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The Only Gaijin in the Village: The Secret Garden

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

By 7 min read 1

Chapter 5: The Secret Garden

One of the main reasons we wanted to move into the countryside — apart from misanthropy and a penchant for the inconvenient — was to grow our own vegetables. With the news full of North Korean missile tests and Trump’s bellicose diplomacy in the region — only a small step beyond “I know you are but what am I?” — and too many hours watching post-apocalyptic dramas, self-sufficiency has never seemed less like a lifestyle choice and more like getting a head start. I try to keep it more akin to The Good Life TV series rather than The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. A fabulous short story I read online that I’ve never been able to find again lay its groundsheet and pinned its guy ropes into my cerebrum. In the story, a massive earthquake leaves Tokyo uninhabitable and millions of Tokyoites, unable to survive without restaurants and convenience stores, descend on rural Japan. It soon turns into a battle between starving refugees and farmers without enough to share.

My pitiful attempts to feed two people from the ground would hardly divert even the most peckish locust, but when you’re weeding, pruning, digging and generally waging eternal war against entropy, you have a lot of time to let your mind off the leash to run a marathon through potential.

One of my successes, though, was shiitake mushrooms. You get a section of tree about a meter or so long and at least 40 centimeters in diameter, drill holes in it and plug it with spores. Then you leave it in the garden in a dark, wet spot where fungus is as fungus does. Mushrooms, like teenagers, vampires and one of my neighbors — Mrs. Mizuhara — don’t react well to sunlight. She keeps the typhoon screens over her windows shuttered at all times so the house looks abandoned and whenever she ventures outside, she does so covered head to toe in fabric — like a cross between the invisible man and a laundry pile. As a Scot, I don’t understand this fear of the sun. Avoiding sunburn is one thing, but the terror of exposing even one skin cell to daylight is neurotic. My wife’s friends are like that. When we visit them, regardless of the time of day and year, the curtains are closed and the A/C or heaters are on. When we invite them round for a barbecue, they insist on sitting inside while I cook by myself in the garden. Maybe they are really mushrooms in disguise.

So we got a bumper crop. Too much for us to handle. Some we dried and stored, some we gave to neighbors and family, but for a few days, we ate shiitake with everything. My preference is to lightly fry them in chili-infused olive oil with a dash of lemon. My wife prefers them fried with butter and salt. Mushrooms are like pancakes. We experimented with flavors, toppings, accompaniments. A particular success was serving them with a very spicy homemade salsa, dipping wedges like carrots in hummus or sausages in honey.

One evening, after my wife had gone to bed and I was up watching The Walking Dead and thinking about canned goods and whether I should dig a shelter in the garden, I spotted a couple of saucer-sized shiitake on the chopping board, leftover from dinner prep. I quickly sliced them up, grabbed the salsa, a glass of red wine and set to munching.

About two in the morning I wake up.

“Something’s wrong.”

I shake her awake.

“Ugh. What is it?”

“My mouth, my face feels strange. Like it’s swelling.”

I grab for the light switch, a string hanging down with a luminescent knob on the end, missing it a couple of times as it dances like a firefly.

She examines me, prods my cheeks, touches my forehead. Hot.

“Is it just your face?”

“My whole body feels hot.”

“How much did you drink?”

“It’s not that, I don’t know what this is. I don’t like it.”

“It sounds like an allergic reaction. What did you eat and drink tonight?”

“Everything. Same as you. Nothing unusual.”

She sits up, her back against the headboard and starts tapping at her phone. I go through a list of meat, vegetables, drinks. Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing she didn’t eat, either.

“Do you need to go to the hospital?”

“I don’t know. If it gets worse, my tongue… “

She drives me to the nearest emergency hospital, about thirty minutes away. Inside the hospital, a bored middle-aged man sits behind the reception desk. All the lights are off apart from the ones above the entrance, in his little cubby hole, and along a single corridor straight ahead. The hallways to the left and right are pitch black. The only sound is the automatic door juddering open.

My wife explains what’s happened while I hang back. He says nothing, hands over a clipboard. She takes the forms, hands them to me and we retreat to the benches.

It’s a standard medical questionnaire: conditions, allergies, medications. When we reach the “allergies” box she hesitates.

“Only cats. But I haven’t eaten any in ages.”

“You must be allergic to something. I think it might have been the mushrooms.”

“I ate them yesterday and I was fine. You can’t develop an allergy overnight.”

“It must be them.”

I return the clipboard and pen. He points at the benches, never makes eye contact. I rejoin her, look over the posters and signs, everything aimed at the elderly — osteoporosis, dementia, flu shots. They know their demographic. Posters on sexual health or MMR vaccines would be wasted here. Japanese hospitals are divided, scattered around the cities. An ear, nose and throat clinic over here, orthopedics over there, women’s health in a third location. In a country with a huge, aging population, the majority of emergencies that ambulances get called out for involve the elderly: heart attacks, strokes, dementia-related accidents. I don’t just feel like a foreigner in here, I feel like a visitor from another time. The young (or relatively young) of Japan — natives and foreigners alike — are afterthoughts of policy, the remainder at the end of a calculation.

A door opens, casting light across the linoleum like something out of The X-Files. I go in. 10 minutes later I come back out.


“It was the shiitake.”

“Did you get a shot?”

“Yeah. We have to wait about half an hour to see if it works or if I have another reaction.”

“How come you’re suddenly allergic to them?”

“I’m not. I ate a couple more after you went to bed. Raw.”

“Raw? So?”

“The doctor said that shiitake contain something called lentinan, but that even lightly cooking them destroys it.”

“So, if you eat them raw… “

“It’s pretty rare. About one in five hundred people react. I’m special.”

“You’re an idiot.”

“They were so delicious.”

“They taste even better cooked.”

“My way seemed easier.”

In Scotland, when you imagine gardens, they are places of beauty, places of order. The secret garden, the garden of evening mists, the garden of earthly delights. You tend them, trim and prune them, play in them when you’re young and lie in them on sunny days. In Japan, I’m slowly learning, gardens have a sinister hue. Things want to bite you, to sting you, to poison you — even the things I grow on purpose want to kill me. It’s getting to the point where I wouldn’t be surprised to find a triffid shuffling between the vegetable patch and the shed.

As the summer heat builds and the rainy season lives up to its imaginative name, mosquitoes multiply, weeds spread like memes and under every rock, another centipede lurks. Perhaps my friends hiding inside with their air conditioning and curtains have a point after all.

If this is your first time reading “The Only Gaijin in the Village,” you may like to start from the beginning and meet Iain and his wife, as well as Maeda-san and his family. Or, if you’ve already been introduced, you might be interested in the previous article in the series.

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  • Kai2591 says:

    Please do dig a shelter in your garden.

    You’ve eaten cats?
    How’s the taste?



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