On the move during COVID-19

Nicola Jones was born in New Zealand in 1979.  She was raised in Tauranga (by her English mother and Welsh father), studied Japanese and Education in Hamilton and worked as a secondary school teacher in Wellington.  Her love of travel and cultural exchange saw Nicola move to Japan in 2005 for one year on the JET Programme working in international relations and…  15 years later she is still in rural Shimane Prefecture!  She loves the people, food, places and language of Japan, but she is headed home to New Zealand with her Japanese family soon to start their next adventure.

IMG_9923. N Jones 2

Oki Islands, Shimane Prefecture

I live in the rural Oki Islands, Japan.  I am a New Zealander married to a Japanese man.  We have two year-old twin boys, so life is very busy and full of adventure.  This year we have had to parent in the middle of a global pandemic.  It made for some interesting discussions and helped me re-affirm the importance of family and friends, and how we need to take good care of own health to help our sons stay happy and healthy too.  My experience of the pandemic that has gripped the world has been like most people’s, I guess; what we took for granted was suddenly taken away from us and lots of new rules and regulations were put in place to try to keep people safe.

Oki is a nice place to live; it has great scenery and a slow pace of life.  But it can also be quite isolated.  I’ve worried that there will be few opportunities for my boys here as they get older.  My husband has not been enjoying his job as a civil servant so much.  Since becoming a mum, I have been missing home in New Zealand more, too.  I miss my parents.  While modern technology makes it easier to keep in touch with family and friends around the world, I still get homesick, and I still want to jump on a plane (in our case, a ferry too!) and travel.

We were supposed to move to New Zealand in April-May of this year, but the global pandemic put a stop to this.  At first, I was very disappointed that we could not be back with my parents as we’d intended.  I had explained to our boys that we would go on a plane to see Nana and Poppa, and they often ask us, “Where is the plane?  I want to go on it!”  It makes me sad, but I realise that Oki is probably a safe place to be during the pandemic.  Good health and the support of our small community has been very important, and we’ve been able to check in on my parents via Skype as I’ve worried about them getting sick.

Our boys are too young to understand exactly what is going on.  They see everyone wearing masks and like to wear their own, too (for about 2 minutes before the novelty wears off!).  They’ve had a surprise month of “stay home” with Mum (and Dad).

We live in Nishinoshima Town (Nishinoshima Island) – population 2,800, with 40% over 65 years old.  When the pandemic situation was escalating, I often heard people here say, “The virus isn’t in Oki… Nobody is sick here,” which made me worry that not everyone was taking the situation seriously.  “Oh, the poor people in Italy and Spain… That’s far away from here.”  But it’s touching all of us, all over.

The town mayor asked us to avoid going out or meeting with people, but many of the stubborn old folks kept meeting each day to play ground-golf (something like croquet and mini-golf combined).  Some wore masks and all said that they were outdoors so it was okay.  My father-in-law (who plays ground-golf) told me, “I drink mamushi sake (diamond-viper alcohol), so I won’t get sick!”

This aside, people are doing what they can to avoid catching the virus.

There is a small hospital here with some good doctors, but if anyone is very unwell and needs specialist treatment (or is suspected of having COVID-19), the ‘Doctor-Heli’ rescue helicopter is called to take them to the mainland.  We have tried our best to “stay home”, while our boys have wanted to be outside exploring every minute of the day.  With such a small population and no tourists, luckily it has been easy to go for drives and play at a beach or mountain with no-one else around.  This has helped everyone’s stress levels and we’ve also managed to get lots of sunshine and fresh air.

As I write this, New Zealand, a country of 5 million people, moves to Alert Level One and seems to have kicked COVID-19 in the butt for now, after two months of lockdown and strict social distancing rules.  Japan, on the other hand, is a country of 126 million and has had a tough time getting it under control.  In May, a national State of Emergency was declared.  During the height of the pandemic, there was panic buying across Japan and even in Oki, we saw the shelves empty of hand cleaning products and disposable masks.  The government had to introduce rules that prevented individuals and companies from selling essential goods – masks, hand soap and sanitiser – at exorbitant costs.  Toilet paper and flour stayed in stock.  As I write this, there are two troublesome clusters in Northern-Kyushu and Tokyo, but the rest of Japan seems to be getting back to normal.  Let’s hope it stays this way – but people are preparing for second and third waves.

We are re-planning our return to New Zealand, and hope to start our new life down-under in July.  It is going to be sad to say goodbye to Japan, especially like this.  It has been home for 15 years.  We won’t be able to spend those several weeks we had planned travelling around Japan to see off my husband’s relatives and all our friends.  With the virus still active in some cities here, we can’t take the risk.  So, it will be a Zoom farewell party instead, and two weeks in managed isolation ahead of our reunion with Nana and Poppa.  I am excited for this next stage of our family journey.  I can’t wait to take the boys to a rugby game and to eat fish ’n’ chips at the beach.  But I’m also nervous.  This wasn’t how I expected we would go through 2020 – nobody did.

Kia kaha, kia ora.

Be strong, be well.

© Nicola Jones, 2020