BETWEEN FOUR WORLDS: CHINA, RUSSIA, JAPAN AND AUSTRALIA;
BETWEEN FOUR CAREERS: DIPLOMAT, ECONOMIST, JOURNALIST AND JAPANOLOGIST;
BETWEEN FOUR LANGUAGES: ENGLISH, CHINESE, RUSSIAN AND JAPANESE
DISCOVERING THE BOSO PENINSULA
1. Paradise Sought
2. Paradise Found (plus some thoughts on economic development)
3. Yoro Keikoku
4. Land Owner (plus some thoughts on how to learn English)
For years Yasuko and I had enjoyed weekend hikes in the hills and mountains around Tokyo.
We knew vaguely that Boso existed - that it was a large peninsula sticking out in the Pacific south of Chiba city which itself was just to the east of Tokyo.
And we had gone swimming once or twice at the Kujukuri beach at the north-eastern end of the peninsula.
But we had never ventured further south.
Heading for a weekend in the Boso peninsula - from left, Yasuko, sons Dan and Ron, and self.
Our weekend hikes had always been to the west and south-west of Tokyo – Oku Tama, Chichibu, Tanzawa.
Like most Tokyoites, we assumed that Boso was little more than a large blob of featureless land lying somewhere beyond a wasteland of factories, steel mills and scruffy urbanization spreading towards and beyond Chiba city.
Travellers to and from Narita airport which is also just beyond this urban-industrial eyesore are jokingly warned to close their eyes as they pass through.
But what they do not tell you (though it should be visible from the planes as they fly into Narita) is that south of the ugliness lies a vast and largely undeveloped expanse of lush, semi-tropical hill country rimmed by tiny fishing villages and a string of good southward-facing surfing beaches.
Inland is mile after mile of undulating, forest-covered hills sprinkled with isolated farms and villages.
The southern end of the peninsula is bathed by a warm current - the kuroshio . They can grow flowers and vegetables there for the Tokyo market right through the winter.
Most of all, Boso has space and depth. Unlike almost anywhere else in Honshu Japan (Kii Peninsula is the one exception) you can walk for hours without seeing humans, and drive for hours without seeming to get anywhere.
It is a paradise waiting to be discovered.
1. Paradise Sought
In the late seventies we found ourselves saddled with two small children. Literally saddled.
Whenever we went to climb hills and mountains around Tokyo we had to carry them on our backs.
We needed a piece of countryside for ourselves where we could go weekends, do a bit of farming maybe, and generally enjoy nature without being ‘saddled.’
But where, and how?
My Japanese Tribe book had only just been published. I was not feeling very rich.
Besides, “Land for Sale” signs are rare in the Japanese countryside. Most Japanese farmers seem to believe that selling part of the family estate is a sin against the ancestors who looked after and developed that land for centuries before them.
In the fashionable, fatcat gaijin/Japanese besso areas of Izu and Karuizawa, much further from Tokyo than Boso, there was weekend resort land for sale.
But land prices were already in the 100,000 yen a tsubo (3.3 square meters) range, and that did not include the cost of a house.
One could end up having to pay close to one million US dollars, all for the privilege of having to travel several hours each weekend to get to an expensive house and block of land facing directly onto someone else's expensive house and block of land.
I had to look somewhere else. But where?
I had come across an advertisement offering small houses on small blocks of land in the Kujukuri beach area just to the south of Narita.
Price: about two-three million yen apiece - unbelievably generous, even by Australian standards and certainly by Karuizawa or Izu standards.
Kujuku means 99, and li (ri) is the Japanese mile. And the name is no over-statement - a wide strip of unspoiled beach facing due south onto good Pacific surf and running close to 100 kilometers, all the way from Choshi in the east and down to Ohara in the south-west .
That a beach of this quality could be largely deserted, even in the middle of Japan’s hot summers and even though it was only an hour or so from many of the 30 million souls living in the Tokyo conurbation, was, and remains, a mystery.
(It is also, paradoxically, the key to Japan’s economic problems. Reluctance to spend on leisure is the major reason for Japans chronic lack of demand, which in turn explains both the vulnerability of the economy to recession, and the chronic trade surpluses.)
