Living the Dream

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

Rebecca Saunders, CNNUpdated 26th August 2021
Ena, Japan (CNN) — "Have you seen Mr. Orange Farmer?" asked my neighbor, in Japanese.
She was standing at my front door, huddled under a small umbrella in the rain on a Wednesday afternoon. I was in the middle of eating my lunch.
I hadn't seen him.
She looked around as if he might appear, then left to rejoin a group of people. They continued up the mountain in search of the farmer, who they eventually located.
Though the encounter was brief, this was the moment I realized that I was in a very remote community, and had somehow become a small part of it.
Ena is a tiny fishing village in Japan's Wakayama prefecture.
Ena is a tiny fishing village in Japan's Wakayama prefecture.
Rebecca Saunders
It was September 2018 when I moved to Japan and made myself a home there, deep in the Japanese countryside on the Kii Peninsula.
I never thought it would be so isolating to live somewhere so beautiful, but that was life in Ena.
Surrounded by mountains on all sides, except for the sea, this tiny fishing village looks out onto a single lonely island. There's only one shop -- a store that sells fishing equipment, snacks and sake. Ena's single cafe only opens on sunny days and closes at sunset.
Farmers grow oranges in the hills or tend to crops in the terraced fields.
As a foreign outsider, I stood out. Cars would slow down, their occupants wanting to take a look at me as I walked to the shop, locals wondering what on earth 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 I reached out to my friend Manami, who I met while backpacking around Japan a few years earlier, telling her I was looking for somewhere to live.
"You can stay in my cottage," she messaged in reply.
It was a relief -- I was burning my budget on hotels in the city and needed a base from which to start my life in Japan; a home address is crucial for various bureaucratic reasons. Meanwhile, I also had writing deadlines to meet.
Three days later I was on the bullet train to Osaka, whizzing down the country, scared and excited.
If Tokyo had felt like a long way from home in the UK, then surely a small fishing village would feel like I was slipping into a different dimension entirely.
From Osaka, I took a local train out of the city. Then another, even more local train. With my large suitcase and bag of snacks, I felt far-removed from the groups of children in their neat uniforms riding the train home from school.
As the train pulled into a desolate countryside station, I thought, "What am I doing?"

The sea and the island

Manami was waiting for me as I departed 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 isn't a place foreign visitors go -- not many Japanese people visit, either.
Fishing villages are slowly becoming a relic of the past, the local youth more interested in big city life rather 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 two buildings.
Manami had bought a traditional Japanese house, then built a modern cottage next door. Perched on the slope of a mountain, the property offered mesmerizing views of the sea.
I would sit and stare through the sliding doors at the dark shape of Kuroshima, the island offshore, and the boats pushing slowly past in the distance.
I had a view over life in the entire village. But somehow, up here I found myself even more isolated.

The bare necessities

The next day, Manami took me to the village post office to set up a bank account, and to register my new address. Then she left.
I was alone. The sun was starting to set, and wine was needed to celebrate my new home.
I walked down the hill, 10 minutes or so, to the small village shop. Its shelves were sparsely stocked. The shopkeeper, appearing from her living room, was surprised to see me, but unflustered.
Ena's only convenience store.
Ena's only convenience store.
Rebecca Saunders
"Welcome," she said in Japanese, her thick accent differing from those I'd heard in Tokyo. She chatted as I tried to pay for my drink.
I quickly 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. Thankfully, technology had made its way to this Japanese fishing village, and I could order grocery deliveries online.
Friday was a big day: my food arrived. I was out on the terrace and could see the delivery truck parked below. The driver seemed confused by the directions.
"It's for Miss Foreigner, up the hill!" yelled an elderly neighbor who had come out of her house below and pointed towards me.

