The man’s name is Akinori Kimura. The first time I met him was at the end of 2006, some twenty years after the time he’d spent days staring at inchworms under his fruitless apple trees.
‘Miracle apples’ was what people called them. Miraculous or not, getting hold of them was certainly difficult. With a third of the apple juice made from his apples being bought by a certain politician, and a French restaurant in Tokyo serving an exquisite soup made with his apples, his order books were full for one year ahead. I’d heard endless such rumours. He has spent the best part of thirty years growing apples without using pesticides. I was sure he’d be the cranky type, but when I called him from Tokyo to ask for an interview, he sounded charming.
Kimura’s home is in Iwaki-chō, about thirty minutes by car from the Japan Railway’s Hirosaki station in Aomori Prefecture. It used to be an independent town known as Iwaki-chō in Nakatsugaru District, but in February that year it had become part of Hirosaki City following municipal reorganization.
He said he would come to the station to meet me since his place was difficult to find by taxi. I arrived at the agreed time but there was no sign of Kimura. His home phone was continuously engaged and his mobile just rang and rang. I eventually got through after an hour.
“Sorry, sorry. Someone just dropped in. I’m on my way now, I’m really sorry.”
Kimura’s voice at the other end was so loud I instinctively jerked the phone from my ear.
There was no need for him to be so apologetic. I was the one who had requested the interview. On top of which there seemed to be something in the intonation in his strong Tsugaru accent that could melt the heart. I completely forgot that I’d been made to wait for an hour in the falling snow on the roundabout in front of Hirosaki station.
Kimura said he’d come and meet me straight away but that I’d still have to wait twenty minutes or more. I eventually decided to get a taxi to his house.
Leaving the centre of town along a road which runs beside the moat of Hirosaki Castle, famous for its cherry blossom, and crossing a bridge over the Hirosaki River, a breathtakingly beautiful, majestic mountain dominated the horizon. Mount Iwaki.
As its nickname, Tsugaru Fuji, suggests, the shape resembles Mount Fuji. A so-called ‘composite volcano’ formed by volcanic activity, it may well be a sibling, but Mount Iwaki is Mount Fuji’s younger sister rather than a younger brother. The graceful flanks of the mountain, which descend to the plains in a gentle arc, are frequently compared to the formal, twelve-layered kimonos worn by princesses in the Heian Period (794-1185). The mountain has special significance for those who live in the Tsugaru Plain area, and has been an object of worship since the earliest times. Iwaki-chō, the town where Kimura’s home is located, lies at the foot of the mountain.
When their town was merged with Hirosaki City, nothing changed in the way folk in Iwaki-cho made their living from agriculture based mainly on growing apples and rice. Typical Tohoku scenery studded with farming villages surrounds Iwaki-cho in every direction.
He said it was difficult to find his house, so Kimura came out in the snow to meet me at a nearby petrol station. He seemed to be in his late fifties, with a sprinkling of white in his short hair. Of medium build, he was typical of his generation, with a lean, tough frame characteristic of those who spend much of their life doing manual labour. This might give the impression that he was the reticent, impassive type. His character, however, was further from your typical Japanese than you could possibly imagine. Although it was our first meeting, he greeted me with an open, beaming face. From the moment I met him, he gave me the feeling he was an old friend I’d known for many years. His cheerfulness was infectious. Kimura radiated good-humour.
Being taken through the living-room-cum-work space in Kimura’s house, I realized why phone calls didn’t get through. Faxes were coming through non-stop. Kimura’s apples weren’t distributed through the usual channels. He sent them directly by courier to customers who ordered by postcard or fax. From grower to consumer, direct from the farm.
Being so famous, production had for many years been unable to satisfy the demand. Faxed orders didn’t stop the entire time I spent interviewing him that day.