At the equidistant but far less attractive Shonan beaches the other side of Tokyo, the summer months would see bodies jammed together like seals on a rock.
Maybe Kujukuri was deserted precisely because it was deserted.
(There is the story about how they advertised Saipan as a resort.)
( In the Western-oriented media they showed a beautiful tropical beach with just one or two people on it.)
(In the Japanese media they showed a hotel beach crowded with other Japanese.)
The Kujukuri hinterland was even more undeveloped.
Wartime Japan had assumed that Kujukuri would be the natural invasion route for an American attack on Tokyo. The complicated, roughly-built road system there was deliberately designed to confuse and delay the Americans once they landed, it is said.
True or not, it was still able to confuse a lot of Japanese. But amongst the road confusion are rows of farms growing decorative trees for the Tokyo and Chiba markets.
The Kujukuri area also had a cultural attraction.
Aoki Shigeru’s famous painting of fishermen going naked into the sea to haul their fishing boats and catches on to beach was a Kujukuri scene of only a generation or so earlier.
To the south, the ama-san women (abalone and lobster gatherers) used to dive semi-naked below the Onjuku cliffs.
The west side of the peninsula had harbored a colony of progressive painters earlier in the century.
Maybe that advertisement would give us access, not just to cheap real estate but to a new life in some kind of beach-bound paradise. Or so we thought.
We were wrong.
The advertised ‘houses’ turned out to be shacks. The land attached was little more than 60-70 square meters of flat sandy soil surrounded by other shacks.
And it was all quite a distance from the beach.
What to do? As I stood there mumbling some negative words to the salesman I noticed a low line of wooded hills in the distance.
Pioneering instincts were triggered. Maybe there would be some land up there in those hills that I could get stuck into and develop.
‘You want land over there?” said the salesman in some kind of awe. “Snakes, jungle, ... ?
None of his Japanese clients had ever shown any interest. If we insisted he would find out for us, but….
We decided to check out the situation too.
2. Paradise Found
From Kujukuri we went directly into the hills we had seen.
There in the Tsurumai area, wedged between two main highways, we had discovered a small Shangri La – unspoiled hillside beauty, carefully-tended farms and old-world villages, all seemingly cut off from the rest of the Japan but only an hour or so from Tokyo as the car runs.
There were no buses or trains. But for us this was Japanese countryside at its best – much more attractive than the more developed countryside to the west of Tokyo in Oku-Tama or Chichibu.
Enamored, we even tried to rent an abandoned, thatched farm house we discovered there.
(Thoughts on the Economic Development Process)
(When rural Japanese communities are left free to organise themselves, they can do so with a perfection rarely seen elsewhere.)
(One reason could have been the long years of feudal isolation, particularly in Boso where defeated refugees from the Genji-Heike wars were said to have settled.)
(There is a message here for our globalizers and free traders trying to impose outside values and influences on the rest of the world. Leave people alone and they will progress naturally, of their own accord.)
(People are not stupid. Provided they are protected from outside disturbance, they will develop naturally and organically the social structures and industries they need.)
(Japan did just this during its long period of Tokugawa isolation, when not just the countryside but a range of local industries were able to develop free from outside competition and intervention, laying the skill and entrepreneurial basis for the highly competitive Japanese industries of today.)
(Even now in many villages you can find quite sophisticated metal working factories turning out implements needed by local communities.)
(Competition from large-scale plants have since forced some to close down. But many have survived, and modernized – NC lathes, overhead cranes etc.)
(And those large-scale plants themselves also relied on those rural factories for some of their skilled workers.)
(It is the careful balance between protectionism and competition that allows economies to progress. Japan has been successful in keeping that balance.)
(But first you must have the protectionism – in the past in the form of feudal isolation, today in the form of tariffs or cheap currency - to allow domestic industries to get up and running in the first place.)
(If other developing peoples, Africans especially, had been allowed to develop the same way, at their own pace and time, the world today would be a very different place).
3. Yoro Keikoku
A few weeks later the phone rang.
The salesman had found a block of land near Yoro Keikoku (Yoro Gorge) in the middle of the peninsula and not far from our Tsurumai discovery. Could we please come and look at it.
We were more than willing.
