Surendra tells of his and Amrapali’s decision to leave Devon in UK for the Nagano area of Japan.
Amrapali and I came to live in the UK in 2001. From time to time, after I passed the official retirement age of sixty five, in 2008, we discussed, sometimes argued, about relocating from England to Japan, where Amrapali was born and grew up. Although she often felt uncomfortable and out of place in England, she also had a sense of detachment and more freedom from social pressures, unconscious or otherwise.
I had spent time in Japan both with and without Amrapali, before we met. Like many foreigners, magnetised by the exquisite beauty of this ancient country and its aesthetic, I was infatuated with its romantic past. I dreamed of wild, craggy landscapes dotted with Zen temples, thatched houses and ceremonial tea gardens. Samurai and geisha moved through the land in kimonos and farmers in sandals struggled against the wind and rain, like figures in a Hokusai print. Although much more than mere traces of the rich heritage are still visible, even obvious, nowadays, there is the epidemic concrete and ubiquitous, overhead power cables for the eyes to contend with.
When we visited Japan in 2008, we became aware of why over building has led to Japan being called ‘the construction country’. Over the past 50 years, more than 90 percent of the rivers have been got at by concrete in one form or another. Banks have been steepened and encased, preventing access and beds paved over. The undulation of some rivers has even been straightened out by the building frenzy. Recently, plans have emerged to bring back twists and turns in some of these disciplined waterways.
Moreover, in many lovely areas, gorgeous scenery is now juxtaposed with, or dwarfed by, badly placed, useless or even harmful structures. One example is the giant, concrete tetrapods lining over 60 per cent of the lengthy coast around the country. Meant to mitigate erosion, research later demonstrated that tetrapods accelerate it, interfere with marine life and are a danger to swimmers.
Public opinion seems to be divided: some love unspoilt nature in the raw, others feel much safer with cement underfoot and everywhere else. This could be a reflection of personality and the way in which personal energy is either flowing or heavily clamped down on.
Speculation aside, for our personal lives, Amrapali and I wondered whether we would be able to find somewhere in which we could feel and celebrate nature. We had many lively discussions about the pro and cons and even had transit and astro-locality readings completed in July 2012 by Fiberto Prince. Our charts not only pointed to many positives for both of us in moving to Japan, they gave us a sense that if we went with the energy it was unstoppable, and our move inevitable. How we might make it happen, however, was not clear. Challenges were mentioned, too, primarily within our relationship. In spite of uncertainty and the warning in the shadows that still flairs into flame from time to time, the readings started to imbue us with more courage and confidence to prepare for the relocation.
At the end of 2012, Amrapali’s mother, Sahi, also a sannyasin, died. We travelled to the Hiyogo prefecture, adjacent to Osaka, for her farewell celebration in January 2013. Amrapali’s brother, Champaka and his partner, Ramiya, were wonderful hosts to us and orchestrated a great farewell for Sahi. Their warmth also helped make our visit such a positive experience.
Our response to revisiting after a gap of more than five years was crucial to our move. In spite of the drawbacks, this time we both felt very much at home. For me, there was a shift in gestalt. Before, I had seen the thick, black overhead cables and their obtrusive supports masking bamboo groves. This time my gaze went to the swaying bamboos behind the poles and wires. Beauty is there if you look a little deeper.
We returned to England resolved to make our move. Now the research began – where to? Two Japanese friends, Sona and Jalesh, had been beckoning us to the prefecture of Nagano where they had lived for a number of years. The area is
famous for its scenic beauty, including the mountains known as the Japanese Alps. As we wanted to find an area as rural as the Devon we loved, we focused our interest and research on Nagano. Though neither of us had ever set foot in the locale, it looked pretty good on the Google satellite maps, with lots of open, green space and hey… why not?
Earlier, we had wondered about the island of Shikoku but the impact of global warming on Japan has seen dramatic increases in temperatures during the already hot, humid summers throughout the whole country. It felt better to head for the cooler climes and deal with the harsher winters rather than melt away like candles in the hot season.
The end of my regular paid job had to happen sooner or later but I had hung on for another five years, past normal retirement, helped by a reduction in my hours. Enjoying my work assessing and recruiting foster carers, letting go of it and the income it provided, took time. Leaving the weekly forays into nearby Dartmoor was not easy, either. We had pretty much tramped across the whole of the northern section of this incredible wilderness with its unique tors. We had often got lost and found a way out, been drenched by storms on paths that turned into streams and been up to our knees in bogs. There was some bright sunshine, too and we loved it all, wet or dry, misty or not.
We also had dear friends nearby and had come close to my two daughters, their partners and children living near London. Although we spoke about leaving for Japan, from their point of view, it probably felt we were very much part of their lives and it was never going to happen.
