A photograph, 10cm square with rounded corners. An interior scene. In the dim background, an oval coffee table in front of a blue floral loveseat, both adjacent to a bookcase and a wooden cradle.
The painted edging on the table and the gold embossed text on the spines of the encyclopedias gleam in the shine of the flash cube fired from the top of a Kodak Instamatic.
A man sits on the floor wearing summer pajamas. Between his legs sits an infant, its arms and legs so chubby with baby fat that it has creases mid-forearm. A toy bear sits in front of both of them, and a black-haired dog reclines behind.
Long after the baby has grown into a man, he sits on a bench in a park in Japan, ten thousand kilometers and thirty-nine years from Lubbock. A warm summer evening. He is thinking about life and the shape it takes, his own path, and where to go next.
At about eight thirty, another man arrives at the park on a bicycle with his daughter, age three. They play together on the nearby play structure. He catches her, bubbling with laughter, at the bottom of the slide. She chases him around the fiberglass hippopotamus, then hides in its cavernous mouth, failing completely to stifle her laughter.
It is late for her, and so they do not stay for long, but as long as they are there, they are fully saturated with joy and sprinkled liberally with sincere affection. One would be hard pressed to find a better example of a father and child who clearly love each other.
Having watched all this, the man on the bench removes the small square photograph from inside the back cover of his journal and looks at it somberly. In it, he is the child, but more than anything, he wants to have a photo like this of his own, in which he is the father.
It feels so far away, though. Almost impossible with his circumstances. She’s getting older, too. They don’t have all the time in the world. All of it makes him feel hollow and sad.
At very least, though, he knows that if ever there was a good reason to work hard, improve his employment, and get his life in order, this is it. Do it for the sake of the family he longs to have.
The main home for this blogging project is over at Somewhere in Japan, where I hope to expand my activities into a greater variety of creative forms this year and for years to come. I want to do more, and to really make that happen, I can't do it alone.
To that end, I have started a Patreon where people can support this project. There is only one tier and it's cheap, at just $3 a month. It's enough, though, that if I can get a dozen or so people to support the project, it'll make a big difference. Check it out at patreon.com/somewhereinjp
All I knew about her before we met was what the language-exchange service had told me: office worker, female, age 30-39, wants to learn English conversation, wants to teach Japanese language and culture. Accompanying message: “I have an interest in your profile. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.”
I didn’t know what to expect or who to look for in front of the café where we’d agreed to meet. When an attractive, well-dressed woman asked if I was David, it caught me off-guard.
She says I was very serious and businesslike that day. Which makes sense, as we were meeting for language purposes, and I was used to teaching a lot of private lessons back then.
I was single, but really didn’t want to be, and as we were leaving a while later, a thought bubbled up from my subconscious. Wouldn’t it be something if I wound up with her? I kept this to myself, of course. She was there to practice English, not to be hit on.
All the same, about a year later, I asked her to meet me at the park one Saturday evening. And there in the park, on that warm summer evening, under the indigo sky and lamplight, I gave her a ring and promised to love her forever.
That was June tenth, 2017. Four years ago today.
We got along well from the start and soon began hanging out. After about six months of meeting and going out as friends, it naturally evolved into dating. She was funny and smart, kind and interesting. She was also very, very cute. I was smitten.
A few months after that, I had a realization that hit me like a meteor. It was suddenly the undeniable truth, the most obvious thing that could possibly be: it was her.
Her as in her, the person I wanted to be with for the rest of my life. Her, the person I wanted to have a family with. Her, the woman who finally made sense of that saying that always sounded suspect to me before that. When you know, it turns out that you really do know, and I tell you what—I knew.
I knew it then and I still know it, only now it’s backed up by the added experience of year upon year of being crazy about her. I remain smitten.
I love the way she stretches, catlike, in the morning. I love the way she is sometimes overcome with unrestrained, guileless excitement, like the first time we went away together, when she ran to the water’s edge in Kamakura, giggling all the way.
I love the fact that she reads more than anyone else I’ve ever known, and that she always has the maximum possible number of books reserved at the library.
