Influential Minds Part 2

This post is about our meeting with Takayuki Mori. I wrote part one about my impressions of our meeting with Hiroaki Koide, it loosely ties into this writing, and can be found here.

A disclaimer at the beginning of this writing that my facts are from memory, and it was a very long day at Mori-san’s house. There isn’t much to be found on the internet in English about Takayuki Mori or his business Aightowa(literally: “the definition of love is” in Japanese), presumably this is the official site, and facts gained from a google translation of it will be dodgy at best.

Takayuki Mori is well known in his local part of the Earth’s surface for being, among other things, really different from the people around him. He is a 74 year old retired local ecologist, living in Arashiyama Kyoto and running a business out of his grandoise(for Japan) energy efficient house and living mostly(entirely?) off of subsistence farming on a very large(for Japan) piece of land. According to the website, it’s 1000 square meters, about a fourth of an acre. His wife is a famous doll maker, creating beautiful traditional-Japanese looking dolls that can sell for as much as two cars, and running regular classes teaching her doll making, with over 60 people drawn to the craft. Mori-san gave us a long lecture in two parts and showed us all the wonderful things around his estate.

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I’ll begin with what he had to say about his home. The first thing that comes to my mind is the solar panels on the roof and a design using sunlight for as much free heat as possible. He had also planted many foreign deciduous trees in his yard, so that leaves would block sunlight in the summer keeping it cooler, and then fall off and allow sunlight in the winter making it warmer. He pointed out a shrub over the stall he built for his car – also there for a similar reason of seasonally affecting the car’s temperature favorably. We gazed in awe at his garden of subsistence farming, he mentioned that they had a planting and harvesting schedule that ensured the foods they liked were available year round. He boasted this was an efficient use of a small amount of land, saying that large machine driven farming with same-crop fields might be efficient for the amount of work done by a single person, but it’s wasting space(space is very precious in Japan, even graveyards are crowded) and preventing the employment of many. We walked around his garden and he showed us an outdoor pizza oven he built.
Every five steps he had some home made ingenious cool thing to show us, all of it having some purpose toward efficiently living easier. His two part lecture, if I can possibly summarize it, was about consumerism back to the beginning of human history, his studies of present day primitive cultures(people making a lot of use out of very little to live), and his idea of a new age of society where we have integrated minimalism and efficiency with science and technology for the sake of sustainability. He took the lecture down many winding directions, describing how people are taught by society to buy, people defining themselves through buying, a “trap of consumerism”, whether to choose hope or despair in the face of today’s society, and on and on.
More than anything I was in awe of a person living their convictions and successfully living life their own way, trying to change the culture through leading by example. It’s something I find beautiful that I don’t see very often. Toward the end of his lecture and through the questions asked he was talking more about the treasure that is art and creativity. He mentioned, in response to a question from another group member about where the money for his place came from, that his wife was originally teaching people to make dolls for free, but the students insisted on paying, and that created the class. It struck a few bells in my head, “hey, I’m an artist living life my own way, maybe I could ask him about my methods and he could give me a thought to take with myself” I thought.
How to phrase it though, what am I even trying to ask? Through Professor Armstrong’s translation, I gave him the following preface and question. I’m a painter that’s been giving my work away for a long time. Sometimes people offer me money for my art, and even without knowing all the information you’ve presented(I was referring to his concept of a trap of consumerism), it hurts my feelings when people offer me money. How do I reconcile?
His answer was straightforward common sense, the conventional wisdom. The same sort of thing my yoga teachers have said in past conversations. The same sort of stuff any adult will say over the counter to me while I’m making them espresso and milk at work. His version was a tad more elegant and elaborate, but the points were the same. “You have to decide for yourself what to do and do what makes you happy. Making money doesn’t mean making happiness, but if you don’t make money you have to deal with not having any.”
It’s the same stuff but it’s different hearing it from someone that’s unique honest and successful, as opposed to it coming from the average passer by that just seems to know everything about someone else’s life. It’s the same stuff anybody else says, just coming from him it seems more like a true story that a person can be successful with this attitude, more like experiential knowledge, empirically proven. Do I have anything about myself to change after that? Not at all, just now the idea of doing what makes oneself happy has even more validation for me.

Aightowa-An Inspiration in Living Sustainably

Aightowa

Welcome to Aightowa

            Our first full day in Kyoto we took a trip to visit Professor Armstrong’s host parents from her time as a student in the city.  The visit to Aightowa (the name of their property) turned out to be my favorite event of our tour of Japan.  Morisan Sensei has spent over fifty years creating a sustainable lifestyle that I found truly inspiring, and has further developed theories to apply his philosophies to communities and businesses.  His wife is a master doll artist and not only sells some of the finest dolls in Japan, but runs classes and doll making groups.  Between the incredible stories this couple had to share, the beautiful property they lived on, and the stunning landscape surrounding us, I would venture so far as to say this day changed my life.

