外の群れ / Communities Outside the World
The first time I was ever visited by a sensation of something “outside of this world” was probably when I was in a train. I am not sure where I was going. Perhaps I was in the train going with Grandmother to visit my aunt in Yame-gun, or perhaps I was on my way to Shimonoseki to go meet Mother, accompanied by a young relative. In any case, I do remember that I had propped my chin on my hands, which were placed against the glass window, as I gazed absentmindedly out the window at the landscape which approached us with great speed from the front of the train then quickly retreated to the back.
“If you keep looking out like that the whole time, you’ll get sick to your stomach and throw up.”
But I continued to look outside anyway. All sorts of things went by — telephone poles, stands for drying rice, and clumps of trees. The train was swallowed up in the darkness of a tunnel then spit out again. There was an interruption in the regular rhythm of the track, then we crossed a metal bridge.
All of the sudden, the train jerked and came to a halt. The conductor, who was wearing a railway uniform and cap, came around to where I could see him, made a strange face, and shouted, “Shingooo-machiii!”
What he was saying was “waiting” (machi) for a “stoplight” (shingō), but to me, it sounded like he was saying, “the town of Shingō” since the word machi also means “town.” I looked around hoping to see the landscape of a town. I looked for an ophthalmologist’s sign shaped like an eye with creased eyelid. I looked for a Japanese-style inn with water spread in front to keep the dust down and a dark, glass door to mark the entrance. I looked for a little girl wearing the brightly colored kimono you might see at the seven-five-three festival. Most importantly, I looked for the quaint station you might expect to find in a tiny town. I didn’t see any of these things, however. The only things that greeted my eyes were the cliffs created when the engineers cut the hills away for the train tracks and the dark, unpopulated rice fields that the farmers had created among the hills.
I looked around hoping to see the landscape of a town. I looked for an ophthalmologist’s sign shaped like an eye with creased eyelid. I looked for a Japanese-style inn with water spread in front to keep the dust down and a dark, glass door to mark the entrance.
I quickly rushed over to the opposite side of the train to have a look, but there was no town there either. Meanwhile, the train shook again and started to move. The illusory town of Shingō retreated into the distance where it would remain forever. Even if I were to get the same train again, we would never stop there again.
The town of Shingō was a strange place indeed. It was nowhere, but it was everywhere at the same time. Every time the train stopped and the conductor came round to shout “the town of Shingō,” whatever was in front of me — be it the middle of the mountains or the seashore — would immediately be transformed into the town of Shingō. I would look for signs of the town, but strangely enough, there was nothing there but reddish cliffs alongside the tracks or seashores with lapping, white waves. Nonetheless, because the conductor had made his solemn declaration, I was compelled to think this must undoubtedly be the town of Shingō, and I conjured up visions of a town located there in the middle of nowhere. That was how I learned there were places outside this world which we cannot see with our eyes alone.
It was the town of Shingō that first taught me there were places outside of this world, but it was Otama-san who lived by the Kanroku Bridge that taught me there were people who lived outside the world too. The Onga River flowed parallel to the eastern edge of Naokata, and the Kanroku Bridge crossed it near the southern edge of town where the rows of houses ended. On the other side of the bridge, the road led to a cluster of houses known as Tonno. These houses were at the foot of distant Mount Fukuchi, which was shrouded in pale blue mist.
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