Why are you here?
From other countries, to Kamiyama
People often remark that there are a lot of foreigners in Kamiyama, but where did they come from? What is it like for them to be living in this town?
Rufus Ward from England
April 13, 2020 release
Rufus (Rufus Ward) teaches English at a junior high school in Tokushima while living in Kamiyama with his wife Eri Ito and their 7 year-old son. He's a laid-back, quiet, deep-thinker (or so he looks to me!). Everyone calls him Ru-san.
An ALT at a junior high in Tokushima City
Where are you from?
RufusI’m from Northern England. I’m from Lancaster, below the Lake District. Now I’m working as an ALT.
What’s an ALT?
RufusIt’s a teacher who supports the English teacher. I teach the students native English pronunciation, and give the students a chance to experience real English. (ALT stands for Assistant Language Teacher)
I just started that job a week ago. (laughs) Up to now, I was working at an English conversation school in Tokushima City. There, I planned my own lessons and did everything by myself, but the ALT job is done as a team with a Japanese teacher. There are 38 students in a class.
Is it a school in Kamiyama?
RufusThat would have been nice, but Kamiyama ALTs are hired through the JET Programme*1, and they only take people from overseas.
A friend was the ALT at this junior high and was going to quit, and told me that it was a good place to work. I was lucky.
The first week is hard, and I’m a little tired. I must have said “Nice to meet you” three hundred times. (laughs)
But the children are all good kids. It’s a different atmosphere than the children at the English conversation school. For them, school is like a second home, and everyone is relaxed. During lunch, they invited me to eat with them and I sat with them at their little desks. On my little tray I had my mini milk and buntan (fruit) and rice and other dishes. The kids were asking me so many questions, and were happy touching me. (laughs)
I think every adult should try and work with children to understand them better. To understand how they think about things and how they deal with things.
After all, they are the ones who will take over this planet. I think this opportunity to see each of them as human beings is important. Understanding them and seeing their different characters is fascinating to me.
What sort of child were you?
RufusI was quiet and shy, and I sometimes got laughed-at at school. I’m glad my school days are behind me. (laughs) But in Japanese schools, I feel like children like me are more easily accepted.
Work, a child, and a home, all in one week.
RufusHalf a year before we moved here, in autumn of 2009. It was right during the Kamiyama Artist in Residence (KAIR)*2 exhibition when we first visited Kamiyama. Eri and I talked about coming here, and then the following year we moved here.
We lived in Edinburgh in the UK. I was doing design and printing. Eri was a full-time artist. That lifestyle was fun, and we had an apartment with a fireplace and a nice view, we liked our work and I think Eri was happy. There were lots of art exhibitions, and we used to go out together and meet lots of interesting people.
We thought, rather than continue paying a lot of money in rent, we wanted to buy a house. But houses are very expensive in the UK. They’re even more expensive in the countryside. We didn’t want to take out a loan so we were looking for other possibilities. I had always liked Japanese culture, and I was interested.
Tell me more.
RufusWhen I was 17, I came to Japan by myself. That was twenty years ago. I had saved money from my job and I came for eleven days. The culture was different and I didn’t understand the language, and I had a hard time finding food to eat. I didn’t see any other tourists like me and I felt like I had wandered into another world.
But during that trip, something inside me changed. Until then, I had been having trouble in school and then the closed-off world suddenly opened to me. I had a lot of new experiences. I really felt like I had come to a foreign country.
Returning to the Edinburgh part of the story, we started looking for a new place. We wanted a place where we could work, and we wanted to be involved with art. That was when we found the In Kamiyama website.
I read it and I found out about the artist in residence program, and saw the house that is now Ikuko’s place (the former sake brewery that is now Café On y Va) and we thought it sounded interesting and decided to come. On an impulse.
The following year, you really did move here and began your life here. How was that?
RufusAt that time, we didn’t have a child. During the first year, we lived in the old teacher housing.
I didn’t have a job, and I couldn’t find one. So I volunteered, doing things like forest maintenance*3. In every season, I harvested something: plum, sudachi, yuko, yuzu, and so on. I went to a lot of different places to help, and I met a lot of people, and I learned a lot. So in that way it was good.
I had time, so I rode my bicycle and my Super Cub on all the roads around Kamiyama, exploring on my own. I’d follow maps to climb old paths. It was a special time. We moved around within the town and it was a good time to see Kamiyama.
But I don’t think Eri was very happy then. We weren’t in our permanent home. It was different from what we had imagined. The two of us began to wonder why we were here, and what we were doing here.
That was when I began searching for a job again, and I found a job teaching English in Kyoto. We began to think we might leave Kamiyama and move there. At that time, we had left the teacher housing and we had been renting a nice big house, but we weren’t comfortable.
But all in the same week, I found a job in Tokushima, and we found out Eri was pregnant, and we found someone who would sell their house to us. It felt like a message for us to stay in Kamiyama.
Living my fate
Since you couldn’t speak Japanese, was it hard for you to have only Eri to talk to every day?
RufusI like thinking, and I’m not very talkative, so it wasn’t hard for me. I can talk to my family in the UK on Skype, and I can talk with the different artists who come from overseas. In my first year, even the way I couldn’t communicate with people was fun for me.
But now, I’m embarrassed. I wish I could speak Japanese properly. I don’t like it when people ask me how many years I’ve been here. (laughs)
EriWhen we first moved to Kamiyama we were asked to introduce ourselves a lot. Whenever we went to a party or any other time when people got together, people would talk to us. Wherever we went, they would always ask us to give a speech. Even though we didn’t really know the answers ourselves, people would ask “Why did you come here?” and “Who are you?” and we had to talk in front of everyone. (laughs)
Rufus was never the type to go in front of a group. When we lived in the UK, he didn’t like eating in restaurants, and he didn’t even like going to the supermarket. He was really the lone-man-in-the-woods type, so I think all the questions from people like Nikolai (a very curious Kamiyama resident) was a sort of shock therapy.
