Visiting Japan’s small town charm

going to tokamachi

I’ve been thinking a lot about Japan lately. I blame my husband – we have been watching Japanese news on the TV almost every night at bed time. Everything sounds and feels familiar once again. I blame my mother in law who, right now got addicted to sending Japanese foodstuff lately. Or this is just plain nostalgia attack for me, which happens every now and then. I don’t know. Japan has always been that place that hold a very special place in my heart. I’ve lived there for more than ten years, starting when I was nineteen years old. It’s hard to forget.

Japan has appeared in my dreams lately, too – suddenly, I see myself living there again and I wake up, say to myself, yeah why not?

The horror, right? People who’d hear me right now would probably recall the reasons I told them why we left way back in 2007: the work-life balance sucks (at least for us middle class working parents in the city), the lack of available domestic help, etc., the cold winters.

But that place would always be our home. When and if all else fails, we know we would have Japan as a place to go, a retreat, a place to reset, if we want to.

We were in Japan last summer and I took the kids to their grandparents in the countryside. It’s a long way from Tokyo – 2 hours via Shinkansen or the bullet train and another hour by regular train. It’s Benjamin’s first time to see his grandfather and grandmother from his father’s side. This visit was long overdue.

shinkansen

Benjamin inside hoku hoku line

rainy niigata collage

We know it’s nearing Niigata prefecture when the buildings disappear and replaced by two to three storey houses and rice fields upon rice fields as far as the eyes can see.

nearing niigata

MEETING BENJAMIN FOR THE FIRST TIME

My in-laws had been looking forward to meeting the kids for months. Now, my father in-law is a workaholic, has a day job but also maintains a rice farm. At 68 years old now, he should have retired already – which he did three years ago, however after only a month, he volunteered to work again at the same company 3-4 times a week and still maintained his rice farm. For more than thirty years, he is proud to say, he has not applied for any leave, whether medical or for vacation.

But when I told him I’d be visiting them with the kids in tow? He took a full week off!

benjamin-with-ojiisan 2

He said he’d meet us at the station but I didn’t expect he would be waiting for us at the train platform, right where we get down the train! I didn’t even see him when he scooped Benjamin up as soon as he got out of the train!

Here’s the thing, he has not seen photos of Benjamin before.

WHY? By some kind of sorcery, my in-laws do not own a smart phone and there is NO internet at their house. So there’s no way I can send pictures of the kids. The last time we met them, Benjamin wasn’t born yet.

I asked him, how did he know it was his grand child? What if he took the wrong child? It would have been a disaster. He simply told me, Benjamin’s face looks familiar that without a doubt he knew he got the right child to hold. Benjamin looked like my husband when he was younger. Benjamin on the other hand, did not protest as well, even if he has not seen this man in his whole life!

It was raining when we arrived but grandpa took us to the groceries and told the kids – go crazy and buy anything you want!

My crazy kids went straight to the food aisle. They’re definitely my kids.

nihon no okashi

My FIL even picked up a cake from the bakery and we celebrated both Benjamin and Pristine’s birthday at home, complete with candles. “This is for all the birthdays we’ve missed!”, the grandparents said.

TOURING AROUND THE SMALL TOWN

The next morning, the weather cleared up and FIL didn’t waste time and drove us around the town. The kids just finished breakfast and were still in their pajamas.

visit to nearby temple in the morning 1

He then took us to see all the rice paddies. It was summer and this part of Japan was bathed in sea of green patches of rice plantations. Another first for my father in-law: driving an automatic car! He only drives manual transmission but then had rented a van for us. The available vehicles to rent were all automatic so he drove one.

(He’s that type of being picky about things he is not familiar with but he endured this!)

oyaji driving

fields of niigata 2

fields of niigata 5

fields of niigata

Ah, the serene countryside in Niigata prefecture. My husband was born and brought up here. There’s nothing fancy, no bright lights, billboards and crowds you would see in the streets of metropolitan Tokyo. It’s dark after 8pm and in the summer time, you’d hear the chorus of the frogs which is annoying at first but kind of becomes white noise that lulls you to sleep. The kids hyperventilated at the sight of fireflies in the pitch black garden at night.

I love summers in Niigata though it can be hot and humid because this prefecture is coastal. But it’s when the Earth comes alive.

niigata garden 4

poppies

me and p in niigata

The kids had a lovely time walking around but the most exciting part for Benjamin must be getting on one of his grandfather’s tractors (for farming)! It must be every boy’s dream to get into these real life monster trucks!

tructor ride 1

tructor ride 4

My mother in-law has clinical depression and had been in and out of the hospital and on medication for so many years. During summer though, she is well. She has tried her best to be in her ‘best form’ (her term) to meet the kids. She told me she’s thankful I took the kids to visit them, it dispelled the loneliness of their home, if only for a short while. It was enough that they know they aren’t truly alone and that they have something to look forward from now on.

My in-laws don’t speak any English. Pristine can converse with them in Nihongo but Benjamin cannot – we have to work on that (thankfully, the big sister is always there to translate). That didn’t hinder him from getting close to them and for the short time we were there, he has constructed short Nihongo sentences and blurted them out proudly.

I am grateful my kids have sweet and kind grandparents on my side and I am equally thankful they have another set from my husband’s side. What lucky kids.

You may ask, why do the grandparents NOT visit us here in Dubai and we have to go to Japan? Good question, actually since we’re almost eleven years here and they have not visited even once. For my in-laws, who has lived in this small town from the day they were born, travelling is this big, insurmountable thing that takes too much energy and COURAGE to tackle. It’s simply not their thing and we have accepted that.

niigata-garden-6 2

And besides, I don’t think the kids mind hopping on the plane and riding the bullet train to get to them! I definitely don’t! (Although it’s a bit stressful to sync the time and meetup with them because as I have mentioned, they do not have mobile phones! I had to plan the time we get on the train, let them know what time we arrive and on which train and STICK to it. Hello the 1980’s!)

Are you an expat family living away from the grandparents? How often do you visit them?

5 thoughts on “Visiting Japan’s small town charm

    • Thanks for reading. Maganda ang countryside on summer, not sure if I can say the same for winter!
      Super ang winter sa Niigata, especially this town, they hold the record of heaviest snowfall in Japan.

      There’s a chance we could go again in January, the peak of winter, I’ll definitely write about that!

      Like

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