When Osamu Nakamura is not in the mountains of Nepal studying woodblock print making, he’s almost always in the small farmhouse among the terraced rice fields in the interior of Shikoku that he calls home. He has no telephone, so if you want to visit, you have to stop by to see if he is in.
As I walk up the narrow footpath (his place is still inaccessible by car) I call out a greeting, and the shaven-headed gentleman with bushy black eyebrows slides back the shoji doors and invites me in for a cup of locally harvested tea.
As he makes a fire in the sunken pit in the middle of his floor, I look around at the meticulously stacked firewood, bamboo shelves, mud walls and, in the corner, a stone grinder for making flour from wheat berries.
I tell him that I really admire the traditional life that he leads.
“I am not living a lifestyle of the past,” he corrects me. “I am alive here, now, in the 21st century. I live like this as an experiment to find out what is the best way for a human being to live.”
What does he mean? Entering Nakamura’s three-room cottage certainly gives one the feeling of stepping into another era, with the old-style doma, (dirt-floored entryway and cooking area), the authentic wood-fired clay cook stove that Nakamura built himself and only three light bulbs and a radio to remind you that you are still in the present century.
“Everything I do is because I enjoy doing it this way,” he tells me. “It’s true that I could start cooking on a gas stove, but then I would lose the pleasure I get from gathering and splitting firewood, and if I didn’t grow and prepare my own food, I would lose the enjoyment of tilling the soil or making curry potatoes and Nepali fried bread.”
Similarly, when I try to give Nakamura some money for one of his handsome black-and-red prints, he explains that he is not interested in receiving money for his artwork.
“If I did, it might spoil the enjoyment I get from the process of carving.”
Though he spends less than 400,000 yen a year, he owns no cheaply made or plastic items of any kind. Among his few possessions are his straw rain hat, a woven bamboo backpack for carrying things and a fine collection of antique agricultural hand tools. These are not museum pieces, but are for everyday use in cultivating, clearing the land, repairing the terraces or cleaning out the pit toilet.
“The thing about Nakamura,” says Hank Glassman, one of his many visitors and a researcher into Japanese history, “is that he’ll live on almost no money at all for months, and then he’ll spend 30,000 yen or 40,000 yen on a single tool.”
To make the money he does use, every October Nakamura works baking mochi over a charcoal fire pit at the reconstructed Edo Period village Asuke Yashiki in Aichi Prefecture, for urban visitors eager for a taste of old Japan.
How did he decide to live a life using almost no money?
“About 20 years ago I quit my job in a factory to travel the world. I was worried that I might experience regret when I got older if I hadn’t gone, and I didn’t want that.
“I was bicycling in Sweden when I came to the last of my money. Every day I went to 50 different places looking for work, and each place just told me ‘No.’ Every night my stomach hurt from hunger and especially from stress — I was so worried about what I would do. I even started, in the back of my mind, to think about stealing food, just to get something to eat.
“At the last moment, however, I found a job as a dishwasher. I decided then that I didn’t ever want to live a life that depended upon having an income.”
It was when Nakamura visited the mountain villages of Nepal that he first met and lived with people existing almost totally outside the cash economy. He spent most of the 1980s living there in a small mountain hut while studying the techniques of woodblock printmaking.
Nakamura still travels to Nepal every third year for a three-month period to continue to study with his teacher, a master carver and Buddhist priest from Tibet.
Like the minute geometric designs he chisels into the cherry woodblocks, Nakamura’s way of speaking is both precise and evocative. His thoughtful face often breaks into animated laughter when telling his travel stories, and he can easily spend four or five hours just relaxing on the rough, woven-straw mats, drinking tea and talking philosophy. In fact, when Horiguchi the carpenter stops by, Nakamura chides him for fidgeting after draining his cup of tea.
“Horiguchi-san isn’t used to doing nothing all day,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. “It’s an acquired skill to not keep yourself busy all the time, and it takes work at first to do it.”
Busyness is a hard habit to break, it’s true. But perhaps such a life — very little production, very little consumption — might be the very solution needed for the world ecological crisis.
Although one could view Nakamura’s life as a retreat from the many problems of the world, in his more than 20 years of simple living he has inspired dozens of his visitors to follow his more environmentally sustainable path. As we look out on the clouds gathering and shifting on the far mountains across the valley, I ask, “Do you feel that you are living a life of luxury?”
“Luxury? No, not luxury. It’s an ordinary life, but I do feel an abundance, a sense of plenty. A hundred years ago, I would not have been able to choose what kind of life to live.
“I feel very lucky to be living in this age.”