Interviewsand Articles


A Conversation with Andy Couturier: The Abundance of Less

by Richard Whittaker, Feb 28, 2018



Andy Couturier’s book The Abundance of Less fell into my hands some time ago, and after reading a few pages I was hooked. Here are the stories of ten singular individuals in Japan, each refusing to settle for a life in which the connection with something essential is missing. By the time I’d finished reading two of the stories I was so fired up I had to pass the book on to a friend. I just couldn’t keep something that good to myself. I also reached out to the author in the hope of getting an interview. Couturier was willing, but it took some time to arrange. Then one evening, after having spent a busy day in Berkeley with readings, meetings and dinner with friends, Couturier arrived at my home.
     I served tea and we sat down to talk. Soon we'd traveled to Japan. "Wait a minute," I said - and I turned on my recorder...

Richard Whittaker:  So you were living in Tokushima?

Andy Couturier:  Yes. Tokushima is a small city for Japan - a quarter of a million people - on the island of Shikoku. It has a “crazy dance” festival and my partner, Cynthia, and I took a job there originally back in 1989 because we wanted to live in some rural area of Japan. We were in our early 20s. We lived there twice, once again in the late 90s.  It’s interesting to live somewhere for a long time and then leave it, and then return. We left in ’91 and didn’t come back until ’98. We knew our way around the streets, and at the same time, it felt sort of ghostly like I was living in my own past - a sort of haunted house feeling. Even if you become readjusted to it, there’s still this background radiation of yourself at a different time without the continuity.

RW:  It’s interesting you noticed that. What it brings up for me is how I can run into places I’ve never been to - even in my own neighborhood. Not so long ago I discovered a hidden service road I’d never noticed. Walking down this road was new and a little strange. Suddenly, I was no longer at home and it didn’t feel completely safe. Now it feels familiar and safe. So, this process of adjustment is kind of fascinating.

Andy:  Well, I think of what I understand of the Australian aboriginal feeling that stories get written on the land. And stories are written in you; you’re familiar with a tree there, or a turn of the land, or the way the light hits—and these become part of you. If we’d had great-great-grandfathers who lived in this area, then the stories we’d been told all our lives about this rock, or that gully, would be filled with our grandfathers’ and grandmothers’ lives.
     At the same time, it’s almost like it comes in and out. Like I catch a glimpse of the number 1991 over your shoulder. It’s the year of that painting of a street scene on your wall. It’s also the year we left Japan the first time. So it sort of has this echo of time like when I walked in I saw the book A Pattern Language, on your bookshelf.

RW:  This is fascinating.

Andy:  And there’s that apprehension you talk about. I mean, maybe it completely goes away, but the memory of that apprehensiveness, in some way, spices, or inflects, that service road that you once didn’t know about.

RW:  Yes. And it makes me wonder how you ended up in Japan.

Andy:  It just came upon me. I mean, we didn’t go to Japan because we were attracted to it at first. We went because we wanted to teach English to save some money to buy property in California. We were pretty far left politically and culturally and we thought Japan would be a very conservative place with lots of businessmen. We went during the height of the bubble. You could make $40 to $60 an hour teaching English without doing something heinous for a large corporation, or doing something we didn’t agree with.

RW:  Right.

Andy:  So, we got there, and as soon as we got off the plane, my friend from college met us and took us to a little underground sushi place. We’d never had sushi before. There was a gentleman serving us who was very kind, who brought us amazing, soft, fragrant clear green tea. I mean, we were off the plane for two hours, and something just overwhelmed us. There were the old temples and parks, and the great Kamakura Buddha. My grandmother had bought some bookends in the 50s, when she’d been there. I’d inherited them, and I recognized this 80-foot bronze statue from this tourist thing my grandmother had bought.

RW:  That’s wild.

Andy:  All these things opened up to us and after a bit we started teaching English. Then eventually we met some people who were living very simple lives deep in the mountains, and that was very attractive to us. There was something about the tended vegetable plots, their connection with India and Nepal, the connection with rural Japan of generations past, and even the old farmhouses, the interiors there.

RW:  Did you already speak some Japanese?

Andy:  We started learning to count on the airplane.

RW:  And your life in California before you went to Japan?

Andy:  We went to UC Santa Cruz. I’d learned French, because I thought I was going to live in Africa for the rest of my life.

RW:  Why is that?

Andy:  The fantasies you have when you’re 20 years old, you know?  
RW:  What was your fantasy about Africa?

