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.
The fishing village
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.
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.
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?
COVID in rural Japan
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.
Half a life
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…..?