A fire in Nabari

By Benjamin Elstobb

The Ashes smoulder, as flames lick the night air, on a cool Nabari evening…

The smoke towers into the air, unmoving, like an obelisk, from what I estimate to be around a mile away. It registers at first, as I’m stood on the driveway of my apartment, to be some sort of metal, orb-like structure, perhaps due to the way it’s illuminated white-grey in the lights below. It’s only my acquaintance with the landscape, and the incongruity of such a structure upon it, that leads me to double take. Squinting, you can just about make a row of red lights beneath it, as they twinkle, in the gentle billowing of its structure. At this time of year, in rural Japan—as in my own home town in rural England—bonfires are commonplace. But the sheer size and volume of the noxious cloud, along with the time (11pm), point to something more sinister. Naturally I decide to take a closer look.

The main road does not easily lend itself easily to pedestrians. It’s cold, and dark, and there is no respite from the traffic, despite whatever incident lies ahead. As I walk, I nearly trip over a deer, sprawling on the roadside, dead; one antler lies snapped in front of its buckled head. I wonder if this is an omen for what I might encounter. I decide to beat a route, on foot, through the patches of trees and rice fields, that comprise the rugged Nabari landscape. It is not long before the presence of a police roadblock becomes apparent, in the near distance, making its best effort to stem the deluge of cars, and trucks pouring along the road. My Japanese is so-so, and I stick out like a sore thumb here in rural Japan, needless to say I’d find a hard time convincing the authorities to let me through unimpeded, for the sake of indulging my journalistic curiosity; so, I adventure to continue off road, making my way through the long grass towards the source of this smoke—which now appears to emanate from a small cluster of houses.

Upon stumbling into a large, rather inconspicuous ditch, and hobbling up its bank, I am met by a dismal sight: the remnants of two houses, now reduced to crooked, skeletal frames, leaning precariously, as smoke gushes from their bowels, eviscerated by the blaze. It does not take long to realise that the fire originated from the larger, more emaciated dwelling, and had subsequently spread to its neighbour. The firemen scurry around, like ants, beneath these hulking wrecks, desperately trying to prevent the blaze from spreading further within the tightly packed houses. There is a convenience store in the midst of this potential furnace which is, remarkably, still conducting ‘business as usual’, despite chaos ensuing all around its premises—a testament to the Japanese work ethic, if nothing else. Onlookers likewise conduct themselves with a degree of phlegmatic curiosity; stood behind an invisible barrier, they watch cinders in the night breeze.

nabari 2

My vantage point has become untenable, due to its close proximity to the site, and the increasing number of firemen patrolling its surroundings. The worst of the blaze is now under control; and as the final chunks disintegrate into ash and rubble, I am waved down, and sent on my way, shuffling back through the undergrowth. The journey home gives me some time for reflection. It seems there are any number of reasons for such a fire: the houses here are made of wood, and the winters are dry, making them natural tinderboxes for any sake’d ojisan that falls asleep with a cigarette in their mouth; this accounts for a slew of similar incidents occurring throughout Mie, as well as other prefectures. As I reach my apartment, and ascend the gravelled driveway, I survey the skyline one last time. The smoke is still there, its thick towering now flaccid, and diminished, but the red lights no longer twinkle beneath it.

The following day I have the opportunity to revisit the site of the fire, on my way to see Nabari’s famous ’48 Waterfalls’ (Akame Shijuhachi), a location more than worthy of its own article. As we are driving, I spot the wreckage from the roadside, like a pile of used matches, and decide to have a closer look. Some residents of the street have gathered to help clear up the burnt mess, and a surveyor appears to be weighing up the damage. The use of wood in Japanese architecture serves multiple purpose beyond aesthetics. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, the abundance of woodland in Japan makes it a convenient material. The use of wood also allows that homes may be quickly rebuilt in the event of natural disaster—from which the nation suffers terribly—and that they should cause minimal damage to the occupants in the event that they do come down. One of the owners is surveying his property as I approach, face as sunken as the roof in front of him. My presence is, understandably, unwelcome, as the families and neighbours pick through the debris; I do not linger.

I am to discover a few days later, in a further and somewhat more sinister illumination of events, that this blaze was by no means accidental. According to a local news source, things had taken a turn for the worse in an argument between father and daughter, after which the girl had set fire to the kitchen. Although not directly referred to, one scarcely has to read between the lines to glean the allusion to mental health, particularly the breakdown of it—sadly an occurrence in Japan that can be just as frequent, and fatal, as the narcoleptic chain smoker. The issue of mental illness in Japan is in many ways the ‘elephant in the room’. No one talks about it. Its presence and treatment are largely regarded as a cultural faux pas, and as such being stigmatized along these lines can have serious ramifications for ones social or professional life. The result is that mental health problems often get swept under the rug, or go undiagnosed, with destructive consequences.

Mie: A journey into rural Japan.

