The running joke (no longer funny if it ever was in the first place) is that my life in Japan amounts to an extended working vacation. Really, the only funny thing in this (funny ironic, not funny chuckle-snort) is that the term working vacation makes no sense to me. Either (a) you are on vacation but you are so busy or wound up or both that you bring your work with you (‘Come on Dad, let's go in the water!’‘Hold on Jimmy, just gotta clean up this report and fudge I mean balance the quarterlies.’) or (b) you are extremely unproductive and/or the people in the surrounding cubicles have threatened to stage a walk-out if you don't stop resting your nose on the top ledge and saying in your Mr. Magoo voice I see you've been playing Farmville again and your boss as a last resort before canning your butt has sent you off to see how you perform in what he calls an 'alternate environment.'
Or (c) you have landed a job in a foreign country, which feels like a vacation but the reality is you go to work and then you spend your free time in novel ways until you have been abroad so long the novel has become routine. And you decide you need a vacation.
Personally I prefer vacationing in places I've never been. My wife has taken such a liking to family though I find myself heading back stateside more and more. Having babies she wants to show off only intensifies her strange affinity for New Jersey. This past month, however, we spent in California, taking advantage of an invitation to a friend's wedding and the generous hospitality of my sister in San Bernadino. I've always thought if I ever move back to the US it would be somewhere out in the wide open west, despite the underlying cultural epidemic grounded in over-sized pickups, reality TV and tattoo magazines. Bottom line though, I'd much rather be a couple hours from Yosemite than a couple minutes from Wal-Mart.
When I was in college in Washington, DC I would go home for Thanksgiving and Christmas break. Getting off the highway, driving down Route 10 and Ridgedale Avenue and Cambridge Road and into my driveway, I would look around at everything that hadn't changed and marvel at how different it all seemed. At night I'd lay down in the same bed I'd slept in my entire life, and even with my eyes closed and the room dark it all felt different somehow. Even with that same sag in the middle of the mattress. Going from Japan back to the States gives the same sort of effect, only on a magnified scale. Why are the people at the airport so surly? The New York subway has gotten so grimy and dirty. Hey when did the girls at the bars all get so chubby? To be fair, the same sort of thing happens when I return to Japan. The muzak at the supermarket has never been as annoying as it was this morning.
But this is all prelude. Being away from a place we are to any degree familiar with, and then returning to that place, the way we see and perceive things – and, if we care to, the way we think about our surroundings, from the material to the intangible – it all tends to change. Two weeks ago the apples in the Safeway in San Mateo resembled all the apples I'd ever seen before, yet now they were ridiculously shiny, which made me notice how perfect the entire produce section looked, which stirred in me a momentary sense of gratitude for having been born in a land of such plenty, though I then began to wonder how natural all this natural food really was. And it has probably looked like this since before I was born, I just never thought about it until I spent some time perusing the markets of southeast Asia. Two days ago, back in Japan after a month in America, I looked at a rice field and saw something I'd never seen before.
The rice looked the same as it always does in the Fall – tall and golden and top-heavy. Bending down, pointing out to my son how the color meant the rice was ready to be harvested so we can eat it, something else entirely occurred to me.
This is how I have come to mark time.
When I was a kid the constructs of weeks and months were defined by artificial means: Summer is over because school is starting; sales on candy, Halloween's on the way; songs on the radio mean that soon it will be Christmas. Super Bowl, Opening Day, Fourth of July fireworks. We go to the beach every August. These are the things that ushered in the seasons. As an adult the signals are less spirited: TGIF and long Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends; mowing the lawn and shoveling the driveway; sarcastic birthday cards. The seasonal weather of course can not be ignored – unless you live in a place that has none – but even these can seem to defy our ability to clearly perceive the passing of time: Summer's over already? God, will the cold ever let up? Where the heck did Spring go? And the weeks and months and years march on, right under our noses.
Japan has established her own markers: company bonuses in April and December; six sumo tournaments a year; work-related gatherings called Bo-nen-kai, which translates into 'forget about the year parties' and amounts to eating and drinking with your co-workers in the spirit of collectively accepting the fact that everyone has basically sacrificed their lives for the well-being of the city water system or the department store or the oil seal manufacturing industry.
