Why not slow down the pace and enjoy the countryside?

by Roberto De Vido

Special To The Japan Times

Last summer, a farmers market called Sukanagosso opened up in my village in western Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, and the timing could not have been better. A few months after the reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima No.1 nuclear power plant, and with uncertainty and cesium still in the air, there was a strong demand for local produce. So strong, in fact, that the Sukanagosso parking lot was jammed, and cars were lined up down the road in both directions waiting to get in.

The customers were mostly outsiders, though, some of the many visitors from Yokohama, Kawasaki and Tokyo who come to the Miura Peninsula to go to the beach, sail, breathe clean air, eat maguro donburi (bowls of tuna and rice) and clog the roads. The locals don’t need to shop at Sukanagosso because they’re the farmers who supply the farmers market. Or they’re the family members, friends and neighbors of the farmers.

This part of Yokosuka is only an hour’s drive from Tokyo, and just up the coast from Hayama, Zushi and Kamakura, where for centuries wealthy Tokyoites have maintained weekend homes.

But my village is mostly farmers and fishermen, and it moves to that rhythm. That is to say it moves slowly, as if with a spine curved by osteoporosis. The early morning soundtrack is fishing boat diesels and the occasional ambulance siren.

Of the two groups — fishermen and farmers — I know the farmers much better. The fishermen leave at dawn, which in summer is before 4 a.m., and they often stay at sea for several days. My neighbor Mr. Suzuki tells me he usually fishes near Nijima Island, 100 km south of here, and is gone for 3-4 days at a time. When he returns, his wife Keiko is a reliable source of fresh mackerel and sardines.

But as a work-at-home desk jockey trying to keep fit, I often run through the fields during the daytime and I pass the farmers in their fields. Because I’m American — and we’re like this, even when we’re invading your country — I wave and say hello. After six years here, I’ve trained nearly everyone to wave and say hello back. Many people throw in a smile at no extra charge.

The growing season here is year-round — cabbage or daikon in winter, and a more diverse range of produce in spring, summer and autumn. They grow broccoli, carrots, onions, leeks, potatoes, Chinese cabbage, cauliflower, (squash), cucumbers, zucchini, tomatoes, kuromame (black soy beans), red shiso (perilla), daikon and rice. The rice is mostly for personal consumption, though. This isn’t a commercial rice-growing area.

Thanks to my running, I know more about the area than most locals probably do, and I get opportunities every day to see a Japan that the tourism officials don’t put front and center in their marketing materials — a Japan that many Tokyoites, only an hour away, can’t imagine.

City dwellers know Miura by reputation, and maybe they’ve been here once or twice, but when I see them on the roads on summer Sundays and during the Golden Week holidays in May, sitting in six-hour traffic jams that the locals dodge thanks to their knowledge of the farm lanes, I imagine them being relieved to be heading back to their offices and apartments.

Village life is different. It is lived on a smaller scale than city life; it offers time, and space, to see and hear and smell. My next-door neighbor, Mr. Saito, flies his homing pigeons every morning, and I often stop to listen to the whir of their wings as they loop and swoop around our houses. Occasionally I see one that has gotten detached from the kit and been shut out of the dovecote, sitting on a window ledge — a homing pigeon locked out of his home.

Right outside my front door, a field of cabbage marches in rows toward the sea, only a few steps away. And this morning, everywhere I looked, leaves were cradling fat, glistening drops of rainwater. Running or walking around the village, I see farmers tilling, sowing, weeding and harvesting. Sometimes I am offered a handful of carrots or a cabbage to take home with me. I always say yes with thanks.

My old neighbor (I moved last April, to a different house in the same village), Mrs. Iimori, used to ask for help with her farm work now and then when her son-in-law was unable to take time off from his job. I was always happy to get my hands dirty, to drive the farm truck, water the rice seedlings and haul boxes of cabbage from the field to a pallet near the road. Now that I live a kilometer away, she doesn’t ask for help anymore, though I’d be thrilled to snap shut my MacBook and dash over there at a moment’s notice.

