Every Japanese business has an English name and there’s something very endearing about the fact that they never quite get it right. The best boutique hotel in Fukuoka is called “With the Style”; the largest second-hand book shop is “Book-off” (there’s a branch of the same business, which sells second hand computers with the wonderful name of “Hard-off”). I was browsing through Book-off when I can across a book by Alex Kerr called “Lost Japan.” What a find it turned out to be. Although Alex Kerr is an American, the book was originally written in Japanese and in 1994 it won the Shincho Gakugei Literature Prize for the best work of non-fiction published in Japan, the first time a foreigner had won the award. The book tells us what it’s like to live in Japan and how Japanese society works.
When the author first came to Japan in the 1970’s, he noticed that when people left the countryside to live in a town, which they were doing by the thousands, they wouldn’t bother to sell their house in the country, they’d just abandon it, sometimes without removing anything – they’d leave the furniture, the bedding, even utensils. He went searching for the house of his dreams in Shikoku and fell in love with an abandoned wooden house with a thatched roof, which he bought for $1,300, and set about restoring. He called it Chiiori, “the house of the flute”, and what he did was so unusual that it’s now become a tourist attraction.
Alex Kerr laments the loss of the Japan which he first encountered when he arrived in the seventies. But in one respect the Japan which he loved is still there. Strangely, although property prices in the cities are amongst the highest in the world, no-one wants to live in the countryside, which is still littered with abandoned houses, which can be acquired for a song. The irony is that millions in the cities hanker after the Slow Life. If they cared to look they’d find that it’s there, right under their noses.