I love being in the mountains. A lot.

I love being in the mountains. A lot.

            I was first struck by the beauty of where we were on the walk from the train station to Aightowa.  Getting off the train was the first time I felt like we were actually in the mountains, and immediately I felt at home. Ahead, the earth sprawled majestically skyward, while behind us the valley revealed terraces of rooftops extending toward more mountains in the hazy distance.  The neighborhood we were passing through was a bit more suburban then the densely packed concrete and neon jungles we had previously spent much our time in, and I found myself highly appreciative of the more traditional architecture and more frequent appearances of nature. Along the way, we ventured through a small bamboo forest, and I found myself completely shocked at how tall the stalks grew!

I love being in forests. A lot.  I now know that bamboo forests are no exception

I love being in forests. A lot. I now know that bamboo forests are no exception.

            When we arrived at Aightowa I instantly felt like this was somewhere I belonged.  The seamless integration of nature with the living space was exactly what I had envisioned when I thought about sustainability in Japan and was inspired to apply for this trip.  As Morisan Sensei described to us his vision and how his property reflected that vision, I was constantly reminded of the life my Mom created for my sisters and I at home and became increasingly convinced that this was the lifestyle I wanted to return to.  The general idea is that one produces as much as possible to meet his or her own needs.  Morisan Sensei was the first Japanese citizen to purchase solar panels for his own personal use nineteen years ago (an act that first brought him into the spotlight as a pioneer of sustainability).  A moderately sized, self-tended garden provides a significant amount of the food consumed at Aightowa, some of the plants are used to shelter the car port, and other deciduous trees are used to provide shade in the summer and sunlight in the winter.  Dead or trimmed logs are used in the fungal garden or as seats, multiple compost piles allow for disposal of all wastes effectively.  Everything has a purpose.  The woodstove provides heat for the house as well as cooking, although it does not live up to Mother’s six stove top woodstove.  I wish I could list all the incredible innovations Morisan Sensei had come up with to create and reuse as many of his own resources as possible, but it would take hours (our own tour took nearly two hours, and that was with visual aids)!

A portion of the vegetables grown at Aightowa.

A portion of the vegetables grown at Aightowa.

            What I can do is relay some of the philosophy Morisan Sensei shared with us as we gathered in the house.  The key to sustainable living, he claimed, is combining older modes of living as generalists and in strong communities with modern technology.  I have always envisioned Japan as the epicenter of such blending of ancient tradition with modernization, hence my interest in traveling there, so I was taken aback to learn that Morisan Sensei is unique among the Japanese for having such views.  To demonstrate how his style of sustainable living makes sense, Morisan Sensei divided human history into three ages: Primitive, Agricultural, and Industrial.  He had a lot to say about each of these ages, but the takeaway point was that in the industrial age we had developed the technology for mass production, but no longer held regard for the finite resources provided to us by the earth that we had in earlier ages.  He posited that if we re-attained an appreciation for and cognizance of these limited resources, we could combine that with modern technology to enter a fourth age, which he dubbed the Age of Awareness.

The Shinto religion worships the myriad Gods that exist throughout the natural world

The Shinto religion worships the myriad Gods that exist throughout the natural world

            The way Morisan Sensei proposed this society shift should take place is what really changed my outlook on life.  Simply put, he suggested that if we began to draw our happiness from what we create, rather than what we consume, we can reach the age of awareness.  This seemingly simple idea seemed to sum up a philosophy I have been trying to form for years, but was unable to put into words; our standard of living has far exceeded what we need to be comfortable and happy, but we remain dissatisfied because of our need to consume more.  Of course, such a shift in perception in impeded by layers of media portrayals and corporate motivations plastered on so thick it is hard to see the other side, but I believe it can be done.  I can look up to my mom, and the happiness she draws from her small farm, even when it requires five hours of her attention after a nine hour workday.  I can take ideas and inspiration from Morisan Sensei and his wife, who use profits from selling dolls (some of which go for upward of $10,000!) to become more sustainable, because it is artistry and self-reliance that make them happy. I can make changes to my own life and share it with others and start making these societal changes.

