Photo Essay: A Stroll through My Rural Japanese Neighborhood

Neighborhood in Kamisu

I went for my weekly walk the other day through my quiet little neighborhood here in Kamisu, but this time I brought my camera along with me. I walked through every nook and cranny of my one-square-mile-large community, snapping photos of anything and everything. Having lived in Japan for 15 months now, I take most of what I see for granted. But as normal and as boring as everything may seem to me, I sometimes forget that what’s all around me might actually be interesting to those who’ve never been to Japan or this side of the world. So join me for an afternoon walk, and let’s see what interesting things we see. You ready?

This is what most of my neighborhood looks like – narrow streets with small footpaths for walking, Japanese-style houses surrounded by concrete walls, well-trimmed trees in every yard, and convex mirrors to help cars see oncoming traffic coming around the corner.


Speaking of neatly-trimmed greenery, here’s a worker trimming the bushes and bonsai trees in the yard of one of the best houses in the neighborhood. The Japanese are just as meticulous in regards to the upkeep of their lawns as Americans. Though Americans tend to obsess the most over their grass, whereas Japanese tend to mostly obsess over their trees and bushes.


Because Japanese residential streets tend to be extremely narrow and lined with large concrete walls, the use of convex mirrors is critical. But when I’m driving along a street, I don’t feel comfortable putting my life in the hands of a mirror. Call me paranoid, but my gut feels the mirror isn’t actually showing me everything that’s coming around the corner.


Yet another convex traffic mirror for ya. They’re literally on every street corner.


There’s one main thoroughfare that runs through my little neighborhood. Half of the road is filled with neon orange construction cones and flashing neon signs warning traffic to slow down due to ongoing nearby construction.


Looking up at the power lines hovering over the main thoroughfare, I spot a flight of swallows perching and relaxing. Swallows can be seen all over Ibaraki during the summer months.


While we’re on the topic of swallows, here’s a swallow’s mud nest I spotted over the front porch light of an apartment. I’ve noticed here in Kamisu that the mud nests tend to be made near the entrance ways of homes and buildings and very high up out of harm’s reach.


While there are plenty of cool-looking Japanese houses abound in my neighborhood, there are also lots of plain and boxy cookie-cutter apartment buildings, too. Pictured here is a Leopalace apartment, which are popular with the foreign crowd because of their fairly lax contracts (short-term leasing, no key money required, etc). It seems like every foreign English teacher in Japan has lived in a Leopalace apartment at some point or another.


It seems like every apartment building in Japan has its own little drink vending machine sitting outside. Awfully convenient when you just want a bottle of soda or tea, but you can’t be bothered to go all the way to the nearest convenience store to get one.


But lurking around the corner from every happy community vending machine is its ugly cousin – the community trash bin. Why am I mentioning trash bins? Because in Japan, trash sorting is a very big deal. Trash must be separated into many different categories – bottles and bottle caps, cans, glass, milk cartons, magazines, boxes, hazardous goods, over-sized goods, burnable, nonburnable, etc. Each category of trash must also be taken outside to the trash bin on a very specific day, say the third Thursday of the month. Put the wrong category of trash in the trash bin on the wrong day, and don’t be surprised if you find yourself the target of a lot of passive aggression from your neighbors.


Because of these chaotic (and sometimes very expensive) trash disposal rules, particularly when it comes to old electronics and appliances, some Japanese opt for the easy, unenvironmentally-friendly way out by dumping their garbage into empty lots full of shrub.


There are also lots of American-style townhouses in my neighborhood. Some residences include both the upper and lower floors, while other residences are only the upper or lower floor. Wait a minute, what the hell happened there on the left? Let’s take a closer look.


Looks like someone had a very bad day! Obviously there was a fire, though I have no idea what triggered it. Almost looks like a gas explosion to me, but I’m no expert. Let’s get up in there, shall we?


Damn, not much left of this apartment! I can’t help but wonder if there were any fatalities as a result of the fire. And all this happened less than half a mile from my apartment? I didn’t hear any fire trucks or see anything going on. Strange.


Outside one of the nicest properties in the community, there’s a makeshift sign that reads “110番の家,” which simply translates to “a 110 house.” Under it reads “神栖市·鹿嶋警察署,” which means “Kamisu-Kashima Police Station.” To reach one’s local police station in Japan, you must dial 110, but for emergencies, you dial 119. The same sign is in front of other houses as well, so I’m not really sure what the purpose of it is.


