I have spent the past several months cultivating vegetables, friendships, and of course my human soul. Heretofore, my travels have taken me through rural areas of Japan, with a few stops in bigger cities or areas aptly labeled "rural-urban fringe." Avoiding apartments and hotel rooms, I have stayed with four families living on farms and in country homes. Although my travel project is focusing on the relationship between the arts and rural lifestyles, I've learned more than my small brain can handle about different sustainable practices and organic farming methods.
One thing I've been curious about on this trip is the simple question of why these families have opted for green lifestyles. Sometimes it seems to be a personal desire for improved health, sometimes an economic motivation, and sometimes simply a sense of obligation. But these are the common motives, and it's really the less common motives that tend to be the more interesting ones.
When I met Kentaro Sato, he had driven over an hour from his house to the train station to pick me up on a painfully hot day. His 91-year-old mother was in the backseat. We both struggled through the heat on the drive back, and she quickly became my closest friend in the family, primarily because neither of us ever had any idea what was going on. Kentaro and his family spoke barely any English, and when they did I usually would not understand what they were trying to say to me until they gave up and just said it in Japanese. Kentaro's mother could not remember my name "Brooke" and instead consistently called me "Yogurito-san" which is the name of a yogurt drink I've seen in Japanese grocery stores. But, what was so wonderful about the Sato family was their passion for the environment, the arts, and their community.
The village that the Sato family lives in is stunningly beautiful—nestled on a riverbed in Niigata, a region of Japan famous for producing the best rice and receiving the most snow of anywhere in the country. There are only two children in the village and Kentaro jokes that he and his wife (in their 60s) are considered young, while his elderly mother is more representative of the average age. There is much concern over what will happen to this village (and many others in the area) as time passes and most of the population passes with it. It is sad, not only as a loss for family farms and in many ways a loss for history, but also as a loss for diversity in the world.
Kentaro is a trained sculptor and has worked as an artist for the past thirty years. Twelve years ago, he and his wife were unhappy in the city and moved back to Kentaro's tiny hometown to start a new life. Today, the Sato family does not live sustainably to save money, or even just for the health benefits of eating organically, but rather because they love nature so deeply that they want to take care of the world that brings so much joy to their lives.
Their home is powered by solar energy and heated by a wood fire stove. Every year they plant and harvest rice as well as every vegetable you can think of, all organically. Chemical fertilizers are no match for homemade compost and chicken poop fertilizer. And more uniquely, whenever possible the family works by hand instead of using machines. If you ever want to truly feel connected to the earth, the history of humankind, and the food on your plate, try cutting rice in the fields by hand for days on end. It remains (genuinely!) my favorite experience of all my travels.
Kentaro once spent an entire morning trying to explain to me that he believes everything on Earth has a soul—the river, the trees, the vegetables—and that when we consume what we grow, the soul of the Earth becomes part of the human soul. This is pretty far "out there" for me, but it's honestly a really wonderful idea to think about while eating home grown vegetables and rice. It also may be one of the more memorable conversations I've had in my life.
Kentaro is doing what he can to make the village "cool" and bring the community together through arts-based rural revitalization. Every year, he holds festivals of music and dance in his rice fields, alongside his own sculptures and the works of other local artists. I happened to be present for the annual fall festival, which featured many traditional musical acts, one solo heavy metal performance (yes, it was absolutely amazing), and contemporary dancers twirling around the sculptures in the rice fields. University students from the closest city came out to volunteer and even the governor of Niigata Prefecture stopped by to meet Kentaro and learn about the festival.
This may have been an unnecessarily long anecdote to make a simple point: that sustainability has a different meaning for everyone depending on your way of life and your personal beliefs. What was truly amazing about living with Kentaro was realizing how all of his decisions are made intentionally, how a life of convenience is less rewarding for him than a life of dedication to the environment and the community. I don't exactly plan to go home, buy a plot of land, and attempt to emulate Kentaro's way of life. But, I do plan on thinking more critically about the changes I can make in my own life and the influence I can have on others to do the same. From even the briefest exposure to sustainable practices, we begin to understand how green living can better any lifestyle—by improving health, saving money, conserving energy, or feeling more deeply connected to nature.