In Shion Miura’s “The Easy Life in Kamusari,” Yuki Hirano is looking forward to relaxing, hanging out with his friends and focusing on his love life after graduating from high school in Yokohama. Leaving behind the rigors of the Japanese education system, he sees the attraction of a furītā (serial part-time worker) lifestyle. His parents, however, have other ideas, and enroll him in a forestry training program in Mie Prefecture.

The Easy Life in Kamusari, by Shion Miura
Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter
206 pages

From Yuki’s perspective, Miura’s novel, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, could almost be the opening of a horror story: Sent away by unloving parents, he is met by a complete stranger at a rural train station. This man, whose short, bleached blonde hair makes him look “every inch a gangster,” takes Yuki’s phone and throws its battery into the woods. He then drops him at another stranger’s house and leaves him there for the night.

This isn’t horror, though. Rather, it’s an upbeat coming-of-age story told in a warm, direct style with mild humor. The “easy life” of the title is a joke, as nothing is easy for Yuki. In Miura’s fictional Kamusari, an isolated mountain village surrounded by dense forests and centered around the Nakamura Lumber business, Yuki struggles.

Keeping up with the physical demands of his job, learning the technical aspects of tree husbandry, fitting into a small community, making sense of the internal politics of the village and winning the heart of one of the only other young adults in the community all prove to be difficult for him. It’s no surprise that he tries to escape back to Yokohama the first chance he gets.

Detailing Yuki’s first year in Kamusari, this short novel is meticulously researched and told with an obvious love for its subject matter — the beauty of rural life. The trend in Japan is still toward urbanization, and many rural communities are dying as a result. Woven into Yuki’s experiences is the kind of folk wisdom and lore that historians despair at losing. Traditional methods of tree-felling mix with modern techniques as Yuki is taught not only how, but why things are done this way. The villagers take great pride in both their skill and their long history tending to the forests and mountains. Their wood is in great demand across the country, but their motivation is deeper than mere capitalism.

In Kamusari, the hills are alive with the old gods, witches and spirits. The community takes their role in the supernatural order of things seriously, observing ancient rituals and treating nature with a level of respect that, to Yuki’s city eyes, seems ridiculous and embarrassing. Eventually, he begins to see the mountains as the villagers do; not as barriers keeping him from the rest of the world but as an endlessly fascinating, dynamic system. “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” writer Robert M. Pirsig famously wrote that “the only Zen you find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there,” but Yuki eventually finds plenty in the hills of Mie.

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