The Ubiquitous Tea Cup

I’m lucky enough to have access to Japanese tv here in America. I never dreamed that would ever be possible. Not only do I have access to current programming, but I also have access to those cable stations that play old J-dorama from as far back as the 1960s.

It’s always a thrill to me when I see something I remember in a scene. And the mizutama yunomi is as natsukashii as it gets for me. I had them. Everywhere I went had them. The soba shops and teishokuya that I liked to eat at almost all used these cups.They were cheap and popular.

The polka dot parts are slightly indented so they are easy for anyone to hold. They were first manufactured in 1955 and became very popular in the mid 1960s when Japan was experiencing a period of rapid growth. In 2010 they received the “Good Design Long Life Design Award. And now they are being sold again as retoro and gaining favor once again, according to Ms. Google.

If you’re my age, I bet you’ve had more than one sip out of a teacup just like this.

  • J-doramā – JードラマーJapanese drama (tv programs)
  • mizutama – 水玉 polka-dotted
  • yunomi – 湯飲み teacup
  • natsukashii – 懐かしい nostalgic. This word gets a LOT of use in Japan.
  • teishokuya – 定食屋 the kind of old fashioned eatery that serves set meals usually with soup, rice, a main dish, pickles and a side dish. They often have daily specials.
  • retoro – レトロ retro


Excuse me while I just go wildly off topic for a day.

The last month has been a particularly hard one for me. I lost my dear dear kitty and having lost my oldest cat last summer, this left me cat-less. Neko ga ippiki mo imasen. It’s not my natural state. Not for many many years. But, what to do? Both of my children have (wonderful) allergic partners, though neither live nearby (closest is 1.5 hours, other is a different coast). But… still. My Japanese self has been telling me to restrain from having any more cats because it would not be fair to my beloved J and M.

I’m the shy one. I finally came out to eat.

To my shame, my American “let’s have self-care” self has won. I cannot easily be cat-less. So, moshi wake gozaimasen to J and M. There are 1.5 new cats in my house and my heart is singing with joy.

I’m a three month old kitten and I am already causing chaos.

It turns out that having something or someone to nurture is really my ikigai. I did not know that. But, yatto wakarimashita. Just call me That Crazy Cat Lady.

  • Neko ga ippiki mo imasen – 猫が一匹もいません I don’t have a single cat. Not even one… 🙁 Neko=cat
  • moshi wake gozaimasen – 申し訳ございません “my deepest apologies” There are many ways to apologize in Japanese and many levels of politeness. This particular phrase is for when you are deeply sorry and it is pretty polite.
  • ikigai – 生き甲斐 reason for living, or that thing that makes you wake up in the morning with a smile. Try googling it.
  • yatto wakarimashita – やっと分かりました “I finally understand.”

Mugi Tei

In haru of 1979, I went to work at a small Eikaiwa School called REC (Recre-Educational Center). The foreign staff once had a smirky laugh over the name when a student got up during a Q&A gathering and asked with a serious look on his face, “How did you come to this REC?” But REC was no wreck; it was a classy joint with classy students for the most part. In fact, Nitani Hideaki, (family name first as is Japanese custom) a famous haiyū, had started the school and had even taught there for awhile. You can read about him here. Located directly across the street from Nijo Castle, it was an easy bike ride for me from any location, i.e. no hills. I’d work either an eight-hour or a four-hour shift.

Me giving a speech at fancy holiday party for REC. Second photo shows Mr. Nitani clearly.

During ohiru or bangohan breaks, I often went to a tiny resutoran around the corner called Mugi-Tei. It was popular with a lot of factory and small business workers in the area. When you become a regular customer in such places, you often get to know the owner/chef. Eventually he would cook me my favorite dishes. In fact, he put my favored meal on the wall menu as “The Sara Special.” It’s a good pun, because my name in Japanese can mean plate. The Sara Special would have an tamago-yaki with a Japanese spinach salad and whatever else, I forget now. I once asked him if anyone actually ever ordered it and he laughed and said a few people had.

Part of the huge Mugi-Tei menu. The owner really could cook anything and varied the menu often.

