Bilbo and his wife live a precarious existence. Landslides threaten their home from the back, a rising river threatens from the front.
Far from supermarkets and conbinis, they live off the land – jikyujisoku (self-sufficient). But even their food supply is vulnerable. The vegetable plot outside has a saruyoke cage to keep out monkeys, slates pushed into the ground block mogura (moles).
Bilbo and his wife are in their 70s. They live alone, their son visits just once a year. Their home is in the remote wilds of Wakayama prefecture, on the Kii peninsula, recently hit by a series of freak typhoons.
Bilbo`s house was flooded out. He is now staying next door, in a smaller place, originally built for his son.
One warm lunchtime, supping a can of coffee, I stood, with a few other volunteers, between Bilbo`s home and his vegetable plot.
Wearing a sky blue local fishing association baseball cap, a grinning Bilbo came down the drive towards us. Pointing at his persimmon tree, he recited a famous haiku.
柿食えば Eating a persimmon
鐘が鳴るなり A bell rings
法隆寺 Horyuji Temple
Bilbo was in fine spirits. His wife told us he was enjoying having young volunteers about, digging out the riverwash from his garden. Normally he had to do everything himself.
Hearing a rustling from the roof, we all looked up to see what it was.
“Who`s that up there?”, a smiling Bilbo asked.
It was a Tokyo volunteer, he had used a ladder to climb onto the roof to pick himself some fresh persimmons.
“That`s our Peaceboat monkey”, our group leader told him.
Bilbo`s face creased up with laughter.
Peaceboat is the name of the volunteer organisation I was with, it`s been in Wakayama since September. I was amongst 30-odd volunteers, sleeping in the hall of an abandoned elementary school.
Many came from the warm Kansai region, their language and attitude different to Tokyo and north-east Japan, more honma than honto. “Like a University camp”, one Tokyo volunteer called it.
Kazuyo, an office worker in her 30s, had taken 3 days leave for her first experience volunteering. Her thick glasses were steamed up from shovelling mud out of the vegetable plot.
Bilbo offered her a persimmon.
“Sorry, they are nigate (my weak point)”
The persimmon tree was throbbing with orange fruit. Bilbo`s wife had never seen so many persimmons on it. The moment the typhoon came, she told us, the tree must have sensed it`s last chance to bear fruit.
When we left the next day, our job finished, we could not find Bilbo. Then we saw him. He was alone on the roof, hammering nails into his new home.