The plum blossoms bloomed under a cold blue sky, the cherry blossoms appeared for a few days before scattering like snow, and the peach blossoms are now showing their deep pink souls. Spring is passing. April is always a busy time of year in Japan as it’s the beginning of the academic and fiscal year. I’ve been busy with work, and study. I’m aiming to be a polyglot and have set myself the goal of 10 languages in 10 years. I already speak two of them – English and Japanese, so really I only have 8 to learn. I’ve been prioritizing language learning over writing because I am taking exams in French and Chinese in the next few months.
Well, that’s my excuse anyway. Another reason I’m not writing is that I don’t have long stretches of uninterrupted time during which I can focus and concentrate deeply. I can’t write for ten minutes here and there like some people can. I envy them. I wish I could enter the world of my work-in-progress with ease. Actually, I’m still at the planning stage, so I need to take my time and concentrate. Maybe now is not the right time. The right time will come. I hope it’s soon (and after my exams…)
The fiscal year and the academic year begin in April in Japan, just as the cherry blossoms are fading and the leaves are appearing on the trees. It’s a busy time for everyone, but particularly for those of us involved in education. It leaves little time for writing.
When I came to Japan, starting the new academic year in April felt strange to me. Being from the UK, I always associated September with new beginnings – new shoes, new uniform, new textbooks, new pencil case, walking to school a year older as the leaves turn brown and start to fall.
Even though I’ve been in Japan for 21 years, I still feel like there is a kind of renewal when September comes around. The autumn breeze carries the scent of new beginnings, and I feel invigorated. I don’t feel that in April. I just feel sleepy and stressed at this time of the year! Fortunately, we have Golden Week (a week of consecutive holidays) coming up at the end of April and the beginning of May. I hope to get some writing in then, in between going to the gym (which I haven’t been to for 3 days!) and having a good rest.
I joined a new gym the other week. In the past, I sometimes used the municipal gym, but it’s quite small, and doesn’t have many machines. It also doesn’t require a membership fee – you just pay 300 yen when you go. It’s fine for short workouts during lunch or in the afternoon, but it isn’t a place you can stay at for hours.
I want to spend a few hours at a time in the gym, so, I took out a membership at one that opened up about a year ago. I’m satisfied with it so far. I do an hour of cardio, an hour of weights and about 15 minutes stretching. I also join a Zumba class when it’s on.
I work from home, so I tend to spend a lot of time in my house alone. Going to the gym gets me out and around other people (there is a no talking policy because of covid, so no one at the gym talks), and exercising makes me feel good. It has become like my second home. I’ve been going 5 times a week. It was a rainy Sunday today. Normally, I’d spend the afternoon in the house alone reading, and feeling, well, a bit depressed. I spent the afternoon in the gym, and I feel great. I’m going to get busier in the next few weeks, so I’ll only be able to go 3 or 4 times a week, but I can see it becoming a habit, and slightly addictive.
I also need to work on my second novel, and I am aware that going to the gym take time away from that pursuit, but it makes me feel good both mentally and physically, which in turn puts me in the mood to write. Now I just have to schedule the writing in….
I went for a walk around the local castle park this morning. Usually, the park is full of people having picnics under the trees. Not this year. Gatherings are banned due to Covid. There were quite a few people walking around taking pictures. I don’t often have time for cherry blossom viewing – I normally just see them in the park when I go for a run, but I made time this year. Here are some photos I took.
My native language is English, but my language of habitual use is Japanese. It has been for the past 20 years. I am a translator, so I spend most of my days reading Japanese documents. I’m so used to it that I read Japanese at the same speed I read English.
At the beginning of the year, I thought about spending the year reading only Japanese novels. The idea is appealing. I love reading in Japanese, and some of my favourite writers are Japanese. However, I decided against it, and chose to alternate my reading – one book Japanese, one book English, etc.
I’m doing this because reading in English is a kind of study for me. I translate from Japanese to English, so my English must be as good as it can be. Arguably, a translator’s skills in the target language are more important than those in the source language. Words and phrases can be looked up. Good writing skills can’t.
Another reason I chose not to read only Japanese works is because I write novels and stories in English. Seeing how other writers express ideas and concepts, and structure stories in English, is an important part of the learning process. This learning process never ends. I gain something linguistically from every novel I read, be it pacing, turns of phrase, or the weaving of ideas.
