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A Surprising Farewell

As a mother of two children and now working mostly remotely from my home office, I spend a lot of time at home and walking my dog around my neighbourhood. I never would have guessed when I moved here in 2010 that I would become so attached to my neighbours. As the lone foreigner, most people know me and exactly which house I live in. I've never lived anywhere for so long in just one house in my life. So for me it has been interesting to see what happens when you do stay in one place. Particularly in Japan when your neighbours also tend to stay in the one place too. Around me the familiar faces also age along with us. They watch our children grow up and even if they don't always say so, they notice a lot. And I see them no longer able to go out for walks or keep their garden pristine anymore which makes me quite sad.

There are quite a few characters who I have come to know over the last 14 years, but the very first one to make himself known to me was Mr H. He rang my doorbell a day or two after we officially moved into our new house. I had never owned a house in Japan before so I didn't know all the expectations that there are. Mr H. was very curious to meet me, as surely he had noticed I was not Japanese and I remember his surprise that I could speak to him fluently and that - wait for it- we didn't have any children yet. He was the chairperson of the neighbourhood association so he wanted to let me know what I needed to do as a new member of the neighbourhood and gave me some paperwork to fill out.

About six months later we happened to find ourselves at the dispensary waiting for our prescriptions and he came and sat next to me and we chatted and he asked me all the questions he had been wanting to ask. I gave him ride home in my car because it had started raining and he seemed to be recovering from a small stroke.

This morning I was surprised to see him talking to the school kids before they set off to school. He has been a member of the group that watch over the school kids on their way to school and his house is a designated safe house that kids know they can go to when they need help. When I got closer he was saying that he and his wife were moving away to the island that he grew up on. At 86, it had become too hard to live here anymore and he beamed with happiness to tell me about his hometown. We looked it up on Google Maps and he pointed out where he lived and the volcano that is on the island. He put his arm around my shoulders and gave me a side hug. It was so unexpected from an older Japanese man and I was so moved that he was so fond of me. So I hugged him back. He started to tell us about what he used to do before he retired and I realised he was not just Mr H. from the end of the street but someone who had lived a full life doing amazing things in the Self Defense Force and then in the aviation industry. I made him promise not to leave without saying a proper goodbye and to send me a letter from the island when he gets settled so we can visit him one day. Later at home, I cried. I was surprised at how much I would miss Mr H.'s presence in our community. I sincerely hope that his days on his home island are happy ones.

My neighbours often take on the role of family because our real families live far away from us. They do it with subtlety but I always feel taken care of and grateful that so many people look out for me and my children every day. Seeing my network now getting into their late 70s, and 80s means I really do need to treasure this time with them. Never have I imagined feeling sentimental about the people who live on my street.

I'm often asked what can someone do to be successful or have a good experience in Japan. My top advice I know now from having invested a big chunk of my life in this city and this neighbourhood is find somewhere you like and stay there. People will come to know and trust you the longer you do this and you might find another low-key family or support network you never knew you needed.


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