There was an old man named Ginsaku Sakamaki. He occasionally came up in my father’s conversation. He was an acquaintance of my father who he saw only a few times a year. Perhaps, it is more correct to say, “He was my father’s friend.” I heard that I have met Mr. Sakamaki, but it is somehow disappeared from my memory. However, I have been connected to Mr. Sakamaki indirectly for more than years. This is because the rice I was eating everyday during my growth phase was cultivated by Mr. Sakamaki with the utmost care.
I was only a kindergarten child when my father met Mr. Sakamaki for the first time. During one summer vacation, we made a family trip to Yamakoshi village (currently Nagaoka City). It was a small rural district located in the mountains of central Niigata Prefecture. It was nationally known for beautiful landscape of terraced rice fields along hilly area and breeding of Nishikigoi, brocaded carp. Being felt as if I jumped into the world of my favorite animated film My Neighbor Totoro, I remember I was inspired by the good old farming village scenery as a child.
My father is thrilled under any circumstances when he is in front of nature, and he keeps such insight even while at the wheel. Discovering something interesting while driving down the farm road in the village, he pulled over the car, got out of the car, and started walking. The direction he headed was a pond in bushes. Well, it was actually a fallow field that hadn’t been cultivated for a long time. My father, who had been looking inside of the field quietly, suddenly started taking off his clothes. We were all startled. “These aquatic plants are amazing!” Being excited, my father stripped to his shorts and walked into the paddy. Saying, “Let me see,” my mother went to see the field and caught her breath at the beautiful world inside the clear water. It was exactly a small paradise. Many of rare aquatic plants grew wild, and insects such as dragonfly larva and diving beetles were huddled together. My brother, the insect lover, also frolicked to see the creatures new to him. Soon after, an old man seemed to be a local farmer passed by. “What are you doing here?” The person who came to ask was Mr. Ginsaku Sakamaki. “Oh. It is an amazing place!” With sparkling eyes, my father explained how splendid the ecosystem in the field was. Mr. Sakamaki laughed and said, “I assumed that you are a Sumo wrestler.“ At that time, my father was in his late thirties and still was a large man. It won’t be surprised if he was mistaken for Sumo wrestler considering his big belly. Mr. Sakamaki was very gentle person and listened earnestly to the strange man – the big man in only his underwear who entered the rice paddy without permission. My father asked Mr. Sakamaki about a detail of the fallow field – who is the owner and if it is possible to rent it. My father wanted to rent the field in order to leave this small paradise as it was by any means. Mr. Sakamaki said he knew the owner of the field and would ask the owner whether my father could rent the fallow field or not. What’s more, Mr. Sakamaki promised to be the custodian of the field for my father. Although the custodian in this case meant the one who just made sure nothing would be done, my father owed to Mr. Sakamaki a lot. Thus, my father became to have rice paddy in Yamakoshi village thanks to Mr. Sakamaki’s support.
Although it was only a couple of times a year, my father visited Mr. Sakamaki with a box of sweets. Eventually, he started buying rice that Mr. Sakamaki cultivated. Every autumn when the new crops were harvested, my father put money for the rice in an envelope and brought it with a box of sweets. Whenever Mr. Sakamaki received the envelope, first thing he did was placing it on the small household shrine. The reason why my father started buying the rice from Mr. Sakamaki was not because of social obligation, but because he purely liked the farming method of Yamakoshi village. With a high consciousness to coexist with nature, they never carry out the human-centered way. That’s why the agricultural products from the area with the blessing of the nature are really tasty. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides that pollute soils and rivers are not used as much as possible; most of the work was done manually; rice was dried traditionally in the sun. Thanks to the link between Mr. Sakamaki and my father, our family enjoyed eating tasty rice everyday and I think it was a real luxury.
In October 23, 2004, the big earthquake measured 6.8 hit Niigata prefecture. On that day, my father made a plan to pick up the rice and stay in Yamakoshi village with my uncle. However, my uncle didn’t feel well, so my father changed his plan on short notice and drove alone to Mr. Sakamaki’s house. He picked up the rice in the morning and came back straight home. Right after he came home, the earthquake occurred. The epicenter was the central Niigata Prefecture. He was upset by the fierce shaking that he had never experienced, and then he turned white to know where the epicenter was. My father got informed that Mr. Sakamaki and his family were luckily safe, but their house collapsed. After the disaster, Mr. Sakamaki, who had been already an older person, moved to Tokyo to live with his daughter, and since then he lost contact with my father. Seeing Mr. Sakamaki right before the earthquake became the last time for my father to see him. My father heard on the grapevine that Mr. Sakamaki had passed away. My father liked Mr. Sakamaki very much. When my father talks about him over Sake, he is brimming with tears.
Saying, ”You sure love aquatic plants, don’t you?” Mr. Sakamaki always listened to my father with a smile. I feel everything that is given by kindness never disappears; they are circulating in some kind of form. The truly strong person is who know many of those forms. While having such thought, I eat rice today again thanking each special grain in my rice bowl.
text & illustration by Sayuri Amano
English translation by Megumu Ogata