That’s the thing that struck me first, the position of the stars are different here.
In the bullet-train called a shinkansen on my way to visit a friend from the good old days, I am sat upright in the window seat. I dare not recline for fear of upsetting the old couple behind me, out on a day trip with their formal pretty lunch boxes wrapped up and laid out neatly on the foldable table attached to the back of my chair. Mt. Fuji is supposed to roll past my fast-moving window pane - although thanks to my daydreaming - by the time I’ve looked out the window we’ve already run into a tunnel and almost there. I have no idea where I’m going.
We go to the sea. There’s a sea! I exclaim and she says, yes where do you think you are? And I say I don’t know, and she tells me we are by the sea and in the distance you’ll be able to see Mt. Fuji. I look impressed and she laughs at me.
There’s a famous pinewood here that leads on to a long swathe of beach. It’s famed for an old Japanese legend that took place here, called the Hagoromo Densetsu, where a beautiful maiden from the heavens was caught off guard bathing in the sea. A mortal man found her special robe called a hagoromo hanging on a pine tree and stole it away so that she couldn’t return to heaven. In one version he marries her and in another version she dances for him to get the robe back, and in both versions she flies back to the Sun People leaving him heartbroken. Deservedly.
It’s getting darker and with the few pebbles I’ve picked up from the beach in my pocket we drive in her car up the steep hills of the mountain. The curve and the inclines of the roads are something to be mastered and she rushes up them like a bull. It’s a full moon and because it’s low hanging in the sky it looks huge and flat and yellow like an old torch face. She tells me her family name in old Japanese means full moon, Mochizuki, the first kanji letter (mochi) spelling out ‘hopeful’ and the second (zuki) ‘moon’.
That’s Orion’s Belt. That’s the Dog Star.
We point out constellations looking up and spread out like unleavened bread, two tiny dots on a moonlit mountainside - because she’s a mountain-girl and I had no idea! A relic of a house, centuries old passing down through generations of one traditional tea-farming family inlaid in a valley on the blue-green foothills of Mt. Fuji. Shizuoka is renowned for it’s high quality tea-fields but I hadn’t made the connection before making the trip that she might be related to the trade, it's an idea rather dated for my Obaachan even to have conceived. The rumours go, that in the Ēdo Period when the ruling class of Japan were abolished all the families of warriors or samurai moved in to Shizuoka to harvest tea, as it was considered not a lowly yet peaceful living. That’s all historical conjecture though albeit romantic.
The next morning, half-asleep in the thick futons, lying down with my head tilted to the window I see droplets visibly draped across the forest canopy. It’s raining today, she says bleakly as she breaks in to a laugh when she sees me huddled up as a cocoon on her tatami floor. I am so happy to be here.
I watch the hunter-cat of the household named Bünta clean himself infront of the kerosene stove, where also an 89 year old obaachan (Japanese grandma) sits warming her knees. This cat catches everything from mice to wood pigeons to small rabbits, says the warm-hearted mother, one time she caught a swallow who was nesting in the beams above the front door and since then we’ve been on the blacklist and they haven’t returned. I look at the cat and at the mother bemused, what blacklist? I ask, and she tells me swallows won’t return to a place to nest for ten years afterwards if they think it’s unsafe, and so thanks to Bünta no swallows have nested in the house for at least four years. I tell the cat off, and the obaachan chuckles, at me or the cat or at something wholly else I still don’t know.
The house is completely wooden. Paper doors, wooden slats, tatami floors, paper walls, everything is light and breathing. In the winter it’s cold but the wood sucks up the moisture and in the summer it expends it back out again in the heat; and the paper if it gets wet dries, and the floors creak with human and natural movement. It’s stayed this way for over a century, it’s like living inside the shell of a nut, totally safe yet precarious.
Food is pulled out from the soil around her house, mushrooms and broccoli and rich pickings; the cat comes to watch us as we watch over the tea-fields, moist with rain. Now they are dark green but when they’re ready they turn a vivid lime-green, she tells me, I ask her if she ever wants to take over the family business, and she tells me it’s her last resort - the joker in the pack - I guess what she means is the last trick up her sleeve, but really I did think she was the joker now for keeping these beautiful traditional familial things a secret. I mean - I used to stay in her dingy flat in Paddington watching YouTube videos. Those were the days.
Those were the days,As long as moonsMove over mountainsAnd tea-fields,I’ll see that red rugCarpet, on yourEx-council flat floor.With one sticking door.Mercury rises,Decides to go backwards.