Coming from the south of Osaka, it takes a thirty-minute subway ride. Then a two hour “rapid express” train. Then a ninety-minute “new rapid service” train, and a three-hour local “Iida Line” train that clicks, rattles, twists, and tunnels its way up through forested hillsides, until one arrives at a remote mountainside platform.
From here you are within a day’s hike of a mountain valley where nothing much of note to the stock market or the mass media or the gross domestic product ever happens.
Yet any visitor who makes it here, to spend time with this valley and its inhabitants, finds without a doubt that important things do happen in Urugi Village. If the residents have anything to say about it, this tiny town in a 900 meter-high valley at the foot of the Japanese Alps might hold more important news than all the major television stations, newspapers, and financial markets in the world.
This all depends of course, on where ones eyes, ears, and hands are oriented.
Every morning at 4:30 am, where the high-mountain mist gathers on the Southern edge of Urugi Village, a woman named Takara Goto greets her eighteen goats. She milks each in turn, by hand, taking around 20 liters of milk back to her small factory. Later, some of the milk will be packed into bottles, some used for making cheese, and some taken to a wee little ice cream stand in front of the hot spring on the other side of town.
After two hours of milking and other morning tasks, while the mist still hangs about the outer edges of the valley, Goto takes her eighteen friends for a drive in a tiny Japanese farm truck. It takes two trips to transport the entire friendly pack of goats to any number of fields where they will spend their day sleeping and eating their hearts out for free.
As much as the village and its visitors enjoy the milk and ice cream, these little goats are probably more in demand with local farmers for their weed control and fertilization. If one spends a decent amount of time in Urugi, they’ll see this small team of goats in various places, eating, playing, and relaxing in the fields.
Their presence reminds you of something that might cause discomfort in the board room of the the lawn mower company seven hours train ride back down the mountain: the original lawn mowers are organic, and don’t require gasoline, batteries, or an electric charge. If you take care of these beautiful living lawn mowers well, they multifariously provide the bonus of field fertilizer, soil aeration, and milk. If you put in the extra work, there’s the possibility of cheese and ice cream too.
“They’re picky. They don’t eat everything” says a recent Urugi immigrant who keeps two goats in his field, “but they attract a lot of curiosity.” The man, a stout German with a mop of blond hair atop his head, can’t help but smile at the goats.
They are undeniably cute.
During late summer, if you make your way from Urugi’s nearest weed-munching-organic-goat-lawn-mower up the north-west side of the valley, you will arrive at the “Hana no Tani” blueberry farm in short time. Both locals and visitors come here to wander around this time of year, with small blueberry collecting bins in hand. They make their way along tiny pathways in fields dense with grasses, herbs, flowers, swallowtails, dragonflies, and of course blueberry shrubs.
Hundreds of blueberry shrubs.
For a coin, you can fill your face — and a small takeaway bin — with blueberries. When your belly is full, or when your face turns blue, a cool tree-canopy-covered stream gives respite from the sun-drenched fields. On this particular day, parents sit with feet in the water and kids run, jump and play in the cool and slow currents.
Fourteen years ago, this blueberry farm — which truly feels more like a natural riverside meadow than a farm — was started by a retired couple, Mr. and Mrs. Kondo.
It seems this couple wanted to live in heaven before they died. By most any measurement one could think of on this warm day in mid August, they succeeded.
Back down in Urugi Valley, not far from where the organic lawn mowers sleep, is another curiously wild-looking field. On casual inspection one might think the rice growing here is not any different from the rice growing in fields all around Japan this time of year. If one stops to compare this particular field with those around it however, the differences begin to amass.
The hue of this field is a bit deeper green. There are more dragonflies in flight above it. More bugs and butterflies and grasshoppers. The shoots too, grow with more wild vigor, up this way, out that way, across the other way.
If you ask the field’s caretaker, Onami san why his field looks so, he’ll lose no time in lighting up to tell you that, while most other farms are planted with machines, this one is all hand planted. No chemicals. No fertilizers. Just rice, water, sun, and plenty of living creatures in and around.
All creatures — with possible exception of wild boar — are accepted in Onami san’s field without complaint.
If you stand here long enough, senses becoming more attuned to the place, you are bound to have a question about a certain corner of his field. “Over there on the left.” you say to Onami san “It looks … like the rice is having a wild party with itself.”
Onami san laughs in agreement. “That’s Happy Hill rice” he’ll proudly tell you “from the farm of Masanobu Fukuoka.”
