by Andy Couturier: Much of what you will read in this book was originally published in 2010 under the title A Different Kind of Luxury…
This revised version with its new format and many new photographs has been updated at the end of each person’s profile with how their lives have changed in the intervening years. Given the book’s setting in Japan, and the environmental activism of the people in it, I felt it important to write about how they have understood and coped with the aftermath of the meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant of March 2011. The other notable difference is the addition of a substantial afterword, where I have discussed more directly my own journey and some ways we might apply what the people profiled in this book have to teach us to our lives in the West.
I have always thought it was possible to live a great life. Beyond all the nightmares we hear about in the news, there is a larger world surrounding us: not just the resplendent world of nature, but also our own potential as people to live well, to connect with each other, to do meaningful work, to make powerful art, and to forge a different kind of future for ourselves and for the next generation.
These ideas were still very unformed for me, however, when, in our mid-twenties, my partner Cynthia and I moved to Japan. Deciding to teach English for a year or two in a country we knew very little about was a bit of a sideways step in pursuit of our goal of crafting “the good life” for ourselves. Before we decided to go to Japan, we had met some vibrant and intelligent people on the West Coast of the United States who had created lives in the countryside that were more sustainable and more in touch with nature than the hyper- busy lives of stress and environmental destruction that most people in the United States seemed to be living. Japan was supposed to be a way station for us. We planned to save money and return to Oregon or California and buy some land where we could build our own house and see how much of our own food we would be able to grow. We wanted to provide for ourselves as much as we could.
We’d heard that Japan was even more money- oriented and status- conscious than the United States—although that was hard to believe—and we knew it was a very conservative place. Arriving in Japan, we found much of this to be true. But in the course of doing some environmental activism, we were surprised to meet some entirely different types of people than the businessmen we were teaching. One of them, an outspoken woman named Atsuko, invited us to visit her “old farmhouse in the mountains, where we live simply and grow our own food.” I thought, Here, in Japan? We accepted the invitation, and a different world opened in front of our eyes.
The lushness of the Japanese countryside can hardly be exaggerated. With fertile soil and plenty of rain, even the insect life is staggering in its variety and beauty. The rivers here are clear and pure, and the profusion of plant life in the summer crowds every fold and crevice of the steep mountainsides.
On our long drive up to Atsuko’s farmstead from the provincial city where we were living, we saw old houses among the deep green cedar trees with weathered timbers, old tile roofs, and rice-paper doors. This was the beauty of old Japan. When we emerged from the woods onto the ridgetop and pulled up to Atsuko’s house, the steep valley fell away before us, its terraced rice paddies and profuse vegetable gardens just like an old wood-block print. We couldn’t believe such a world still existed in industrial Japan.
Stepping into the house, we met Atsuko’s husband, Gufu, a potter and eclectic amateur botanist, who had prepared an incredibly delicious meal for us. As we savored his elaborately prepared Indian curries, soups, and spicy pickles, we learned that both of them had lived for years on the subcontinent. Then Gufu showed us their ceramics, which were deeply influenced by the arts of Persia, Nepal, and Indian tribal minorities. It was a world we could not have imagined stumbling into when we first boarded the plane to Japan a few months before.
Many meetings followed from that first day. As our friendship with Atsuko and Gufu grew, Atsuko introduced us to some of her friends in different parts of rural Japan who were living lives grounded in similar values. Many of them, intriguingly, had also spent years living in India and Nepal, and what they learned there seemed to influence everything from their emphasis on making things with their own hands to their spiritual and philosophical orientation toward life. Yet I found that they also maintained a connection with “old Japan” that seemed so authentic that I felt as if I might have stepped right into the past. When I said as much, however, I was corrected right away. “I’m not living a life of the past,” said Osamu Nakamura, the woodblock carver who lives one valley over from Gufu and Atsuko, “I am alive today, making an experiment, trying to find the best way to live now, in the present day.”
I noticed something else. They seemed to have a lot of time. All around us in the Japanese city where we worked, people were even more scheduled, even more rushed, and even more overwhelmed by tasks than in the United States. But out here in the mountains there was time for long conversations … and good conversations too. As my Japanese improved, I came to understand that they were living out a real philosophy: they had set up their lives—or more specifically, their days—so that they had time to think on the most important questions.