In the empty patches of land spread throughout the community, many people use the space to grow crops. Rice is the most popular choice, but others like to grow fruit and vegetables, such as melons and potatoes.


Walking through some of the narrow side streets, there are plenty of nice houses that wouldn’t at all look out of place in a typical American suburb. But instead of the cliche American white picket fence, most Japanese opt for a brick or cement wall/fence.


Another nice-looking Japanese-style house in the community.


Most houses in the neighborhood have a family nameplate placed on the gate/wall. This one says “野口,” which is the Japanese family name “Noguchi.” It literally translates to “the mouth of the field.” Japanese family names are almost always two traditional Chinese characters, and they often have a nature element in them. For example, 山口 (Yamaguchi) literally means “the mouth of the mountain,” and 鈴木 (Suzuki) literally means “tree bell.”


Sewer covers in Kamisu feature a depiction of the nearby port (about 3 miles east from where I live), which is located on the Kashima-nada Sea that spills into the Pacific Ocean. On the left is the observatory tower, which can be found at Minato Park.


The Japanese love their golf, and as a result, it seems like you’re never more than a few miles away from a driving range. That said, there’s a giant driving range at the edge of my neighborhood. But it’s completely surrounded by trees, so you can never see what’s going on inside. I personally feel the driving is a bit out of place being in my neighborhood. It doesn’t match the surroundings.


Right across from the driving range I spotted this – a little handmade wooden torii (a traditional Japanese shrine gate). I often see these placed in obscure locations, mostly in fields of shrub. I asked a few Japanese colleagues the meaning behind them, and they suspect they’re placed where they are to detract people from littering in the area. They’re presence is supposed to mean that the surrounding area is a spiritual ground and should be treated with extra care and respect.


Speaking of toriis, here’s another one in front of a little shrine called “龍神社,” which translates to “Dragon Shrine.” I like the way this little cultural gem is tucked away in an obscure spot. It took me over a year of living in the neighborhood to even realize it was there.


Right next to the Dragon Shrine is a little playground. I’ve never once seen anyone using it. Because it’s nestled between houses off the main thoroughfare, it’s a great spot for a little peace and quiet.


No Japanese community is complete without having at least one izakaya (居酒屋). An izakaya is a place where Japanese people go to drink, eat, and socialize. They’re more or less bars, but with Japanese flair (the same way a pub is also more or less a bar, but with some Irish flair). Sometimes izakayas are big and expensive places, whereas other times they’re very small and cheap. This one is clearly the latter.


Due to Japan’s high population density, the country is always tinkering with different forms of energy. We all probably still remember the great Fukushima nuclear disaster from 2011. And if you go to the coast here in Kamisu, you’ll see lots of giant wind turbines. But get away from the coast and into the neighborhoods, and you’ll see lots of solar panels. Apparently even my apartment building is powered by solar panels. That’s great and all, but unfortunately those savings aren’t passed on to us residents – we still pay fairly high costs for electricity.


Kamisu is an industrial town, which means there are a lot of job sites spread throughout the town. There must be at least five in my little neighborhood alone. Pictured here is a site where steel structures for nearby factories are stored. Notice the giant crane in the middle.


Here’s a close-up look at that crane. Lots of men at the job site busy doing a hard day’s work.


Opposite of the crane is a gravel pit. Gravel for some of the ongoing construction all over Kamisu is stored here.


A gravel mill at the gravel pit.


You can never have too much water at those construction sites, hence the need for an H2O truck. For every one work truck I see around the neighborhood, there’s probably at least three construction workers standing around with nothing to really do.


And it looks like we’ve finally reached the end of my neighborhood. Once you get to that road down there, you reach the Kamisu-Kashima city boundary, which means you’d be entering a whole new community.

So there you have it. If you didn’t know already, then now you know what a typical rural Japanese neighborhood looks like. Did it look like you had envisioned? Either way, I hope you found this photo essay informative. I guess now that I think about it, there’s far more going on in my neighborhood than initially meets the eye. As much as I can’t wait to get out of here in January, I have to admit that I’ll miss the tranquility of the place.