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East to West: Boxed In

April 27, 2013

By Angela Jeffs

One hundred and twenty-seven boxes.

As they were unloaded to completely fill our garage on March 6,  we all sighed: my partner and I who were faced with unpacking them -  and the cottage that somehow had to stretch like elastic to  house the contents.

How come there was so much stuff? Back in Japan I had spent months finding homes for things.

The Morris chair that Fuji-san took October last. (I wrote about that in my first entry for this series, which I  realise with this piece I am halfway through.)

The small basket chair that Jacinta took on the train and sat in for her journey to Misaki.  Other passengers amused but totally accepting.

The reclining rattan chair that I bought for my mother when she visited in 1992; we were living in Hayama at the time. Kathryn has it now in Tokyo, and it sits in her “engawa” (the space between the inside and outside) as if created for that very spot and purpose.  Alongside, one of my carefully cultivated Jade plants, known colloquially as Money Trees; basking in sunshine, thriving.

Akii’s office chair, happily translated to a creative working life with Geraldine in Kita-Kamakura. My own? With Heather in Enoshima; I think she took it for her daughter Karen, known since a toddler.

Rainer has my beloved bike, the “thing” I think I loved most. Also the circular braided rug that I bought at a fleamarket for 300 yen (about two quid back then!) Plus bedding and various forms of seating.  Good to know his sister can now visit from Germany and have something to sit on!

As for the Victorian-style oak dining table and Shaker-style chairs that were the focal point of our home life, they are now with Ikuko and her young family in Saitama. (I must tell Leesa about this removal, because originally the table was her grandmother’s, way back in apple-pie Middle America – a wedding gift I seem to recall.  The set was passed on to us for a song when she and Don were removed by the US military from Japan to  a rocky outcrop off the Italian coast, with limited accommodation and all fresh water imported.)

Most of the other furniture we junked. Small stuff was put out every weekend for FREE, and I like to think of books and music and bric-a-brac enjoying a revival up and down Yamanone, the Root of the Valley, where we lived.  It makes me feel a part of us is still there.

An even larger part of us is with Sonia, Yuta and Julia, our immediate neighbours and dear dear friends.  I think in the last throes of clearance, when I was here in Scotland and Akii having to empty, clean and close up the house on his own, they benefitted from masses of leftovers. Hope so anyway.

So what the hell did we ship?  And – as we begin to open boxes – why did we bother?  Enough pictures to open a gallery, and nowhere to hang them.  Already bogged down with paintings by my mother and sister, and so many preciously sentimental artifacts from my old life in London prior to 1986, I quickly begin to feel overwhelmed to the point of feeling swept away, drowning. A tsunami of stuff.

We know about the tsunami of stuff that, having travelled across the Pacific, has begun to wash up on the shores of Hawaii and the west coast of the Americas.  But that was the result of a natural disaster.

The boxes filling our garage are a couple-made disaster, one that we have brought upon ourselves and are now paying for, and not simply in monetary terms.

Akii is happy with his sheaf of itemized papers, identifying which boxes can be opened now (clothes, kitchen goods) and those to be left to last (books, files, paperwork, and his beloved 1970s  amplifier and speakers which even he now acknowledges have absolutely nowhere to go.)

Day by day he potters, ticking off this and that, rationalizing contents and moving boxes around. Slowly we begin to see the garage floor again, but the toll on my consciousness is huge. He gets stressed too, but only because of my own insane ravings and tears.

Until the boxes arrived, I had been doing okay. Up and down but overall managing to keep in balance. Japan was back there, behind me. When I needed company, I would happily visualise nipping down the drive and past Kato-san’s window to see if Sonia was up for a quick (or – even better, slow) cuppa tea or coffee.

When I missed the sea I would imagine jumping on my (sorry, Rainer’s) bike and cycle down into the town, along Ginza-dori, calling in to make an appointment for an always perfectionist haircut and picking up some morning-fresh vegetable from the community market, before turning down past the Hawaiian bar towards the beach. There I would beach comb, or take off my shoes and paddle in bliss as the sun set behind Mt Fuji.

When I needed to make money, there was the train to take into the city, a desk to do a job, publications who paid me to write, students who wanted  to write.  I could visualize every step of the way and feel only happiness, gratitude and satisfaction.