Here in the remote mountain town of Urugi, a young organic farmer is experimenting with rice from the late founder of Japan’s natural farming movement.
The local farming organization that Onami san is a part of, Network Urugi, has been putting abandoned fields — a common sight in rural Japan — back into production over the past several years. The operation is mostly organic, and Onami san is working towards helping them become not only fully organic, but a regenerative or agroecological farming operation.
These words are all just fancy ways of saying that these farms will not only produce as much or more food than neighboring conventional farms, but that they will do so while continuously enriching the health of the land rather than degrading it, and without the need to import resources from outside the valley where they farm. Though his approach may sound unconventional, one could handily argue — with stacks of scientific research behind them — that unconventional could just be the only way forward.
The farmers here seem to know it too, and they’re doing something about it.
That is wild; and beautiful.
If you happen to stay overnight in Urugi, you might well be invited by a local to an izakaya (Japanese pub) in the evening. If you ask them “which izakaya?” you are bound to draw confused looks from the village people because, of course, there is only one izakaya in Urugi.
Sitting on the raised tatami mat floors in Arigatou Izakaya, one can get to know any number of the locals; a group of long-distance runners, one of whom is a world champion; a photographer and art curator from Nagoya; an actress returning home after filming a sitcom in Tokyo; or an older woman who is curiously filled with stories and a young spirit.
The latter of these characters, Hiroko Kokubun, will be immediately recognizable to the visitor by virtue of making you feel somehow old, slow, and lazy in comparison. Though she is over 80 years of age, Hiroko belies that number. If you meet her in the evening at Arigatou, she’ll likely drink more shochu than you. The next morning, she’ll be up before the sun to climb 500 meters up a mountain where she’ll enjoy the sunrise. You will no doubt, still be asleep by the time she reaches the top.
Hiroko is an author, and something of a patron saint of mountain town living. Her book, the title of which roughly translates to “Leaving Your Parents and Experiencing Nature: The Power of Studying Abroad in a Mountain Town,” is a treatise on the benefits of young people from the city being schooled in the mountains.
She writes from experience. Her son, a former Tokyo-based sumo wrestler and now the chef at a local restaurant here, was one of the first such children to enroll in the mountain school program several decades ago. Today, Urugi is home to something of a movement for mountain town studying, offering an alternative to a national education standard that many view as disjointed from reality. Here, city kids get an education that includes real-world ecological knowledge, and some of the more traditional life skills that are nearly non-existent in today’s urban populations.
Urugi has two traffic lights. These would truly be of little use to the town’s population of five-hundred, if it weren’t for visitors coming in cars and motorcycles up, down, or through the mountain. They come variously to pick blueberries, eat ice cream, bathe in mountain hot-spring water, or enjoy lunch from Tomo san, the ex-sumo-wrestler chef.
The traffic lights tell of something more than development or tourism though. They signal that here, in this tiny valley, something worth experiencing, worth tasting, and worth knowing is happening.
From outside the wall of mountains that surrounds it, Urugi seems like a place that is decidedly isolated from the rest of Japan. In some ways it is. Most of Urugi’s inhabitants care more about relationships with each other, with animals, herbs, blueberries, corn, rice, and forests, than they do about whatever is going on in the world down the mountain.
It isn’t until one has come here, greeted the place and its people, and then left again, that the idea of Urugi being isolated starts to break down in unexpected ways.
As I sit back at my desk in the city, in front of a keyboard to write about it, all the data in the world is within a few keystrokes. Yet, somehow all of the information the internet could muster still can’t help reveal the importance of Urugi Village.
“Only the experience is useful,” I say out loud to myself.
As the same time I wonder, who of us are really the isolated ones?
Grasping for answers to this question, one inevitably comes to the conclusion: it all depends on where your eyes, ears, and hands are oriented.
When one leaves Urugi, a part of them then wonders, if the rest of the world might ever re-orient their attentions, to be as connected — to reality, to the land, to community, and to their own humanity — as people here seem to be.
After greeting the goats, after moseying through the blueberry fields, after giving audience to the rice as it danced a wild dance, and after witnessing the rivers, the fields, and the mountaintops calmly holding space, a part of this visitor wonders a giant-yet-miserly, hopeful wonder:
Will the rest of the world ever slow down enough, to catch up to Urugi?
Patrick M. Lydon is an American ecological writer and lens-based artist living in Japan. He is founder of City as Nature, and arts editor at The Nature of Cities (New York). @pmlydon