Some of my fondest memories of Japan have less to do with major tourist attractions and more to do with the journeys I had to take in order to reach them. When I close my eyes and cast my thoughts back to some random episode during one of my several trips to that country, I would often find myself gratefully and happily reminiscing about a quiet backstreet in the middle of a sprawling city, or a peaceful road through verdant rice fields out in the countryside, rather than about temples that have stood for hundreds of years or lavishly decorated palaces. The remembered sounds filling my head at that moment would be neither the measured strains of a gagaku ensemble nor the sonorous chanting of monks, but the barking of a dog tied to a rusty gate and the piercing, almost mournful wailing of sirens at a level crossing just as the barriers come down and a train goes roaring past.
I’ll write more about where I came from, why I’m here, and where I’m going in the next post. Now to set the scene: it was a bright spring morning on Wednesday, the 25th of March 2015, and I had just stepped off a train at the town of Yoshinogari in Saga Prefecture.
As I was leaving the station, a lone sakura tree planted near the exit caught my eye. It was fairly early in the blooming season and not all of its buds were open, but the sight of those rich pink blossoms set against the pure blue sky was enough to make me pause for a moment to appreciate their beauty.
My destination lay to the west of here, about a quarter of an hour by foot. The start of the path was a mere stone’s throw from the train station, clearly marked and signposted.
The designs forged into a manhole cover on the road gave me all the reassurance I needed, if I needed it, that I was on the right track. (All will be made clear in the next post.)
The path took me through a quiet stretch of lightly urbanised farmland. Green fields on either side of me, groups of houses sprinkled across the landscape, the tracks of the Nagasaki Main Line some distance away on my left and the forested peaks of the Sefuri mountain range far away to my right. The setting was uniquely peaceful, with the relative silence punctuated only by the crunch of my steps on the pavement and occasionally displaced by the loud cries of level crossing sirens triggered by passing trains.
Here and there, snatches of beauty. Small, neat clusters of plants struggling tenaciously to bloom in the patches of gravelly earth set aside for them along the edges of the road.
Stretching off to the south, a row of bright yellow flowers.
There was hardly anyone else on the road, save for a handful of other pedestrians and two riders – perhaps a child and her mother – trundling along on a pair of mamachari. Rented, one might surmise, judging from the identical designs, the identification stickers, and the fact that they were clearly labelled “4” and “5” respectively (I assume “1” through “3” had come this way earlier that morning).
Soon, I crossed a much busier road (the mere fact that it had traffic lights was enough to set it apart from the one I’d just been on), and I came upon a tree-lined walkway that led right up to the gates of my destination for the day, which is to be the subject of my next blog entry.
You will have seen for yourself that there was nothing extraordinary along this short route (not counting what lay ahead, which will be showcased in the next post). No buildings of great architectural significance, no historic treasures of national import … nothing of note whatsoever.
And for all that, this brief stroll ranks as one of my most enduring memories of Japan.
I can’t attribute it to any single sight, or smell, or sound. The railway sirens were probably the most powerful trigger: by no means exclusive to Japan, of course, but the sound employed is quite distinctive (far removed from the beeps or bells that I’ve heard from elsewhere) and something I now closely associate with the country. Nonetheless, it wasn’t that alone but everything put together: the sirens, the rhythmic rumbling of the passing trains, the tile-roofed houses that almost seemed straight out of an anime series, the verdant fields and the distant mountains, the lonely barking of a dog from somewhere out of sight – everything.
One travel guide I’ve come across stated that standing in the middle of Tōkyō’s famous Shibuya scramble crossing will make one want to scream “I’m in Japan!”. I can imagine why: the lights, the sounds, the architecture, the Japanese script plastered across every available surface, the sheer masses of humanity concentrated in one place. So yes, the claim strikes me as perfectly plausible … and yet I don’t recall (even after having made that iconic crossing more than once) being tempted by the locale or the experience to shamelessly proclaim my delight to the world.
I didn’t feel it in Shibuya. But out here, in the farmlands of northern Kyūshū, where the rustic scenery could conceivably have represented any quiet agricultural community in the world and yet, for reasons I can’t fully articulate, seemed more Japanese than almost any other place in Japan, more so than even the temple-lined streets of Kyōto or the towering skyscrapers of Tōkyō, I wanted to cast all reason to the winds and declare at the top of my voice that I was precisely where I wanted to be.