Whirligig

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Gumyo Tracks

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.

Gumyo Station View

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.

Gumyo Bend

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.

Gumyo Eaves

The first rays of the sun graze the brooding roof of a farmhouse.

Gumyo Jidohambai

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.

Gumyo Grove

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.

Gumyo Sunrise Groves

A fallow rice field still holding rainwater from the storm the night before. Mist was rising over all the fields

Gumyo Dawn 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.

Gumyo Shrine

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…

Gumyo Fountain

…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.

Gumyo Leaf Tunnel

My wandering took me away from the main roads into fields that welled straight up out of my childhood.

Gumyo Footprints

I love it when the tarmac slowly erodes away and turns to dirt, and then finally just peters out .

Gumyo Onions

The risen sun streaming light on a patch of onions.

Gumyo Crossing

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…

Gumyo Bend

11 Responses

  1. How interesting to follow you in your footsteps as you explore your new community, your second home. It’s so sad to see the loss of rural places, which is happening in many parts of the world of course. Did I ever tell you my eldest daughter was in Chiba as a home-stay student one summer in high school? Several years later she spent half a year in Toyota-city at a women’s college and home-stay, part of an annual exchange program with a college here.

  2. Thank you for these beautiful word pictures and photos full of slanted light and glimpses of far away. The details you describe so vividly evoke for me a strong dream-like feeling and especially at the end, that sense of something dissolving.

  3. Breathtakingly beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Yes, so beautiful. Expressive and essential at the same time.

  5. Another wonderful trip, but I think I got a little lost with the coming home, part, common room, boarding house, was that a flash back…

    Saddly much of the country life is fading away as the cementzilla eats up land for highrises.

  6. Great pictures, as always. God, I didn’t realize how much I missed those little country shrines. My longer walks in Japan usually took me to these kinds of places too, come to think of it.

  7. You know, the first thing I thought when I read this post was, “Why not move to Hokuriku?”

    Of course, it’s difficult to find a job – any job – either Fukui, Ishikawa or Toyama, but the region really has it all: hiking, country life, one beautiful urban space (Kanazawa) and wonderful weather (if you like snow in the winter and hot hot heat in the summer). However, it’s the character of the region that I love best. The Kaga region is located mostly inland, the houses typically have red tile roofs. Go up to the windswept coast of Noto, and you’ve got wonderfully silver weatherbeaten wooden houses with black roofs, that constrast nicely with the yellow sand of the beach that runs uninterrupted for about 100 kilometers up the coast.

    I’ve lived all over Japan (including just up the street from where you are, in Hitachi, Ibaraki) and Hokuriku rules. It will cure any ills in your soul. The cementzilla, while present, is not omni-present.

    What the region won’t do is cure the ills your pocket book. But, god, I love it.

  8. Man, what a week, computer-wise. I got my new computer here at the university last Wednesday and so haven’t finished setting it up yet for use with the blog (the university seems to block access to my server, so posting is going to be more difficult now) and then when I got home this weekend to my old place I discovered that my hard drive, with ten years worth of my writing, photography, music, web pages, professional design work, and so on, had developed a bad block, so that everything was unreadable. I went into the worst panic I’ve ever experienced with computers (and I’ve seen a lot of computer problems), because I had forgotten to back up this one drive. I thought all my work was gone. Luckily I found Data Rescue, which, after several tense hours waiting for the comfirmation of my credt card number, eventually fished out almost all my precious data… Needlesstosay I’ve not much had much time for writing in the blog, of if I do I’m usually so tired that I end up falling asleep right in front of the computer.

    Anyway, let’s see…

    Marja- Leena, you did mention once about your daughter, more than a year ago, though I don’t recall your having said anything about where she was. How did she like Japan?

    Christy, I’m glad that my words and pictures had the ability to carry you away a little, but I still wouldn’t want to be responsible for your complete dissipation!

    Yen, a new face! (or rather “Bewegung” as the German’s would call it, a movement in space… a “disturbance in the Force”…). Welcome!

    May, thanks, as ever. Still trying to figure out what you mean by “essential”, though. I guess you mean the feelings that you, too, would experience at such a time? Yes, personally I feel that every life, human and non, needs a proper symbiotic relationship with the place they inhabit in order to realize the full potential of their lives. When a creature constantly experiences stress from the environment it dwells in then the creature cannot attain its own sense of completion. Unfortunately it seems as if humans are bent on destroying all semblance of harmony and holism, and by using these loaded words I am not referring to Hippie peace or teenage idealism, but rather the equilibrium that results from centuries of coexistence, where time and experience weed out what doesn’t work or doesn’t fit into the society of living things. Unfortunately, too, humans seem to have developed this attitude that we are somehow exempt from checks and balances, that we are a species floating outside the sphere of “nature”… we even separate ourselves from that word, as if it is possible to not live within nature.