Discomfortingly, the boxes bring first distraction and then disturbance, not the joyful familiarity somehow expected. What was useful in Japan has no purpose here. What looked at home there is out of its cultural comfort zone here. I knew this might happen, and yet still it’s surprising, and incredibly sad.

Yes, opening the boxes is making me sad.  And that is unwelcome additional emotion, right now, with my aunt’s own house and “stuff”  being broken up and dispersed. (Initially all the good stuff trucked off to auction, beautiful pieces that had been in my uncle’s family for centuries. A huge regret to see the Japanese cabinet go, but honestly, where would we have put it?)

While Jo’s house empties into its own sadness, the weight of the past begins to lift. By contrast, Burnside fills, struggling valiantly to accommodate past, present and future:  rooms shrink, ceilings lower,  the empty simplicity of plain white walls disappear. Increasingly boxed in,  I feel smothered, cannot move, breathe… I want to run away, escape, just as I did from my own home as a child. This feeling is as old as I am, and maybe even older in karmic terms.

Stress levels reached an impasse last week: Akii lost his cool and kicked the waste bin in the kitchen, and I retaliated by hitting him – flicking rather – with a tea towel. Laughable, except we were both so out of control and distraught.

I think of Eric and  Yoshie moving from Zushi to London not so many years ago and  how upset they were that a certain international transport company managed to smash a third of their shipment. Funny, but right now I feel the opposite.  I wish we had lost some of our own boxes through sloppy handling. There might of been a brief flutter of regret, but overall, relief. Less stuff to deal with. And, phew,  insurance money to rebalance the coffers.

But Yamato is a Japanese company par excellence. Some 95 boxes opened and not a single item – even objects already cracked – broken.  All due, of course, to the most careful over-the-top packing imaginable.

Our garbage truck collection on Sunday afternoon has given us special dispensation to use blue AND green lid bins to accommodate the mountains of brown paper and bubble wrap. And when I look at what they were protecting, I feel silly and ashamed.

Who needs 25 sake cups in Scotland? And what about all the stones, shells and shards of blue and white china picked up off the Shonan beaches,  so many individually wrapped?

Will I feel better about all this in six months? Less guilty about all the waste of packaging, time and money?

Will the sweet pain of remembering how and where I came by the Balinese angel, the Philippine rice gods, the signed book by a famed Danish designer, the plate from the ruins of the Kobe earthquake, have subsided? Integrated into a new way of life?

Will everything have found a place, settled down and in? Will I have stopped kidding myself that we are only here for a year? If this was true, why did we ship everything rather than put it into store. What did I think I know that I so obviously did not? Was I was merely protecting myself from the thought of leaving Japan forever?

As of today there are 32 boxes to go and the cottage is in chaotic disorder, as if a bomb has hit it.  Or an earthquake, followed by a tsunami.

Best to leave me here, shamefully disintegrated, feeling overwhelmed, floundering in deep water. Shall I throw up my arms and allow myself to sink… or find another lifebelt to grab onto?

Come to think of it, there is some kind of an inflatable somewhere.  Not a lifebelt, more an airbed, and we have visitors from Australia via Ireland next week. Have not seen it to date, so guess I need to keep on unpacking.

But which bloody box?

Late summer 2012 writer and journalist Angela Jeffs moved from Japan, where she lived for 25 years, to Scotland from where she reports monthly on how her life is changing. This is the sixth installment. See here for part one, here for part two, here for part three, here for part four, here for part five, and here for part six.


About the author: After training in theatre and Laban dance, Angela Jeffs stepped sideways into London publishing. She worked freelance as an editor from 1973, then reinvented herself in Japan as a journalist and writer from 1986. She was a weekly columnist for The Japan Times for 22 years, and Japan Correspondent for Asia Magazine in Hong Kong from 1989-1996. Her book Insider's Tokyo, commissioned from Singapore, was published in 2001. Since 2005 she has been developing and facilitating a programme of therapeutic creative writing under the title Drawing on The Writer Within ( Her latest book, Chasing Shooting Stars: A South American Paper Trail into the Past, can be ordered via
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