Year of Grace, Day 103. Okuyama-san and clothing

Thoreau’s thoughts on clothing expressed in Walden Pond took me on a trip back in time and place to 1980 Yuzawa, in Japan’s Snow Country. Every morning at 5 a.m., my friend Okuyama-san, then perhaps in his mid- to late 50s, rose and walked to tend his vegetable patch at the edge of the town, a good 20 or so minutes away. On his back he customarily carried a backpack weighing around 20 kilos of rocks (the weight was important for maintaining bone health, he said) and by his side would walk Pochi, his dog, at his advanced age gone blind in one eye.

Throughout the seasons, except for snow-bound winter, this was Okuyama-san’s daily routine. Two hours of caring for his assorted plants – he had chrysanthemums and many other flowers too, not just asparagus and diverse vegetables – digging and watering and weeding, and then he would shoulder his pack and whatever he had gleaned for the morning and head back into town with Pochi, just in time for breakfast with wife Miyako. He wore the same outfit each time – a long-sleeved shirt with big, generous pockets made of khaki and matching trousers. Here and there the shirt and trousers had been neatly patched. On his head he wore a knitted beret that Miyako had made – to hide his uncombed hair, he said. Usually black, but at times it was burgundy. To my eyes this outfit made him look rather dashing and stylish – not so much Japanese, as European. Rather like an eccentric English country gentleman farmer.

The shirt and trousers, he said, were from his trove of army uniforms left behind by the American troops stationed in Akita just after World War II. Then in his teens, he was fascinated by the strange language the soldiers spoke and their easy-going ways. But what struck him most at the time was the quality of the cloth that the uniforms were made of. And it would be a pity, he said, to throw away such hard-wearing, good quality clothing, just because they had a slight tear here or there. And so Miyako repeatedly and meticulously stitched and patched the working uniform that saw action not just in his vegetable garden but whenever and wherever there were heavy tasks to be undertaken.

I was struck at how refreshing Okuyama-san’s perspective on this American military-issue clothing was. To many another townmate, anything to do with the American Occupation and any vestige of their presence — especially their uniforms — were best obliterated. In any case, as Okuyama-san himself said, immediately after the war any kind of good, serviceable clothing had been hard to come by. And they have stood the test of time so well, he said. Look how well they have lasted, several decades on.

However, that was not how some town mates regarded Okuyama-san’s cherished uniform. A group of women had been asked to help prepare refreshments for the children’s Sports Day, and I was one of them. There I was, splitting the ends of tiny sausages to fashion them into octopus legs and other such cute tidbits meant to entice picky young appetites. And as is the norm in such small town gatherings, gossip flew thick and fast. I didn’t know many of the personages mentioned, but my ears perked up at a familiar name. One of the women, among the youngest, derided my friend’s choice of work clothes. How could he, she said, in his position and obviously quite well-to-do, go about town wearing such patched clothes?

And it occurred to me then, as it does even now decades later, that indeed it does take an unusual mind, like my friend Okuyama-san’s, to see beauty — for quality is beauty – where the average person sees only patches.

And as you can see from the photos below, Okuyama-san dressed immaculately and always with impeccable taste.

Apologies for the fuzziness of this photo.


Okuyama-san and his signature beret

Year of Grace, Day 85. Akebi – an enchanting vine

While going over photographs of my garden in Leamington Spa, England today, I came across one of my favourite plants – a Japanese vine called akebi (Akebia quinata, five-leaf akebi; there is another species with three leaves, A. trifoliata). It clambered over a pergola-cum-garden seat positioned to face a small pond that I’d made with the help of No. 2 son. This was where I loved to drink my morning coffee, hoping to see a newt or two breaking the pond surface, and I was rarely disappointed. (The newts had come on their own.)

The akebi is also known as the chocolate vine, apparently because of the scent of its flowers. The flowers are indeed sweetly scented, though I have to say they didn’t evoke chocolate to me. (Scent is quite subjective, don’t you agree?) The maroon flowers have a most curious and charming shape and I loved gazing at them at all stages of blossoming.

There are purple edible fruits as well. I’ve never had my vine fruit in Leamington though. But perhaps I needed another vine as a cross-pollinator for fruit to set. It is not only the inner pulp of the fruit that is edible, but also the flowers, young shoots, and the pods themselves. Some recipes and more info on akebi can be found here.

