Between a rider and a horse, the rider doesn’t have to think of the horse, but the horse probably spends an awful lot of time thinking about the rider.
Sometimes I felt that way about Japan; I spent quite a lot of time thinking about it, but doubt it spent more than a moment considering me. It was used to people coming and going, I was not used to my surroundings. Even after three years of them, they were unfamiliar still.
Unemployed and bored, my days became a contemplation of my surroundings; their flaws, their highlights, the good and bad, worn and new.
If you missed Part 1 of this series, it’s here.
Don’t worry; my memoir won’t be every post from now on, but some days it’s just what I feel like putting out here for you to read. Sometimes it’s easier to deal with the feelings of long ago than the feelings of now.
Without further ado, please enjoy Part 2.
Echo Chambers of the Heart
Everywhere in Japan is bike-able, if you have the stamina and a bike with gears. The latter can be surprisingly difficult.
When I was a student here I looked and looked for a bike with both gears and a basket. Gears for the hills, basket for the groceries. It made sense to me.
No one had any. I ended up with what’s called a mama-charu, a middle-aged woman’s bicycle. Bulky and sturdy, lacking style but would survive being hit by a truck. No gears. Big basket. I loved and hated it.
Apparently, though, in the two years I was gone Japan has caught up to the rest of the world in one more way, and basket bicycles with gears are now readily available most everywhere in a variety of high-school-girl colors.
I bought a fold-able bike in fire-engine red. It has six gears, and by peddling very hard I can almost go fast without needing a steep incline. It cost the same as my former mama-charu and fits in the back of my pint-sized car. I probably save a hundred dollars a month with that thing.
Of course, this is because I live in the city. In the country you need a car or the stamina of a wild boar in full charge. Or a head teacher in full dress-code infraction lecture-mode. Either will probably do the trick.
It’s a holiday Monday and the shopping streets are packed. Mothers and fathers, high school boys and girls, tourists, elementary school kids, ba-chans and ji-chans jostle and shuffle their way down the pavement, flowing in and out of every kind of shop imaginable.
These streets exist in every city, more or less. My city has a famed shopping district where on any given day several hundred shops will readily compete to sell you the same pair of tights for the same price with the same discounts. Remarkable or depressing, it’d be more memorable if every street didn’t look the same. Boiled-brown brick pavement and dirty skylights, with the ubiquitous sprays of plastic flowers interspersing every sign imaginable. Shop fronts open directly to the street and cars dare not venture down during shopping hours. Whole bicycles are swallowed by the laughing crowds. It is a spectacle if nothing else.
My last city had such a shopping district as well, twenty minutes from my house by bike, just like this one. Only, that one had died.
If you think a street cannot die, I challenge you there. Shutters stayed down in front of long-forgotten shops, and what was open sold over-priced fruit, old-woman clothing, junk-shop grade home-goods, and Japanese food of questionable cleanliness. Nobody went there. Nobody cared as one by one doors closed and never opened again.
I like my city’s big shopping district, but I can’t help but notice it only bustles on the weekends. It’s a depressing thought.
A statistic I read said that forty percent of Japanese women are unemployed. It did not say whether this was choice or upbringing or lack of jobs or social pressure, only the number. My guess is a combination of all four.
I have joined their chatting ranks, these women who fill the cafes at two in the afternoon and leisurely stroll through the supermarket at a quarter to eleven. Some have children in tow but most come in twos and threes, laughing on their way. Young and old, prosperous and less-so, they are not a dying breed by halves. America’s housewife and homemaker may be going the way of the dinosaurs but these ladies push on. They fill fabric stores with the sounds of their ideas, make three meals a day from scratch. A busy army of home-made industriousness.
It is easy to both admire and misunderstand these women. Not all of them chose their way of life, but most, I think, would not choose otherwise. They live a life both easy and difficult, often with a mother-in-law looking over their shoulders, a dog they take care of, a club they attend as religiously as church.
Theirs is a lonely lot, or at least I think so. Homes are echo chambers of the heart. An unhappy home will never reflect laughter. An unhappy heart will never see the sunlight through the window in the ceiling.
When I left my second-to-last job, it was the housewives who made me beautiful cards and expressed their sincere words of thanks. It was they who had attended their children’s classes diligently, seen me interact with them, noticed how I was each week. It was they who took photos and bought flowers for me and made sure their children said thank you. It was they who moved me to tears.
Yes, I have joined their ranks for a brief time, but some days I do not feel worthy of it.
There was a street festival last night. I didn’t know about it beforehand, but wandered into its midst quite unawares. I was on my way to the post office with my fiancé when we spotted the food stalls, bright yellow, red, and orange. Crowds clogged the sidewalk, all of humanity out for this one night. We waded through it as best we could, dropped the parcel, then came back for more.
No less than three bands played in various nooks and crannies, and they tinted the areas around them with their strains. A comedy-rock band kept a beer-garden on the main road entertained, while a punk group tucked in an empty parking lot made children cover their ears and the local roughs laugh. Still another group played jazz with saxophones and a big base cello, surrounded by smoking men and wine-sipping women.
In the midst of the crowds a man was working an audience by showing off a Chinese yo-yo. He promised to perform the tricks while balancing on a small see-saw on top of a box. The crowd applauded, and laughed at his jokes. Next he solved a rubick’s cube behind his back, twisted balloons and juggled clubs. I couldn’t understand half the jokes he told and it didn’t matter. The crowd laughed, and I laughed with them. We were connected and that was enough.
After that my fiancé and I found a candy apple and a handy ledge to sit on while eating it. A drunk spotted our spoils and pointed to it with a grin.
“Candy apples? Where did you get a candy apple?”
I pointed down the street. “Over there.”
It was my fiance’s turn to point. “Down the sidewalk.”
“Oh! Yeah. Are you American?”
“Candy apples! Bye bye!”
We laughed, because this is so typical. Everyone wants to know: where are you from? Not because it will mean anything to them, but because it’s something. Something they can say. See? It says. We are connected! We don’t know the joke, but we know when to laugh.
The joke was on him, of course. Only one of us is actually British.
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Thanks for reading.