Being Shunned by Officialdom and Welcomed by Strangers
Three members of our family of four were due to relocate from one end of the island of Shikoku to the other. Work transfer is much more common in Japan than Australia, and families, or parts thereof, are regularly uprooted and transferred in the end of March every year before the business and academic calendar begins in April. We too were to experience this relocation: new schools for my daughters Alexia and Amelia, and a new workplace for me.
We had been living in a traditional Japanese house in the beautiful city of Matsuyama, with a view of the castle from the second floor. We could even cycle to the castle in ten minutes.
We enjoyed the luxury of both front and back gardens. True, the front door opened onto a car park, but this was a luxury compared to most houses which open straight onto a road. The interior was of beautifully crafted woodwork. At first I had wanted to remove the shoji (latticed sliding screens) but after as little as a day I woke up to understand their understated beauty. Rooms seemed to expose continuous unfolding layers. The living room opened onto a special corridor (engawa) beyond the shoji, which opened onto a traditional Japanese garden. And what a treasure this garden was. Every month some exotic flower effortlessly appeared. Two asymmetrically shaped rocks provided a point of focus, with a stone pathway across the garden. It was what you might imagine on a tourist brochure for Kyoto, but, we had been a bit naughty, making it as comfortably western as possible. We had covered the tatami with carpets, and placed sofas on top. We wanted to enjoy Japanese aesthetics while still enjoying creature comforts.
Our Japanese neighbours warned us against relocating to Tokushima. “All they have is the Yoshino River!” said one. “Because it is such a small city it is really difficult to make friends. When my sister lived there no-one would make friends with her and she had to come back to Matsuyama,” warned another.
We would miss the streetscape: the acupuncturist across the road, the karate school a bit further on, and the Chinese restaurant on the other side with private rooms overlooking a Japanese garden complete with pond and carp. We would miss our favourite Hoshinooka spa, with a range of pools, of varying temperatures and composition. We would miss the walking pool, being pummelled on the back with jets coming from each direction, and being able to sit on a rock in the middle of a pool to sit and contemplate. After enjoying such a relaxing experience we would enjoy being served the best tempura in Japan, in the spa restaurant.
However, local employment practices meant that we couldn’t enjoy life in Matsuyama anymore. We cherished each day in such idyllic surroundings until the day of relocation came. What a sense of anticipation, and maybe a little trepidation, we had as we arrived in Tokushima, on the eastern point of the island. Exhausted and bedraggled after the long drive from Matsuyama, Alexia, Amelia and I waited outside the apartment block for someone to arrive with the key. We saw a young man in a suit. Perhaps this was the concierge who was bringing us the key. But no, he gave us a look that suggested we were insulting him when we asked if he were the concierge. We kept waiting, but still, no, concierge. Finally a pale pink car with soft toys in the rear window rocked up in the drive. Could this be the concierge? Her appearance was more of a “gyaru” than a concierge. (“Gyaru” (girl) refers to a fashionable young woman in a mini-skirt, high heels and long blond-ish hair, somewhat poorly regarded by the establishment.) Still, we stopped her, this time with more success. Although she wasn’t the concierge, she got on her cell-phone to her mother. She almost betrayed her distress at being confronted by three lost foreigners, but held her nerve in order to help us.
“Mum, there are three foreigners here, who are waiting for someone to bring them a key to their apartment. The little girls are so cute. Yes, they’re here standing right in front of me. Please, help!”
Her mother came down the stairs and tried to ring the concierge to help us. But no, it was 5.30. He was a civil servant and was about to retire. We were supposed to go to a different office to get the key. He wasn’t going to do overtime to help us. Taeko, the mother, invited us in to her home, and had us sit down at the kotatsu– a kind of coffee table with a quilt in between the table top and the frame, and a heater underneath. She made more phone calls and tracked down the other office which held another copy of the key to our apartment. Next minute she had dashed outside and returned with the key. “What will you do for dinner?” she asked. “We’ll look for a restaurant,” I replied. “Would you like to stay for dinner?” she offered. Before we had time to reply she had made us kagawa udon, thick noodles served with finely grated ginger, a salad, and chicken dumplings.
Next, armed with the key, we climbed the four floors to our apartment in the company housing complex. Not knowing how to switch on the mains, we spent the first night in cold and darkness. Still, the view of the gleaming Prefectural Government Building across the river, suggested, at least at night time, that we were in the centre of a thriving metropolis. The next day I wondered how to use a kitchen that was suggestive of a campsite. No room for more than one person at a time. No room to cook more than one dish at once. How did Taeko manage to produce such a feast for us in such confined space? This move was supposed to be a promotion but on the housing front at least it was a demotion.
I told Alexia and Amelia, there are two things to be learnt from this. One is that you can’t judge by appearances. The person who helped us was not the responsible looking guy in the suit but the girl who styled herself in what is regarded here as a self-indulgent fashion. The second surprise was how we could be treated with such kindness by some and such indifference by others. Kindness by Taeko with no obligations towards us, and indifference by the concierge, who had been officially assigned to help us.
After this eventful first day, how did life in Tokushima compare to life in Matsuyama? Both cities were on Shikoku, separated from Honshu by the Inland Sea. However they would have been almost inaccessible to each other until very recently when the expressway was constructed. Arguably the 200 odd kilometres that separated them would equate to some very major differences.
The primary school presented a few surprises. The first was the walk to and from school. There was no rule about children having to wear yellow hats while walking to school. Children could walk to school on their own without having to link up with an assigned walking group lead by an older child. The walk through the Central Park to the primary school was idyllic and seemed to be straight out of Narnia. Every day we crossed an ancient stone bridge over the moat, and walked through traditional gardens and a tree lined avenue untroubled by cars or motorbikes. Every morning at eight o’clock, as we walked to school, we could hear the town chime, a traditional melody in a pentatonic scale. We often walked home to the unmistakable pounding of the drums as students practised the local Awa Odori dance in the park.
The principal stood at the school gate every morning welcoming the children with a warm smile and a resounding ohayo gozaimasu. Greetings were taken very seriously here. It surprised me because in my culture we had never been urged to greet our acquaintances; it just sort of happened naturally. But here children were exhorted to show respect by greeting each other. A roster was drawn up for greetings duty, and sometimes my daughter had to turn up to school early to stand at the school entrance and greet the other students in a loud voice.
Since our move we have come to call Tokushima home. The city centre symbolises Japanese contradictions: a timeless classic garden surrounded by high-rise buildings. The locals have sunny dispositions, gentle demeanours and unstinting generosity. Still, if it weren’t for the generosity of a stranger on that first night here, we may not have stayed long enough to discover it at all.