The year of quiet.
That’s how I would refer to it, in everything that followed, those 10 months spent living and teaching in a deeply rural part of southern Japan. I knew when I left that the things I had learned there would eventually make themselves known — I just didn’t think that it would be during a pandemic.
Like most of us, the coronavirus has rendered me immobile — working from home with all travel plans canceled or postponed. Perhaps in an attempt to satiate the wanderlust that has been put on hold, or simply because I have the time, I’ve found myself digging back into years of travel archives, making my way through photos I have been meaning to edit, or revisiting ones already made. I’ve looked at Hong Kong, Mexico City, Macau, Denmark, and Spain, to name a few places that brimmed and boiled over with people and life, a thing that’s surely missing now. But scrolling from folder to folder, I keep coming back to Kyushu, to the tiny town I called home, and to the quiet.
My road to Japan can be distilled down to this: I applied on a whim to teach English through an American company that trained and sponsored work visas for foreigners, and vowed to see it through as far as it went. As it turned out, I was hired as an instructor, which was far as it went, and I did see it through. It was as simple and as complicated as that. I knew two things about Ebino before I arrived: first, that the town hosts a cow-jumping festival every year (yes, you read that correctly).
And second, that everyone in my company described it as “a nice place… for the middle of nowhere.”
Ebino lies nestled in a caldera valley, with volcanoes to the south, foothills to the east, and low mountains to the north and west. The town itself, with a modest population of roughly 18,000, actually contains four villages, Masaki, Kakuto, Iino, and Uwae, that were combined in 1996 to create Ebino City. As a result, there isn’t much of a centralized town center. No main strip to explore, no proper castle or Isoteien (Japanese-style garden) to wander, no shopping or entertainment district neatly packaged into one area. Instead, there are only small clusters of humanity — coin laundromats, udon restaurants, grocery stores, and post offices — separated by rice fields that split the valley into uneven grids. Aside from a handful of overpriced snack bars, there’s not much for a nightlife or even cafes.
My world there, in many ways, mirrored what all of our worlds look like now: disconnected from friends and family, with local social life only a remote possibility, a culture of little to no physical contact, the loneliness of isolation, the prevalence of face masks and high sanitation standards, and, of course, regular walks to escape the monotony of the day.
Before Ebino, I worked in advertising, where the daylight hours were often eaten up by pitch decks and endless ad campaigns. I often went weeks without seeing the sunset. So, I made it a point to reclaim that time when I moved abroad. With most of my classes ending around four o’clock each afternoon, and on account of there not being much else to do, I began taking daily walks.
Walking, especially with no end goal other than to be walking, is inherently slow, and often boring. The beauty of it, in fact, is that it is boring. It was boredom that developed routine, sharpened my senses, and that gave me space to think. As those routes became routine, I started collecting details about Ebino I may have otherwise missed. By the end of my time there, I had probably walked most of the town and could rattle off my favorite street, my favorite sign, my favorite hour of sunlight. Day after day, little things broke through the stillness.
What parts of our lives get loud, when we go quiet?
Those who have visited Japan, or even just watched a movie or anime based there, have also likely noticed the way in which the culture relies on sound to signal a state of change or to prompt action. Crosswalk tunes vary from prefecture to prefecture, restaurants often use doorbells at each table to call the server over, and even your rice cooker will sing a few bars when it’s ready to feed you a hearty meal. Classical music can often be heard around lunch time, if you happen to be near a school.
As a farming community, Ebino had a unique relationship with sound.
Every day at 7 AM, 3PM, and 5PM, loudspeakers throughout the town would play the same song — a collection of notes that felt like they could have originated on an organ and been looped back through an old radio.
It crackled through the rice fields and echoed up into the foothills, letting the farmers know that it was time to start their day, then time to break, and finally, time to come home.
Rice farming is humble, back-breaking work, but it is highly honored by the community. Rice is served with every lunch in the school district, and is a staple in most households. School children in Ebino are required to spend a few afternoons learning from local farmers and planting their own plot of rice as a class. It was a reliable reminder about the famer’s role in everyone’s world and it quickly became part of mine. The 7 AM toll is usually what woke me up, and the 5PM came as a reminder that I should get outside for a walk.