Andy:  I think I wanted to get out of the United States, and I’d always been connected with African-Americans and African-American history and culture. My father was a civil rights organizer. I thought, “I'll just move to Africa, where there aren’t so many white people, and everyone’s a feminist-socialist”—which was completely mistaken.

RW:  Your father was a civil rights organizer, you said?    
Andy:  Yes. He was involved in building labor unions in New York State in the 50s—public service: prison guards, mental hospital workers and people who worked on the roads. Then he became involved with an organization trying to rewrite federal policy, state policy, municipal policy around the way people are hired and promoted nationwide in these public service sector jobs. He decided it would be the right thing to do to try to turn an old patrician organization that had been around since the 1880s into a civil rights organization in the early 60s.
     He was involved in the March on Washington. Those kinds of events get all the attention. But in the 50s there were very few blacks or Latinos, or women working in jobs, like fire figthers, for instance. There was an old boys network, and also a series of laws which, by design really, led to hiring and promoting only white men. So, those were laws that needed to be changed, and he was involved in the National Civil Service League and became the director. He was hired to try to give the organization a new direction. He met with Kennedy and with Johnson, and later with Nixon and Ford, to try to pass some Civil Service legislation—not just on the federal level, but also on the state and county level. We lived in D.C. and the whole civil rights era had a big effect on us.

RW:  How old were you in that era?

Andy:  I was only 10 when he left that job in 1974.

RW:  And your dad was trying to do all this stuff.

Andy:  Yeah.

RW:  What an interesting background.

Andy:  Also, I loved African music in college, and I studied a lot of African history. However, you didn’t really get an idea from those courses or from World Beat dance concerts of what it was like to live in Africa with malaria, and disease, and a fair amount of patriarchy and homophobia, and things like that. You met these progressive Oakland-Cameroonian guitar players, or something like that, and you have a lot of fantasies when you’re a college student. Then you make decisions based on those fantasies.

RW:  So you spent some time in Africa?

Andy:  Yeah. This was an exciting part of my life. I hitchhiked across the Sahara Desert.

RW:  Holy mackerel.

Andy:  In 1988, at 24 years old. I stuck my thumb out in Algeria.

RW:  That’s amazing.

Andy:  Yeah, it was kind of exciting.

RW:  I’m always impressed when I meet someone who has the guts to do something like that.

Andy:  If you tell your father you’re going to do it, and then you don’t, you feel chagrined.

RW:  Where did you start?

Andy:  I started in Marseilles, and took a boat across the Mediterranean to Algiers. Actually, just a year or two after I did that, there was a fair amount of violence in Algeria, and that route closed. Then I made the mistake of rushing across the Sahara Desert, because I was on my way to Ghana.        
RW:  Wait a minute, rushing? You were hitchhiking.

Andy:  I was trying to get there as quickly as possible without stopping in these Algerian villages and learning their ways of life or meeting the people, because I wanted to get to Ghana.

RW:  Okay. Before I ask what was in Ghana, give me a couple of stories of the experience of hitchhiking across the Sahara Desert.

Andy:  Well, I was carrying way too much stuff. I had like 20 books in my backpack, plus a tent and a water purifier. I ended up with a couple of other guys, who were crossing the Atlas Mountains; we were all hitchhiking together. One was a very bizarre and aggressive Frenchman, who had some kind of situation in West Africa, in Côte d'Ivoire. He knew his way around. Even though I found him kind of repulsive, that was the thing. And the other one was an Algerian army officer.
     We hitchhiked together across the Atlas Mountains. One night it was very cold. These two had been yanking my chain and teasing me for how much stuff I had. But I had the tent. I had the sleeping bag, and the pad and the stove—and I was heating water. And they were like, “Can we come in?”
     The army officer had a boombox, but he didn’t have any cassettes. We’d go through towns in the northern part of the Sahara Desert and I had some cassettes of World Beat music - sort of Caribbean-inspired, steel drum music - and he’d play it on his boombox. We’d get dropped off on one side of the village and we’d have to walk to the other side to get a ride. So, we’d walk through the center of the village—this bent-over, emaciated Frenchman saying terrible things about women, gay people, and Africans the whole time—and then this stately guy with his boombox, playing music from Santa Cruz.
     I’m thinking, “Isn’t this cool?”  And at the same time, I was looking at the conservative Algerian villagers and thinking, they might not be happy about this. But the guy with the boombox was an Algerian, right? Anyway, we’d end up on the far end of the village, and stick our thumbs out until a truck came along that would give us a ride to the next place.

RW:  Wow. And you’d already picked up some French?