So, after awhile, I started to hang out with him after hours and then to pitch in as a waitress in my free time. The owner of the school I taught at absolutely hated having his gaikokujin sensei doing this. But it gave me new opportunities to meet less classy people. I was all about meeting the average jūmin and not just the people who were trying to learn English. As you can see in the photo, I was a very absent-minded waitress!

The daydreaming waitress that I was

About a year later, I took a trip back to the US for a couple of weeks, and when I returned the resutoran was gone and the owner had disappeared into the night. They’d had a fire in the kitchen, and this is cause for huge disgrace in Kyoto where buildings were still mokuzō and close together. Reopening the resutoran would not have been an option.  I remained friends with many of his customers, but we all had to find another place to eat in a neighborhood with few good options.

  • haru – 春 spring
  • Eikaiwa – 英会話 English conversation
  • haiyū – 俳優 actor
  • ohiru – お昼 noon, but often used to mean lunch
  • bangohan – 晩ご飯 dinner
  • resutoran – レストラン restaurant. There are many ways to say restaurant in Japanese depending on the type of food it serves. You would not use this for a cheap Chinese joint or an eatery that serves only soba. It implies Western-like food and probably came into popularity due to the 1970s invasion of “famirī restoran -ファミリーレストラン” like Big Boy and Dennys. Shorter still, famiresu (ファミレス)
  • tamago-yaki -卵焼き Japanese style omelette
  • gaikokujin sensei – 外国人先生 foreign teacher. If you’re a Western foreigner you get a special status as a teacher, i.e. higher salary than your Japanese counterpart. We call this privilege.
  • jūmin – 住民 resident
  • mokuzō – 木造 made of wood. Tokyo burned so quickly during WW2 because of all the wooden structures. And since homes and buildings are so close together in many cities, it’s important to know what your building is made of and if it is wooden or has some steel support, etc. Fire spreads when you live and work in tight quarters.

That Argument

As a student abroad in Kyoto there were many firsts. We were all excited about a new panyasan that opened just to the west of our campus. So many kinds of breads! And one of our favorites was meron pan. And we had avid discussions and even arguments on why it was called melon bread. We were sure that it must be slightly flavored with melon juice. In fact, sometimes it seemed a little green-tinted. If we could have banana juice, why not melon bread?

Melon Pan

Another faction said it was because it looked like a melon. You are probably going to go ahead and Google this, aren’t you? But in 1976 we had no internet and you would not find it in any guidebook. If we’d asked someone and they weren’t sure (they never were) they’d just prevaricate. We learned that “sō desu ne…” and “do deshō ka” were very useful expressions.

Meanwhile, the panyasan! They had descriptions, but we could not always read them. You could stay safe and stick with what you knew or you could get adventuresome… and end up with curry inside a roll for breakfast. We were great fans of the red bean rolls. Because beans are healthy, right? We had no idea how much satō was in anko back then!

A photo I took at a bakery in Kyoto in 2016

The pizza pan had mayonnaise and corn kernels on it. Why, to this day, I don’t know. Probably because corn looks pretty on it. Appearances are important in Japan. But my favorite after the meron pan was the uinnā pan. It would have fluffy bread around it and catsup and perhaps a bit of parmesan cheese. To this day I can’t resist it.

Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it. My foodie son will eat this, so you could too.

Miraculously, later that year a Mr. Donuts opened on the eastern side of the campus opening up our breakfast choices considerably and giving us access to unlimited cups of amerikan kōhī. Unlimited cups were a cause for rejoicing because that was a first for us in Japan. But that’s a whole other story…

  • panyasan – パン屋さん bakery. It has a bit of an old-fashioned feel to it, though, since bakery is one of those words that is now used widely around Japan
  • meron pan – メロンパン melon bread. There’s the r and l thing at work here. And pan apparently comes from Portuguese.
  • sō desu ne – そうですね “Is that so?” or “hmmm” or “well, yes.” I once had a whole conversation with a little old lady where I didn’t understand a word of it and simply murmured this phrase the whole time. It took her a while to catch on, so this is a handy phrase.
  • dō deshō ka – どうでしょうか “Hmm, I wonder….” “That might be.” A nice ambiguous phrase to respond without actually voicing an opinion. The meaning can change based on your intonation and facial expression.
  • satō – 砂糖 sugar
  • anko – あんこ red bean paste
  • pan – パン bread
  • uinnā pan – ウインナーパン wiener or hot dog bread
  • amerikan kō – アメリカンコーヒー American coffee. In the late seventies when I worked at a restaurant if someone ordered American coffee we made it by pouring half a normal cup of coffee and half hot water into a cup. European coffee is strong, American coffee means a weaker coffee. Don’t order it.

