There is definitely something to be said for the role of Community participation here in Nakajo.

In just 5 weeks, we three artists have been welcomed with open arms into the tiny but incredibly warm community of Nakajo village. I know this is now part of Nagano city but this is truly a village – in spirit at least so I’m going to keep referring to them that way. I get the impression, reading between the lines, that perhaps the locals still do so too.

A sunny afternoon in Nakajo looking towards Mt Mushikura

There has been too much going on in these past weeks to recount all the crazy stuff we’ve been lucky to be involved in but let me try to give you a taster. Most of all, I’ve decided that the new motto goes something like “Everything is always bigger and more wonderful than you expect”.

We have been invited to and involved in all manner of community events.

Taiko practice takes place for the town kids on Wednesday nights. After that, the adult group meets up in a gorgeous old wooden school hall converted into a concert hall for their practice sessions. Even though we messed up their practice routine, the teacher went to the trouble of teaching us a few simple rhythms on the taiko drums so we could join in. We were even allowed to play the giant drums where you are beating at shoulder height on a drum the size of an enormous wine barrel on its side. I heard these instruments cost as much as a small car!

Taiko practice is serious around here

Recently, we got roped in to join the rice harvest of a neighour’s field. Innocently expecting it to be light work, we rocked up to a group of 20 people hand-harvesting rice in shin-deep mud. We were severely under-prepared but it was fantastic. Working around the edges where our borrowed gumboots allowed us to wade but not drown, we were instructed to sickle 5 bunches of rice and lay them together in groups. Another person (which was me too, after I learnt the correct way to tie it!) would use dried rice straw to wrap and bind them into a solid bundle. These were then hung upside down from metal frames along the edge of the field to dry. It was not only a rare opportunity for us 3 artists but harvesting rice by hand (not by the usual lawn mower-esque machine) but was also a novelty for many of the Japanese participants, too.

One bunch, cut close to the base with a tiny sickle
Rice bound in bunches of five, hung upside down to dry for a few weeks

As with many community events here (and, as per the motto), the proceedings finished with an elaborate lunch of noodle soup (with wild boar meat! local delicacy which I have to say is delicious) and much alcohol.

After hard work comes hard alcohol

I heard from the owner of the field yesterday that now two weeks has passed and they are ready to process the rice this week. “Dakkoku” is the final process of removing the rice from the stalks and husks by passing it through a machine. At this point the rice is ready to eat. Amazing. Around where we are living in Nakajo, many families have their own rice paddy or maybe two. They plant and harvest these each year and end up with enough rice to feed themselves as well as giving the rice away to friends and family. What a way to live. Fantastic.

Soon after arriving, we went to the Nakajo Fureai Festival, which I guess translates as the Nakajo Community Fair. We were greeted and welcomed like neighours. Familiar faces brought us food and others came to introduce themselves. Observe the motto here too, not only were there stage appearances by the school brass band, the local magicians club and the theatre troop but everyone stopped at precisely 12pm for a curry lunch in which we all lined up cafeteria style to eat curry, rice and pickles seated together. Always an unexpected surprise.


Nakajo Magicians Club at the community festival

We were told that the Nakajo Junior high school festival was being held the other weekend and were free to go if we liked. Of course we went to see what it was all about. Expecting a small festival with stalls and maybe a choir we were overwhelmed to see a 1.5 hour musical spectacular of choirs of students and staff, plus exceptional brass band performances. It seemed like half the town was there. The second half of the day after lunch was the high school sports festival. My favourite event out of all the whacky events was definitely the three-legged race that culminated in the pair trying to grab a red-bean filled bun from a limbo pole with their teeth. I mean, really! You can’t write this stuff!!!

Another feature at the school festival- Kurappe the town mascot. A bean, of course

This week was yet another event filled week.
Saturday we were told there’d be fireworks about 30 minutes from here and the nice guy from the office would come and pick us up. Cool. Okay.

Turns out (haha! here’s the motto again) it was far more than expected. A group of 20 or so people traveled in a convoy of Japanese mini vans to Kawanakajima, about 30 mins south of here for a yearly fireworks spectacular. It was proper Summer style festival with yatai (tents selling street-food on sticks) and loads of people sitting on blue plastic ground sheets with their shoes off and an events stage. We were ushered around the grounds to a specially prepared Nakajo Citizens tent with chairs and tables and obento. There was a row of tents for a few different area’s organisations. Our tent was next to the Shinshu-shinmachi citizens tent and the Naniai citizens tents and I wonder if there is any rivalry there. These villages are about 10 minnutes away from each other by car but I get the impression that local pride is strong (to say the least).