    I believe that a lot of spiritual, mental, and emotional problems stem from this distancing of ourselves from the land and other living creatures. It is a very sad and destructive way of looking at life.

    So walking through this new place is my first step toward at least equipping myself with the bearings to know who I am where I am.

    Zen, sorry about the confusion in the writing. I was pretty much writing at the tip of my fingers, barely aware of how the words were coming out, I was so tired. I just wanted to get something out before I let another few weeks go by unnoticed.

    Dave, those little shrines really recall a time when Japanese were intensely aware and respectful of their surroundings. The plots of land around the shrines nearly always harbor old growth trees, usually cedars, gingkos, and camphors, and are like cookie cutter islands of both biological memory and human history. They are sadly disappearing as more and more houses are being slapped together, often by razing entire hillsides or burying rivers just to accommodate a few extra houses. If this continues then the Japanese will soon have just about nothing left of their original, traditional landscape… nothing to identify them as “Japanese”. Kyoto is beautiful, but it is museum and more and more culturally isolated. A few Buddhist priests who own or run the temples and shrines along the outskirts of the city have told me that because of the unchecked development of the land surrounding them, the temples no longer look out upon the contemplative landscapes that were an essential part of the temple’s reason for being.

    CNT, I hear you! Actually I very seriously considered turning down this job just so that I could look for whatever job and home I could find in the Iiyama region of Nagano. I like the way the people think about the land there and of course the land itself. I love Toyama and have traveled several times, both by bicycle and by walking, through Shiga, Fukui, Ishikawa, Gifu, Nagano, and Niigata, all of which would answer my need to live with mountains. I also really love Yamagata, Fukushima, and Akita, and have promised myself that if I do end up living in Japan for the rest of my life that I would move to one of these places. I just couldn’t remain here in Chiba for too long; my heart would constantly be yearning for a richer landscape. This job is something that I need and personally want to grow with for a while and the areas you describe are, as you mentioned, difficult on the wallet. But maybe that’s part of the answer… those places without money tend not to waste money on useless development..

    Where exactly do you live? You’ve got my chewing my cheek with jealousy!

  9. Butuki,

    I lived mostly in Fukui Prefecture from 1994 to 2004. I now live on Vancouver Island, in Canada, but long to relocate to Japan.

    I started out on the Noto Peninsula, and then moved to Kurobe, in Toyama. After that, I lived mostly in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, just 20 minutes from Lake Biwa, and about 2 hours from either Kanazawa, Nagoya or Kyoto.

    Fukui is truly one of the most underrated parts of Japan. The food is good, the hiking is good, the weather is good, and the ken is dotted with “Little Kyotos”: Takefu, Ono, Obama.

    It’s not really a destination, but it’s a great place to stop and look around before continuing on to Kanazawa (or Hakusan). It’s also a great place to live. While the locals could hardly be called cosmopolitan, the region is fairly laid back, unpretentious, and “foreigner” friendly. Alan Booth didn’t seem to think so when he walked through the region in 1977, but I think he was dead wrong.

    I’d rather live in Ishikawa, but Fukui is where my family is (and where my son was born) so I suppose it will always be home.

    A good trip: in July, after the mountain opens (after the tsuyu, but before the typhoons start in late August) take the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Maibara, and then switch to the Hokuriku line. Stay in Katsuyama and visit the dinosaur museum. Get an early start on the Hakusan trailhead the next day. Overnight at the top, and try to make it to Yamanaka Onsen the next day.

    Yamanaka Onsen in Ishikawa is the ultimate, the best, the soul of Hokuriku.

    But I’ve nattered on long enough…

  10. Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful. I do not know any aother words.

  11. Miguel, your photos convey an intense sense of these places — a substantial achievement. What strikes me is how they contain a kind of emptiness, akin to a sadness, that echoes your words.

    Just as another point of view, I had no problem with the “coming home” part. For me, the temporal flow is very much secondary to the impressions conveyed.

    Wish I had more time to sit and read your recent posts quietly, unhurriedly. (And thanks for your perceptive comments :^))

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