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

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Ena, Japan (CNN) — ‘Have you seen Mr Oranjeboer?’ my neighbor asked, in Japanese.

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

I hadn’t seen him.

She looked around as if he might appear, then left again to join a group of people. They continued up the mountain in search of the farmer, whom they eventually found.

Although the encounter was brief, this was when I realized that I was in a very remote community and had somehow become a small part of it.

Ena is a small fishing village in the Japanese prefecture of Wakayama.

Rebecca Saunders

It was September 2018 when I moved to Japan and made it my home, deep in the Japanese countryside on the Kii Peninsula.

I never thought it would be so lonely to live somewhere so beautiful, but that was life in Ena.

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

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

As a foreign outsider, I stood out. Cars slowed down, their occupants wanted to watch me walk to the store, and the locals wondered what the heck I was doing there.

Goodbye, Tokyo

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

“You can stay in my cottage,” she messaged in response.

It was a relief — I burned my budget on hotels in the city and needed a base to start my life in Japan; a residential address is crucial for various bureaucratic reasons. Meanwhile, I also had to meet deadlines for writing.

Three days later, I was on the high-speed train to Osaka, whizzing across the country, scared and excited.

If Tokyo felt like being far from home in the UK, a small fishing village would certainly feel like I was stepping into a totally 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 removed from the groups of children in neat uniforms driving home from school.

As the train pulled into an abandoned station in the countryside, I thought, “What am I doing?”

The sea and the island

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

As she drove, the road wound its way over a mountain and our destination appeared on the other side: Ena.

This is not a place that foreign visitors go — not many Japanese either.

Fishing villages are slowly becoming a relic of the past, the local youth are more interested in life in the big city than following in the footsteps of their parents.

One of Ena's few accommodation options.

One of Ena’s few accommodation options.

Rebecca Saunders

The house I went to actually consisted of two buildings.

Manami had bought a traditional Japanese house and built a modern house next to it. Located on the slope of a mountain, the property offered an enchanting view of the sea.

I would sit through the sliding doors staring at the dark shape of Kuroshima, the island off the coast, and the boats slowly drifting past in the distance.

I had a view of life in the whole village. But somehow I felt even more isolated here.

The primary needs

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

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

I walked down the hill, about 10 minutes, to the small village shop. The shelves were sparsely stocked. The shopkeeper, coming out of her living room, was surprised to see me, but not nervous.

Ena's only supermarket.

Ena’s only supermarket.

Rebecca Saunders

“Welcome,” she said in Japanese, with a different accent than I’d heard in Tokyo. She talked while I was trying to pay for my drink.

I soon realized that I didn’t know enough Japanese. 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 food. Fortunately, the technology had made its way to this Japanese fishing village and I was able to get groceries delivered online.

Friday was a big day: my food arrived. I was out on the patio and saw the van parked downstairs. The driver seemed confused by the directions.

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

The village people

Life unfolds in Ena as it would for decades, possibly centuries.

For me, mornings started on my futon (there was no bed). I peered through the porthole in the wall above my head to see the island sitting as it always did in the distance, fishing boats already busy, orange farmers trudging past in mini “boulder” trucks heading for the mountain.

I ate oranges for breakfast, drank tea, and stared through the screen door of the old house. One day the sea glistened in the sun below, but when the rain came, clouds covered the land and the sea disappeared.

Sometimes, when I was hanging out the laundry or coming back from a walk, the women who harvest oranges would stop their trucks and insist that I take some. Most days I saw my friendly neighbor sitting on her doorstep at the bottom of the hill, knife in hand, stripping a fish.

All creatures great and small

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

Huge golden orb-web spiders hung in front of the windows — I didn’t mind because they stayed outside — but the huge hunter spiders didn’t. I wasn’t happy with those roommates. Not at all.

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

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

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

Rebecca Saunders

Little green frogs that lived in the rice paddies filled the night air with their chorus, while the mukade (large, poisonous centipedes) was not to be messed with.

Bigger beasts also loomed. The wild boars, who lived on the mountainside, came so close I could hear them sniffing around. I was told that bears also lived in the area.

Weather Alerts

At one point I heard that a typhoon was going to hit the village. Manami called to give advice: I needed supplies, a radio and a flashlight in case the electricity went out.

The typhoon came at night after a hard day of rough seas and strong winds. I sank down, shutters closed, the news on TV repeated warnings of landslides and flash floods. Being on a hill, my main concern was a landslide. That evening I drank sake as the storm made the house ring like a ship at sea.

I woke up to calm down. The morning sun shone and the village was silent.

The writer's neighbor pricks a fish near her Ena house.

The writer’s neighbor pricks a fish near her Ena house.

Rebecca Saunders

But the typhoon had made itself known. The beach was completely transformed, reshaped by high waves; large rocks had completely bent the metal barriers around the sand. Property was damaged. The shopkeeper asked if I was okay; we had a patchy conversation about how strong the wind was.

And then, two weeks later, so that I could experience all the extremes of Japan, there was an earthquake. I was standing in the modern house when the ground started to rumble — then it really started shaking.

The earthquake alarm on my phone penetrated my fear and warned, “Earthquake! Earthquake!” in Japanese. I saw fishing boats rushing back to shore, in the event of a tsunami. I didn’t know what to do, I hid in the bathroom, the floor slid back and forth.

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

Matsur

After the typhoon and the earthquake, everything seemed to calm down until the day of the matsuri (festival). The main street was busy, packed with everyone from the village; old and young had come out to see the event.

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

07 ena fishing village

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

Rebecca Saunders

There was a whiff of alcohol in the air as the men wobbled and tossed the shrine. They marched around with it, crashing into wooden scaffolding and throwing it into the air, a ritual apparently intended to amuse the god within.

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

A young couple came to talk to me. “Why would you want to live here?” they asked. “There’s nothing here!”

Former residents now lived in the town of Wakayama, about 30 miles (48 km) away.

Continue

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

There are many places like it.

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

Japanese urbanites like to take a break in the countryside and often buy holiday homes to use, such as Manami’s “cottage”.

Searching the web is easy on sites like Airbnb and VRBO. Talk to the owners, read reviews and get a feel for the place before you arrive. Villages in rural Japan are desperate for more people to live or even visit them.

Despite its convenience, few foreign visitors reach Ena or similar villages. It’s a daunting prospect: English isn’t widely spoken, it’s hard to get around, and there aren’t any of the major cultural draws of historic centers like Kyoto and Kanazawa.

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

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

But the village and its black island will always be etched in my memory.

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

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