It's a Tuesday, probably my favourite day of the week, the one day I get to abscond from my duties at the practically sanitorious institution I'm based at the other four days and embed with a school the size of a shoe box. Not literally, the school itself is huge, having once educated hundreds of children, but now it stands strangly unoccupied, less than 20 students in each year, 50 in the whole school, and there's the feeling that every effort is being made to make the space feel filled, like moving into a new house and sticking receipts, postcards, abandoned packaging, anything, to the walls.
It's also about a 10 minute walk from my house - a blessing I make use of every week by sleeping for an extra 20 minutes and then driving anyway. I'm woken more often than not by a trail of children passing between my apartment and the paddy field, their bear bells jingling and faces baring the exhaustion of Japanese sleeping habits. I don't wake up for breakfast, so this is the cue to grab my work clothes, apply some water to my crusty eyes and give my gnashers a quick scrub before I bolt out the door with my hastily recovered car keys wondering if I'll ever sacrifice the warmth of my bed for a more adult routine. 5 minutes, a new record.
At school, staff meeting is starting just as I arrive. 20 teachers, maybe more, for hardly twice that number of students. Democratic education is one of Japan's core principles, a sharp diversion with England's pride in privatisation, and that means wherever you go in the country, schools will always pretty much look the same. In a classroom of two, the students would still have teachers for each different part of the curriculum, they would still work together to serve and distribute lunch, they would still clean the classroom with meticulous care. At my school, after lessons every day, the science teacher still dons his sports kit and makes his way to the field for an hour and a half practice with a baseball team of one.
But there are some things that will vary. On a Tuesday afternoon, for example, if I'm playing Pokémon with my third years on the third floor of the school, I still have to be careful that my mind doesn't wonder out the large windows either side of the blackboard. Down below, a trickle of cars flanked by the steep banks of the cornrow mountains follow the long road that leads to town. There's a falcon circling at the same level of the window and I can almost see my apartment, over the bridge, just out of site, while the students sit absorbed: both of us, in different ways, transfixed by magic.
4:00 and lessons are over. I put on my PE kit and join the tennis club. The team is about 10 and I stand with them on one weedy court knocking soft tennis balls back and forth. Everyone's there, in shorts, in winter, but no one seems that bothered about the actual tennis. It's another display of camaraderie, team work, plus bumming around with your mates after school isn't so different to England. I call out Japanese foods every time I hit the ball - shabu shabu smash, ebi-fry ball, katsu curry - and the kids laugh at the foreigner. At my other school the tennis courts are in too high demand for me to get in the way of their training, but the atmosphere here is a lot more relaxed. If I wasn't there I wonder if they wouldn't abandon the tennis all together and just sit on the side of the court flicking dirt.
The sun's low and massive in the sky by the time I leave. I make my way up to the castle on the hill above the town. The construction is modern but was based on original foundations excavated a few decades ago. Now it's kind of a tourist attraction, not that I've ever seen any tourists there. On the weekend, Konishi, the little man who runs the place, called to see if I wanted to help with preparations for the cherry blossom festival next month. I thought I'd go and say hi before. Miscommunication feels more honest in person, plus I want to get up the hill to watch the sunset.
I recently learned that Konishi is the father in law of my hairdresser, a kindly lady with a little salon halfway between my house and the school. So kind in fact that I always feel a bit guilty when I fall asleep in her establishment. The room is so warm and the seat so comfortable and when she puts a hot flannel over my eyes and starts shaving my neck, my brow, my ears, well it's any man's game to stay awake. She laughs when I apologise. There's something to be said for relationships where you can trust someone to hold a knife to your throat. Safe to say I've started calling her my Japanese mum and - especially since she handed me a bag of homegrown potatoes - visit far more often than my hair warrants.
Triangulating the pair is the restaurant on the other side of the mountain, one of only a handful of shops within a few miles radius of me. Here Konishi's wife, an ancient old lady in relentlessly high spirits, works on the till. From the little I know about Japanese service culture, I have the impression she'd figured out who I was long before, but politeness ordained she wait for me to approach her. When I did, her excitement compensated for any communication that was lacking in words. I ate my curry noodles slowly and wondered how long she'd been waiting for me to say something.
The funny thing is, I've only ever seen them separately - this little family - each at their own topography, contributing independently to the faculty of the small village. In theory, long before I even knew they were related, I could have visited them all on the same day. It gives me pleasure, this thought, and then to imagine them coming together after a long day and, over a bowl of miso soup, talking about the funny English boy who fell asleep while getting his haircut, or came asking about the history of a castle with a standard of Japanese that could never hope to comprehend the answer.
Over the bridge I drive, then turn off next to the bank. On this back road there's an old high school, closed about 10 years ago once the student population fell below 50. Now it stands abandoned, a clock face still ticking on the front of the school, a silent apology for the ravages of time. Behind the school a graveyard: geometric, confident. Then you're up in the mountains, up and up, sometimes shade then fiery orange, a glare you take care to shield your eyes from. A cage, maybe a deer trap (or bear?) and then plateau, the summit, the folded castle white against the sky. In a month these trees will be covered in pink and white, candy floss cherry blossom. Now, in the cold, with the bare branches extended, the scene is harsh, daring, the curves of the building sharp like the curves of a samurai sword.
It's 5:30, the castle closed at 5. I ring Konishi but he's not there. I'll have to go back on the weekend. Now I plug my phone into the car speakers and drive to the highest point on the mountain. I park on the edge of the cliff. On the left I can see the little toy village, cars rushing about, side to side, up and down. On the right, the molten orb glides down over a minaret mountain range. Two worlds refracted through my car windows. Sunset in the land of the rising sun.