Like people the world over, they had to provide for their needs, but they were doing it with the minimum possible interaction with the huge economic system roaring all around them. In this way they had found a remarkable freedom. And in my estimation they were using that freedom really well. At the same time, they seemed to be solving some of the thorny dilemmas of modernity.
One of the particularly interesting things I found was that they did not use money to entertain themselves. They also chose to do many tasks by hand even as the rest of the industrialized world was performing these same tasks with laborsaving, push-button devices (that had to be purchased). But—and this amazed me—for all that my new friends did manually, they did not seem to be overwhelmed or rushed at all. And neither did their intellectual life suffer in the least from all this time spent making what they needed or growing and cooking their own food. Quite the contrary. Each person had forged a deep understanding of what this life is about. Unlike so many people of my acquaintance in the West, whether mainstream or alternative, they were living profoundly satisfied lives.
As a result of meeting them, Cynthia and I decided to stay in Japan much longer than we originally intended. We have continued to visit over the years, trying, in part, to understand what it is about their lives that gives them such fulfillment in their days. Many of these lessons we have been able to put in practice in our own lives in the United States, especially our time spent on our rural homestead in the mountains of California. (Much more about this in the afterword.)
This book is not a blueprint for achieving “the good life.” It’s a book of stories, the stories of ten people’s journeys, both literal and metaphorical. The stories can be read sequentially, or in any order you choose.
The conditions of their lives are undoubtedly different than ours. For example, the old farm houses most of them live in can be rented very, very cheaply because homes have been left vacant by the mass exodus to Japan’s cities over the last fifty years. Yet these people who have chosen an individual path in a country where “the group” is revered have also faced pressures to conform that few of us in the West can imagine. They’ve tried to find a way to live very free lives, in harmony with their values, given the particular circumstances they find themselves in. I believe, however, that many of the principles they live by are valid for us as well as we struggle against the currents of our consumption- and waste-oriented system. In fact, I have applied these ideas in my own search.
While these are individuals making individual choices, their choices speak to huge worldwide problems, all the way from global climate change and the unpredictable turbulence of economic systems to the sense of personal alienation and despair that so many people suffer from. They have done it not by following a monolithic program but by finding a different kind of enjoyment in life—not something that we purchase off the shelf, but rather the kind we can create in ourselves, from our very own lives. Although the answers they point us toward may seem small in scale, the more each of us moves toward a more fulfilling life, reducing our contribution to the destruction of the earth, and taking care of ourselves and our communities, the better the world we will bequeath to those who come next.
The words spoken in this book were all originally in Japanese. In my translation process, I’ve done my best to render their ideas and ideals and stories into our very different language. It would be good to remember how this is only a version of their lives as seen by one person with his own worldview and values.*
You may notice also that I’ve avoided the use of the word “lifestyle,” as I think it misrepresents what it is these people have achieved. What they are doing is not a fashion or a style; it is a deeply considered and, I think, very principled way of life, one that can be called truly sustainable, meaning something that people could practice for hundreds of years. None of them are perfect, but this is not a piece of hard-hitting journalism. It is unapologetically a celebration. I believe in the good.
Each person agreed to be profiled, and each of them has generously given dozens of hours of their time, patiently explaining their ways of thinking, bridging the cultural gap, and re-explaining Japanese words or concepts to me when I did not at first understand. They have let me stay in their homes, fixed me meals, provided me with copies of their written work, along with hundreds of other small kindnesses. This book is in a large way of their making as well.
I hope you can take your time here, inside of this book. It is a fact that our modern system steals our time. The people you will meet here have created their good lives, at least in part, by wresting it back. By resisting the urge to hurry through this book, you too may start to get a sense of this “slowed-down life.”
Getting to spend so much time with the people I’ve profiled here has been an authentic joy, and would have been enough reason to write it. But I do think this book can have a broader meaning than simply a celebration of these specific individuals.
All over the world people suffer from the unhealthy nature of this system we’re in. Some of its distortions of our humanity, however, have become so woven into our way of life that we may not even notice them, like a loud machine in the background that we only become aware of after it is turned off. You might even say our society has conned us into looking for satisfaction in ways that simply do not work. The stories and philosophies of the people here, I hope, might show a path out of this formidable morass. But even if they only serve as a window onto a different set of possibilities and let you meet some very extraordinary people, and perhaps give you a smile or a laugh, that too is a start.