I love that she’s sexy, but even more that she’s silly. I love her for her kindness, patience, and good humor. I love her for the person she is.
I don’t really know why she loves me, but I am grateful that she does. My love for her is such that it enables me to work harder and hold myself to a higher standard than I could in her absence.
That I get to spend the rest of my life with her, with my favorite person in the world, makes me feel incredibly lucky.
In one hand, the figure holds a staff, used to force open the gates of hell in the course of liberating souls. The standard iconography usually has him holding a light-bearing jewel in the other hand, but here he holds an infant instead. Two more stand at his feet, tugging at his robes.
Years ago, on a gloomy, wet Saturday in Tokyo, I visited a shrine to him on the grounds of a temple.3 A life-size statue, described above, stood on a plinth, flanked by thirty-four smaller Jizo statues. In front of them all were laid a number toys that sagged with extra weight from the rain. They had been left as offerings, and many appeared to have been there for quite some time.
There was no way to know who had left them or why. No way to know if the offerings had been made for children who had been saved, or lost, or perhaps hoped for by would-be parents.
It’s possible that some small portion of them were offered in thanks of something good, but one knows at heart that most would have been left in solemn circumstances, at best, and at least some of the toys moldering under the low clouds that day were relics of loss, offerings of the bereaved.
In Buddhism, a bodhisattva is one who has achieved enlightenment, but has also vowed to save all beings before becoming a Buddha ↩︎
Occasionally, I board the Yamanote Line in Tokyo, only to get off again at the same station a while later. I do this for my own enjoyment. This line runs in a loop and has a ridership of three or four million passengers per day. So many people, but I don’t think many are there just because they feel like it.
It is not especially fun, as trains go. It’s often extremely crowded, and it stops every minute or two. So why would I choose not only to board the train when I don’t really need to, but also remain in my seat for at least one full trip around the loop?
To see what happens, for one thing. What happens within the train and every time the doors open, yes, but also what happens to my perceptions of the train itself.
The longer you stay on the train, the more it feels like a place unto itself, rather than a means of conveyance between stations. After a while, a shift occurs. Station by station, the liminality mostly drains out of it.
For nearly everyone on the train, it’s just a long metal tube you ride in until getting to the desired location. That’s it. But for the deliberate rider, the means of transportation becomes the destination. A curious destination, too, in that its location is always changing.
One trip around the Yamanote Line takes about sixty-four minutes. The most I’ve done in one go is three complete loops.
Something about the experience changes once the stations begin repeating. Until then, it’s mostly like any other hour-long ride on a local train. When you see the same places for the second time, or especially the third, a curious feeling arises.
Just as repeating words enough times reduces them to strings of strange sounds that no longer feel closely associated with any particular meaning, riding a train in a loop eventually leads to a disassociation of the experience from our original perceptions and assumptions.
And once it is at least partially disassociated in that way, the experience is free to take on extra dimensions and nuances.
So after thirty or sixty or ninety stations, all while sitting in the same seat and seeing the same places roll by repeatedly, everything—the train, the stations, and even you—emerges looking and feeling at least a little different.
Like today’s featured image? A color version is available in my print shop, along with a variety of other images. And right now, you can get 30% off your order with code “get30”
It’s difficult to know which of these buildings are truly vacant and which simply look the part. All of them once contained some kind of business, as well as the attached housing of the shop owners. Japan is full of shuttered shops like these.
In many cases, the people running these businesses reached retirement age without any heirs, or at least without any who wanted to take over the business. And so the businesses didn’t fail, but nor did they continue. The shutters came down, and the customers stopped coming, but life continued inside.
Whether vacant or occupied, eventually these places wind up looking the same. Rusted steel frames hang above doors, festooned with the tatters of former awnings. Signage is largely peeled and corroded into near-illegibility, if it’s even still there. Often, the signs have disappeared, and all that’s left to show they were ever there is an empty frame with broken lightbulbs or a blank rectangle on a wall, outlined by faded paint or a halo of grime.
The mail slot might also be clogged with a thick mass of old letters and bills, fused together like sedimentary stone after years of exposure to rain.
