Nanmoku is the fastest-aging village in Japan

Nanmoku is the fastest-aging village in Japan
Local volunteers fold cloth garments at Sawayaka Home, a special elderly nursing home, in the Ohinata district of Nanmoku, Gunma Prefecture, on April 10.

JAPAN - Nanmoku, a village in Gunma Prefecture has only one special nursing centre, Sawayaka Home in the Ohinata district. The facility houses about 60 residents, with an average age around 90. Around 50 local volunteers help out at the centre.

I visited Nanmoku on April 10 and was greeted by a gentle spring air that made the remarkable snowstorms of February feel like a barely remembered dream.

On Feb. 15 and 16, the nursing centre suffered a blackout and lost its water supply. At the time, protecting the village's residents from the freezing weather was the most important immediate concern. Sawayaka Home did not have any kerosene heaters due to their fire prevention policies, so the staff sought to borrow heaters from the village government office-located about one kilometer up the road from the nursing centre. But the snow-packed roads meant they couldn't use cars.

The morning of Feb. 16 was exceedingly cold, so Sawayaka Home Director Koji Ishii, 53, consulted with a nearby resident, Satoru Ishii, 44. Satoru, the president of a construction company, used a wheelbarrow to pick up a heater at the government office and deliver it to the centre.

However, one heater was not enough to warm the large facility. Satoru started looking for solutions and made a phone call to flower shop manager Kazuyoshi Iwai. The 49-year-old Iwai suggested, "The central community centre has three [heaters]."

Iwai tried to drive to the community centre with Satoru, but more than one meter of snow barred their way. The two made their way to the community centre on foot using a ladder from Iwai's car to create solid footholds and brought the three heaters back to Sawayaka Home. A neighbour offered another heater, bringing the total of heaters at the centre to five before noon.

Recalling the support the community gave, Ishii said, "They saved the lives of our residents."

Villagers in Nanmoku have maintained a tradition of mutual assistance to survive in the remote rural community.

When February storms brought extraordinary snowfalls to the village, local residents who act as voluntary "assistants for the elders" and the chiefs of each community helped the village's elderly by visiting them to check on their well-being and shoveling snow from around their houses.

Nanmoku villagers also possess a spirit of self-reliance to ensure their own safety.

The February storms cut off the Kumakura district, located eight kilometers west of the village office, for a week, behind roads blocked by snow 1½ meters deep.

On April 12, I visited Tatsuharu Ichikawa, a 76-year-old man living in the Kumakura district. In his home, I saw a steaming kettle atop a wood stove. Firewood was an important energy resource for Ichikawa and his wife, Sukiko, when the heavy snow left them without electricity.

The couple keep plenty of food stocked in their pantry as well. Sukiko, 78, said, "We have enough vegetables to feed ourselves for one year."

In Nanmoku, there are only a few stores selling fresh food, which has led many local residents to think of vegetables not as something to buy, but as something to grow at home.

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