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2020 in review: Appreciating the simple things in life while teleworking in Tokyo

The fall colors in the garden of Kansenji temple in Suginami Ward, Tokyo, help provide relief from cabin fever. (Mainichi/Greg Mettam)

"In a New York minute, everything can change. In a New York minute, things can get pretty strange..."

    So sang legendary rock artist Don Henley of Eagles fame as he sadly reminded us all to be grateful for what we've got in life. Such thoughts rise to the surface as the end of 2020 nears, a year of global turmoil due to the devastating effects of the new coronavirus.

    Sitting at the dining table, my new "office" at home in Suginami Ward, Tokyo in the age of COVID-19, I've become even more appreciative of family, friends and spending time outside surrounded by fresh nature and all its colorful changes -- whether it's a hike on a day off, a lunch time stroll around the neighborhood, or a glimpse of green through my new office window.

    Looking over the "estate" each day, the seasons stand out a lot more than in past years. Backyard guests have ranged from brilliant blue and purple butterflies dancing around hibiscus and bougainvillea plants, to a patient praying mantis pouncing on moths for lunch, to tiny green Japanese white-eye birds darting through the dangling autumn leaves in an endless game of hide and seek.

    Walla the Wallaby makes the early morning rounds in bushland in suburban Sydney, Australia. (Photo courtesy of Tania Godfrey)

    Unable to visit family Down Under has led to more online get-togethers with my sisters and daughter, and monitoring the appearances of a VIP guest -- Walla the Wallaby.

    "She's back, but only briefly," read the early morning text from my sister in suburban Sydney. Known for their shyness, Wallabies are most active around dawn and dusk, and the regular sightings have been uplifting during these travel restrictions. Even more special is that Walla is apparently pregnant.

    Teleworking has several pluses -- no commuting, fewer distractions and greater productivity -- but it also has its cons, such as less social interaction with colleagues, and loneliness.

    A recent BBC article on how to be happier while working from home recommended people let sunlight into their lives to help stay focused and calm. It also plugged the benefits of plants and other natural objects in your home work environment.

    "Sunlight -- alongside fresh air and access to nature -- is fundamentally good for your mental health," said Dr. T.B.S. Balamurali, a consultant psychiatrist based in London.

    A thank-you note from my mother-in-law accompanies three knives that need sharpening. (Photo courtesy of Tokuyo Tashiro)

    With the boundary between job and home life blurred, it can be difficult to switch off at times, which sparked the idea to study the traditional Japanese craft of sharpening knives with whetstones. My interest was perked by the retirees at the local Shinomiya Community Center offering the service for a small fee. With the aid of the internet and some YouTube videos, I've made steady progress, despite a few bloody setbacks, so much so that I've attracted my first "client" -- my mother-in-law.

    Her husband, an Alzheimer's patient who's been at a home for the elderly for over a year, was previously in charge of ensuring household kitchen tools kept their edge, but that responsibility has now fallen to me. After passing an initial cutting test, three of her sashimi knives await treatment.

    Living and working under the same roof spurs the need to get outside. A late afternoon stroll during my lunch break often includes visits to nearby Kansenji temple in Suginami Ward in western Tokyo, popular with locals for its seasonal garden colors, especially red Japanese maple leaf trees in autumn.

    The temple grounds are also home to small owls, one of which introduced itself recently during a flyby at dusk. "That's no pigeon!" I informed my wife as it flew straight at us before perching on a stone wall in wait of potential prey.

    A further kilometer away lies Zenpukuji Park, another treasure chest of tranquility famous for its birdlife and flora. In spring, the park is a hidden gem for cherry blossom viewing, attracting mostly locals looking to avoid the swarms of crowds at Inokashira Park in Kichijoji.

    Zenpukuji Park in Suginami Ward, Tokyo, is a picture of serenity as the autumn colors fall into place. (Mainichi/Greg Mettam)

    While working under the air conditioning at home during Tokyo's sizzling summer sure beats a steaming day in sauna-like conditions outside, come evening, cabin fever would reach a peak. A walk to Kichijoji often included a stopover at a restaurant where a sparkling Nepalese woman is the backbone of the eatery. Working long hours for minimal wages, her tough plight was highlighted after she had finished her shift and sat on a crate to take a breather. I caught sight of her unwrapping with the anticipation of a child on Christmas day an ice cream she had hidden at the back of a freezer. But her treat turned tormentor as it slid off and fell to the floor, leaving her to try and salvage the remains.

    Her situation showcased the tough conditions many migrants live under in Japan. Now, whenever I have the chance to drop by, I make sure to bring her a few of her favorite sweet snacks. The huge grin on her face reminds me of what my father taught me years ago -- something that as a youngster I could never really grasp -- sometimes it's better to give than to receive.

    While many shops have permanently closed their shutters in the Nishi Ogikubo and Kichijoji area, the resilience of these small businesses supported by loyal regulars has shone a bright light on the determination of humans to overcome diversity.

    COVID-19 has shaken up society in an unprecedented manner, but it could also lead to a better and healthier work-life balance. Hopefully an effective vaccine can promptly help return life to some new norm where people can freely move about, and I can meet up with distant family members -- and a possible baby wallaby.

    (By Greg Mettam, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

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