Art of Living Japan: Living Journal Nagano Simplicity

Friends and Community

I realize that I have been away a long time. Lately I am finding it harder to get my thoughts together and to sit at the computer, writing. I start putting a few words down and then just give up. I become restless and distracted, feeling perhaps that the time I sit at the computer is time wasted from an active engagement with the real world, and as the years go by this time in the real world has grown with poignance and significance.

At the university that I am working at I’ve made a few friends with whom I get together three times a week after work to do Crossfit workouts. Besides beginning to finally get myself back in really good shape (after 24 years I did my first 53 pull ups again the day before yesterday), the time spent with these friends has made all the difference in emotionally handling being in this place. I find myself eagerly looking forward to the workouts and even when I am not feeling too well I try to make it there just to hang around with everyone.

It is almost as if I’d forgotten just how important other people are in my life, how much they reflect who I am and help me find purpose in making it through each day. I’m finding that so much of my reasons for getting so depressed and despondent over the past two years had to do with being alone and spending too much time with my own thoughts. Now I finally have people I can laugh with and share common experiences with and both let out the pain I am feeling and to listen to theirs. I still don’t like this place and the work, but with these friends it has all become a lot easier.

So two weeks ago when Kevin from invited me to visit him and his wife Tomoe on their farm in Nagano, north of here, I was both nervous and fascinated about the possibilities of what a different lifestyle, one based on sharing and sticking close to one’s beliefs, might be like. For a long time I had wondered if it would be possible to find a place in Japan where people still took care of one another and lived close to traditional Japanese values, in part a place where the land still meant something deeply spiritual and sustaining to those who lived on it.

For three days Kevin and Tomoe took me into their lives and showed me just how rich such a community could be. It seemed every moment of the day had some neighbor visiting or stopping by or saying hello on the street or driving by to offer some vegetables or bread or rice cakes. The other people Kevin had invited and I joined Kevin and Tomoe for walks in the hills to gather wild edible fiddleheads, or dig out rocks in their fields, or take a stroll through the town to look at the old farm houses and temples. There was talk of the hard winters such as this last one where the snow reached three meters (in 1945 the snow reached 7 meters deep!) and everyone had to pitch in to make sure all everyone could get through the winter. The first night three friends of Kevin and Tomoe, a family that supplied the village with delicious, homemade bread leavened with apple juice, dropped by suddenly and the modest dinner immediately turned in to a feast for nine. We laughed and joked and drank champagne and beer and wine while gobbling down barbecued local produce and I have not felt so at home and peaceful and satisfied in a long, long time.

It is what I long for.

I don’t know if I can be satisfied being a farmer, or if living in a such a rural community without access to books and talk with non-Japanese can be rewarding enough for me to put down roots in such a place, but it definitely is the right direction. LIfe is still uncertain for Kevin and Tomoe, and they both struggle with how they are going to make a living once their savings run out. But perhaps that is part of what living in such places entails, that you find a way to live there and that is what makes you strong and that is why you rely on the community to make it through hard times. It feels right.

That is the direction I want to go, and though, like Kevin and Tomoe, I am uncertain about how to go about doing it, I think my life will be the richer for bringing in community as the slate of my way of life. And I think it is the future for us all.

Blogging Journal


Wow! That’s a lot of comments I got for my post the other day and yesterday. Thanks, I appreciate it. I hope we can all create a great community this year. I look forward to reading more of everyone’s thoughts and stories and to watching the blogs grow. To the great number of new bloggers (I’ve been quite surprised by how many newcomers there are… maybe everyone got blog subscriptions for Christmas? TypePad must be making a bundle!), welcome! It is exciting to hear what the new voices will have to say.

It is interesting, in my absence from the web for the past month (I must have logged on to the computer maybe five times) how many people have stopped by here. It reminded me, as I went for a walk this morning, of a flock of birds gathering in a deserted garden: you never see the birds when you step out, but there they are at the feeder, crowding along the fence rails and branches, when you leave them alone. Easily startled. Easily stirred up. And wary of the feeder until time tells.

By taking time away from blogging I’ve come up with the theory that blogging is a kind of consumerism, a kind of accumulation of newness and ideas, much like gossip and bargain sale shopping and advertising. The difference from a book lies in its constant change and attempt to present all ideas as something as yet not told, when in actuality very little new is being said at all. Books require you to sit down and concentrate. They sit still and wait, whereas blogs flit by like the information before a blinking eye, a kind of verbal animation. Perhaps it is no coincidence that animation, video, digital music, cell phone communication, and blogs are all gathered together in the same place.

