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?

Episode 3

Matt Lawson from America

April 20, 2020 release

Lawson (Matt Lawson) moved to Kamiyama in 2015 with his wife and two children. He runs a healthy restaurant called the Buddha Café (yum!) next door to the supermarket near the high school. He and his wife run the shop while dreaming up all kinds of new business ideas. 

America, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Nepal, Burma, Malaysia

LawsonI’m from a little town in California called Santa Cruz. It’s about 45 minutes by car from San Francisco.

Is it near the sea?

LawsonIt’s a mountain town like here, but if you walk about five minutes from the foot of the mountain, you’ll reach the beach. It has mountains and ocean. I was born and raised there, and now I run a café restaurant in Kamiyama. 

It’s a kind of international, healthy style of food. We want to give people a chance to eat their vegetables and have some fun. 

Photo: Yoshiaki Nishimura

I’ve heard you’ve lived in many other countries as well.

LawsonI lived in China for seven years. I was in Thailand for a total of about eight years. India for one year, Nepal for nine months. I lived in Southeast Asia, and every three months I had to cross the border to get a new visa stamp, so I’d go to Burma or Malaysia or something for an hour or so and then come back. There was a period in my life where that was my lifestyle.

What were you looking for with all that moving around?

LawsonAt that time, I was doing an import-export business. The first place I went to was Bali (Indonesia). I bought wooden carvings, and sent them to the United States in a container, and then set up a little booth in a shopping mall in the States and sold it there. I did that business for several years. I eventually started going to Thailand and other Asian countries.

 In China – Photo courtesy: Buddha Café

But I had a little trouble with my girlfriend at that time, and I quit. After that, I began studying Buddhism, and I got really involved in that. 

After four years of living in Kamiyama

What got you interested in Buddhism?

LawsonI was raised as a Christian, but I had a lot of doubts about it as a child. Even if I asked the people around me, it just didn’t make sense.

One day, I went hiking in Big Basin Park, in Santa Cruz, and I arrived at a Thai Buddhist temple that is in the forest there. After that I started going often. In the end, I spent eight years as a Buddhist monk. 

During that time I got my master’s degree in Buddhist philosophy. I switched from Theravada to Mahayana Buddhism.

Photo courtesy: Buddha Cafe

At the same time I was also working in tech. With my import-export job I had to go to purchase the merchandise, but as long as I had an internet connection I could work, so I was able to make money while travelling for a while.

In 2007, I was in Thailand, but my brother died so I returned to the United States and I lived in my parents’ house for about a year, and then I heard about a Buddhist temple in France that was looking for a monk to work at the temple. My next plan was to go there. 

But I was thinking, do I want to live life as a monk, or do I want to try and find someone to get married with and start a family? I thought I’d give it a try, and I went on a dating site, and that’s where I met Satsuki. 

How long was it from that time until you began living in Kamiyama?

LawsonAt first, we lived in her hometown of Takamatsu. But we got tired of living in the city. We wanted to live somewhere in nature, so it didn’t really suit us. Then we tried living in California, but the cost of living was very high. Even if you live a very simple life, it costs about ¥500,000 per month. 

For me, I had experienced living in Asia, and American culture was sort of a culture shock. Compared to Japan, the medical care is terrible. It was also very hard for her to immigrate or get a visa, so no matter how long we waited, she just couldn’t get one. Our youngest was just about the age for starting elementary school, so we decided to return to Japan.

We didn’t want to live in a city without much nature, so we looked around. Then we found an article about Kamiyama in the Washington Post.*2

LawsonWe thought we’d go take a look. The next time we went to Japan, we went with our suitcases to Kamiyama, and at first we stayed at Yamakawa House for a trial period. For about two to three weeks, we had help from Ito at the NPO Green Valley Migration Exchange Support Center and we were going around looking for a house every day.

We were making very little progress, so we decided to try it our own way. We made a hand-illustrated introduction to our family and made copies at the convenience store and handed them out to people. We wanted to make sure they knew we weren’t strange people. (laughs)

How is it for you now that you have been living here for four years?

LawsonWe’re very happy. The children are very comfortable living here, and they love this place. Even when we ask them if they want to go into the city, they say they’d rather stay in Kamiyama. 

How do they spend their time here?

LawsonOh, catching lizards. (laughs) When we first came here, they said they didn’t like it because there were so many bugs, but now four years have passed and they’ve become real mountain children. 

Photo courtesy: Buddha Cafe

That is one of the reasons why we wanted to live in Kamiyama. When we lived in the city, nature was very far from our daily life. For our kids, playing consisted of going to the shopping mall or the 100 yen store and buying things we didn’t need. 

It’s not as though we’ve completely stopped doing that, but we’re far from the city now so they’ve changed a lot. Now they might go to the local store to buy some chocolate but that’s about it.

How have you personally changed?

LawsonWhen we moved here, we renovated our house. At first I started a coffee roaster, but things have changed a lot. When I was about ten years old, I used to love waking up every morning. That feeling has come back to me now. 


LawsonYes. I wake up in the morning and think, “I’m really looking forward to today.” My marriage is going well, and my children are healthy. My life is pretty good.

Live life without going against the flow

What was it that you were unable to find within Christianity, that you found in Buddhism?

LawsonIt was like I found the pieces I was missing, and I completed the puzzle. You could say the things you do creates your own future. In the world of Christianity, if you do something bad, you just confess your sins and are forgiven. Just pray and you’re forgiven. I couldn’t understand that. But with the Buddhist worldview, there are positives and negatives, energy moving within nature. The small choices and decisions you make within that movement can have good effects or bad effects, and it makes your future. I could understand that system clearly. 