If there are plants in front, and there often are, these can give good clues regarding human presence. Do they appear cared for, even a little? Or are there just a few stragglers remaining? The hardy, long-term survivors resilient enough to persist untended in plastic pots year after year.
Near my home stands building occupied by four shuttered businesses. On either end, faded signs still hang. One shop had been a Chinese restaurant and the other a soba place. These both appear not to have had a living human in them for at least a decade. The other two still have people in them, though you have to pay attention to find evidence of this.
At one, the shutters come up partially now and then, just high enough for a stooped woman to emerge and water her plants or pull her cart to the nearby supermarket. In the front room of the now-defunct shop sits a bicycle of indeterminate color, the tires of which are flat and crumbling, flaking little bits from the sidewalls onto the floor.
At the other shop, the plants are mostly dead, and the shutters never seem to move. Once in a while, though, a dim lamplight adds a feeble glow to an upstairs window. This is the only clue that anyone is inside.
Recently, a thin man with thick white hair emerged from another apparently empty building nearby, just as I was passing. He said hello, and I tried not to look too astonished by his presence. After more than three years in my neighborhood, I had never once seen a single sign of life there, and certainly hadn’t expected him to appear.
Since then, I have felt far less confident about which local buildings are actually empty. Those that are vacant interest me, but not as much as those in which people still pass their days, quietly and all but invisibly. And in those cases, it’s the unseen lives I find most interesting of all.
Cumulonimbus clouds, gaining height in the haze-attenuated blue of the late-summer sky, growing taller as the afternoon passes. Trees cast stark shadows on the dusty ground while wearing the dark green hues of August. Later, it will rain, but for now the sun inundates everything, just as the aggregate calls of hundreds of cicadas saturate the air.
This is the peak of the season, a crescendo of heat, humidity, and natural noise, a fever pitch of seasonal intensity preceding the prolonged transition into autumn’s gentler tones.
This period lasts for but a handful of weeks. And despite the oppressive weather, it has a particular appeal, an atmosphere of sufficient aesthetic weight to make it a preponderant cultural trope.
Take, for example, the way it is commonly used to set the summer scenes in animation. The skies and the clouds, the sun-drenched trees and the deep shade beneath them—all the elements are there. Even the sounds of specific species of cicada are used to evoke particular moods.
Hyalessa maculaticollis, min-min zemi in Japanese, with its name containing the onomatopoeia of its own call, makes a sound easily associated with the intensity of midday heat. Tanna japonensis, on the other hand, called higurashi, calls mostly in the evening, its melancholy song echoing the ephemerality of both the season and of its own life.
It is a season for the seaside and the mountain stream. A season for eating ice pops while walking over the blistering asphalt of country roads fringed with green foxtail, the green of which has begun to fade to brown.
It is a season in which all is briefly held in suspension, the conditions and temporalities informing the impermanence of everything, imploring us to appreciate what we have while it’s still with us.
It was just before Christmas and my friend and I were hanging out in Ikebukuro, an area on the north side of Tokyo. We had been wandering around aimlessly and were outside a convenience store when a man approached us.
He was an older man, thin and a little shorter than me. He had white hair and a scruffy, nicotine-stained beard. Given that we were in an entertainment district, I half expected him to be promoting a hostess bar or pink salon, but it quickly became clear that he just wanted to talk. He asked many questions and seemed sincerely interested in us.
After just a few minutes of conversation, he suddenly excused himself and went into the convenience store, emerging a little later with a piece of fried chicken and a beer for each of us. After a few more minutes, he said goodnight and went on his way.
The entire experience was quite brief, and though it was certainly a pleasant encounter, it was also somewhat bewildering. Who was he? Why had he chosen us to receive his kindness?
It’s not the only time something like that has happened to me. At least a dozen times in the last six years, strangers have appeared out of nowhere to strike up a friendly conversation. Occasionally, they’ve also offered food or drinks.
Tokyo can feel like a very cold and impersonal place. In fact, it’s easily the loneliest place I’ve ever lived. But there are kind people around, no matter where you go, and sometimes they emerge from the woodwork to buy you a snack and give you a reason to smile.
