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The Only Gaijin in the Village: Comfortably Numb

In May 2016 my wife and I moved to rural Japan. I am the only foreigner in the village.

By 6 min read 1

Chapter 12: Comfortably Numb

In physics, there is the concept of the observer effect. It states that the act of observation will necessarily alter the thing being observed. You can’t check the pressure of a tire without some of the air escaping. Immersing a thermometer in a liquid to measure the temperature will change the temperature of the liquid. Pointing a camera at someone automatically causes them to suck in their stomach. Observation changes the observed.

Moving to rural Japan has changed me. Of course it has; it couldn’t not. I’ve become calmer, more patient. Things happen at a slower pace here — or not at all. Like it or not, you have to wait. Convenience is an afterthought. Mick Jagger could very well have been thinking about the lack of convenience stores in rural Gifu when he penned “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” I’ve developed a new skill set. I’ve learned how to grow vegetables, how to bring down rotten trees without endangering all life in the vicinity. I’ve been inducted into the secret ways of the community association, and have come to understand the importance of appearance over reality in dealing with social expectations. The Iain of Scotland Past wouldn’t recognize the Iain of Japan Present, and not just because of the effects of aging, cell regeneration and the addition of a beard you could lose a badger in.

Moving to rural Japan has changed me. Of course it has; it couldn’t not.

But the observer effect states that while I’ve changed under the gaze of my neighbours, they must have changed as I’ve been observing them. Another law in physics states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The mere presence of a foreigner among them must have had some impact, however small.

I’ve written before about the importance of calendars, seasons and the weather in Japan. Camp sites close on Aug. 31 regardless of temperature and no matter how much climate change messes with the reality, the “rainy season” is still considered to be wedded to the rigidities of the Gregorian calendar. There is a value system attached to weather, chief of which is “cold equals bad.” Those of us who adhere to the maxim that “there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes,” are in the minority in Japan. Even more unusual are those who think sitting in the garden during a snowstorm is fun.

I am one. My father is another. When my Australian cousins came to Scotland to experience Christmas on the top half of the world, my father — in response no doubt to repeated reminders of “having Christmas on the beach” down under — decided to welcome them with a barbecue. In Scotland. At Christmas. My family lays claim to the invention of the “sarcastic barbecue.”

In winter, I know I’ll be alone. The only one mad enough to sit outside in a snowstorm is the only gaijin in the village.

Since then, we have both developed a taste for enjoying our respective gardens regardless of prevailing conditions. As the new year got under way, I decided it was time for the first fire of the year. I stoked the flames to a healthy inferno. Feeding the blaze with the remnants of pruned trees, the scent of burning cherry wood drifted across the rice fields as the skies opened and the snow started falling. Warm in my fleece, ski jacket, gloves and hat, I settled down with a glass of red wine and the music on my phone on shuffle.

There was no chance of my wife joining me. She was inside, all heaters on, buried in blankets, watching news reports of the coldest winter in Japan for 40 years. I like these moments by myself, watching the flickering flames, listening to something appropriate — Neil Young is perfect campfire accompaniment, Lightnin’ Hopkins, too — losing myself in daydreams. That day I left it on shuffle, happy with whatever came on. In summer, various neighbors will wander over, join me for a drink, offer advice about fire fuel and placement and just enjoy the atmosphere, the wood smoke and Mt. Ontake in the distance. In winter, I know I’ll be alone. The only one mad enough to sit outside in a snowstorm is the only gaijin in the village.

But as the new year began and my first year in the village drew to a close the observer effect made itself known. First Maeda-san’s son, Kensuke, came over, wrapped up like he was hunting Yeti and clutching a bottle of sake. He settled down and we passed the bottle back and forth in the white silence. Soon the crunch of footsteps announced Okumura-san’s arrival. I unfolded another chair and he joined us. Kensuke’s brother, Kyota, was next. Then Miyagawa-san, my neighbor on the other side and outgoing hancho (head of the community association).

Small talk passed over the fire as the bottles — sake and wine — circulated. The music cycled through tracks they recognized — The Beatles, Dylan — and things they didn’t — Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains. Kensuke sang along with what he knew. Not a single “Samui ne?” (“Cold, isn’t it”) was exchanged. In Maeda’s and Miyagawa’s houses, curtains twitched as those inside looked on in disbelief. My wife wandered out, presumably wondering if I was frozen like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, a new garden ornament that would thaw out in spring.

“Oh god,” she said to me in English. “Your madness is contagious.”

“It’s not just hereditary.”

Kensuke’s wife came out carrying a tray and shaking her head. “Sweet potatoes.”

Wrapped in foil, we placed them in the fire. The women left us, still shaking their heads.

“It’s not so cold,” said Miyagawa.

“Will you be happy to not be hancho-san anymore?” I asked.

“Yes. It’s a lot of work.”

“Who’s next?” said Okumura.

“Mizuhara-san.” He leant forward, placed his hand on my knee with a grin. “And after that it’s your turn.”


Junban, ne. It goes in order.”

The music cycled on to Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.” Kensuke prodded the sweet potatoes, their tart, charred odor strong in the air.

“I’ll do my best,” I said.

“Don’t worry,” said Miyagawa, passing me the sake. “We’ll help.”

The snow settled, softly masking the village that was all but silent except for the crackling of the fire and the clinking of glass.

Read more chapters in this (so far) 12-part series. Want to know about a particular part of Iain’s life in rural Japan? Let us know in the comments below!

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