Like others have written, I didn’t miss the blog very much when I was away. In fact it felt a lot quieter in my head and a lot simpler. What I did miss were a number of people who I’ve really come to like as people, and whom I’ve started corresponding with offline (one person here in Japan I almost had a chance to meet in real life, even). The ideas people discuss are great, too.

Tonio, at Savoradin holds a very well thought out and provocative discussion about blogging and friendship, basically spelling out his belief that without the immediacy of touch and presence, without all the dirty work of real life, a true friendship cannot develop over the internet. Perhaps he is right about the start of friendships… the trust and belief in its existence and in the substantiality of the other person rests upon our mammalian need for touch and physical presence. Without a reference point with which to locate another within the landscape of reality, without the knowledge of what is happening in their real lives, without, as Tonio suggests, the finality of such things as disease, departure, or death, real concern for another cannot develop. Perhaps this is true. Parting is such sweet sorrow. (could Shakespeare have made a good blogger?)

But it is also true that a few of my closest friends I have known for more than 30 years and during that time I may have seen them in person maybe five or six times. The rest has developed and maintained affection, long distance, through letters. I believe there are all kinds of friendship and love and that distance and ephemerality do not diminish some kinds of bonds. I know, without doubt, that I will be friends with and hold them dear those who I’ve been in touch with all this time. And new friends will also join the flock.

Like birds there are so many varieties of friends. Some wing by in the night, some flit up to your windowsill, stare at you a moment and are off. Still others linger, get to know you, and then fly away with their own concerns. And a few remain, day in and day out, whatever weather, through all the seasons. Like birds there are no right or wrong friends, just different shades of plumage.

All are welcome to my garden, even if they do not talk to me. And all must apply their wings as they see fit, including my own. Freedom is what birds are all about, aren’t they?

Blogging Journal


Animal tracks highlighted in the snow just after an ice storm, Mikuni Pass, Shizuoka, Japan, 1993.

I want to apologize to everyone who drops by here for not being around for a long while. This time of the year always gets to me, especially since I live far away from my family and I haven’t seen them in years. Not only does the Christmas season just have no counterpart here in Japan, seeing that it is quite hard to really get close to Japanese people, to be accepted as one of them, I also end up spending a lot of time alone, most especially during this season.

I don’t like to share the more personal aspects of my private life here on the blog, in part to protect people who are important to me, but also because I believe that some things ought not to be handed out to just anybody. There are some things going on in my life that I try to glaze over here, but they are big things that seem even bigger during the holiday season. Since it will be yet another Christmas and New Year’s alone I’ve been trying to compensate by pulling away from the blog a while, so as not to think so much. With 2 weeks vacation ahead of me it would be better if I got out of the house and cleared my head a little.

One thing that has been bothering me again is the effect of blogging on my time and my mental life. When I last put an entry in it had gotten to the point where any idea I happened upon or even some small anecdote in my day would immediately translate into how I could use it in an article in the blog. I even dreamed of topics and ways to write sentences in my sleep!

I knew then that I had to break away, if just to quiet the noise in my head so that I could open my eyes and see the world around me, not the computer screen. With quite a period behind me now I can say that my mind is quiet again and I’m taking time to get out there.

I know that the tendency to immerse myself in the blog rises out of too much time alone and no friends. When you find yourself wandering the city streets, feeling lost, constantly whispering to yourself that you will be okay, then the voices that surround you in the blog world offer great comfort. All of you out there who have grown into something approximating friendship, thank you.

So I must strike a balance, continue to release the words that well up in me for this ephemeral place, and to get out there and find my home. I can’t continue to live like this. I must find substantiation.

I hope everyone is finding their way through the holidays. To those who are lucky enough to wrap themselves in a winter warmth, cherish it and give it to whoever else needs it. To those who suffer a kind of silent grief, hold on. The darkness will pass. And don’t forget to look up and let the fabric of your spirit clear itself among those clean, untouched stars. These long nights allow us a window into whole of our world and all its possibilities.

Good night.

Blogging Journal

Sailing Out of Sight

Orkney Tall Ship
Tall ship “Roald Amundsen” sailing into Stromness Bay, Orkney Islands, Great Britain, 1995.