There is a derelict house in my old neighborhood that surfaces in my dreams now and then. In reality, it is in Tokyo, boarded up and sitting behind a yard overgrown with tall grass. It is surrounded by new houses and young families.
When it appears in my dreams, however, it is instead in the countryside, by the sea. It is not sealed with sheets of plywood, nor is it falling apart. The windows and doors are thrown open for the air to flow through them. It is in beautiful condition and filled with activity.
The grasses of the overgrown yard remain the same, however. Soft and coming up to mid-thigh when walking through them, soughing gently in the late afternoon breeze. And instead of ending at the street, they stretch off towards the ocean, swaying as waves break below the bluff.
Here, in the dreamscape, is where this vision begins mixing with elements from other memories. The grasses in that lot in Nerima transition into the grasses I stood in as a child at eight years old while travelling in Nova Scotia with my family. In this way, my mind derives the Pacific from the Atlantic while moving a bit of Canadian coastline to Ibaraki, and all to give an impossible new life to an old house that deserved better.
I can’t help but to wish it were real, and also to wish it were mine.
Rainy season has come early this year, and so has my annual effort to catch up on my undeveloped film. I’m not sure how many rolls there are, but I’d guess about fifty rolls. This isn’t too bad, at least compared to ten years ago when it was close to two hundred, but still far more than it should be.
Most of it is recent, shot within the last year, but mixed in are a handful of stragglers from much longer ago. Sometimes these rolls are just misplaced for a while, and sometimes I put them off again and again because they require special development that I just don’t feel like dealing with. Others seem to have come through some kind of time warp.
When hanging film to dry last Sunday, I was surprised to notice pictures of an ex-girlfriend on one roll. This was the ex who once inspired panic attacks whenever I saw someone at a distance who even resembled her even a little. The ex who I left when I moved to Japan by myself to start over.
After leaving her, I deleted or destroyed almost every photograph of her I had. There aren’t many left.
Part of me wanted to throw the whole strip of film in the trash and forget I ever saw it. And I might still excise those particular frames, but jettisoning the whole thing seemed unfair to the other photographs. I realized, too, that on every other roll of film I had hung to dry, there were snapshots of my partner, Mayumi, and that made me feel better.
Had I not spent those years with my ex, I wouldn’t have arrived in Japan when I did. Had I arrived at a different time, I probably wouldn’t have met my partner. Thankfully, I did.
The joy I have with Mayumi firmly outweighs the suffering of past relationships. I adore her.
I have zero interest in having my ex, or her image, in any part of my life. Still, I should be grateful that the experience of being with her, painful though it was, led me to where I am, and who I’m with, today.
There are two kittens in the bushes. Both are striped, though the smaller one is half-covered with splotches of white fur, as if it had been interrupted partway through repainting. They’re skeptical but not unfriendly, and warm to you the moment food is offered.
Just beyond the shrubs runs a long fence. On the other side of the fence is the bay.
Fishing rods hang out over the water, some of them attended and some of them not. There are few women, but mostly men, and most everyone is over sixty. It’s clear that, for most of them, fishing is only a pretext to come here and enjoy this warm summer evening.
There is not much to do besides watch the water and make small talk. The nearest people are a man and a woman, seemingly old friends. Sitting on upturned buckets, they are drinking 9% canned cocktails and smoking cheap cigarettes.
The man breaks off a bit of his rice ball and tosses it towards the bush. The kittens emerge and briefly vie for it before the larger one runs off with the food in his mouth.
At this, the friends laugh easily, in the way one only can when doing nothing. That is, specifically doing nothing, which differs from not doing anything. The former is a deliberate act, the latter is incidental.
This is a good place to come and do nothing, with or without the cover story of fishing. It is a place to go and a place to stay, if only for a little while. Later this evening, everyone presently lingering will have gone home, and the cats will have it all to themselves.
Many people say they love Japan, but really only love a particular, highly distorted concept of it. They don’t realize it, and they don’t like it when you point it out. Often, they are also disappointed when they come here and realize that Kyoto isn’t all geishas and temples at sunset, that Tokyo isn’t a neon cyberpunk wonderland, and that anime isn’t real life.
