A man contented with frugal life choices. Self disciplined, somewhat taciturn, he balanced the seasonal needs of his subsistence rice and cabbage crops with care for the dark rich loam and sparkling cleanliness of the abundant mountain water. His was a life shaped by his faith.
Before prime, much closer to matins or lauds, soft Gregorian choral chanting was heard drifting through the opaque sliding shoji room divider between our rooms. It was the commencement of a day’s liturgy, day following day ceaselessly, simple tasks ordered to suit the whim of the weather.
He ached for a future. Celibate as required by his faith for those who took final vows, he said openly,
“I’d like a wife, but who would take me in this rural life, women want to live in the city, with the comforts of the city?”
We sit and silently muse.
Not that what’s said is so surprising. It’s the directness, the honesty that has us speechless.
“I’ve been here a few years now and the community is small. I would like to pass on this land and what I’ve made to children,” he goes on.
And in saying so he reveals more of his life than perhaps he meant to.
He’d spent his years after graduation in agronomy studying for the Catholic Church as a novice. Six years as a pilgrim in lands far from Japan. The Ivory Coast, the monastic life, privately introspective yet publicly kaleidoscopically extroverted. Then for his later study years with the Franciscan order in the medieval monasteries of Belgium and France.
We realised that we were not meeting a host who represented the stereotypic norm of Japanese people. A world view formed through self examination. Then a year long examination after six years study before ultimately deciding not to make an absolute commitment to the church. He lived out his commitment through the life he’d chosen. A life ordered with monastic discipline.
We had come to Naiko’s home having read the reference [edited]of a previous guest.
“NEVER AGAIN. We never want to meet this man again. He really scared us so much that the kids started to cry out of fear… He showed us „his“ rice fields … We went to an onsen and … we felt comfortable. In the evening he told us that we didn’t pack away the daybeds. He never told us to do so. He sets up rules and doesn’t tell you. That same evening he was different than yesterday. He is very religious and believes god is working through him…. The next morning, after his breakfast he got strange and weird. He told us we were not behaving well. We are not following his rules (he never told us). . He really got mad and made me sit down to get a lesson. He told my wife that her job is to take care of the kids while he told me how to educate my kids. He said this is a lesson for me and my family. He told us how to use a vacuum cleaner (yeah, we are living in the wilderness, never seen one before) and even how to plug it into power.
He was so angry and scary that our kids stayed with my wife and cried while I had to sit down to listen to him and his lessons. I had to stay calm to not provoke him for the safety of my family. We just wanted to get out of there, out of the situation. Therefore, I tried my best to de-escalate and to keep him calm. He didn’t even care for the kids that they were crying. He said, this is a lesson for them as well. After he left, we packed our things and cleaned up. Before we could leave, he came back to tell us what to do next, hang the mattress in the sun to dry. We did and then got out.
This was the scariest situation we have been in in our entire travel. We were really afraid of this man and just wanted to get out before he could get even more angry. You should have seen his eyes that moment…. Yoda, we will pray for you that god will help you to get rid of this kind of person you have been to us and make you a better human. We forgive you like god forgives everyone, even for making my kids cry. We hope we will never meet again! “
However, we found him to be the ideal host.. A well travelled cultured gentleman whose wealth of Japanese and Western cultures were integrated into a learned thoughtful life. He exuded pride in community and privileged us with a visit to the unique Wakayama iron water onsen. The bathes were encased in the mineralisation deposits as in stalagmites and stalactites, ochre brown in colour.
We were fascinated by his potted history of the Shogun’s rise, to the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Then the background of the compromise resulting in the Emperor’s supremacy. In those hours we learnt more of Japanese history than we’ve absorbed in a lifetime.
Before going to sleep he asked,
“So what do you want to see around Wakayama?”
He told us that this peninsula was the most sacred in Japan, full of pilgrimage trails and temples. At one of the most sacred temples the new Emperor had recently come to declare the dawn of the new era, Reiwa.
Politely we replied,
“That’s so interesting! We have seen many temples in our past thirty days and walking trails with Anne’s fractured wrist it might not be best for her.” We thought we had skilfully avoided offence by not having to declare our templed out fatigue.
Wakayama peninsula is elongated and pendulous. Right round its jagged coast stretched a train line, a necklace stringing fishing towns together.
“Ah then,” he said, “You should go to Tai Chi”
I wondered why we would want to go to a class in Chinese calisthenics but he continued,
“You Westerner’s have such closed minds about whaling and Japanese cultural heritage.”
I was getting really confused, fish and exercise?
“How long to get there? ” I asked.
“No idea,” he replied, not indicating he knew nor cared.
In the privacy of our room I looked up “Tai Chi.” Nothing. I got onto Google Maps and blew up the coast line around the peninsula, and there it was Taiji. Wikipedia as always was an enormous help. Go check it yourself and see why I was instantly attracted. I’ll not leave the link so you can go find it the way I did and be engrossed in the wonder of travel. We’d have never gone there had it not been for this chance encounter.
Next morning as he busied himself around his truck with his turnips for sale at local stores he asked ,
“So where have you decided to go?
“Taiji ,” I replied, ” I reckon it should take a couple of hours on the Limited Express.”
“Good luck,” he answered, “I’ll see you around tea time then. I’m off to the fields. I was in the fields last night at midnight to make sure the crops got the water not polluted by detergent.”
And after a little more turnip fiddle farting around in the back of the truck he was gone.
Taiji station is not on the coast. The station is in a steep sided valley between two ranges. It hangs on the embankment formed to carry the track from one tunnel to the next. We walked into cross roads in the tiny village and with sign language and pointing at Japanese brochures for the whale museum were shown the right direction to walk and where the bus stop was that would get us there.
The Whale museum was instructive. One begins to understand the impact of the deaths of hundreds of villagers when whaling was conducted in rowed boats and a hand harpoon. In some cases whole village’s men were lost. And this in a land where familial history was and still is strong. Many of the folk still live here or in the region.
Yes, there was a dolphin show, and yes there was a whale show to be enjoyed.
In the souvenir shop who could go past the array of trinkets and ubiquitous snacks. Best of all none were ‘Made in China”. I could have bought a heap but settled on some not inexpensive “Genuine Whale Jerky”. The straps of flesh were quite pliable and very dark in colour. It was crème de la crème in the jerky world! I was so pleased. On my last trip to Japan I’d missed out on a whale burger, and so far this trip I’d eaten all manner of different foods but not achieved whale… Yet.
Over dinner with Naoki in Wakayama he was most interested to learn of our experiences and thoughts on Taiji. Frankly we were glad of the opportunity to learn by seeing and wanting to taste the local delicacies.
“See, I even bought some Whale Jerky,” I said.
He examined the contents through the sides of the packet and said,
“This is very high quality, you have chosen well!”
I felt pleased. Who can tell good whale jerky from so so whale jerky when not a connoisseur?
The slim plastic envelope was whisked away from me.
“Thank you, so much” he said, as he carefully placed the packet on the other side of the dinner table upright against some unwashed cups.
My intention was to share this with him, but it was clear from its position on the table he was treating it as a gift.
” Drats,” I thought, ” should have snacked on the stuff before we got back.”
When we left the next morning, the Jerky packet was gone.
It had been a gift of rare value.