Her Town, Her Sheep
Her Town, Her Sheep
by MURAKAMI Haruki
Translated by Kiki
The first snow of the year has started to fall on the streets of
Sapporo in northern Japan. It began as rain and then it changed to
snow. It didn’t take long before it had changed back to rain.
However on the streets of Sapporo snow really isn’t that romantic.
It’s about as welcome as an unpopular relative. It is Friday October
When I left Tokyo on a 747 from Narita airport, I was wearing only a
T-shirt. It started to snow before I had finished listening to my
90-minute tape on my walkman.
“That sounds about par for the course,” my friend said to me. “We
generally get the first snowfall of the year about now, and then it
“It gets really cold, doesn’t it?”
“No kidding. It gets really, really, cold.”
We grew up in a small quiet neighborhood in Kobe in western Japan.
Our houses were separated by about 50 meters. We attended both
junior and senior high school together. We also went on school trips
and double dates with each other. Once we got so drunk that we
rolled out of the cab when its doors popped open. After graduating
from high school we attended different colleges: I went to Tokyo
while he moved north to Hokkaido. I married one of my classmates
from Tokyo, and my friend married a classmate of his from the city
of Otaru in Hokkaido. That’s just the way life works out. We were
scattered like seeds in the wind.
If he had attended college in Tokyo and if I had gone to college in
Hokkaido, our lives might have turned out completely different.
Perhaps I might have worked for a travel agency, gallivanting all
over the globe. He may have become a writer in Tokyo. But fate led
me to write novels while his path took him to a travel agency. And
yet everyday the sun continues to shine.
My friend has a six year old son, Hokuto, and he always carries
three pictures of his son in his wallet: Hokuto playing with sheep
at the zoo; Hokuto wearing dress clothes for the autumn children’s
Shichigosan Festival; Hokuto riding a rocket at the playground. I
looked at each picture three times, one after another, before
returning them to him. I picked up my beer and grabbed some icy
“ruibe”, a Hokkaido delicacy.
“By the way, how is P doing?” He asked me.
“Pretty good,” I answered. “Just the other day I bumped into him on
the street. He got divorced and is now living with a young woman.”
“What about Q?”
“He’s working for an ad agency, writing some just terrible copy.”
“That doesn’t surprise me..”
We paid for the check and left the restaurant. It had started to
“Say, have you returned to Kobe recently?” I asked.
“Nope,” shaking his head. “It’s just too far away. How about you?”
“Me neither. I don’t really have much desire to go back.”
“I imagine the neighborhood has really changed over the years.”
We walked around the streets of Sapporo for only ten more minutes,
quickly running out of things to talk about. I returned to my hotel
and he went back to his small apartment.
“Don’t be a stranger. Take care of your self.”
Suddenly the thud of a converter made me realize that tomorrow we
will again be separated by over 500 kilometers. In a few days we
will again be walking on different streets. We will return to our
respective boring routines. We will continue the aimless uphill
struggle as members of the rat race.
Back in my hotel room I turned on the TV and started to watch a
local public service- program. Climbing onto bed with without taking
my shoes off, I attacked my smoked salmon sandwich and beer from
room-service, absent-mindedly gazing at the screen.
A young woman wearing a dark blue dress was standing alone in the
middle of the screen. The camera focused on her like a patient
carnivore. It was transfixed on her image. The camera angle didn’t
advance or retreat. I felt like I was watching a Goddard movie.
“I work in the publicity section of the R Town local government,”
the woman said. She spoke with a slight local accent and her voice
cracked a bit, maybe she was a little nervous. “R Town is small,
with a population of only about 7500 people. Nobody famous has ever
come from our little town, so I don’t think any of you have ever
heard of it.”
That’s too bad I thought.
“Our main industries are agriculture and dairy farming. Rice used to
be our town’s primary industry. But recent governmental subsidy
policies have forced a radical shift toward barley, wheat and
vegetables for the suburbs. On the outskirts of town there are
pastures with about two hundred head of cattle, a hundred horses as
well as a hundred sheep. At the moment the breeding of livestock
continues to increase. Over the next three years we anticipate
further increases in livestock production.“
I wouldn’t really describe the woman as beautiful. She was about
twenty, wearing metal-framed glasses. She smiled like a broken
refrigerator. Yet I thought she was wonderful. This Goddardesque
camera technique captured her best feature. And it continued to
emphasize that feature, keeping her in the best possible light. If
any of us could spend ten minutes in front of that camera, maybe we
too could look so wonderful. That’s how I saw it.
“In the middle of the 19th century gold dust was discovered in the R
river near our little town. So we enjoyed a slight “gold-dust boom”.
But soon the gold dust was exhausted, leaving behind the scars of
innumerable shacks and paths on the mountain. It’s really quite
I popped the last bite of my smoked salmon sandwich into my mouth
and washed it down with the last of my beer.
“The town…umm …the population of the town peaked at around ten
thousand a few years ago. However recently the number of families
who have left farming has increased. Another problem is that our
young people have begun to escape to the suburbs. More than half of
my classmates have already moved away. But those who have decided to
remain are doing their best for our town.”
She continued to stare into the camera as though it were a mirror
that might foretell the future. She seemed to be staring directly at
me. Taking another beer from the refrigerator, I pulled the tab and
took a big drink.
The woman’s town.
I didn’t have much trouble imagining her small town: A tiny train
station where a train stops only eight times a day. A small space
heater in the station’s waiting room. A small sterile circular area
for buses to pick up people. A guide map of the town on which half
of the letters are nearly illegible. A bed of marigolds and a row of
mountain ash trees. A mangy white dog tired of living. An
advertisement for school uniforms and headache remedies. A
relatively big but useless main street. A want-ad poster for the
Japanese defense forces. A three-story department store selling a
variety of miscellaneous stuff. One small travel agency. A farmer’s
co-op, a forestry center and an animal husbandry building. The
town’s public bath, its solitary gray smokestack sticking up into
the sky. Turning left before the main intersection, two blocks down,
is the city hall building, where she sits at her desk in the p.r.
section. Yes, definitely a small boring town. Half of the year
covered with snow. She sits at her desk writing copy:
“We will soon be distributing medication for disinfecting sheep. If
interested, please complete the proper forms and submit them as soon
as possible.” Back in my small Sapporo hotel room I suddenly
experienced a tangible connection with the woman’s life. I had made
contact with her existence. However, something is missing. I feel
like I am wearing a borrowed suit that doesn’t fit very well. I
don’t feel comfortable. My feet are bound by rope. I consider
cutting the rope with a dull hatchet blade, but if I do so, how will
I return? That makes me uneasy. However I have to cut the rope.
Maybe I have drunk too much beer. Maybe the snow is causing this
sensation. That’s all I could think about. I slip back underneath
the dark wings of reality. My town, her sheep.
Now she must get her sheep ready to be disinfected by that new drug.
Me too, I need to get my sheep ready for winter. I have to gather
hay and fill the tanks with kerosene. I should get that window
fixed. After all winter is just around the corner. “That’s my town,”
the woman continued on TV. “It’s not so interesting, but it’s my
home. If you get a chance, please visit us. We’ll do whatever we can
And just like that she vanished from my TV screen. I turned it off
and finished the rest of my beer. I began to consider visiting her
town. Maybe she could help me. But after all I probably would never
get around to visiting it. I have already thrown away too many
things. Outside it continued to snow. A hundred head of sheep closed
their eyes in the darkness.