Whenever Vince Patchwork happened to mention that he lived in Yokohama, his Japanese friends would ooh and aah about what an exciting place it was, how different from Tokyo. To Vince himself, the city seemed nothing so much as the urban drift that had leaked over the Tama River through Kawasaki. Now, it was heading even further south than Yokohama itself. The suburban sprawl had bled into Kamakura, the Miura Peninsula, through Odawara and was on the way to infecting Hakone. Vince concluded that it wouldn't cease until it had collided with Osaka and Nagoya.
He realised that Yokohama had every reason to claim to be a city in its own right. It had a history quite separate from its northern neighbour, although both Tokyo and Yokohama had been manufactured political centres very much like Washington D.C., or Canberra in Vince's native Australia. Old Edo had been created by Ieyasu Tokugawa as the seat of government for his Shogunate while Yokohama had grown from a village into a town and finally into Japan's second largest city as a result of the European and American invasion of the 19th. Century. It had originally been a holding pen to protect every day Japanese people from the sinister influence of the West and to safeguard the foreigners themselves from marauding samurai who saw this new breed as the very devil itself.
The difference, as far as Vince could see, ended there. While Edo became the political centre and chaotically spread through a series of land grabs by rival lords, Yokohama was a planned city. It was centered around a port and because of the need to regulate visitors to the city, it had, at first, been neatly divided into two halves - the foreign community and the Japanese people who served their needs. If there was anything chaotic about the design of Yokohama, it had ebbed down from the North.
Vince certainly understood that when his Japanese friends talked about the wonders of Yokohama, they were hardly thinking of Vince's apartment in Saedocho in the north-west of the city, but the port area in which Yokohama had had its origins - Yamashita Park, the Bay Bridge, Chinatown, the Foreign Cemetery, Motomachi Shopping Street, Sankeien Gardens, the New Grand Hotel. Vince's Yokohama was a good three-quarters of an hour by bus from any of these attraction.
It had never really been his intention to move to Yokohama in the first place. His daytime job was in the heart of Shinjuku and he trudged through Tokyo's busiest station, every morning in order to teach a reluctant group of 18 and 19 year olds the basics of English Conversation. He was, in fact, looking for something a lot closer than Saedocho.
Upon arrival in Japan, Vince and his wife, Connie, had quickly moved into a foreigners' house called Buckingham Palace in Tokyo's Nakano Ward, just two stops on the Marunouchi line from Shinjuku. The place was made of crumbling timber and rooms were divided by paper thin sliding doors that fell out altogether if you leaned against them. As gaijin houses went, the Palace wasn't so bad. No one threw wild, all-night parties and everyone seemed very friendly to Connie, if not to Vince himself. The landlady was a petite Japanese woman called Yoshiko who had spent several years in London and had developed an accent which was a strange mix of BBC English and Shitamachi Japanese. Yoshiko informed Vince and Connie that she hoped they would help to inspire peace while they were living at the Palace.
If Vince hadn't immediately recognised the warning, he soon discovered that his diplomatic skills were stretched to the limits amid this strange mix of nationalities and cultural interests. The problem with gaijin in Japan is that they're all so damned talented. This shouldn't have come as a surprise to Vince. People who liked to travel, he readily understood, were likely to be adventurous in all endeavours. One resident, a 19-year-old American boy called Luke, practised the bagpipes between seven and eight o'clock, every evening, right on dinnertime. To his credit, Luke did teach Vince that there was a difference between bagpipe music and the sound of cats being strangled. After three weeks of indigestion, Luke moved out and was replaced by a Canadian ventriloquist called Leonie. Vince immediately began to appreciate the regularity of Luke's bagpipe rehearsals. Ventriloquism could occur when you were least expecting it and Vince's indigestion didn't improve at all when his meals started talking to him.
The final straw was when Sebastian, the insomniac mimic from New Zealand, arrived. Sebastian was the oldest resident in the house, a lumbering silver-haired man in his fifties. Unfortunately, he preferred to impersonate a range of standards from yesteryear. He specialised in Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant, but, on the English scene, it wasn't unusual for Vince to wake up in the early hours of the morning and find that Alan Whicker and Malcolm Muggeridge were conversing outside his door. No wonder most Japanese people thought foreigners were crazy.
If Vince and Connie had not been intending to look for more permanent accommodation, they were by now combing the notice boards of gaijin-friendly real estate agents trying to find an apartment in Tokyo that was remotely affordable. This proved to be no easy task. Vince soon realised that the least complicated line of approach for a real estate agent in Tokyo was to simply look blankly at Connie and Vince and say that there was absolutely nothing available. Others seemed happy to see gaijin and these, Vince decided, fell into two categories - those who saw a bigger profit in non-Japanese tenants and those who, usually through some previous good experience with gaijin whether overseas or in Japan, honestly believed that foreigners deserved the same deal as the Japanese.
