The other day I glanced outside to admire the fading light and realised I can see Mount Fuji from my bedroom window. I’ve lived in this room for two months now and I’ve never noticed it before. Doesn’t that seem strange? It’s to the right of my window so I have to turn my head and gaze across the used car yard opposite, past the low-rise buildings and strings of power lines into the far distance south-west of Tokyo. It was a clear evening and the sun was silhouetting the mountain and I can only think that this is why I just noticed it.
It was 4.30 pm – sunset – and like clockwork the public speakers on the streets around Fujimachi (coincidentally for this post, the area I live in is literally called Fuji Town) began to play their daily song. It’s a pleasant tune played at precisely 4.30 pm every day so that we all know it’s the end of the day or something, like an electric version of church bells in old-time villages.
And there was this moment where I was like I AM IN JAPAN, because I was having a rush of excitement about the fact that I could see Fuji-san and in the same moment that little song was playing, a daily reminder that we’re all in this together, which is such a Japanese sentiment. (When I visited Caitlin in Himeji the neighbourhood speakers were right outside her house, cheerfully waking everybody at 7.00 am and marking the end of the day at 6.00 pm; why it’s 4.30 pm here I don’t know, but I have no doubt there’s a reason, there’s always a reason.)
I haven’t written any posts about Japan since I arrived more than two months ago, which seems strange to me after posting every couple of weeks all year. It’s not like there’s nothing to write about – this place is foreign and fascinating, beautiful and befuddling – but I’ve been watching and thinking and not feeling able to write about it just yet.
Japan is both strange and familiar to me. It’s familiar in that I recognise it from photos and videos imported into Australia my whole life, in Japanese classes and travel stories and Ghibli films: the wood and fibro houses in cream and brown; the rows of brightly lit signs stacked one above the other in Shinjuku; the elegantly curved tiles on temple roofs; the sliding fusuma paper doors; Harajuku girls and buttoned-up salarymen … the list could go on.
Of course it’s strange too. Sometimes that strangeness actually comes from the fact that I am experiencing things I’ve only ever seen in images or heard in stories. But other things are both new and strange. When I first arrived I instinctively thanked the cashiers in shops after paying and receiving my goods, before I realised that nobody else did that. The same impulse kicked in when I walked into a shop and the assistant said “irasshaimase”, which I’m told translates as something vaguely akin to “please come in”, and so I would nod and smile and maybe even say hello. But again, nobody does that here. And pretty quickly I noticed that the shop assistants were rarely looking at me as they said it, and continued to say it even after I’d been browsing a while, and sometimes a person was employed to simply stand at the front of the store yelling “irasshaimase!!” and I admit this is starting to get on my nerves but I’ll save this particular topic for another time.
Most of the time it’s just ordinary. I’m enjoying the slide into familiarity – discovering where to buy the freshest and cheapest fruit and veg, working out which combination of trains gets me home the quickest, having a local ramen shop, noticing that the same cashier works the midnight shift at the kombini, realising that I now instinctively turn around backwards to remove my shoes at the door, ready to slide my feet into my pre-turned slippers.
So those moments like the one where I stand at my window and thrill at the sight of Fuji-san are not everyday, they come and go, but when they do come I grab onto them and say to myself, I AM IN JAPAN.