Last year, on June 10, my dear friend Eiji Nakahara died. He was 65.
Many readers will remember Eiji, owner and gifted chef of the Tatsunoko pension here in Kurohime. Especially during those heady “bubble” years of the mid 1980s, and through to the end of the century, when herds (or flocks?) of bankers and other financial types invaded Tokyo, Tatsunoko became extremely popular with the expatriate community. For years, 90 per cent of his clientele were foreigners. He didn’t advertise, but his fame as a cook and word of his marvelous hospitality spread from mouth to mouth. In the ski season, Tatsunoko would be booked solid.
I came to Kurohime a year before Eiji did, and for 25 years he was my closest friend. We shared many interests, but some we didn’t. I don’t like golf and Eiji wasn’t in the least interested in martial arts or kayaking. I prefer cross-country skiing, but Eiji liked the slopes. We did share a love of good food, wine, flowers, trees and the simple beauty of things in everyday use. (Not to mention the occasional naughty joke.) Eiji was an expert on wild flowers, lacquerware, ceramics and furniture — and he even had the superb good sense to be a fan of my historical novels!
Guests might turn up at Kurohime Station at 9 at night or later, but they would still be met by a good-natured Eiji, waiting to drive them up to his hostelry in the hills. Then, especially if he took to you, he would rustle up a mouthwatering hot meal and stay up to chat like there was no tomorrow — even though he and his wife and staff would be up early the next morning to prepare a marvelous breakfast. Then, in the skiing season, they’d drive people up to the slopes.
A dream with a view
Eiji’s dream was to build a small but exclusive and tasteful inn adjoining our beautiful Afan Woodland Trust propertyhere in the Nagano Prefecture hills. We had drawn up a contract, and the plan had been approved by the trust’s board to give him a long lease on a plot of land I donated to the trust, and which had easy access and a great view.
Eiji was all set to build and run the inn, while the woodland would provide firewood, charcoal and mushrooms — shiitake, golden winter, oyster mushroom and others, wild or spored on logs. We would also provide wild mountain vegetables, mountain yams, chestnuts, walnuts, wild grapes and much more natural fare in season besides. We and the inn would keep records of when, how and what was used, and this would be valuable data to help understand the productivity and use of a healthy woodland. Guests would stick to rules when walking, snow-shoeing or cross-country skiing in the woods, and we would warn and take care of them when we knew there were bears around or when huge hornets had nested by a trail. Guided tours too, by request.
After a lot of discussion, and that final approval from the board, Eiji began to plan and design the project in detail. He hired an architect, and began to buy ceramics and art. However, he was fighting cancer. We all thought and earnestly hoped that the dream would keep him going.
Some years ago I and another dear friend, Makoto Yasui, my former literary agent in Japan, had been sipping whisky around a campfire one starry night, when the conversation turned to thoughts and jokes about mortality. There is something dark and Celtic about whisky that tends to bring the subject up at times. If you (or friends) have Welsh or Irish blood, you’ll know what I mean.
In my will, I have specified that when it comes my turn to fall off the perch, I want my ashes to be dumped beside my favorite big oak, with a stone bench set there for people to rest on. I’ve included in my will a short poem to be carved around the edge of the stone. It’s about sitting quietly, listening to the birds and the frogs, the breeze in the trees and the chuckle of a nearby brook — followed by a little bracketed message . . . (Young Ladies Especially Welcome).
When I told Makoto about my will that night in the glow of the campfire, he laughed and said that he’d like a simple stone — “just over yonder,” he said, pointing. Makoto has a traditional Japanese family grave, but when he died I remembered that evening and we set a small natural river stone in the woods as a memorial for him.
Eiji had visited Makoto’s stone with me when we went mushroom-picking, and when Eiji passed away his wife Takeko asked for a similar memorial. Eiji’s family have their official grave at a temple in Hagi in Yamaguchi Prefecture by the Sea of Japan, which is where his ashes have been laid to rest. But on June 17 just gone, a year and a week since Eiji’s death, we had a gathering of relatives and friends for a new memorial in our woods.
Eiji’s, too, is a natural river stone, and it’s engraved with a simple message in English, so all his international friends can understand it. It’s what his wife, daughter, son and sister wanted. To reach the stone takes a quiet 7-minute stroll through the woods along a soft path laid with woodchips. In the morning it is shaded by a beautiful mountain cherry tree.
On the slope below we cleared out a lot of dead or dying scrubby growth, so for the next few years, until the growing trees shade most of them out, the area will be carpeted with violets in Spring. On this gentle slope we planted a few hundred deciduous trees, many of which will give flowers, fruit, acorns or nuts to attract birds and other wildlife.
Happy and wild times
To lower the aquifer a bit and allow surrounding trees to grow deeper roots and be stronger and more healthy, we also dug a little channel which runs constantly with clear, cold water, and which is now colonized with the tiny black water snails that firefly nymphs prey on. One of our nearby ponds gives a fine display of fireflies in the summer, and I’m looking forward to them finding this new little man-made stream too.
Some years ago, Eiji had planted red maples and Japanese dogwood trees around his private lodge near my house. They grew well, so we transplanted one of each to keep the memorial stone company with the wild cherry tree, a magnificent wisteria vine and all the other trees and flowers that will make the place serene and beautiful.
It’s not a gloomy grave site. It’s a simple stone that will soon be covered with moss. It will provide a quiet place to remember Eiji and those happy and sometimes wild times we all had at Tatsunoko. Hey! Remember the great barbecues and the snowball fight in the lounge!
Eiji’s wife, Takeko, still runs Tatsunoko, and his good friend Harumi is upholding the tradition of fine food and wine . . . or sake, shochu, beer, whisky — whatever you prefer. So, dear readers and all our friends, do come back and see the woods that Eiji so loved.
Such a stone is not out of place in the woods. It will be a perch for dragonflies and birds, and maybe a hard table for thrushes to crack snails on. Rocks protruding from the ground also radiate warmth into the soil and encourage growth. They become part of the natural scenery and are not at all spooky.
I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings or offend sensitive beliefs, but I think that graves take up too much space. Also, the idea of embalming a body and burying it in a casket contrived at great expense to long delay it and its contents’ return to the soil seems appalling to me.
On the other hand, my grandparents and parents were cremated and had their ashes scattered, so when I go to Britain there really is no place where I can visit and center my memories. I kind of miss that. Here in our woods I can take a stroll and whisper a quiet greeting to both Makoto and Eiji — or maybe sit down with a warm rock to lean on, sip a whisky from my hip flask, contemplate the passing of time and friendship . . . all while quietly enjoying the changing woodland scenery.
Does that seem maudlin? Well, this old Celt claims the right to maudle — and it’s better done there than in the corner of a bar somewhere.