Chapter 8: Wuthering Heights
This summer, I felt my usual rural wasn’t rural enough so I threw my camping gear in the car and drove from Gifu to the very tip of Aomori. It started off as a fun trip — stopping off in Nagano, Niigata and Aizu-Wakamatsu before turning serious when I paid pilgrimage to the east coast of Tohoku where the tsunami struck in 2011. Evidence of devastation and tragedy still scars the area.
As I drove roads so new that my sat-nav didn’t recognize them, my head was filled with thoughts and ideas about home and community, what it means to commit yourself to a country, to an area to which you have no historic connections. This was further reinforced at around 6 a.m. on Aug. 29 when my phone screeched information at me about a “Missile launch! Missile Launch!” I was on a raised highway at the time, with no chance of finding a “strong building or underground shelter.”
With a car full of dried food, camping gear and bottled water I was probably as prepared for the end of the world as I could hope, but I was a thousand kilometers from home. After 10 days away and shaken by the alarm, I skipped planned stops in Akita and Yamagata and drove the highway home, 12 hours and the Soundgarden back catalogue (R.I.P. Chris) later I was standing in my garden doing the full Dorothy: “There’s no place like home.”
All of this meant I missed the most recent bout of community service. As detailed in Chapter 2, this involves waking and walking on a Sunday morning with fellow hungover men, protecting the streets from windborne litter. With the recent typhoons (that used to be rare occurrences this far inland, yet another thing that’s changed with global warming), this is slightly more necessary than normal and my wife was therefore made an honorary hungover man for the day (as I said in Chapter 2: outdoor jobs are considered masculine and indoor jobs are considered feminine. Feminism never got over the mountain pass here).
Consequently, this month I had to return the favor and take on the role of “elderly woman” in our small town. Our village along with two or three nearby others share a community meeting hall and a cleaning rota is in force. Again, as everybody cleans up after themselves anyway this is more for show. Since it’s all an act I gave some thought to dressing up like a Monty Python old lady but I’m pretty sure “The Batley Townswomen’s Guild Presents the Battle of Pearl Harbour” has never made it to leafy Gifu and even surer it wouldn’t find a receptive audience.
I meet my immediate neighbor, Mrs. Mizuhara, and her other neighbor, Mrs. Miyagawa, outside their homes and together we stroll to the hall. I say stroll. Mrs. Miyagawa is one of those Japanese women ravaged by osteoporosis. I used to teach English to an orthopedic surgeon and he said that education about osteoporosis was one of Japanese medicine’s biggest failures of the 20th century. I only have his word to go on for that, but looking at Mrs Miyagawa’s perpendicular spine you can’t help but agree he has a point.
Being a man, the two women assume basic cleaning is beyond me. I am tasked with opening the typhoon shutters that are permanently closed and then grudgingly handed a vacuum cleaner and watched with suspicion as I push it across the carpet, unplugging the tiny cable every few meters. Mrs. Mizuhara tackles the toilet while Mrs. Miyagawa gets down on her knees and pushes a wet cloth along the non-carpeted parts of the floor. I offer to do that for her, but she waves me away with an irritated flap. Her bones may not be strong but her will certainly is, and her temper shorter than the vacuum cable. Reluctantly, I leave her to it. I pack away the vacuum and ask Mrs. Mizuhara what to do next.
“Nothing. You can go. I know you’re busy. Thanks for your help.”
“No, no. I’m not going home and leaving you both here. We’re a team.”
She laughs at this, though whether it’s the idea that I’m on their team or that I’m in any way helpful is unclear.
It’s relaxed and fun, much more so than the forced chat over coffee cans in my earlier community service. I think I prefer being an honorary old lady.
“Can I use this?” I take a spare cloth, wet it in the kitchen and go around the room wiping the tops of the picture and door frames, the air conditioners and light shades. Clearly this has not been done for a long time. From about 170 centimeters down, the room is immaculate. Above that, there are cobwebs and clumps of dirt that look almost like the dust bunnies in the Totoro movie. I half expect one to blink at me. I’m a little disappointed that none of them do.
I can hear the women chatting.
“He’s really tall.”
“Yes. I guess that’s useful for jobs like this.”
“I could do with someone like that in my house. For light bulbs and things.”
“His wife is lucky. The bulb in my toilet blew and I had to wait until the weekend for my son to come and change it.”
“I don’t think my husband has ever changed a light bulb.”
“You should have married a foreigner. He hangs out the washing every day. I’ve seen him.”
“No, I couldn’t have married a foreigner. What would I cook?”
We pack up and saunter home. Mrs. Miyagawa invites us in for tea and to show off her new fence. We sit in her tatami room sipping the green tea that grows in her garden while they ask me about the food I ate in Aomori and the food I ate in Iwate and the food I ate in Miyagi and what Japanese food I like and what I can’t eat. It’s relaxed and fun, much more so than the forced chat over coffee cans in my earlier community service. I think I prefer being an honorary old lady.
I finish my tea and get ready to leave. Mrs. Miyagawa points to a floor-to-ceiling cupboard.
“Before you go, could you help me with something… ?”
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 some of the locals. Or, if you’ve already been introduced, you might be interested in the previous article in the series.