I’d heard stories of how, as a result of their struggles with organic apple growing and other difficulties, the Kimura household had endured a life of poverty for many years. But this had been more than a decade earlier. He was now famous enough to be featured in newspapers and on television, and had devotees throughout the country. He was in fact travelling overseas, as well as around the country, to teach agriculture. On top of which, sales of the apples he produced were soaring. He should have been making money, but looking around the room there was no evidence of this whatsoever.
Akinori Kimura had absolutely no interest in luxuries. His was the life of a simple farmer. It looked as though he hadn’t changed the tatami mats or fusuma sliding doors for years. He would look after every stray cat in the neighbourhood, with the result that their house was full of them. He probably didn’t bother changing the fusuma or renewing the tatami because, even if he had, they would have been promptly savaged by cat claws. An ancient computer used for managing clients stood on a low table. He still used an MS-DOS machine. Apple orders lay piled next to the computer. It appeared that the volume of faxed messages of encouragement and requests for advice addressed to Kimura had escalated dramatically in the recent past, along with the apple orders.
‘Phone calls and faxes from all sorts of people started after I appeared on TV.
Loads from young people, and others from folk in various lines of work – head priests of temples, doctors. Then, the other day, there were these three scary guys who turned up at the house in a big foreign motor. It was really creepy. I had no idea what they were up to …’
Kimura mentioned the name of a big city in Aomori.
‘They said they’d come all the way just to meet me. When I asked them what they wanted, they handed me a mobile phone and said “Could you have a word?” The person on the other end sounded like their boss, and I was just wondering what we would talk about when he said “Watching the television brought tears to my eyes”. It was the first time he’d shed a tear in ages. He said he’d sent these three over to say this. “You and me should have a drink some time” he said.’
Kimura’s life had been introduced on the NHK program ‘Professional Shigoto no Ryūgi’ at the beginning of December that year.
‘You know, all sorts of people told me they treasured every word I said. What had I said? Silly me couldn’t remember all that clearly!’
He gave a broad, toothless laugh.
Kimura was still in his fifties, but had already lost most of his teeth. The few remaining teeth were whittled down and now looked like brown apple cores. It seemed that chewing would be difficult. He could well have done with dental treatment or false teeth, but he hadn’t bothered.
‘I decided to swap my teeth for apple leaves’ , he said, laughing loudly at his droll joke. He hadn’t paid any attention to looking after them whatsoever.
I’d never heard such an engaging laugh. I only wish I could describe it. ‘A a a a a a.’ Lacking an ‘h’ sound, the laugh was a succession of ‘a’ vowels, vaguely reminiscent of the way Eijiro Higashino laughed when he played Mito Komon. Remove the pomposity from Mitsukuni’s laugh, add fifty percent more warmth, and you’d end up with Kimura’s laugh.
For a year or so after that snowy day, I would use any free time I had to visit Hirosaki. My wanting to visit was as much about hearing his laugh as much as anything. It was not only full of joy; there was a profound strength in his laughter. The stories he told, though, were not just amusing ones …
‘I’d a call from a young person considering suicide you know. He was a post-graduate. His parents had spent a lot of money on his fees and other things. He was at his wits end. Couldn’t find work, couldn’t go home. He was thinking about dying, but then changed his mind after seeing that TV program, and his will to live eventually returned.’
It seems that the young man had concluded that, compared to the great suffering and the setbacks Kimura had experienced, his own problems were insignificant. When I asked him what he said at times like that, Kimura became thoughtful.
‘… Well, I think I just told him it was great he’d changed his mind. Then I told him it was alright to be crazy. You’d understand if you tried, but being crazy is not so simple. If it’s a question of dying, well it would be worth trying going crazy once first. That’s the point. Having been there myself, there was one thing I’d learned; if something drives you mad, sooner or later there will be an answer.’
If something drives you crazy, there will be an answer.
What Kimura said, and the way, he lived amounted to one and the same.
The Japanese word for tooth and leaf is the same, ‘ha’. The characters are different, but have the same pronunciation.