ICHINOMIYA: A REFLECTION
The past five years… no chapter of my life has ever gone by so fast. My time as an English instructor on The JET Programme has concluded, and at the end of July I moved away from the small, seaside town of Ichinomiya to begin a new adventure. But I want to pay tribute to the town where I lived and the community I served.
Ichinomiya ( 一宮町 ) sits on Japan's Pacific coast, about ninety minutes outside Tokyo by train. The town centers around Tamasaki Shrine, which for centuries was the “Ichi no Miya,” or the greatest, most important shrine of old Kazusa Province. The culture is rich with local festivals, special foods and traditions, while temples and gardens jewel the landscape. The outskirts are vibrant with forests and flowers. White herons circle over the flooded rice paddies, and little green-black crabs scuttle along the sidewalks and ditches. The breeze carries the scent of the ocean and the sound of the rolling tide.
“You’ll find it’s a very relaxed place,” my predecessor told me before I moved in. “The town is popular with surfers, and has a laid-back, California-esque vibe.” I wasn’t sure what he meant, having never been to California (nor even, for that matter, the ocean). So while I can’t make that comparison myself, I can say that the community was incredibly welcoming, eager to receive me and to help me feel at home. Ichinomiya has an open-hearted, healthy spirit—youthful, even, so far as rural Japanese towns go. It’s a fact of modern Japanese society that many rural towns are shrinking away, sometimes dying out completely as young people gravitate toward big cities like Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka. But Ichinomiya retains a generally stable population—partly due to its thriving ocean culture, partly because it’s an idyllic, safe, and beautiful place to raise a family, and partly because of its easy train access to Chiba City and Tokyo for those who really want it. Some residents inevitably grow up to move away, but those that do tend to be replaced by new blood. In my experience, many of those newcomers arrive from the city, seeking an escape from stressful urban life amid the greenery and beaches of Ichinomiya.
As for me, I did not come to Ichinomiya by choice. I had never heard of the town before I was placed there, and at first I had doubts as to whether a town famed for its surfing culture was really the right fit for my personality, since I tend to prefer mountains, hiking trails, sacred places, and ancient things. Still, I decided to keep an open mind and give it a year to see how it went.
It turned out I didn’t even need that long, because Ichinomiya had those other things, too. Within a couple weeks I’d not only made good friends at my town office, but also at a local Zen temple and among the Kagura performers at Tamasaki Shrine. I found myself welcomed into spaces and circles I’d never imagined, and stunned at just how much there was to see and do in this little town. While there was little in the way of actual nightlife (unless a festival was underway), I could hop to Tokyo on a weekend if I wanted. Sometimes in the late evening I would take my guitar down to the sea, play music on the grassy dunes overlooking the beach, and watch the moonrise over the water.
That was a strange, profound feeling, too, seeing the ocean up close for the first time, and I will never forget it. I had grown up in northern Wisconsin, far away from the coast, and in the first twenty-four years of my life I had only ever glimpsed the sea from a distance or from an airplane window. But facing the open ocean for the first time, on an empty stretch of southern Kujukuri Beach, I found myself awed not just by the sight, but by the sheer sensation of vastness. By the understanding that, unlike the Wisconsin shore of Great Lake Superior, where Canada lies out of sight yet is still beyond the horizon, here was an expanse of water that just kept going, beyond this horizon, beyond the next one, and the next, and which did not end until it finally washed up on the coast of California half a world away. The Pacific wraps around the globe and predates ancient Pangaea; it was part of the world ocean long before the first intrepid life crawled out of the sea, and it struck me that those waves will still be rolling in that infinite expanse and crashing along Japan’s shoreline millions of years after I am gone. Even at that moment, the very sea which brought forth all life eroded my footprints as I walked down the beach.
Often I would go for long walks on the west side of town, where the residential areas thinned into small wooded mountains, bamboo groves, and winding country roads. That’s where I discovered Touzen-ji, the Zen Buddhist Temple that became my second home in Ichinomiya. About once a week I would visit to study and write in the temple’s main hall, and to have dinner with the monk and his family afterward. Long conversations followed late into the evening, spanning current events, history, philosophy, religion, speculation about where this wild 21st Century is taking us… Much of my improvement in the Japanese language, and my ability to talk about a breadth of topics, developed there at Touzen-ji.
As for my workplaces—at both the elementary and junior high schools where I taught, I was blessed with some of the best coworkers I’ve ever known. Tomo and Akiko both deserve a shout-out here, and if they are reading this they know why. As far as my students are concerned, I loved being their sensei, and if those lively, delightful, spirited little monsters are the future of Ichinomiya, then I predict the town has some of its best years ahead of it.
Never did I expect, on first joining the JET Programme and moving to Ichinomiya, that I would end up choosing to spend a half-decade in this place. I am glad and grateful to have been a part of this beautiful community, this little special corner of the world. In my final week, as I made my farewells to Mayor Mabuchi and Aino the superintendent, Aino-sensei gave me that grandfatherly look I’ve come to know well and said, “Just as you have an original hometown in America, Ichinomiya is your hometown in Japan.” I have to say he’s right.