I moved to a small Japanese fishing village to experience an endangered way of life


Ena, Japan (CNN) – “Have you seen Mr. Orange Farmer?” my neighbor asked, in Japanese.

She was standing outside my front door, huddled under a small umbrella in the rain on a Wednesday afternoon. I was eating my lunch.

I did not see him.

She looked around as if he could appear, then left to join a group of people. They continued to climb the mountain in search of the farmer, whom they eventually located.

Although the meeting was brief, it was then that I realized that I was in a very remote community and that I had kind of become a small part of it.

Ena is a small fishing village in Wakayama Prefecture in Japan.

Rebecca Saunders

It was in September 2018 when I moved to Japan and settled there, in the heart of the Japanese countryside on the Kii Peninsula.

I never thought it would be so isolating to live in such a beautiful place, but that was life in Ena.

Surrounded by mountains on all sides except the sea, this small fishing village overlooks a single isolated island. There is only one store – a store that sells fishing tackle, snacks, and sake. Ena’s unique cafe opens only on sunny days and closes at sunset.

Farmers grow oranges in the hills or tend crops in the terraced fields.

As a foreigner, I stood out. The cars were slowing down, their occupants wanted to watch me as I walked towards the store, the locals wondered what the hell I was doing there.

Goodbye, Tokyo

I had flown from London to Tokyo and had spent two weeks soaking up the energy of the Japanese capital before contacting my friend Manami, whom I had met while hiking in Japan a few years earlier, telling her I was looking for a place to live.

“You can stay in my cottage,” she replied by message.

It was a relief – I was burning my budget for hotels in the city and needed a base to start my life in Japan; a home address is crucial for various bureaucratic reasons. In the meantime, I also had writing deadlines to respect.

Three days later, I was on the bullet train to Osaka, speeding through the country, scared and excited.

If Tokyo had felt far from home in the UK, then a small fishing village would surely feel like I was sliding into a whole different dimension.

From Osaka, I took a local train out of town. Then another even more local train. With my large suitcase and bag of snacks, I felt far away from the groups of children in their neat uniforms coming home from school on the train.

As the train pulled into a desolate country station, I thought, “What am I doing?

The sea and the island

Manami was waiting for me as I got off the train. It was a relief to see a familiar face.

While she was driving, the road meandered over a mountain and our destination appeared on the other side: Ena.

It’s not a place for foreign visitors to go – not a lot of Japanese either.

Little by little, fishing villages are becoming a relic of the past, with young locals more interested in big city life than following in their parents’ footsteps.

One of Ena's few accommodation options.

One of Ena’s few accommodation options.

Rebecca Saunders

The house I was moving into was actually made up of two buildings.

Manami had bought a traditional Japanese house, then built a modern cottage next door. Perched on the side of a mountain, the property offers fascinating sea views.

I sat and gazed through the sliding doors at the dark form of Kuroshima, the offshore island and the boats slowly pushing in the distance.

I had a view of life in the whole village. But somewhere here I found myself even more isolated.

The simple necessity

The next day, Manami took me to the village post office to open a bank account and register my new address. Then she left.

I was alone. The sun was starting to set and I needed wine to celebrate my new home.

I walked down the hill, about 10 minutes, to the small village store. Its shelves were poorly stocked. The shopkeeper, emerging from her living room, was surprised to see me, but unperturbed.

Ena's only convenience store.

Ena’s only convenience store.

Rebecca Saunders

“Welcome,” she said in Japanese, her accent different from what I had heard in Tokyo. She chatted as I tried to pay for my drink.

I quickly realized that I didn’t know Japanese well enough. I had no idea what she was saying – maybe something about the weather. I smiled and apologized for my terrible lack of language as I left.

The next problem was the food. Luckily, technology had caught on in this Japanese fishing village and I was able to order grocery deliveries online.

Friday was a big day: my food arrived. I was on the patio and could see the delivery truck parked below. The driver looked confused by the directions.

“It’s for Miss Foreigner, up the hill!” shouted an elderly neighbor who had come out of her house below and pointed at me.

The villagers

Life unfolds in Ena as it would have done for decades, centuries perhaps.

For me, the mornings started on my futon (there was no bed). I looked out the window in the wall above my head to see the island sitting as always in the distance, already busy fishing boats, orange growers passing in mini “kei” trucks up the mountain.

I ate oranges for breakfast, drank tea, and looked out the screen door of the old house. On a good day, the sea below shone in the sun, but when the rain came, clouds covered the land and the sea disappeared.