Things to Eat in April

Esoteric veggies start to appear in the spring. I’m calling them esoteric because you won’t really find them easily in America. But yesterday, I drove down the highway to West Hartford, Connecticut to what is now my happy place—a Japanese grocery store. But what blooms in April in Japan does not bloom in April in New England. I satisfied myself with some shungiku, which is decidedly autumnal or wintery in Japan. But my eyes lit up when I found some mitsuba. That feels like Japanese spring… now what should I do with it other than using it as a garnish?

The shungiku I bought, parboiled and topped with sesame seed and a dash of ponzu.

My best resource for simple Japanese recipes is the Japanese magazine Orange Page. When I lived in Japan I’d buy almost every issue. They came out twice a month. Lettuce Club was a similar magazine. These days I use the recipe database online here. These are all basic futsū recipes. I like futsū. Futsū de ii desu. Count me out for fancy time-consuming dishes.

Covers of a few Orange Pages I have owned

If I was in Kyoto right now, though, I’d be eating some of the esoteric spring veggies like fukinotō and udo. I like them. But the most famous spring veggie, takenoko, leaves me cold. However, every spring I’d still cook up a batch of takenoko gohan because once a year… well, you have to savor the seasonal stuff. Put some kinome on it and it’s very good.

Other than asparagus, I am not really sure what represents haru in New England. I look out my window and there are barely buds on the trees. It’s still grey and frigid looking. Wake me up when the ringo no ki bloom.

  • shungiku – 春菊 chrysanthemum leaf is what the dictionary says for this. It’s very good in sukiyaki.
  • mitsuba – 三つ葉 honewort. Now honestly, does that have any meaning for you? It’s a green vegetable used often as a garnish as it adds a bit of oomph to a dish.
  • futsū – 普通 average, usual.
  • Futsū de ii desu – 普通で良いです。An expression I’d often use when my mother-in-law asked me what she could treat she should cook or order. I didn’t like some of the more expensive delicacies she wanted to offer me and I’d just say that she shouldn’t fuss and the usual meal was fine. Truthfully, when I visited their small town, the fried tofu was the most delicious thing there!
  • fukinotō – ふきのとう butterbur shoots. A spring mountain vegetable.
  • udo – うど spikenard or mountain asparagus. Another mountain vegetable.
  • takenoko – 竹の子 bamboo shoots
  • takenoko gohan – 竹の子ご飯 bamboo shoot rice. You cook the rice with the bamboo and a few other ingredients. It isn’t spring in Japan if you don’t eat this.
  • kinome – 木の芽 Japanese pepper leaves is what the dictionary tells me. It’s primarily used as a garnish and has a very distinctive taste. I have never seen it in America. So sad.
  • haru – 春 spring
  • ringo no ki – りんごの木 apple tree. Literally the tree of apples.


You’re probably thinking that respect is a given in Japan. But I quickly found one place where it was lacking. It was at a playground. Oops. It was not a playground though it seemed to be. Rather, it was a tanki daigaku.

In order to return to Kyoto in 1978, I needed a Japanese person to act as my hoshōnin. Luckily, I’d made some friends at Honyarado, the hippie kissaten that was the plague of our study abroad program since we kept getting a little too involved with the staff and friends of staff—and there were rumors that they were involved in all kinds of underground activities (and I know the truth, but I’m not telling…yet.) But. I made at least one lifelong friend there and he was a professor at a junior college within walking distance of my apāto in Midorogaike. He said I should audit classes there.

Cute little train you’d ride to get to this college in the hills. It is still a cute little train… and leaves from Demachi Yanagi Station.

Back then, Seika College was a two-year school, primarily for joshidaisei. Nowadays, it is a proper daigaku with a daigakuin and special programs for foreigners. But back then I was only the second foreign auditor, they said.

To my amazement, the college now has its very own train stop! How on earth did they get it, I wonder? You used to have to get off at Kino and walk from there.

