Chapter 1: Moving In
I moved to Japan from Scotland in 2005. Sometime in 2013 my Japanese wife and I decided to decamp from our Aichi commuter town. We both grew up in the countryside and the idea of space, of green-ness, of silence and solitude resonated like a temple bell. We contacted a fudo-san (an estate agent/realtor) and explained our plan.
“So where do you want to buy a house?”
“We don’t care, as long as it’s rural.”
“But close to your jobs?”
“No, we’re going to get new ones.”
“Okay. But somewhere convenient?”
“No, we don’t care about convenience.”
He put down his pen and looked at us, baffled by this un-Japanese concept.
“So what is your criteria?”
“Beautiful. Quiet. Big.”
“We want to grow our own vegetables.”
“You want to be farmers? Oh, in that case -”
“No, just enough to support ourselves.”
“Okay, but the house. Do you want…”
“We don’t care about that either. It’s the land that matters.”
He threw his pen down in defeat, clearly a man who had never seen The Good Life. He mulled, hummed, pondered the ceiling.
“You know what? My job’s getting pretty boring. This sounds like a new challenge. I’m in.”
Three years later, in May 2016, we got the keys to a house in Gifu Prefecture. It wasn’t as rural as we first imagined – we have neighbors, and it’s only a 20 minute drive to the nearest supermarket – but it’s a small community and we’re on the edge of it, surrounded by trees, seemingly cut off. It was idyllic and we were delighted.
Iain with his wife and a view of their countryside idyll.
That lasted about thirty hours.
As I drove back and forth from our old apartment with boxes, bikes and bedding, my wife and her parents cleaned the new house, hung curtains, and unpacked. While I was away the Hancho-san, the head of the neighborhood association, and our immediate neighbor, Maeda-san, appeared and introduced themselves. This is how my wife relayed it to me later:
After introducing themselves they started complaining about the trees. They want us to cut three down because the leaves block their gutters every autumn. They were so rude about it.
She was nearly in tears, the stress of the moving combined with this. I was angry, but it was night already and there was little I could do about it. We went to bed worried that we’d made a terrible mistake.
There were two main issues we were concerned about before buying the house. I was worried about racism. We were told by one owner that he wouldn’t sell to a foreigner. Another place our fudo-san told us not to buy because while driving through the village he’d seen two black right wing sound trucks parked nearby. It’s a cliché but rural communities are often resistant to incomers, and foreign incomers are usually even less welcome.
It’s a cliché but rural communities are often resistant to incomers, and foreign incomers are usually even less welcome.
My wife was worried about the neighborhood association. She quickly tires of the rules and responsibilities Japanese society foist upon its citizens. The idea of attending meetings, standing guard over garbage collection sites and having to listen to the never-ending complaints of elderly people with nothing better to do filled her with dread and loathing. Neighbors are trouble-makers, and here, she’d been proven right.
The next day I saw Maeda-san in his garden and marched across to introduce myself. After the standard pleasantries and onegaishimasu-es and your Japanese is very good-s, I broached the subject.
My wife tells me there’s a problem with the trees. Don’t worry, we’ll deal with them, but can you give us a bit of time, we haven’t even unpacked yet.
“Problem? What problem?”
“She says you want us to cut these three trees down.”
“No! Don’t cut these down. They’re cherry blossom trees, they’re so beautiful in the spring. Please don’t cut them!”
“So what’s the problem?”
“Nothing. I was just explaining to her that these trees are mine, and I’ll look after them. These ones are yours, and they’re your responsibility. Look, the land boundary runs down here.”
His son, Kensuke, who is the same age as me, came over with three beers. We kampai-ed, laughing at the misunderstanding, while they gave me a lesson in Japanese dendrology. The first hurdle was over. Since then we’ve become good friends with all three generations of the Maedas and sure enough, the trees are gorgeous in spring.
Watch this space for the next chapter, coming in April. Got any questions for Iain? Had a similar experience? Let him know in the comments below!