ELLA KELLEHER WRITES (latest in her review series of new Japanese books) – Are you feeling disillusioned with the relentless hustle and colorless monotony of metropolis living? Do you feel like another cog in the capitalist machine? Do you crave a simpler life? Consider adopting and adhering to the daily phrase, “Just take it easy, man!” Or “naa-naa” as the Kamusari villagers of Japan’s countryside would say. Sounds like a tempting daily philosophy for city folks who yearn for a return to nature and a humbler lifestyle, especially for those who can see the disenchanted and dystopic modern career life for what it can become.
One such eighteen-year-old, Yuki Hirano from Yokohama, avidly rejects the path of the Japanese salary man by becoming somewhat of a teenage shut-in. In order to stop his descent into hermit-hood, which has become one of Japan’s largest social issues, Yuki is forcibly recruited into the forestry business operating in rural Japan. Yuki finds courage, confidence, and inner-peace in the least expected place of all: a small, bucolic, and highly spiritual village deep in the Kamusari mountain – a sacred place plagued by mysterious ghosts, powerful spirits, and painful secrets.
Shion Miura, award-winning and world renown Japanese author of The Great Passage (2011), delivers yet another fascinating introspection into how the ancient and traditional worlds meet the modern and contemporary way of life in The Easy Life in Kamusari (2021) – the first book in Miura’s new Forest series. Translated into English by superb veteran translator, Juliet Winters Carpenter, this upcoming novel which arrives on Amazon’s virtual shelves on November 2nd unravels into a beautiful coming-of-age tale that makes the reader long for a greener life – one without phones, the internet, and where sentences end in “naa-naa.”
The fast life, industrial cityscapes, and seas of suits and ties – all the accessories to ordinary city life can get terribly exhausting for someone who craves individuality and serenity. This is especially true for youths who are still struggling with understanding themselves. For a boy whose name means “courage,” Yuki Hirano had to be forced by his nagging mother into enrolling into a year-long forestry training program in the remote mountain village of Kamusari. Upon arriving after his exhausting journey, Yuki meets Yoki – a man whose name means “ax” and who is Yuki’s polar opposite in many ways. A muscular, blonde, unintentionally hilarious, and happy-go-lucky guy, Yoki Iida becomes Yuki’s forestry guru – teaching the young man the ways of the mountain and of the village.
At first, Yuki cannot grasp the idea of being disconnected from his telephone, which Yoki happily chucks down the mountainside, and of being separated from the outside world’s luxuries that he and most city people have grown accustomed to. Upon realizing he is marooned on the top of the mountain with no way out, Yuki accepts his fate of working as an arborist for Nakamura Lumber Co. He gradually learns how to master the art of felling trees, deciphering various tree species, planting saplings, and respecting the formidable landscape. Despite the initial problems Yuki faces in his job, he gets better with his peers’ encouragement and practice. Over time, contentment and enjoyment replaces the urban anomie.
Being one of the only young people in a village of only about a hundred, Yuki is immediately accepted by most as a fellow villager. Hospitality is an ancient and often forgotten custom within major cities, a reality that becomes evident when Yoki whole-heartedly welcomes Yuki into his own home, where the boy lives for the entirety of his year on the mountain. Yuki is introduced to Miho, Yoki’s lively wife who he repeatedly cheats on; however, “true love” and a good sense of humor keeps the pair together. Yuki also meets Grandma Shige, Yoki’s grandmother who resembles a “bean-jam bun” and who operates as the town’s spiritual matriarch.
Life outside the artificiality and rapidity of a metropolis feels muted somehow – softer and more serene, like the difference between smooth jazz and a rock concert. Escaping the trappings of city living, Yuki awakens to the reality of a world without modern technology. Everything is different – the food is cleaner, the seasons hit harder, and without “gas or electricity [to heat it], even the water [feels] soft[er].” Miura paints a picturesque spring portrait of Kamusari, a place of “mingled fragrances, [the] sweetness of the clear water in the river, the [green] smell of grass… Everything [is] in motion,” including the pace in which Yuki falls in love with Nao.
Nao – one of the only other young adults from the mountain village – rides a motorcycle, dresses like a “tomboy,” is a dedicated schoolteacher, and is hopelessly infatuated with Seiichi Nakamura – the town’s “feudal lord” and the owner of Nakamura Lumber Co. Nao also happens to be the sister to Risa, Seiichi’s beautiful wife, and a caring aunt to Santa, the couple’s young son who gets spirited away by two female ghosts from the village before the festival for Oyamazumi-san – the mountain god himself.
Yuki takes it upon himself to impress Nao, and bravely rescues Santa with the help of the other men by “purifying themselves” in a painfully cold bath of salt water and honoring the spirits that rest at the mountain’s temple with ritual garb and prayer. But even after the successful mission to save Santa, Nao still does not care for Yuki. Before leaving the shrine of the mountain god, Yuki is instructed to make one dire wish – “Make me into a man. One worthy of Nao.”
Not only does Yuki begin to believe in the idea of being “spirited away,” he also prays to and respects the gods themselves. The mountain transforms into something beyond simply a large mound of trees, dirt, and rocks. It now appears before him as a royal being that is enveloped in a powerful and formidable essence of spirituality – one that is reminiscent of the Shinto kami (gods) featured in Hayao Miyazaki’s famous films.
The Kamusari villager’s “fearlessness” or rather their “easygoingness” reaches its pinnacle during the final festival for Oyamazumi-san, occurring only once in half a century, where the men of the village must once more take on an enormous task: cutting down the largest tree at the top of mount Kamusari and riding it’s felled corpse surfer-style down to the mountain basin while holding onto only a few ropes for safety. As Yuki holds on tightly, his wish for Nao to reciprocate his love is confronted by Oyamazumi-san himself during this highly spiritual occasion. Encased in a veil of mysticism and wonder, Miura’s novel effectively suspends the disbelief of its audience and makes us wonder, will Oyamazumi-san grant Yuki’s ultimate wish? Can Nao ever get over her love for a married man? Do mountain gods, spirits, and ghosts even exist at all?
Miura’s poignant writing and the Kamusari village philosophy remind the reader that we mere humans are simply living on a planet that we naively believe we have conquered, and yet ultimately, “before the majesty of the mountain, [we] [can] only bow our heads.” As Old Man Saburo, another tree feller in Nakamura’s company, says, “Don’t ever forget we’re visitors on the mountain, or you’ll earn the wrath of the gods.” Perhaps this is the way to heal the wounded modern human condition – rather than trying to dominate nature, live in peaceful, easygoing harmony with it instead.
Recent LMU graduate Ella Kelleher is the book review editor and a contributing staff writer for Asia Media International. She majored in English with a concentration in multi-ethnic literature.