I ended up taking four different classes. I will speak about two of them here. The sensei was quite famous and had authored some books. It was unbelievable to have access to such an esteemed and knowledgeable professor. His name was Hidaka Rokuro and I took a Sociology class and shisōshi with him. They were both large lecture courses.

Now, in America, if you wanted to talk or sleep during a lecture class, you’d normally choose to sit in the back. Right? But these joshidaigakusei were audacious. They’d be chatting away while sitting in the front row, to the extent that Hidaka sensei would sometimes apologetically ask them to tone it down. That would work for about gofun.

There were only two times that he got the full attention and admiration of the class.

The first time was when there was a giant mukade in the room. Shrieks filled the air and Hidaka sensei calmly walked over and killed it. Everyone was impressed. I mean, it was HUGE.

[I was going to put an image here, but aren’t you glad I spared you?]

The second time was when he was talking about his war experiences. Nobody cared about that until he mentioned that during the war they did not have shampoo so they washed their hair with soap. Suddenly everyone was listening as he extolled the virtues of soap as shampoo. Because… Hidaka-sensei had a glorious full head of healthy looking hair. He was living proof of what he was talking about.

I studied his books and the pages are filled with my notes. His lectures were sadly above my true language abilities of the time, but I got a taste for some alternative history and a deeper understanding of what the radicals of the time were preaching.

The book that Hidaka-sensei’s class was based on. He lived to be 101 and only passed away recently. I hope somebody translates this someday.
  • tanki daigaku – 短期大学 junior or two-year college
  • hoshōnin – 保証人 to stay in Japan on a cultural or student visa you needed a Japanese person to ask as your guaranteer.
  • Honyaradō – ほんやら洞 a famous coffee shop that a bunch of hippies built in 1973. It burned down, sadly, in January, 2015.
  • kissaten – 喫茶店 coffee shop, not cafe. Old-style!
  • apāto – アパート apartment
  • joshidaisei – 女子大生 female college students. Calling them “coeds” as we used to do in America would be the right kind of feel for this word.
  • daigaku – 大学 university or college
  • daigakuin – 大学院 graduate school
  • sensei – 先生 don’t we all know this is teacher, thanks to the martial arts?
  • shisōshi – 思想史 literally the history of thought. I guess ideology works for a translation.
  • gofun – 五分 five minutes. Go is five and fun is minutes. However, fun changes in combination depending on which number it is used with. (You need either a teacher or a textbook to understand why this is.)
  • mukade – ムカデ millipede. Apparently they are NOT poisonous like centipedes are but I assure you there is not a scarier looking bug around. I once found one in my futon and I deserted my lodgings for three days due to the shock of it. Really.

The McDonalds Continuum of Culture Shock

When I first went to Kyoto there were very few Western restaurants. There was a makudonarudo and a Shakey’s Pizza Restaurant downtown. This was in 1976. There were other restaurants that appeared to be Western such as the Lipton Restaurant. We presumed it was British. We also found that the fancy department stores sold exotic chocolates imported from Europe and the United States. Imagine seeing a forlorn Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bar next to swanky Swiss and Belgian chocolate with a similar price tag!

The very first McDonalds to come to Japan in 1971. Located in the glamorous Ginza district of Tokyo. And still there!

I was not a kankōkyaku to Kyoto and was now here for the duration. After graduating from college with a major in Japanese Language and Literature I was back for a second shot at Japan.

There were not that many gaikokujin living in Kyoto at that time. After living there for six months, I felt like I’d probably seen them all and talked to the ones I wanted to meet. Kyoto had plenty of kankōkyaku, but they weren’t any of my concern. There was a certain level of snobbery among the foreigners who lived there, and your status was directly linked to your time in Japan, and level of language ability. If you were really cool, you strode around wearing a yukata like Clifton Karhu, a Minnesota artist who later became quite famous. Or you managed a beat coffee house like the poet Cid Corman. If you were a woman, maybe you dared to become a bar hostess instead of teaching English conversation like 95% of all foreigners. Back then almost all Western foreigners taught English, even if they came from Germany or France.

We had no virtually no connection at all with Asian foreigners. When we did meet one, we were excited. They seemed exotic and could “pass” unlike us.

