Once a year, usually in early autumn when the weather tends to be cool and dry, I invite my seminar students to a two-hundred-plus-year-old farmhouse I own in the countryside just west of Fukuoka city.
Despite the grave reservations of my wife, I went ahead and purchased the house which had been in shambles after years of neglect. I knew it had potential, though.
“It’s a fixer-upper,” I insisted, using a word that could not be translated into Japanese. If the typical house in Japan lost all its value after only fifteen years or so, a house that was over two-hundred years would surely be a money pit.
Sitting on twenty-five hundred tsubo (坪) or about two acres of land, the farmhouse was built in a traditional style with a hardened earthen floor called doma (土間) at the entrance, an internal veranda, or hiroshiki (広敷), covered with thick planks of hardwood flooring, and a hearth called an irori (囲炉裏) in the center of the room. There were exposed beams of sturdy, good-quality timber throughout; the lumber alone made purchasing the house a no-brainer to me.
The purpose of those weekend camps was to, one, reinforce what I had been trying to instill in the students—namely, the notion that old didn’t have to mean uncomfortable or inconvenient; two, demonstrate how modern architecture and convenience could be tastefully incorporated into traditional design; and, three, introduce the students to traditional modes of carpentry and home maintenance.
One year, for instance, I invited a craftsman to show the students how to make clay walls. (I had to bring the craftsman back in half a year later to redo the wall the students had made because the quality was so poor, but the kids had fun all the same.) Another year, we helped thatch the roof of a neighboring farmhouse. As far as I know, the roof does not leak. I could be wrong, though.
After several years of renovation projects, the old house had become a source of pride, and had been written up by several magazines and papers. Even my wife came to see the sense in my having bought it and now enjoyed taking the boys out one weekend every month to let them run around and get their “yayas” out.
In the summer months, our boys collect insects and frogs, climb trees in a nearby forest, and help the neighbors plant rice. In the autumn, they return to help harvest the rice, and to pick the fruits and vegetables grown by some farmers to whom I leased the arable land for free in order to keep the farmland in use.
My seminar class and I arrived at the farmhouse on a Friday evening. After everyone had settled into their rooms, we came together in the kitchen and prepared dinner: a nabé hot pot made of thin slices of pork, kimchi, hakusai (napa cabbage), and tōfu that was flavored with miso, ground sesame, ginger, kochujang paste, chives, chicken bouillon, and nihonshu or saké.
We drank imo jōchū, nihonshu, and beer as we cooked, drank as we ate, drank as we cleaned up, and continued drinking late into the evening. One by one students retired to their rooms, but you remained, tidying up after the others had had passed out or gone to bed. When you finished putting the last of the dishes into the dishwasher, you came to where I sat cross-legged on the engawa, reading.
“Do you read to your children?” you asked, sitting down next to me.
“I do. Or at least I try to every day. Why?”
“My father never read to me.”
“Oh? Why not?”
“He never had the time.”
“No time? It doesn’t take much . . .”
“He always came home late from work, long after I’d gone to bed. And on the weekends, he slept all day. Come to think of it, the only memories I have of my father are of him sleeping.”
“Surely, you talk to him from time to . . .”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“It’s okay. It’s not as if there was anything to miss.”
There was a blunt frankness to the way you spoke that I always admired—so different from the typical young Japanese woman—but this water ran a little too cold.
“How old were you when he passed away?”
“Ten? Eleven? I don’t remember exactly, but what I do remember was seeing him in the casket, a halo of flowers around his head, and thinking how at peace he looked, like he was in the deepest, most comfortable sleep. He died from overwork, they say. The company paid some compensation to my mother, but it was really only a token amount . . . I don’t really want to talk about it. Read to me. Read to me, Sensei.”
So, I read to you. Do you remember what I read? You probably don’t. I read to you from the English translation of Endō Shūsaku’s Chinmoku (Silence).
And as I read, you fell asleep. I put the book down and looked at you, the way the shadows from a paper lantern played on your features. I wanted to kiss you, but I didn’t dare.
Instead, I picked you up, as I often do with my own children, and carried you inside, laying you down on the sofa and placed a kaké-buton quilt over you, a pillow under your head.
And as I turned the light off, you murmured in your sleep, “O-yasumi, Tōchan.”