Chapter 7: Look into a Glass Onion
Men are stupid. Or, more correctly, men are, for the most part, stupid (for evidence: see the news). We can reach great heights though often, as the saying goes, we are very much being propped up by a greater woman.
Women can be stupid, too — don’t get me wrong. I’m an equal opportunities misanthropist — it’s just that men: we do it so well. At full force. With all of our heart (and little of our brain). We are like Wile E. Coyote. In fact, he may be the perfect personification of male stupidity. We run face first into a tunnel entrance painted onto a cliff face, pick ourselves up, curse the Roadrunner and start all over again. Our brains are like that Pringles ad — once they pop, we just can’t stop.
My three published novels are — in part — about male stupidity and the first one, First Time Solo, is particularly relevant here. It’s about men in groups. Men as friends, men as brothers, men as fathers and sons, and men as enemies. That’s a lot of dialectical stupidity, a lot of wires getting crossed, a lot of knickers getting twisted and more canned worms than in the bunker of a particularly libertarian survivalist early bird.
It all comes down to competition. Whether we are taught it or whether it resides as some vestigial of an early stage of our evolution, like a kill switch in our central nervous system that redirects all decision making to our reptilian brain, it’s something that comes naturally and is very hard to fight. From pissing contests in primary school, through every sport ever, to not packing a pillow because that’s not proper camping; at the first sight of a binary, we can turn anything into a competition. Directions? That’s me versus nature, electromagnetism and town planning. To ask is to admit defeat. Instruction manuals? There were no instruction manuals for the wheel, if I can’t assemble a bookcase without the aid of diagrams and patronizing arrows then I am not worthy of descending from whatever Neolithic genius Edisoned up the wheel (we have no evidence that it was a man who invented the wheel. I tend to think it’s far more likely a woman invented it while a man kept insisting he could carry everything).
Digressions aside, what’s this all got to do with rural Japan?
One of the main reasons we wanted to live in the countryside is to become at least partially self-sufficient. I grew up almost in the countryside — right on the edge of the commuter belt — but my grandparents were a bit further out, countryside proper, and they used to grow vegetables and fruit. Mainly strawberries and peas that mysteriously disappeared from the plant whenever the grandchildren visited. Wild raspberries. Fresh lettuce. It’s a cliché but veg from the supermarket really does taste different. Inferior. We traded taste for convenience.
My wife’s grandparents also grew vegetables. We both wanted to get back to that taste, that freedom and that direct contact with how our food is produced.
Which is all very well in theory. Nature is a bit more fickle. It’s not as simple as seed in ground, water, wait, eat.
The unpredictability of nature I can take. Somewhere in the Tao Te Ching, there is a passage about trying to fight the flow of a river. The rock doesn’t fight the flow, it stays where it is and allows the river to flow around it. Getting enraged by incorrect weather forecasts (they are forecasts, after all, mathematical predictions based on possibility, not actual facts. If meteorologists could really see into the future, I’m sure they’d use their powers for better ends than reminding us to take an umbrella to work tomorrow) or seedlings that just won’t sprout or the frustrating and continued existence of caterpillars is as pointless as trying to explain to a campsite manager in Japan that the calendar and the seasons only have an indirect, tenuous relationship.
Anyway. Nature is fine. Survival is a struggle. And self-sufficiency is clearly not the easy option. Lawsons wouldn’t be called a convenience store for long if you had to raise the chicken, slaughter it, prepare and cook it yourself just to get your karaage-kun (chicken nuggets). But that’s effectively what we signed up for. Roast potatoes? Here’s a shovel, get digging.
No, it’s the competition. The men. The inevitable stupidity of it all.
As I’ve said before, this village is predominantly elderly. The elderly men grow vegetables. Every spare inch of space on the land is cultivated. And they’re great at it. While I’ve managed to produce an onion the size of a golf ball, they’re hanging up bundles — each as big as a grapefruit. They work from dawn until the heat really kicks in, then they all meet up in front of the sole vending machine for a can of coffee to compare notes. Fertilizer. Tools. Seeds or seedlings. Dates. Weather. As men have done since some shrew-sized mammal stuck its head out from under an asteroid fragment and said, “It looks like those big lizard things have gone,” they share knowledge and experience.
Of course brag.
Whose is the biggest? The longest? It’s all a competition, the reptilian brain kicking in. Who has the straightest line on his carrot row? Who has perfect corners on their inexplicably geometric mounds? Seriously, these things have right angles and sharp edges. Whatever happened to those roughly-aligned plowed mounds? Does a potato really grow better if the ground above it would please Euclid? When did farming get OCD?
When it had too much time on its hands, of course. These men have nothing else to do. They worked hard all their lives and when they retired they came home to a wife they only previously saw on weekends and said, “Now what?” and she said, “I don’t care but you’re not hanging around in here. Out.”
