Japan: Living Journal Life In

I Am Not A Tree

Coppiced beech tree
Old coppiced beech tree on the way up toward Mount Jinba

Yesterday morning three men suddenly appeared at the my garden fence, climbed over it, and started dismantling the fence. I just happened to notice this as I was working on the computer in my study, glimpsing movement and hearing men’s voices just outside. I rushed to the living room door, threw it open, and demanded what they were doing.

“We’re going to put in two sewer pipes just on either side of the garden,” they replied, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world and what was I making such a fuss about?

“You’re going to what? Who are you and what right do you have to just walk into my garden unannounced?”

“We’re working for [some organization I had no clue about… I just assumed it was my ever insensitive landlord]. We were told to come here and put the pipes in.”

Sputtering with indignation I nearly shouted, “You don’t just come barging into my home and start doing construction work! You contact me first and make an appointment! You have no right to invade my privacy like that!”

They just looked at me as if I was another one of those insane foreigners, an altogether far too common attitude among Japanese. One of them, carrying a shovel, stomped over my rosemary bushes and brushed past me, ignoring the glare I gave him. He bent down, lifted away my compost pile, and tossed it over the other end of the fence. He started digging.

The thing is that my Japanese is just not good enough to handle such unfamiliar legal situations, especially when I am so hopping mad that I can barely get my English out. I didn’t know what to do. What were the proper social expectations here, since people’s ideas of privacy and acceptable behavior are so different from America and other places? If it was my landlord who was responsible for this, how could I keep my advantage as a tenant and whom could I turn to if something illegal had been committed?

Being unsure I let the men go about their business and called my landlord. He knew nothing about it and told me he would look into it, saying that it was probably the ward office, putting in public utilities.

“Yes, but without contacting me about it?” I asked.

“They were wrong to do that,” he admitted.

I had to go to work so I didn’t have time to stay around to see what the men were up to. When I returned I found the fence replaced, but two huge white concrete manholes planted in either side of my 2 meter by 8 meter garden. My rosemary had been ripped out of the ground, one of my zelkova saplings chopped down, all the plants on the ground tromped over, my shiitake mushroom seeder log left exposed to the sky, and my planter shelf upended at one end of the garden.

Something broke inside me. I stood gazing at all of this and for a moment I hated Japan and all Japanese. I just had enough. All the unending construction around my house for four years straight, with almost no days of peace, all the unfriendliness of the neighbors and their inconsiderate banging and conversing very loudly in front of my bedroom window at five in the morning and things like flooding my apartment with washing machine overflow from upstairs and not even coming down to apologize, all the monotonous attitudes and predictable behavior and obsessive concern with things cute and public propriety and staying within the lines on the notebook pages, all the times I’d been cheated by partners in my freelance work, while being subjected to racial disdain…aaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! I felt like destroying someone else’s home!

Then it all collapsed into sadness and a kind of exhausted numbness. I’ve had enough of fighting and finding fault and using my mind and heart to shore up defenses and attacks. I’ve had enough of war of any sort.

In the light of day I stood outside gazing at the garden again today. All I could think was I had to leave. Soon. Find some way to make enough money to finally pull away from here. The avocado tree stood at one end of the garden, the remaining zelkova sapling at the other and I wondered how I would be able to keep them safe, bring them with me. But I couldn’t of course. They would have to take their chances in this garden of changes that has erupted around them since I planted them five years ago. I wish now that I hadn’t planted them; what a waste of hope and love and life.

What do you do when you try so hard to nurture serenity in your life and little things like this keep cropping up to challenge what you love? I know I’ve been pulling away more and more into my shell of a life, meeting people less, becoming reclusive and mistrusting, so I wonder if this is the banging on the door that I really need to get my attention and start engaging life headlong again. When did I ever become so fearful? Nothing scared me so much when I was younger. Change had always been a welcome development, a chance to breathe fresh air, meet new people, and reinvent myself. Just how do trees do it, lasting through the ages, looking on at all the familiar things being ripped up, and never once wincing? They surely must have more forgiving eyes than I do.

Japan: Living Journal Life In Technology

Cold Feet

Takao snow street
Street leading up to Takao Temple and Mount Takao after the yearend snowfall.

At the other end of the year right about now the sultry Japanese summer heat invades homes like a giant, lazy, fat cat, nudging its way through the doors and windows and prostrating itself on the straw mats (tatami ) and linoleum floors with the sole purpose of draining everyone of life. That is what, traditionally, Japanese houses are designed for, to induce as much breathing throughout the house as might entice the cat to dissipate, a passive effort to encourage Cheshire-ism.