Andy:  I had, actually. I was pretty good in French by that point. The whole journey was done in French. The trick about doing this was to get as far as you could without having to pay for a ride. At a certain point, once you crossed the Sahara, you had to pay for your rides. So, we just kept going. It wasn’t really a good partnership and it’s harder to get rides with three people, and somehow I ditched these guys.

RW:  So you crossed Sahara. Did you get to Ghana?

Andy:  I did.

RW:  And what was getting to Ghana about?

Andy:  I was interested in Ghana because it was socialist, as far as I understood—and I was into socialism. One option was to join the Peace Corps, but I’d be involved with the U.S. government, and it required a two-year commitment. And I’d hoped to make it to all the countries in Africa, or most of them. But I ended up getting malaria and was home in four months.

RW:  Gosh.

Andy:  So I’d signed up with the Voluntary Work Camps Association of Ghana. It was run by Ghanaians. That was a prerequisite for me. Then a friend from college, who was in the Peace Corps in Niger, which is north of Ghana, had several friends there who had taught English in Japan. They said, “You can make good money teaching English in Japan.” That’s where I picked up my information on this.

RW:  I see.

Andy:  I got to Ghana, and participated in several work camps—digging wells and building schools, but there was a lot of sitting around, too. I’d wake up at six in the morning in some African village, and then we’d have breakfast at 6:30—this big pot of ginger tea, a huge kettle. We’d have our breakfast and get started by seven. Then we had only a certain amount of cement. So, instead of using it up in two days, we’d stretch it out for a two-week work camp. We’d make concrete bricks for 45 minutes, and then stop for the day.  Everyone would play ping pong or sit around.
     We’d have them out in the sun to dry, but sometimes it rained and as we carried them from the place where they were drying to the school we were building, half of them would fall apart. If someone was going to put children in a school with cement blocks that were sort of crumbly—that didn’t make much sense to me. So, I raised my concern, and who was I, you know—the foreigner—to tell the Ghanaians how to do things? It didn’t go over well.

RW:  Right.

Andy:  There was a lot of stuff like that. But it was also very exciting. I might be 30 feet down in the ground, digging a well only eight or ten feet across. I’d be swinging a pick-axe and shoveling dirt into a bucket with people above pulling the bucket up. These were big buckets and, if they dropped one, that’s the end of your life—plus, if the wall falls in...  But there was singing and dancing and clapping while we were digging, and an incredible energy.

RW:  Amazing.

Andy:  In one particular work camp there was a Crossroads Africa group—wealthy kids from the U.S.—and they were paying to be in the same work camp I was in. There was an African-American guy who was the leader, and he was very careful. He spent half-an-hour every night going through his mosquito net to make sure no mosquitoes had survived inside the net. I was just too tired. It was a big pain in the ass. So the hell with it. I got malaria, and he didn’t.
     I thought I was going to be gone for a year-and-a-half, or two, but by that time, I was thinking, I'll go to Japan because I need to make some money and be more independent, and not traveling on the money I got from my parents after graduation.

RW:  And you weren’t married, right?

Andy:  No. I’d already met Cynthia, but she didn’t want to go to Africa. So, I came back to my mother’s apartment in Washington, D.C. —with malaria. By then I’d already gotten a visa to Japan. I got it at the consulate in Ghana. Cynthia and I ended up spending the winter in D.C., and then we went to Southern Oregon to help some people build their house. But we wanted to buy our own land, and not go into debt to do it. So we went to Japan to make the money. This was in November 1989.

RW:  And you hadn’t really thought about life in Japan?

Andy:  I mean, we read the guidebook. And we met a couple of people who’d done it. Everyone said, “You’ll make $40 to $60 an hour.”

RW:  Okay. So let’s back-up a little. Your story is quite amazing. Did you go to high school in D.C.? [yes] And then college, I take it?

Andy:  Reed College for a year. But it wasn’t a good fit for me.

RW:  I've read that Reed is really tough.

Andy:  It was, and not in a good way.

RW:  But it has an aura.

Andy:  It’s not unearned. It’s a real aura.

RW:  To get into Reed, it means you had some pretty good grades and all that.   
Andy:  I got some good grades near the end in high school, which was a bit of a fluke. And I had a lot going on. I was doing photography.
I was involved with different organizations, and they took a chance on me. They admit a lot of people—more than they think will actually graduate. And it’s really hard to get through.
     I’d heard Reed was this far-out, left-wing school—and culturally, it was. But their curriculum was very much focused on the Western European intellectual tradition and almost nothing from the Near East, nothing from Africa, nothing from China or Japan. So, it was sort of an East Coast kind of school. I don’t know what it’s like today, but 35 years ago the education was very conservative in that sense.

