American Woman becomes a Villager
By Mika Otsuki
Single lifestyles can take many forms. Shelley Clarke (56), an American, lives in an alpine valley in Shizuoka prefecture’s Shimada city. As a child she had a budding interest in Japan which led her here to a lifestyle which is quiet but busy. Let’s learn all about it…
First, let’s explain it very simply: Shelley has a doctorate and works in fisheries resource management for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) currently on a tele-work basis. She lives in a house built 65 years ago in the village of Sasama (pop. 350) where 64% of the residents are classified as elderly. She is 1.76 meters tall. She is slim and stylish with cheerful good humor. Every Saturday she opens “Firefly Teahouse (CHAYA HOTARU)” in a renovated building on her property.
Shelley, who was raised in Maine, first encountered Japan on the waters of the Bering Sea. She was aboard a vessel fishing for pollock as an American government observer where she was deeply impressed by the Japanese crew’s cooperative working style as something “well beyond what she had ever seen in the US”. At that time she was 21. After returning to the US she soon started studying Japanese.
In 1992 she made her first sightseeing trip to Japan and says “something just resonated with me”. She heard koto music in the hallways of the inns she stayed at. The people she met were polite, quiet, well-mannered and respectful of each other. She understood why they would shrink from Americans with loud voices.
In 2003, she took a job with the National Research Institute of Far Seas Fisheries in Shizuoka, and began her life in Japan. She first visited Sasama through her hobby of cycling. The farmhouses that were dotted throughout the alpine valleys, as well as the expansive tea fields caught her attention, and in 2005 she bought an farmhouse for 7,000,000 yen. “Americans move often, so from the start I had no doubt that I was attracted to Sasama”, she said. At the time her Malaysian husband agreed it would be a good idea to acquire the farmhouse as a holiday home.
Buying an Old House
The locals welcomed the new resident. They gave her brussel sprouts, corn and shiitake mushrooms, and when she had a cold they brought a nurse to her doorstep. To meet the challenge of blending into the community she adopted an “open” lifestyle. “I wanted to let my home be open so I could show them how I was living and so that they could trust me”, she said. So she would have parties to which 30-40 people would come.
In her everyday life, she was able to find village “parents” to help her with such things as filling out tax forms. “The villagers are like a big family to me”, she says. She has lived in England, Italy and Hong Kong but believes “This is where I want to live my life because everyone welcomed me here”.
As much as possible she participates in village governance and activities such as public cleanups. To support the dwindling numbers in the local KAGURA troupe she has also learned KAGURA dances and prior to COVID she would make sure to come back from overseas assignments in time for the fall festival. “Interpersonal relationships are essential and although my life is really busy, I don’t want local people to be disappointed, so I try my best”, she said.
Her love for Sasama deepened, but not so for her husband who couldn’t speak Japanese. “He couldn’t live here continuously” so after 10 years they separated. Now she lives in the former mansion of the esteemed Okamura family. After the last resident passed away and the house was abandoned she bought it for 1,000,000 yen five years ago. The property is ~1560 m2 with 10 buildings including the main house, guest house, teahouse, etc. After completing the renovation she moved there 2 years ago. While trying to find the balance between life and work in Sasama, with COVID spreading, she began doing tele-work. She attends meetings online and writes reports. When she finishes work in the early hours of the morning, there are also times when she has to get up early to meet people who come to the house early in the day.
Thinking that there might be ghosts in the old house, she got a dog—a cairn terrier named Timo (note: this is not why I got Timo!). When she takes him for a walk the villagers ask “How are you? Would you like some vegetables?” It seems she’s not lying when she says that she’s not at all lonely.
When the weather is sunny, she eats her breakfast outside on a bench, goes cycling in the mountains, or reads a book to the sound of the river rushing by below. It seems that while she’s connected to the villagers she also enjoys her own personal time.
The café is bustling with people who have come from the city. Café helper Hiroko Sawamoto (73) says “At first I said absolutely no one is going to come here, but now I’m shocked that more people than I ever dreamed of are coming!” There’s no one in the area that doesn’t know Shelley. Villager Shoji Tanemoto says “Initially I was surprised (that she moved here). But now she’s just like a typical resident”.
Applying for Citizenship
But still Shelley thought there was more to do. “There are lots of things I don’t understand and I’m like a temporary family member. I make a lot of mistakes. For example, over time personal interactions build up into relationships. Everyone knows things that they don’t talk about and I can sometimes step on a landmine. By talking to various people I’m doing my best to understand all the background.”
She’s noticed that when people in Sasama become unable to drive they can’t get to the doctor’s or the grocery store when needed. She would like to help but hasn’t yet been able to because they refuse saying “We’re fine”. “I realize that it will take time for people to rely on me but I want to create the right conditions for that naturally”, she says.
Last year she made a momentous decision. She has already attained permanent residence status but “since I want to become 100% Japanese and live in Sasama forever”, she applied for citizenship. When she communicated this to her mother back in the US, there was a long silence on the line before her mother said “if that is your dream then I support it”. Shelley is now waiting hoping that permission will be given soon.
Reporter’s afterward: I also live alone, but in a crowded Tokyo neighbourhood with no connection to my neighbours, and so have an absolutely opposite kind of lifestyle. I can’t imagine living alone in a house and village where I have no history or connections. But Shelley has happily blended into this village where the traditional ways still exist and although her lifestyle has its good and bad points, I’ve come to envy it. I think it is important to live in a way that is true to your values and follow your life's road without compromise.
...There are also people in Sasama who say it is their destiny to preserve old houses. For example, there's Shelley who is a fisheries researcher specializing in sharks. Her interest in Japan dates back to when she was a 21-year-old American observer on a Japanese fishing vessel. She first visited Japan in 1992 and was completely captivated. In 2003 she moved to Japan on a government post-doctoral fellowship program. It was a dream come true to be working for the international fisheries research institute in Shimizu. Then through her hobby of cycling she visited the foothills around Sasama and was charmed by the villages. In 2005 she bought a farmhouse and moved in, following which in 2016 she bought the abandoned mansion of the locally prominent Okamura family. After four years of repairs the main house was ready to be inhabited and she opened a B&B in the eastern cottage. Toward the end of the same year she opened the Firefly Teahouse in the southern cottage. Shelley has reanimated the old and renowned estate and made it into a comfortable and lively place for locals and visitors as well.
Chaya Hotaru will be closed for the day on Saturday, 3 April 2021. We will resume operations on Saturday, 10 April 2021.
If you would like to hear the two koto pieces (Sakura Bukyoku and Kamome) performed on 3 April 2021 by Itou Akiko and her student please click on the koto photos below.
sasuichi appears on asahi tv's 'tobikkiri shizuoka'