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.





A Green Hue

The new houses around town try to reshape the ecosphere by making it rock and concrete for the simplest of reasons: if the wild plants are given the chance to grow they will do so with verve. Fighting them sounds evil until you think about keeping the area around your house clear, reducing the number of insects, or seeing over weeds blocking the corner of the driveway when leaving in a car. This fight is so difficult denying them a foothold can seem a better alternative.

Around the older buildings and houses the balance tilts more to the plants. They are not given free rein, but no attempt is made to eradicate them. As a result, these structures have a green hue. Trees surround them, and weeds sprout up from various places. But nothing speaks to the balance more than the moss you often see. The existence of this vulnerable living carpet in the midst of a battle for space hints at the tolerance that seems to come with age.




Slow Motion Change

Shiwa is in a state of change, but it’s a slow motion change. One that’s been going on for more than a generation. The agricultural sector is shrinking, and in the central part of town, the part sprawled along national highway Route 4, fields are being replaced with housing developments. Given the difficulty of freeing land resources and the established tradition of close quarter living, these new neighborhoods are as packed as the old business district.

The houses are nothing like the suburbs from my childhood in Colorado. They have just enough space between them for a car or two and no yards. Asphalt and gravel cover the ground from the street to the doors. The soil beneath is so fertile that despite these efforts weeds still push up in unlikely places.

This may be ideal for commuters who use Shiwa for a bedroom, but the newly confined space reduces the green and shrinks the sky.





Ducking into a Coat

Before moving to Shiwa, close spaces made me think of modernity and its population booms and industrialized cities. Now the shoulder to shoulder buildings in old areas make it easy for me to imagine that when villages developed along the Kitakami, people gathered around wells and stuck together for fear of being lost to the wild.

With kuras, garages, businesses, and even in some cases former houses next to new ones, the oldest families in town live in close conditions. Their homes are compounds.

In other cases families gave over plots of land for relatives to build houses, but the fields always had priority. Leaving them untouched meant sacrificing living space. Houses were built feet apart and became clusters.

Yet this kind of nearness is comforting. Surrounding oneself with family and basing a town on the premise of resource sharing and protection is to build a support system.

The old commercial district, Hizume Shotengai, is packed with long and narrow buildings. Some are new, and others old and abandoned.  Of all the places in Shiwa, it feels the most like New York City. Yet it’s cozy. Stepping out of a bar on an autumn night and into streets too narrow for cars can feel like ducking into a coat. It’s a feeling of  safety and warmth compared to the darkness that hovers over the mountains and rice fields.