Yet in Japan there are also more sublime reminders of the passing of time and the eternal essence of existence (if I may wax esoteric). There is the springtime tradition of O-hanami, well-known even outside of Japan as the eagerly-anticipated custom of getting together with family friends and colleagues to eat, drink, talk, sing karaoke and otherwise enjoy and appreciate the beauty of the flowering cherry blossoms. Some people may even pause to appreciate the short-lived blossom season as an allusion to the fleeting nature of life on Earth for all living things, though most people seem to be more interested in simply having a good time and letting off steam and forgetting that they have sacrificed their lives for the good of the city water system.
Another Japanese remembrance of time tied to nature is that the vernal and autumnal equinoxes are official national holidays. And they do not move them around to allow for three-day weekends either. June 21st is on a Tuesday this year? Okay, work and school on Monday then a day off to enjoy the sun as it hangs over the equator. That is, if Dad isn't going in to work to check on the water flow valves just to be safe, and little Hiroyuki isn't going off to cram school for a special eight-hour pre-calc tutorial to make sure he's ready for the middle school entrance exam next March.
As I am neither preparing for any sort of entrance exams nor have I sacrificed my adult life for any utility whatsoever, thus nullifying my chances to truly appreciate meteorological days off, to receive bonuses or go to Bo-nen-kai, I see my time passing in rice and peaches.
The phenomenon is certainly not unique to me or to Japan; people who work closely with the land or the sea, who watch and depend on the heavens as a matter of health and survival, will probably measure time's passing similarly. Only it is something I never experienced until I came to Japan. And it never really occurred to me until I walked past that rice field two days ago.
My wife's parents live on a peach farm, and are able to grow a tremendous amount of vegetables for themselves. What I suppose I knew but never appreciated until I started hanging around the farm is how certain things grow at certain times of the year. In the cold of winter people are outside hanging persimmon to dry and taking in the hakusai, a lettuce-like leafy pale green vegetable that goes into so much winter-time cooking around here. It's fresh, it's organic, and my mother-in-law can do wonders with it. But it only grows for so many weeks; when there's no more hakusai to be had, I know that Spring is on the way. Which means strawberries will for a while be plentiful and cheap. As the peach trees begin to bud in April it is time to start working on them. It takes a couple of weeks to pare down the number of peach buds on each branch of each tree; fewer peaches on the branches mean larger peaches, not to mention much less work in June when the peaches need to be individually covered in bags made of old newspaper (there's a company who makes them and sells them by the hundreds of thousands, and that's all they do) to keep the sunlight off them so they don't turn red and lose their sweetness. For forty years my wife's parents tended to over two hundred peach trees – about a hundred thousand peaches. Every year they put those little bags on the peaches. One at a time, by hand. When my father-in-law got sick two summers ago we all pitched in to save the family's harvest and income. I now have a monumental respect for farmers.
After a relative respite in July the peaches are ready for picking in August. No problem, I figured. I was all thumbs getting those stupid little bags on those stupid little pre-peaches but I can certainly pick them and put them in crates. Or so I thought until I saw that peaches don't grow at all the same speed. On every tree and every branch, peaches grow at varying rates. This is still a mystery to me; I wanted to ask but my mother-in-law just told me to get picking. So we made our rounds, checking all the peaches on all two hundred trees, picking only the big ones. The small ones we would get on subsequent rounds when they were bigger, heavier, and thus worth more as they sell by weight. But wait too long to pick them and they grow soft and are therefore unsellable as they won't make it through the transportation process without getting brown and mushy and nasty. When the picking is finally done that means Fall is just around the corner. This means that the nashi, the Japanese pears, are just about in season. Then the weather turns colder and the apples begin to ripen.
Through all this, the rice fields turn from swaths of brown to massive squares of irrigated water, to pools with neat lines of green sprouts sticking up through the surface. Soon the fields are thick with rows of growing shoots, which turn a beautiful green before becoming heavenly golden sheaves. Which are in due time cut and gathered, leaving bare fields of earth once again. And another season has passed.
This weekend Fukushima holds its annual Inari Shrine Fall Festival. We will go downtown and meet with friends to drink, talk, laugh and dress up in our traditional festival garb. We will yell and sing to celebrate another year's blessings, pulling through the streets these huge wooden floats, dripping with red lanterns on all sides. The sound of drums and flutes will fill the air. Age-old Japan will be visible everywhere, mixed in with the hum of electric generators for the lanterns and cases and cases of Asahi beer. It's Fall in Fukushima. Winter is on the way.
I biked past that same rice field this morning, on the way to the supermarket. There's nothing there now but two huge squares of mud, lined with the brown remains of the rice plants that have been harvested once again.