The Only Gaijin in the Village: Happy When it Rains

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Photo by Justine Wong

Chapter 9: Happy When it Rains

In 12 years, I haven’t got used to the Japanese climate. I first came to Japan in the summer of 2005 and strolling out of Kansai Airport into a wall of humidity gave me the first of many, “We aren’t in Kansas anymore” moments. Although Kansas may have prepared me better than the northeast of Scotland. Perhaps more apt would be: “We’re nae in Aiberdeen ony mair, Toto.” That summer, I hid in air-conditioned rooms, refused clothes in all but the most necessary of circumstances and, once, spent two hours sitting in a cold bath reading.

Things haven’t improved. I haven’t done a DNA test but I’d wager that every A, T, G and C nucleobase in my body originated somewhere north of the 60th parallel. I once sweated so much in the Cambodian heat that I had to dry my passport on stone walls at Angkor Wat despite it being in a supposedly waterproof case. My far more southern European friend and the local tuk-tuk driver thought my impending dehydration hilarious.

Despite of my internal thermostat issues with the climate, moving out to the Japanese countryside and attempting self-sufficiency means I pay attention to the weather cycles a lot more, something I’d neglected on ideological grounds. Quite simply, I can’t stand people who think that the weather is a suitable topic of conversation. Don’t get me wrong, the science of meteorology is fascinating — particularly the mathematics of fluid dynamics and chaos theory, and their application in mapping — but conversations about the weather that is literally occurring in front, above and around us at that exact moment are frustratingly redundant. This irrational irritation is unfortunate, since I moved from Scotland to Japan — two countries bound together by an obsession with discussing the bleeding obvious in the blandest possible terms. Statements like, “Samui, ne? (Cold, isn’t it?)” and “Atsui, ne? (Hot, isn’t it?)” are the conversational equivalents of mosquitoes: annoying, everywhere and impervious to swatting.

For example, every August my mother says: “We haven’t had much of a summer this year.” She’s said that every year since 1983. She probably said it in 1980, ‘81 and ‘82, as well, but I have no coherent memories of that period. In the northeast of Scotland, it isn’t clear what she expects “much of a summer” to be, but it can’t realistically be anything other than three days of sunshine in a row followed by a Noah-esque deluge.

Now, however, the vagaries of temperature and rainfall are part of my life. I watch temperatures the way models watch calories. I stare at the sky the way voyeurs stare at curtains. I check weather apps the way Trump checks his Twitter feed. Gardening and farming have introduced me to the unique experience of praying for rain.

I’m from Scotland. We all know the stereotype: it rains. People comment on the rain in Scotland as if the natives are 1) unaware and 2) can do something about it. It’s strange that other countries (England, specifically) would use something over which we have no control — Scotland is part of an island, west of which is the Atlantic ocean, of course it rains, it would be weird if it didn’t — as a way of having a go at us, but there you are. Rain isn’t a big deal. You open the curtains, see that it’s raining, shrug and get on with your day. There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes. Unless you’re planning a barbecue on a nudist beach, I guess.

Japan is supposed to have a specific rainy season which supposedly runs from mid-June to mid-July, though climate change is messing with this structure. The oft told joke that the Japanese weather forecast is printed in the back of the phonebook is no longer funny-because-it’s-true (if it ever was funny — and besides, when was the last time you saw an actual phonebook?). This year, the rainy season was pretty dry, but the hot, dry summer saw an enormous amount of water fall from the heavens, most of it onto — and occasionally into — my tent.

Vegetables need a decent balance of rain and sunshine. Too much of either and they die. When Noah allegedly saved the animals from the flood, he didn’t bother saving the peppers or the cauliflowers. The bible doesn’t mention what the coriander and basil did to offend the Lord. Whatever their sin, apparently they did fine underwater for forty days and nights and were able to grow again the second the sun came out and the water that covered every inch of the Earth’s surface went… elsewhere? But in my garden, a week of rain leaves my onion shoots looking like the vegetable patch is attempting a combover and the potato stalks crashed out like drunk salarymen on a train station bench. Unfortunately, that’s what we’ve had recently. Non-stop rain interrupted only by typhoons.

Statements like, ‘Samui, ne?’ and ‘Atsui, ne?’ are the conversational equivalents of mosquitoes: annoying, everywhere and impervious to swatting.

The weather, much like America, isn’t behaving the way it’s supposed to. And it isn’t just messing with my growing season. It’s ruining life in the village. The local elementary school had to cancel its sports day and, after a literal rain check, ended up making do with having the kids run around the junior high school’s gymnasium. The junior high school, likewise, had to cancel a series of “volunteer” days when students had to “voluntarily” collect papers, clothes and toys for recycling. It also meant the local market had to be held indoors.

The word “market” in this instance is perhaps misleading. There are a handful of stalls selling vegetables, baby clothes, cookies and what I can only describe as wicker tat. Everyone stands around the stalls eating, drinking, chatting and noticeably not buying anything wicker. Usually it’s held at the end of every month in the car park of the local shrine but this time the junior high school had to turn over its gymnasium, still recovering from relays and sprints. The stalls were erected as per usual, with the dango (sweet dumpling) seller relegated to a spot outside the door where the overhang of the roof kept the worst of the rain off. The elder men resumed their “mine’s bigger than yours” [see Chapter 7] discussions around the vegetable stand where outsized daikon and pumpkins mixed with ginger and leek.

My wife and I wandered down, having little else to do on a rainy Sunday and while she got earholed by some of the local Pepperpots, I spotted Kensuke [see chapters 1 and 4] in the bike shed. While standing in a shrine car park drinking cans of beer and eating dango is apparently fine, doing the same in a junior high school gymnasium is weird, so Kensuke and some of the other men had congregated in the bike shed where smoking and drinking are apparently fine.

I joked with Kensuke about bike sheds and teenage memories but either my Japanese is flawed, Kensuke never partook of youthful rebellion or, more likely, he didn’t want to admit to anything in earshot of his own teenage daughter. My comments landed hard in the puddles, much like Kensuke’s youngest. To avoid the awkwardness, I had to change the subject.

“This rain, eh? Will it never end?”

“Yep. It’s so unseasonal.”

“That’s global warming for you.”

“You’re not wrong there.”

I hated myself. I took a drink.

“At least it’s not cold.”

“No? It’s freezing.”

“Really? It’s only about 18 degrees.”

“Exactly.”

“That’s like a Scottish summer.”

“But it’s raining.”

“Exactly.”

That’s the thing with crossing cultures — you have to find common ground somewhere. Making a home in a new place is an organic process that can’t be forced. Relationships are built like nests, one small twig at a time. Weather, like death and taxes, is universal. Weather, unlike death and taxes, is uncontroversial. Boring, yes. Controversial, no. And when you’re standing in the rain while your neighbor is comforting a crying 7-year-old, it’s best to avoid the controversial. There’s a hell of a lot of controversial in the world today so some blandness can be reassuring. It’s comforting to know that across the planet right now, whether it’s two scientists in Antarctica, two mountaineers at Everest base camp or two shoppers outside the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, people are looking at the sky and going, “God, this weather. That’s global warming for you.”

It’s also comforting to know that across the planet right now climate experts are saying through gritted teeth, “Climate and weather are not the same f$%&ing thing.” They aren’t. One is the most important issue of the day. The other is just something to fill an awkward silence while you try not to laugh at the muddy face of a child who temporarily forgot that gravity was a thing.

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Gifu-based Scottish novelist, poet, journalist and editor.

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