RW:  I see.

Andy:  I read that they had all these drug parties and music. It seemed like it was going to be both intellectual and left-wing, and it was. On the other hand, everyone was really depressed. The workload was incredible. And there was nothing about Africa. It was sort of white-male-ology.
     So, for many reasons, I was unhappy there and dropped out after a year. I went back to D.C. and then ended up going to UC Santa Cruz. It was a much healthier place—not just the sunshine, it was more psychologically healthy. And it was easier to shine for me in that environment.  The more I studied, the more I got interested in Africa, African studies and African history. I was bound and determined to go do demography in Africa.

RW:  Demography?

Andy:  Because I was an environmentalist. I thought I could be part of dealing with population issues. You know how when you’re a college student, you have these cloudy notions of what it is you want to do? You think, “Well, there are too many people, and maybe if I could have a job convincing people to have fewer children...” And there was this thought of, “I want to live in Africa, so, I'll do it there.” It was absurd, but in any case, Asia had never been of interest to me at all.

RW:  Fascinating. And nevertheless, somehow you end up in Japan. But from a young age, you’re interested in Africa and Africans and obviously your father’s commitment to the civil rights movement would be an important influence. [yes] I assume you must have developed some significant relationships with African Americans?

Andy:  That’s true. I grew up in D.C., which is a black city, really.

RW:  Okay. I have a friend, Daniel Hunter, who taught high school in Oakland, mostly with African-American students. He said it was difficult and scary for him at the beginning. But his story is interesting because he made this transition from white culture to an African American culture. He ended up really loving these kids, and they loved him, too. 

Andy:  I actually taught in Bayview/Hunters Point for a couple of years in the mid-90s. This was after I came back from Japan the first time. I didn’t end up teaching in public school for a number of reasons, but yeah, I felt like I could be myself more around African Americans than mainstream white Americans.

RW:  That’s interesting.

Andy:  Anyway, after I graduated from college, Cynthia and I went to Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean. It was about steel drum music. Then we traveled around Europe and eventually I went south. I really like the idea going overland as much as possible. Cynthia had gone back to the United States from England, and I made my way across France to Marseilles. So I’d say in less than a year from graduating, I was already hitchhiking across the Sahara Desert.

RW:  Okay.

Andy:  So not long after I came back to the States from Ghana we went back to California and Oregon. We spent the summer there and picked apples in Washington State to make a little money to buy tickets to get across the Pacific. We landed in Tokyo and made our way down to Kyushu, where we started looking for companies that would hire us to be English teachers. That was in November of ’89. I graduated from UC Santa Cruz in ’87, so within a couple of years I was in Japan.

RW:  That’s moving pretty fast.

Andy:  Yeah. I started to learn Japanese, because it didn’t seem right to live in someone’s country and not speak their language. It turned out I have an aptitude for learning languages.

RW:  So maybe you could talk about your journey in Japan that led to this amazing book. You’ve probably told this story many times.   
Andy:  Yes. But I’d like to try to tell it in a way that’s not redundant, so, let me see. Okay. I went one day to the International Association in Tokushima, a sort of a straight, square organization of society ladies, who had maybe lived abroad. They wanted to help foreigners, so they formed this association, and it was a great service they were doing. They had someone working at a desk, and I said, “I'm trying to find organic food.” ,
     “Well, I don’t know,” the person said. “But there’s this place called Kurashi Wo Yoku Suru Kai.” (It means, “Let us make our life better organization.”) “You might go there.”
     She drew me a map, so I walked over there. It was a two-story building and no one was at the front desk. It was a little dark downstairs, but it sounded like a lot of people were upstairs. Then someone came down and started talking to me. It turns out they were having a planning meeting for Earth Day 1990. So this guy said, “Why don’t you come upstairs and meet people?”
     Everyone was sitting around a table. I could recognize these weren’t straight, uptight, Japanese businessmen or housewives. I got a whiff that they were lefties, somehow. There was something rough and ready about them, something more alive about their eyes, something less kempt about their hair. There was just something more.
     Then it came out that I’d been working for Greenpeace. I’d worked as an intern for Greenpeace. I spoke a little French and was helping with the waste trade campaign. Basically we were trying to stop European and American companies from exporting their garbage to Africa and Third World countries. And everyone, instead of being upset because of the whale thing, they were full of admiration.

RW:  Cool.