This last category was by far the rarest and when Vince and Connie finally did find some of these right-minded individuals, they soon discovered that their clientele did not always share the real estate agents convictions or enthusiasm. They had, in fact, signed four contracts, arranged finance to cover two months of rent, an exorbitant bond, insurance and a cash present for the landlord, when their landlady-to-be would call and ask them if they went to the toilet in the middle of the night.
"Er ... well ... sometimes," Vince would admit.
It would eventuate that the downstairs flat was occupied by the landlady's very elderly aunt who would not only be wakened by late night toilet-flushing, but would also suffer great traumas as a result of it. It was a very regrettable problem and unfortunately, they would not be able to rent out the apartment to the Patchworks after all. The first time this happened, it was doubly annoying because Sebastian was practising his Richard Nixon impression in the background while Vince stumbled through the conversation in broken Japanese. He remembered only after the conversation had ended that the Shuto Expressway which handled tens of thousands of buses, trucks and cars in a day was less than a half a block from the apartment and couldn't see how the flushing of a toilet would bother an elderly lady when the constant hum of engine noise and the intermittent honking of horns didn't disturb her in the least.
By the time of the fourth such rejection, Vince was more than wise to the elderly relative ploy and simply told the woman, "No, we never use the toilet at all between the hours of 5:00 p.m. and 10:00 a.m."
But it eventuated that this elderly aunt was bed-ridden and toilet-use during the day would be equally if not more troublesome.
"We both work and so we'll be out of the house most days," Vince countered.
But the days when Vince was not at work, it turned out, would be the most troublesome for the aunt.
"Why did you get the toilet installed in the first place? Are they ornaments that only crazy foreigners use? Don't Japanese people shit?"
Well, yes, they did, the woman admitted, but they did it in a ... more ... more ... more Japanese way that was quite acceptable to her elderly aunt.
In spite of his sheer frustration, Vince found himself wondering just what it was that the Japanese did in the toilet that was so different from what he himself did. It was after all a western-style toilet, not one of those trough toilets that you found in parks and railway stations that required incredible balancing and manoeuvring skills.
In the end, it was Connie who found them a place to live. She had some friends in Yokohama who had some other friends in a four-storey apartment block and the landlady seemed to have no objections to foreigners. Connie's friends, the Atsukawas, were respected farmers in the district and would act as guarantors for the Patchworks. Vince was reluctant at first. The apartment was in Yokohama and Connie estimated that he would spend some three hours a day commuting to and from his daytime job in Shinjuku.
Connie bustled Vince onto the Marunouchi train and they rode the line as far as Akasakamitsuke. They tramped through a series of underground passages following little purple circles before boarding another underground line, the Hanzomon. The Hanzomon train was obviously a far more modern line than the Marunouchi. Each platform was spotlessly clean and had its only unique colour decor. The railway changed its name twice before they got off. After Shibuya, it turned from the Hanzomon line to the Shintamagawa line. And once it emerged into the open air just before it crossed the Tama river that marked the southern border of Tokyo, it became the Denentoshi line.
Vince and Connie got off at Ichigao and caught a bus from the nearby depot. The road for most of the way seemed too narrow to allow two cars let alone two buses to pass, but on the five or six occasions that an oncoming bus approached, they just managed to edge past each other. The 20 minute ride took in houses with established miniature gardens, market garden farms and even some rice paddies. Vince had been on buses in Tokyo and was quite used to broadcasted messages informing you of the next stop and the ultimate destination of the bus. He wasn't used to little warnings from the recording about taking care to cross the road carefully, the recklessness of riding bicycles too close behind buses, or the dangers of earthquakes in the home or in the bus.
Saedo was in Midori Ward, the most north-western part of Yokohama. Midori literally meant green, but there was very little green in or around Saedo. Vince's future landlady led them both to the fourth and top floor of the apartment building, which was called a mansion. The twenty flats together, Vince reflected, may have represented what he'd have considered a mansion, but the flats on their own hardly deserved such a luxurious title. He scanned the horizon to the north and the east. There were some hills with a brownish scrub covering them, but other than that, all he could see were factories, more mansions and an orange and white chimney stack blowing white smoke rings into the air amid far smaller houses with gardens of sculptured pines.
This particular mansion was a pinkish-brown colour. It had two staircases, a rusty fire escape at the far end away from the road and a sweeping set of steps at the front, which reminded Vince of a home in a 1950's American television sitcom set for no reason which he could put his finger on.