Unless, of course, they’re so completely committed to their expectations that they just see what they want to see, anyway, and reality goes unnoticed.
A big part of the problem has to do with the most popular sorts of images people see. These are the over-saturated, cherry-picked views of Japan that dominate much of the internet. If you look around at Japan-related feeds on Facebook, Instagram, or Reddit, you’ll quickly see what I mean.
It’s very common and very human to hold idealized, romantic fantasies. We all do it, and within reason it’s fine. It’s often taken to an extreme, however. These images express a fantasy about Japan some people want to believe in, and the depiction is about as truthful as a bad made-for-TV movie that is based on a true story, but only technically, and only just barely.
What good do these fantasies do, for us or for what we love? When we prioritize fiction over fact, we don’t really love what we claim to. We only love the idea of it, and an inaccurate idea at that.
Just as the overly retouched images in fashion magazines distort perceptions about bodies and beauty, popular images of Japan distort what people think of this place and its people.
If you really love something and believe in it, then kill off your fantasies. Let the truth stand on its own. Love it as-is, for what it is. And if you think you love Japan, that’s great. Just make sure you love it for its own sake, not for what you expect it to be.
Admittedly, I have no numbers to back this up, but I would still put forth (with confidence) that Japan is the world leader in disused fountains. The local park where I spend so much time has two. And yesterday, I sat on a bench next to a fountain that the map still shows as being something with water, when in fact it has clearly been out of use for a very, very long time.
In decades past, they usually built public parks with fountains and other water features, some of them quite ambitious. Perhaps because the bubble economy burst long ago, and perhaps because public sentiment shifted away from the value of moving water in urban park settings, now they nearly all sit derelict, dry and clogged with leaves.
Rare is the fountain that still works. Common is the fountain that, rather than bubbling and shooting wet jets skyward, is instead festooned with cautionary signs warning children and others not to play on them.
But why shouldn’t they play? If they’re not going to be brought back into use, and it seems clear enough that they mostly aren’t, then why not at least convert them into something fun?
The one I sat next to yesterday, for example, was broad and flat like a fifteen-meter dinner plate with an upturned edge. Fill it with sand, perhaps, or carpet it with sod. Let local artists make a mural of it.
One way or another, why not do something, anything, to change these concrete structures littering the country from sad reminders of a lost belief in joy-focused infrastructure into something that’s at least a little fun again?
The bureaucrats would, I’m sure, trot out a variety of reasons why nothing can be done about the sad state of Japan’s public fountains. But I don’t care. I believe in public spaces, and I’d like to think that at least some of these fountains will one day be filled again, and the rest can still be somehow enjoyed.
Breeze and birdsong alike flow liquidly, languidly into the apartment through windows thrown open wide to invite the atmosphere in. In the spring and fall, they’re kept open as much as possible, closing them only when it rains heavily enough to start coming in.
In the summer, the apartment is an oven. By midday it’s usually hotter inside than out, and stays that way even after the sun has set.
In the winter, the opposite problem. Waking up on January mornings, I watch my breath form brief clouds in the air above the futon, where I consider how warm I am under the quilt and how cold it is in the room.
In the heat and in the cold, the problem has the same root: single-glazed windows and a dearth of insulation. This is common in much of Japan, especially in older buildings like ours.
There are interventions, of course. The aircon cools and warms enough to take the edge off, but the effect is fleeting, with thin walls doing little to prevent the inside air from reverting to the outside temperature in short order.
So in the summer we run the fan and cover the windows with sunshades. And in the winter, we bundle up and spend much of our time either at the kotatsu or in front of the space heater.
But in the spring and autumn? These seasons are joyfully easy, and we appreciate that nothing special must be done for comfort. In fact, the most comfortable course of all is to do nothing but let the air flow through our home unencumbered, windows open wide.
Three small children play in a public park sandbox under a cedar tree. The smallest of them is digging a hole with a stick, eschewing the nearby yellow plastic shovel. Two women sit on an adjacent bench. One of them wears a large-brimmed hat.
In an overgrown lot, thick with waist-high weeds, a large white cat observes several crows pecking at something on the ground. Its tail flicks frenetically from side to side.
