I’ve been haunting the university halls until the midnight hours these last two weeks, trying to catch up on class preparation, and also trying to avoid going back to the isolation of the guest house I’m staying at. Not that staying at the university while everyone else is gone isn’t isolating, but at least I have an internet connection and can talk to people. And there is some privacy in the room that otherwise I wouldn’t really have. Still, burning the midnight oil is no way to freshen up for the next day, and so yesterday evening, tired of the monotonous, though healthy, offerings of the local Seven Eleven, I decided to head out the other end of the university and take the half hour walk to the Lawson convenience store located along the desolation of the bypass.
Fog had rolled in from the sea and hugged the fields all the way to the shadows of the nearby hills. As I walked along the road, my footsteps sounded loud in the stillness. I pulled the flaps of my cap over my ears to stem the chill, and softly sang a line of an Abba song that just wouldn’t leave my head. The round-trip to and from the convenience store resembled a circumambulation of a graveyard, even the huge lights of the billboards and pachinko parlors cast long shadows across the asphalt and denuded fields, so that as I walked a silent presence followed me with precisely timed steps.
I was passing the back gate of the university again, with its line of trees and bushes when suddenly above my head there was a soft rustle. I looked up and thought I made out the form of a very large sleeping crow. It was hard to tell in the dim light. Then the figure swiveled its head and gazed down at me with huge, moonlike eyes. A ural owl. The first wild owl I’d ever seen in Japan ever since I started watching birds as a boy. The elation that bloomed in me was hard to describe. It was like a lifelong gift, and the moment I recognized the bird all sense of loneliness, all sorrow, all the heaviness of the past few weeks dispelled like smoke. I wanted to run to the nearest birder and tell them… “Look! Look! I’ve got to let you know what I saw! A ural owl! I actually saw a ural owl!”
But what birders do I know around here? I smiled up at the owl and it seemed to nod in understanding. It turned its head away, looked up at the night sky, and lifted into the air like a whisper. I heard the almost tender swish of its wings as it flapped away into the darkness.
It was but a moment, but it is a moment I will remember for the rest of my life.
The train tracks leading away from Gumyo, the little town I am living in now. The photograph doesn’t show you the incessant noise of the highway nearby, though.
Raindrops spray across the train window, the reds and blues and greens of street lights and neon signs, splayed across the glass panes, run like bleeding dyes, shimmering. The wind outside whips the water across the surface, distorting the night scene, tugging and streaking it, until the reflection of my face within the blackness is mixed like paints into the lights of passing neighborhoods. My good eye stares into a void, twixt the light and darkness, day and night, innocent making out with knowing. It is within this ball of calmness that the train hurtles through the empty hours, the limited express, destination: last call of the season. Leaves fly up in the train’s wake, whirling like bats, cold, helpless, and final.
A town still asleep at dawn
House roofs and apartment buildings, telephone poles and high tension wires, train station platforms lined with dour-faced commuters wearing black coats, neon signs and clanging train crossings, all of them whip by outside the train windows. People nod off opposite me, others read books, or stare blearily out into the dawn grey. I follow their gazes, seeking… what? Clouds and birds, the sky untamed, rain imminent, a puff of cool air from the open doors when the train stops. It seems the years in Japan have always been characterized by the clackity-clack of train tracks, and I have always been following the single-file processionals along the rail lines, or waiting on platforms as my white breath dispells in the late autumn air.
The main road from the station takes a slight detour along the train tracks. Here is where I discover the other face of Gumyo, the side that must once have made up the whole town here before the highway bypass ran roughshod right over the heart of the town.
