ESSAY Eluned Gramich

NWR Issue 108

Scenes from a Hokkaidan Life

1. Mountain

The way of the valley is an immense tongue; the form of the mountain is a body most pure. Master Rujing

The road to Niseko runs through forest, and farmland, and forest again. The car winds around the hills, moving from dark to bright patches, and dips down into the valley. The sun, filtering through the broad, green maple leaves, plays like an old film reel across the windscreen. I catch sight of thin-limbed deer, trotting along the roadside, before slipping in between the tree-trunks. Their tan-brown bodies dapple with the woods. A line from an Ainu fairy tale comes back to me: The roots, they wrote, of certain trees are known to turn into bears. Perhaps certain trees also turn into deer.

My host family, the Tatenos, are sitting in the front seats. They don’t seem interested in the animals, which they see every day, or the different trees, or the camellias blooming furiously in the undergrowth. Instead, when we drive into open terrain, they talk to me about house prices, building works, crops. The vast fields remind me of eastern England, where I once studied, but the vegetables here are different. Potatoes and cabbages, of course, but also edamame beans, sweet Hokkaido pumpkins, daikon, nagaimo, wasabi root. The giant greenhouses send shocks of light onto the surface of the road.

For miles and miles there is not a single house. Then they appear – one, two, three. And then nothing again. The houses themselves are other-worldly. There is no uniformity to their architecture, no sense of style. Here is a ski chalet; there a bungalow; a villa; a shack with a roof of corrugated zinc. Tateno-San explains to me that rich Tokyoites buy up land and build their own dream homes. If he’s lucky, they’ll buy the land from him. His mobile rings. Tateno-San, one hand on the wheel, takes the call. ‘Dōmo,’ he says as a greeting, elongating the ‘o’. This is manly speech: casual, confident and managerial. No one I know from my Japanese school would start a conversation this way. ‘Dōmo,’ he says again at the end.

The welcome card the Tatenos sent me is still in my coat pocket. The card contains a basic list of information: their names (Takahashi and Keiko Tateno) and the name of their dog (Hana), their ages (64 and 62) and hobbies (golf and saké for him; books for her). The only personal touch was a line at the bottom of the page, scribbled in kanji, which I spent a long time mistranslating: ‘We are so looking forward to meeting you, we could cut our throats.’ They’d also enclosed a photograph of the two of them, and their dog Hana, sitting in their living room. The image showed them distracted, unsmiling, perhaps worried about the timer on the camera, or about Hana sitting still. Now they sit in front of me, their faces partially obscured, their quick speech – like all Japanese – flowing in and out of my comprehension, as if I were eavesdropping on a conversation going on in another room.

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Born in Haverfordwest, Eluned Gramich studied English at Oxford and Creative Writing at UEA, before moving to live and work in Japan on a Daiwa scholarship. Her translated collection of German short stories, Goldfish Memory (Monique Schwitter), was published by Parthian in April. She is currently working on her first novel. Her memoir of Japan, from which this is an excerpt, won the New Welsh Writing Awards 2015, WWF Cymru Prize for Writing on Nature and the Environment, run by ourselves, in February.


       


previous essay: The Financial Lives of the Poets
next essay: Banjur Dalung



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