I don:t think I understood, I mean, really understood the meaning of Critical Regionalism until today. In Minamata, it:s called Jimotogaku. Yesterday, we heard from three different people/organisations (the former Mayor of Minamata City, Gaia Minamata – Orange farmers, and Soshisha – an NGO for victims of Minamata mercury poisoning) each offering quite unique perspectives about the topic.
Today, we went to a rural town called Okawa, some 20km drive along the windy roads to the east of Minamata city. Rural areas, much like everywhere else in the world, are in fast decline, economically, culturally and societally. A visionary man, Mr. Tetsturo Yoshimoto set up an organisation called Jimotogaku Network to revitalise the rural community, by setting up a Lifestyle Museum which catered for visitors from outside wanting to experience the rural lifestyle of the Japanese. Mr. Yoshimoto:s various initiatives in and around Minamata have been instrumental in regenerating the region, as well as helping them win the top environmental city award year after year.
Like in many cultures, to be invited into someone:s house is a great honour, and in Japan, it is considered one of the highest one. In an area where 54% of the total population (of 150 people) are over 65, Mr. Yoshimoto wanted to bring outsiders in to learn new ideas which they can apply to (but at the same time preserving) their traditional way of life. Jimotogaku had such a positive vibe about the place, and everyone we met, including Mr.Yoshimoto, seemed at least 20 years younger than they were. We spent about 4 hours interviewing the locals and putting together a brainstorm of our first impressions and ideas for the area, in between which we were treated to an amazing mountain cuisine made from local vegetables and rice taken from the field of a guide who showed us around. Everyone was so humble, yet took pride in what they did.
The rain and the cold weather didn:t get in the way of everyone having a terrific time observing just how happy they seemed and how warmly they welcomed us into their private homes: yes, our local guide/interviewee invited the group into his home and served us dried persimmon soaked in sake, blueberry flavoured sake, strawberry flavoured sake, chestnut soaked in sake, and some sponge cake (didn:t taste any sake in that one).
After observing how the community sorted their recyclable items into 22 different categories (which then gets sorted into 76 different types by the municipal workers), we were invited to have dinner with Mr.Yoshimoto at his own house. The food was the best I:ve had so far on the trip, and I think this would be very hard to beat. Everyone was merry and after a few bottles of Asahi and a couple of giant bottles of sake emptied out around the room, my colleague beside me started out singing her favourite tunes in Indian. That got everyone started and we called upon all 12 nationalities that were present there to each do a dance or a song. I of course busted out my moonwalk though I wished I could have sung Po Karekare Ana. Harp isn:t particularly practical to carry around so I think a guitar would be a great instrument to learn on the move! We brought the singing and dancing (and drinking) to a local bar next to our hotel – which, might I add, wasn:t marked on the visitors map we were given on our first day here – and kept on going.
My writing this post to you would indicate that I:ve returned to base safely and my alcohol allergy seems to have disappeared once again on foreign soil. Perhaps I should start drinking Asahi or Kiran back home. Towards the end of the night, Mr.Yoshimoto appeared quite sad, and I guess for someone with such a big heart, opening his home to a bunch of young people, sharing a meal, drinking and dancing all night, then to have to send them away the next day would be quite an emotional experience for him. My feeling is that he treats everyone he meets like his own children.
Tomorrow, we:re heading to Ojika island, another suburban gem in Japan which requires a rocky boat ride some distance away from Minamata, and spending a night with my foster parents who won:t speak a word of English. Armed with a phrase book in hand, I:m going to go up to my room now to pack my bags for tomorrow. I probably won:t have much luck with internet over there, so you might not hear from me for a few days, but don:t worry: according to my Indian friend Jasmine, who is a sikh, said that there is an old proverb that goes, when you do something for the first time, luck will follow you everywhere for the day. Well, there seems to be no shortage of new things happening, almost every hour that I:m here.