Mt Fuji flashes into view, framed between apartment towers and above a shopping street.
A man wades in a river, his fishing line trailing downstream. A black Shiba dog waits on the shore, chewing intently on its paw while lying next to a folding stool and a blue backpack.
All of them disappear from view just as quickly as they appeared.
Looking out the window of a train from an elevated track, you can briefly glimpse many unfolding scenes. And the more closely you pay attention, the more you can see.
Situations in streets, schoolyards, parks, and parking lots. Domestic scenes observed through apartment windows. Views into the lives of people, animals, and empty places.
I often wish I could take pictures of these scenes, or somehow freeze what I’m seeing, so that I could observe them more closely, take in more details. Even an additional five seconds could yield so much greater depth of understanding and appreciation.
It is possible, though, that something of the experience would be lost, were these glimpses not so fleeting. It’s possible that, by seeing more, we might end up appreciating them less. They are special specifically because of their brevity.
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The netting may be loosely draped or cinched up tight. It depends on the building. The effect of the former is not unlike a veil, while the latter suggests something more like a corset. In either case, the purpose is the same: to prevent problems caused by falling debris.
With buildings still in use, exterior cladding sometimes ages poorly or gets damaged by an earthquake or a typhoon. The rest of the building is effectively fine, though, so it gets the tightly wrapped net, the borders contoured around doors and any windows necessary for emergency egress.
With a derelict house, however, the problem is just that the entire structure is falling apart, and becomes apt to shed parts of itself onto the sidewalk or street without warning, especially if the wind kicks up. And so, the coarse net is draped over them in great green swaths.
There are several such abandoned houses in my neighborhood. One stands on an overgrown, jungle-like lot with a corroded, corrugated metal fence around most of it. The siding is falling off, many of the windows are broken, the roofing is coming off in sections, and the exterior steel staircase is all but entirely rusted through.
Around the building, like a supplemental set of bones, stands a framework of steel scaffolding. Wrapped around all of it is the net.
It reminds me of a broken-legged racehorse with a tarpaulin drawn over it before the injection, or a shroud wrapped around the recently deceased. The damage is too severe and cannot, will not be healed.
I’ve decided to put my posts from Somewhere in Japan into a journal format a few times a year. It’ll come out next month, and again in September and January. There’s a presale up now for the journal, which includes a couple related discounts. Check it out!
They lurk in great piles behind convenience stores and in train station utility rooms. They are clustered in homes, offices, public toilets, parks, waiting rooms, and restaurants. They congregate in unpredictable numbers, multiplying when nobody’s looking, becoming over-numerous. Until they’re needed, that is. When the rain begins, they vanish quickly into the ether.
If you took a year’s worth of rainy days in the Tokyo area and put them all together, they would last a cumulative four and a half months. Umbrellas are, therefore, an inescapable and lackluster part of life.
These devices have remained nearly unchanged in both their design and their mediocrity for hundreds of years. They will keep you somewhat dry, so long as the rain isn’t too heavy (torrential rains splash) or too light (a mist easily wafts). If the wind is strong, your canopy may be caught by a gust and inverted, maybe even torn apart. A whipping gale may lead to the impression that it is somehow raining up.
Even when getting peak performance out of your umbrella, never is it convenient. It is in the way, it is occupying a hand you’d rather be using for something else, it is always at risk of being left behind or stolen.
On the sidewalk, people take up many times as much space as on sunny days. On crowded trains, everyone has a weapon they’re often not aware that they’re wielding. They are, simply, a pain.
I must be fair, though. They’re not an entirely losing proposition. They will generally keep you from getting quite as wet as you would without one, for example. They also make great pretend fencing foils when you're bored with a friend, such as when waiting for the bus.
Truly, though, the saving grace of this clumsy thing is that it can provide a person with a relatively private place in which to exist for a time.
I know few moments as peaceful as those spent standing perfectly still, simply listening to the sound of a gentle rain falling on my umbrella.
The cat that looks like James Hetfield usually patrols around the tiny ramen shop by the shrine in the morning. On some days, the restaurant’s sliding door is open and he can be seen sitting inside, presumably conferring with the proprietors on some matter of importance.
