Time for a bike ride to shake off the jet lag and get the day started right. I wheeled out the mama-chari, jacked up the seat as high as it would go and started off.
I was going to look for Nakahara Heights, if it even existed.
When I got my first job after coming to Japan in 1987, I ended up with the job that no one else wanted. Although it was booming in the English teaching biz, after two weeks of relentless job hunting, no one in Tokyo would hire me.
Maybe it was because I looked like I was twelve. Maybe it was because in the interviews I came across as clearly having no idea what I was talking about. Maybe it was, as my wife later insisted, because I showed up to all my interviews in a suit and cowboy boots.
Whatever the reason, the job in Utsunomiya was the job no one wanted. Whereas all the jobs in Tokyo had a surfeit of applicants, the opening at the Utssunomiya American Club boiled down to a choice between the guy in cowboy boots and a strange woman with terrible breath who dressed like an Indian mystic even though she was from Wisconsin.
I got the job, which included an apartment at Nakahara Heights. The first night there I slept in my boots, heavy coat, and knit hat. It was fifteen degrees, snowing, and the only furnishings were a thin futon and an equally thin blanket. I had never been so cold in my life and have never been as cold since.
“How was your first night?” they asked me at work.
“It was fine.”
“It got down into the teens.”
“Did your heater work okay?”
Everyone freaked out. “No heater? You could have frozen to death!”
“Thank you,” I said.
After work my boss, who everyone called Chief, brought over a kerosene stove, showed me how to light it, and left. I cranked it up high and went to sleep.
“How did you sleep?” they asked the next day.
“Great,” I said.
“I’m so sorry we forgot the heater,” Chief said. “Are you sure you’re okay? You look funny.”
“I have a headache, to tell the truth.”
“Is it bad?”
“It’s the worst headache I’ve ever had. It’s unbearable. I think it’s from the heater.”
“I could hardly breathe from the fumes.”
“Yeah. That thing gives off a lot of fumes.”
“Didn’t you crack the windows?”
She blanched. “People usually suffocate to death if they fall asleep in a small room with the kerosene heater on. I thought you knew!”
“I do now,” I said.
Since moving out of Nakahara Heights in April of 1987 I had never been back. It took thirty years for anything approaching nostalgia to develop and I figured that not only would I be unable to find it, it was proabably torn down as it was already ancient when I had lived there.
I pedaled first to the elementary school my kids had gone to, then to the cherry trees that lined Shin-kawa, then to my kids’ preschool at Matsugamine Church. From there I went down Orion Mall, which was deserted.
I saw hardly anyone on bikes, unlike the bustling scene I remembered from the past. Nor were there any young people. The city had been made very car-friendly at the expense of bikes. My mother-in-law’s bike hadn’t been ridden in years when I pumped up the tires. “I’m afraid of the cars,” she said.
From the mall I pedaled north to Imaizumi-cho and began hunting for Nakahara Heights but couldn’t find it. All the houses were new or new-ish, and there were hardly any buildings left that were ratty and cheap and falling down.
I explored a few back streets until I found what Nakahara Heights might have looked like with a paint job and some new doors, but it didn’t look right. I turned a couple more corners and came arosss a new black building that said “Nakahara Heights” on it. But it wasn’t my crappy old apartment. It was shiny and new. I peered around it.
Just across the lot was the old building, still inhabited. Ugly, rusty staircases, thirty years the worse for wear, but there it was in all its glory. I shivered thinking about that first freezing night. The sun gleamed. I snapped a couple of pictures and pedaled back home.
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