got tired of it. I just got tired. It was fun of course, trekking in Himalaya, absolutely so. But the last two years I started to think, 'If I just continued doing this…what is there for me?' You know what I mean? Repeating the exact same thing, again and again. And I began to suspect," he adds with a contemplative tone, 'Maybe there wasn't anything.' And that's the point where it all changed for me."

At about the same time, he says, he started asking, "What is the most important thing?' And I came to the answer, 'It is eating.' " Then, as many of us do at some point, he started to read about all the chemicals used growing our food. "I thought, 'Shouldn't I grow it myself?' and 'Could I really do it?' and I decided that, yes, I could make it a reality in my life."

Also, he says, he had always dreamed of living in the mountains. "It's actually an ancient Japanese ideal. We all read about these famous people in school in the Chinese and Japanese classics: go off to the mountains and live by yourself in a hut like a hermit; spend your day singing and reading poems.

"This image entered into my head and I was really able to imagine that kind of life. But Japanese people all have this longing. It comes originally from Lao Tsu." Then he adds with his typical dramatic flair, "Hiding! Everyone yearns for this."

"So," I ask him, "You wanted to be a literati?"

"There's all kinds of forms: you can be a farmer, or do pottery, or be a woodcutter or a painter."

I picture Murata as a little boy, wearing his regulation uniform, sitting at his schoolboy desk in conservative, economically-aspiring, early 1960s Japan reading about such poet hermits in some digest-version textbook approved by the Ministry of Education, intended to give children a few basic facts about their nation's cultural history. But Murata stops on one particular sentence, written by someone in the thirteenth century, escaping "the dust of the world" and Murata looking up at the ceiling, dreaming. Perhaps many other children had that dream, but somehow it stuck for him, and …

The magic of words...coming off a page… from another century...to inspire an actual life right now.

Sometimes, during the years of writing this book, I've found myself on a crowded train in Tokyo or Osaka, on my way to meet one of the people who live in the mountains, and I'll look at the businessmen all around me, their suits and ties perfect, but exhaustion hanging over their faces, pallid and overdrawn like a bank account, and I wonder, if like Murata says, they also dream this dream. If so, do they lack the courage? Or have they made choices earlier on about family and house buying so that it's much less easy to move? Or is Murata right, that it's much more simple than that? They aren't doing it because they simply don't want it enough?

This ideal, I mention, might come from ancient India, where the texts talk about it as something one does as the fourth and last stage of life.

"Yes," Murata says "for after you finish your working life, in your fifties or sixties…"

"But you wanted to do it sooner?" I ask

Laughing he says, "Yes!" And then he adds, solemn as if he's quoting something, "Whatever you can do, it's best to do it soon."

And he's right: you could die tomorrow. In all our years of talking, this might be the message he wants me to understand the most.

And then he adds, "Living in 'the world' is a pain in the neck. You have to work a job. You have to do this, that and the other thing. So if you want to be free of that, it's best to head into the mountains."

"So you left India in 1988?"

" Yes, I graduated!"

I smile. While all of Japan is racking up credentials and certificates, Murata has graduated from drinking tea all day in India. Although you could see Murata's years in India as a complete waste of time, for him that kind of a life was, as he says, a foundation for how he lives now. And in the decades to come as our oil runs out, I think the skills he has will prove to be crucial.

So when he needs to spend hours out in the rice paddies in the blazing sun on a humid day, he's got that patience. When he collects firewood in the fall for the coming mountain winters, and has to cut a big log with a hand saw, and walk it all the way home, he's not cursing the time it takes, or wishing he had a chain saw to speed up the process. He's enjoying himself entirely. I am certain of it. For myself, I know it would be hard. I'm missing his background. How did he entertain himself in India? By walking, by talking, by not even "entertaining" himself, but just looking out at people. When he spends eight solid hours practicing the flute, he's able to do it. And whenever I happen to visit, Murata always has time to talk and talk and talk. (I sigh, thinking of some friendships in the US, us fitting in lunch together once every three months.) There's no rush inside of him, no conflict in his soul between talking all day and some other thing he might have to do.

As I listen to him, espousing the gospel of taking it easy, the absolute belief in doing only what he loves, and doing it slow, I all of a sudden notice the muscles in his forearms! No rush, no push, yet he is full of life and energy. Fifty five years old and as strong as a twenty year old. Stronger, perhaps.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Andy,

    I stumbled across your blog today and was very happy to read about your time in the mountains.

    I'm currently living and conducting fieldwork in Nagano's Kiso Valley in a village called Otaki. I've been blogging about my own experiences at www.otakimura.blogspot.com--though my writing is no where near as eloquent, I seem some common themes.

    Anyway, I'm enjoying reading your blog, and will keep my eyes open for your book as well.

    Best Wishes.