By August 2013, at the age of seventy, I finally gave notice of my retirement and we embarked on a short trip to Japan to scout for a suitable new home. Our friends in Nagano found a cabin in the woods for us to rent and arranged for bicycles so that we could make our first explorations of the area.
Generally, life decisions and plans seem to come about in different ways. There is the slow and steady progression, probably rare for disciples of Osho. Other implementations of plans are blocked from the start and fraught with all kinds of unexpected obstacles and tribulations. Typical for sannyasins, ‘easy is right’ and if it is meant to work, we are usually carried along by a flowing river, sometimes a very fast one. In our case, rather than making the move, it seemed to be happening to us. The house that found us was in an area in the Northern Alps which I fell in love with.
There was some concrete, a few mobile masts and the inevitable, unsightly cables overhead but they felt puny compared to the mountains, trees and ancient shrines and temples that indubitably dominated the terrain. The progressive local
government of Azumino had strict planning laws and focused on eco developments for tourists in spite of their low numbers. Many of the rivers had received little interference from public works and there was green everywhere. It seemed like the right place.
We looked at more charming cabins in the woods at the foot of the mountains, like the one we were renting, plagued by small ants on the inside and large ones eating through from the outside. We had also been visited by a band of foraging monkeys. To my astonishment, one dexterously opened our screen door and was about to come in. I shouted ‘Monkey!’ (what else do you say to such a guest?) and it ran off.
Although we continued our search, we kept coming back to this particular house that seemed right for us. It ticked a lot of the boxes, such as the rarity of double glazing in an area that can go to minus 15 Celsius overnight, but the main pull was that when we sat on the steps, we felt at home. There was a red and white hibiscus in full bloom at the front and I sometimes wonder whether we went for this beautiful bush and got the house thrown in with it.
We also had a positive meeting with the young, organic farmer working the land opposite. Although rural, the area is full of small art galleries, parks and facilities developed for tourists when the Japanese economy was growing but now quiet and little used since it shrank. There’s a high proportion of second homes that are now rarely used and a liability for their owners. Some people have retired early from the big cities to run one of the many small cafes with French or Italian titles like Au bon Gout. It is amazing and a little sad to see how the owners diligently clean and open every day for the one or two customers that may, or may not, come.
Primarily a rice growing and farming area, all the parcels of land are very small and worked by the owners. It is a bit like viewing a Tolstoy idyll as the farmers, mainly elderly and female, merge into the land. The work is hard for their stiffening bodies but most seem to find the time to plant random clumps of seasonal flowers along the road sides of their fields. There is no sense of showing off or competition like we might find in the English suburbs. These farmers seem to be making a gesture from the heart. They have enjoyed living in this beautiful landscape all or most of their lives and want to enhance its beauty for the benefit of anyone passing by.
At the end of that one month trip, we had signed a binding contract committing us to the house that had simply felt good every time we went there. It was not without resistance popping up like a jack in the box. On the morning of the signing, Amrapali declared she wanted to move to Wales or Scotland instead! There was no time for debate by then, this move to Japan was either going to happen, or not. We waited to see which way it would go and found ourselves in the realtor’s office, pens in hand by the afternoon.
Somewhere, deep down, we knew we were going to do it but a few dramas needed to be played out in the process. That seems to be the way of life for many of us. Probably, very little happens through the efforts of the ego. We huff and puff and think we make the decisions and plans but are, in fact, being carried along by the flow of life itself. The more we allow, the more enjoyable and surprising the journey can be. Our unnecessary attempts to force things to happen get in the way and spoil the beauty, just like concrete in the Japanese rivers.
Looking back, it is astonishing to imagine how we packed up and sold or shipped so many things, including a fully equipped darkroom, in such a short time. We got a buyer and closed down our house in Devon, said goodbye to friends, my colleagues and family. Within three months, we were on the plane, our pockets uncomfortably stuffed with last minute things that would not fit into our restricted hand luggage. This was all while my workaholic side kept me in my day job right to the end.
Could we have done all that without the help of a bigger energy outside of ourselves? No, way! Do we really know why we had to make this move? No, of course not. We just got here somehow and it feels right. Are we happy all the time?
You bet we ain’t! Do we simply watch what is going on most of the time and sometimes laugh at it? Yes, we do…. and send our love to anyone reading this.
Surendra started to take photographs at Ko Hsuan in the UK in the early nineties, completed a City and Guilds Certificate in Photography at night school and, in 1994, became an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society by submitting a portfolio. He has had exhibitions in various countries including Tokyo. He lives with his partner, Amrapali, in Japan where a local exhibition of 40 prints is scheduled for August 2015. The pictures can be previewed at surendraphoto.com
Surendra and the sannyasin portrait project