You might think that the sound of children singing in the bath and shower next door, at the top of their voices; loud; boisterous, energized, happy, amplified by space and tiles and windows not completely closed; the distance between plants ; after a day of full throttle playing… …… …….that the intrusion on your own silence might be annoying.
But no. When will these kids ( aged seven? ten?), a brother and sister staying with their grandmother, Mrs Takai – an unfailingly smiling, friendly – you can always hear her laughing somewhere in the distance – woman in her late seventies who must be tired from cooking every day and keeping them occupied and from getting too frustrated – ever have this opportunity again? The chance to just be free, in space and nature, playing hide and seek in her big house, unsullied by school, for weeks and weeks on end ?
Never. Yes, I am sure that they have their homework regimens ( both parents are out working somewhere; they usually live elsewhere, in the city: rules will be set). They are definitely quieter during the day – except when they are thundering up and down the muffled stairs giggling or all playing some kind of ball game out on the street – the feeling sounding like general delight – the energy uninhibited and totally free.
Otherwise, Japanese kids’ daily lives are so regimented; controlled, burdened, with all their insurmountable ‘activities’. Cram schools. Clubs. ‘Tasks’. They would usually be visiting their grandmother (her husband died about ten years ago) , at most three or four times a year for short ‘family visit; not now living here. I know they must miss their schoolfriends, and sometimes get a bit bored, but how wonderful that right now they can just be unhindered: rely on their brothers and sisters; just run around : make up stories and adventures. SING. Their hearts out every evening.
The children next door take no notice of we Grey Garden foreign weirdos sitting on the balcony; shielded but that overlooks them. We are there, with our late afternoon wine and newspapers and perfumes while their grandmother is cooking dinner; they scurry around her house down below playing games together, glancing up furtively sometimes and then disappearing, but we all coexist peacefully, along with our other neighbours and daughter across the street who are out in their back garden having a barbecue: we wave, and we meet them on our bikes on the street and say hello when we come back from cycling to temples we have never before visited, or are revisiting, in Kamakura ( they are closed – but you can stand outside the gates ). We found an old book – a guide to all the off ten beaten temples and shrines, and are going deeper.
All this beautiful sunshine. I remember my own six or seven week summer holidays from when I was a child. The time spent lazily in the garden under the weeping willow (you scoff but literally). Reading Russian fairy tales and the Arabian Nights. For hours and hours on end. Playing Swingball on the lawn. The time to just pick sweetpeas. Climb trees. Let the rabbit out and then try and catch her. No external requirements. To make your own pleasure, pierce your own boredom to more crystal clear places. These times were essential to my nourishment. I could breathe. Lie in the shadow of rhododendrons, laburnum, trails of clematis. Just dream. And wait to be called in when it was dinnertime.
Ordinarily, children in Japan simply do not have this opportunity. To spend so much time with their grandparents, their siblings : themselves. And I am really glad for them. Months on end. The changing flowers and plants in her garden. All that homecooking. The joy that is ricocheting off of their echoes is pure: palpable. Seasons are metamorphosing and they are growing with them. They don’t even realize it now, but once everything speeds up again and the other life takes over, hectic, predetermined time management, deadlines and examinations, I do know that deep in their adult souls, one day, these strange, unforgettable – but gentle, limpid; and for them, probably seemingly endless – days will be their sweet, and golden future memories