Passing through

Ken Wallace was born in Japan and grew up in Australia.  He spent two years living in Japan after university.  In this piece, he reflects on the time his mum came to visit him in the countryside near Hiroshima, some six months into his time there.


Image: © Dušica Milutinović, 2017

Mum came to visit me in Japan in 2008.  I was living in a town far within the mountains of the countryside, a couple of hours or more from Hiroshima.  I had been there for 6 months.

The nearest other foreign English teacher for the company I worked for was the better part of an hour away by car through a windy mountain pass.  I went to visit where he lived one weekend.  Until that point I had been thinking I’d been sent deep into the woods.  Well, this place was next-level.  The guy had been there for several years, too – it kind of showed.

He had been researching and writing a book cataloguing the history of the schools in the area.  The completed work showed a diminishing student population and a generally decreasing number of schools, year on year.  The schools were sometimes shut down after the last student graduated, and other times combined with other schools.  Between 2008 and 2010, I taught English at 13 different schools across a fairly wide country area.  A number of them have very likely since been closed down.  One of the schools I taught at had three students during the 2009-10 school year.  Another had, I think, 11.

The town I was living in when Mum came to visit had a dullish industrial look to it on first impression.  It had surprising character once you got to know it, though.  Probably the coolest place around was a bar owned by a 40-something Japanese guy with crazy hair and a warm smile.  You would expect to find this bar in New York, not in a remote country town.

A beautiful place – and a place I associate with a serenity you cannot find in city life – was the lake, which, during the night, was lit up with a network of lanterns around it.  The still lake reflected the peaceful surroundings like a mirror.

But my favourite place was where the fireflies were.  I can picture the drive there in my head when I think back – through deep rice paddies to a river where tens of thousands of fireflies would hatch every night over a short period in summer.  I felt like I was walking through a constellation of stars that you could reach out and touch.  It was magical.  The sounds of nature – the running mountain rivers and crickets – are still with me when I close my eyes.  I would have never thought, having grown up in Australia, that I would develop a new appreciation for nature’s wonder and beauty moving to Japan.

Mum was the one who encouraged me to go to Japan’s countryside when I told her I wanted to live in Japan.  I might have never experienced it all if it wasn’t for her.

I wondered what the hell I had gotten myself into when I first stepped foot in that town.  But after a while, feelings of isolation were replaced with new friendships and a sense of adventure, made possible by the wondrous place I found myself in, far from the life I had been familiar with.  And even way out there, buried between the mountains and blanketed in snow during the winter, you could always find a handful of expats – mainly English teachers.  I couldn’t have done it without them, I don’t think.

I have a dream that I will one day go back to where I lived in Japan.  I would hire a car and drive around, and meet up again with all the fantastic people I knew living there, both locals and expats.  Everything would be just as it was when I left it.

Geez, it would be wonderful to be able to go back and share old times with them.  I can feel a hole in my chest open up just thinking about my old friends, and my girlfriend at the time.  They were wonderful days because I shared them with wonderful people.

Those days seem so long ago now.  How would I feel if I were to go back and meet myself back then?  I would never have guessed life would take me to where I find myself today.

When I remember those days, I can’t help but think how delicately ephemeral life is – and how we are cruelly destined to lose from our circle people we love repeatedly throughout life, because our paths lead in different directions.  I suppose the loss I am talking about is a part of the difficulty that comes with living in a place, and making a life out of it, and then moving on to somewhere else far away.

Perhaps one day I can seek out my old friends in faraway places.

When I said goodbye to Mum at the train station of my small country town, I waved at her from the platform into the window of the train.  It only had two carriages.  The platform was otherwise deserted.  The train pulled away.  I walked back to my car and cried uncontrollably.  It was cold and grey, and I was behind the wheel of my car in a deserted car park, at a deserted station, in an isolated country town you would struggle to find on a map.  I cried and cried and didn’t move for a long time.  I’m not a crier.  I only remember crying two times since then, and barely more than that in my adult life.  It was the feeling of being alone, away from love—and nothing reminds you of that more than your mother pulling away from you in a train.  Mum was going and not coming back, and I didn’t know when I would see her next.  It ended up being about 1.5 years.  And the next time I felt sadness like that was when I left Japan.

© Ken Wallace, 2017