High, steep mountains entirely surround Kuma County, my home. The mountains are so imposing that the most common way to leave the valley is through tunnels. To reach the nearest city, Yatsushiro, residents of Kuma County have to drive through twenty three long tunnels. I can’t imagine that the people of Kuma traveled over those mountains very often one hundred years ago. That would have been an arduous and dangerous journey. In fact, I’m told that people long ago rarely left, if ever, and sometimes I meet elderly people who have never been outside the county. My wife’s family have been in this area for centuries most likely. Most families here are the same.
The mountains are more than just a physical boundary. They are also a psychological barrier from the outside world. It creates a dome around me and after a decade, everything within the valley feels like “here” and everything outside the valley is “out there”. Everything from Yatsushiro to America feels like “out there”. This cocoon has warped my sense of travel time and distance. I was a currier and then a traveling musician for a couple of years back in the States and driving for several hours was routine. But now, any drive over 30 minutes is “long”.
The people of Kuma have a distinct dialect of Japanese known as Kuma-Ben. The valley has so isolated the people here for so many centuries that they developed a dialect distinct from even Yatsushiro. For example, everyone knows that “thank you” in Japanese is “Arigato” but in Kuma, they say “Dandan-na”. In “standard” Japanese, “It’s hot, isn’t it?” is “Atsui desu ne” but in Kuma, they say “Gya nukkana”. The isolation has created a dialect difficult to understand in cities 50 kilometers away. However, television, Youtube, and open, cheap communication have caused the use of this local dialect to shrink. Sometimes, my wife had trouble understanding her late grandma. (RIP Grandma Ogata). Soon, no one will speak Kuma-Ben anymore. That’s just the way of it sometimes, isn’t it.
“The ringing of the bells at Gion Shoja declares the impermanence of all things.”
The Tales of the Heike
It’s beautiful here. Truly, deeply beautiful. The kind of beauty that makes you slow down and breathe deep. Before coming to Japan, I lived in Washington State and the rainforests there offer a lush green, intimate beauty. I also lived in majestic Colorado under the incredible Rocky Mountains and wide intimidating sky. Kuma County offers some of both. Lush green forests and blooming flowers under a regal dome of blue.
It’s so easy to forget the rest of the world while living here. Most of the residents here do. They know and care very little about the outside world. It would be the easiest thing in the world to close the door, pull the shades, and just imagine that this dear valley was the whole world. But the events of the world keep me engaged by necessity. There is simply too much going on to just limit the scope of my interest and pretend that something intense, historic, and significant is not happening in the rest of the world. It would be intently tone deaf to just whistle and say, “Everything is fine!”
But it’s exhausting, isn’t it? It has been for me. 2016 wore me out and we’re not anywhere near done. But I am able to spend most of the day and night away from the constant barrage. I can just turn it off. I live in Kuma County where the rest of the world doesn’t mean so much. That break allows me to stay alert. To refresh my mind. But not only that, turning off the TV, closing the computer, and taking a careful look at the beauty of the people around me reminds me what we struggle for.
If we forget that humanity is beautiful and the world is amazing, we literally have nothing to fight for. I want this blog to be a place where you can come to remind yourself what the important things are. Awe. Beauty. There will be no politics discussed here. Politics is immensely important. Right now, it may be the most important thing there is. But there are more than enough places to do that, to voice your anger and resistance. And you have to. But not here. Let’s have a place where we show the beauty of humanity and the world we live in. I want to show you Kuma County and the amazing people who live here. But I also want to explore the majesty of life itself. The human experience. I do this mostly for my own peace of mind but if you’d like to come along, I’d love to have you.
Welcome to A Foot of Jade.