Home seems far away all the time these days. Four weeks have passed since moving out to Chiba. The two pairs of pants and two shirts that accompany me for the week out at the guesthouse, the heavy laptop computer with its retinue of hard drives, mouse, A/C adapters, and notebook of serial numbers and passwords, the drawing case that holds a few pens and pencils for drawing and its sister journal, the two books I’m reading (I’ve been trying to get through “Queen of the Night” by Arturo Perez-Revert, but have been so tired that I always end up nodding to sleep on the trains as I attempt to read it), the change of socks, underwear, and t-shirts, the toiletry kit, the diabetes kit, the camera, and extra, warm jacket… are beginning to outstay their welcome on my back. I wake each night to the slapping of a stranger’s slippers shuffling to the toilet outside my bedroom door, sit every night with strangers at the dinner table in a room decorated with gold-plated clocks and cheap Chinese painting prints and dominated by a huge, wide-screen TV always running the same news program again and again, while these strangers puff away at cigarettes and overload on bottles of whiskey and shochu and vodka, and wait for strangers to finish in the bathroom so I can brush my teeth. It’s as if my life is not my own and my home back in Tokyo a place where someone else has moved in.
The first rays of the sun graze the brooding roof of a farmhouse.
Remnant of a town long gone. As I entered this area there was lots of wind and flapping sheet metal and rotten wood. It was too early to see most of the townsfolk, but those who had hauled themselves out of bed greeted me as if I was a regular neighbor.
A carefully tended grove protected from the wind by thick hedges and windbreaks. Nothing moved, the leaves seemed to be holding their breath.
The key turns in the lock, waking the tumblers inside, and allowing me to pull back the creaking door. The air within the apartment is warm. An aroma of cooking curry greets my nostrils. As the door bangs shut behind me my wife steps out from behind the kitchen door and smiles. She looks both tired and sad, but full of life, as always.
“Welcome home,” she says quietly, in that self-assured way that always makes me feel safe. “Put your pack down and take off your shoes.”
I lower the pack and feel the weight of the day lift. Everything is familiar. My wife holds out her arms to receive an embrace.
“How are you?” I ask, a little shy.
She smiles, knowing there is no need to answer. “I’ve made some curry,” she says.
“You look tired,” I say. “Have you been sleeping okay?”
She lowers her head and forces her smile. “Same as you,” she says. “It’s strange here without you.”
“Yeah,” I agree. We stand holding each other without saying anything more, letting the sound of the wind rushing against the windows and the tap dancing of the water boiling in the pot in the kitchen play against one another.
A fallow rice field still holding rainwater from the storm the night before. Mist was rising over all the fields
I couldn’t believe this was the same area I had been grumbling about for the past three weeks. The farther I ran the more the old towns drifted back into sight.
An old wooden shrine listed as part of the “Kanto Fureai no Michi” (Kanto Plain Communal Road), a footpath that arcs from the far side of Tokyo, up over the north along the Tanigawa range and extends down along the east side here, a distance of over 400 kilometers, much of it in the mountains and through backroad countryside. I never knew that Gumyo was the place where the path came to an end. So in many ways I had reached the End of the World…
…and found the Well…
It was dawn again. The wind still blew, but colder now. My pack bulged with the essentials again and sat by the front door. I lifted the pack, switched off the hall light, and pushed the front door open. A cold finger of the wind wriggled its way inside and lifted the cloth hanging over the kitchen door. Before it could explore further I stepped outside into the darkness and pushed the door gently closed behind me. I didn’t bother using the umbrella… it would only snap out of shape any way. The train was waiting, so I hoisted the pack into a better position, and headed toward the train station.
My wandering took me away from the main roads into fields that welled straight up out of my childhood.
I love it when the tarmac slowly erodes away and turns to dirt, and then finally just peters out .
The risen sun streaming light on a patch of onions.
Much of Japan once looked like this. I really miss walking along such roads. Now that most people rely on cars and the bypaths no longer connect little enclaves that once held the strings of communities together, there is a sense of desolation and emptiness, as if these places no longer hold value. All eyes now turn to Tokyo. As more rural communites turn into these dying landscapes, the future of Japan seems to hold no center. A city without its surrounding past, a rural community without its reason for being…