Story: Sometime around 1993, I ended up working as a mushroom farmhand (enokitake and shiitake) in a small mountain village called Saji in Tottori-ken (prefecture), Yazu-gun (county) .
A sorta friend of friend of my brother was seeking a foreign worker (at the time, Japan’s economy was in a “bubble” with abundant wealth and no one wanted to do the crappy jobs it turns out). They would pay my airfare and so on, I had just finished a stint hitching and drifting around Europe and before the Grateful Dead tour and thought this would be an interesting adventure.
This photo shows a mushroom farm in Tottori, Japan, where I worked a few days in 1991 with Tyler Smith and Jared Scott; and where my brother Dave Olson toiled for almost a year. Dave took the picture sometime in 1993, scanned it about 10 years ago, and stuck on his Flickr stream under creative commons license. Now it has recently shown up in a Japan Times article. You’d think the Japan Times would have a gazillion stock photos of the Japanese countryside, but they chose Dave‘s evocative image of a stark, cold winter along the Sea of Japan.
Shape-shifting: This village in Yazu District, Tottori Prefecture, is much like the fictional one in ‘Red Girls,’ which suffers from an aging population and changing customs. | FLICKR / CC BY-SA 2.0
This is Saji-san, Yazu-gun, Tottori. The boss was a collossal jerk and made my life miserable (his wife had just split, he had hemmoroids (which he talked about endlessly) and had been a foreign exchange student in Yakima WA and Couer d’lene Idaho in the 70/80s so think he was using me to exact revenge for the treatment he likely received.
I am hard worker and got paid shit (especially after rent in my bunker-like apartment) but man, this was repetitive, redundant and entirely un-fun after a couple of days.
I drove k-truck to market in Tottori down windy snowy roads and then figured out a way to feed myself and stay warm and do it all again and again. 6 days/week. I finally borrowed a bike, put in back of k-truck, and told him i was leaving. He shouted, “you have no visa, no return ticket and dont speak language!” – he was correct on all accounts but i stuck out my left thumb and had mighty adventures through Shikoku and as far up as Nagano where i found Japanese (and one ex-American Navy man) hippie squatters living in abandoned villages way up in mountains. Lived old timey. Hot springs, gathering mountain vegetables, harvesting rice and wandering high in the hills with my notebooks.
I was invited to speak at Global Pecha Kucha Day in Vancouver for the worldwide (100 cities or so) “Inspire Japan” event on April 16 2011 at the Cascade Room on Main St. during the day (usually these Pecha Kucha Night Vancouver events are held at the Vogue Theatre in the evening) with a lovely smart audience as usual.
Pecha Kucha Night is a presentation style and a series of lecture events held around the world under license from the originating design firm in Tokyo – in Vancouver by Cause+Affect.
The presentations are exactly 20 slides, switched automatically each :20 seconds. Like speedy lil TED talks with a tendency towards design, architecture, civic planning but speakers include anyone who is doing something interesting really.
Anyhow, the Inspire Japan day’s speakers were asked to speak more or less on 4 main themes. Here’s the instructions:
“INSPIRE, JAPAN, THE ISSUES, RECOVERY. They could be simply about things that inspire us, or Japan how it has inspired you. Great ideas or solutions that help deal with the issues at hand whether earthquake, tsunami or nuclear – and the road to recovery.”
Here are the “paper point” collage slides to peruse at your leisure. Next time you buy me a beer, perhaps i’ll spiel the 20 second annotations to go along with each static montage.
The event was streamed online to coincide with the other events. Watching the Twitter stream to see events roll on and off was pretty neat while riding the SeaBus over – especially from far-flung cities i’ve visited from Osnabrueck to Okayama.
This was a joy for me to produce from my time spent in Japan what seems like a lifetime ago. I dug deep into my personal archive to find some neat artifacts for my deck and discovered a variety of lost memories and forgotten incidents tucked away in boxes and files.
The event raised money for Architecture for Humanity to build a school in Japan which is great to be a part of, but truthfully (and selfishly) this was a chance for me to release some emotion by flashingback about how traipsing around Japan changed my life in many ways.
I don’t really talk about that time as much as other sojourns and, since the earthquake and resultant chaos, i wanted to express something-somehow with some sort of storymaking. This was a perfect chance so i dug deep.
My pal Daniel Robles gave me a hand building the deck and a load of my pals rolled down to the Cascade Room on Main to lend support and inspiration. See also Naoya Makino’s photoset.
Pecha Kucha continues to raise money by marketing an e-book of the poster art from the various Inspire Japan events around the world. Some top-end designers contributed work so bound to be enjoyable for your virtual coffee table.
Thanks to Steven, Jane, and Becki for the invite. Sign me up anytime.
Nope, didn’t know anyone or speak a word when i arrived. My older brother had lived in Japan and heard from a friend about a mushroom farm looking for a foreign worker. At the time, I was hitchhiking through the southern US after traveling Europe when i called my Mom to check in. She told me about that he’d pay the airfare. So, 2 weeks later i was standing on the side of road with my backpack, late at night with snow up to my knees waiting for a van to pick me up. The next day i started a 6 day a week, 10 hours a day job growing enoki and shiitake mushrooms.
-How did you survive the communication barrier?
First, humility – you have realize you will sound like a child or a caveman saying “I need food” “where is toilet” and basic tasks become tricky and people will try not to snicker
Second, smiling – i had a long hair and big beard and wore worker’s overalls and rubber boots so people didn’t quite know what to make of me in the rural area where i lived so smiling helped ease the surprise and awkwardness
Third – if you learn a dozen “special” words, you can totally act like you know it all ;-) Domo, dozo, so desu ne, so desu ka, hai hai, itsu, doko, suimasen …
-Any tips to people going to Japan?
Be prepared to simultaneously step 100 years into the future and 100 years into the past. Stay away from everything familiar (restaurants, hotels) and embrace the weirdness. Soak in hotsprings, eat octopus, get lost, head into the mountains and stay in a hut with strangers. For me, hitchhiking the country roads was totally safe and fun – folks picked me up and often invited me to their fave restaurant, tourist attraction, house, bar or temple. I stayed almost entirely away from the cities and found countryside somewhat unexpectedly wild and full of old agricultural and spiritual traditions. I also grew to savour the classic and modern literature of Japan – read these rather than guidebooks before going to better appreciate Japan.