Alex Torra's Japan Tour Diary: TOKYO

12 Sep 2012 in Zero Cost House

Before anything, I want to introduce you to KUMAMON. Every Japanese city, it seems, has a mascot, and for the fair city of Kumamoto, it's the cuddly and adorable Kumamon bear. In a recent national content, Kumamon won #1 mascot in Japan. Pig Iron is smitten. As you can imagine, there is Kumamon swag all over our latest destination, and in fact, we'll be bringing it plenty of it back to America with us.
Our experience in Kumamoto is as varied and complex as our experience in Tokyo. We're in a totally new place - and this time, our hotel is squarely placed in an area of excellent restaurants and the Japanese version of the red-light district: love hotels, soapy massages, and host/hostess bars (which, we believe, are also called “snack” bars). The trees in Kumamoto are filled with cicadas, and their buzzing fills the streets both day and night.

On the first full day in Kumamoto, our itinerary is packed. Our first stop is at Sakaguchi's Zero Center. We are traveling with Toshiki Okada, and his two children, whom we've never met - Hibiki and Fumiko - the most amazing two little kids. We've also been joined by Maiko Matsushima, our Costume Designer, her husband David, and their one-year-old daughter Saffie. At the Zero Center, Sakaguchi greets us bare-chested and perched in a second-floor window - he looks like a hippy, Japanese Che Guevarra. The Center is tucked away at the end of an alley, an old, wooden house, with remarkable, Burning Man-esque metal sculptures strewn across the front lawn. The place is smaller than I imagined. We meet Sakaguchi's friends/assistants. One of them brings out a hi-def film camera and documents the entirety of our visit.

We meet Sakaguchi's daughter, Au, and our experience in Kumamoto seems subtly defined by the presence of children. The word Au means “deep blue” in Japanese, and this sweet girl draws and plays while Sakaguchi tells us about his Zero Center - and we are reminded that she, in a playful attempt to join her father's new government, has been named the Minister of Mascots.

We are swept upstairs to Sakaguchi's office, where, for 2 hours, Sakaguchi talks non-stop. In retrospect, there is very little I remember from his lecture - the heat and the sitting on the floor kept me from ever quite locking into Sakaguchi's words. What comes into focus more than anything is a sense of the world that he's built around him and the man that exists beneath the identity of ” The Prime Minister of the New Government.” Sakaguchi talks about his art inspirations, which include cubism and the Whole Earth Catalog, a counterculture publication from the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. An original copy of the WEC sits on the coffee table in his office, alongside the original versions of his Sakaguchi's publications, and it outlines its Purpose in the its first couple of pages:

"We are as gods and might as well get good at it. So far, remotely done power and glory - as via government, big business, formal education, church - has succeeded to the point where gross defects obscure actual gains. In response to this dilemma and to these gains a realm of intimate, personal power is developing - power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested. Tools that aid this process are sought and promoted by the WHOLE EARTH CATALOG."

The more he speaks, the more we begin to get a sense of one of Sakaguchi's prime motivators, a hunger for something he calls “this cool feeling” - referring to how a piece of art or music or an intellectual idea has an effect on him. We also get a glimpse at his depressive nature. Toshiki had mentioned that Sakaguchi has disappeared at times, and Sakaguchi himself spoke to moments in his life when he gets depressed and spends hours at the library immersed in art books - searching out for buoys to keep him emotionally afloat. He talks about how his wife is crucial to his emotional health. A man who functions at such a high-energy, with what seems like an inexhaustible motor, does crash out sometimes - and to hear him, in his hyperactive state, describe the moments when depression comes along is revealing and, well, humanizing.

We leave the Zero Center, some of us exhausted and overheated. However, the day continues in a remarkable way: a visit to Kumamoto's tourist gem, the city's castle, a buffet lunch of remarkable Japanese foods, a tour of a local warehouse that contains a super-cool loft performance space, and finally, a sake-drenched sushi dinner where we are served horsemeat sashimi. Yes, I said it … horsemeat. A Kumamoto delicacy, once you actually get it in your mouth, it isn't too intimidating at all.

Our dinner is followed by an outing to a local music venue and club, where Sakaguchi himself performs (here's a link to some of his music:, which is then followed by loud, sweaty conversations in half-understood English with other club-goers, and then ice cream outside a convenience mart. The evening ends with a hard collapse into our cozy hotel beds.