The Yoro Keikoku area was much wilder than Tsurumai, but also enticing — steep, heavily forested hills rising to 300 meters at the head waters of the Yoro river as it cut its way through the middle of the peninsula on its way to the ocean.
It reminded me a lot of the Austrian countryside I had seen as a student wandering around Europe.
It too had a remoteness that made Tokyo seem a thousand miles away.
The land for sale was six thousand square meters (about two acres) of fertile land, largely covered with bamboo on some flat land at the top and hinoki (cypress) forest on the slopes below.
Total price - only 3 million yen, or around 1,500 yen per tsubo (3.3 square meters) - not much more than what the land sharks were charging gullible Japanese city-dwellers for useless rocky hillsides in distant Hokkaido
Certainly it was also a lot less than what hard-headed Australians were happily paying for weekend shack land an hour or so out of Sydney, Brisbane or Melbourne.
(As I have been happy to tell unbelieving Japanese audiences ever since, a major reason I have wanted to stay in Japan so long is because the land here is so much cheaper than in Australia.)
At first I could not believe that prices for such attractive land so close to Tokyo could be so reasonable. The hinoki trees alone must be worth more than 3 million yen, I thought fancifully (timber prices were soon to fall heavily as the yen soared and imports flooded in).
True, much of the block was steep slope running down to a tiny stream cut deep into the layered mud-rock that makes up most of Boso.
But that simply added to the glamour and mystery. We had our own private canyon. We could spend days exploring it.
We even managed to find our own private waterfall hidden away at the bottom of our land. And the small patch of flat land at the top could be cultivated and built upon, provided we cleared the bamboo.
(The Boso Peninsula is a geological anomaly.)
(Originally a deep bay filled with mud and sand washed down from surrounding volcanoes, it was compacted and uplifted in very recent geological times as the Pacific plate continued to push up against the Japan plate.)
(Much of this sedimentary rock still lies in thick, horizontal layers, with the layers clearly displayed along the sides of cutaways and canyons.)
(Some Boso rivers are unusual also. Their lower reaches were flooded as the oceans rose after the Ice Age. They then filled with silt to form wide plains in which the original hills sit like islands surrounded by oceans of green rice fields.)
(Another feature is the patches of very fertile soil hidden away at the tops of the hills. It seems that dust and ash from Mt Fuji and other volcanoes continued to rain down as the peninsula was being uplifted.)
(Today that fallout has turned to fertile loam. In the valleys it has been largely washed away. But it remains on the non-eroded hilltops, similar to the fertile volcanic loam that covers much of the Kanto Plain.)
True, our little piece of Boso paradise had no water supply, gas or electricity. And to get there we had to walk several hundred meters along a dank forest track leading in from a narrow, little-used road.
But that too just added to the excitement of it all. As we disappeared down that forest track after our long trek from Tokyo we really could feel that we were entering another world, our own.
Besides, we could draw water from the stream below, or from the roof of the pre-fab shack we were to build. Log-fires and kerosene heaters looked after our other needs.
And just a few hundred meters down the narrow road was the charming village of Otadai, filled with dear hearts and gentle people. We were not totally isolated.
In the other direction the road went for miles along a high narrow ridge, with forested slopes falling away on either side, till it eventually came out at the Mamenbara temple area with its famous ajisai (hydrangea) hillside gardens.
(Mamenbara had been famous as the hilltop where the 13th century Buddhist sect founder, Nichiren, was said to have seen the New Year sun rise. But it was being eclipsed by a rival hilltop temple, Kiyosumi, nearby making the same claim.)
There had to be some catch, I reckoned. Such attractive land could not possibly be going so cheaply.
I had yet to realise that while Australians might relish the idea of having their own little acre of wilderness to care for and develop, for most Japanese this kind of land had zero attraction.
Their loss was clearly my gain.
Perhaps the most amazing thing for me as a foreigner was the fact that I was being allowed to enjoy the handiwork of farmers going back hundreds of years into Japanese history.
Generations of Japanese had tended those hillsides, leveled out those fields and dug the irrigation tunnels and ditches. Here was I, an interloper, able to enjoy the fruit of their labor, without charge.
4. Land Owner
Like most foreigners in Japan I had had the usual prejudices about it being almost impossible for foreigners to own land in Japan, rural land especially - that the rules and regulations were designed specifically to keep us at bay.