We told each other “we don’t want to do it, but let’s do it” and “we’ve got to do it” and kept trying, and it paid off. His capacity grew.
You’ve changed a lot since you came here.
RufusYes. I think I was living like a spoiled child, but I’ve gradually become more of an adult.
Then one day suddenly you had a job, a child, and a home.
RufusI’m not interested in spiritual things, but strangely, since I’ve come to Kamiyama I’ve started to feel more that way. I feel like I’m living my fate.
My hometown is where my parents are
What do you consider to be your hometown?
RufusThe place where my parents live. I don’t feel much of a connection with Lancaster now. But my father has a strong connection. I think he’s an important part of Lancaster.
My father worked at a coffee roaster near the foot of the castle, while doing calligraphy and sculpture as well. When the castle was being used as a prison, he used to go and teach the prisoners.
Now he rents a corner of the castle as a studio, and makes sculptures for the region, and teaches calligraphy and stone sculpture.
He’s a real pillar of the community in Lancaster, and whenever I go home, people always say to me, “Oh you must be Alan’s son.”
You seem happy. (laughs)
RufusI’m very proud of my father. That was the town where I was born and raised, but it doesn’t mean anything more than “the place where my parents live” now.
Actually, when I was in high school, I wanted to become a forester. But my art teacher said to me, “Really? I think you are good at art. It’s a little late, but I think you can get into university.” So I chose art. Now that I’m in Kamiyama, I think I should have studied forestry. (laughs)
Becoming a creative person
How are you finding your life here now?
RufusI’m most happy when I see my son having fun. We have nature all around, and he has good friends, and he seems really comfortable here.
Right now, I work four days a week, and I spend the rest of my time renovating my house, and doing what I want. I’ve begun to have the hope that I can begin to have some art in my life again. It has been hard, but I’m comfortable now.
What sort of person do you want your son to become?
RufusI don’t mind what he becomes, I just want to be able to give him a lot of choices. If he can decide himself, and become his own person, that’s what matters.
He has links with the UK, and he has family and friends there, and artists from many countries come to Kamiyama, and some artists bring their families. He can speak English, so he can visit many countries, and I think that will be a big part of his life.
If you’re a creative person, you can handle any situation. Even if you’re sick or poor, or if you’re depressed, you can get out of it if you’re that sort of person. I hope he can be a creative person. That’s what I want.
Rufus’ partner is Eri Itoi. She currently works at NPO Green Valley in relation to KAIR. In one corner of her house, she runs a private gallery called Itoi Arts.*5 She’s also a whiz with a sewing needle.
You were the one who discovered Kamiyama.
EriOn Google. (laughs) I googled “art” and “vacant houses” and In Kamiyama was one of the top results. When I opened the page, there were diaries by Nikolai and the other founding Green Valley members.
When I read, there were some elements of art, but also people who didn’t seem to have much connection with art who were also having fun. I wanted to say, “Huh? What are they doing?!” With some websites you can just read them and be done. But I felt like, “Hang on a second?!” I mean, I felt like “Show me, show me too!”
At that time you were in Edinburgh, living a free and easy life.
EriIt sounds bad when you say it like that. (laughs) How can I put it? I was able to do what I wanted to do and I was grateful for that, but the “art” didn’t always keep up with the “exhibiting.” I was tired, and we didn’t really have a connection with our neighborhood, I mean it was the sort of place where it was common to not even know the names of your neighbors. That’s why I started to look for possibilities outside Edinburgh.
In your interview for the series, “Girls of Kamiyama”*6 you described your impressions of when you first read In Kamiyama as “ordinary people who were all having fun.”
EriThis is also related to the reason why I left Japan, but the way people who live in Kamiyama who are not involved with art at all in their lives or their occupations, and the way they looked so amazingly happy was very new to me. It made me realize that of course that’s how it should be.
If you pass by a new town on the train, you can’t really get a true feeling of “There are people living within this landscape.” If there’s nobody there who you know, it all seems rather flat, doesn’t it?
But all that seems flat elsewhere, in Kamiyama everything seemed to be so dynamic. It looked very appealing to me.
It might seem natural here, but it wasn’t natural to me. A place that only I could see was suddenly flooded with ordinary people. I think it was very fresh to me.
When you look at Rufus now, what do you think?
EriThe first couple of years I thought “He should just do whatever he wants.” We had saved enough to live, so we didn’t have to work and we would be able to do what we wanted for about two years.
I think he was really struggling at first. But I think he’s overcome that now. (laughs) Rufus really notices the tiny details. With people’s personalities as well. He looks at each person and experiences that as something fun as he lives his life. I think that’s how I’m able to be, and that’s how we’re able to live our lives.
He’s a very strange person, but he takes a serious approach to whatever he’s given. He’s a great person. He’s adapted to his environment much more than I have, and I think he’s really working hard.
*1 Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme
*3 Forest Maintenance is an activity of NPO Green Valley that has been going since 1999
*4 Nikolai (in japanese)
*5 itoi arts
*6 Girls of Kamiyama (in japanese)
Interview: April 19, 2019
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Text: Yoshiaki Nishimura, Photography: Masataka Namazu
English Translation: Claire Tanaka
Production cooperation: Mie Manabe, Keiko Kudo, Aya Fujimoto
Planning and production: Kamiyama Tsunagu Corporation