Rain had started pelting the cherry blossoms when I returned from Tokyo last month, squelching the plans of countless would-be outdoor revelers.
Here in Kurohime in northern Nagano Prefecture the snow was melting and the Torii River, which rises in ancient Togakushi and is fed by streams from Mount Iizuna and Mount Kurohime, was rushing white past my study window on its way to join Chikuma, a major tributary of the mighty Shinano that enters the Sea of Japan at Niigata City.
Now, even at this time of the year, it is still chilly enough to keep a stove running, and the noise of the burning wood and the roar of the water fills my ears. Though a small road runs between my study-gym and the river, very little traffic ever goes by to distract me.
The little wooden house that we built in 1983 is down a gravel lane, a minute’s walk away, and there, too, apart from the refrigerator, washing machine and so on, all we hear is the river, the cries of crows, the harsh calls of herons at night and soon the bicycle-brake shrieks of cock pheasants.
Since last winter I’ve had to spend a lot of time in Tokyo, and thank goodness that seems to be over. How can you city folks stand the bedlam of noises that assault you? Is that why there are so many people walking or riding bicycles around with earphones?
When I look out of my windows I can see a couple of buildings through the trees, but nothing ugly, while in the city there are eyesores and clutter everywhere. People have to work so hard to make things look pleasant.
Here, one gloriously sunny morning just before the snow melted, I passed by a wide field that was glistening like platinum sprinkled with diamond dust. In the middle of the field a fox daintily stepped through the snow, red on white. I stopped to watch the scene and the fox stopped, too, turning to look at me for a few seconds before going on. It was like a classical Japanese dance on a magnificent, vivid stage.
When the fox reached the edge of a coppice she paused again (I’m pretty sure it was a vixen) to turn and look at me. Then, with a flick of her great bushy tail, she vanished into the trees. What a rush of pleasure that was! The fox had survived a pretty tough winter, and with spring just around the corner, there would be plenty to eat.
It was a pretty tough winter for me, too, spending a lot of time in hospital getting rid of cancer and also facing family troubles. Then, while I was away there was so much heavy, wet snow up here at 700 meters that the sauna roof collapsed. Nobody to shovel the stuff off, you see. But still the fox, the raccoon dogs (tanuki) and Old Nic all managed to survive.
Meanwhile, one of the ongoing effects of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster is that many children in the northeastern part of Honshu no longer play outdoors in natural surroundings. However, for the last 15 years our C.W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust has conducted programs to bring abused children or children with disabilities into the woods to learn and play, so in recent years we’ve been running similar ones for youngsters from the afflicted area as well. These are quiet, happy little programs, nothing to hit the news or shake the world.
When I returned home last time, one was under way in which children with sight problems were being introduced to our woods. I am recovering from surgery, and have lost some weight and strength, so I just talked with the children and the adults who came with them, then saw them off as they disappeared among the trees.
One little girl was unable to see anything at all, and some of the other children could make out light and shapes, but could not see in depth or detail. It was a calm, sunny day and the glare off the snow was warm and strong. Small birds flitted through the upper branches of the trees hunting insects that emerged from the bark.
Although I have seen many times how these very special children embark on a woodland adventure, the emotional bubble that I experience never diminishes.
There, as I watched, a pretty little girl trudged off on snowshoes for the very first time in her life, hand in hand with another slightly older girl, one who could see just a little better and who was being encouraged by one of our competent, cheerful instructors. The little girl and her companion were beaming with smiles.
“It’s all fine,” I said to myself, “these kids will survive.”