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Earth, Wind & Fire

A quest to master the shakuhachi, lead a life of self sufficiency, and a love for wood stoves leads one American to the woods of southern Nagano.

At the foot of the Central Alps lies, in Nagano Prefecture, lies the city of Komagane. This is where Paul Kastner has been importing and selling Vermont Castings wood stoves in the minus-10 degree winters for the past 15 years. With his wife Junko and two sons, Sean and Ray, they have been working hard to maintain a self-sufficient lifestyle for the future of their children and the environment they will inherit. But what brought Paul to Japan?

“I came to Japan with the hope of studying the shakuhachi (traditional Japanese flute),” explained Paul. “I had been to a concert in the States where an orchestra was accompanied by a shakuhachi, and I became immediately intrigued. After that, I began doing some research and eventually found a place where they taught shakuhachi.

“During this process, I discovered a Japanese music class at a university in Connecticut which taught koto, shamisen and shakuhachi, and I began attending the classes with friends on the weekends. The teacher at that time was Yoshikazu Iwamoto, a pupil of Katsuya Yokoyama who was the flutist at the concert where I first heard the instrument. Unfortunately, a year after I began studying under Iwamoto, he packed up and returned to Japan.”
The shakuhachi sound is reminiscent of nature and wind, and at the time a sound not familiar to America. In order to take the next step as a shakuhachi performer, Paul made the decision to follow Iwamoto to Japan. He rented a place in Harajuku and began his studies in earnest.

Paul continued, “I still clearly remember the day I first arrived. I jumped off the plane at Haneda with a single backpack. At the time Haneda was Tokyo’s main international airport, it would be another two years before Narita began international flights. A college friend in America came to pick me up at the airport and jet-lagged, I immediately found myself in the middle of Akihabara, the bustling electronics hub of Japan.

My first impression of Tokyo was simply, ‘Whoa…so this is Tokyo.’ Even in the ridiculously hot weather of July, sararimen (Japanese office workers) all wore neckties. That night we went to a jam session in Roppongi. Just buying a ticket and boarding a train was an adventure.”

However, after three years under the tutelage of Iwamoto, Paul’s teacher left for England. This provided him with the opportunity to study directly under the well-respected Yokoyama, an experience which spanned a decade.

Paul has now lived in Japan for 30 years, but apparently didn’t intend on staying this long. However, mastering the shakuhachi is a time-consuming endeavor, and Paul had come to Japan specifically to remain until he could fully grasp the sound which first moved him at that concert in America.

“Sure, there were money problems,” Paul stated. “I was teaching at an English school part-time with the hope of eventually mastering the instrument, returning to America, and eventually teaching or perhaps making the flutes. I had even thought about pushing the music into movie soundtracks. Now Hollywood is open to the shakuhachi, but at the time putting that sound into a movie was unthinkable. However, I was certain that, at some point, this sound would make it and, as you can hear in movies such as “The Last Samurai” and “Memoirs of a Geisha,” I think I was right.”

After a year and a half of immersing himself in the shakuhachi, Paul moved from Harajuku to Iida, rural city in southern Nagano where he began a life of “self sufficiency” in a small house in the middle of the mountains.

“There were two reasons for moving to Nagano,” explained Paul. “The noise of the instrument made it difficult to practice in Tokyo, and the rent was unbearable. My Harajuku apartment ran ¥54,000 per month, while the house in Iida was only ¥5,000. Shakuhachi classes weren’t cheap, and neither was the instrument itself at ¥350,000, so I ended up saving money by growing my own vegetables in the summer, and gathering firewood in the winter to warm up the bath and use for cooking. It was low-cost living.”

It was then that opportunity came knocking. Giving up his pot-belly stove, Paul purchased a wood stove from America which immediately caught the attention of friends in the area who asked him to see about getting them one, too. When one of his stoves made its way into an artists retreat at an old school, the orders quickly picked up pace.

Paul admitted, “I had no intention of getting into the stove business but, once things got serious, I couldn’t just randomly take orders. I began to study stove design and chimneys. At some point during all this, a friend wanted to start a stove shop, and we figured it would be best to make a proper company. That was when my wife, Junko, and I began Fireside.”

In 1991-1992, they made the move to their current location in Komagane, and the business they started in 1987 is now celebrating its 20th year and boasts 20 employees.

“As part of this self-sufficient lifestyle, I began to enjoy collecting firewood and trimming branches. Because I wasn’t much of a serious English teacher, I was quite happy to work in the stove business. Frankly, the money wasn’t bad, either.”

With a wood stove in the home, maybe families can revisit their relationship with the woods so many have forgotten. Perhaps this will also give people a new perspective on the environment. Personally, I’m tired of using more nuclear energy, depending on gas, and importing more oil. Considering the amount of forests in Japan, a wood stove might just be a necessity one day and, with that in mind, Paul hopes to put a Vermont Casting in every home.

Additionally, last June Paul purchased land and a 150-tsubo (495 square meters) warehouse right off the Komagane interchange where he hopes to build stoves and outdoor equipment, as well as gather together with a staff of fellow nature enthusiasts and learn about the great outdoors. The shop should be open some time in 2007.

“I want to stick to selling only high-quality, long-lasting outdoor equipment,” says Paul. “Up to this point, I’ve concentrated on selling recyclable goods. Iron stoves can be used for tens of years and then melted down to be reborn as something else. An ax is just iron and wood. A lot of outdoor wear and equipment are chock full of chemicals, but the need for light-weight, durable materials is unavoidable. However, being able to use those items to get in touch with nature and make the most out of that relationship is much more worthwhile and fun.”

Paul’s 30 years in Japan have seen him rise in the world of shakuhachi to the level just below master, and even now when the Neil Young CD starts to skip, he will pull out his instrument, close his eyes and begin to play.

Paul’s Playground

The are where Paul lives in Southern Nagano has tons of good hiking trails and a ropeway which will take you to Senjojiki at an altitude of 2,600 meters, making it an easy trip to the Komagatake peak at 2,956 meters. Moving south to Iida, there is good white water rafting not to be missed, and great camping and natural springs for families with children. You’ll have to ask Paul about his favorite spots, he won’t divulge everything in these pages as he doesn’t want them to get too crowded.

At a Glance: Paul Kastner

Birthplace: Massachusetts, USA
53 (30 years in Japan)
Occupation: Wood stove import & sales
Wife, two sons
Favorite Outdoor sports: Skiing, biking, sea kayaking, snorkeling, hiking
Favorite Book: Cesar’s Way, Cesar Milano
Favorite Music: Ethnic, jazz, rock, reggae
Favorite Food: Zaru-soba (cold buckwheat noodles)

Company: Fireside Company, Ltd.
Web site: www.firesidestove.com
Phone (Toll-free):
Showroom: 497-871 Akaho, Komagane, Nagano

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