Dazed and drenched within Tokyo’s oppressive summer furnace, I peered up from my squat through the prism of perspiration in my eyelids to see a figure I had gradually come to know as the grumpy ol’ garden drunk.
“When ‘ja plant ‘dem cucumbers?” he slurred, fingering a tall can of tepid happōshu in his rustic left claw.
“Um, about a month ago.”
Noon is not usually a time when simple calculations require a man to pause in contemplation, but a morning of dense humidity coupled with a sweltering sun — after an extended season of such days — can leave a mind numb.
“Cucumbers don’t grow on this land in autumn.”
Only three letters could come to mind as I continued to coax the now month-old vines up a trellis in a garden sauna that placed heavy burdens on consciousness. But I had no idea how to say “WTF” in Japanese, and before I could even contemplate it, a breath of “Ah, sō desu ka?” exhaled from my parched throat.
“They might grow elsewhere, perhaps on land in some other part of this ward, but not here.”
As I sank to my knees in the surrounding weeds, which seemed to germinate faster than any of the edible items in my meager 10 sq. meter plot of community garden, I mulled over my options: pull up a month of cultivated growth . . . or labor on.
And labor on I did. Months later, after one of Tokyo’s warmest autumns ever, a few cucumbers formed and ripened. During the summer months, vines like this would continue to produce for four to six weeks.
I proudly displayed my bounty, restrained my jubilation to a friendly smile, and then watched in horror as the next week’s incoming chill decimated my entire crop.
It had taken me five years of lotteries to score this plot of land through the ward office, so you can imagine my frustration a few months later when I not only transferred the required ¥3,000 to renew the plot for another year, but also accidentally submitted a paper relinquishing it.
I didn’t realize my mistake until a few days after the ides of March, the official start of the growing season in my ward, when I showed up to prepare the soil for another season of planting only to find somebody else’s dirty stuff on “my” dirt.
A humble call to the ward office cleared up matters, when the planets apparently aligned perfectly in a rare occurrence to produce an open patch of land. So I moved from plot 6 to 65, the latter number being what seemed to be the average age of most of the other gardeners.
Anyone who has spent much time around the elderly in Japan will know what apprehension swarmed the area next: “How’d that gaijin move from 6 to 65?”
‘Ha! All your plants are dead! They’re dead!” the grumpy ol’ drunk exclaimed as I arrived to water my newly planted seedlings on the third Thursday of April.
The weekend before, I had left the garden ecstatic for having gotten my plants in the ground two weeks earlier than last year.
“Water’s not going to be any help to those things!” he chucked, as a kindred ol’ soul nearby howled with laughter and the face of a younger apprentice tensed with worry over the ribbing I was taking.
The sounds of amusement faded as I slunk over to 65 to silently mourn my own valley of death.
A sunny 10 days later, I was back with a new batch of seedlings, virtually skipping past the other plots on my way to a bright new beginning. As I approached 65, my skip slowed considerably when I noticed two strangers in plot 64: an old woman, and a very slow-moving old man keeping himself upright with heavy use of a cane.
Arriving to plant anew, I smiled to the gray-haired woman. The old man had his back to me and was obviously intent on remaining in the stable position he had settled into.
So I returned to my inner glee, shoving seedling after seedling into the well-fertilized terraced beds of earth. As I squatted at only arm’s length from the old man, the woman asked him, “Do you think we should greet the foreigner next to us?”
“Nah!” the old man mumbled, along with a few other sounds I couldn’t quite decipher.
“Are you sure?” the woman persisted.
“I’m right here, you know. I can hear you!” I screamed inside as I simultaneously realized that I probably should have been the instigator of the initial greeting. Head down, I smiled, continuing to plant, waiting to see how this would play out.
The old man either did not hear his wife, or he simply chose to ignore her. His desire not to extend a greeting seemed to be based more on the effort that would be required for him to spin around than any sense of unfriendliness he might have held deep within. But regardless of his reason, his reaction seemed to trouble the old woman.
Ten seconds passed without a sound. And another 10. And yet another 10.
“How do you do? We are the ones next to you!” — the old woman could restrain no longer.
The man quickly waffled around, doing a shuffle that would have made LMFAO fans proud, and was now sporting the wide forced grin that every husband can generate on cue when meeting neighbors at the insistence of a lifelong partner.
Over the next week, I noticed my new elderly neighbors from 64 tending to a number of plots throughout the community garden. I then started to notice others doing the same. Perhaps they’re farming for family or friends who have residences in the ward. Perhaps they’re taking care of plots for friends who may no longer be capable of doing it themselves. But like most gathering spots in Japan, the community garden has its own subculture that I am gradually absorbing.
Last summer, cucumbers arrived in a variety of breadths and bends, and 10 tomato plants produced 20 weeks of plenty that was freely shared with neighbors, friends and coworkers. A few ¥100 seedlings of edamame produced a pile of bean-filled pods that would probably have sold for a few hundred yen. And several bell pepper plants produced several bell peppers.
What didn’t grow well? Corn.
This year, the cucumbers and tomatoes are back, and the remaining soil has been seeded with a few watermelons and muskmelons. Cucumbers started arriving at the end of May, and all sizes of red, yellow and orange tomatoes began appearing in late June.
Six watermelons were pollinated and are gradually expanding. But the muskmelons, well, just haven’t produced any melons. But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.
You see, while down in a crouch weeding in early June, I looked up to see the wobbly ol’ garden drunk examining the new growth going on in my little plot. And according to him, watermelons have successfully been grown on this land before. But not muskmelons.
Light Gist offers a humorous take on life in Japan on the last Tuesday of the month. Send your comments and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org