A lot can change in the space of a few weeks. One day you live in a house on the sunny side of the street, the next, the Tower of Babel is rising over you.
Once again ‘nothing lasts forever’ explains it all. From dawn till dusk my 100-year-old townhouse is now masked in shadows. I want to tell my new neighbors that laundry doesn’t dry as well under moonlight. Or that my Vitamin D deficiency is giving me soft bones and muscle weakness.
My new neighbors? The daylight robbers, I have yet to meet them. They are a mystery; soft-shoed ghosts who deposit ‘sorry gifts’ in my entrance way - boxes of neatly wrapped rice crackers - perhaps because they are afraid, or ashamed to have stolen my sunshine, or just unsure of how to approach a ‘foreigner’ nextdoor. Enough rice crackers, already!
The Shinto gods are not on my side. When the newly cleared plot was sold, the owners held a ‘ground breaking’ ceremony, or jichinsai (地鎮祭). They wheeled in the spiritual artillery - a Shinto priest in full garb - to conduct the blessing. This I watched from behind my curtains, cracking my knuckles and grinding my teeth, as small piles of salt were placed at the four corners of the plot to ward off evil spirits. Could the big white man from D’under be an evil spirit? I surely drink spirits and my socks smell evil from time to time...I’ll ask next time we meet.
When construction began the stone masons were first to arrive. Up went the boundary wall in somewhat of a medieval gesture. Then came the foundation laying team, a two-man outfit in camo-print monpei (Japanese knickerbockers) who said nothing, just went about their concrete pouring and cigarette smoking until the builders took over. The builders are still here, arriving each morning at 7:30am to sit in their mini trucks and drink hot canned coffee and read comics until a few minutes before 8am when they assemble to get the day’s orders from the boss. Lip-reading, I imagine the conversation goes something like this: MINIONS: “What’s the plan, boss?” BOSS: “Build it to the sky.”
And so, as the winter days wear on and snow sometimes falls and the Siberian wind blows, the Tower of Babel rises. Rises to a symphony of staple guns, power grinders, band saws, hawking and harking and FM radio. A three-storied house beside a neighbor with just one sad story to tell. At night I lie in my futon and listen to the silence and wonder if the gods will punish the arrogance of the humans who think they can build a tower to the sky, steal the sun and rob a man of his view of a 500-year-old samurai castle.
I am trying to understand a paradox here: Japan’s population is falling but why are the number of new houses rising? Do all young home buyers want new Western-style houses with composite kitchen flooring, porthole windows and a shiny name plaque? What about maintaining traditional houses made of natural materials which ‘breathe’ in summer, diffuse sunlight in winter and smell of tatami reed and cypress wood? I think the answer is elementary, Watson: modernity equals ‘progress’ and old Japanese homes are just too dark, cold and old world.
I saw an interesting sight once, a building team huddled around a plan model of the house no bigger than a doll’s house, which they were about to build. And so it followed that these burly men who eat wood chips for breakfast and shave themselves with power grinders did just that: they built a doll’s house.
INTERLUDE: More ‘sorry’ gifts arrived yesterday. So, relative to the height of the Tower, the pile of rice crackers in the corner of my room grows.
Well, I could say life sucks. I could start drawing up a small business plan for a mushroom farm - I hear shiitake love dark, damp conditions - and I could get business cards with “artisanal shroom farmer” printed in both Japanese and English. Or, I could just saddle up Old Moe and join the tumbleweeds blowing south, hit the highway with a fistful of yen and a box of rice crackers.
If you meet a tall stranger on his nag, unshaven, in a poncho and chewing an old rice cracker, it won’t be Clint Eastwood.
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!