Dancing, forging, weaving

Heidi Axelsen


In preparation for our final week in Urada, we offered to accompany local people in their daily lives and to help with odd jobs. As it turned out people were quite happy to do their own odd jobs and we found ourselves being fed delicious delicacies instead!

Izuka-san and his grandson Koya-kun acompanied us to all the visits to introduce us & help us with interpreting. Koya-kun is 10 years old and was a great teacher for us in both Japanese and magic tricks! At Yuji-san’s house in the hills behind the village of Urada, he and his wife invited us their 200 year old house. Yuji-san showed us by drawing the way his house was originally built with giant river stones foundation pillars and treated us to many delicious home-made pickles and seaweed.

Sato-san and his wife live further up the valley quite close the Australia House where he showed us his small factory which houses his machine for drying rice and storing potatoes. He also took us on an adventure into the nearby bush to dig out some clay. Nothing seems to tire these strong people, he whipper-snipped a 100m path through thick bush for us to find the clay at the base of a large tree. We now have a bucket full of earth to return to in the winter!

The last visit we had was to Gombei-san's house who is the closest neighbour to Australia House. After a karoke concert in Gomberi-san's lounge room, he taught us to make hand weave straw sandals called 'warazi'.

Looking back at our time here the most precious experiences have been the opportunity to engage physically in the act of making. Doing and learning a choreography of movements, refined with practice and repetition, such as weaving slippers from rice straw, forging slender nails from metal rods, dancing at Obon. Creating by watching, imitating, making mistakes, perfecting and reaching an end to begin again.

On Saturday morning we joined the weekly gathering of local old ladies down at Izuka San's supermarket. With Daisuke's help we chatting with them about the old days over pickles and tea before dropping them all home on the mini bus. They told us about the past in this region, the hardship but also the closeness of people. It was a very special experience for all of us. One lady, more than 80 years old told us we were the first foreigners she had ever met.

In the final workshop we held at Australia House, we were interested in uncovering peoples sensory seasonal memories of Satoyama. We prepared a series of timber rods in three different length with a series of notches. On each face of a timber rod we asked people to write their sense memory, taste/smell, touch and sound of satoyama and then on the last face to write their hope for satoyama. Each person then painted their timber rod and set about to make a structure together, finding a place for their contribution to fit in a whole. The result was a collective spindly and intricate structure held together by strings and notches.

On our last days in Urada we visited several 'akiya', abandoned traditional farm house many of which are beautifully constructed with woven cedar rafters, yet are now shells with traces of the families that were there. We have been told de-population is a result of the rapid industrialisation in Japan and the decline in agriculture, though it is shocking to experience a place as beautiful as this being abandoned.

Living so close to a land with 40 degree days in summer and 4 meters of snow in winter, is a tough environment for anyone especially the elderly. Yet they are the most vital old people I have ever met. There are so few young people here, as they seem to be daunted by the isolation and the 'inconvenience' of country life,and of course the lack of work.

We have been told many times about the depth of the snow and can only imagine the weight and pressure this puts on the peoples lives and the physical infrastructure. We will get to experience when we return in winter next year for massive snowfall!

Chalk board calendar and Sato-san's lounge room. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Chalk board calendar and Sato-san's lounge room. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Sato-san's azuki beans and potatoes. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Sato-san's azuki beans and potatoes. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Yugi-san's drawing and stone pillars. Photo by Nathan Hawkes

Yugi-san's drawing and stone pillars. Photo by Nathan Hawkes

Master and apprentices: Hugo and Nathan forging nails. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Master and apprentices: Hugo and Nathan forging nails. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Weaving straw sandals with Gombei-san, one by master one by Heidi the 'apprentice'. Photo by Hugo Moline

Weaving straw sandals with Gombei-san, one by master one by Heidi the 'apprentice'. Photo by Hugo Moline

Morning tea and supermarket deliveries. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Morning tea and supermarket deliveries. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Writing satoyama sensory memories & hopes. Photo by Nathan Hawkes

Writing satoyama sensory memories & hopes. Photo by Nathan Hawkes

Satoyama sensory memories  hopes. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Satoyama sensory memories  hopes. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Final day in Urada. 

Final day in Urada.