Tane, part II: the slow disaster of a town in decline

We spent the night on futon at the Matsumotos’ house. It’s not much different than sleeping on a ThermaRest, except you have a comforter on top and a soba-filled pillow. Comforters around here have solid fabric on one side, and mesh on the other, I guess to encourage airflow in the humidity.

Breakfast was incredible, and upon hearing that I liked natto, we were served some of the stinky soybean concoction, mixed with mustard and green onions.

Tane was beautiful, the rice fields soft after the hard corners of Tokyo.

Clear sky!
Ira had an ulterior motive in bringing us to rural Shiga: to show us a small town experiencing the slow disaster of decline. Tane is a collection of about 28 families for 700 people total living in small neighborhoods. An aging population was leaving houses abandoned while the schools’ enrollment dwindled to less than 80. They take buses to regional high schools. What do you do with empty houses? How to you contend with a shrinking group of youngsters in a town where everyone moves away after high school?

Tane had built a community center, so approximately 17 or so MIT alumni and interns convened there for a series of talks by village committee members in the morning, explaining the issues the town faces. They’d built a center for seniors and were trying to recover the abandoned houses to use for retreats, or for senior centers.

Within the last few years, an upset mother killed two of her children’s classmates in the town. In response, seniors began walking children to school; the elderly looking after the young. But now, the young need to take care of the old. An outreach program in the schools taught students about how to care for the elderly who have Alzheimer’s. Even so, the town needs more than community programs: people need to move there and add to the community, least the town completely disappear.

Is it such a bad thing that the population of Japan is shrinking because of a low birthrate? Perhaps the cities will get less crowded, the resources will be less strained… but the rural areas will be affected more severely by an older population than the metropolitan ones. Towns will just evaporate. Who will harvest rice?

The problems Tane faces aren’t readily apparent from a quick glance around the area. There’s a cartoon map of the town, just like every other place in Japan, greeting visitors.

Tane map
A pond full of lotus blossoms has a spot where you can rent kayaks. A hut with descriptions of the avian visitors and binoculars is set up for viewing of birdlife.

Kayak rental
双眼鏡, sōgankyō
We then set off for a tour of the abandoned houses. Some of them were being lived in by Ira and a Fulbright scholar; others were being cleaned out by architecture students from Keio University. Participants in an architecture workshop being held by MIT were staying in these houses as well. Amid the dust and old floorboards, we found giant gourds, a praying mantis, and a machine for making rope.

Created with flickr slideshow.
Amid the abandoned houses, the temples and trees made it look like this town was anything but falling into neglect.

The tour concluded with heading to a small temple adjacent to a pond. The abandoned house next door is selling for less than a semester’s worth of tuition at MIT if you’re interested…

Temple in the woods
Yuka sits
I couldn’t get enough of the rice fields. Such green!

Fields and forests
The architecture students from MIT and Keio then presented the results of their two-week-long workshop, including designs for community centers in the norther region of Japan that was hit hardest by the tsunami of March 11. I wandered out around sunset to admire the falling light.

Sunset fields
Late afternoon rice
Stripped mountain
Mountains and house
We then answered the most important question of the day: how many architecture students and MIT alums does it take to arrange tables for dinner of fish and sticky rice?

How many architects does it take to set the tables?
Still, the bigger question stands. What can you do for an aging population in a town where growing rice is the main source of income? Promote tourism, bed and breakfasts, sales of decorated squash, or just encourage younger couples from the cities to move there and grow families?

More photos here.

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