Please view the main text area of the page by skipping the main menu.

2020 in review: Finding a silver lining amid Japan's coronavirus outbreak

A jet ski travels along the Naka River in Tokyo's Edogawa Ward in the afternoon sun on Nov. 22, 2020. (Mainichi/Aaron Baldwin)

TOKYO -- From hunting for masks to creating office space at home, life amid the coronavirus outbreak in Japan has come with its share of inconveniences and challenges. But there have also been some silver linings, with the discovery of a wealth of natural beauty within cycling distance of my home in Tokyo.

    As the outbreak unfolded and people snapped up masks from Japanese drugstores, convenience stores and any other stores that were selling them during the early months of the outbreak, there were none to be found on shelves when hay fever season arrived, to the misery of those who usually wear them to block out pollen -- including me.

    While testing out whether I could wash and iron my limited supply of nonwoven masks, I accidentally discovered that they could melt and stick to the iron. Fortunately, I later came into possession of washable polyurethane and cloth masks. Now it has become easier to find masks in stores, and the price surge that was seen earlier in the year has dissipated. While a box of 50 disposable masks could cost as much as 2,500 yen (around $24) in the early days of the pandemic, the same number now can be found for less than 1,000 yen (around $9.70).

    Besides the temporary shortage of masks, panic buying of toilet paper due to unfounded rumors that stocks could run out proved to be another nuisance in the early stages of the outbreak. It was frustrating to find store shelves empty day after day when supplies were running low at home. The situation prompted industry groups in Japan to reassure customers in March that there was plenty available. It seemed that patience was the best approach, and sure enough, the problem eventually solved itself.

    While these inconveniences were temporary, others have lasted longer. For me as a foreign resident in Japan, perhaps the hardest hitting realization is that it is no longer a simple matter to travel to my home country of New Zealand along with many other countries overseas. Many countries have closed their borders or put strict quarantine measures in place. Japan has also implemented restrictions, denying entry permission to foreign nationals who have been in certain countries within the previous 14 days. As of Dec. 25, the measure applied to 152 nations and regions.

    When it comes to day-to-day life in Japan, undoubtedly the biggest change has been working from home. Teleworking has turned face-to-face conversations into a stream of text messages, and part of my home in Tokyo into a workspace of sorts.

    Cosmos flowers bloom alongside the Sumida River in Tokyo's Chuo Ward on Sept. 18, 2020. (Mainichi/Aaron Baldwin)

    The first challenge was deciding where to set up that workspace. I soon realized that the family living room, resounding with lively conversations, was not the best place for concentration. After squeezing a desk into my bedroom along with my phone and internet equipment, I was ready to work.

    There are some clear advantages to teleworking, or, as some might call it, "working in your pajamas." The biggest one is having more time, saved by not having to commute on a crowded train where people stand just inches apart -- never mind the 1 meter recommended under certain physical distancing guidelines. This in turn means more time with family.

    Sitting by the window in my new working environment, overlooking a park and the Sumida River, gave me a renewed appreciation of the seasons and changes in the weather -- the light green colors of spring, the chorus of cicadas through the summer months with thunderstorms that rattle the windows and downpours that send people dashing for cover, and rainbows that occasionally adorn the cityscape afterward. Now, I see the last of the autumn leaves clinging to trees amid the onset of winter, while the top of Tokyo Skytree remains hidden behind a cold mist of clouds.

    While noticing these changes throughout the year, I began to explore my local environment. The Japanese government's call for people to avoid the "three Cs" of confined spaces, crowded places and close contact prompted me to exchange my shopping trips for cycling excursions -- getting some much-needed exercise to fight the flab. Along the Arakawa River and other waterways, I discovered paths where I could bike for kilometers without close contact with others.

    The Arakawa River, which flows into Tokyo Bay, is in fact 173 kilometers long, and its expansive banks, which accommodate several sports fields, offered a surprising variety of scenes -- a team of young baseball players training in dim light at the end of the day, a lone saxophonist leaning against a concrete pillar practicing as cars passed along an elevated road overhead, a man walking backwards for some reason, pampas grass gleaming in the sunlight, and rows of colorful tulips with an imposing steel bridge in the background.

    Tulips are seen blooming in a field in the Niji no Hiroba area alongside the Arakawa River in Tokyo's Adachi Ward, with a bridge spanning the river in the background, on April 19, 2020. (Mainichi/Aaron Baldwin)

    As I struggled to pedal against headwinds, seasoned cyclists fitted out like Olympic athletes overtook me with apparent ease. But I contented myself with the local sights, from riverside factories and golf courses in Saitama Prefecture north of the capital, to a diversion along a small, picturesque stream a stone's throw away from the easternmost part of the Arakawa River in Tokyo -- until the mosquitoes chased me away. Before I knew it, I had made it all the way to the seaside in Edogawa Ward, about 18 kilometers away from home, in one trip, and to a city in Saitama Prefecture about 30 kilometers from home in the opposite direction on yet another journey.

    The limited contact with others imposed by COVID-19 restrictions has decreased my encounters with people. But at the same time, it has spurred a renewed appreciation of face-to-face meetings with friends and others outside of my family "bubble." Meanwhile, online study has enabled me to connect with people from other countries whom I certainly would not have met if it weren't for the pandemic.

    An elevated road runs between the Arakawa and Naka rivers in Tokyo's Edogawa Ward on April 29, 2020. (Mainichi/Aaron Baldwin)

    How long will this altered state of affairs last and will I be able to travel overseas normally soon? With Japan continuing to post record numbers of coronavirus infections amid a third wave, it's hard to tell. But when the pandemic's clouds part -- presuming they eventually will -- I hope to be able to cherish the discoveries in my local area and those around me that have shone around the edges. And maybe if I continue cycling, I can even end up a little fitter, too.

    (By Aaron Baldwin, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

    Also in The Mainichi

    The Mainichi on social media