What a strange feeling to have had a steady stream of readers who commented regularly on my posts for the last two or three months and then suddenly it dries up for no discernible reason. Are my recent posts that boring and that irrelevant, compared to earlier posts? Did I do something wrong to the templates so that no one can find my page any more? Did I commit a faux pas in my comments somewhere on other people’s sites? Or is the content of my own site objectionable?

It is as if I have entered the doldrums and there is no wind. I keep trying to convince myself that this is only a blog and not really very important, but then, I worked so hard on making this come true, put my heart into it. Blogging out there in the ocean of bloggers and not being in hailing sight of a single fellow sailor makes for pretty lonely sailing. What is the point of writing a blog if there is no interaction? Might as well just keep my diary here at home.

I shouldn’t complain, of course, at least I’ve had visitors and comments. I drop by Pacific Tides quite a lot, and he has never gotten a comment, other than by me, so far as I can tell. It’s curious, because the site is beautiful and the writing is interesting and relevant. Thomas has traveled quite a bit and has a delightful outlook on people and travel. I once asked him if he was at all concerned about the lack of traffic to his site, but his reply seemed like a philosophical shrug; perhaps it is just enough to get the thoughts and creative mappings down.

I would like to be so nonchalant. Perhaps I take this blogging business way too seriously. But then, for me, writing is important stuff. And I want to be true to my own thoughts and feelings when I write in the blog or make comments elsewhere. I am good at joking around in person, but not so good in my writing, so perhaps I come across as this monumental bore who has to philosophize about everything. But why not? So much other stuff that you come across on the internet revolves around nothing, around passing on information simply for the passing on, like electronified gossip, e-gossip. It has been good to find other bloggers willing to discuss things in depth, and willing to write more than a sentence or two.

So the web of contacts that I’ve connected to through this blog have come to mean something, especially in my discussion-starved lifestyle here in Japan. The discussions have kept me thinking daily, even while walking to the train station or sitting on the train or eating dinner at the ramen restaurant near my workplace. Often I jot down topics or threads of ideas as I walk. The discussions have gotten me reading more philosophy and meshed with the storm of opinions and theories and introspection that whirl around in my mind these days. And by writing about place and nature, I’ve taken more time to look around me and look closely, with my eyes, my ears, my fingers, camera, pencil, my feet. A kind of census of locale and a personal embracing of hope.

I will continue to write, throwing these words out into the void and hoping the seeds land on some fertile ground somewhere. But as long as I sit here writing soliloquies it will be more like a hermit mumbling to himself, than a member of a forum. Then again, didn’t the sages and wise men, pundits and gurus all sit alone somewhere on some inaccessible mountain? Perhaps I would be better off to contemplate it all in silence.

Japan: Living Journal Life In Tokyo


˚urobe Haimatsu
Creeping Pine skeletons in the mountains around Kurobegoro (with Sofu Peak in the background), the North Alps, Japan, 2001

The days are noticeably growing cooler. The songs of the crickets have lowered into a sluggish pitch as the musicians struggle against the temperature. For some reason the non-native Rose-Ringed Parakeets (Psittacula krameri), with their lime green, winged javelin-like bodies, have been congregating around the telephone wires and tall Zelkova trees around my neighborhood, and the mornings and evenings have been punctuated by their piercing shrieks. Parrots and parakeets most definitely belong to the area above the forest canopy… when you see their darting, vigorous flight it is hard to imagine them pent up in a cage ever again.

The light recedes earlier now, too, and children in the neighborhood scatter back into their homes earlier. It is a pity, because it seems as if the children had only just begun to grow dark and their limbs to grow firmer with their days outside during their short summer vacations. It had taken most of the summer for them to venture into the neighborhood and play with the other kids. Now the TV’s and video games have recaptured their victims and the slow degeneration of the children’s summer bred muscles will begin anew. When the tide of darkness neeps high enough and the cold keeps people locked up indoors, all the afternoon shouting and laughing in the neighborhood will die away to concrete silence. Perhaps the children in this neighborhood bump around a little too much for me during the days when I’m trying to work here at the computer, but at least they reminded me of things being alive.

My late night returns home from my night work will soon again have me arriving on my street, standing outside my apartment building under the sulfur light of the street light, listening. Listening for others and hearing only the wind or the distant, passing thump-thump of the commuter train. The lights will be on in the surrounding house windows, but no silhouettes in them. It is often hard to believe that this is one of the most crowded cities in the world; so often the streets resemble the watchful facelessness of a mausoleum. Perhaps I feel this because I seek the ghost of humanity in the streets. And perhaps I seek this humanity because the same streets of my children told more stories. People were out in the streets more and more drama occurred as a result. Somehow the lure of modern conveniences in the home has separated people from one another.

