Yeah? I hate Auckland," I say to the Aucklander. His Japanese girlfriend eventually has to remove him from the bar’s rooftop patio lest he instigate another punch-up. I can’t believe my words would rile him so, especially here, in one of the more laidback places I’ve ever been to. Most people I know in New Zealand hate Auckland too, that big grey blob hemmed in by paradise. To start a fight with someone you’ve just met, over a comment that most of your countrymen would agree with, is something you’d expect in a place such as, well, Auckland.

Zen-ith: (from top) Japan’s highest peak Mount Fuji; lounging on Isshiki Beach; and the Oasis Beach Bar in Hayama. Photographs by Japan National Tourism Organization, Dave Besseling and Paul Murray.

But this is Hayama, Japan, only an hour and a half from central Tokyo, where surfers can wander out of the waves and have a massage in one of the summer bamboo huts on Isshiki Beach; where some restaurants close shop after selling their day’s food to minimize waste; where, in a particular yakitori bar, the proprietor tells you, as he turns the chicken skewers over the brazier, that aside from being an ordained Buddhist monk, he is also the singer in a reggae band. At one end of the counter, a bunch of incense sticks double up as a small shrine to a garlanded photo of the Dalai Lama. At the other end, the same treatment is reserved for Bob Marley.

In the last several years, Hayama has become a hippie haven for frenetic Tokyoites. I may have been out of line, but this Kiwi fellow was out of character. After he’s been ushered away, I run into an old acquaintance, Yuka Matsuda. The DJ/surfer/singer/naturalist oozes the Hayama creed of environmentalism and slow living. She’s just finished a solo set with her ukulele, the lapping ocean giving quiet applause. Things go well, I think—she doesn’t threaten to punch me.

Graphic: Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint

I do feel like punching myself later, however, when I can’t find my host’s house among Hayama’s cracked paths and forested trails. Thankfully, one thing that this green-loving city shares with the rest of Japan is the koban, the police box. After a few minutes, I spot the flashing red light, something I used to see as very “big brother". But it’s 2am, and I’ve no idea how to find my way back to my futon. A big brother is just what I need.

I slide the door open and there’s no one inside, just a desk with a phone on it and some police sketches of local nasties on the wall. I figure this would probably be a safe place to crash, and then—a revelation: I can use that phone to call up my sleeping friends and tell them I’m lost.

I pick up the receiver and a polite, formal voice responds: “Moshi moshi?"

“Uh…Ohayo Gozaimasu," I yammer, “uhhh…watashi wa koban ni…uhhh…"

“Good morning. English? You’re in a koban and you would like me to call your friend’s mobile?"

Hai. Onegai shimasu …uhh….kanojo no bango de…uhh…"

“You can tell me in English, sir."

“Oh? Really? Great."

Five minutes later, the phone rings.

“Your friend will be there to get you in 10 minutes."

“Domo arigato."

Some people open a window in the morning. Phil Cashman slides open the south-facing wall of his house. The smell of his garden meanders into the vast, raisedtatami space. There’s something very appropriate about being in a traditional Japanese house in a place such as Hayama.

Phil shows me a book to distract me from the ceiling joists, which—also in traditional Japanese style—have been elaborately joined without any nails. He has taken the nature-loving spirit of Hayama to the extreme. Opening Bill Mollison’s Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual, he says, “This is the book that changed everything."

Just about everything in and around the Cashman house adheres to Mollison’s principles of sustainable living. The kitchen sink has three downward stepping basins for natural water filtration. There is a huge clay furnace to heat the open space with “radiant heat". Phil’s latest experiment has been insulating the back wall of his house with mud-covered, used tatami mats. As much as Yuka propagates the Hayama ideal through art and activism, Phil has taken the lifestyle to the pragmatic extreme.

I met Phil through a mutual friend Paul, who was, at the time of writing, with Mollison in Melbourne, taking the two-week crash course in permaculture that’s apparently enough for someone to begin living much more sustainably, producing very little waste. Paul, also a hippie at heart from Hayama, now runs a guest house on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, far, far from Auckland.

Phil takes me through the open wall and into the garden, to show me how he grows much of his food. You don’t even need soil to have such a lush patch of edible veggies outside your sliding front shoji door. “I drill holes into hay bales," he says. “It involves piling up a fair load of straw, about 80cm thick, then making little pockets into the top and filling them with a couple of scoops of compost. Pop the seedlings into these lenses, and you’re off!"

In running his hacienda off the grid, Phil has to deal with a lot of shit, but he doesn’t have to go far. “This garden is mostly all fertilized by humans, from our composting toilet," he says. “Glad to help out," I reply.

Hayama’s denizens, so conscious of living in harmony with their surroundings, know how to relax too. Stilted out back is a former sake-fermenting vat, about 70 years old, now used as the bathhouse. A step down on to the Japanese cypress boards and into the tub. I sink in to the ofuro and my eyes spill out over the valley. The sea sparkles in the distance. My ears suck in the silence between birdcalls. I weigh down the ladle with a whoosh and pour the steaming water over my head, watching the beads slide down my arms and listening to them rejoin the surface of the pool. It’s all very Zen—which is all very appropriate on this verdant mountainside in Japan.

No one can see me up here, but a sense of unease creeps up just after I’ve begun to relax, when I look for cameras filming an ad for some kind of body wash. But my urban paranoia is soon carried away on a waft of vapour from the tub and out to sea, my thoughts as diaphanous as the clouds streaming towards Mount Fuji.

As easily as Tokyo’s intensity is lost here, the scene reminds me of Paul’s outdoor bathtub in New Zealand—another set of islands in another hemisphere, Auckland another metropolis to be chased away by the ocean winds.

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