Day Two brings the most affecting moment of our trip.

We are invited to Toshiki's home to have dinner with his family and with some of their friends, all of who once lived in more northern parts of Japan but have recently evacuated to Kumamoto to escape the potential for radiation poisoning. Toshiki had spoken to us about how his family, over a year ago, decided to leave Tokyo and resettle here in Kumamoto. He had also mentioned that he was interested in including this story, and the difficult choices it entailed, in Zero Cost House. This was an opportunity to get a better sense of his experience.

At this dinner, there are no men - only women and their children. In this modest home, nestled amidst other larger homes, dinner becomes more than just dinner. We hear the stories of this small community of evacuees, and all the while, their children run around, scream for their mothers' attention, play video games, and lie about on tatami mats.

The stories of these evacuees are overwhelming. Many of them speak to the fears of radiation, a fear that is difficult for many us Americans to comprehend. In the months following 3/11, though there had been public announcements by the Japanese government and media pronouncing Tokyo and its surrounding areas safe, many were concerned that there may be radiation quietly existing in the city. In an act of self-protection, regular citizens ordered incredibly expensive Geiger counters on the internet, and used them to test the level of radiation in their homes and work places. One woman said that she used a Geiger counter in her basement, and the amount measured was 4 times beyond a safe level.

Radiation is strange. It can't be smelled or felt or seen - it is a quiet poison, and its effects take years to appear. There is no actual knowing if you and your loved ones are being affected by it. These families, however, were pushed to make a decision about whether to trust the media and government, or to trust their own concerns and the data from a machine that belongs to science labs and sci-fi films.

These evacuees were presented with the same questions that have been traveling with us since Tokyo, since first meeting Sakaguchi and encountering the zero yen lifestyle - how do you choose to live your daily life? How do you decide what is true and factual for you? What information do you trust and use to make decisions, and, in the case of our hosts - when it comes to the livelihood and health of your children, how do you protect and provide for them?

One woman, Ichikoji, spoke about her life as an actress in Tokyo. A warm, energetic woman, Ichikoji has a child, and, much like Toshiki, picked up and left the life she had in Tokyo. The fear of long-term radiation exposure forced a nearly impossible choice. She gave up her career as a theater artist for the sake of living in a place that felt safe for her and her child and to create a life of her own making.

When Ichikoji arrived in Kumamoto, she had enough funds to sustain herself for a month, she told us. But how would she make a living, how would she care for her son? One day, she found herself visiting a local farm, of which there are three or four in the Kumamoto area. Strangely compelled by this place, she asked if she could work there. Now, Ichikoji was a city girl, through and through. She had no experience growing and maintaining crops, but something felt right to her. She took to it quickly, and, as she reports, that this former actress is quite good at it. This organic farm inspired her to begin a vegetarian, macrobiotic lifestyle, in which she cooks for herself and her son daily (and, on this incredible evening, Ichikoji not only served as story-teller, but as chef, making us a phenomenally tasty macrobiotic dinner).

This story of a sudden shift in one's life isn't inspirational just for the swiftness of change. What moves many of us is a statement she made - “I like myself more as a farmer than I like myself as an actress.” So many of us on this trip have defined our lives by our artistry. We've dedicated every ounce of our time and energy, for so many years, to building careers and communities that center around an artistic pursuit. And its assumed that we are pursuing the thing that makes us happiest. There is something surprising in encountering someone who may have felt and thought the way many of us have, and is suddenly presented with a whole new way of looking and feeling about it. This forced reprioritization helped her find a happiness that so many of us still seek.

After we heard Ichikoji's story, we listened to the accounts of each of the women's experiences. Each of them had hard-shifted their lives. Not only had they moved, but they began to question every aspect of the world around them - where are their clothes from and fabricated, what's really in the foods that they are eating, what materials are used in the construction of their homes. This examination has led many of them to a new lifestyle - one that is less impactful on the environment, filled with organic foods which are locally grown, and the development of a mindset that wants to be deeply informed about their world. It also has led them to create a community that shares in the collecting and dissemination of information and supports the taking on of challenges that are rooted in the creation of a new, self-determined lifestyle. There are undoubtedly reverberations with the words of Sakaguchi and, even, Thoreau.

After an evening of stories and incredible food, our minds and hearts and bellies were filled. We returned home to our hotel and prepared for our departure, in the morning, to the resort town of Beppu - the final leg of this remarkable journey.

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