The village people

Life unfolds in Ena as it would have done for decades, centuries possibly.
For me, mornings began on my futon (there was no bed). I would peer out of 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 chugging by in mini "kei" trucks on their way up the mountain.
I ate oranges for breakfast, drank tea and stared out of the old house's screen door. On a good day, the sea below glistened in the sun, but when the rain came, clouds would coat the land and the sea disappeared.
Sometimes, if I was out hanging laundry or returning from a walk, the women who harvested oranges would stop their truck and insist I take some. Most days I would see my friendly neighbor at the bottom of the hill sitting on her front step, knife in hand, gutting a fish.

All creatures great and small

Ena was also home to wildlife. A lot of wildlife. It was the end of summer, but the temperature was still warm and the insects were still in full swing.
Large golden orb-web spiders hung over the windows -- I didn't mind because they stayed outside -- but the enormous huntsman spiders didn't. I was not happy about having those housemates. At all.
Then there were the praying mantises, which I had never seen in real life until moving to Ena. I soon became accustomed to their funny ways; one even landed on my shoulder when I was cooking.
The writer holds one of the many bags of oranges given to her by Ena's farmers.
The writer holds one of the many bags of oranges given to her by Ena's farmers.
Rebecca Saunders
Tiny green frogs living in the rice paddies filled the night air with their chorus, while the mukade (large, poisonous centipedes) were not to be messed with.
Bigger beasts also loomed near. Living on the mountainside, wild boars came so close I could hear them snuffling around. I was told bears lived in the area, too.

Weather warnings

At one point, I learned a typhoon was due to hit the village. Manami called to offer advice: I needed supplies, a radio and torch in case the electricity went out.
The typhoon came at night after a heavy day of rough seas and high winds. I bunkered down, shutters closed, the news on TV repeating warnings of landslides and flash flooding. Being on a hill, I was particularly worried about a landslide. That night, I drank sake as the storm rattled the house like a ship at sea.
I awoke to calm. The morning sun was shining and the village was still.
The writer's neighbor guts a fish outside her Ena home.
The writer's neighbor guts a fish outside her Ena home.
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 had been damaged. The shopkeeper asked if I was OK; we had a patchy conversation about how strong the wind was.
And then, two weeks later, allowing me to experience all of the extremes of Japan, there was an earthquake. I was standing in the modern house as the ground began to rumble -- then it really started to shake.
The earthquake alarm on my phone pierced through my fear, warning "Earthquake! Earthquake!" in Japanese. I saw fishing boats rushing back to shore, in case of a tsunami. Not sure what to do, I hid in the bathroom, the floor shifting side to side.
The deep shaking stopped, but my heart kept thumping.

Matsuri

After the typhoon and the earthquake, things seemed to settle down until the day of the matsuri (festival). The main street was busy, filled with everyone from the village; old and young had turned out to see the event.
The local Shinto shrine was brought down and paraded on the shoulders of all of the young men in the area.
07 ena fishing village
During an Ena matsuri (festival), men parade 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 marched around with it, charging against wooden scaffolds and throwing it in the air, a ritual apparently intended to amuse the god inside.
After a lot of effort, it was time for a lion dance and music from the local school children.
A young couple came to chat to me. "Why would you want to live here?" they asked. "There's nothing here!"
Former locals, they now lived in Wakayama city, some 30 miles (48 kilometers) away.

Moving on

It's not that difficult 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 tiny villages, you're not likely to find them online; rentals and AirBnbs in these more far-flung corners of Japan are more common.
Japanese city dwellers like to take a break in the countryside, often buying up holiday homes to use, like Manami's "cottage."
It's easy to search the internet on sites like Airbnb and VRBO. Speak to the owners, read reviews, and get a feel for the place before you arrive. Villages in the Japanese countryside are desperate for more people to live there or even visit.
In spite of the ease, few overseas visitors ever reach Ena, or similar villages. It's a daunting prospect: English isn't widely spoken, it's hard to get around, and there are none of the big cultural draws of historic hubs like Kyoto and Kanazawa.
Living in Ena was never part of my plan, but I'm glad I did it. I look back at 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 always be etched in my memory.