Saturday, 22 January 2011

Memories rode into the house on a cloud of cold breath.

      I have been thinking of our old house in Japan.  The rickety, unheated, old house where winds rushed up skirts from between the floorboards and where, in winter, a blanket of snow would sometimes rest on top of our bed covers in the morning, having slipped in through the cracks around the windows during the night.  A paper-door maze of squeaking tatami mats and too-low door frames that I was forever forgetting to duck for.

My best-loved bicycle sits just off to the right in a shelter meant for a car, but so much nicer for bicycles and geckos.

It was a house on a street too narrow to have been meant for cars.  There was a small field of vegetables on one side where bonnet- and apron-wearing old ladies would spend their days, while most of the men slept so they would be ready to spend their nights fishing squid in tiny boats strung with lines of enormous light bulbs.  In the winter, the winds that blew off the sea were strong enough to keep you standing if you tried to fall in to them, and always the mountains sat on all sides of us, some of them even standing in the sea.

 Dr. Seuss trees from the bedroom window.

I had been thinking of all this as I stoked the fire this past week, in the time after our boiler broke.  Luckily for me I had two gifts to keep me warm: a hanten brought back from Japan and five pairs of very thick socks (or foot sweaters, as the letter said) knitted in stripes of colour and sent to me from an old friend in Canada (they arrived just the day before the heat went off).  

A hanten is a sort of padded coat for wearing inside during the winter in rural Japan.

Of course, we managed much better here, with the fire and all, and the problem was fixed without too much delay.  Men came shouting at 8AM the other morning, calling to each other from the loft to our apartment, searching out the boiler, and most probably making us very unpopular with all the other tenement dwellers, though they were very friendly to us.  But it seems that once the cold memories had crept in, they were hard to chase out.  I was left thinking of the mountains...

 ... each of them with a name that the very old man next door would tell us as he sketched out maps for us.  He used to surprise me with bouquets of stolen flowers and sit in our kitchen talking (with my husband translating for me) until his wife would come and chase him back to his house, full of the amazing Buddhist statues he had carved or sculpted. 

I've also been thinking of that sea, so different from the North Sea.  In August there is the Japanese festival of the dead, Obon, and after that no one swims in the ocean for the rest of the year, though it stays as warm as bathwater until October.  Perhaps they never know the joy of swimming on the nights in early fall when the sea lights up into an infinity of underwater stars.  The luminescence of the water grows more intense with every swimming stroke, splashing about causing sunken fireworks, star showers.  We came across this phenomenon without warning and, disbelieving our eyes at first, filled with wonder.

And the other wonder of that sea at night, the illusion of bonfires moving slowly across the water at the horizon.  There was a lot of discussion of the possible explanations for this, until, months later, we finally learned that it was the fishermen shining great bright lights to attract squid to their boats.  Still, I doubt that even if we had stayed there a hundred years, that all of the daily marvels of the place would have ever been transformed into satisfying bits of explanation and  fact.



  1. This is just fascinating. I love the tiles on the roofs, and the exquisite Dr. Seuss trees, and the rocky sea. It seems a million miles from Scotland. I could do with a hanten in our house though!

  2. When I moved to Japan I arrived at night, and so it wasn't until the next morning that I woke up and saw all the little houses and the mountains and everything all around me. It was probably the biggest surprise of my life, I just couldn't believe my eyes.
    And, hantens really are great things. I know the picture I took of my one wasn't great, but they're pretty cute looking too and they are super on cold mornings!

  3. wow, you have been to so many amazing, magical places! i have never even imagined waking up with snow on my blankets, it's good you have that behind you :D-- but the star-swimming would make up for almost anything! thank you for sharing all this with us! --zoe

  4. Heisann!
    Exciting to read ... What an old house you lived in!! The story is wonderful ;:OD)

  5. Zoe, it's true about the star-swimming making up for anything... because it meant we kept on swimming even once jellyfish season started!

    Thanks Vilt!

  6. Jodi, your gift for story telling has made yours one of my most favorite blogs...(along with "dancingbeastie"!) You can pack more imagery into a few lines than many writers will in a novel. I really savor some of your phrases. Thank you!
    Margaret Lambert, Prescott, AZ

  7. Margaret, thank *you*... that must be one of the nicest compliments ever! I'm so happy that you enjoy reading my blog, that's really nice to hear. Also, dancingbeastie is a very good find, so thank you for letting me in on that too!

  8. You tell me of Japan the way I always wish it would be.

  9. Barbara,

    It's so funny because if it ever comes up in conversation, people (especially Japanese people from big cities) always ask me why I would want to live in a place like our fishing village. It seems so obvious doesn't it?

  10. I came back to re-read this poetic post about your time in Japan, and find in addition some generous comments from you and Margaret. Thank you both.
    But Jodi, since the earthquake I have often been thinking of your life in Japan. I don't know where you were exactly, but I think of the people you knew and hope, and hope, that they are all right...

  11. I've been thinking about Japan a lot too. I can't imagine how horrible it must be for the people facing that kind of destruction and loss. I feel terrible about it.
    The part of Japan we lived in, Yamaguchi prefecture, was nowhere near the affected area. I think we were probably closer to Korea than Tokyo, even if there was the sea in between. I only know one person in Tokyo, and she's alright. But then, the matter of knowing people or not knowing them is a strange thing. It is comforting for me that the people I know are unharmed, but its a strange sort of comfort.