It doesn’t always work… my first floor apartment, not at all traditional except for the tatami in the living and bed rooms, acts like an isolation tank (in more ways than one!); you open the front door and an invisible wall of lugubriousness, sort of like that watery interface you see in the jump gates of the television show “Star Gate”, greets you… but the idea is sound: leave a space under the ground floor where the sun doesn’t hit and create a katabatic air space, keep the floor over this space perforated enough for the free passage of air, and create a heat sink space in the attic of the building, to which warm air is sucked. The idea is to draw the cool air out of the space beneath the house up into the attic, where it is supposed to dissipate. And it works very well in traditional, thatched roof farm houses.

The trouble arises in mid-January, when the deep freeze sets in and that cold air space beneath the house continues to crank away nice, juicy drafts through the floor and tatami, especially when my (noisy and much-disliked… I have yet to discover exactly why it is necessary to move the furniture around at 3:00 in the morning every day) upstairs neighbor cranks up his heater (which creates a racket outside my living room window with the squeaky and misaligned fan drumming away) and does a fine job of heaving all my precious warm air up into his place, and replacing it with the cold air from under the house. I didn’t realize until last week that the cold air actually streams through the tatami like spring water welling up from a sandy creek bed; I could feel the cold air pooling around my outstretched hand.

We only have one tiny electric, infrared heater to heat the spaces. Our Dutch oil heater started smoking last year when I turned it on, and we haven’t been able to afford to replace it. Normally this little heater is enough to warm up the small room it is placed in, as long as the door is kept shut. If it gets a little colder we use the spare sleeping bag and our fleece jackets. We’ve also covered the living room floor with a closed cell foam sheet and two layers of fluffy carpets. And normally that works… for when we are awake and spending time in the same room. It saves on electricity.

But when I am working in my study, the cold works its way through the floor boards and sends me running for my big, midwinter down jacket. When I breathe out white breath billows across the computer screen. Sometimes my fingers are so cold that I can barely type on the keyboard. And since infrared filament heaters are dangerous to keep on at night, the preparations for sleeping at night resemble pitching camp: dress up in fleece layers, don my fleece cap, fluff up two layers of down pillows, prop up the closed cell foam ground mat against the three layers of curtains to stop the draft, slip under a thick fleece blanket and lie on top of three layers of fleece sheets underneath, and finally pull the huge down quilt over us. If someone would walk in on us at night while we slept they would come across a huge lump on top of the bed, with no evidence whatsoever of inhabitants. Even our breathing is absorbed by the profoundness of the layers.

Waking up provides a wonderful exercise in will power. You open your eyes and wonder if it is light or dark outside because the curtains are so thick that no light passes through. You tentatively reach your hand into the world outside your cocoon of warmth, instantly recognizing this environment is hostile, not unlike that of Mars. You pat around until you locate the bed light, switch it on, and let out an experimental breath: snowfall… ice storm … whiteout … You imagine having slept all night on a block of dry ice. And that is precisely what your foot tells you when you poke it out and set it down on the floor. The temptation is to pull it right back in, like a snail’s eye stalk, but it’s time to get ready for work and you want to beat the crush of the Tokyo rush hour trains and you’d also like to get in a mug of tea and check the e-mail… so out you jump, dancing about the tatami like an Irish dancer, rush to the toilet, let out a yelp as you bare your bottom, dance back out to the shower, turn on the gushing, smoking river of heat, dash to the kitchen to set the kettle to boil, pop two slices of bread into the microwave-oven, and scamper back to the shower for a few minutes of revitalization. You turn up the water heat high enough to turn your skin blooming red before breaking the bathroom door open just long and wide enough to snatch the towel and slipping it into the sauna of the shower stall. Dried off you can safely negotiate the sub-arctic temperatures and dismiss the imaginary penguins tottering about the hallway, to do your shaving and prepare the tea.

But it doesn’t last long. Like the shadowy ghouls in the movie “Ghost”, the cold creeps back again and uses the soles of your feet to reacquaint you with the concept of stack ventilation. So back you go to mouse dancing, slapping on layers like a pancake artiste, until all contact with the outside world is reduced to the circle around your face and the inconvenience of your fingers. You stoke your core with piping hot tea and toast spread with a thin film of butter, and then you’re off, into the purveyor of all this defensiveness: the out of doors.

But of course, it is warmer outside than inside. As you march away toward the train station you unbutton your coat and let the morning sunshine take a peek in. You don’t look back; the suction itself might be too much.