I went for a stroll around the castle park this morning. It was a little cold, but there was warmth in the sun’s rays. Spring is almost here. There are plum blossom trees scattered around the park. I love the plum blossom. It features in my novel In the Shadows of Mountains. The main character has a plum tree in her garden. She prefers it to the more celebrated cherry blossom, calling the latter a braggart, and a show off, demanding to be seen. The plum blossom, however, just blooms silently and in stillness. And it smells divine.
Being self-employed, I do most things in my business myself. I am terrible with numbers, but today, I battled through and completed my tax return. The paperwork is all in Japanese, but that is not the problem – the numbers are the problem. I eventually finished it, but it took me the best part of the day. Tired, I absent-mindedly opened Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet and landed on the following passage. It made me smile! On today of all days!
“To need to dominate others is to need others. The commander is dependent.
Enlarge your personality without including anything from the outside – asking nothing from others and imposing nothing on others, but being others when you need them.
Reduce your necessities to a minimum, so as not to depend on anyone for anything.
It’s true that such a life is impossible in the absolute. But it’s not impossible relatively.
Let’s consider a man who owns and runs an office. He should be able to do without his employees; he should be able to type, to balance the books, to sweep the office. He should depend on others because it saves him time, not because he’s incompetent. Let him tell the office boy to put a letter in the post because he doesn’t want to lose time going to the post office, not because he doesn’t know where the post office is. Let him tell a clerk to take care of a certain matter because he doesn’t want to waste time on it, not because he doesn’t know how to take care of it.”
I’ve spent the weekend studying. I should be writing, as I already have most of my next novel worked out, but I’ve set myself a tough exam schedule this year. I am a Japanese/English translator, and I specialize in skincare and cosmetics, in addition to general business and tourism. The way to learn more about my specialist fields (and to get more work) is to get qualifications in them. I already have a few business, tourism, skincare and cosmetics qualifications, but this year, I’m going to take two more. I also want to add pharmacology to my specialisms, so I am planning to take three exams in that subject. All these exams are in Japanese.
As if that wasn’t enough, a passion of mine is learning languages. So I’m going to take level 3, then pre-level 2 on the French exam administered in Japan, and also the Chinese HSK level 3.
This leaves little time for writing, but I figure if I can get most of the qualifications I want this year, I can get more work next year, and also devote more time to writing. Once I have the qualifications, they are mine. No one can take them away. Work has been a bit thin on the ground because of covid, so I need to focus on building up my portfolio of clients. As much as I want to write, work has to come first.
I may not be writing physically, but the story is going around in my head, and I am adding bits to it and taking bits away. I’m making notes in my notebook. So when I do actually come to sit down and write it, it should just all come out more or less in one piece. Anyway, back to the study!
It was 18 degrees on Sunday. I thought winter was over and spring was on its way. The gentle scent of plum blossoms carried on the warm breeze, and the lake in the centre of the city was calm and deep blue. It was the perfect day to go running, which I did early in the morning.
Fast forward to today, and I am digging my car out from under the snow in -3 degrees. I had to go out this morning, and the roads were icy and slushy. I heard some cars got stuck in the snow, and caused long traffic jams. I got home safely and have spent the day working next to my heater.
Winters here have been odd for the past few years. Last year we had hardly any snow. It was the same the year before that. Three years ago, we had the worst snowfall in 35 years. I remember New Year’s Eve about 11 years ago. The snow was that bad, the power was out most of the night in the city. Not a great way to welcome in the new year.
I live on the Sea of Japan coast. It is the cold side of Japan, especially farther north from where I am. They have harsh winters. I guess I don’t have much to complain about compared to the people who live up there.
People tell me stories of when they were young – the area where I live was a “snow country”. They spent most of the winter digging out their houses and cars. It is a very rural area, and I can imagine what it was like 30 or 40 years ago, blanketed by snow for most of the winter. When it snows, the landscape is monochrome. Time seems to stop. There is a stillness and calm about the mountains, forests and rice fields. If the roads weren’t so bad, I’d make the short journey out of the city centre to the farming communities and take pictures.
Anyway, the weather forecast says it is going to be 18 degrees again on Sunday. Maybe this is our last flurry of snow for the winter. I hope so.
I don’t have a TV. I haven’t had one since the country changed its broadcasting system about 10 years ago. I don’t miss it. I never think “Oh I wish I had a TV”. I have so much more to do with my time than watch TV. Read, write, study languages…. how would I fit TV into my life?
A friend came round for the first time a few days ago. The first thing he asked was “Where’s your TV?”
“Haven’t got one,” I replied.
He looked at me like I was some kind of freak. “But….but….how do you get your news? What do you do when the house is quiet?” he asked.
“I have the Internet. I listen to music if I feel like it,” I said.
Apparently, he has the TV on all the time, droning away in the background. I would find that really annoying and stressful. I don’t spend my days in silence, like some kind of convent nun, cloistered away, oblivious to what is happening in the world. I listen to music when I’m not studying or working. I read online newspapers. I use social media. I have a good grasp of current affairs. I just don’t need a TV in my life.