Vince and Connie had just been led through the door of Manshon No. 403 when the Atsukawas arrived, hardly containing their excitement. Vince had met them both several times before, but he knew that Connie was already well on the way to establishing a close friendship with Nozomi Atsukawa and that she expected him to do the same with Osamu. Vince always marvelled at how quickly Connie established friendships. What was equally mystifying was how few friends he inevitably made, although he seldom went out of his way to be unfriendly. Osamu was a mild-mannered man in his own way, balding with a far shinier scalp than Vince himself.
Nozomi was gushing about the view to the south and explaining that it was essential to have an apartment that faced south because it kept the place warm in winter.
"You're from Australia," she announced to Vince, "you'll love living in the country."
Vince looked through the windows to the south over the balconies where he'd soon be hanging their futon and weekend washing. There were more factories on this side, although he could just make out one field. He tried to recall gum trees, sheep grazing, fields of wheat, all the things he associated with the word, "country" in his native Australia. Surely, Nozomi must be joking.
The apartment itself turned out to be rather pleasant. It was much larger than the 15 foot square room they had in Buckingham Palace. There were two six tatami mat rooms side-by-side, sliding glass doors that opened out onto the verandah and the necessary plugs for the television. The kitchen was definitely a one-person affair. As a cook, Vince had always been addicted to bench space and he frowned at the lack of it here.
Nozomi whizzed in front of him and pointed out exactly where the stove and the refrigerator would go and Vince wondered if he'd be able to get into the kitchen at all, let alone cook in it. Then, there was a front room which had the only window that faced north. It had vertical bars on it to stop intruders, Osamu informed him, although they could just as easily climb onto the roof and swing themselves down onto the balcony. Vince noted the double-lock on the door and the little phone on the wall of the kitchen which connected with a speaker at the front door.
There was a shoe cupboard next to the open area at the front door called the genkan where you took off your footwear before entering the house and on the opposite side from the front spare room, he could see the laundry, the shower, wash basin with mirror, the western-style toilet and the Japanese-style bath, which Vince loved to sit in and while away hours.
Vince noted that while the kitchen had fluorescent lights and a spotlight, neither tatami room had any light fittings at all. When he asked about this, Nozomi replied:
"If it had light-fittings, it would be furnished."
Vince blinked and turned to the landlady who had been all but silent since Nozomi and Osamu had arrived. Like all the other landladies, she had bowed graciously when she'd met them and offered elaborate greetings.
"Where's the elderly aunt?" Vince demanded.
The woman looked at him and giggled, covering irregular teeth with her hand.
"Oh," she nodded, "so, you've heard my niece and her husband live downstairs in 201. Don't you worry. If they make too much noise, just tell me about it and I'll shut them up for you."
A week later, Vince, Connie and the Matsumotos met with the real estate agent and signed the papers. It had taken Vince a week to sort out another loan from the skeptical office staff of the college for which he worked. Connie and Vince owned a small house in country Victoria, which they rented for $(Australian)120 a week. He remembered that he'd had to take out a loan to buy it. Now, he found himself in the position of having to take out a loan just to move into a rented house. He had to put forward the equivalent of a full three month's rent as bond. Normally, only two months was required, he was told, but when his landlord and lady had built this home, they had obtained the loan on the guarantee that they would not accept gifts of any sort. Thus, the extra bond payment.
If this made absolutely no sense to Vince, he still signed along the dotted line. And so, his life as a supercommuter began. Every morning, he joined the hundreds of thousands from Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa, who crushed onto the trains and invaded Tokyo. The Atsukawas helped them shift into their new home and while Osamu struggled with Vince to carry boxes and suitcases up four flights of stairs, Nozomi and Connie went around to the local department store to look at gas stoves, washing machines, fridges and the minor appliances that would make them self-sufficient.
When they returned, Nozomi handed Vince a fruit box full of packaged rubbish bags.
"It is a tradition in Japan," she explained, "to give a present to all of your neighbours when you move into a new house. Most people only give presents to the people on the same floor and the one underneath, but because you are not Japanese, we think it is best for you to give them to everyone. This is our present to you and your present to your new neighbours."
And so, over the next week, Vince and Connie went around the other flats and presented those amazed neighbours who were at home with smoky black rubbish bags. It wasn't until several months later that Vince discovered that it was traditional to give soba buckwheat noodles when you moved into a new mansion. Nozomi, it turned out, had just thought that rubbish bags were far more practical than noodles. Vince wondered why none of his neighbours had said anything. Nobody had even laughed at their obvious mistake. And then, he realised, Connie and he were foreigners. So, Japanese give noodles. Australians, they assumed, must give rubbish bags. Crazy foreigners.