ONLINE SPECIAL FEATURE
Leaving in the Rain
It’s just barely raining: the mist distills to nearly invisible, hair-fine diagonals that fall softly to the
vigorous green below. It is mid-June and the rainy season.
Most people don’t like this time of year here, but I do. Maybe it’s because the first time I set
eyes on Japan, it was during the rainy season. That June evening, now fourteen years ago, it
wasn’t raining, but the air was dense with humidity and the vegetation was fantastically,
impossibly green. In the taxi from the hover port in Kobe and the swank hotel where we spent
our first night, I was overwhelmed by the urban crush of buildings, expressways and trains. But
the summer belonged to the throbbing green and the shrilling semi [cicadas] laying siege to our
ground floor flat in suburban Nada-ku.
“Don’t think you’ll ever live in Japan,” my husband was cautioned when asked to spend the
summer with the Japanese division of his company. “It’s a summer, nothing more.” And so we
came with our three little boys, and we saw and did everything that we could during that brief
season. We didn’t wait for the rains to clear; we only had ten weeks. We saw Kyoto and Nara,
Himeji and Hiroshima, and Kobe, of course. And everywhere the beauty of the land refreshed us
as we traveled from place to place on the train.
I fell in love with Japan that summer.
Now at the end of our second term living in Japan, I am full of regret. We leave behind a life we
made here in Yokohama: my students and colleagues, my husband’s employees and customers,
our friends and our beloved helper – with us these many years. We have lived in our house
longest of any home we have shared. Our younger sons attended yochien; our older two
graduated from an international school. I never did see Matsumoto castle. Even after nine years
in country, I haven’t gotten past basic, survival Japanese.
Visitors and neophytes delight in novelties of costume and cuisine; they wonder at monuments
and cultural treasures. Reflection reveals that it is instead the minutia of daily life that has
wrought the real transformation in us during our years here. The accumulation of quotidian
encounters and observations has carved into us ornamented caverns of memory and longing,
inaccessible to superficial perusal. Like drops of mineral-rich water, diffuse cultural experience has
filtered through our own ethos and aesthetic, leaving behind a solemn, enduring edifice of
awareness and appreciation that is difficult to articulate.
The sounds of the seasons echo in the chambers of my mind: the shimmer of the gong through
the mercy of evening in Obon, the melancholy cry of yaki-imo vendors rising and falling on an
autumn wind. Luminous memories of kindness shine like bright five yen pieces pressed into my
sons’ hands at shogatsu, or the patient, cultural remediation at the yochien where I learned to
make an appropriate child’s bento so that my tall, curly-haired boy could begin to approximate
conforming to the norm – that quintessential Japanese value.
The summer is still full of the wonder of first encounter for me. The academic year, encumbered
with action items and deadlines is recognizable as my life: different from that of most Americans,
admittedly, but any sense of the exotic has long since evaporated. We are accustomed to living
as expatriates; it is going back to living in the U.S. that will seem strange. But summer is
different; it seems to take me back to that feeling of privilege in being here, and to the sense that
the ancient and the elemental endure beneath the surface of modern Japan.
The hydrangeas are blooming in the garden. Tangles of unruly green glisten with wet. Where I
came from it never rained when it was warm. Rain came in the dark closing weeks of the year,
and was always bitter, miserable and cold. Here the rain is a celebration and a refuge: between
the busyness of the academic year and the fierce heat of summer proper, there is a time when
the land is refreshed by weeks of rain. I love the sound of water rushing through the drains
under the street; I love the power of the rain slamming into the pavement so hard that it
bounces up to my knees! A confirmed sun-worshipper, I love the weeks of grey and green when
the only real variation lies in whether the water is hanging or falling, and how hard.
I am tired of functioning as an adult illiterate outside of the narrow confines of my workplace,
tired of being so limited in what I can accomplish without help. I miss meandering through shops
and libraries full of books I can read, and the ease of picking up cereal at the store without
planning provisions a month in advance. But I will miss Japan: strangers pausing to help a
witless gaijin standing befuddled before an incomprehensible sign; the peace and quiet of
residential areas; elderly neighbors sweeping away fallen leaves with small brooms made of twigs,
as they have done for a thousand years. I will miss stepping from a steel and concrete platform
in a busy urban station to journey through space and time to an old wooden station in a castle
town. I need a break, but I’m not ready to leave.
At the end of that first summer in Japan, I stood looking out at the night view from our flat
thinking that I would never see Kobe again. In the U.S., on home leave after two years of living
in Kobe, we struggled to come to grips with the unanticipated reality that we would not be
returning; we grieved over not saying our goodbyes. Seven years ago when we came to
Yokohama, our assignment was only for a year or two. Japan washes into and out of our lives
like the summer rains: we don’t know when they will arrive or how long they will last.
Watching the rain fall in our tenth rainy season, I know that we will never really leave Japan.
D. M. Bellis and her family spent nine years in Japan, where she taught in an international school,
learned to make a proper bento and struggled to articulate her experiences. She recently relocated
to Lexington, Kentucky where she writes and forages for fresh fish.
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