In Japan, everyone with a TV is supposed to pay the NHK license fee. The company NHK uses to collect the money is quite persistent. “The NHK guys” (and it is always guys) visit at all hours of the day and night, demanding that you pay. They don’t believe you when you say you don’t have a TV, and say that even if you really don’t have one, you still have a smartphone, right? And that can pick up TV signals right? So you have to pay.
I’ve never checked to see if my phone can pick up TV signals. I don’t think it can. There’s no TV icon on the screen or anything. I sent the last NHK guy away, telling him I didn’t have a TV. He was back a week later, asking me if I had bought a TV yet. He doesn’t believe me. I guess he’ll be back in a few weeks or so. Is it really so unusual to not have a TV in this day and age?
I usually go running as the sun is setting. The other day, though, I got up early. It was a national holiday, and the weather was unseasonably warm and sunny, so I thought why not make the most of it?
I’m lucky enough to live in a traditional castle town. The castle is just a short drive away, and is surrounded by woodland, parkland and a moat. It’s the perfect place for a morning run.
I do a lot of writing while I run. Not physical writing of course, but mental writing. I get so many ideas for my latest novel or story. Things that seemed impossible to work out when sat at my desk suddenly make sense while I’m running. It must be a mixture of the physical movement, rhythm and fresh air. Sometimes I compose haiku as I run. They tend to just pop up in my head more or less complete.
I’m currently in the planning stages of my second novel. I got some good ideas for it the other day. Now that spring is on its way, I’m going to try and get out in the mornings more. Running at sunset has its benefits (beautiful views for one), but there is something special about a morning run, especially through woodland. The scent of the trees, the cool air, the light, the quietness before the day wakes – they all add up to create a special moment, and put me in a positive and creative mood for the rest of the day.
My family and friends back home often ask me how I’m coping in lockdown. They keep forgetting that, in the area where I live, there is no lockdown. I live in one of the least populated prefectures in Japan. My home is in the main city, which has about 200,000 people. That sounds like a lot, but the city is made up of villages that merged about 15 years ago, so it is spread out and very rural. You only have to drive for about ten minutes or so out of the city centre and you are in rice fields. A little further, and you are in the mountains, or by the sea, in one of the fishing villages.
We have had about 200 COVID cases in total. I think there are about two active cases. There are no restrictions on our movements, although we are told not to go to other prefectures, and to refrain from going out unnecessarily. Most people abide by the recommendations, so restaurants and bars are suffering. So are hotels. The city is popular with tourists, and they have mostly stayed away.
I don’t go out with my friends at night, but apart from that, my life is going on as normal. I can move around freely. I wear a mask, as does everyone (and I mean everyone!) and disinfect my hands at the entrance to shops when I enter and when I leave, but that is about it. Maybe if the number of cases rises, the situation will change, but at the moment, everything seems normal, especially compared to what I hear about back home and see on the news. Living in rural Japan can have its challenges, like isolation and loneliness, but at times like these, I’m glad to be living in this small corner of the world.
I’ve spent almost half my life in rural Japan. When I arrived over 20 years ago, I declared that I was never going to leave. Something about it made me feel like I was home. I don’t know what that “something” was, but I never felt it in my hometown in the UK.
I blinked, and the years passed. Life kept me busy, I worked – taught English, translated, wrote, published, I studied, I paid my taxes, health and pension premiums, saw my friends every now and then, practiced and taught karate, went running, joined gyms. I got on with the business of leading a life.
Now, as I find myself approaching the “half a life” milestone, I have started to think…what if….what if I packed up and left? What if I just walked out of my life, and into a new one? I could start one anywhere – my hometown, London, Paris, Seoul, Moscow, Hong Kong…. I could go anywhere. What’s stopping me?
Apart from feeling a Sartrean anxiety because of the freedom I have, I feel like, well, I feel like this is where I’m meant to be. I go running along the lake in the middle of the city at sunset and can’t bear the thought of the sun setting and me not being there. Of life in the city going on without me. And what about my friends? They would get on with life as normal. I would probably see them on Facebook, and the odd occasion when I visited. I would miss so much in this beautiful place that I have called home for so long.
Another reason is that I have permanent residency here. It took a long time to get that. I had to put in the years. Could I possibly hand the card over and walk out of the country, without an ounce of regret? No, definitely not. I also have built my financial life here. My pension is here, my investments are here, my businesses are here. I have a lot to lose financially. Sure, I could start again, but I have the feeling that I have left it too late.
Friends who have left after a long period in the country have all gone through adjustment periods which last 1-2 years. Can I afford to do that? Do I want to do that? Which raises the question – what on earth would I do if I left? I got on the plane at Heathrow 21 years ago as a monolingual. I’d be boarding the plane out of Japan as a bilingual. So I guess I’d do something Japanese-related. But what?
I think I’ve reached the age and the time spent here when people start to question what they are doing with their lives. I have the feeling that it is now or never. That I have to make a decision one way or the other. I am free to choose. How lucky am I, that I get to choose what to do with my life? I think, deep down, I have already made the decision. But still, I think….what if…..?