Sunday, September 12, 2010

A visit to Inazusa.

Now part of the city of Shimoda, Inazusa is a peaceful countryside village on the Izu Peninsula, the easternmost part of Shizuoka prefecture. It actually occupies almost half of the city area, but its population is just over 10% of the city's, standing at 2,855 as of 2008. 35% of them are over 65 years old, which is a little above the average rate for a Japanese countryside village. Many of them are farmers, but nowadays they run other businesses alongside to make both ends meet. In April, I had the opportunity to visit Inazusa Clinic, a relatively new clinic that was set up just five years ago by JADECOM (acronym for Japan Association for the DEvelopment of COmunity Medicine), one of few health care organizations putting effort in bringing health care to rural, isolated areas in Japan.

Inazusa had a clinic that was funded by the city of Shimoda until 2002, when the sole physician of the clinic neared the age of 90, and without a doctor to take over the job, was forced to close down. So the village went without a doctor for three years. People who could drive traveled 20 minutes south to central Shimoda, where they could find some privately-run clinics. Accompanied by two nurses and two clerks, Dr. Hajime Kawasaki is the head of Inazusa Clinic, and he kindly accepted my one-week visit. Because I didn't have too much time, I wanted to spend the time to know the village and its people, and at the end of the week be able to 'draw a picture' of how the community looks like.

The first place I went to to meet the villagers was Ryusouin. This little local temple has been holding what it calls 'Temple Wellness Renko' (traditional exercise) sessions, where locals come to do exercise with the the monk, who interestingly has a bachelor's degree in physical education. In a rural area like Inazusa, during the 'obon' (Japanese Buddhist custom to honor the ancestor's spirits) season or whenever a funeral takes place, the family of the deceased along with the monk walk through the town visiting each and every home so the deceased can bid farewell. And the monk here found out that there were many who complained about back pain or joint pains, and together with the awareness that he himself was lacking exercise, came up with the idea. About 10 people come to each session, which takes place four times a week, and pay 500 yen per session that runs for about one hour followed by chit-chat time with tea and sweets. Asking the participants, not all of whom are locals, they say they come to talk with the charming monk, more than for the exercise. The monk says that he hasn't been able to attract the people who he really feels he needs to do exercise with, especially more locals, and that certainly is an issue to be solved. Also, citing the temple's proximity to the clinic, he says he has many ideas he might want to try together. Monks could play an important role in bringing a community together, like in Buddhist countries such as Thailand.

Another place I visited was the local nursing home called Azusa-No-Sato, which literally means 'the village of Azusa'. Like many other similar facilities in Japan, it also operates so-called 'day care' activities where the elderly who live with their families at home come to spend a day to play, take a bath, and socialize with the fellow elderly, not only to have them enjoy time, but to spare some break for the care-giving families. The national elder-care insurance is where the money for the service comes from, and the families would usually pay about 2,000 yen (JPY) per day, though funding for the insurance comes partly from the insured's past monthly payments. Because the nursing home's service includes picking up as well as dropping them off, I had a chance to get a glimpse of the actual homes and the areas the people live in. For the staff, it's not an easy job. It requires lots of energy, both physically and mentally, and considering their often below-average salaries, I had the impression that many workers in this field were not enjoying their work. However, it was different, at least here. Yes, the staff were always thinking and doing what they have to, but still, they were enjoying joking and playing around with the elderly as well, in a genuine sense. A staff said, "This is not the kind of job you can continue if you don't enjoy it. I really like my job."

In Inazusa, or like in many other places, farmers have always naturally formed informal groups with fellow farmers nearby, like a neighbors' small gathering. Many of them would have lunch together, chit-chat, or even do some leisure traveling when they can spare the time. One of those groups, which calls itself Chalette, has interestingly founded a small 'manju' (Japanese traditional pastry with sweet red soy bean paste filling) shop. They say they wanted to do something different, something they enjoy doing, and something they can continue doing, and that's when they realized members in the group were good at making Japanese traditional pastries. So they collected 100,000 yen and started this shop. Conveniently located along a road that connects Shimoda and towns on the other side of the peninsula, the now well-known shop earns enough to fill the members' piggie banks. When they sell out, they sell out, but they don't increase their job because they want to enjoy it and don't want it to become a burden on them. "Family comes first. Job comes second."

Another group of farmers founded a community farmers' market called 'Kimagure Shop', which literally means 'the range of products and price is up to the mood of the day'. When crops are harvested, it normally goes through a number of wholesale dealers before it reaches the consumer, and along the way the cost adds up and is represented in the price. So, what this community market does is farmers directly come from the fields to drop off their products, specify a price, and the market sells them off here, and 88% of the income goes back to the producer. This way, the farmers get bigger margins but the consumer gets them for less than what they would pay in an ordinary supermarket. Plus, the products are consumed relatively locally. So the products sold depend on the season, and now over 90 producers, not only farmers but local bakeries and flower shops, drop the market. It's becoming a place where not only the people of the community gather, but chit-chatting between the locals and travelers as well, being located alongside a main road.

Inazusa is certainly a typical rural village, but does have many encouraging activities run by the locals that are helping to sustain happiness in the community. :)

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