My teaching assignment in Japan, in fall of 2008, with a recruiting company that hired and placed foreign English teachers in Japanese universities, came with housing in Fuchū, about a half hour by train from Shinjuku, a major Tokyo hub. It’s a small city in Tokyo prefecture with an urban neighborhood feel, west of Tokyo city. Its name was pronounced like a sneeze by the train conductor when approaching the stop.
In my first morning walk, I took in my new home. Small office and apartment buildings were interspersed with shops, bars, restaurants—some contemporary and sleek looking; some with character, bamboo and wood; others aging but well cared for, like a wrinkled old relative. Small groceries offered fresh goods on almost every block, produce and fish markets, bakeries, flower shops. And modern high tech electronic and phone stores with crammed shelves, chic hair salons. Vending machines cropped up everywhere; get your coffee or tea, hot or cold, fruit drinks or bottled water, right there on the street.
A steady stream of bicycles negotiated their way down the sidewalks. I assumed it would be best to keep left, as autos drive on the left side of the road and escalator riders descended on the left, but there seemed to be no consistent practice for bicycles or pedestrians; they were everywhere. Although some riders had ching-ching bells, most would just wait patiently, shadowing slowly behind you, until you noticed them and moved over. Many streets were too narrow for sidewalks, so people walked along the edge of the road. Under flowered or pastel umbrellas, carried like parasols, older women shielded the sun from their fair skin. In the open air, white paper masks covered some noses and mouths.
At one end of the main tree-lined street, I lingered at my first shrine, Okunitama, a peaceful pocket in greens and browns in a park with small buildings in the middle of the lively town, picking up a souvenir thick-toed ginko leaf to take home.
The week I arrived, I would learn, was Golden Week, a holiday of festivals. That first year I was scheduled for teacher training before the semester began and could only attend the evening parade. Children in costumes danced and local musicians played perched in carts that were carried around town.
After my first year there, spent in a business hotel, I took up residence in a tiny but charming apartment that a Japanese friend helped me find. The living room, the only space you could call a room, which doubled as bedroom and dining area, was only six tatami mats, not just an abstract measurement because the floor was actually tiled with six woven mats fitting tightly like a jigsaw puzzle, the color and texture of rice straw blowing in the fields. Light poured in from huge windows on two sides, revealing a corner view over the street, giving it a larger, open feel. Dark woodwork framed the room; one side housed a built-in closet in which to stash my roll-up futon during the day.
There was not much room for furniture, nor did I want to make that investment, and heavy furniture should not sit on tatami anyway, so I furnished it Japanese style. I sat on cushions on the tatami floor around a low wooden table, stacking the cushions out of the way when the time came to pull out the futon. A few additional assemble-it-yourself pieces, a bookcase and a canvas wardrobe, made the room look furnished. A purple batik wrap I had brought from Central America served as a curtain. The hallway kitchen, with parquet flooring and blue-tiled walls, was separated from the main room by a sliding panel divided into glass panes that opened in the manner of the traditional Japanese paper doors.
In a quiet neighborhood with children often playing in the street below, I could watch life beyond my windows flowing in its course like a river, people walking to the station and home again, bicycles rolling by. I jogged around the park in the early mornings when it wasn’t raining and could walk to my regular haunts, the library with its fine collection of Japanese novels in English translation, town hall for Japanese class, my favorite izakaya, and a jazz club.
On weekends and evenings, I walked the streets, learning the town, exploring its little gems. On a bench in the park, the green space near my place, sat a statue of a girl playing the flute and her cat; next to the bench was another statue, of a fat man playing the saxophone, another cat sitting by him.
My apartment was off Sakura-dori, Cherry Street, lined with cherry trees that exploded in spring, paper lanterns swinging in the breeze.
In a triangular corner, where two streets diverged, low-hanging branches of cherry trees were propped up with metal poles and an army of naked sculptured babies with Buddha-like heads ran around in formation. Life-sized statues of two young girls stood outside a city building, posed as if bored with life, waiting for something interesting to happen. In restaurant windows, edible-looking plastic food on display illustrated menu offerings. A bike path, full of walkers and cyclists on weekends, crossed over the train yards and led, after about a mile or so, to a trail along the Tama River, past flower gardens, shared vegetable patches with people out tending their crops, and an orderly toolshed for gardeners with water pitchers hanging on pegs in a row. In another direction was an art museum in a larger park, surrounded by low rolling hills and ponds, where children played in landscaped streams with tall round rocks, jumping from one rock to another, amid geometric sculptural shapes that dripped water into pools.
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