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Writer inducted into intricacies of country life shares her story

by Louise George Kittaka

According to the old adage, “Home is where the heart is” — and Rebecca Otowa would no doubt agree. Home for Otowa is a 350-year-old farmhouse nestled on the edge of a tiny village in Shiga Prefecture, where generations of her husband’s family have lived. It is a lifestyle she has grown to cherish since arriving in rural Kansai as a bride more than 30 years ago.

“It has such a welcoming atmosphere and there’s a wonderful sense of continuity about it. Everything in the house has a story,” says Otowa warmly. “But I didn’t know what marrying the oldest son of the family would entail.”

Under her mother-in-law’s watchful eye, and with the matriarch’s frequently caustic tongue as her guide, Otowa set about trying to master the duties that went with her new status. Along with learning to care for the house came an appreciation of the values and traditions it represented.

Drawing on twin talents as an illustrator and writer, in 2010 she published “At Home in Japan,” a series of essays about the rhythm of life in her country home. It offers a rare glimpse into a lifestyle that few Japanese nowadays, let alone foreigners, have experienced.

Now her second book, a children’s guide to Japan, has just been released. “My Awesome Japanese Adventure” follows the exploits of 11-year-old Dan during a home stay. While Otowa avoids naming a specific location in the book, it was a conscious decision to have a rural setting.

“Judging from what I’ve seen, most kids books about Japan seem to focus on Tokyo. I deliberately wrote this to be about regional Japan,” Otowa says.

In contrast with the constancy of her life in Japan, Otowa’s youth was a transient one. Born in Southern California, her family moved to Australia in 1968, when she was 12, after her father became alarmed at the social unrest spreading across the United States at that time. A skilled cabinetmaker, he soon had a thriving business and the family settled into their adopted homeland.

Much of Otowa’s teenage years were taken up with playing the French horn, which led to a place in the Queensland Youth Orchestras and later to London on a scholarship to further her studies with renowned horn player and conductor Barry Tuckwell.

She enjoyed her first solo adventure abroad but headed home to Australia when her six months was up.

“My boyfriend at the time wanted me to return to Brisbane, so I enrolled in university there. I was fascinated by Asian culture and writing and I studied Japanese and Chinese as part of my undergraduate degree in Asian studies.” She smiles now at the irony, since a decision that was supposed to keep her in Australia ultimately took her farther away than her musical studies ever did.

Proving equally diligent in her language learning, she won a scholarship from the Japanese government to study at Otani University in Kyoto.

“It was intense!” she explains. “I was attending all these lectures in Japanese and also studying the tea ceremony at the Urasenke Center there in Kyoto. I was majoring in Buddhist studies at Otani and I think this opened me up to the traditional lifestyle that lay ahead.”

It wasn’t all work and no play, however. She met her future husband, a graduate student at a different university, through the Kobe Japan-Australia Society. When talk turned to marriage, Otowa faced a brief inner tussle about what she wanted from life.

“I’d been seriously contemplating entering a Buddhist monastery and had to think carefully about my future. But then I realized that marriage and raising a family could also be a path in Buddhism,” she says. “Over the years I got interested in other disciplines and I’m no longer a practicing Buddhist, but I’m certain that the things I learned through Buddhism have influenced the way I see the world.”

Upon visiting her fiancé’s home for the first time, Otowa knew she had made the right decision.

“As soon as I saw this place, I thought, ‘I want this to be mine.’ I fell in love with the guy and the house!” she chuckles. “His mother had several long talks with me to see if I knew what I was getting myself into. Of course, I didn’t!”

She had a brief respite from rural life in the mid-1980s when her husband was posted to Pittsburgh, during which time she had their second son. Her training began in earnest upon their return to Shiga in 1986. In addition to the regular rigors of running a home and raising children, she had to learn every aspect of the traditions and relationships that characterized life in the village.

“People don’t tell you what to do; you’re expected to watch and learn, so I often made mistakes. However, the one area in which my mother-in-law was very strict was greetings before we visited people. I would be coached and she would have me repeat the greeting to her verbatim before we even left the house. So I learned to pay attention and remember when we had seen that person last, so I could say the appropriate thing.”

Looking back, Otowa admits that some of the traditions were almost too much to bear at times. It was overwhelming when her husband’s siblings and families descended on the family home during the New Year’s and Bon summer vacation periods, when she was expected to run around serving everybody.

“I was angry a lot of the time. All the women would congregate in the kitchen and all the men somewhere else. It was my house and yet I was almost there on sufferance.”

Her mother-in-law passed away in 1999, making Otowa the undisputed mistress of her own home at last. “She was giving me instructions even into her last months, though!” she laughs.

With the passage of time, some aspects of village life have bowed to change, easing the burden on Otowa’s shoulders. The neighborhood temple, which dates from the 17th century, is cared for by just a handful of families, and in past years a lot of time was taken up with attending services. However, when the former priest died, it was no longer deemed necessary for a full-timer to take his place.

“People just don’t have the time to come to so many ceremonies these days,” Otowa says. “The new priest comes over from the next village when needed.”

One duty that remains is the job of maintaining the temple’s beautiful azalea garden, something of a local tourist attraction.

“We get bus-loads of people drawing up so we need to keep it looking good. I’d much rather work in my own garden!” she says wryly.

As her children grew up, Otowa carved out time for work outside the home, affording her a chance to be her own person rather than first and foremost a representative of the Otowa clan. She currently teaches in the Sociology Department at Ryokoku University in Kyoto and enjoys interacting with the upcoming generations.

Her writing and sketching have also been an important means of self-expression.

“I started working on my first book, ‘At Home in Japan,’ in 2003 just as something to do,” she explains. “It began life as a handwritten book of sketches over the course of a year, but nobody wanted to publish such a book due to the logistics. Then the Tuttle publishing company asked if I could tone down the illustrations and add some essays, and that’s how the book came about.”

Her publishers didn’t forget about Otowa’s artistic talents, however, and asked her to draw on them when they commissioned her next work.

“They thought it would be interesting to see what I could with a kids book. I was rather reluctant at first, but then we came up with the idea of doing it from the child’s point of view and that sparked my interest.”

The result is “My Awesome Japanese Adventure,” which marries Otowa’s quirky artwork with a wealth of information in a child-friendly format.

“It is essentially a child’s travel diary, covering September to December,” Otowa says of the book. “I thought a year was too long for a fifth-grader to be on a home stay here. Since I wanted to include New Year’s celebrations in the book, I started there and worked back.”

Having raised two sons of her own, it was a natural choice for Otowa to make the central character a boy, and both her children helped from time to time by offering their opinions on the material.

“In fact, my younger son made the cutouts of the martial arts figures that are featured in one of the layouts,” Otowa says.

Although the book is aimed at the “tweenage” market, with a target age range of 9 to 12, she believes it can work on two levels.

“Older children can read it for themselves, while younger children can enjoy the pictures while an adult reads to them.”

The Association of Booksellers in the United States has already chosen “My Awesome Japanese Adventure” for inclusion in their 2013 Best Books catalog.

Otowa is looking forward to hearing feedback from young readers and hopes her latest book will arouse and satisfy their curiosity about life in Japan, where Otowa feels very much at home but which remains a constant source of wonder for her.

Teachers and librarians interested in having Rebecca Otowa talk about her latest book may contact the author at palantir55@yahoo.com. For more about the book, visit www.tuttlepublishing.com/authors/otowa-rebecca/my-awesome-japan-adventure-hardcover-with-jacket. Send comments to community@japantimes.co.jp.