Andy:  We’d chosen this prefecture because it had the lowest percentage of foreigners of any prefecture in Japan. We wanted to learn the language and get in touch with the culture. But meanwhile, what was my actual job? I did get a job. It was teaching business English and we were working for an American company—a Mormon company.
     Now, Cynthia and I were very rigid and inflexible leftists at the time. But we figured teaching English, although it was a somewhat imperialist language, would not be too bad. And this situation looked perfect on all these levels. We could live in a rural area; we’d have two jobs instead of one. We both would get visas through the company. We were going to make quite a bit of money, but we also had a lot of free time, so we could get other side jobs. So we signed up.
     Then we found out that our main client was going to be a pharmaceutical company. So, all of a sudden, we’re teaching English to executives and researchers in a pharmaceutical factory. Right? So their salesman, now that he had a couple of bright young English teachers, landed another contract with a sister company that did “medicine for plants”—in other words, pesticides.

RW:  Oh, my God.

Andy:  We almost bailed out. We thought, “We have to go home.” But we had no money, so we couldn’t do that. Everything was extremely black and white for us at 24-years-old. Anyway, I was feeling very bad about it. So, I thought, “I'll offer a free English class for environmentalists.” Offering a free English class in Japan at that time, I used to joke, was sort of like offering free beer in a fraternity house. Everything is very expensive in Japan, right? So, to assuage my conscience, I ended up giving a free class once a week. And I loved doing this! I called it the “Eco Class.” This guy from the Wild Bird Society put it together and invited people. 
RW:  That’s a Japanese Society?

Andy:  It’s a Japanese organization. It’s actually the largest environmental organization in Japan, or at least it was at the time. You know, they’re birders. They also fight huge developments. Anyway, we rented a little space and I would teach English—high-level English; we’d read some report about nuclear power stations, or about trade in wild animals—these were technical papers, which are hard to read—especially if it’s your second language.

RW:  Right.

Andy:  We’d get through four or five paragraphs a week, then we’d have some discussion about whatever the issue was, whether it was garbage, or pesticides, or nuclear power. One day, a woman showed up. She’d done some research on me, clearly. She’d actually been in that room a few months before.

RW:  That first one?

Andy:  Right, the Kurashi wo yoku suru kai meeting. And she was an environmentalist. She actually ran a small moms anti-nuclear group that got started in ’86, after Chernobyl. At that time, Japan had 48 nuclear power reactors throughout the country, and there were accidents happening all the time—way before Fukushima in 2011.
     Japan is an earthquake prone country; there are volcanoes, tidal waves and nuclear power. So, the first thing she says, “So, you work for Greenpeace? You call yourself an environmentalist and you’re working for Otsuka Pharmaceutical?” Like, “How could you possibly be doing this?”
     She’d found the yellowest part of my yellow underbelly and just jabbed it. It was the exact opposite of my image of the demure Japanese woman, and I loved her right away!
     I tried to explain why I was doing it, probably not very successfully. But there she was in the Eco Class. I helped her a lot with her English as well as bringing some left wing analysis from California and one day she said, “Why don’t you and Cynthia come up to our place on a Sunday?”
     I braced, because in these small, provincial cities, going to people’s houses often means having stilted conversations in English on your one day off. That’s what you do all week long. Then she said, “We live in an old, abandoned, Japanese farmhouse. We grow all our own food organically, and we’re homeschooling our daughter.”
     Well, I thought, “That sounds really interesting”—and I really liked her. So, in a very momentous decision, I said, “Yes.”

RW:  That was the beginning.

Andy:  Yes. We took the bus out to Kamikatsu from Tokushima City—two-and-a-half hours, and they were waiting at the bus stop. We walked up this very steep hill through a cedar forest to this ridge top where we broke through the trees. From there we could see row after row of the beautiful, sinuous lines of the rice paddies hugging the contours of these really steep mountains. There’s something about the mountains of Shikoku, and the terraced rice paddies. The terrace stones all placed by peasants, God knows how long ago—hundreds of years ago—now covered in moss. So we went into the house and met her partner, Gufu. (Atsuko is in Chapter Three, and Gufu is in Chapter eight of The Abundance of Less). He says, “We’re having Indian food.”
     It was a seven-course Indian vegetarian meal: curries, dals, pickles and salad that came right out of their garden. Gufu is an amazing, self-taught botanist who had collected plants from all over the world for their fragrances, their flowers. He told stories of living and studying Buddhism in Nepal. Nepal is a Hindu country, but it has a strain of Nepali Buddhism in the Kathmandu Valley, and they started explaining that to us. You could barely get Italian food in our city, much less Indian food, and there we were, two-and-a-half hours up in the mountains, eating this incredible Indian food with these Japanese people who had lived in India and studied the food and the culture there.