During the tsunami warning on March 11 last year, I saw from my house on a small hill that the tide had receded further than I’d ever seen it. I figured I’d be able to see a tsunami coming, and to outrun it (before you think me crazy, given the local geography, that is almost certainly possible), so I grabbed my camera and walked down to the harbor.

Most residents had evacuated to the local elementary school, but the fishermen were hanging out down by their boats, waiting to see what would happen. Wandering around snapping photos and chatting to the fishermen, I suddenly noticed that the tide had started to come back in very, very quickly. I managed to take some “before” photos, and when the tide had peaked — a meter and a half above its level 20 minutes earlier — I took some “after” photos.

The fishermen, mostly in their 60s, said they’d never seen anything like it. Here on the eastern coast of Sagami Bay we were shielded from the worst impact of the tsunami by the landmasses of both the Boso and Miura peninsulas, and although there are certainly a few people in the village who remember the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and the ensuing tsunami that devastated the Sagami Bay coast, none of them are still working as fishermen.

Some good friends, concerned about radiation and future tsunamis (they have three children and their house was at an elevation of only a few meters) recently moved to Okayama Prefecture, but for nearly everyone else here in the village, life continues pretty much as it was before March 11, 2011. We’re far enough away from Fukushima No.1 nuclear power plant that airborne radiation was never as much of a concern as it was in Ibaraki, Chiba and even Tokyo, and living so close to the sea, summer temperatures were cool enough that setsuden (electricity saving) was not a huge burden.

The farmers have finished harvesting winter cabbage now, and for the past few weeks they’ve been turning over their fields in preparation for springtime planting. During the next few weeks, I’ll run through the fields, just after the first green shoots have poked through the last layer of dirt, and wonder what crops will be identifiable a few days later. Broccoli? Kabocha? Another planting of cabbage, which might push me to make some sauerkraut, as I’ve been threatening to do for years?

Toward the end of April, Mount Fuji, easy to see across the bay for half the year, will disappear until September in the haze of a humid Kanto summer. I’ll still be able to see it in silhouette at the end of the day, with the sun setting behind the Izu Peninsula, but otherwise there won’t be a hint that it’s there. When I first came to this place, it was April. When I remarked at the spectacular view of snow-covered Mount Fuji across the bay, the property agent said, “It won’t be there next month.” I found that nearly impossible to believe, but of course he was right.

With Fuji invisible, the scale of village life becomes even smaller. I’ll spend a certain amount of time this summer pausing to inspect abandoned cicada shells, helping the kids collect periwinkles and mussels from the tide pools just down the cliff from the house, and — I hope — helping Mrs. Iimori harvest her tomatoes.

It will be another summer, like last summer but slightly different. I can’t wait.


Miura Peninsula: worth at least a weekend visit

If you want to spend a day on the Miura Peninsula, you’ve got two options: drive (and if it’s summertime, be prepared to spend a few hours — at least — in traffic) or take the Keikyu Line, out of Shinagawa in Tokyo, passing through Yokohama and Yokosuka, and terminating in Misakiguchi (my station) and Uraga.

From Misakiguchi or Miura Kaigan (the second-last stop, and last stop on the Tokyo Bay side of the peninsula), you can walk, or take a Keikyu bus to somewhere more remote.

Once on the peninsula, there are plenty of tuna restaurants, good hiking opportunities through the fields and along the rocky coastline, and Misaki Port is worth a visit. If you’re lucky you can see long-haul fishing boats unloading frozen tuna. And it’s impossible to escape the fish market without buying something — the salespeople there could sell ice to Eskimos.

There’s a nice old-style marine park in Aburatsubo, and in Kannonzaki, a more recent edition of a 400-year-old lighthouse. Kannonzaki is also home to what my limited research indicates is the fastest roller slide in Japan. It’s a 20-minute walk from the carpark in Kannonzaki Park, so it’s never crowded. Grab a rubber mat (to avoid getting a badly blistered bottom) from the box at the start and see where it fits into your personal ranking of Japanese roller slides.

You’ll need omiyage gifts for your city-bound friends and family, or yourself, and Miura daikon is famous throughout Japan (or at any rate, Kanto). For a few hundred yen, a family of four can eat (cesium-free) daikon for days. Can’t beat it.