The young vines are used for weaving baskets in the Tohoku region in Japan’s Snow Country. I have two well-loved baskets from a basketweaver in a village north of Omagari, Akita Prefecture. I have the smaller one with me in Bonn. It features both unpeeled and peeled vines. These robust and well-crafted baskets have kept their shape and remain as handsome as when I observed them being made over 35 years ago.

Akebi basket from a village north of Omagari, Akita, of natural and peeled vines

Akebi basket from a village north of Omagari, Akita, of unpeeled  and peeled vines

Please note that in the United States, Akebia quinata is considered an extremely invasive species. It is not considered invasive in England though. Perhaps the secret to curtailing its rampant spread in its native Japan is through utilizing the vines in baskets and the flowers and fruits for food. I am grateful to have been able to grow this enchanting vine and enjoy the extraordinary beauty and scent of its flowers.

Year of Grace, Day 10. Okuyama-san

There are people whom you know for only a short while, and yet the time spent with them seems so much longer. Looking back you feel that they had been a major part of your life. Their influence on you, on your outlook and interests and way of thinking, has been immense, and totally and surprisingly disproportionate to the time you’d been friends.

Okuyama-san is one such friend — Okuyama Shunzo — to give him his full name. ‘Shunzo” is written with the ideographs for the season “spring” and “three.” I never got to ask whether he was born in the third spring of his parent’s marriage.


Okuyama san and his log cabin, as he called it.

I have so much to thank Okuyama-san for: actually he deserves an entire book all to himself. Without him, I would never have had one of the defining experiences of my life, that of living within a Japanese traditional community. I would even venture to say that it is one of the highlights of my life.

It was he who made us pay a visit to the family who took care of the samurai house that we had wished to rent, but had been turned down. The reason: we were gaijin, foreigners. We did not think a visit would make a difference, but he insisted. I shall arrange it, he said.

Okuyama-san belonged to a clan of politicians and landowners in that part of the Snow Country. With the end of the war and land reform implemented by the American Occupation, the clan’s landholdings were vastly reduced. By trade he was a printer, and through the orders for invitations, flyers, and notices his shop received, he got wind of all that was happening. He knew everything and everybody: he had, as the Japanese expression goes, a broad face — kao ga hiroi.

There were not many suitable places to let in Yuzawa at the time. The only other one was also a former samurai dwelling located in the dense shade of Japanese cedars. It was picturesquely lovely, but awfully dark and cold. And in deep winter, colder still. The other rental places were mainly 4.5-mat or 6-mat affairs, barely enough for one to live in (room space is measured in the number of straw mats of standard size, one being reckoned sufficient for one person to sleep on). We agreed to the meeting, more to please Okuyama-san than any hope on our part.

The afternoon came and we were introduced to the family. We bowed in the old-fashioned manner no longer practised in daily life in metropolitan Tokyo: head low to the tatami — the thick straw mats laid inside a traditional Japanese house. We slid off the cushions upon giving our names and sat in seiza, formal style with feet tucked under the body. The head of the family was the former headmaster of the local high school. It was his wife whose physician granduncle had owned the samurai house. We talked about our studies and research, we drank the green tea offered and enjoyed the rice cakes that came with it. And after the pleasant and polite meeting, we left, intending to book tickets for Tokyo the next day.

That evening, Okuyama-san telephoned excitedly to say the house was ours. How could that be? What happened to change their minds? “It was the way you spoke polite Japanese and the way you behaved in the traditional Japanese manner,” he said. “They had no idea you were not like other gaijin.”

That unbelievable outcome was pure irrepressible Okuyama-san: trying, ever so charmingly, never aggressively, to find a way in, even when at first refused. Perhaps it was his engaging way of speaking the local dialect – zuzuben — as Snow Country natives called it. Perhaps it was his gentle and mild, unassuming yet dignified manner. Perhaps because as an influential member of the community, he served in a sense as our backer, our guarantor, a significant role in Japanese culture, particularly in that rural society.

It was a brilliant lesson in how to turn a no into a yes. For that, among many other things besides throughout that time we lived in that town, I am truly grateful to have known Okuyama-san as a friend and as a mentor.