One suspects his duties are taxing. By the time the afternoon arrives, he is always exhausted and can be found curled in a tight ball in the dry leaves under a nearby zelkova.
A calico and a tortoiseshell oversee the nearby park, while an immense gray tabby monitors a parking lot behind a city office. A deceptively small black cat with a long coat often stations herself near the door of a cafe, where she is able to keep an eye on the patrons and receive periodic rewards in the form of physical affection.
Everywhere you go, there they are. Cats traversing rooftops and cats threading the narrow spaces between buildings. Cats grooming themselves underneath parked cars and cats sunning themselves amongst the weeds in vacant lots. When faced with humans, they scrutinize and speculate with mild disapproval (though they will occasionally deign to be petted or accept a treat).
Even those that reside with us often seem to pass judgement as they look on, giving the impression of only just tolerating our presence.
While we go off to work on packed trains and struggle to earn the money necessary to pay for the lifestyles and homes that we have neither the time nor the energy to enjoy, they laze in patches of sun and live their lives as they wish, whether inside or out.
When they sneak off to their secret gatherings, they swig from tankards of ale and make light of our follies. What fools we seem to them, acting like we’re in charge. They know we’re middle management, at best, even as we pretend to be the bosses of our lives.
Across the table from me is a blue plastic chair, 26cm tall at the seat and 49cm at the back. It weighs about 1kg. Weighing in at about 16kg is the small boy sitting in it. Let’s call him Ira.
Ira is exceptionally cheerful. He giggles at just about everything, and is also very kind, always cheering for his classmates (even when he loses the game). He loves playing with everyone.
Unfortunately for him, he’s the only one here today, so it’s just me and little Ira all afternoon, seated at this low table. My chair is just like his, the only difference being that mine is green, which he insisted upon for reasons I cannot grasp.
Ira’s mother is Japanese, and his father is Ghanaian. They speak mostly Japanese at home and send him here to help develop his English. He’s four years old, and only barely that, so baby-speak is still peppered throughout his sentences. He often uses made-up words and pronounces things creatively.
Earlier, when asked when his birthday was, he replied Gozember.
And every time his father comes to pick him up from the school, I cannot help but wonder if he’ll grow to be as tall. Ira’s so little still, it’s hard to imagine him someday towering over others like his father does. But for now, he remains perfectly sized for his tiny chair, and he makes it look just as normal as I make mine look ridiculous.
We are singing along with Raffi songs and coloring together. Today, he is really excited to work on an Ultraman coloring sheet, and as he scribbles indiscriminately over everything with a purple crayon, he asks me periodically to confirm that he is, in fact, doing a good job. I say yes and remember that not too long ago I was still commuting into Tokyo to teach stressed-out office workers. Some of them were perfectly enjoyable people, but I’m still much happier here, now, in these tiny chairs with Ira.
06:45 Give up on sleep, get up
06:50 Clean up cat poop, admonish cat
07:00 Begin preparing documents and everything else necessary to submit visa renewal papers, realize tax form still needed
08:30 Arrive at tax office
09:30 Depart tax office, document procured
09:50 Arrive at immigration office, realize ¥4,000 revenue stamp must be purchased
10:15 Return from post office with revenue stamp, get in the first line, realize passport has been left at home
11:10 Return from cycling 11km round-trip to retrieve passport
11:15 Get in the first line again, am told the wrong forms are wrong, given fresh forms, am told to go fill them out
11:55 Get back in first line with new forms, pass initial document check, receive number for waiting
12:40 Number called, documents accepted for review, asked to wait until name is called
13:15 Name is called, documents accepted, passport and ID card returned, told an additional five documents must be arranged by April 20
13:30 Get on the bike, ride 17km to work
14:50 Arrive at work, change clothes, start teaching
19:00 Last kids leave the school, vacuuming and mopping commence
19:30 Depart work, ride 18km home
20:40 Arrive at home, greet partner, pet cat
20:45 Eat first meal of the day
21:05 Work on documents
22:00 Take bath
22:30 Prep for Friday activities
If you grew up near the ocean, you likely take its presence for granted, in a way that you wouldn’t if you grew up far inland, where its existence seemed more academic. If you were raised in the American Midwest, for example, you would have trusted the ocean was there, but it wouldn’t seem especially real in any material sense unless you were standing in front of it.
