This essay is also published in 中文
For the past two years, I’ve lived in Kitakagaya, an economically depressed neighborhood in south Osaka. Sometime around the 1970s, time stopped here. Economic growth stopped. Changing trends stopped. Transportation development stopped.
At least, it feels like it. The majority who live here are economically poor. As an artist and writer, I am perpetually among them. If the newspapers and investment journals told the story of this neighborhood, there would no doubt be cause for great concern — Poverty! Economic stagnation! Low technology!
The reality, is that these words mean much more to economists and academics than they do to the people living in Kitakagaya. In many ways, life here goes against what is learned in university classrooms, at cocktail parties, and on the news. If anything, this old neighborhood has demonstrated to me that poverty and stagnation don’t necessarily have to be bad words, and too, that technological advancement doesn’t always make life better.
Most everyone in this neighborhood still gets around on foot or on a bicycle. Small, owner-occupied shops specializing in everything from wrenches to ramen are sprinkled around every block. Spaces with zero economic utility have life as community gardens, art venues, and workshops. So begins a list of things not possible in cities as economic engines.
These things are possible here.
In Kitakagaya, there are virtues in the poor, in the slow, in the seemingly inefficient ways; in the merits of a bit of struggle and discomfort, and overall, in a view that there’s little sense messing with a thing that works.
Our house in Kitakagaya is 80 years old. Though it has two floors, it is by no means a big house. The building’s footprint is on par with most American single-car garages.
When we moved in, the walls had water damage, mold, and holes in them. “Good thing they’re made of mud and straw! Easy to fix!” I told my wife.
I think she wanted to kill me.
The house was in an unlivable condition at first sight. We spent three months to remodel it ourselves with the help of friends, neighbors, mud and straw from the garden, and a nearby warehouse filled with old wood offered for use by our landlord.
Today we live and work here, using the bottom floor to host occasional ecological arts events, and at times running a ‘pay what you can’ community cafe called The Branch.
Though it is more comfortable than when we moved in, the house still has no shower, no hot water, no washing machine, no air conditioning, and no heater. It is sweltering in the summer and freezing in the winter. So too, the entire building shakes with the energy of a small earthquake dozens of times a day, as trucks topped with large shipping containers, tractors, and steel girders rumble between the industrial areas to our west, and the city center to the north.
The rumbling we might not ever get used to, but the absence of a shower was surprisingly easy to cope with.
Like most Japanese neighborhoods built before the 1970s, Kitakagaya has a public bath house or sento. This sento is where the majority of households would traditionally bathe, de-stress, and socialize in years past.
As we are living in the past, our neighborhood still has one.
I had no concept of a sento before I came to Japan, yet it has become one of my favorite ways to spend an hour before sleeping. Especially in the winter.
Things are different for the people twenty minutes up the subway line in the city center. They don’t have the same hardships as we do here. They must have other ones though, because I notice my poor neighbors smiling far more often than the people with cars, air conditioners, washing machines, and showers who I meet living and working in the city center.
Maybe the difference for the office workers, is that time can’t be allowed to stop for them, like it has here in Kitakagaya.
Japan is of course, notorious for its nonstop working culture. In some ways I guess that simple fact — of not being able to stop — can outweigh all the material pleasures one might gain by running through life with eyes always on the clock, and the bank account.
Admittedly, I don’t guess this.
Eight years ago, the walls of a Silicon Valley cubicle were my environment until late at night most days. I still remember how time wasn’t allowed to stop there — in that cubicle, or anywhere else in the valley. Everything needed to keep rushing ahead at increasing speed; more innovation, more investment, more profit, more talking, more ideas, more advancement, more stuff. Even the yoga studio and the acupuncture clinic, as peaceful as they were in comparison, seemed to have underpinnings that were just as rushed and focused on economic growth as the rest of the Valley.
Quickness and efficiency are typically not valued here in Kitakagaya like they are in the city center. Certainly not like they are in Silicon Valley. With few exceptions, slowness and a certain brand of inefficiency are part of life here, and with these qualities come both renouncement and benefit, in varying amounts.
In this way, Kitakagaya and the innumerable old neighborhoods like it in Japan and throughout the world, aren’t so much places as they are ways of being.
Slowness and a notable apathy toward material wealth are part of the way of being here. This way of being has allowed our tiny urban farm and our community cafe to be built and sustained. It also allows well over a hundred tiny local businesses within a few minute’s walk of us to do the same.
This may seem ironic, but it makes perfect sense to those who live here, that in pursuing a life of efficiency, speed, and monetary profit, one must variously depart from enjoying other forms of wealth: the wealth of diversity, of community relationships, of time spent with friends and family, peace of mind, and too many other lost forms of wealth to list.
To this, a common refrain heard here is:
“If I was aiming at money, this (cafe, farm, workshop, etc…) could not exist.”
So while in a physical sense, Kitakagya is made of numerous bicycle-only alleys, wood-and-soil homes, small-scale factories, artist studios, and tiny urban gardens, it is only within these spaces — in the lives and actions of people — that we will find the essence of how a neighborhood, even one seemingly suspended in time, is built, sustained, and even evolves, in its own way.
Without the mindset of people who value and support the small, the honest, and the slow, none of this neighborhood could exist. Without them, there would be no artist studios, no urban farms, no handmade glasses shops, no ten-seat sushi restaurants.
The images and stories to come in this series, seek to explore the good, the strange, and the beautiful to be found here in Kitakagaya and neighborhoods like it, and to uncover the innumerable practical, helpful, innovative ideas such places have to offer.
I hope these stories bring brightness and wonder to readers.
More than this, I hope they might help us individually, to find new ways of mending our own neighborhoods, of slowing our increasingly rushed lifestyles, of reviving the warmth and wellness within our cold and aloof cities, and ultimately, of regenerating the social and environmental health of the places we dwell.
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