Zenkichi Kikuchi was born and raised in this farmhouse in this small town called Kurodasuke, a short distance outside the larger town of Mizusawa. He was the eldest son of six children - Zenkichi, Nisaburo, Sannosuke, Matsu, Take, and Katsuhiro. When Zenkichi left for the states in 1900, he was probably expected to only stay for several years, make money, and return to Japan. His duty as the eldest son was to the household, as most eldest sons in Japan stay on the family estate to continue the lineage. When Zenkichi didn’t return after several years, his two younger brothers, Nisaburo and Sannosuke, figured that because Zenkichi was such a nice guy, he was unable to save money in America. Perhaps he was being taken advantage of. The brothers decided that they would go to America to help Zenkichi. None would return to resume life in Japan.
Zenkichi’s younger twin sisters, Matsu and Take married, one settling in the Iwate area and one settling on the northern island of Hokkaido. This left the youngest son, Katsuhiro, to stay at home and continue the family lineage. Katsuhiro and his wife, Hanayo, raised 9 children in the farmhouse. Migaku Kikuchi, one of Katsuhiro’s grandchildren, is currently living in the farmhouse with his mother, Takayo, and is the sixth generation Kikuchi to live in the farmhouse. Our family has had connections to Migaku and his mother since my parents first visit to Iwate in the early 1970’s. It was my first visit to the farmhouse in over 15 years.
Kurodasuke is a small village of 100 or so inhabitants nestled in a small valley about 10 minutes from Mizusawa. A small river, which was much bigger in Zenkichi’s day, winds through the valley, and rice fields cover much of the area. The farmhouse, which was originally a traditional thatched roof, dirt floor abode, was renovated around 1980 with a modern roof and flooring. Much more than my previous trips to Kurodasuke, I was struck by the craftsmanship of the structure. It’s heavy and sturdy, with a wonderful open feeling inside, and beautiful detail in the woodworking.
Migaku, a stoic, quiet, and genuinely friendly man of 60 is a trained electrician, and is currently working at a hotel/hot spring resort near Mizusawa. He works a night shift, arriving at work at 5PM, working until midnight, resting from midnight until 4:30AM and working until 8AM. Migaku speaks a heavy northern dialect, and I don’t know what he’s talking about much of the time. After his night shift, we sat in a discount shop parking lot as he enjoyed a canned coffee and a cigarette. “kohee to tobako wa saikou!” - rough translation: “coffee and cigarettes are the shit!”
In Migaku's free time he farms. He has one rice field and he grows fresh wasabi, the latter of which is quite unusual, as it’s not an easy plant to grow, and the roots take up to 2 years to mature to be ready to harvest. The flavor of fresh wasabi is incomparable to the tubed wasabi most are accustomed. It is light and delicate with nuanced flavor, while simultaneously offering an unbelievable kick. According to Migaku, the winter harvest is the spiciest.
On a hillside close to the farmhouse, above a small shrine, is the family haka, or gravesite. Many generations of Kikuchi are buried here. We bring flowers to the graves and light incense and pray.
The small shrine in Kurodasuke is perhaps the oldest shrine in the area. All six generations of Kikuchi’s living in the farmhouse surely played around the shrine grounds, hid behind ancient trees, heard the ringing of the bell, and prayed. In Zenkichi’s memoir he writes of going to the shrine as a child and chanting with the monks.