Does a potato really grow better if the ground above it would please Euclid? When did farming get OCD?
Some of them have part-time jobs. Paper rounds, out on a scooter at 2 a.m. Standing by roadworks with a big flag or a flashing baton. But the garden is theirs.
Maeda-san is no different. All year round his garden is overflowing with fruit and veg. So much so, that he has to give it away. They all do. They produce so much food they couldn’t possibly eat it. Another competition. In the way European monarchs used to discuss potential wives, farmers here discuss whose land is the most fertile, boasting about who has brought the most life into the world.
Example. For my wife and I, I planted two aubergine plants. Each one produced about half-a-dozen aubergines. That did us through the season. By the end of the last one, I was getting a bit sick of them, to be honest. Maeda-san, for seven people, planted nearly forty. Ditto for green peppers, celery, basically everything. He doesn’t grow what the family needs: he grows what he has space for. Every couple of days I’d come down for work at 6 a.m. and find a basket of vegetables on the doorstep, as lonesome and uninvited as if it were a baby. I don’t know how he thought two people could get through food that seven couldn’t but every couple of days, another delivery. And next planting cycle, same thing. It was too much. It started to rot. I ended up taking them to work and handing them around, paying it forward. It’s pleasing, in a way, and I’m sure he’d be happy if he knew his produce was being enjoyed by a wide range of people he’s never heard of.
Everyone is at it. All the old men. There’s a cycle of gifting and re-gifting vegetables, just as there’s a cycle of gifting and re-gifting information.
So I joined in. My first efforts were onions, spinach, pak choi and green peppers. I watched YouTube videos, read books, cross-referenced English information with Japanese websites, got a planting and harvesting calendar from the home center, put my shovel to the turf.
That sound, the crunch and slice of metal into soil, it’s like the bat signal for these people.
“What are you planting?” Maeda-san is over.
“Are those onion seedlings?” Miyagawa-san steps from his patch into mine.
“You grew them yourself from seeds? You’re better off buying seedlings straight from Valor.” Maeda flicks a weedy sprout.
“No, they’re too expensive. Kahma does them ten yen cheaper.” Miyagawa toes a rock out of the soil.
“Yes, but they’re not as sturdy.” Maeda rubs his hand towel over his bald head.
“I’ve never had any problems with them.” Miyagawa smiles.
“Anyway, you shouldn’t be planting them today. It’s too hot.” Maeda sits on a stack of bricks I’m saving for a barbecue spot.
“Yeah, you should at least have done them at five this morning.”
“No, they’d be dead by now in this heat. You need to wait until Monday. It’ll be cloudy in the morning then rain all afternoon. Perfect.”
“So the forecast says but they were wrong yesterday.”
Every couple of days I’d come down for work at 6 a.m. and find a basket of vegetables on the doorstep, as lonesome and uninvited as if it were a baby.
I stand, leaning on my shovel, watching them bicker. I’ve got work on Monday. The onions are going in today because it’s either that or do it in the dark.
“Where did you get that soil from?”
“Over there,” I point. It’s the soil I shifted when I built the fire pit. Kind of beige and tan.
“What taihi are you using?”
“Taihi? What’s taihi?”
There’s a moment of silence. Then they both look around. Walk to the garage and look inside.
“He’s not using taihi.” The disapproval in Miyagawa’s voice is severe.
“Iain, come with me. Take your shovel and the wheelbarrow.”
I follow. I trail after him, my barrow rattling across the uneven path. Before Maeda’s house stands a veritable mountain of compost.
“Thanks.” I shovel three or four piles into the barrow, tentative about how much is acceptable.
“No, no, no.” He takes the shovel from me and heaps it on. Dry, black flakes cascade from the mountain in mini avalanches. “Dump that and come back. Take six more loads.”
“Six? Don’t you need it?”
“My cousin makes it. He always gives me too much.”
I know the feeling.
They stand over me as I mix it with the soil. They say nothing, the atmosphere heavy as I malform irregular, inexact mounds. They shake their heads as I judge the distance between seedlings by eye, failing to use any kind of measuring device.
When I’m done I get us all some canned coffee and we sit looking over my garden.
“You’ve got so much space here that you’re not using.”
I can hear Miyagawa’s thoughts. Waste. A waste of space. He could grow thousands of onions on this land. Imagine the surplus.
“I have plans for that bit.” I point to the large, flat open area. “I’m going to dig a series of ponds. Build a gazebo.”
If this is your first time reading “The Only Gaijin in the Village,” you may like to start from the beginning and meet Iain and his wife, as well as some of the locals. Or, if you’ve already been introduced, you might be interested in the previous article in the series.