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The Only Gaijin in the Village: Paint it Black

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

By 7 min read

Chapter 10: Paint It Black

Winter for the amateur farmer and gardener in Japan means — like a tour cyclist cresting a hill just as the drugs kick in — a change of pace. The onions, potatoes and carrots are safely implanted, literally embedded in the turf ready for fattening. The rice has been harvested, the stalks burnt and the fields bereft of all but stubble. The cycle of growth and bloom that is the lot of life on this planet has entered its fallow period and the weeds have given their upwardly mobile nonsense a bloody rest. There is some respite from the regular chores but no rest for the committed. Our attention turns to those jobs long put aside.

Two things have been hanging around my to do list like bored teenagers in an underpass, filling me with more dread than one of my favorite celebrities suddenly trending on Twitter.

The first is the far corner of the garden. My land is roughly rectangular, running long-ways from road to road, and bounded by Maeda-san on one side and Mizuhara-san on the other. However, for some bizarre reason known only to history and bureaucracy, Maeda’s land is about ten meters shorter than mine. Beyond his newly-planted orange trees there is about four meters of no-man’s land owned — on paper at least — by Gifu Prefecture. As far as I can tell, nobody from the prefecture or city offices has ever been to see — or more importantly tend — this land and so Maeda and I take turns to keep the bamboo, parasitic vines and other assorted chlorophyll-toting pests at bay. The remaining four meters are mine, a jagged hangnail off an otherwise geometrically pleasing shape.

Due to the remains of several tree stumps (from before my time) and the proximity of a sharp drop down to a relatively busy road, I’m at a loss over what to do with this spit of land. Maeda’s grandkids use it as a shortcut to school and in order to avoid entanglement, both literal and legal, I need to go at it machete first. The problem here is that Nagamatsu-san lives on the other side of the road and he’s a talker. Retired, with his sole daughter and grandkids living in China after her husband was transferred, and a wife who (in his words): “Doesn’t like me very much, at least not since I retired.” He’s always on the lookout for a good natter. He’s a nice guy and I’ve had many interesting chats with him. He’s one of the few old men around here that understands how to modulate his language so I can follow him. The others can be as impenetrable as a White House statement of clarification. However, like an over-elaborate series of similes, once he starts he’s very difficult to stop. So, like Nigel “The Lawnmower” de Jong in the 2010 World Cup, I’ll get about ten minutes quality hacking done before being halted. The key is to do it on a rainy day, when the weather will keep him at bay.

To offset the warm, light wood, the previous owners had painted them what I can only describe as Exorcist-green. I looked at the walls much like Brits are looking at the current government, thinking, ‘this has got to go.’

Since this day is clear and dry, I lump instead for option number two: painting the tatami room. The biggest room in the house — technically two rooms but like any good DVD collection, I dispensed with the sliding doors — that the previous owners used in the traditional way. There was a butsudan (Japanese family shrine), a few hanging scrolls of the wispy-Chinese-mountain variety and cupboards full of off-cuts of wallpaper. It was a dark, cold and depressing place when we viewed the house.

The shrine departed with them, the scrolls and wallpaper were left as gifts-come-annoyances. I decided the room would be much better suited to my guitars and related appliances, a projector and screen, a big-ass stereo system (to use the jargon of audiophiles) and two of those chairs Chandler and Joey refused to leave in Friends (though not the electric one they should have made Ross sit in).

I stripped the paper from the shoji (paper sliding doors) leaving the beautiful maple frames. I took the thick curtains off the window allowing light in for the first time in potentially decades. It helped a little but the main problem was the walls. To offset the warm, light wood, the previous owners had painted them what I can only describe as Exorcist-green. I looked at the walls much like Brits are looking at the current government, thinking, “this has got to go.”

These “sand walls” required a specific kind of paint, which, much like the imagery, I had to layer on with a trowel. This posed no significant problems on the big, open expanses of wall, but the pure, pristine maple wood edges right up against the hideous green were another matter. Even with enough tape and plastic sheeting to make the room look like a set from American Psycho, troweling thick paint without going over the lines was tricky. I wished I’d paid more attention at school when we did painting-by-numbers instead of committing the laws of osmosis and diffusion to memory. Although at least the latter did remind me to open the windows before I got too high on the fumes.

All together, with drying time and second coats, it took three days. There were a few dabs on the wood but they came right off with a wet cloth. The walls were now a dramatic bright white, like teeth in a toothpaste ad, or clothes in a washing powder advert or hosts on a Fox News show. Unfortunately, the tatami had been defiled, streaked with paint like someone had moved Harvey Weinstein’s favorite potted plant. I didn’t mind too much though, as it technically helped in the ongoing debate over whether to leave the tatami or replace it with floorboards.

At the end of the third day, my wife came home from work and I met her at the door like an excited Alsatian, flush with energy having finished doing it myself, had a beer or two in celebration and with the accumulated tension of three days listening to a lot of Dinosaur Jr. and The Replacements. I should know by now that the moments after returning from work aren’t my wife’s best. She hasn’t learned that shouting at bad drivers on the commute gets it out of your system before crossing the home threshold, a trick my fellow commuters are aware I long ago mastered. I should know this about her, but like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day or Melania Trump, I foolishly assume each day might be different.

“Come and see what I did.”

“Hang on. Let me sit down for a minute.”

“You’ve just been sitting in the car.”

“Okay. Show me.”

“Taa-daa!”

She walks around the room much like the drill sergeant inspecting the troops in Full Metal Jacket.

“It’s good.”

“Thanks.”

“Especially over here. You can see how much you improved.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I can tell that you started in that corner and finished here. It looks professional here.”

And a man claims to have invented negging.

There are few things as pathetic as an enthusiastic male ego punctured by the well-placed lance of indifference. I spent the rest of the evening in a sullen sulk, caught between childishly wanting to destroy my work in a fit of pique and avoiding facing up to a summit of achievement that turned out to be false. I’d taken down the tape and sheets, but she was right. The earliest parts looked patchy and flakey, like a Trump appointee’s grasp of climate science, and needed attention. But I couldn’t find the energy. If you don’t stand too close, you can’t see the corners of green, the chips of paint. I’m not a professional and I did my best. Besides, that spit of land won’t take care of itself.

The next day found me in the street with Nagamatsu-san, leaning on my rake, nodding along in sympathy. Doing it yourself is all very well but nothing beats a good natter with a comrade.

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