The one thing that you did not do if you were living in Kyoto was to eat at McDonalds. It came up often in conversation, and you wanted to be that person who had not gone even once. Or if you did go, you wanted it to be only in an emergency, or once or twice a year. (It is hard to imagine what the emergency would be since it was located downtown within stone’s throw of any number of genuine Japanese eateries.) You wanted to be the person who didn’t know that to order French fries you had to ask for poteto.” And you wouldn’t know that kechappu wasn’t available unless you specifically asked for it, and then they’d squirt some into a tiny paper cup for you in the back.

I could be very smug here. I’d worked at a McDonalds back in the United States when I was in high school. I’d had my fill and didn’t feel a strong need to take a trip back down that particular memory lane. Though my first encounter with washoku had not gone smoothly, I now knew what I liked to eat and where to get it.

Osho, the cheap Chinese joint that students all loved.

Here is how I rated the cultural adjustment of an American in Japan based on his relationship with McDonalds. Let’s call him Edgar.

  1. Passes by makudonarudo with slight longing in eyes, but nobly resists.
  2. Brags about how much he likes Japanese food and eats sushi every night for dinner.
  3. Starts wearing a yukata to work, and eats nattō. Disdains pasta.
  4. Refuses to talk to any other foreigners. Insists on speaking Japanese with them when forced to converse.
  5. Realizes MinMin, and Osho are really Chinese food joints (cheap greasy spoons with gyoza and fried rice).
  6. His Japanese gets good enough to read menus instead of relying on plastic food models in front of restaurants.
  7. Craves French fries and hates himself for it.
  8. Craves French fries and starts counting how long it has been since he’s had a hamburger.
  9. Realizes he’s being ridiculous and that where one eats is no genuine reflection of…. Well, anything.
  10. Takes off his yukata, walks into McDonalds and unselfconsciously orders a burger and fries. And a banana milkshake. (After all, it IS Japan.)

Omedetō gozaimasu, Edgar! You have now officially adjusted to Japan and can drop all the pretension. Sad to say, this process usually took a long time for Americans, I’m afraid. We have such ridiculous pretensions….

  • makudonarudo マクドナルド McDonalds. It’s a mouthful to say. I think you can get away with just saying makku if you are in context.
  • kankōkyaku – 観光客 tourists
  • gaikokujin – 外国人 foreigners. This is the polite form. In Japan, the shorter the phrase gets the ore casual or even rude it is. Because of that, it isn’t exactly polite when this gets shortened to gaijin. But it very often is shortened to the dismay of some.
  • yukata – 浴衣 summer kimono. These are generally made of cotton. In my mind, if it is not cotton, it is not genuine, i.e. please do not wear any made from rayon or polyester. Cringeworthy!
  • poteto – ポテト You might think this is how you say potato, but you’d be wrong. This means French Fries. Potato has its own word.
  • kechappu – ケチャップ catsup
  • nattō – 納豆 fermented soybeans. I have never even wanted to try nattō and there is a fierce battle between the nattō camp and the not nattō camp. I’m sure they are quite healthy, but yuck. Generally, people in Kyoto do not eat it. I rest my case.
  • MinMin – 珉珉 a cheap Chinese joint. A real greasy spoon that women used to not want to enter. But it was the saving grace for starving students.
  • Osho – 王将 Another cheap Chinese joint that is famous for gyōza. If you’re young and your stomach can stand it, it’s great food!
  • gyōza – 餃子 Fried dumplings.You should know this since they are pretty mainstream outside Japan now.
  • Omedetō gozaimasu – おめでとうございます Congratulations!

Didn’t your mother ever teach you to do laundry?

That was the question my homestay mother would ask each time I needed to do laundry. And I was at a loss to explain to her how different her sentakki was from what I used in the United States.

Doing laundry in that house was a big production from my point of view. You had to take a hose from the sink, connect it to the sentakki and fill the machine with mizu from that sink faucet. I was not allowed to touch the yuwakashiki at the sink, so I washed my clothes in cold water. My homestay mother had attempted to teach me how to turn on this tank-less gas water heater safely, but it had too many steps and directions for me, and we’d both given up. The washing machine looked nothing like machines in the United States, and it had two different compartments.