Some Beuatiful dolls wave hello or farewell as you enter or leave Aightowa

Some Beuatiful dolls wave hello or farewell as you enter or leave Aightowa

            Ok, so maybe I am being a bit idyllic, but these ideas really gel with my life philosophies, and have helped me to solidify some of my beliefs, and I really do intend to start living by some of them.  I have already reached out to my friends Tara and Craig about their work with eating healthier and more sustainably (you can go read their awesome blog The College Greens).  I probably won’t go vegan as they have, but I can certainly start finding foods grown locally and by companies not driven by profit to the cost of the future (Craig and Tara, hold me to this).  Anyway, I wish I could convey everything I learned in my five or so hours at Aightowa, but I hope I was able to convey how cool this lifestyle is and how it has influenced me in this (somewhat) short space!

Looking down the mountain from Aightowa provides a host of stunning views!

Looking down the mountain from Aightowa provides a host of stunning views!

Spark that ignites a new passion for Japan?

I have to be completely honest, before this trip I had no real interest in visiting Japan or Asia at all for that matter.  At Bucknell I study Biology and Spanish.  The majority of my cultural and traveling experiences have revolved around Spanish speaking countries and my proficiency with the language.  If you had given me the choice before this trip to travel anywhere in the world I would have picked ten other countries before I picked Japan.  I’ve never had any negative feelings towards Japan or Asia but also never had any really strong desires to visit.  If it were not for the gracious funding from the Japan Foundation I might not have ever realized that I really loved Japanese culture and language.  After visiting Japan I have already decided that next year I want to take Japanese 101 and 102.  I also have hopes of returning to Japan.  The people there were so nice and genuine.  I loved being there and could not see my future without visiting again at least once.

 

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Food!

One of the key aspects of a culture is its customs with food. Luckily we had PLENTY of opportunity to try all sorts of culturally typical Japanese foods.

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“Parent and Child” Chicken and Egg over rice with Soba Noodles

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A typical japanese fast food breakfast – Miso, rice with raw egg, beef and tea!

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Sushi and Sake for Lunch!

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Shrimp Tempura Soba

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Bento box for dinner on the Shinkansen

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Spicy three cheese tofu in Kyoto

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Japanese Omelet

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Dumplings

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Matcha (Green Tea) Ice cream

 

I think he best way to learn about another culture is to completely immerse oneself in it.  One way of doing this is through a cultures food.  Luckily in Japan we got the opportunity to try many different foods.  I felt like by experiencing the food of Japan and the customs surrounding food, I better experienced the ancient Japanese culture.

 

 

 

“Americans” in Japan

 

On Thursday we visited Lake Biwa in the Shiga Prefecture – an ancient lake that is estimated 1 million years old that is also the largest lake in all of Japan.  We were fortunate enough to have Dr. Katsuki Nakal, a research biologist and curator as a guide thru the tour.

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Lake Biwa is home to around 1700 species of plants and animals.  Around 50% of the animals in Lake Biwa and its surrounding tributaries are endemic species – meaning that they are unique to this region.  Endemic species are greatly important in terms of biodiversity because they are often not found anywhere else in the world.

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Unfortunately 83% of the endemic species in Lake Biwa are endangered.  This is in large part due to invasive species. Invasive species are species that are naturally found in an ecosystem that have a survival benefit over native species (usually due to lack of natural predators).  Two such species that are wreaking havoc in Lake Biwa are largemouth bass and bluegill sunfish – both hailing from America. In the 1980s there was a large increase in largemouth bass populations and a subsequent decrease in littoral (close to shore) fish populations.  The 1990’s saw a decrease in largemouth bass populations but an increase in bluegill sunfish populations.

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The introduction of these foreign species is disrupting the natural ecosystem of Lake Biwa and in turn threatening the existence of endemic species of the area.  Government agencies from both the national and prefectural level have implemented programs and laws to protect and preserve the threatened species of Lake Biwa.  One program encourages both commercial and recreational anglers to catch and NOT release any largemouth bass or bluegill sunfish, offering a bounty for capture.  While this program seems to be helping and is a good short-term response, it is not a sustainable solution.  The bounty is directly paid for by taxpayers and is not feasible as a long-term program.  Hopefully the financial incentive will bring the invasive species populations to a manageable level and the program can eventually be phased out saving both money and endemic species!

Sustainability

Does ability to fluently speak a language mean that you will not have any troubles and misunderstandings communicating with people from a culture where this language is native? Neither of us can really speak Japanese yet, but even without knowing Japanese perfectly, we clearly understand now that the answer is no.