RW:  That’s amazing.

Andy:  Gufu was explaining that Alexander the Great had pushed as far as Gandhara (present day Afghanistan) and that, because of the Greek Apollo statues, which had curly hair, that’s why the Buddha has curly hair. Right? So all of this stuff is kind of breaking over me in waves—the deliciousness of the food, the amazingness of their pottery, which had Persian designs and tribal Indian designs, and being in their beautiful, old farmhouse. I thought, “I don’t know anyone in the West who knows any of this.”
     I visited them again and they took us over to meet Nakamura— Atsuko said, “He lives an even more correct life than we do.” Meaning that he has three light bulbs, doesn’t have a phone, doesn’t have a car and heats his place almost entirely with a fire pit in the middle of the floor.
     Nakamura had lived in Nepal too, and they’d met each other there, and I thought, these are very, very interesting people. Then, as my Japanese got better, I kept visiting them and we became close friends.
     I asked myself, what is it that they know?
     I mean, we’d lived in this Oregon commune and there were fights and difficulty making a living. It was just hard. It was still very beautiful: people growing their own food and living in country houses made from weathered wood. There was a lot to be inspired by, but there was something deeper, and bigger, and better—to me—about the way these particular Japanese people were doing it.
     Thinking later about it, it seems it has something to do with the wellspring of Buddhist philosophy, and many of them had studied Hinduism, too. But also, there was a kind of decorum. I don’t want to call it self-control. It’s more like self-possession. There was this sense that they knew how to get along with each other—and with the other people in the village, even if they were conservative. They knew how to have some control over their desires and how to defer to others in ways I thought were pretty meaningful. It seemed like a more sustainable way to live—and they were living on a lot less money, in a much more expensive country.

RW:  That’s really an interesting impression.

Andy:  So, I thought, this is going to be valuable for people in the West.

RW:  I love hearing your description of the people you write about meeting in Japan. Each one is exemplary in this way, all of which I found deeply inspiring.

Andy:  Thank you. That’s what I felt very strongly about in my book.

RW:  This story with Atsuko and Gufu sounds like a fairy tale, almost—going up through the trees.

Andy:  And it felt like I entered into the past, right? So, there I was being a romantic and an Orientalist, in some sense. But Atsuko said, “That’s not what our life is about at all. We looked at every aspect of our life, and decided what was the best way to live.”
     It was a simple life with few material goods, with time to be involved in their community, and to grow their own food. She said, “I don’t like cooking with gas.” And since they live in a very forested village, wood from the lumber mill was being thrown away all the time. They use it to cook with. She said, “We don’t like the feel of plastic, so we don’t have it. It’s not like we’re trying to re-create a period village, 150 years ago in Japan. This is a good way to live.”  
RW:  It’s important to emphasize that part, that these are informed choices, not romantic fantasies.

Andy:  Exactly. And it may be slightly paradoxical, but once they’d set up their life that way, they had a much richer life than almost anyone else I knew, East or West. Nakamura and I were sitting there drinking tea on a winter’s day at his fire pit in the middle of the floor, and the shoji screens were open.  We were looking across the valley; the snow was clinging to the cedar boughs, and the wind would come up throwing these sheets of powdered snow into the air. Mist was hiding the branches of the trees, and then revealing them. It felt like a Chinese ink painting from the T’ang Dynasty. You’d get a powerful feeling of this, and of the poetry of rural life.
     So, even though that’s not the goal, and there’s going out to gather firewood every day, there’s a sense of the good parts of living a life. I mean, what is romance? It’s love, right? It’s a sense of love for the Earth, of love for nature, and it comes not as the purpose, but maybe as a natural result of living closer to materials such as wood and stone, clay and pottery, and fire and water, as opposed to plastic and electronics, phone wires and all the commercials. I mean, there’s the feel of a plastic chair versus the feel of a wooden chair, or the feeling of a straw mat versus the feeling of a concrete floor.

RW:  I think you’re touching on something really important, and maybe difficult to grasp, or difficult to talk about. These two, Atsuko and Gufu.…

Andy:  And their two kids.

RW:  You’re describing people who have a more direct relationship with the elements of life. They’ve used their own hands in many cases to relate to the world. And this is closer to reality. Let me put it that way. I mean, reality is not some romantic idea. It’s not the mental circus in my head constantly being fed by the media. Our attention is always being captured this way.           
Andy:  That’s exactly what I feel.

