North Bay spring


It’s beautiful weather here in the North Bay, the first time for six years that I’ve been back in Sonoma County during the spring.  It’s taken a bit of time to readjust to the paces and rhythms here, country suburbia being just about as opposite as possible from the deep urban space of Osaka.  Here are a few things that I’ve noticed and done since being back:

1) The aisles at Trader Joe’s are enormously wide.  You could literally drive a Japanese kei truck up and down the aisles while loading up the bed with stuff.  You might have a bit of trouble getting through the register lines, but I’m sure something could be worked out.  Raley’s (a California-based supermarket chain) also has enormously wide aisles, and both places feel less like supermarkets to me than like giant food warehouses.  I suppose this mostly has to do with the way space is used here: since land is relatively cheap in the United States it’s probably cheaper to store goods on site, while the high cost of land in Japan means slimmer aisles, more frequent deliveries, and shelves that are jam-packed with goods.  It’s also a bit strange to hear Black Sabbath being cranked in the background at Trader Joe’s.  That would never happen in a Japanese supermarket.

2) The amount of open, natural space in Northern California is incredible.  Flying into San Francisco I’m always caught off guard by just how small the city is (San Francisco is only about twice the size of the neighborhood of Osaka that I used to live in) and how much undeveloped space surrounds the city.  On my second day back in the States I visited Shiloh regional park with my family and spent some time walking through tunnels of oak forest, the smell of massed oak leaves bringing me back to those times when I would spend my weekends trespassing with friends among hills and forests owned by local farmers, looking for mushrooms, peacock feathers, antique bottles, and hidden creeks and fishing holes.  A bit later I found out from an old friend that he had actually planned and graded several of the trails at Shiloh park, so in a way I was literally walking through his handiwork.

3) While I drink a ton of nihonshu when I’m in Japan, in California wine is my drink of choice.  Sonoma County is wine country proper and I grew up surrounded by vineyards and wineries.  When I was younger things were much more lax in these parts and at about 14 or so it used to be perfectly permissible for me to take a sip or two from my parents’ glass while they were doing tastings at various cellars in the area.  With the rise of the Reagan-era “war on drugs,” however, all that came to an end as alcohol consumption became more strictly regulated.  Now, even though I’m 40, I still sometimes get carded when I walk into an unfamiliar Sonoma County bar.  Wine is often thought of as an elitist drink (“chardonnay liberal” is a phrase I’ve heard more than once, though I prefer to be labeled a “chardonnay socialist,” thank you very much), but in fact just about everyone ends up drinking it in the areas where it’s produced.  Plenty of punk rock kids that I knew as I was growing up knew a surprising amount about wine, and Andy Asp — former singer for the punk band Nuisance — often used to go through a bottle on stage during one of their sets.  This is all just a roundabout way of saying that I’ve been enjoying a lot of wine since being back in Sonoma County, and a particularly lovely moment arrived when a friend of mine opened up a bottle of his own homebrew merlot/cabernet mix that had been waiting patiently in the bottle for four years.  Rich, velvety goodness.

4) I’ve been doing a lot of birdwatching since being back in the countryside. Yesterday I watched a pair of hawks as they flew back and forth between the sycamore in the yard and the pine tree in the neighbor’s yard while letting fly with the occasional high-pitched cry.  There are lots of crows in the area too, and their dialect is definitely different than that of the Japanese crows that used to raid the neighborhood garbage on collection day.  It’s been the turkey vultures, however, that I’ve been happiest to see.  As one friend of mine, also an expat, has written: “For some reason, seeing turkey vultures is what really makes me feel like I’m ‘home’ when I go back to the US.”  I think it must be something about their slowness as they glide through the sky, and perhaps the fact that they’re such a particular bird — a bird that doesn’t seem like any other.  The most exciting bird action that I’ve witnessed since being back hasn’t involved turkey vultures, but rather a blue jay, and it happened just this morning.  The family cat, Artemis, who is getting rather ancient and perhaps a bit toothless, shocked us all by taking down one of the blue jays that seems to delight in tormenting her.  Suddenly there was Artemis in the yard with a limp jay hanging out of her mouth, looking a bit confused about what to do with the bird next.  The bird seemed obviously dead, no motion at all, but then Artemis stepped back and the jay flew up into a nearby tree, perfectly fine and seemingly entirely unaffected by having been carried around in the cat’s mouth for a spell.  Soon enough the jay was tormenting the cat again, cracking open sunflower seeds just over the cat’s head and letting the shells fall down around her like a miniature dust storm.


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