So, I am reading in both languages this year. I soon hope to make it three or four languages though. I’m learning French and Chinese. I read a lot of French literature which has been translated into English, but I would love to read Camus and Sartre (to name a few authors) in the original. A whole new literary and linguistic world will open up!
I’m reading a Japanese book at the moment. It’s a collection of short stories by my favourite Japanese author Matsumoto Seicho. I don’t often read short stories (although I write them for learners of English), but I’m enjoying what I’ve read so far. I might even add some short story collections in English to my “to read” list.
I had a spare few hours around noon, and didn’t feel like writing, so I went to the gym instead. If I have time to exercise, I usually go out running – I like the fresh air, but it was raining, and I wanted to do some weight training, so I went to the gym. It is run by the city, so there is no need to join and pay membership fees. You just pay 300 yen each time. I hadn’t been for over a year. I think it was closed for most of 2020. I expected a few changes due to COVID, so I wasn’t surprised at what is the new normal.
First, the number of people allowed in at any one time is ten. The training room is not so big, so it’s pretty crowded if there are more than ten anyway. Before you enter, you have to fill out a form with the date, your name, phone number, and gender, and hand it in to the staff. They then take your temperature, and unless you have a fever, they allow you to use the facilities. Oh, and you have to wear a mask when you are not exercising. When you have finished using a machine, you have to disinfect it.
Speaking of facilities, the rowing machine and the sit-up bench have been removed to ensure there is enough distance between machines. The stretch mats have been reduced from three to two. A few exercise bikes were missing.
I can understand why they have made these changes, but I didn’t really feel like I had exercised after I left. I missed the rowing machine and the sit-up bench! I want to go twice a week, so I guess I’ll have to make more use of the machines that are available. I shouldn’t complain. At least the gyms are open here. In many countries, they aren’t.
The coastal area of the city where I live is dotted with fishing villages. Many of the villages have coves and beaches. Sometimes, I drive out there and run along the shore of one particular village. I never see anyone else. No one else is out enjoying the beach, so I have it all to myself.
Actually, I never see anyone in the village. In the daytime and early evening, the village is empty and eerily quiet. All I can hear is the gentle ebb and flow of the sea. Wandering through the village, you get the feeling that time has stood still for the past 30 or 40 years. It certainly has for the past 20, which is how long I’ve been going there. In those 20 years, I have seen no one, and seen nothing change. The wooden houses which line the narrow streets are the same, the one shop in the village, which is just a dark room of a house with a few bits and pieces, and no one around to serve customers, is the same. The shore front is the same. It’s as if this little corner of Japan is in its own bubble. When I go to the village, it’s so easy to forget that there is a world out there, beyond the sea. A world with countries, cities, people, businesses….life….
When I run along the shore, it’s just me and the sea, and my thoughts. I can forget about everything else going on in my life and just be at peace. I like to go in the late afternoon when the sun is slowly sinking. The shadows, like those of time, are long, and the birds overhead squawk to each other – the only sign of communication I’ve ever seen there.
After a run, and a walk by the water to cool down, it’s time to get back in my car and return to the real world. But for an hour or so while I’m at the village, the world ceases to exist. And in a way, that’s a good feeling.
I spent the morning planning my new novel. The planning process raised a number of questions, to which I had no answer. Rather than sitting at my desk, staring out at the beautiful early spring sun, I decided to go for a run. The answers to questions often present themselves when I’m running. I did a 10K along the lake in the centre of the city. The sky and lake were a deep blue, the breeze was chilly, but not overly so, and the answers, well, they came.
Sometimes, when I’m running along the lake at sunset, I long for the town in which I live. I view it through the eyes of someone who has left, and will never return, and feel a deep yearning. This tells me that, despite the challenges that living in rural Japan can bring, I am in the right place. I also see it through the eyes of the past. I’ve been here for 21 years. Most of them have been good years. But I’ve seen friends come and go, and now, there is only me left. Perhaps I’m also yearning for those carefree times with good friends, drinking, singing karaoke, staying out till sunrise… Even when I’m here, I long to be here. Of course, sometimes I think seriously of leaving, but when I’m running, and the sun is setting in the deep red sky, that thought is unbearable. I long to be here. And here I stay.
There’s something special about the morning light. The delicate way it falls on trees blossoming in the early spring, the contrast with the shadows cast by the local shrine, the dappled patterns it paints on the forest ground… Here are a few more pictures from my Sunday morning stroll.