Tucked away in the foot hills of Mt. Aso in Kyushu is a village. Called Yamaga, it’s written as “mountain deer.” True to its name, deer pop in and out of the town along with, or so the stories go, boars and monkeys. Here, you will see the quintessential old Japan. It’s quaint, beautiful, elegant in its simplicity, and according to the 70-plus year old man I met this weekend, here you will find the nicest Japanese anywhere. I’m fully aware of the impact of that statement. Them’s fightin’ words, if you ask me. Then he tells me the story, and for the umpteenth time this year, I’m speechless all over again. I can only agree with him. “Yes, here live the nicest people in Japan.”
It all starts with a conversation he and I are having. Standing next to the 70-plus year old local legend is one of his many “disciples” who happens to be the fourth generation president of an artisan family making Japanese fans. (More on that some other day.) I’m being told in no uncertain terms to absolutely not trust this disciple, that he’s more a crook than not, and if I know what’s best for me I will follow him (the 70-plus year old telling me all this) and leave this “young thing” be. This “young thing” is older than me, mind you. I’m loving this.
“Why is he a crook?”
“Oh, you don’t want to know.”
“But, I do!” I grin.
“It’ll be a long night then. You okay with that?”
This entire conversation said in front of the “crook” is taking place as the elderly master “we all want to emulate” (the crook says) digs through his bag. I assume he’s looking for business cards or something of the sort. He pulls out his datebook and cell phone, starts skimming through the pages evidently finding the number, and looks over to the crook and says, “Got to make this call.”
“The swallow?” the crook says back.
I have no idea what this conversation is about and am about to take my leave when the master says to the crook, “Tell her.”
“About the swallow?” I say for some reason. Perhaps I’m hoping to find out why the crook is a crook.
“Right,” and on cue, he starts talking into the phone.
“What’s up with the swallow?” I ask the crook, and this is the story he tells me.
The buildings in Yamaga are old. Big beams protrude out from under the tiled roofs, and the plaster walls are whitewashed. Underneath one such roof in the corner between the beam and the wall was a swallow’s nest. Eggs hatched, baby swallows chirped and the locals celebrated. More life.
“We notice these things,” the crook says.
“Not like people in Tokyo.” Ouch. Enter the master, having recently concluded his “swallow business.”
“Right,” he says. “Not like those in Tokyo and Osaka. They’re not human. Stupid people. They wouldn’t know if their neighbor was dead in the apartment next to them. You know that, right?”
I do. I have heard stories and read articles about bill collectors coming to apartments and after repeated visits with no answers finally get the police involved, only to find a skeleton in the bed, having been there clearly for months. None of the neighbors noticed their neighbor’s absence, although many complained of an odd smell.
“Here, see, we notice these things. I tell you, if a cat died a kilometer from here, we’d all know about it. Right?” The master asks the crook.
“Did you finish the story?”
“No. Not yet.”
“How far did you get?”
“That we knew there were babies.”
“So, see,” the master turns to me. “These babies, right? We would all watch them with their beaks pointed upwards and making these noises.” He looks up at the sky, puckers his lips and starts making chirping noises. I try not to grin. “And then, then, the swallows stop coming to the nest. We’re all assuming the swallow parents died and so we stand around wondering what to do, right?” I nod.
“Then, the sparrows arrive.”
“Sparrows? Sparrows or swallows?” I want to make sure I have my birds straight.
“But, I thought they were swallow babies.”
“See?” He’s pleased I’ve made the connection.
“They are swallow babies. Sparrows came out of nowhere and started feeding these swallow babies. I had to make this call because we’re telling everyone we know. People need to know this.” Period. End of story. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a chest actually swell with pride before. Standing in front of me, the master’s chest expanded. It’s amazing to watch, really. His chest grew. I kid you not.
“Even the sparrows are nice here,” the crook says.
“Everyone here, everything here is nice.” The master agrees. “We are the nicest people in Japan.”
He starts shaking his finger at me. “Don’t go to Tokyo. That’s not Japan. You need to be here. This is real. This is Japan.” I smile and nod.
The real Japan. I’ve been thinking about this story and nodding every since. Something about this story makes sense. Strangers helping strangers. Sparrows adopting swallows. It’s beautiful. That the townspeople of Yamaga take every opportunity to tell their neighbors of the sparrows’ generosity is a whole new kind of beauty.