Monstrous Caterpillars of White

I often tell people that Shiwa is a beautiful town despite itself. Cost and function are the primary concerns that go into the majority of building designs, a fact the architecture itself reflects. Metal fences painted green or white are the norm. The town is disheveled with power lines. Power poles are complex metal lean-tos marked with reflectors to guarantee they stand out. Metal stabbed into the earth is a common sight. Most of the beauty occurs naturally in the mountain and forests and streams that surround the town.

With this in mind, I was looking at the grape vines in the eastern part of Shiwa. I’ve always had the image of orchards and grape vines as beautiful places. I think of books by Peter Mayle or movies about France or California, stories or pictures that depict an effort to keep the landscape beautiful. But in Shiwa the vines are held and protected by metal poles. At times they’re covered with opaque plastic, and the terraced landscape in the mountains is covered with monstrous caterpillars of white. Like the town, they stand out dramatically from the landscape around them.

(Proviso: the new Ogal Plaza is going to be gorgeous.)





Desolation to Hope

The rice fields in winter are rolling mounds of snow, but if you look closer or when the level of snow drops, you can see the remnants of the rice plants. This straw sticking out would look a mess, like something used and discarded, but because they remain in straight rows, there is a pattern. In winter these patterns are all that indicate the snow covers farmland.

I thought this was depressing at first: the dry straw sticking out of the snow like carcasses revealed by a thaw. When I learned that the soil would be overturned and the straw returned to the soil, I found it oppressive. To spend a winter beneath the oppressive weight of too much snow only to be buried when it cleared seemed a sorry fate.

With more and more time, I’ve learned about the farms and the landscape of Shiwa, and my feelings have changed. I’ve seen the snows come and go and learned about the rhythm of the seasons. I’ve seen the harvests and the planting, and I’ve seen the lazy summertimes when the rice is so heavy it bows politely and then the hurried preparations before winter. It’s like watching people move things from one location to another and back again with the practice of generations.

I get the feeling that nothing disappears, but everything is transferred to another form and then returned. One step in the process only suggests the next. Now when I see the lines of straw I don’t think about the past, but the future. What was once desolation became hope.






Ink and Wash

The landscape in Shiwa in winter is, without exaggeration, bleak. Snow falls and stays. Driveways are trenches. Mountain floors become white and show through leafless trees like the scalps of balding men. Snow hangs on the branches of trees; they sag beneath the burden. Anything aspiring towards the heavens for relief is stopped by the gray ceiling of ever present clouds.

Shiwa is a different place. The vibrant life is buried beneath it—variety becomes sameness. I get lost on familiar roads. I forget the character of the plants that comprise my yard. Even light moves differently—filtered through dark clouds, the sky dulled while the ground glows with the reflections off the snow.

Yet there is beauty. Scenes covered in snowfall take on a sameness of color, like varying shades of the same black ink diluted with water. Shiwa in winter is an ink and wash painting.





A Stack of Wood

A stack of wood is comforting. Solid yet soft, wood provides a comfortable stability and a feeling of closeness to nature. Stacked neatly, it presents the illusion of order. In the mess of a snowstorm, that order reduces the sense of chaos. The dangers of winter, the chaos, are survived through preparation and planning, and stacks of firewood are a manifestation of that.

At the same time, firewood makes me feel nostalgic. It reminds me of when I was young in Colorado and people used fireplaces all the time without fear of climate change. It reminds me of the smell of smoke on crisp winter air. I remember nights sitting with my legs stretched towards a fireplace watching orange flames dance while feeling the heat on my skin. I’m transported back to that time whenever I see a stack of wood standing in falling snow.




Golden Light on a Canvas of Snow

Many houses in Shiwa are withdrawn from the roads and require long driveways for access. In winter they can be difficult to keep clear of snow, and the farther you get from the center of town the less likely you are to expect guests. So it’s easy to understand how shoveling snow can fall down several notches on your list of priorities. You have less time to do it too since the sun begins its descent as early as four in the afternoon (there’s no daylight savings in Shiwa). However, all of these factors combine to form this scene, a moment in which the sun setting behind the mountain range spilled golden light on a pure canvas of snow and rendered the shadows blue. This town never ceases to provide such moments.



Strangely Comfortable

This is the road I named Sahinai River Road and then found out that the stream running along side it is called Nakasawa River. Stubborn till the end, I still call it Sahinai River Road.

