Farm life has always been somewhat curious to me, as it seems like even the simplest of tasks require immense feats of superhuman strength to pull off, whereas things seem to get done pretty easily in the comforts of The City (in which I have lived in for basically the entirety of my 34 years). My how weak we become in the luxurious metro area! 😉
A Call From Beyond
I’ve recently spent a bit of time out in the Fujino district of Sagamihara in Kanagawa prefecture at Kasamatsu Farms, run by a cheery fellow from New Jersey named Byron. I first got in touch with Byron about 6 months ago, after his name started popping up both in socially distanced business conversations at cafés here in Tokyo as well as in fireside chats with local farmhands down in Atami under the clear night sky. Once you’ve got that sorta rep going for you, expect me to show up presently asking all sorts of prying questions.
However, due to my commitments in Atami and Yugawara, I was unable to find the time to get out to Kasamatsu and scope the place in person. But I kept hearing great things about it, and intermittently Byron fed me details about his operation, so last week when he kindly suggested again that I come up to help out with some tsuchikabe work right after I had returned that day from a 4-day bike trek across Tokyo, Kanagawa, and Chiba in 35+ degree weather, I disregarded any physical aches I felt from the trip and said I’d be right up the next day. I’m still pretty impressed by how not completely wrecked I was from that trip.
Getting there is a bit of a journey, though, and planning that trip is maybe the first indication of how removed Kasamatsu is from civilization. The stretch to Fujino Station is a straight shot on the Chūo Line, so no real issues with that, but from there it’s a bit more difficult. The next leg is on bus, and by my research, there are only so many per day that approach the property. On that particular day, there were only 2: one that arrived around 9AM, and another at around 3PM. So that morning I set out at 6AM on a still-uncrowded train from Hamamatsuchō Station in pursuit of adventure and to lend my hand in building a really wacky structure. Mysterious!
Rural buses can be a bit of a challenge — often enough, they veer from the route displayed on Google Maps, almost invariably to find a toilet somewhere, but the intent is never announced so each time it happens I feel just a little bit of consternation, especially in the more secluded areas, and consider my options to abandon ship like I’m in some kind of mortal danger. Which I’m not.
I think this highlights the anxieties caused by technological realism more than anything else, and am actually something like thankful whenever I’m presented with such a situation. It also resoundingly rings of First World Problems, which I lament lol.
Anyway, I made it to my intended bus stop without much more than a scrape (damn bus steps). From there, the third leg began, a 20 minute walk to the farm on a winding road up a densely forested mountain. Most of this was just what it sounds like, but there was one property I encountered on the way up that was terribly interesting. Overgrown like you can’t believe and a truly standalone structure with no neighboring buildings anywhere in site, it had a stark presence that began with a solidly constructed entrance gate which opened up into a very spacious, very long driveway of sorts, at the end of which sat the monochrome, single story building in question just kind of staring at you from a distance. A mysterious fixer-upper to be reckoned with, for sure, though not for the feint of heart.
As I approached the end of my ascent, the forest opened up to overlook a spectacular valley, vibrantly green, and stretching in two directions for great distances. On the slopes, there stood a few scattered buildings, below which the land had been well-shaped into various farm plots. This was more than I expected, and I got the sense that this was more a village of akiya than it was a single unit. This was correct, and Byron, minutes away from me now, would soon explain.
Byron pulled up in a kei truck quite fitting to the vibe I was picking up — mud-splattered and with thick tree branches fitted together above the truck bed forming racks and braces from which to hang various tools, this rig would not have been entirely out of place on a Mad Max set. When Byron clamored out of his rough and tumble chariot, I noticed that he himself subscribed to this aesthetic: standing probably around 190 cm tall, sporting a mutton chops & handlebar mustache combo, flip flops, mud-stained cut-off shorts, and a dainty gardening hat, Byron leaves an immediate larger-than-life impression.
And his personality is much the same. We quickly struck up a conversation about more than just my trip to the farm, and soon enough he was taking me around explaining the history of the many features he had built more or less by himself across the properties over the past decade. That’s right, he’s been out there for quite some time, and it shows: numerous well-tended plots, retro-fitted buildings, custom built coops and shacks, Kasamatsu Farm is what every little kid building a tree house hopes it will one day turn into, and then some.
As it turns out, Kasamatsu Farm is indeed built on a village, the story of which is where things momentarily took a bit of a dark turn. You see, long ago the land on which the farm stands was a happy little village of 9 or so families, living off the land in a communal fashion of sorts. One fated evening, however, a member of that community accidentally started a fire and burned down most of the community, resulting in death, community dissolution, and a heavy dose of ostracization for him. As a result, this community member became the landlord of the land and remaining buildings which rapidly lost value and appeal, and stood vacant for years, until Byron came by and picked them up.
Step Back For a Moment and Consider
This is, I think, a very good story to learn from, and not in the “be careful not to burn down your village” sense. Along with the rest of the world, Japan is talented at dishing out scarlet letters. Modern culture is one in which new, pristine, unadulterated products, people, and properties alike are valued above all else, including function, and I think this results in a great deal of wasted potential. So much of what could be is never achieved simply because the constituent parts are not deemed “pure” enough. Call it rehabilitation, forgiveness, sustainability, or whatever, its feasible that our lives individually and collectively could be improved to a yet-unmeasurable extent if only we were to leverage the resources right in front of us but which lie unused for being perceived as impure.