RW:  In Japan, through Zen, there’s a practice for coming into relationship with what’s right in front of me. And maybe it’s not that easy to understand this. Does this make sense to you, what I'm trying to say?

Andy:  It’s absolutely correct and totally true. And it does take practice. There’s actually a little passage in the book that touches on that.
     So there are ten people in the book. I put Masanori Oe last to end strongly, but also his story is complicated in an interesting way. He lived in New York for four years and made psychedelic movies with Timothy Leary. He knew Alan Ginsburg and was involved in filming the anti-war protests in the late 60s. He translated The Tibetan Book of the Dead into Japanese along with various Native American myths, as well as something about Aboriginal Dreamtime. He’s bringing all these interesting aspects of world indigenous culture to Japanese readership, and also writing his own books.
     So, here’s a passage from Masanori’s book, Uchu Ga Miru Yume, which means The Dreams The Universe is Seeing. “We think that we’ve created a materialistic world, but actually, we created this world through the game played by consciousness. Television is a product of consciousness, as is the Internet. The hardware for these is extremely materialistic, yet, before these material things were created, first a world was built inside of human consciousness. We continue to go after our desires within our consciousness today. As a result, we have created a culture extremely rich in materials, yet at the same time, we are losing our physical, bodily awareness. In the process, we are harming our own bodies, as well as the environment, increasing pollution and illness. Our bodies are facing a danger not seen in the past, and we are, at the same time, in danger of losing awareness of our own hearts and spirits.
     On the other hand, people who are drawn to the spiritual world, often lean too strongly, or are overly focused, on the spirit and the heart. They are drawn to the universal consciousness to such a degree, that they are losing awareness of their physicality. Their awareness travels to somewhere beyond, and they lose perception of the presentness of their bodies, the quality of being here now. I believe our essence exists in a place where our bodies are supported by our spirits.” That’s on page 363

RW:  That’s wonderful. Do you have a Buddhist practice or some other one?

Andy:  I have an intermittent Buddhist practice. Masanori’s wife Wakako, who’s profiled in Chapter 7 talks about how it’s very difficult to be yourself. It’s not how to be like Krishnamurti, or Milarepa or Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, but to be yourself.  That’s not so easy. So, I have a meditation practice that’s off and on. I feel like my life as a writer and writing teacher is very much involved in trying to perceive things accurately and articulate them precisely.

RW:  It’s almost magic, when something can be crafted that has a certain quality. It can be very powerful in the sea of words. I imagine you know what I'm talking about.

Andy:  I do.

RW:  It can be amazing. And very hard to reach.

Andy:  And there’s no kind of push button.

RW:  No. I think of Truman Capote’s title for one of his stories: "Music for Chameleons." To me, there’s some magic there.

Andy:  Great.

RW:  Is it worthwhile, struggling to find the perfect formulation as opposed to putting something together that’s okay, or even pretty good?

Andy:  I don’t think those are our only two options. I do think struggling to try to say something is always of great value. Let me go somewhere sideways. One of the people who’s been peripheral to this book, Izumi Motai, actually lives and works in Berkeley, a Japanese man in his mid-60s. He came to one of my book signing events, and a young guy in the audience asked, “Do you have some success stories? Some breakthroughs?”
     Later on, Izumi and I were having dinner and he says, “You know, that’s a very common American thing. They want the point of arrival.”
     The people I write about in the book are interested in the process and the quality of doing whatever they’re doing. So, I’d say the quality of playing with language, the quality of engaging in what we’re doing—conversation, or writing a poem—the process of doing that is so deeply nourishing. I don’t know if you can compare say, “Well, it’s worth three hours of my time, but not three days of my time—or only if I get a great poem out of it, is it worth it.” Do you see what I’m saying?

RW:  I like the way you turned that around. That’s a beautiful. How do you feel about your book. I mean, here and now?

Andy:  I'm in love with it! I mean, it’s the people in it and their message that’s really inspiring.  There’s just so much there [he opens the book to a random page]. Here’s a passage about a woman being given the Tibetan Book of the Dead by Masanori. It’s hand-bound in red cloth and he presents it to her. She’s the guest of honor on her 88th birthday, and heading towards the last years of her life. It’s a powerful moment, and that’s just a random page.

RW:  You’ve found real treasures in Japan. These people, each one of them, is a treasure. Does any one vignette come to you that you’d like to share? I’m sure that would be a challenge since the whole book is full of them.