The same can be said for large mountains, the towering majesty of which can be guessed at based on photographs, but a real sense of their immensity simply doesn’t come across through an image. It’s only when you’re standing amongst them, feeling impossibly small, that their scale is grasped.
Between western Massachusetts and Ohio, I grew up with neither mountains nor ocean at my disposal. Until I was 16, I saw the ocean once or twice a year, always after long drives to either Maine or Rhode Island. And between 1997 and 2010, I swam in the sea but twice.
I didn’t encounter mountains of an appreciable size until a single trip in high school, and I wasn’t near any again until I moved to Korea more than a decade later.
But now, I have easy access to both.
Every summer, we take the train from Saitama to Kanagawa and spend at least a few Saturdays a year on the beach. We barbecue, we read. We swim and walk along the water’s edge. We stay until the last color has faded from the western sky and stars appear over Mt Fuji, behind which the sun set.
We make our plans and we go whether the weather holds up or not. Sun is preferable, but we’ve spent entire days there in the rain, enjoying the hush of an otherwise-deserted beach from under our shelter, the rain sounds on the tarp blending with the rhythmic breaking of waves.
And sometimes we take different trains to Nagano or the Chichibu area, where we can hike all day in the mountains, eat a big dinner at an izakaya near the station, and nap the entire ride home, feeling blissfully exhausted and full of both food and experience.
In the next couple of years, we will move somewhere new and buy an old house to renovate. We will have to decide, too, whether we want to move somewhere closer to the mountains or closer to the sea. At present, that choice is unclear. We’ve made long lists of the advantages and disadvantages of each, but to no avail.
I know we will be happy wherever we end up, however, and I know that the joys of these places will never cease for me. No matter how accustomed I might become to living by the sea or up in the mountains, these places will always be special.
They won’t get old because they can’t get old. Not for someone like me, who came of age in locations that ensured a permanent appreciation of faraway mountains and seas I could never take for granted.
NB: This post can also be seen on the main website for the project, Somewhere in Japan. You can also sign up for the newsletter and receive these posts by email.
Six years I’ve been in Japan. This last Wednesday was my sixth Japaniversary. Rather than reflect on the occasion in my usual way, though, I thought I’d expore that time through numbers.
Some of the following figures are exact. Some are approximate. A few are facetious. I’ll leave it to you to consider which figures fall into which category.
Sitting on the beach near the campground, the coarse gravel cold and damp beneath me, watching the little waves lapping the lakeshore. Houses and other buildings dot the far edge of the inlet, with clusters of lights leading off into the darkness.
A peaceful setting, but something feels strange. If I pay attention to ambient noises, what I hear most are the small sounds of the water, the wind rustling the tall grasses to my left, and a violent, gasoline-fuelled roar at a moderate distance.
Imagine a man on a highly customized motorcycle revving his engine rhythmically, swerving about the road, making a point of being as loud and disruptive as possible. Now imagine dozens of such men, perhaps even a hundred or more, all doing this together.
These are the bosozoku. Written 暴走族, the first two kanji indicate running out of control, while the third indicates a tribe. A tribe of young men running out of control on their motorcycles.
You won’t see sizeable groups of them in areas like Tokyo anymore, but they’re still out there in other places. In Ibaraki Prefecture, for example, where I am.
One of the other guys saw them when he went out, said there were at least a hundred of them in this marauding gang cruising around, taunting the police. Every once in a while, the police fire up their sirens and the engine noises cease. Only for only a few minutes, though, and then it all ramps up again. They’ve been doing this for hours.
At close to eleven in the evening, it finally stops in earnest. All fun eventually wears thin, and even motorcycle gangs eventually get tired.
When this happens, I am still near the water, writing in my notebook in the lantern light. The bosozoku are done for the night and the wind has died down. What I am left with are just the little wet sounds of the lake meeting its shore and my pen meeting the paper.