Cultural Sustainability

I have heard about specifics in Japanese culture several times, but never had a clear idea of how exactly all this looks like. It is hard to say what is more important in this country – to know the language on an appropriate level, so that you can say what you want to say and understand what people tell you, or to be aware of cultural peculiarities, social norms, and unspoken rules. Such peculiarities are very important in every culture, but I believe that in Japanese culture they have their own, special place, and people of all ages value them a lot. We, foreigners, can be forgiven for not knowing and thus unconsciously violating them from time to time. However, the impression that we make in such situations is not the best one. But Japanese people are really delicate and tactful, so they may never tell you that you are doing something wrong. Japanese people themselves, on the other hand, can never be forgiven for violating the rules and norms that they are all supposed to know.

All this may sound too complicated and completely unnecessary, and yet it is not so at all. I personally see some kind of charm and specialty in this subtlety of communication. This shows that Japanese people have brought their own traditions and customs through ages without being completely influenced by other cultures. They have not lost their mentality, which I find worthy of great respect.

Cultural Sustainability

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Language Sustainability

But mentality is not the only thing that Japanese people have been keeping for ages. I find Japanese language magnificent as well. There is no surprise that it is difficult to learn for non-native speakers, but I am certain that it is worth learning. Though kanji characters may sometimes seem complicated, if you look at them closer, they all make perfect sense. Besides, the characters are not meant to be written in a hurry, and that is why each of them carry special atmosphere of calmness and concentration in every stroke. Exceptions are common in Japanese language, the amount of characters is enormous, but all this is an essential part of the whole Japanese culture, and it cannot be replaced by any other type of language.

We talked to a lot of people during our trip, and most of them did not know English, which is known as an international language. It may be seen as an inconvenience in communication, but for me it is clear evidence that Japanese people value their language very much and do not want to change it for any other, even if it could open lots of new opportunities to them. It is an illustration of self-sufficiency, rather than estrangement.

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Environmental Sustainability

The self-sufficiency which I mentioned above can also be seen in a way how environmental resources are used in Japan. Land of the Rising Sun is small, especially considering such big population, and the situation with resources can be tough. But our visit to Takayuki Mori’s environmental friendly house left a deep impression on me – not only because it was very cold in it (which is not surprising, as Mori-san does not waste the energy when it is not necessary), but mostly because it showed that people in Japan know how to efficiently use what they have and how to live in harmony with the environment that surrounds them. Using solar panels, reusing, recycling, and consuming only the amount of energy that they need without wasting it for nothing – everything mentioned is clear evidence of wise usage of resources that Japan has got.

A lot of places that we visited, both in big cities and in the countryside, were surrounded by strong green trees, crystal clear water of lakes and rivers, and were full of fresh air. On the other hand, everything is made for people’s lives to be convenient. The recycling system is greatly developed, and no garbage can be seen on the streets. Even when me took a local train (which I cannot call a subway train as it is not underground), we could see beautiful mountains most of the time, which fascinated me a lot. People and nature are neighbors in Japan. They are friends, not a consumer and a prey, and not rivals.

Golden Temple

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Nuclear Sustainability

Another thing that I found surprising was a lecture on nuclear sustainability in Japan given to us by Professor Hiroaki Koide. I am strong in neither biology nor chemistry, so there were things that I did not completely understand, but I got the main point from the very beginning: most of what I had thought about nuclear power is not true at all.

First of all, nuclear power is not as sustainable as it is believed to be. It uses uranium, and we do not have a large amount of it left, so soon enough people will run out of it. Second, nuclear power does not prevent global warming; rather, it makes it worse by heating the oceans and the whole atmosphere. So this is just another myth about the benefits of nuclear energy, which is not actually true. Also, the harm caused by radioactive waste produced by nuclear power plants is enormous. And the worst thing about it is, there is no safe way to dispose it.
All this, along with most people’s unawareness of what the nuclear power plants really are, is not just a problem that needs solution. It is a disaster that can by no means be ignored, but yet it often is. And this is really frightening.
I, however, believe that the way out of this situation can and will be found soon. During these eight days, I saw myself that Japanese people care a lot about environment of their country, and nowadays they tend to use more and more environmentally friendly resources and products, which shows their deep concern in what is happening in their country. This not only gives me hope, but also assures me that the solution will be found soon.

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In conclusion, I can tell one thing: after visiting Japan myself I realized that I had had no idea what this country is. And this is normal, I guess, as I barely can imagine the whole country with its people, nature, and language by only reading my textbook and searching information on the Internet. After all, it is better to see something once than to hear about it hundred times, right?
But actually, there is one more thing that I know for sure: I will definitely visit Japan again, when I have an opportunity to do it. Eight days are enough to have some adventures and to form an idea about the culture and current state of Japan, but it is definitely not enough to explore this fascinating country.

