Rural Japanese Life at its Most Intense, or, Mountain Pipe Maintenance 101

(In today’s post – important community building; schlepping up a big mountain to clean some pipes; photos with poor lighting; surprise crabs)

In early December, just after I moved to Nagiso, I was informed by one of my new neighbours that our water bill would be incredibly cheap. Now, that’s a pretty suspicious conversational opening if I’ve ever heard one, but a week went past and nothing seemed to come of it. The water seemed perfectly fine and not full of brain-eating parasites. At no point was I forcefully initiated into some kind of cheap drinking water-based Faustian bargain. So I forgot all about the suspiciously cheap water bill and got on with my life.

Well, as I later found out, my initial suspicions were in fact well-founded. The water bill was incredibly – one might say suspiciously – cheap. But in return the residents of my neighbourhood were expected to spend half a day every six months climbing up the nearby mountain to inspect and maintain the pipes that supply us with our water.

It would start bright and early. Incredibly early, in fact, on what was sure to be another dreary, absolutely freezing Nagano winter morning. But it was everyone’s responsibility as a resident of the neighbourhood, and so everyone had to take part.

I say everyone, but I was informed that not everyone took part. The elderly or infirmed are of course exempt. And many of the younger members (i.e. people in their late-thirties and early-forties) of the neighbourhood generally ended up skipping it on the grounds of various lazily-fabricated excuses. Only absolute rubes, it seems, bothered showing up at all.

One thing I’ve learned about my neighbourhood is that people will find literally any excuse to build a big fire. New Year’s Eve? Big Fire. Celebrating a different event? Big Fire. Waiting for five minutes outside on a winter morning? You’d better believe that’s Big Fire.

So bright and early on a cold, dreary winter morning I made my way to the local shrine, to stamp my feet and rub my hands together in front of a makeshift fire , and wait for the day’s proceedings to begin.

Soon enough, begin it did, and the fifteen or so attendees were divided up into groups to tackle different parts of the mountain. Feeling like the chubby kid with a respiratory disorder who’s always picked last for dodgeball, I hung around as my more experienced neighbours were chosen for the various strike teams. Eventually, a kind soul decided to take me under his wing and teach me the ways of mountain pipe maintenance, and we were off – riding his van up the mountain road.

Here I am on the way to clean up some pipes, looking for all the world like a kid at Disney World. I should note that we didn’t ride standing up in the back of the van, as it looks like here, as that would be very illegal and irresponsible, not to mention extremely fun.

The roads would only take us partway, however. The rest of the way would see us tramping up steep, muddy hills. Now, obviously I had no idea what we were looking for, or what to do when we found it, but our leader took no time at all to zero in on our quarry.

What were we doing? Basically, we were hiking around from important water source pipe to important connecting pipe to important water filtration tank. Most were covered with a layer of corrugated iron and plastic, weighed down by sandbags to keep them protected from the elements. After arriving at one of these places, we had to first remove the covering, check for damage, clean any accumulated sediments from tanks, and then carefully replace the covering before moving onto the next.

I had literally no idea what was going on the whole time, but did my best to be useful, like when you have builders over and they ask for your help holding something for a minute, and you spend ten minutes nodding vigorously as they explain the importance of keeping torque pressure in mind when choosing the placement of hydraulic nails.

I am helping. Note the intense look of concentration on my face that says ‘I am sure I’m helping’.

After finishing with one of these hub points, we followed the pipes across the mountain to the next one, checking along the way to make sure there were no leaks or other damage. I was not entrusted with much responsibility at these junctures, and was glad of the lack of faith placed in my abilities. At one point I held up a very heavy pipe while something of vital yet obscure importance was done to it. And then we moved on.

They seemed to appreciate the effort I was putting in to be helpful, and everyone was exceptionally nice the whole time. To be fair, I did genuinely make myself useful from time to time by employing my (somewhat) youthful energy and strength, and was rewarded with my first ever time being called ‘Keirle-kun‘.

The covering over one of the scary holes housing the water pipe/tank/etc. I was sure there would be some awful bear, or vengeful spirit living inside, but no luck this time.

(for those who don’t know, the Japanese language generally uses honorifics after a name or surname, to show respect to people you’re talking to/about. The most common is –san, which is basically used as a catch-all sign of respect adults, but there’s also -chan, an affectionate suffix placed after the name of a girl, or a woman younger than you, and –kun, an affectionate suffix placed after the name of a boy, or a man younger than you.)

Being called Keirle-kun gave me a pretty nice sense of belonging, which is especially rare as a foreigner in Japan, where a good 40% of people see me as some kind of large-nosed alien who can inexplicably both (a) speak their language, and (b) adequately use chopsticks.

Here we are deep in deliberation about what to do with this particular bit of pipe that wasn’t working well for various reasons I understood but don’t want to bore you by explaining.

I’ve always lived in big cities, and it’s hard to feel any sense of community there. But out here, in Nagiso, it’s a very different experience. Even though I *am* a big-nosed alien foreigner, I’m part of this neighbourhood and I get treated like it. People sometimes pop by to give us some cabbage they grew, or some pickles they made. They stop to talk to us if we pass in the street. And twice a year we all get together and do some important stuff to some important water pipes.

As well as all that community feel-good nonsense, there was (and still is) a real sense of satisfaction in not just having your water come directly from pure mountain streams (apparently the water in the Kiso Valley is particularly good – leading to some absolutely stonking sake being made around here), but also in being directly responsible for making sure that water continues to flow. It’s almost as if being connected to your environment, and the things you put in your body is psychologically beneficial, or something.

Anyway, I’m sure I’ll start to resent these twice-yearly climbing-and-lifting sessions a few years down the line, but for now I’m all in favour of them.

Tragically, this man’s arm was stuck in the water tank, and had to be left to his fate. His widow was grief-stricken but understanding.

Finally, just before we finished for the day and made our way back down the mountain, I was surprised by something amazing: there, in the slushy mud next to a water tank was a tiny crab.

A crab! A *crab*. Maybe you’re like ‘oh yeah, there are some species of crabs that live in mountains, no big deal’, but to uncultured, ignorant rubes like me this was an insane revelation. There are crabs that live in mountains. *Crabs* that live in *mountains*.

My mind remains blown to this day.

I would gladly die for Tiny Mouintain Crab.

(Hello again! Thanks for reading today’s post. If you’re enjoying it why not follow me on Twitter, follow my wife’s Kiso Valley Diary Instagram for some actually good social media content, or if you’re an absolutely wonderful human being, support me on Patreon (for as little as $1 a month) for exclusive content and so that I can pay for website hosting, food, and other such outrageous luxuries. Cheers!)

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