The Barley Fields

posted in: Japan, Journal, Life In, Tokyo | 8
Hearth Pole
Open hearth pole from my home, Tokyo, 1984.

This is the 3rd installment of the ongoing series of discussions about place at the Ecotone: Writing About Place site. This week’s topic is Suburbs.


On the night my family arrived in Tokyo from New York we were driven into the city from Haneda Airport. It had been a long flight, with a transit in Honolulu for refueling, and we were all tired and a bit dazed. A representative from my father’s company met us at the arrivals area and escorted us out to the street, where he had his car waiting for us. The air was heavy with humidity and insects whirled around the street lights over the taxi stand. The air smelled of burning oil and something else, something sweetly organic that a newcomer like me couldn’t identify. And all the while a numb sense of dislocation surged up in my belly, like having my sense of balance ripped out from inside me, a sense of being physically there, but my soul lingering in another time far away. When I think back on that moment, it is curious that I can remember the details of arriving in Tokyo, but can’t recall a single image of the moment we left New York…

As we pulled out of the airport and made our way into the city, Tokyo rose around us, the dark walls of the buildings lit up by a carnival of bright, flashing neon lights, every building seemingly decorated with gay, vertical signs to silently cheer our arrival. My father, gazing in amazement with his face pressed to the window exclaimed, “Why do they call New York the City of Lights? This is the City of Lights!”

Tokyo would be my home for the next ten years and would shape me in ways that I could not have imagined while I was still living in New York.

Since that day, Tokyo has grown like an insatiable rabbit unmindful of the horde she has been giving birth to. Areas that I once took the train out to to spend time in the country have transformed into chic shopping neighborhoods where the fashionable meet for Sunday brunch and cappucinos. Downtown West Shinjuku, the heart of big business and government today, with its soaring skyscrapers and wide avenues, still billowed with barley fields when I was a boy. It was a Sunday adventure in junior high school for my best friend Alex and me to spend our weekend afternoons riding all the high speed elevators to the top of the brand new buildings and have a look down. By the end of the day we would head home with splitting headaches and nausea, but heady with the elation of having topped all the tallest building in Japan in one day.

Japan has no American halfway point of suburbs. There just isn’t the space. You either build or you don’t, and where there are no mountains, every available vacancy is paved over and framed and shored up and walled in. You can take a train ride from Tokyo to Osaka, a distance of about 500 kilometers, and looking out the window, never once see the repetition of single family homes and apartment buildings and factories interrupted by any significant stretches of untouched green. In the outskirts of Tokyo proper, where people used to go hiking in low-lying woods and fields, now housing developments, Japan’s closest equivalent to the American Back to the Country movement of the 50’s and 60’s, gobble up hillsides. Entire chains of hills have been leveled to make room for all the people who want to own their own homes, especially during the heady Bubble era, when no one thought twice about the environmental consequences of all the building they were doing.

I was lucky. Tokyo was still down-to-earth enough in the 60’s and 70’s to allow me to get dirty in the fields and accumulate a repertoire of close encounters with wild creatures, especially birds and insects. I was lucky to have been one of the last children to watch fireflies winking on and off over the susuki fields by the rivers near my house. I had the opportunity to listen to the sad cry of the dusk cicada ( higurashi-zemi, Tanna japonensis. See Cicadae in Japan. Open “Songs of Cicadas”, choose your platform sound format, open sound page, and scroll down to “Tanna japonensis”. The higurashichorus3.mpeg or .wav file is the best recording.), which is just about impossible to describe to someone who has never heard it (the closest I can come to it is if you take the sound of a pencil being drawn over the slowly moving spokes of a bicycle, alter that sound into that of a locomotive whistle, but with the quality of a harmonica, and multiply the numbers to several dozen all singing together at different intervals) and I feel it is a great loss to the children of Tokyo never to have the chance to know one of the most beautiful sounds of Japan.

I grew up with walls around me, for towns in Japan traditionally wall the streets in up to shoulder height or more. Streets are enclosed on both sides, with houses coming right up to the edge, and traditionally, the entrance hall open right out to passersby. Neighbors and salesmen and people on official business would step right into the entrance hall without ringing the doorbell and announce their presence. It gave a strong sense of belonging and neighborhood watchfulness, with every one aware of what was going on around them, though, as foreigners, we were more often than not thought of as weird and unconventional. I grew used to the paradox of walls enclosing streets while doors allowed anyone in, so much so that, though I visited my relatives in New York on occasional summers, the mowed grass patchwork that constitutes so many American homes, to this day feels alien and exposed, and yet oddly uninviting.

What Tokyo has become I do not love. There is no longer any heart to the growth of the city. The newly developed area I now live in is made up mostly of young families just starting out with their careers and child-rearing. Most of them intend to move on. Since moving here three years ago, not a single person has ever returned my greetings, and half of them give me suspicious stares. One older couple, which unfortunately lives right behind our bedroom window, went so far as to growl, “Go home you foreigners!” And, seeing that I looked somewhat like a Pakistani or Mexican, added as an afterthought, “You probably don’t even have a visa, do you? You’re here illegally, aren’t you?”

It is not possible for me to find peace with myself in a place that I cannot find the motivation nor means to care about. It is like living a half-life, mostly in my head. And so it may be time to move again, and once more face the tearing feeling of dislocation. But I will always carry the old barley fields in my heart, where my childhood lives and where the old roots still drink up a sense of belonging to this place, whatever the dull neighbors may assume. And the dusk cicadas will always sing where none can hear them any more.

8 Responses

  1. Fascinating!

  2. Thank you for this remarkable & beautifully written glimpse into your city and your memories of it.

  3. So beautiful…thank you. I’m intrigued by your description of the cicada sound. I want to hear it, so I did some searching. I found this page with many cicada sound links, but none sounds just as you described.
    But they are all beautiful in their own way, and interesting, and maybe you’d enjoy listening.
    http://www.isis.vt.edu/~fanjun/text/Link_specc02.html

  4. This is so sharply and beautifully written. And you have such wonderful photographs — thank you! (You remind me how lucky I am to live where being a (white) foreigner usually makes people more friendly than they would otherwise be — an interesting aftertaste of colonialism.)

  5. By popular demand I’ve added a link to a site with recordings of Tanna japonensis. I wanted to put a sound file onto the page, but I have to hear back from the Cicadae in Japan homepage owner for permission. Also I have no idea how to incorporate a sound file, so it’s going to take a few days before I have time to learn how. Anyway, I hope the recording gives a good impression of what I was referring to. Of course, it’s just a recording. There’s nothing like standing in the woods at dusk, the sun going down, shadows gathering, trees all around, and the cicadas singing in almost a delerium of sound. It’s a sound you will never forget.

  6. It’s been wonderful to read you and to make all these journeys with you! I’ve only experienced it before while reading José Mauro de Vasconcelos, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Luis Sepulveda. It seems that you have the same ability of taking us by the hand and help us magically to plunge into your tales. Thank you for letting me to join you.
    Yes, I too have known that feeling of dislocation that you felt when you arrived in Tokyo. It is quite similar to what I felt when I arrived in Portugal from Angola. 28 years ago. My roots are still there. Entangled with Mother Africa’s Heart.
    Fortunately the Earth is immense. Such as our aptitude for to dream and to love.
    (Please, excuse me for my English. You know, it’s not my mother tongue)

  7. It seems like so much is being lost everywhere.

  8. your journal is astonishingly beautiful. it makes me think of the flicker of a candle flame behind a paper door.

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