Once in a while there’s a breeze / The leaves bob up and down, side to side / Looks like they’re laughing / A bell / Someone on their bicycle behind me / A whirring / A reusable grocery bag in their basket / The telephone wires hang low / They are a dark thunderstorm gray and look like spider webs / The rice field behind my apartment complex is starting to grow back / A few dandelions are growing in the gutter / When it rains the water flows through these gutters like a river / The city is laced with little rivers / A woman in a suit walking past me / Her heels make a clack sound against the pavement / She is going to the station / The next train comes at 3:11 – every ten minutes / She must be going into the city / Nameplates at the entrances / This is the house where the Takahashi’s live / Tanaka, Aratani, Kamigawa / Hand towels hanging on a balcony / A toddler’s bicycle parked by the door / Vines crawling along fences / The alley that leads to the station’s entrance is lined with flower pots / The east entrance / Two young men smoking beside the trash bins outside Family Mart / A dental clinic, a nursery / A father and daughter holding hands / Her hair in two pigtails / He’s wearing slippers / The train is coming / It’ll slow then pause at the platform and then screech to a start faster faster and disappear / And another will come in ten minutes
Japan in the spring is a chorus of wind chimes, of rustled leaves, of bicyclists and joggers and families on foot passing by on the main street. It’s a sharp breath of fresh, clean air – a deep inhale, like coming up for breath after being underwater for a long time.
And it’s warm, like ten a.m. sunlight on the back of your neck. And you can feel it in your chest – this soft, delicate warmth – like there’s a bud in your stomach that’s just sprouted and its branches are intertwining themselves carefully around your lungs and filling, feeding you with its breath.
This warmth is constant, present, even at night when its cool. You can keep your windows open at night now, even though you haven’t opened your windows for months because of the cold; now that it’s spring, you can finally let the breeze in.
And you wake up to the breeze tickling your cheeks, whispering into your ear, then filling the whole room with the scent of it, of spring, and all at once everything smells of steeped tea leaves. Like a dandelion flower with a full head of seeds, a kiss on the cheek, Japan in the spring is a promise; the winter was long, but then spring came.
There is an old man who stands guard at an intersection where a neighborhood road ends and turns onto the main street and every morning I pass him on my way to work. He wears a blue jumpsuit and a crossing guard vest and carries an orange baton, which he holds behind his back.
He’s a small man, short and stocky, and he stands with a slight hunch. His face is aged, lined with deep wrinkles that have set into his forehead and the outer corners of his eyes. He has a drooping face, wearied with time, but it’s gentle too and when he smiles his smile stretches into his cheeks, his eyelids turn upwards at the edges, and he looks almost like a little boy – a boy at the park, or at an ice cream shop, holding his mother’s hand.
In the span of several seconds, I approach the intersection where he stands, watch him greet the people passing – high school students on their bicycles, pedestrians walking their dogs – and then I pass him, smile, and he bows his head to me, smiles back, says good morning. Sometimes he’ll say “take care.”
One of these days, I want to stop. I want to pause at the intersection and ask him his name, where he’s from. I want to offer him a cool bottle of tea because it’s getting warmer out and ask him for his story – where did you grow up? what was your childhood like, your adolescence? who did you want to be? who did you become?
Maybe he’ll tell me that he was raised on a vegetable farm in a tiny village in Akita Prefecture, or Kumamoto, someplace far from the city. His father owned the farm and worked it himself and sometimes after school he – the old man – would help his father lay fertilizer, pick weeds, harvest the crops – turnips, eggplants, radishes. Sometimes when the harvest was good his father would bring in basketfuls of fresh radishes and his mother would simmer them in soy sauce and to this day he’s never had radishes as delicious as his father’s.
But for now he is the old man at the intersection and he is my favorite thing about the morning.
Across from Zamami Island’s main port, there’s a neighborhood made up of several apartment complexes, a few guesthouses for tourists, and scattered homes with tiny backyards. Hidden within this tiny neighborhood are a handful of family-owned cafe/restaurants that I wouldn’t have known existed if I wasn’t looking.
The first cafe my friend and I found was called Cafe Amulet. It had a sign outside that said it sold pasta and ice cream. We stepped inside. A bell rang as the door closed. A young couple standing behind the bar, who I assumed were the owners, greeted me welcome and motioned for us to sit where we wanted. I chose a table next to the shelves, which were stocked with plenty of books about travel, culture, and of course, coffee.
The young man brought us a cup of water and took our order. I couldn’t decide on a tea, so he offered me wine, even though it was 1pm. I opted for iced coffee.
For a while, my friend and I were the only people in the cafe besides the couple, and their little girl – who wandered around the cafe and took books from the shelf and read them at the bar while swaying back and forth in the swivel chair.
It was nice there, cozy and comfortable. We lingered after finishing our drinks and didn’t feel rushed to leave.
A few people eventually came and went, all of whom – to my surprise – the owners knew by name. One person even brought the couple a gift (a bag of salt from the main island I think, from what I could hear), which the wife sounded pretty excited about. The way the couple interacted with the guests who stopped by made me want to stay in Zamami and become a local too, just to visit Cafe Amulet and hang out with the family and bring them salt. (And to drink wine at 1pm.)
In the end I decided against that, but here’s the address if you ever take a trip to Zamami Village and want to bring the family salt for me.