Regarding Japanese real estate, this is particularly true: houses in which a death occurred, disaster-struck neighborhoods, cities with less-than-metro populations, and prefectures out of the blindly accepted maximum distance from an economic hub, the properties in Japan that are deemed suitable for consumption must meet a wide range of criteria lest they fall into obscurity. And while most of these criteria are very important indeed, frequently there are also applied criteria that feel a bit more arbitrary, and result in otherwise quality properties being effectively disappeared. Our goal with Akiya & Inaka is to re-engage the public with those properties and communities that ought to be on their radar, but which persist only invisibly due to an overzealous status quo. Check out our services if you’d like to explore that.
Getting to Work
Byron showed me around a good bit of the area — the house I would be contributing to, the vegetable gardens he and his family tend to, the coops he’s built to house 100+ chickens, the exceedingly awesome farmhouse I would be staying in, and much more.
Part of the charm of Byron’s establishment is that if you simply engage with it, you’ll find things which appeal to many tastes. I’ve worked with permaculture establishments before, and while they have all been impressive to various degrees, Byron’s operation takes the cake. The property is massive, well developed, and sustainable to boot, all done with a maximally DIY approach. It is an outstandingly powerful example of what can be accomplished with outside of the box thinking, and it is very encouraging to say the least.
After the tour, we wrapped back around to the house being built to get down to work with 2 other helpers. In this instance, that meant mixing equal parts sand and clay with a large helping of straw with our feet, approximately 530 liters at a time.
This is a more complicated process than you might think: the clay must be laid out on a large tarp as flat and evenly as is easily accomplished, on top of which the sand must be distributed. This gets stomped over by the 4 of us for maybe 20 minutes, and then the mixture must be flipped by hauling on the tarp from at least 2 angles, creating a very large and very dirty facsimile of omu-rice. Do this 3ish times, then add a few bushels of straw, and you’ll be on your way to making some very nice earthen plaster to use for tsuchikabe, or cob walls.
Once we finished this process, we placed the mixture in buckets (which, according to Byron, are actually quite difficult to purchase individually (that’s another story), and hauled them over to the application site. This amounted to maybe 10 meters distance, but this stuff is pretty damn heavy and we made, like, more than a kiloliter of it, so moving it around was a job in itself.
Upon relocating our arsenal of mud, the real work of creating the walls began, as did my education in how humans have built stuff for thousands of years. You see, its a pretty simple process at its core: secure some wooden stakes into the ground, horizontally thread some finer wood or bamboo through them, apply the cob to this frame, let it dry, repeat. That 2nd to last mudslinging part is where I came in, and I mudslung vigorously.
A Hard Day’s Work
After a few hours of this, the sun was beating down on us and our stomachs were empty, so we called it a day and made our way to the river to swim and relax, stopping at a local burger joint on the way for some very welcome sustenance. Riverside, we lounged about in the sylvan sun, talking about nothing in particular while enjoying our meals, and reveled in the cool current washing away the considerable amount of filth that had accrued on our arms and legs from building a mud house, as all of our ancestors did many thousands of years ago up until only relatively recently.
The Benefits of Rural Farm Life
Kasamatsu Farms is an incredible place, and I highly recommend heading out there as it offers so very much. Having booked many concert tours, worked on large music festivals, and running a tourism company in my spare time (Kaala Tours, currently hibernating due to Corona Virus), I’ve got an OK idea of what the general public’s notion of R&R is: beachside cocktails, Michelin-starred meals, fashionable detoxes, leisurely bike rides through sun-beaming forests, etc., these are all really nice things, however it all increasingly strikes me as an individualistic escapist retreat into, well, oblivion, really.
And that makes sense in the modern age of interconnectivity, being always on, and unreasonable deadlines that must nevertheless be met if not delivered early. Human interaction causes a whole lot of stress in the contemporary business world — which I would also suspect bleeds over to our personal lives — such that the notion of “rest and relaxation” acquires a notably distant, lonely quality.
To my knowledge, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a travel ad campaign along the lines of “work and get dirty with strangers to build something cool!” But in these coronatimes of social distancing, frugality, broken systems, and no convincing hard evidence that suggests this will end any time soon, I’m starting to suspect that the current definition of luxury is going to evolve a bit, if not be upended entirely, in response to these new challenges we’re faced with.
The above is perhaps one example of how rural communities and vacant properties can help address the crisis of modernity. There were no cocktails but cheap beer; no Michelin Stars but local food; no detoxes but a whole lot of sweat; leisure, but only followed by pretty extensive physical exhaustion. And, above all, no closed spaces or dense crowds, but expansive fields, cool wind, running water, and a few strangers from all walks of life coming together to build a sustainable houses on land that was previously given up on.
To me, that sounds like just the sort of positive action required to build a better future. Call me hopeful.