Sometimes, if I was hanging laundry or coming home from a walk, the women harvesting the oranges would stop their trucks and insist that I take them. Most of the time, I saw my friendly neighbor at the bottom of the hill sitting on her porch, knife in hand, gutting a fish.

All creatures big and small

Ena was also home to wildlife. Lots of wild animals. It was the end of summer, but the temperature was still warm and the bugs were still in full swing.

Large golden orb web spiders hung over the windows – I didn’t mind because they stayed outside – but the huge hunter spiders didn’t. I was not happy to have these roommates. At all.

Then there were the praying mantises, which I had never seen in real life before moving to Ena. I quickly got used to their funny ways; one even landed on my shoulder when I was cooking.

The writer is holding one of the many sacks of oranges given to him by Ena's farmers.

The writer is holding one of the many sacks of oranges given to him by Ena’s farmers.

Rebecca Saunders

Tiny green frogs living in the rice fields filled the night air with their chorus, while the mukade (large poisonous centipedes) were not to be disturbed.

Bigger beasts were also looming nearby. Living on the mountainside, the wild boars approached so close I could hear them sniffing. I have been told that bears also live in the area.

Weather warnings

At one point, I learned that a typhoon was to hit the village. Manami called for advice: I needed supplies, a radio, and a torch in case the power went out.

The typhoon arrived at night after a long day of rough seas and strong winds. I lowered the bunker, the shutters closed, the TV news repeating the warnings of landslides and flash floods. Being on a hill, I was particularly worried about a landslide. That night I drank sake as the storm rocked the house like a ship at sea.

I woke up calm. The morning sun was shining and the village was still.

The writer's neighbor empties a fish in front of her house in Ena.

The writer’s neighbor empties a fish in front of her house in Ena.

Rebecca Saunders

But the typhoon had made itself known. The beach has been completely transformed, reshaped by the high waves; large boulders had completely folded the metal barriers around the sand. Property had been damaged. The shopkeeper asked me if I was okay; we had an uneven conversation about the strength of the wind.

And then, two weeks later, allowing me to experience all the extremes of Japan, there was an earthquake. I stood in the modern house as the ground began to rumble – then it really started to shake.

The earthquake alarm on my phone pierced my fear, warning me “Earthquake!” Earthquake ! in Japanese. I saw fishing boats rushing to shore, in the event of a tsunami. Not knowing what to do, I hid in the bathroom, the floor moving side to side.

The deep shaking stopped, but my heart continued to beat.

Matsuri

After the typhoon and the earthquake, things seemed to calm down until the day of the matsuri (festival). The main street was busy, filled with everyone from the village; young and old came to attend the event.

The local Shinto shrine was brought down and paraded on the shoulders of all the young men in the area.

07 fishing village ena

During an Ena matsuri (festival), men march past a Shinto shrine through the streets.

Rebecca Saunders

There was a whiff of alcohol in the air as the men wobbled and tossed the shrine. They walked with him, charging against wooden scaffolding and throwing him into the air, a ritual apparently intended to amuse the god inside.

After much effort, it was time for a lion dance and music from the local school children.

A young couple came to chat with me. “Why would you want to live here? ” they asked. “There is nothing here!”

Former locals, they now lived in the town of Wakayama, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) away.

To move on

It’s not that hard to live in a village like Ena.

There are a lot of places like that.

But although there are a handful of minshuku (Japanese style hotels) in these little villages, you probably won’t find them online; rentals and AirBnbs in these remote corners of Japan are more common.

Japanese city dwellers like to take a break in the countryside, often buying vacation homes to use, like Manami’s “cottage”.

It’s easy to search the internet on sites like Airbnb and VRBO. Talk to the owners, read the reviews, and get to know the place before you arrive. The villages of the Japanese countryside are in desperate need of more people to live there or even visit.

Despite the ease, few overseas visitors ever reach Ena, or similar villages. It’s a daunting prospect: English is not widely spoken, it’s difficult to get around, and there aren’t any of the great cultural attractions of historic centers like Kyoto and Kanazawa.

Living in Ena was never part of my plan, but I’m glad I did. I think back to my two months there and can’t believe I managed to live in such a remote place, cut off from modern conveniences.

After the storms, the earthquake, the wildlife, I feel ready for other challenges.

But the village and its black island will remain etched in my memory forever.

Top image: A view of Ena from the writer’s house.


About Wendy Hall

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