When the residents of the Good Hood roll out their futons and fluff their chaff pillows at the end of another long, sultry day, most are too tired to hear the orchestra warming up outside their window: the clicks and whirrs, hisses and purrs, croaks and growls of the neighborhood’s other denizens.
The ‘others’ are the insects, reptiles, stray cats, pets-on-the-run, drunk English teachers and other nocturnal animalia exotica that take care of their primal needs after the meek, the sane and the sensible have hit the tatami mats.
Like other towns and cities across Japan, Himeji’s skies, streets and waterways crawl with creatures of the scaly, slimy, boggled-eyed or beaked kind.
Look into the sky on sunset and you’ll see hundreds of black crows cruising north after scavenging the city streets and parks. Where are they headed?
“Where do you think,” says Smokin’ Joe Masumoto, the old kitchen gardener who lives up my street. “The Crow Bar. Ha-ha!” (Is the quality of one’s jokes relative to one’s age? Chew on that one and get back to me.)
But back to the animals - ah yes, the bats that skirt and dive for insects over the Semba River on dusk, the white egrets that trawl the shallows for medaka fish, the swallows that roost under the eves of people’s houses and bother no-one.
Unlike those damn paddy frogs. How would you like a million amphibians on your doorstep, generating a sonic ripple that comes in nauseous waves from across the rice paddies? If you live close enough, your money is on the paddy snakes.
As this traditional neighbourhood declines as a result of an aging population and a preference for modern building materials over traditional ones, an irony emerges. Nature is making a comeback. Yesterday I passed by a clump of ivy in the shape of a house. A few doors down stood a residence taken prisoner by bamboo gone mad. Roots have penetrated its entire block, pushing spears through the roof and encaging the house in a green grill. Nothing has come or gone from that place, to my knowledge, for ten years.
The gardens of these abandoned homes run wild; they become a fruit free-for-all, a biwa (loquat) bonanza, a persimmon party, kinkan (kumquat) and kiwi klatsch for the local birdlife. For months I could not locate the source of a mysterious pinging sound outside my toilet window. Then one day I looked up and there, balanced on a telephone wire, sat a fat crow firing persimmon seeds out its butt at the drain pipe. Dink, dink! ping-padink!
Now late July and the incessant drone of cicadas heralds the end of the rainy season and onslaught of summer. Can you imagine the sound of a food processor filled will one yen coins, turned on ‘high’. Multiply that din by ten and you’ll appreciate what I’ll be waking to over the next six weeks. Ah summer. Now there’s a season to test the best of the Good Hood.
But more on keeping one’s cool next week.
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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!