Whatever you do, comes back to you. If you move in the bathtub, the water splashes around, right? That might be putting it a little too simply, but once I start talking about Buddhism, I’ll use up all our time. (laughs)

Are you a practicing Buddhist now?

LawsonTruthfully, I wouldn’t call myself a Buddhist now. But I am living with a Buddhist worldview. 

Does the Buddha Café share that worldview?

LawsonIf we were just in it to make money, we might as well have called it the Sunshine Café. But then it would just be a café. We named it the Buddha Café to remember the Buddhist worldview, Buddhist values, and ways of looking of things and ways we want to work on ourselves. 

Not long after we arrived in Kamiyama, we discovered that my wife had cancer. A rare malignant sarcoma. So for the first two years, things didn’t exactly go as we intended. 

During that time, I was doing web design work, but when she got cancer, we began to think about removing everything from our lives that caused us to build up stress, and to make our lifestyle according to our own priorities. 

She will never be fully cured, so she has to eat a special diet. But there aren’t many food options for her in Kamiyama. It’s a long story, but the majority of the soybeans in the world are GMO (genetically-modified organisms) and she can’t eat that. She also avoids food like wheat that causes inflammation in the body. Japanese food contains a lot of carbohydrates.

Like rice and noodles.

LawsonOne of the reasons why we made the Buddha Café was so that we could provide the kind of food we can eat every day.

Where does it go from here?

LawsonThat would also be a long story… (laughs) We have a big goal that we’re considering on a span of ten or fifteen years. We’d like to make a little hotel, or a guest house. And a school for children connected to that. And a retreat where people can learn about Buddhism. It’s still in the planning stages, and if I told you everything that I’ve got in my head, everyone would probably say I’m crazy. For now, you could just say we’re having fun running the restaurant (Buddha Café). (laughs) This week it’s closed (April, 2019). When we opened, so many customers came. We were so busy. 

It’s a shop after all, if you’re open, people will come. (laughs)

LawsonAt first the menu was just hamburgers and Buddha bowls and burritos, but we didn’t have any time to think about how we wanted to develop the business. We just spent every day making hamburgers. So we decided to take a week off, and now we’re refocusing on takeout only. 

It might sound strange, but we are going with the flow.

If you go against the flow, things won’t go well. If things aren’t going well, that means that isn’t the way you should be going. If it’s my destiny, I won’t have to struggle so hard. That’s what I mean by going with the flow.

Before I came to Kamiyama, I was working freelance for more than 15 years, and I feel like I was always swimming upstream. Competing with other companies, always having to fight for jobs. I felt like I wasn’t going with the flow. Like I’d try, but the customer’s wishes wouldn’t match up with their budget. 

But when I decided to stop fighting against the flow, my life got a lot easier. That’s where I’m at now. 

Lawson’s partner is Satsuki. They are raising two children together and also running the Buddha Café.


What were you thinking as you watched our conversation? (She also interpreted for him)

SatsukiI was thinking back to when I got cancer, and remembering how we struggled to recover, and how hard it was then. But now I’m healthy.

You met in the United States.

SatsukiAt first, I went there as a language student. My parents told me that I was to come back after one year, but I stayed for ten years. First to community college, then to university. Around when I started my Masters I was working as an athletic trainer. 

But there were several turning points. I got married, had a child and became a mother. At those points, it was very hard for me. But once I got through it, I grew to think I would always be able to manage somehow. Since I got sick, I’ve begun to feel that even more. 

When I was younger, I thought I would become something when I grew up, but now I go with the flow and I think there are different ways for dealing with different times. I try to live without going against the flow too much.

Lawson is much more alive now than when he was doing web work in Takamatsu. Back then, he was in a cycle of working until late at night and sleeping all morning, but since we came to Kamiyama and he started roasting coffee, he has become a morning person and I think he’s gotten closer to a more natural way of life. 

Now he sometimes says that the work he does now suits him better than the web work he did before. His father runs about five cafés in Santa Cruz. 

So he’s somewhat familiar with the business.

SatsukiYes. But he learned it all on his own. He’s the type who likes to look things up. He’ll watch something on YouTube or read about it on the internet and then try it for himself, and make lots of mistakes. We had to throw away a lot of coffee beans. But he calls that his “tuition.” With the Buddha Café as well, we made lots of mistakes and wasted a lot of food, but he calls that his “school expenses.”

The café is very tasty, but you’re still learning the ropes?

SatsukiYes, that’s right. (laughs) Everyone is scared of making mistakes and there’s a lot we can’t do, but he always says, “you can succeed if you make enough mistakes” and “it’s only a failure if you quit before you succeed.”

Actually, when we were in Takamatsu, we did have the opportunity to start a café. If we had done so, I think our life in that town would have been very different. So I don’t think there is any problem with Takamatsu, but depending on our own approach to life and work, our life in the city could have been very different.

But if we had done that, I think we would have never come here. 
But when I think about it, I feel like we were meant to come to Kamiyama. That’s how it flowed. I feel like we went through those times so that we would arrive here. 


*1 Buddha Café – Merged with Kamiyama Coffee at the end of February, 2020
*2 The Washington Post May 26, 2015
*3 Kamiyama Migrant Exchange Support Center (in japanese)

Interview: April 22, 2019
Please confirm the current information from the link above (April 20, 2020)

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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