But sure enough, there in front of me were the documents proving that with little more than a stroke of the pen - or rather the thump of an inkan (seal) - we would well and truly become the owners of this small corner of Japanese paradise.
To discover that as a foreigner with only a temporary visa I had exactly the same rights as any Japanese to own and develop my own piece of land seemed a miracle.
The kindness with which our neighbors welcomed us would also to do much to force me to examine many of the other myths about alleged anti-foreign exclusiveness in Japan.
For months I used to gaze at the small, pencilled-in patch on the area map covering our land, and which showed how I, as a total foreigner, had actually come to own part of Japan, a nation which I liked and with which I was already deeply involved.
Only after many years, and many Chiba land purchases later, could I shake off the surprise.
True, the money to buy the land had not come easily. I was still some way away from that lucrative lecture circuit.
Fortunately, I had just made 3 million yen from an outfit called Academy Shuppan.
The owner had commissioned me to write a small booklet saying small children could easily learn two languages simultaneously.
(Thoughts of How to Learn English)
(The company was being bitterly criticised by conservatives for its efforts to sell English language listening materials to the parents of small children. Its sales pitch had said that one's children would be permanently handicapped in the education race if they did not begin learning English early.)
(The conservatives were saying the minds of the young children would be permanently damaged if they began to learn English while they were still trying to master Japanese.)
(The company had asked me to write something to rebut the conservatives – something I could do easily simply using the experience of raising my own children bilingually and which anyone else who has seen small bilingual and trilingual children in other societies can also do easily.)
(Later I was to give Academy Shuppan a much better idea for making money.)
(I told them their real market was adults, not small children. And they could tap that market easily by creating a set of tapes recording an mystery story written in simple English, and then market the tapes together with the text as a set - a novel idea in those days.)
(They did just that, and more. The owner of the company caught a plane to New York, got Sidney Sheldon to write the story, Orson Welles to record it, and has been making a fortune ever since.)
(Even today, Japanese print media are plastered with the company’s half and full page ads for their story-listening sets of tapes.)
(I should have got a small percentage myself for having given them the original idea. If I had I would be a very rich man today.)
Cultivating the Wilderness
For the next few years that little patch of Yoro Keikoku paradise came to dominate our lives.
Fridays saw us waiting impatiently to make yet another of our regular weekend trips out there, even though it would involve a three hour marathon journey by train, bus and foot in one direction, and another three hour journey back.
We would take the Uchibo train from Tokyo to Goi, then transfer to the tiny Kominato-sen train for a long ride down through the heart of the peninsula to the Yoro Keikoku station, then by bus to the Oikawa village near the head of the gorge, and then finally by foot up the steep hill on the other side from Oikawa, past Otadai village, dragging our children behind us, before we could reach the hidden entrance path to our land.
But all that simply added to the anticipation. We wanted to see how our tiny vegetable crops were growing and the seasons were changing.
(If I had had a car the trip would have been much easier and quicker. But partly for financial reasons and partly for rather foolish ideological reasons I had refused to buy one.)
(I had seen how in Moscow the use of public transport had helped give the society a sense of community. Somehow I thought the same could happen in vast, cosmopolitan, busy Tokyo – provided everyone else thought like I did.)
(It took me some time to realize my Canutian efforts were doomed to failure.)
Having finally arrived, we would then set about removing bugs and planting more vegetables, with the children left to play among the thick bamboo we were trying to clear.
At night we would all sleep together on the floor of the little six-mat prefab hut we had had built for us on the edge of the steep slopes.
With its outdoor campfire, primitive toilet and roof-supplied rainwater buckets, it was for us a miniature palace looking out over endless green horizons and the changes in the seasons.
Surprisingly, Yasuko went along with all this.
Usually Japanese women flee at the first hint of jungle, bugs and primitive living. But she came quickly to love it as much as I did.
However the Yoro Keikoku adventure was to lead me to quite a few other land purchase and development adventures in the Boso area. Persuading Yasuko that this was a good idea was much harder, and she could have been right.
The extra Boso land development was to keep me busy for years, when I could have and maybe should have been doing other things. More on that later.