Life (the entirety of) in rural Japan
In Tokyo, we went to work with people around our own age. If someone retires, we hold a party for them and say our goodbyes. We never witnessed what happened to these people outside of our office setting, people around us get old and move on. Usually, we don't see them die unless we are old as well. Every once in a while ours, or a co-worker's parent or grandparent dies, and we feel sympathy for their loss. Still, for someone in their 30s, really knowing someone who dies is a relatively rare and often tragic experience.
Monday night when I went to the volunteer fire-brigade trumpet practice, I heard that a previous trumpet brigade captain had died earlier that day. While the name was not mentioned, I deduced that it was the old inn-keeper in Akiyama which we frequent often. He was over 80 y/o. Aside from his own traditional hunting skills, passed on by his own father - a matagi hunter, he took with him an incredible depth of knowledge about the area and traditions - he shared his knowledge at the annual yakibatake (field burning) event which is an attempt to keep alive an important tradition of the area. He was also recognized and honored by the emperor of Japan for his own hunting skills and contributions to keeping Japanese culture alive. It is a big loss.
I was invited to take a hike up Naeba with him this spring, but felt I was "too busy"... so I cancel led. I lost a truly "One Life" opportunity.
What does this have to do with the difference between my previous live in Tokyo and the reality of where we live now? Well, most of the neighbors we see and talk to on a regular basis are in their 60s or older. Our next-door neighbor, whom we love chatting as much as she loves snooping into what we are up to, is 87. The only surviving geta (wooden sandal) maker we visit often is in his late 70s. The famous ex-mayor of Sakae, who just retired last month, is 79. The neighbor we learn all our farming from is in her late 60s. Most of the people I chat with in the bath are in their 80s. We often visit one of the oldest women in the village - the 96 year old Ise-san, whose family was killed in a large avalanche that buried their house in sixty years ago.
Life and death is so much more real here. Sometimes it means Tomoe being upset that her sprouts died because they were left too long in the sun, or the peanut plants killed by ants, and sometimes its an amazing organic farmer that died last fall before we even had a chance to meet and learn from him. Now we visit his widow every now and then, but she will most likely be gone within ten years as well.
Living in a community like this, I know many more people who die in the next ten years than I ever would have in Tokyo, where my activities were restricted to work and play with "young" folks. Here I will (and do) know three or four generations of the families around us. I spent an hour at my rice-field the other day catching frogs with the five-year-old granddaughter of the neighbor who was hospitalized two weeks ago after a motor-scooter accident. He is 80+ and lives across the the river, aside from seeing him and simply waving because of the roar of the rive that separates us, I often met him in the bath or on the street. He shared his home with me on New Year's day and I promissed to go back soon, and this time bring Tomoe. I now regret that I have not been back.
What made me start to think about this is that when I heard about the hunter's death, I felt sad, I felt loss (despite the fact that I have only talked to him a few times). I took on the "appropriate" expression and said something about how sad that is. The young (30s - 50s) people around me continued smoking, laughing, discussing it matter-of-factly. The mood did not change one beat as they decided who would go to a memorial event to blow their trumpets. (I can't really make the trumpet sound like it is supposed to, or I would have joined). I realized that they are much more used to or in-tune with reality of life and death. They see it all the time. One might say that they are just "cold" or "numbed" to it, but I think that they felt just as much (much more for sure) loss than I did, but they also were not so sheltered so as to dwell on its sadness.
Am I really mentally and emotionally prepared for life in a place where the "young people's party" consists of 50 year olds?