Happy new year! 2022 was quite a busy year for me. Earlier this month I spent ten days in Hiroshima Prefecture, for the ninth time in 2022 and the twentieth or so in the past two years. I’m lucky to be able to change rhythms so frequently, balancing the bustle and compactness of Tokyo with the quiet of the hillside in Onomichi and the expansiveness of the Inland Sea. This time, I was showing my mom around a bit before a week of construction at Labyrinth House. If you’re going to visit Hiroshima and want to see more than just the city, you might follow our itinerary this time. Start from Onomichi and travel south through the islands to the small port of Setoda on Ikuchi-jima. Then take a ferry back to the mainland at Mihara and board the slow train on the seaside Kure Line to the historic town of Takehara and onward to Hiroshima City.
The coast along the Kure Line is beautiful, “like the Adriatic before gentrification,” as a friend described it, just little towns farming oysters, drying persimmons, running thermal power plants and building ships, in front of an endless backdrop of blue island peaks and azure seas that often lick at the edge of the tracks. Depopulation means most towns here are on a glide path to disappearance, notwithstanding the continued pouring of concrete for new bypasses and bridges. Even the big city of Kure, once an engine of modernization in its formidable days as the headquarters of the Imperial Navy, is in the process of shuttering its last steel mill. What change a century brings: rural Hiroshima used to be so chock-full of people that it was a primary source of Japanese migrants to Hokkaido, Hawaii, California, South America, Korea and Manchuria. The 20th century here was shaped by expansionary visions of modernity, imperialism, and economic growth; now disappearance, degrowth, and rewilding are the unavoidable story of the 21st.
Perhaps those who say we cannot live without growth are right, and we should write off such dying places and double down on more productive real estate in Tokyo or NEOM or the metaverse. Growth ad infinitum strives to outrun the wreckage of what Walter Benjamin called the “storm of progress.” But surely a dying world still contains all sorts of ways to flourish, to create new culture and community, and to reorient society towards different goals. To me, this seems to be a big part of the unfolding story of Japan in the 21st century. I spend much of my time fixing up old buildings, soaking in ancient baths, and poking around the post-growth margins in search of those possibilities.
My mom and I stopped midway along the coast in Takehara, a small city wedged in one of the folds of the landscape. Like Setoda, it flourished as a salt producer and port for the trading ships that used to ply the inland sea, and we stayed overnight in the almost fully preserved Edo/Meiji era salt warehouse district. For hundreds of years, most of the richest people in the Inland Sea region were connected to the production of salt, which was dripped, evaporated, and boiled from the sea water into a commodity that generated great fortunes.
At an old merchant estate in Takehara, an Onomichi-born artist named Motoi Yamamoto had covered the floor with an intricate pattern made from salt. In this beautiful six-minute film, he explains that his practice of working in salt, used for purification after funeral rites, developed as a way for him to process the loss of his loved ones. At the end of each exhibition he gathers it all up and tosses it into the sea to dissolve.
Yamamoto’s art seemed to relate to the context of its time and place. We sat with cups of tea and sweets and looked out on the garden in a quiet town made by salt in a bygone era, now slowly dissolving like salt in the sea.
I don’t mean to contend that our “post-growth” future will not be an era of incredible innovation and transformation and development in many fields, or that many avenues of “progress” shouldn’t be pursued. But I think we might also learn to live in the ruins of the past and create culture that mourns what we are losing in the present, and in that process, find a way forward towards a less dystopian future.
December is a beautiful month around the Inland Sea. In Onomichi, low sunbeams cast long shadows over the hillside, lighting up the red vines that creep across the walls of abandoned and reclaimed houses.
At Labyrinth House, we’re sort of at the “peak ruins” stage of the renovation of our second house. December 11-16 was our 17th week of construction. We slept in an unheated 8-mat room that sits atop a ground floor worksite with no walls, no floor, and in some places, no roof. Our days were spent hauling debris, pouring concrete foundations, and rebuilding the structure in the chilly wind.
In the evenings we sat around a kotatsu with a hot pot and beer, talking through construction phasing or the design of the Labyrinth Library, the unmanned shop space, and the “solo bathhouse” I’ve imagined with a round steel tub and a big window facing the stone wall outside and a 40,000-tile mosaic of the Onomichi Channel—no shortage of dreams sprout from the ruins. Lots of issues to sort through in a big, complex puzzle that would be a miserably challenging job to do for work, but is always fun because it’s just a way to be together with friends and turn the resources we have into something beautiful.
Those thoughts came to me the train and got stuck in my drafts for a few weeks, but I originally wanted to send off a post to share this English-language NHK World program that aired earlier this month. One of the things I have not been able to do on this blog yet is share in much detail about the projects that have occupied all my time for the past two years, Labyrinth House in Onomichi and Inari-yu Nagaya in Tokyo, so it’s great when the national broadcaster does some of the work for you.
My non-profit Sento & Neighborhood’s project at Inari-yu Nagaya is featured in detail after the twelve minute mark of the program, including the traditional methods we used to do the renovation, and our concept of a community space that ties together the public bath and the neighborhood. But also watch the first part of the program, which looks at a project by architect Nagasaka Jo that is a five minute walk across the hill from Labyrinth House. They have spent a lot more money than us to do some restoration with professional builders, but you can get a sense of the environment where we are working—a carless hillside full of vacant houses, where everything we need to build has to be hauled up the stairs by hand.
I’m looking forward to a far mellower 2023. Time to start long-form writing in earnest. I’ll also be sharing a crowdfunding campaign for Labyrinth House sometime in February! Happy holidays.
It’s been awesome catching even a brief glimpse of what you’ve been up to since college. Keep up the dispatches, they’ve been a pleasure to read!
Loved reading this. Happy New Year.