Andy:  How about this: you said you looked at the book today and found something inspiring. So tell me something from that and then I'll tell you that story.

RW:  It’s the flute player, Kogan Murata. I’m thinking of the flute Kogan’s teacher had.

Andy:  The giant bamboo flute.

RW:  Right. It’s a great story. Kogan is talking with you about playing the flute. He says, “I think I'm addicted. I started playing the flute and I loved it. So, I just kept playing it more and more. And now, I love it so much, that’s all I do. I just play my flute, and it makes me happy.”

Andy:  Yes. And he says, “And that’s why I don’t have a job. It’s just better to play the flute.”

RW:  I love that.

Andy:  That’s a great story. He’s someone I actually met back in 1990. At that time he was just growing his own food and didn’t have a “path.” So now he does—the giant bamboo flute—and he plays seven songs on it. That’s all he plays. And each one is hundreds of years old. The oldest is eight or nine hundred years old. I asked him, “How did it start?” And he said, “Listening to Chuck Berry on the radio in the 50s. I was interested in early rock and roll.”

RW:  Was he in Japan at the time?

Andy:  In Japan, yeah. He was a kid and he played shortstop. He had a shortstop-kind of personality. He listened to rock and roll, and got interested in music. Then once, on a classical music program on the radio he heard this flute music. It’s not like it’s mainstream Japanese culture, but he happened to hear it and said, “That is truly a Japanese person’s sound.”
     So, he started to try to find out more about it. He went to several different teachers and finally found this old man in his mid-80s, with his long, flowing, white goatee and long hair. He’d been playing bamboo flute for 70 years. Kogan apprenticed himself to this guy, and the old master says, “Okay. Take this flute and come back when you can play this one note.” It’s actually the hardest note to form. Shakuhachi flutes are about two feet long.  They’re the ones you see, mostly. But his teacher played the giant bamboo flute, which is bigger and more difficult to get a sound out of.
     I asked Kogan, “But didn’t he teach you this, and teach you that?”
     Kogan says, “No. He would tell me Zen stories. Sometimes I’d be walking to get to my lesson, and he could tell what my attitude was by how I was walking. So as soon as I’d get to his door, he’d say, ‘Get out of here.’ He knew my attitude wasn’t right. He could see everything about me. He told me to go find a piece of bamboo, and specified the thickness of its wall, the length between the joints and everything. He even told me where it could be found. And I looked and looked and I looked and I couldn’t find it. He told me not to come back until I found it. But eventually, I had to show up at his door and tell him I couldn’t find it. But he knew I wouldn’t be able to find it. And you know why? Because I didn’t love it enough.”
     I said, “You couldn’t find it because you didn’t love it enough?”
     And he’s like, “Exactly. But then, after I learned to love it enough, I could find that exact specification any time.”
It’s a radically different view of music making. This is a walking Buddhist pilgrimage of “blowing Zen,” as they say, where it’s no more than breath through a hollow tube creating a few mournful notes. His teacher told him to play so that even if he was playing at the bedside of a dying person, the sound would not be irritating.

RW:  Gosh, amazing. This is not a Western story.

Andy:  That’s why I thought it was so fascinating.

RW:  We could use more of this in the West. I mean, this is a beautiful, deep, deep Zen story. And he only plays seven songs. So, each time it’s like a new meditation. This is hard to understand here - like how could that keep making him happy?

Andy:  Yeah. And I think the way to get people into it is through stories, which is why I wrote this book. There's this little passage where he talks about seven songs.  I ask him, “Are you sure? Is that really enough,”
     Murata says he learned the songs by listening to his teacher’s recordings. “I must have played that recording 1,000 or even 2,000 times,” he said. His teacher didn’t actually teach him how to play the songs. So he listened to the recordings. I asked him, “Do you make up your own songs, or just jam sometimes?”
     He said, “I have no interest in that. Old tunes have centuries of refinement. I play those. If I'm in a bad mood, I play those tunes as a person in a bad mood would. On another day, I play them as a person in a good mood would; there’s plenty to discover in that. It’s impossible to play them perfectly, of course, but to get close to perfect, there’s a whole world in that. Some people write one new song after another. For me, that would be shallow. There are perhaps 40 classic tunes, I've chosen seven. I can play them over and over. I spend the whole day doing that.”
     I shake my head amazed at the humility in playing only seven songs. When I think how attached I am to the idea of improvisation, I realize how profoundly hypnotized by 20th century American culture I’ve been. How I’d thought that any other way would be unbearable.      

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About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.             


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