Like a Yemenese bride-to-be who first sees the countenance of her fiance in a photo presented by relatives, Rebecca Otowa experienced a presentiment of her future in a black-and-white image of a building, a 350-year-old farmhouse in rural Japan.
Otowa’s book takes its place on the shelf alongside a long and well-regarded line of female authors who have written “lifestyle abroad” works. Many of these accounts, like Lady Fortescue’s “Perfume from Provence” and Mary Taylor Simeti’s “On Persephone’s Island,” come from the fertile, sun-blessed regions of southern Europe, where lassitude is cherished as much as hard work.
“We walked in the fields,” the author writes of her first visit to meet her future parents-in-law, “and his father picked a watermelon. We swam in the pond and wrote wishes on stones, tossing them into the water.” This evokes a pastoral idyll closer, perhaps, to the Midi than rural Kyoto, but we soon read that adjusting to life in the Japanese countryside is not all plain sailing.
We learn of her fiance’s parents’ stupefaction at hearing of their eldest son’s decision to marry a foreigner, that her parents were not invited to the wedding because “the Japanese relatives said that their presence would be too complicated for all concerned,” and that in the early years of living in the house she was scolded whenever she voiced an opinion, feeling or detraction.
Struggling to learn the ways of Japanese cuisine, she comes up against some entrenched attitudes about the gender segregation of duties in traditional households: “In one of our more memorable arguments,” she writes, “my mother-in-law said it made her sick to her stomach to see my husband, or my two sons, Goki and Yuki, working in the kitchen.”
Presenting herself as the newcomer, the odd person out in a well-ordered society, an optimistic outlook helps Otowa navigate a new life far removed from the breezy freedoms of her California and Australian upbringing. Affiliation is important in Japan, belonging and acceptance coming through association. Deeply appreciative of her venerable home and all the customs and traditions it embodies, Otowa determines to give something back in exchange for the spiritual nourishment it imparts. Life distinctly improves, the author seems to be saying, once you begin to perceive inherited duties as a privilege rather than a burden.
In short vignettes and narrative fugues on the beauty of nature, the author explores a number of well covered areas of quotidian life, such as the Japanese bath, futons, cherry blossoms and the summer festival of the dead, but in contextualizing the subjects, reinvigorates them. Reading an account of replacing winter doors with summer ones — wiping the former down, carrying them to the storehouse and carting the latter into the house — turns into a satisfying rather than vexing experience, reminding us that houses like this are hard work, but the rewards are commensurate with the effort. As her attachments grow, the author moves emotionally closer to her surroundings, rejoicing in the plenitude of rural life. The result is a book pungent with sounds, tastes, colors and village and family lore. Sensitized to nature, the turning of the seasons, the renewal of memory and sensation, the author writes of autumn, “The scents are the sour reek of fallen persimmons, the warm dusty miasma of straw and rice husks, and the sharp tang of the blue-smoke burning stubble.”
The writer is immensely proud of her role as custodian of this house full of altars, ghosts and remembrance of things past, resigned to devoting her days to family, community, introspective pleasures, the eternal cycles of life and death. “Our graveyard,” she writes, “is a quiet bower, a clearing in the grove, with ancient, worn tombstones dotted here and there in the grass.” Far from being a reflection on mortality, the plangent beauty of a country glade in early autumn, Otowa gives us a book of celebration, radiance and renewal.
Rebecca Otowa will speak about her book at the Amita Honten in Kyoto (across the road from Heian Jingu) Feb. 27 at 3 p.m.