Living in Japan
Good Day Sunshine

Good Day Sunshine

Added In: Living in Japan › Life in Japan

Jeffrey Townsend

Can this be winter? It’s a clear, warm day and I’m sunbathing in the armchair outside the front door of my mountain home. As I dip a petite madeleine into my coffee I’m half hoping for one of those Proustian moments of enlightenment and “all-powerful joy.” But it doesn’t come.

During winter in Oyama one spends a lot of time in the sun. As the early mornings are often bitterly cold it is a sort of ritual to watch for the first sign of the sun on the paper windows. But by mid-morning on a fine winter day it will often be warmer outdoors than inside.  

The oil burner of the bathwater heater is humming in the background, and down in the valley I can hear the noise of trucks repairing an old concrete dam. In a few minutes I shall jump into my bathtub to soak for a quarter of an hour, before returning to this place in the sunshine, where I shall cut my toenails and scrape the dry skin from my heels.

I find myself trying to recall the words of a song by that superannuated French chansonnier Serge Lama, about the miracle wrought by an elderly songstress as she prepares for the stage, and finds herself transformed back to the age of twenty-something.

A crisp little moment when one reaches down into the brain and tries to recall some half-remembered words. It could be the line of a Shakespearean sonnet, a French chanson or Italian canzone, Zen koan, anything. Although the memory is shaky there is a huge accumulation of things read, heard or studied that are waiting to be paired up with a momentary experience or capricious feeling. A small but gratifying compensation for a time of life that is otherwise a slow state of decay.

C’est la vie. And now here comes a feeling of gentle resignation. If pressed one would have to admit that existence is meaningless. Still it is full of beautiful moments.

I’ve recently been reading a book by the early 20th-century Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa. Perhaps a few of you know of him. An introverted man who spent most of his life cultivating non-action, divesting his mind of all unnecessary opinions and superfluous thoughts so that he might live each moment in a spirit of relaxed intensity. Pessoa wrote things like:

To have opinions is to sell out to yourself. To have no opinions is to exist. To have every opinion is to be a poet.

Patiently I wait while the sun moves from behind a stream of clouds trailing endlessly from the southwest. At last the sun is out again and so I can enjoy the last hour or so of sunshine before the cold of the early afternoon, as it comes to be hidden by the tall trees on the western mountain.

There was an eccentric old farmer in the village who used to say that all vegetables need is sunshine. He put no compost and no fertilizer on his fields, which, incidentally, he never dug either. He lovingly raised his food thus and it always tasted delicious.  

And I’m also elliptically reminded of a Chinese proverb – “If you want to be happy for a day, get drunk. If you want to be happy for three years, get married. If you want to be happy forever, make friends with plants.”

Sunshine and trees. Sunshine and flowers. Sunshine and vegetables.

But there was another old Taoist – all these people are long since dead, by the way – who insisted that vegetables grew equally well on a north-facing slope. He used to say that what plants need is the warmth of healthy earth. Concrete, pesticides and “bad” bacteria blocked the channels through which the natural energy – the warmth - traveled. He was another natural farmer who never dug the soil, leaving that job to the worms and insects, he would say.

Am I giving you an impression of how my mind moves on this winter day, sometimes in the sunshine, sometimes in the shade, sometimes in the present, sometimes in the past... alone, with nothing to disturb me but the noise of men working a kilometer down the valley?

The seasons of Oyama are very clearly defined, each with its climatic characteristics, tasks and mental moods. Winter is indeed the time for relaxation and meditation. One rests physically and one dreams too. And amidst the reverie, in the sunshine or by the stove, fragments of ideas appear - sometimes as if from nowhere – and you try to fit together the pieces. And in this way you make what might grandiosely be called “plans,” while looking forward to the spring.

Note: The Pessoa quote is from the Penguin Classics edition of The Book of Disquiet, translated by Richard Zenith.