I found my first eco-volunteer project in Japan by accident, really. During my research into permaculture projects I read about a small “eco-village” called Fujino, about an hour and a half west of Tokyo in the mountains. It is what’s known as a “Transition town”, i.e. part of the Transition Movement which helps develop independent sustainable communities by using local resources, traditions and culture. The Transition approach is strongly rooted in using permaculture to build resilience in the face of climate change and peak oil. I first heard of it, in fact, via one or two people involved in the Lancaster one in the UK (where truly positive things are happening – see http://transitioncitylancaster.org/ ).
Japan has more than twenty Transition towns, in various stages of development, but Fujino is one of the “fully functional” ones. In its cohesive community of 150 households, people help one another out on a near-daily basis, for example by looking after children, pets and gardens, or connecting people in need with someone who can lend a hand. There’s a local currency, the Yorozuya, traded for goods and food in the village, and the general emphasis is on creating a resilient, secure and contented way of life without overworking.
There’s a fantastic article about the Transition Movement (international – in fact it started in Totnes, Devon!) here: http://ourworld.unu.edu/en/transition-town-fujino-goes-for-local-energy-independence
Fujino also happens to attract a lot of artists, and in one part of the village (the only part I actually visited, in the end!) there’s a collection of small wooden buildings containing all kinds of hand-made – often fair trade – treasures. Over time, as word has spread about the village and its artistic, eco-friendly leanings, people who share these interests have been drawn to the lifestyle... on any given day there must be enormous potential for passionate discussion, inspirational moments, and collaboration whether at work or at play. What an amazing place to live, although I bet a clash of so many “artistic temperaments” can get very fiery, very quickly!
The eco-project I was in Fujino to work on was in a different part of the village, up a steep twisty mountain road in a place where, I soon found, some very ambitious ideas were being put into practice by one Byron Nagy. Byron’s father was Hungarian, his mother German, and he was brought up in New Jersey, USA. Having now spent ten years in Japan, he speaks faultless Japanese... to the point that people whose first contact with him is over the phone have no idea he isn’t Japanese! Byron and his wife Kaori were two of the many people who, after the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011, took stock of their high-consumption, high-energy, corporate lifestyle in Tokyo and started to question the sources of the energy that powered their lives. It was time to do things differently, they decided. You can read a fuller version of Byron’s story here: https://permacultureglobal.org/users/5638-byron-nagy
Byron and Kaori found a plot of land on a hillside in Fujino and designed the house they would build on it, with a breathtaking mountain view, chickens in a coop a few metres away, solar power, a compost loo and the cleanest air imaginable. There are already a handful of houses around their plot; Byron explained that this part of the village was essentially started up by Samurais, some of the last warriors and their families who retreated into the hills, many generations ago, away from the warring states below. Most of the descendants of these people have now died; the ones remaining in the village are elderly, and it is unlikely that young blood will come and settle in this remote part of the village when the present occupants pass away. Still, there must be other families like Byron’s, willing to take a similarly dramatic step!
The key project taking up most of Byron’s time at the moment actually isn’t his family’s future home, but the renovation of a nearby “kominka” – a traditional Japanese farmhouse. The building is 150 years old, and over the last 11 months Byron has led an ever-changing team of volunteers (some of them skilled – a novelty!) in giving the whole place a makeover. They have rebuilt the walls, using stacks of unwanted tatami mats as extra insulation. Double-glazed windows have been put in, as have stairs, solid ceilings/floors and a water supply. Electricity has been critical to the building work, for powering the tools as well as brewing the tea :) The mains electricity will be complemented by roof-mounted solar panels, working hard to harness extra energy. There’s a fantastic textured look to the blackened wooden exterior – it looks charred, because it is! This “weatherisation” isn’t simply designed to produce interesting patterns in the surface; in fact it increases the wood’s capacity to repel water. There will be a rocket stove in the centre of the house, which should throw out enough heat to keep the whole place, and everyone in it, lovely and warm. The outdoor Japanese bath house is mostly built, and will offer a luxurious place to relax and look up at the stars.
I have no pictures at the moment, because I’m waiting to be able to direct you to photos of the finished result! This rescued building will very soon be a guest house, run along mostly organic lines and with a “farm-to-table” ethos. So any guests who wish to can help collect eggs for breakfast in the morning, feed the chickens, and pick fruit and salad from the garden at mealtimes. The first guests have booked to arrive at the end of March, which only leaves about seven weeks for Byron and helpers to finish the place! The boss seems confident, though, that the remaining work is essentially about putting an aesthetic finish over a perfect structure, and that they’ll get it done on time. I cannot WAIT to see the result of all that effort! There will be a Facebook page, and when I hear that the work is complete I’ll be sure to pass it on :)