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JR and High-Speed Rail Sustainability – January 13, 2013

The morning after our return to the east coast, I met and spoke with a former train conductor. We talked about my trip and, inevitably, the conversation drifted toward the railways. It was actually kind of surprising how much he knew about the train system in Japan. I suppose this can be attributed to how admirable the system is to other countries.

In our trip, we were able to quickly and efficiently travel to many locations by train, be it JR or a private company. Trains were on time within seconds and a derailing was pretty much unheard of. The trains were clean, quiet, and the next stop arrival information was announced in both Japanese and English. Every train ride was a pleasant experience, and any stress felt was our own fault (failing to visit the restroom before boarding a non-restroom train, arriving late to catch a train, etc.)

The bullet train, or "shinkansen." It's so sleek and cool.

The bullet train, or “shinkansen.” It’s so sleek and cool.

The size of Japan as a country promotes the use of railways, but could something like this work in America? America is obviously much larger than Japan, but the entire Japanese island archipelago spans a length similar to the east coast of the US, Maine to around South Carolina or Georgia. Could railways be integrated into the east coast US at first?

My train-conducting friend says it is possible, but it will take a bit of time. Japanese railways have been a model system that the US has been jealous of for a while. We definitely could benefit from a serious train system; less pollution and less dependence on automobiles are all ideals we need to work toward. The US national budget simply has different priorities than that of Japan, so our progress toward this train ideal is slow. But it is progress nonetheless. This study tour is named “Sustainability in Japan.” What ideas can we apply to US? Railways are certainly a sustainable form of transportation. Could these become sustainable in America?

More Nuclear Energy Problems – January 11, 2013

In the shinkansen, a news banner at the front of the train car said that a crack was found in the nuclear reactor of one the 54 nuclear energy facilities in Japan. Fortunately, this reactor had already been shut down as of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, but was one of the facilities that officials were considering to reopen. Had it been reopened, the results could have been really bad.

Usually a mishap in some sort of non-nuclear power plant results efficiency loss or complete loss of power generation, not devastation of the surrounding area for generations to come. The Fukushima disaster will negatively affect many people for generations, whether it is medically, economically, or mentally.

Radiation has played a negative role in modern Japanese history for far too long. We need to do all that is within our control to reduce unnatural radiation risk and exposure; getting rid of the nuclear facilities will accomplish this.

A sign seen in the Fukushima train station. The sign reads that your visit to Fukushima is helping the prefecture regain its status. The cute bunny is thanking us.

A sign seen in the Fukushima train station. The sign reads that your visit to Fukushima is helping the prefecture regain its status. The cute bunny is thanking us.

I Like Turtles – January 7, 2013

Today at the temple, there were peaceful pools of water filled with koi and carp-like fish. It was serene and beautiful. But then, I saw a turtle. Back at school, I do research on turtle locomotion and turtle shell mechanical properties, so I naturally I am a freak for anything related to turtles. I noticed something peculiar about this turtle, though. It had red markings on its head. In fact, it was a red-eared slider.

Red-eared sliders, an invasive species of turtle. Spot all three turtles in the picture for a prize!

Red-eared sliders, an invasive species of turtle. Spot all three turtles in the picture for a prize!

Red-eared sliders are not native to Japan, and I figured out later that they were an invasive species in many parts of the world, Japan included. After I saw one, I saw another, and another… Maybe this peaceful garden was not as ecologically peaceful as one may think.

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Turtle species native to Japan, seen in the Lake Biwa aquarium. They are being bums and sitting by the heat lamp.

Space – January 6, 2013

Japan and America have very different ideas of space usage. In America, we have a bigger landmass, so there isn’t as much pressure to fit in (literally). However, in Japan things are different. When we first arrived at the Kinuya Hotel, we noticed that the doors were very small. As we entered our rooms, I couldn’t believe my eyes. There were two beds that were smaller than twin size, and very much closer to the ground. Don’t even get me started on the bathroom.

80% of our hotel room is represented in this picture. No, that is an exaggeration... more like 70%.

80% of our hotel room is represented in this picture. No, that is an exaggeration… more like 70%.

Usually small rooms get cramped and crowded, but these rooms weren’t uncomfortable at all. After this experience, I began to notice other slimmer accommodations. The roads and the cars that drove on them were much skinnier. An American Hummer car would actually cover the entire road here, that’s no joke. Beyond this, business have less cubic feet of space per floor, but make up for it by having multiple floors; a video game arcade with five or six floors is pretty common. Space costs a lot of money here, and that’s not just Tokyo. Fukushima is a smaller city, and the tight architecture was still there. As Armstrong-sensei told me, Japan grows up and America grows out. The trip is still young though, I might see something different later on!