On the way back to Tane from Mie-ken, I accidentally stayed on one train too long, missing my transfer point. Where was the next stop? About fifteen minutes down the line at tiny mountain town with the smallest train “station” I’d ever seen. Lacking a vending machine, a proper bathroom, and anyone on duty, it sported benches and a box to collect fares.
Since it was a half hour until the next train, I walked into the tiny village.
I found a quiet temple across the tracks.
I finally made it on to the correct train toward Kawake Station as the evening grew darker and stormier. The trains were full of Saturday evening revelers, as well as high school students studying for the English portion of their college entrance exams. I’d seen a girl earlier in Mie pouring over an English word list, looking dismayed at words such as “intellectual”, “reliably”, “experience”, “appreciate”, “simultaneously”, plus a good amount of medical vocabulary and some other words that go bump in the night.
“英語を習いたいですか?” Would you like me to teach you some English, I asked.
To my surprise, the girl nodded. I’d never really interacted with anyone on the train. Maybe people in Mie-ken were different than their Tokyo counterparts.
“Which ones are difficult?” She pointed at “unnecessarily” and shook her head.
“Un-nes-uh-sair-uh-lee.” I pointed to the next one, “entrepreneur”. “It’s French, so it’s extra hard.” She pronounced it flawlessly. I gave her a high-five.
We went back and forth until reaching our destination of Iga Ueno, slowly sounding out words and figuring out ways to remember their pronunciations.
On the train back to Kawake, I met another girl who was studying for her English exam out of the same book as the girl in Mie-ken, and so I continued as the traveling talking dictionary, probably more entertaining than the pocket ones that speak if you press a button. (I always wonder what people think of me, the lone female gaijin with a backpack hopping throughout rural Japan on diesel trains. I’ve seen a handful of foreign couples and men traveling closer to the big cities, but never another female foreigner on her own outside of Tokyo.)
The train went on around Lake Biwa in the dark. My Japanese phone buzzed; it was Dylan, my homestay buddy from Tane. “I hear you’re having lunch with the Matsumoto family on Sunday?” News that I was visiting Tane had gone from Ira to the Matsumotos, who then told Dylan in Osaka that I’d be joining them for a meal… before I even knew about my Sunday plans.
It was sprinkling when I disembarked at Kawake and I unlocked my loaner bicycle and pedaled off into the wet night toward Tane. It began to rain harder, but Ira and the rest of Tane were having a goodbye party, so calling someone to ask for a ride was out of the question—no one was in a position to drive. The bike didn’t have a light, but I continued on in the dark for seven kilometers, relying on the little map on my phone and trying to remember how we’d driven from Kawake to Tane the previous morning.
The rain fell harder as I went along rice paddies. The brakes were squeaky and the bike liked to skid. One mistake and I’d be at the bottom of a cement drainage ditch, adding extra nutrients to this year’s rice crop.
Something rustled ahead of me on the road, scuttling off into the ride paddy to my right. Inoshishi, wild boar? Onward.
What sounded like fireworks came from my left as I continued up the hill, struggling against the bike’s gearing. Perhaps the party had devolved into fireworks! A Kei truck’s lights shone at me. Had Ira et al. come to drive me home? This wasn’t a rescue party, it was a monkey hunting party, firing guns, not fireworks, at the small creatures stealing vegetables from farmers.
I finally made it into the abandoned house to see the tail end of a dinner party hosted by Ira and Yuka. I was promptly hustled into the shower and presented with several types of local rice dishes as the party wound down and we washed dishes. Yuka had prepared onigiri flavored with Italian spice, so some of the more brazen guests went about seeing who could eat the peppery herbs raw. Verdict: Tane residents do not like spicy foods.
The next morning, the Matsumoto family picked us up for lunch, and I was presented with a hiragana activity book by Riko-chan, appropriate for ages 4-6. すごい！ Best gift ever!
Returning to the house, we cleaned up the last of Ira and Yuka’s belongings, Yuka pausing to paint thank-you cards for the neighbors as we turned off water heaters and stowed the place for its next period of emptiness.
The docile praying mantis was returned to an eggplant in the garden, and I took custody of a number of cucumbers that’d otherwise go uneaten. A neighbor graciously offered to drive us to Maibara Station so that I could catch a Shinkansen and so Yuka and Ira could get an overnight bus back to Tokyo. I don’t think anyone was particularly ready to head back to the big city, but perhaps being in such a loud, busy, crowded place makes us appreciate more the gentle, green, neighborly areas of rural Japan.