A friend of mine recently responded, when I asked her if interacting with her neighbors was important for her: “The people around me are strangers. I have no interest in their lives and want them to show no interest in mine. What goes on with the person next door is of no concern to me. I would rather that we pass each other by without even looking at one another. The place I live is just that: a place to live. My friends are elsewhere and my activities take place either in the privacy of my home or where my friends and colleagues are. The area where I live is only for convenience.”

These words sent a shiver up my spine and left me feeling disoriented, though I’m not exactly sure why. Her words make sense on a certain level and even carry a measure of precaution necessary for living in such a big city, especially for a woman living alone. But I can’t help but wonder over what is missing in the words. It is as if the very place we live in, that we inhabit, has become nothing but an abstraction. Our connection to what sustains us, the giving of the Earth to our survival, seems not to figure in the evaluation. Surely if we are to survive the oncoming hardships of a deteriorating habitat we must learn both to identify with the places we dwell in and to learn to share our lives and needs with our neighbors, both human and non. Such essential basics as food, air, water, shelter, and health all require our cooperation and a deeper level of concern and affiliation with our surroundings than we have now.

This has been one of my deepest, most consuming concerns over the years and one that seems disproportionately difficult to discuss with others, especially neighbors. Another friend asked me recently why I feel such a disillusionment with my sense of self-identity. Perhaps the roots lie in this question of abstract versus concrete identification with the place we live in. If you can’t name every tree or tell the yearly patterns of wind blowing or know where the best water is in your valley, doesn’t that mean that you don’t know where you are?

Journal Musings Natural Places Nature


Poppy Field Germany
Poppy Field, area north of Lübeck, Germany, 1995


For anyone who has had the experience of being stateless or drifting between nations not knowing where they might be allowed to stay, the news that I received from the Japan immigration office today, that my application for permanent residency was approved, will carry the familiar sense of relief that I am feeling today. Though I am a German and do not want to give up my German citizenship I have never lived there and don’t think I would really know what to do with myself if Germany was the only place I had to return to. I’ve been in Japan so long now that it almost goes without saying that I would make this place my permanent home, but all my life until now Japan has remained a kind of mirage that hadn’t accepted me yet into its fray. It has always been difficult to commit myself to this place, give my whole heart to it, while its people had not in return shown me steps that would justify my spending my energy in making this a proper home. Yet, today, the nod was given and, in spite of my skepticism before, it has made a whole lot of difference.

So many people around the world take the place they live, and their country, for granted. Many of them have never experienced the wrenching feeling of dislocation that accompanies the realization that, if circumstances dictated, you would find yourself adrift in an indifferent world, belonging nowhere, akin to no community. In these last two years, with the choices of possibly being forced to leave Japan, but not being able to return to the States because of the crackdown in immigration (even though most of my family lives there), maybe only being able to choose Europe as my destination, but knowing only a few people there and no job prospects, or perhaps seeking out some other, only obscurely imagined country (I’ve imagined New Zealand) my sense of losing hold of my place on the ground grew more and more acute, until, in these last two months, I had the feeling that parachutist might have when drawing nigh a forest with no breaks… no idea where to put my foot down because there is no place safe or solid.

I had always thought of myself as more a less a wanderer and lone wolf until the wandering and lone wolfing became the only path I could see. I understood then that, while roving still boils in my blood, I also need some ground to lay roots in and to grip the earth with my toes so that I can see where and who I am. Just as much, I need others… friends, colleagues, neighbors… around me to help define me as an individual and act as the catalysts that bring alive and give meaning to all that I endeavor when communicating or working. Wandering around without purpose or direction or starting point only adds to a sense of aimlessness that I feel has the effect of rendering human actions and thoughts null if not reciprocated by another or by a place. I no longer believe in the individual who gets all they want or does whatever they damn well please. More and more I believe that a fulfilled person is an individual in the larger world, filling in the role of a piece in the jigsaw puzzle.

And so this acceptance of my part in Japanese society has given me a show of confidence in me that I deeply appreciate, even if it is only a bureaucratic filling in of check-marked requirements. Someone, somewhere thought to allot me a place here that I can fill and, like an anchor, it secures the long luffing sail of my self confidence and gives me a place to recalculate my new steps.