I FIXED the hood of my jacket and made sure my ears were covered.
I balled and pocketed my left hand. My right held the P90-pack of sanitary pads—the cheapest I could find on the racks of Lawson, the nearest convenience store from Green Hill Hotel, our accommodation for the entire week.
On the other side of the pedestrian lane: two older women and a high school girl on a bicycle waited for the light to turn green. They were all prepared, all bundled up for the possible dropping of the temperature.
It was 12ºC when I checked the thermometer in the room before heading out, too cold for someone who had equatorial beaches for midweeks.
The two old women moved their heads toward each other, their mouths barely moved. Casually, they assessed both sides of the road and glanced at the traffic light. I could imagine them talking about the weather. The girl behind them gripped her bicycle’s handles; her face calm and relaxed. Perhaps for the three of them, it was yet another day in November.
Not for me.
On both sides of the pedestrian lane was an empty street—as silent as the midnight we arrived in this little city off the coast of Hiroshima, an hour by from Tokyo. Yet all three locals across the street had the air of elegance while waiting for the lawful time to cross the street. Even the high school girl did not have the look of impatience that must have been plastered on my face.
It was cold. There were no cars. Yet we waited on.
At seven in the morning, Onomichi looked and felt like an old woman sipping her tea by the window overlooking the bay. She is comfortable with the slowness of everything. Perhaps she listened to the little hush and hums of the passing boats as she carefully poured her drink, creating ripples and little whirlpools in her cup.
This, of course, was the point of view of a Bisdak, who crossed the forking streets in downtown Cebu like a robber on the run, who started her mornings listening to the crowing of the neighbor’s roosters and another neighbor’s occasional cackling for her brood to get up and prepare for school.
But I hid the rowdy Bisdak. I managed to assuage the temptation of crossing the empty street before the light turned green.
Stop. Shower. Bidet. Buttons, the toilet in my room had buttons. And I could change the intensity of the water. How amazing a toilet could get.
The night we arrived in the drizzling Onomichi, the first thing I checked out—it may sound funny, absurd even, when I got to my hotel room—was the toilet. Seeing a multifunctional toilet that could work wonders was an amusement for a citizen from a developing country whose public toilets are often a source of awkwardness and embarrassment.
Every time I enter a public toilet in Cebu, I entertain thoughts such as should I squat like an embarrassed frog or sit like an awkward princess?
I could hear friends’ voices calling me ignoy.
The thick difference between developed and developing—two words whose very definition relied on how the world perceived ed and ing—can be a mockery. Japan is developed, established. The country where I am from struggles with its “developing-ness”.
From the glass walls, midnight drew closer. Drizzle glazed the empty streets below. No movement except for the blinking red traffic lights.
I turned the TV on and browsed through endless shows in Japanese. I surrendered my search and settled on one—a show highlighting women who had cats as the center of their universe.
I left the drapes open. From my room’s glass walls, the storied slope’s sleepy lights glimmered.
And by tomorrow morning, I knew I would use the buttons.
In their autumnal wardrobe, the leaves looked organic and natural on the wall, as if the houses were constructed with them in mind, as if there was a silent agreement between the walls and the leaves themselves, to live in peace and in harmony.
I embarrassed myself amongst my fellow delegates from other countries with my constant “aaaah-ing” at the most ordinary of things: the drooping of wild flowers on the riprapped wall, the sightings of kaki (persimmons) and quaint little cups in a thrift shop.
To avoid embarrassing myself any further, I headed back to Mt. Senkoji’s slope alone.
I based my entry point solely on the quaintness of the house before me: Kujakuso since 1933. It must have been a restaurant, like the rest of the quaint establishments in the Hondori Shopping District. Its façade had the look and feel of a creative home—a well-groomed dwarf pine tree and flowering shrubs crowded the plot and pots.
On my way up, I saw an old woman hammering down the wooden rail in front of her wooden house. I summoned my Japanese alter-ego, but all I could manage was a badly pronounced konnichiwa. Demurely, she smiled and kept on pounding the top of the rail.
Here in Onomichi, old locals occupied themselves with daily inanities—walking, biking to the market, or even working on the street like the two short old women I saw on my first morning walk, squatting on the sidewalk, scraping the dark patches sticking to the concrete pavement. Despite looking too old, too fragile to work, they managed to clean a good part of the footpath.
“The stairs were too much for the old people,” shared Yuki-san, one of the organizers of this multiracial tour funded by The Overseas Human Resources and Industry Development Association (Hida), a government arm. The local government, she informed us, eyed the future of the abandoned houses around. Silent and abandoned, these old wooden houses felt like animate objects, like toys outgrown and now forgotten and useless.
Across the railway, there are around 500 abandoned houses for each two-kilometer stretch. As of November 2015, more than 20 houses were refurbished as cafés, apartments, meeting places.
Unable to endure the sight of storied houses rotting, Masako Toyota made it her passion to restore these abandoned spaces and reimagine their purposes.
From poets’ eyes, there was something alluring about these wooden houses. Inside Gaudi House—named such for its extravagant design, an unlikely Japanese character—there was an empty room glowing in natural light. It was the tatami room, where any member of the family could take refuge in the silence of its emptiness. There was nothing in that room except for an antique pot, filled three fourths with ashes. I could imagine the harsh winter nights during the Showa period, the brownish-algae green pot working overtime, heating up the sacred space.
Along one of the forking human paths to Mt. Senkoji Temple, Tomoko woke up at four in the morning to open her small Neko No Te Pan (Cat’s Paw Bakery) and kneaded the dough needed for the day’s loaves and sweets. Small and unmarked, her bakery could be taken as one of the residences by the uninitiated, one of the little intricacies that only the locals know.
Air Café, located on the left of Komyoji Temple, although bearing a little sign, felt like home as well.
This unassuming character, the willingness to blend in with the neighborhood, can be found in tiny, quaint, and family-owned cafés and rental apartments everywhere. It reminds me of a famous Japanese proverb: 出る杭は打たれ—the nail that sticks out gets hammered down—the guiding principle of most Japanese. It is a culture that I, a reluctant conformist in most parts of my life, have an issue with.
On the first morning, after browsing through Jump, the shonen manga magazine that contained Naruto, I peeked through the magazines, sealed off, unlike the rest in Lawson. Women clad in lacy intimates graced the pages. Their poses, some reclining against a sofa, reminded me not of adult magazines, but of a fashion catalogue for women. It must have been their young faces and delicate shapes that convinced me that what I had in hand was not porn.
A high school student reading manga beside me inched farther away when I giggled out my amusement over the protective seal. Perhaps he was embarrassed that I, a woman, picked up the magazine. Perhaps he was embarrassed that, of all the magazines in the rack, I pick up the sealed one.
Japanese society expects conformity from its people. You should not stick out, else you become part of the culture of the minority found in Akihabara—a section in Tokyo where the oddballs can be found.
In my solitary afternoon walk back to the slope, against the 3 p.m. light, nobody was treading the same path with me. Silent, these little houses felt unobtrusive yet beautiful in their unassuming uniformity.
But from the path I trod on, I stared at the houses and asked myself how would one know if the house was abandoned or lived in when they all had the same sense of absence from the outside?
*Jona Branzuela Bering is from Cebu, Philippines. When she is not traveling, she gardens, teaches, and becomes the slave to four cats. She is preparing for her year-long trip abroad this December. Follow her travels on Instagram @backpackingwithabook, her blog Backpacking with a Book or BWAB’s Facebook page.