As of writing I am in Mie prefecture, located in the Kansai region of Honshu (Japan’s main island), where I will be based throughout my stay.

I think it’s common to associate Japan with sprawling cities, outlandishsub-culture and all the shiny baubles of technological modernity; by comparison rural life presents another world entirely. One that is, to all appearances, quaint and simple, perhaps somewhat antiquated. This no doubt holds a charm of its own for many travellers, myself included. As such I have developed something of a love affair with rural Japan, and relish any opportunity to explore it.

The prefecture itself consists of 14 cities, of which Tsu is the capital and largest city, with a population roughly the size of Hull, East Yorkshire (around 280,000, give or take). I am staying in Nabari. a sparsely populated city, tucked away amidst the rugged landscape that defines much of the region. Situated almost directly on the mountainous border with Nara prefecture, it is some 2 hours to Osaka by train, and a similar amount to Nara City (the capital of neighbouring Nara Prefecture) by car.

The ride into Nabari.

Mie encapsulates much of what I like about Japan’s country life: it is spacious and peaceful, with an abundance of wildlife and forests; the locals are also generally speaking friendly, albeit somewhat cautious—though one does have occasion to feel like a slightly famous, mildly unpopular TV personality spotted in public. The domestic and suburban architecture is what one might call quintessentially Japanese, comprised of wooden frames and ornate tiled rooves. Time ambles along slowly, with the elderly and housewives pottering around the cafés and shops.

It is easy for me to romanticise about all this, however it does not escape me that many of the things I admire about rural Japan are a hindrance to its prosperity—and in some cases are perhaps even a symptom of its problems. Urbanisation is by no means a new concept, nor a relative one, though it does seem to have taken a particularly heavy toll on Japan’s rural communities. Large swathes of the country’s young have migrated from their home towns and villages into the growing metropolitan areas, in search of work and opportunity otherwise unavailable in their home communities.

As such, what may appear as tranquillity to an outsider, may be viewed as stagnation, or even regression, to a young man or woman who has to live there. It is a mutually reinforcing phenomenon: the lack of jobs and opportunities leads to an exodus of the young, whilst the same exodus prevents innovation and change from occurring in the communities they have left. The hope is, at least in the long run, that some of those who have left will return to their hometowns, bring with them the skills, experience and capital they have accrued working in the city.

Neighbouring houses in Nabari, Mie.

Whilst this has of course been true in other cases concerning migration, both at national and international scales, this does not yet appear to be happening in Japan; nor is it likely to in a time frame or intensity that would prevent many smaller towns from dwindling into extinction. When coupled with a declining birth rate, and an ageing population, this makes for a particularly debilitating cocktail.

The Mie economy seems to have fared better than that of other prefectures. It maintains a thriving rice and tea industry, and has a number of attractions that lure a steady flow of tourists into the region. For example, Ise is the traditional tea growing region, producing some of the finest in the country, and is also home to the Ise Shrine (Ise Jingu); the Iga region is similarly famed for its rice, a varietal known as Koshihikari (or Mie-Koshi), as well as being the birthplace of both Ninjutsu, and the venerable Japanese poet, Matsuo Basho—who scarcely requires an introduction from me. Mie also benefits from Japan’s efficient rail system, the Kintetsu line, linking many towns to larger cities (such as Osaka) and putting them on a commuter belt.

Nevertheless, despite all this, both Nabari, Iga, and Ise have smaller populations today than they did in 1995. Whilst the death to birth deficit has a hand in this, it is equally related to the aspirations and ambitions of Mie’s young, who wish to improve on the lot of their parents. Certainly the job market in smaller towns is not what it once was, and the quality of life there afforded, though comfortable, is out of sync with that desired by many; equally, the diminishing population impacts the level of public service provided, such as schools and hospitals, making relocation essential for parents who want the best start in life for their children. This can be a case of moving from smaller towns to larger prefectural cities such as Tsu, though often it involves migrating to larger metropolitan areas.

One area that has suffered particularly is that of the Buddhist temple. In conversation with a local monk, I am told that there simply aren’t enough monks to run the numerous temples spread amongst rural communities. He is now managing 3 temples—his own, and two others—which has become a terrible strain on him. It seems that many older monks are now reaching retirement age and, despite the profitability in becoming a monk, there is an apparent lack of those willing to take on such responsibility.

A monkless temple in rural Mie.

Many of the issues I have detailed are in fact the concern of countries all over the developed world, and are by no means exceptional to Japan. What might be considered exceptional however is the outstanding natural beauty and history in the Japanese countryside, of which Mie is a fine example. I only hope that some reinvigoration and innovation can help maintain its existence. Surely increased tourism is a means of doing this in the short term, and if I can promote that in some small way, all the better; though in the long run, some serious intervention is likely required, to prevent (or at least ameliorate) the decline into social decay.

Benjamin Elstobb
Nabari, Mie