We were sitting in the car on Sahinai River Road eating a variety of breads we bought from “Furusato Center,” Sahinai’s farmers’ market, for lunch when a miniature gust of wind gathered and blew through these icy trees. The snow was frozen into powder, and it caught in the wind and swirled into a cloud that blotted out this winter scene.

Sitting still, no other people or cars around, on a mountain road, in the burst of whiteout conditions, I felt strangely comfortable. When I realized it was strange, I wanted to take a picture, but by the time I was out of the car, the cloud of snow disappeared, and a blue sky appeared.


これは僕が「Sahinai River Road」と名付けた道だが、この脇を流れる小川は中沢川と呼ばれると後に判明した。最後まで頑固な僕は、それでも「Sahinai River Road」と呼んでいる。

Sahinai River Roadに車を停め、佐比内の産直である「ふるさとセンター」から買ってきた様々なパンを昼食として食べていた。その時、ちょっとした一陣の風が起きて凍った木々の間を吹き抜けた。雪が凍って粉状になり、風に捕らえられ渦を巻いてこの冬景色を覆い隠す雲となった。

Keeping the Forest

Autumn has deepened, the insects have all but vanished, and the forest has divided into two camps. One is occupied by trees that invested heavily in leaves in the spring, soaked up the sun, and lived well in the good times. As soon as the weather turned, they dumped the leaves all over the forest floor, shedding everything they could to survive.

The other camp grew as much as was prudent in the spring. Slowly and steadily they added to themselves, but kept themselves strong. Now in autumn some parts may have browned, but they haven’t fallen. They’re still green.

While the first camp, the aspens, the maples, the zelkovas and all their friends, now look cold and bare, the second camp the pine trees, the cedars and the, uhm, other cedars (there are lots of cedars), look the same. Their basic green leaves become insulation for those weaker in the community. Without them, the naked wood, seemingly bereft of life, would be debris, not a forest.




Metal Titans

No matter where you are in Shiwa, it seems, you can find a signal for your cell phone. Gone are the days of spotty reception, dead zones, and good excuses to hang up on bothersome people.

“I’m sorry. I’m in Sahinai and you’re breaking up.” Click.

The reason: cellphone towers are everywhere. They join the massive high-power electrical transmission towers that climb the mountains in making it seem as though humanity’s answer to the designs of the forest is metal titans.

Given their surroundings, the towers seem otherworldly. Like me at a party, they do nothing to blend in. Like daggers stabbed in the earth, they’re anything but organic. Like jungle gyms for giants,  the electrical towers are so massive they can be seen from far away. Like strangely narrow satellite dishes, the cell phone towers point towards the sky.

No wait. Forget that last simile. I can’t pass a cell phone tower standing above a forest without picturing a watchtower from the rebel base on Yavin 4.

In any event, they’re everywhere, keeping every part of Shiwa connected. For better or worse.










The Less Than Mostly Meet the Wind

Powerful winds blew through Shiwa on Sunday, and many a tall tree bore the brunt of their force, which is essentially these trees’ function. Certainly, they beautify the town, and were they not here the leveled valley floor the town occupies would be far less attractive. (Evidence of this can be found in the new housing developments that have foregone trees altogether). But nothing defines Shiwa’s aesthetics more than “function over form,” and the tallest trees in town were planted as windbreaks called “egune.”

The majority of these trees, which have grown for years under the protection of shrines and old families, are cedars, and thus mostly green even in winter. The rest of the branches, “the less than mostly,” turn brown and give the trees a tint like the roots of dyed hair showing. These parts of the trees give under the force of wind, and come raining down on the houses below, leaving people like us a mess to clean up the next day. I’ve come to think of it as a kind of year end cleaning for the trees, a time when trees that can’t shed leaves rid themselves of unnecessary burden and prepare for the coming year.

The least we can do is pick up after them. After all imagine the wind through the flat valley without the trees.





Catching Sunlight

I was reminded recently of how beauty can still be found in the landscape even after it’s turned brown with the season. I was driving after three o’clock, and the sun was well on its way to setting and its light coming in at a severe angle. On the other side of rice fields, now nothing but bare soil, I saw something glowing–a row of uncut susuki grass as tall as a person and dried so that the wind moving through it sounded like a long shushing. The seed heads of susuki grass had grown fluffy and long and were now bowing beneath their own weight. They caught the sunlight and held it, and it was they that glowed and caught my eye as shadows fell from the mountains.