The fireworks themselves were spectacular and cracking right over head thanks to the wind but the best part by far was being part of the Nakajo tent. The old guys from Nakajo love a drink and a laugh and because I can understand Japanese I can’t help but hear what people are saying. The row behind me was three of the Nakajo old guys who had been drinking steadily and it was like listening to Statler and Waldorf from the Muppets yabbering away behind me – “Ohhhh! Is that it!? No! More, More!” “This is gonna be a big one! This is a big one! Let’s aim it towards Shinmachi!! Hahahah” (our neighbouring town)

Then yesterday, we truly outdid ourselves at the Nakajo Citizens Sports Day. We were told and forewarned multiple times, that the citizens would like you to participate in the tug-of-war. Okay cool. But what you expect is always a small, small part of what actually unfolds.

Upon arrival, we were greeted and pinned with a red-and-white rosette and lined up on the sports ground with the VIP guests. The local Citizens Society Head, The Local Primary School Principal, the High School Principal, the Senior High School Principal, the local Chief Policeman, the local head Fireman, the Nakajo Community Chief and us. Us three on the end looking dumfounded. And then, it was like the Olympics had begun. Music blared from a speaker and we stood and watched as the different teams marched into the high school sports ground, flag bearers and all.

For the sports carnival, Nakajo residents were divided in 8 teams, according to their address. Nakajo Central, Nakajo Taira, Aoki, Narai. etc etc. Right now we are living Nakajo Central so we became a part of our neighbourhood team in Royal blue polo shirts. The local priest, the man who gifted us 10kg bags of rice, the kids from the Taiko class, the local lady who likes to greet you with a handshake, they were all there. Blue pom-poms and everything.

In case you were wondering, this is Centipede racing

The races were both traditional and bizzare. My favourites were the Mukade race – where 4-6 people are roped together at the ankles and have to run like the infamous poisonous centipede, the Mukade. Our team lost that one. Another was the barrel-rolling relay in which the participants held two long sticks to guide a sake barrel around the running track. We lost that one too. Us three foreigner Artists were part of the Tug-of-War which pit 4 teams against 4. Put up the back because of our height it was hard to know what rhythm they were pulling to down the front. Lost again – twice.

Then, at the eleventh hour, I was added to the 9-person relay race – the last event for the day. Like all things here, there was some complexity involved. The 9 participants had to be 5 men and 4 women, one from each generation. A 50’s man passed the baton to a 40’s female, to a 40’s male to a 30’s female and so on. I ran like a gangly foreigner who hasn’t sprinted since high school. We could have won but our first runner ate the dirt in his 50 metre section so we were behind before it even started. But what ridiculous fun.

The deceptively difficult barrel rolling relay

What do you know, the Sports Carnival ended with a small Nakajo-Central party of more food and drink.

Proceedings for everything here from a sports day to a casual party are complex and pre-decided. There’s opening speeches, official opening words, flag raising, thank you speeches, bowing, awards and a Group clap in unison to end a celebration. It can seem tedious to go through all these steps and procedures just to have an event but I think it’s this sense of mutual understanding about what is happening now and what will take place next that allows people to feel included and participate.

I’m constantly being asked for my impression of Nakajo and how I’m finding life here. My Japanese is good enough to say that it’s relaxing and the scenery is spectacular and everyone is so friendly but perhaps what I haven’t been able to convey yet is my admiration of the community spirit here.

Everyone is involved in everything and appears to wear 5 different hats. The office lady at the Citizens Hall teaches Taiko lessons to local kids. The Head of the Citizen’s Hall is a member of the hiking club and MC for the sports day and local history Guru. We have been here long enough to learn faces. It’s now like, Ohh! Everyone is here! I mean, yesterday the checkout lady from the local supermarket who kindly makes conversation with me was helping pack up our Team Central tent at the end of the sports carnival.

It’s no wonder that the citizens here live happily and independently into their 80’s and beyond.

Living for fours years in Kyoto, I never experienced this level of community engagement. Japanese people tend to generalise and say that Kyoto-people are cold and a bit closed-off. I’ve personally made friends for life with some Kyoto-ites but it’s true that it takes some time to find your way “in”. I don’t know if it’s because we are three local “celebrities” in Nakajo or if it’s because of the Nagano-way of doing things but everyone here has been so open and friendly and hasn’t hesitated to include us in everything, even though we are, let’s face it, ridiculously out-of-place. Tourists visiting Japan would pay big money for this kind of deep cultural experience. We get to experience it everyday, sometimes without even trying.

Because the 10 week program in Nakajo is so jam-packed with events and things to do, it’s hard to process what we are living through. I think this will be the kind of experience you only fully grasp in retrospect, when you’re back in “real life” and white rice, pickles, mountain views, taiko drums and rice fields feel a world away.

In the meantime, I’m thinking about printing a t-shirt that says, “Nakajo, Everything is bigger and better than you expect”