Somewhere in Japan, Dispatch № 80: The Old Life

People in Japan still commonly use kerosene space heaters in their homes. Enough so that, in the winter months, kerosene trucks drive slowly through neighborhoods in the evening, making their presence known with a repeating announcement played over a loudspeaker, accompanied by the tune of an old children’s song.

Before I quit working in Tokyo, I had Fridays off, and during the first winter we lived together, I would go off wandering on Friday afternoons before buying groceries for dinner, departing around the time the sun was getting low and golden. It back-lit the fog of my breath as I walked, growing fainter before disappearing, the light leaving the sky and the clear, deep black of the winter night bleeding heavily into the rich blue of dusk.

On nearly every one of these walks, I encountered a kerosene truck at least once.

And while the western sky retained a modicum of glow, I would step into the Life, an old neighborhood grocery store with a visibly graying customer base.

Going inside wasn’t quite like stepping back in time, but did give a certain impression of age. Something akin to entering an alternate present that carried a powerful influence from the world of several decades before. The space itself gave this impression, overriding the fact that the products on the shelves were all contemporary.

The ceiling was relatively low, and the space below it was lit with humming, gently flickering fluorescent bulbs that painted everything with an enfeebled, green-tinged glow. The patrons were strikingly pallid, thus illuminated, and when lamps went bad, odd corners of the shop took on a hushed, quasi-dormant atmosphere in the shadows.

The floor tiles were well-deteriorated in places, a dark gray material showing through where the pattern had long since been worn away, with ever-deepening depressions formed by decades of foot traffic. Near the registers, even the concrete subfloor peeked through here and there, burnished to a shine.

In odd, inaccessible nooks near the ceiling behind refrigerator cases, dust drifted like snow.

Just as entering that space gave the impression of entering a slight vacuum where time didn’t add up quite the same, the moment of leaving after shopping was one flooded with sound, sky, and air. A sudden return to regularly scheduled programming.

Stepping back out into the night, I headed for home with my groceries, the tune from the kerosene truck still playing softly somewhere off in the distance.

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Photographer, essayist, wanderer, weirdo. Compulsive creator, interested in everything because everything is interesting. 🇺🇸 in 🇯🇵

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David R Munson

David R Munson

Photographer, essayist, wanderer, weirdo. Compulsive creator, interested in everything because everything is interesting. 🇺🇸 in 🇯🇵

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