At first, my new neighbourhood in Nerima comes across as any other near-city suburb in western Tokyo. Acres of boxy, two-storey houses with blue or rust roofs and little or no yard radiant from the train station. Functional low-rise walkups with open hallways and stairwells. Light-industry factories and warehouses. Grim schoolhouses. And in the between-spaces, fields of cabbage and onion and corn.
So very, very different from the hip, upscale neighbourhoods in central Tokyo, aka The Big Sushi, where R., my wife, and I commute every day for work.
We moved here, bought a house and everything, after eight years in nearby, semi-rural Kodaira. And that – eight years – is the longest I’ve lived in one place. Ever. So much for my “three-year adventure in Japan! Sorry, Ma. But that’s another story…
Compared to Kodaira, Nerima at first feels claustrophobic: houses, fields, cars, bicycles, pedestrians, all share too little space. Stepping out our front gate the first night in our new home, SUVs menace on the narrow, poorly lit, sidewalkless streets. Headlights swerve to the left of us, to the right of us, straight at us… and that was just in front of our house!
As we settle in, however, and on laid-back weekends explore our new surroundings, the character of the place starts to open up. Across the street from our house a spooky parkette with the copper-green statue of a child but never any real children — or anyone else, for that matter. The Muscle Gym around the corner — that’s the name, by the way, in English and Japanese — with a jacked-up 4×4 in front, a middle-aged guy with a punch perm and sweat suit smoking by the door and joking with a knot of young men. Next door two kindly obasans, middle-aged women, make bento box lunches by hand among great dusty sacks of rice from all over Japan.
Mornings, I wake before dawn brightens the skylights. A rooster crows as I hit the shower. By the time I start my walk to the station, the farmers are already hard at work trimming cabbages with long knives and loading the heads into barrows. Back from the road carrots, cauliflower, broccoli are left for sale on tables and clear-fronted, coin-operated vegetable lockers. Only in Japan….
A forty-minute commuter express ride each way takes us to and from the sky islands and neon canyonlands of the Tokyo that you, gentle reader, likely imagine. We squeeze into trains packed tight as sushi rolls, jack into iPods same as everyone else, do our best to tune out the discomfort. Lately I’ve taken to passing the time with meditation podcasts.
After a day in the workaholic city, I return to our quiet little home and even quieter neighbours, mostly retirees – or gentlemen farmers. Sometimes I catch a sunset, all cherry-blossom pink; other times I watch the moon rise through the skylights.
R. has a different schedule from me, so weeknights I am often in bed before she gets home, dreams of cabbages dancing in my head…
Maybe this isn’t the adventure I expected when I left family and friends back in Toronto all those years ago now. But as I become mindful to the details of this residential suburban life, I find myself growing and deepening in experience. And isn’t that what adventure is all about?
(With thanks to Amanda “Ax” Castleman for help with the edits…)