While a pastoral life is certainly more still than the city, anyone who has lived in the country knows that nature is far from silent. This was just as true in Ebino.
Between the cicadas, the downpours, and the frogs, every day was its own song.
The Japanese seem to mark seasons in smaller segments than I was used to — including cherry blossom, firefly, fall foliage, and, of course, rainy season. The more I walked, and the more I listened, the more I started to sense those slight shifts and to feel those seasons in full. A whiff of wisteria on the breeze (spring), bursts of hydrangea (summer), spider lilies near the fields (fall). The more I paused, the more the whole place vibrated, really, both in sound and color. Patience, I found, would pay off.
Though I went to Japan in search of a change, I also arrived there in sadness. Within the few weeks prior to moving, my last living grandparent fell terribly ill, I split with my boyfriend of nearly three years, and I underwent surgery in hopes of removing some pre-cancerous cells. Japanese culture is a historically isolating one — for both its citizens, and anyone otherwise.
There are large swathes of the country’s long history where its foreign policy was to close borders, keeping outsiders out and Japanese citizens in. And while some imported goods crept into Japan during this time, imported culture and people did not. It was only under the persuasion of Commander Matthew Perry and an armed U.S. fleet that isolation no longer became Japan’s best defense.
Even a century or so later, the separation between who is Japanese (97.8% of the population) and who is “other” is a tangible one.
It snakes through daily life like an undercurrent, and the lingering apprehension around foreigners still permeates, particularly in rural areas tucked away from the bustling metros.
Coupled with the remote location of the town I lived in, where I was only one of three other Westerners, this cultural norm afforded me a lot of solitude. In the months following my arrival, I oscillated between a deep gratitude for that quiet and feeling utterly crushed by it.
It wasn’t until I had been quiet for long enough that I could see that the intimacy and connection I was missing wasn’t altogether gone, just subdued. I found it in short conversations with an old pensioner neighbor when our paths would cross during our nightly walks. His eyes brimming with excitement, even though I failed to understand most of what he said, echoed my delight in a familiar face. I found it in the random assortments of vegetables, yuzu, or rice left on my desk, collected from the gardens and fields of my fellow teachers. I found it in drawings from my students (especially when they made sure to color in how blue my eyes are to them). I found it in being seen, but not stared at.
As an American, and as a woman, there were many pieces of myself that had to be put away in a box on a shelf in order to get by in Japan. As a foreigner I was always on display, and as an instructor, any and all behavior, inside the classroom and out, was subject for scrutiny. There are layers of rituals and rules — from the correct way to eat lunch or enter a room, down to how you bag your groceries or fill out forms — anything was fodder for judgement. And the risk was high: I could lose my job if anyone ever found out I had tattoos for example (I resorted to wearing long sleeves, even through a sweltering summer). Moving from a country where the individual is king to one where the collective rules determine reality led to some often exhausting growing pains.
Now I am in a country of individuals during a pandemic, scrambling to make up for that missing collective. This is a country that feels solidarity, that reaches for a collective action, only to find little infrastructure for it. I had in Japan what we all currently have: the gift of time. We are all finding out right now which parts of ourselves — extrovert, grandchild, teammate, employee — must be put on a shelf, except now the thing we are keeping safe is one another.
Perhaps we can sit in this discomfort long enough to figure out what to do with it, to make new habits and break the ones that don’t serve us any more, to take our societal demons for a walk and settle our differences.
Perhaps we can shift scrutiny from the behavior of one another to the systems that bind us.
Perhaps we will see that quiet truth in the background: that to treat each other with caution during this time is to signal care.
Without the hours consumed by commuting, I’ve taken to walking again. As I carve out new routes in my Oakland neighborhood, I once again look for signals of connection: the rainbow drawings in the window, the baskets of lemons free for the taking from a neighbor’s house, the passing nods or waves to strangers who can’t see your smile under your mask. I look and I listen for all the ways that we can signal through the isolation: I am here, you are seen.
And when I hear the 8PM clapping and hollering for healthcare works, I am reminded of the farmer’s song in Ebino, and how it broke through the quiet to remind us all that we are part of something.
Has a travel experience ever unexpectedly prepared you for a situation later in life? Let us know on Twitter!