Remembering these streets

I enter the US as usual, in a line half asleep. Asiana has shut off the movie system thirty minutes prior to landing, just long enough for me to doze off before touch down.

As a person I wake slowly.  My head follows far behind the rest of my body, languishing in dreams until it has churned them into unintelligible fragments. Because of this I do not like mornings, save when jet lagged, for then the day springs upon me unsuspecting and I am unable to feign sleep. Waking up on the plane as it settles down onto the tarmac of SFO I am confused, my eyes do not seem to work. As we taxi I struggle to create focus by closing first one and then the other, to remember who I am, where I have come from, why I am here. It has been weeks on the road.

Filling out the customs form I struggle to remember my address. Proof that I have indeed been gone long enough, and moved just before leaving. The label of “home” has no immediate mental association.

“What were you doing out there?” the uniformed man asks, far kinder than his compatriots at LAX. I have woken up now enough to use both eyes, to use some portion of my brain.

“Visiting friends,” I say. The truth. I have slept but four nights out of the last twenty five in a bed.

Checking on the world, I think, as he considers my Walgreens photo and brand new passport. I was looking to see if it was still out there, beyond the bubble that my own country’s culture and borders create. I do not say these things. They are beyond the power of my tongue as well as beyond the wisdom of the moment. He hands back the booklet which still does not feel comfortable, having not yet adopted the curve of my pocket. This new chip-containing version has not spent years in my bag, has not been thumbed through by countless officials, and has not sweated against my skin in the summer’s heat. Yet this now is my documentation, and it is no longer bare.

The world too, on the other side of airplanes and air conditioned waiting rooms, felt similar. It lacked the comforting curves of my previous apartments, of my own daily commutes, and yet was not foreign. Conversations with new acquaintances had the feel of the familiar, and friends not seen in decades seemed well along their chosen paths. The world, in all its variety of Shanghai spectacle and Tochigi silence, was still there, reassuring to my hopeful heart.

The car is an unfamiliar place after weeks on foot and trains. It vibrates with the pavement in a less predictable fashion, and my eyes, still confused by the brightness of San Francisco, are again unprepared. The hills look gorgeous, the skyline wide. It’s the colors, I realize, the blue of the sky and the green of the land, that are so sparkling. Again it strikes me how precious this area is, not for its relative beauty but because it exists, because people have managed to destroy and repair in mostly equal measures.

Lately Shanghai’s pollution startles me each time as I land with the thought that I lived amidst such heavy clouds for so many years. And yet returning after several weeks to this western coast of the United States it is the blue that surprises and the sun that is unexpectedly bright.

In a week or two San Francisco will again seem normal, and the latest travels be swept under a current of daily responsibilities. Until then I will treasure the early mornings when my body jolts awake at five am, and revel in having no sense of home, here or anywhere.

Wild country

In the mountains of Tochigi the children bound up the hill through the trees to meet us. In the forrest trunks grow thick together. Only a hundred meters in the houses and the valley are utterly forgotten. Another hundred and we’d be adventuring in the dark.

Wild boars live here, says our host, and shows us a skull he discovered on a walk as proof. Later he points out more recent evidence of their rooting in the potatoes. Wild boars look larger and fiercer than the children I say.

“Oh there are bears too, we’ve got it all,” my old roommate replies with a grin. In this sense they do. They have creatures, cats that wander off to neighbors for months at a time. They have a garden, and land enough for future crops. Wood, cut by the government in preparation for a dam comes free to the door for their stove and winter heat. Water, running down the hill, fills the toilet without need for municipal plumbing. And the birds visit at all hours, singing with the morning’s light. Far from the cities and the hustle of Tokyo, their hillside seems a different world, an older Japan. And it is.

The farmhouse they inhabit is a hundred years old. Made of wood and built to be opened on all sides to the air, its central pillar is based on a round boulder rather than driven into the earth. This allows the structure a bit of room to move with the earth when it shakes. Age of the building alone proves the idea’s merit, the earthquakes coming stronger and more regularly of late. In two thousand eleven the grave stones up the hill fell but the house barely shuddered. The floor, bathroom and soon kitchen all will have been replaced, but the pillars, walls, and roof show no sign of letting go.

Northwest of Tokyo Tochigi is the middle of Japan, geographically. Standing in the hills it feels like the center, feels as though we’ve come deep into the country, far from all exposed edges. Above the trees, the rolling hills, hot springs and old shrines that dot them, the skies are a pure blue. More than anything it feels like a good place to raise children, to watch them running out in the darkening evening with no one to notice.

Save, perhaps, the boars.