It has been a good 18-year partnership, this house and I. We’ve survived the parties, earthquakes and typhoons, the paddy snakes in the toilet and the swallows which carry off the earthen walls each spring, and though a little worse-for-wear, I’ve always believed we’d be a team for as long as the sun kept rising.
But now, as I tap out these words, I feel like a war reporter filing his last dispatch before the fall of Saigon; my room is shaking, the window panes are chattering, the paper sliding doors dance in their grooves. Less than ten metres from where I sit, a CAT hydraulic excavator is crunching my neighbor’s house like breakfast cereal.
“Nothing lasts forever” has been the ongoing premise/prophecy of these blog posts and today it is again being fulfilled. The enemy is at the gates. It’s a “no-hard-feelings” enemy, unshaven and Camel-smoking, but otherwise professional. I chatted with the CAT driver, a short, squat man with a gold tooth which glimmers whenever he says “Good morning.” When I asked him if I could keep the hydrangeas on the other side of my boundary line, he lit up a Camel, flashed some gold and said, “Lemme talk to the boss.”
The big boss came around last night. He came bearing gifts: a box of cakes and custard puddings and an apology for the noise and earth shaking, and said, “Yes, we will save the hydrangeas. We’ll transplant them for you a few metres to the north.” I took the cakes and said, “OK, thanks.”
As my aged neighbors have passed on and left their traditional mud and tile homes to the whims of distant relatives, “nothing lasts forever” is still the easiest way to explain the slow but sure demise of this neighborhood. The Electric Company’s dormitory building down the street was felled five years ago, Fukumizu-san’s house razed soon after. In a few days, where the CAT chews into my neighbour Toyoda-san’s house, a vast expanse of freshly pressed earth will extend all the way to the Funabiki Barber shop. The breeze will flow easily, the smell of Tahitian Lime hair tonic stronger, and the first rays of sunlight will prise open my eyes where once they couldn’t.
I watched the demo team tossing Toyoda-san’s roof tiles into the dump trucks the other day and wondered about the fate of the rat snake that lived beneath them in the roof cavity. Had he skipped town? Had he joined the growing number of pets-on-the-run? Had he eaten any of them? My Canadian neighbor has moved to the bright lights and big city in the East; his house stands empty awaiting a new tenant. Across the street, Nakanishi-san’s house is slated for demolition in the New Year. I got a gift in advance for that earth-shaking. This neighborhood has become a mouth full of old teeth waiting to be knocked out, then implanted with shiny, new things.
Meanwhile, the local real estate agent walks with spring in his step. His collar is crisp, his hair gleams obsidian like his town car; he is cleaning up. He knows that when his house-selling clients fail to close a deal after a year, he will make them an offer they can’t refuse. He will re-package their property, crank up his marketing machine and turn a tidy sum when a fish is hooked. And the fish are biting; young couples cruise our narrow, stop to take photos, prod the earth with their toes and sniff the air.
In my own uncertainty about the future, I have joined them. I inspected a house upcountry the other day; not a house, more like a whole village - a sprawling farmstead with so many interconnecting rooms, storehouses and lofts which opened onto each other, it was like stepping inside a Chinese puzzle. In the end, it was just too big, too full of ghosts and stories I didn’t know the end to. It was an enterprise, not a home.
So, is this the last Hoorah? Probably not. This house will probably stand for a few years longer. Matter of fact, the landlady has offered to sell it to me. To be honest though, the time has come to start anew. Time to let old carbon return to the earth and let it rise anew.
My resolution for 2016 will be to make a decision. Then again, nothing lasts forever, not even a resolution.
What is the essence of a traditional Japanese neighbourhood? Writing from my home in Himeji, a castle town in western Honshu, Seaweed Salad Days distills, ferments, presents!