The smaller compartment was the spinner.

You’d load your laundry into one barrel along with the senzai to agitate it. You’d set a timer for how ever long you wanted to wash it. When it was done, you’d move the soapy wet clothing into the smaller barrel next to it which was the spinner. After placing what looked like a strainer on top of it, you’d spin it for about three minutes, and then move it back into the wash barrel to rinse it. Then after that was done, you’d give it another good spin. It worked quite well. When one-barrel washing machines first came out, many housewives were not impressed and said the two-barrel ones worked better. And, I agree! There were no kansōki in Japan back then, and even now many people hang their laundry outside to dry. So after washing my clothes, I’d take them outside and hop off the beranda to the very small yard to our multi-tiered clothes line.

It was not a line, but rather bamboo poles. Trucks would go around the neighborhood selling laundry poles, which were then mostly made of aluminum rather than bamboo. You’d use a fork like tool to lift them down from the tiers. The highest tier was about fifteen feet from the ground, and thus in view of the neighbors. You’d load up the pole and then hoist it back up. My homestay mother was shocked one day when I thoughtlessly hung my shitagi on the highest tier for all the neighbors to see. She gave a stock comment that I heard from her quite often.

My homestay family had a three-tiered bamboo pole set-up just like this one.

“Didn’t your mother ever teach you to [hang laundry properly?”]

This family was slated to spend a year at Amherst College in the future, and I could not wait for her to find out why I didn’t know some of the things that she took for granted that any capable young woman would know. We also struggled with language since she spoke very little Eigo and my Nihongo wasn’t yet up to speed. I was never able to explain myself to her.

One day she said to me, “You’re Jewish. Explain the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to me.” She’d get me every time. I couldn’t even explain that one in English, let alone Japanese. Again, I felt like a dummy.

At the end of our first semester in Japan we had the option of leaving our homestay families and finding different living situations. It was no coincidence that all the young women chose to move out, and all the men were happy to stay. Being men, their homestay mothers did their sentaku for them and they weren’t asked to do any kaji. This was the difference between being a son and a daughter at that time in Japan. And maybe, still.

  • sentakki – 洗濯機 washing machine
  • mizu – 水 water. A general word for water, but hot water has its own word – oyu お湯
  • yuwakashiki – 湯沸器 tankless hot water heater
  • senzai – 洗剤 laundry detergent
  • kansōki – 乾燥機 clothes dryer. In all my years in Japan I never had one. Other than the rainy season, that worked fine for me. During the rainy season I’d hang the wash inside…sometimes for days.
  • beranda – ベランダ veranda
  • shitagi – 下着 underwear
  • Eigo – 英語 English language
  • Nihongo – 日本語 Japanese language
  • sentaku 洗濯 laundry
  • kaji – 家事 household tasks

How Not to Start a Fire

Kyoto is a beautiful city with many wooden structures nestled closely together. In 1976, it was imperative that I not start a fire. Which is why my homestay okāsan wouldn’t let me use hot water.

Let me explain that. See, it wasn’t a matter of turning a faucet. To get hot water, you had to turn on the gasu and light a pilot light. Or something like that. How would I know when I was never allowed to do it? All I could see were switches, dials, and blue tubing. Ditto for the gas renji. The only way I’d ever get to mess with gasu would be to dive for the turn-off valve should there be a jishin. (Nowadays there are cell phone alerts for earthquakes; I have no idea how that works.) Back then you’d start to feel the shaking and then immediately run to turn off any gasu valves, hesitate for a second to gauge intensity, and then depending on how it felt, you’d take cover in an oshiire or a doorway, or simply go on with life.

Typical sink situation of the late 1970s

Luckily, Kyoto is not very earthquake prone. 

But fires were still nothing anyone was taking lightly. In front of my homestay dwelling were big red buckets. And once a month the whole neighborhood got together for practice drills with these buckets which meant lining up and passing them down the line. Being a wimp for neighborhood stuff and still not knowing much nihongo at all, I’d try to be elsewhere when they were scheduled. Usually they were on Sundays.

On winter evenings in Kyoto you’d need even more of a reminder to be careful to not set a fire because most people were using heaters of some sort. They all got turned off when you went to bed under those layers of futon and blankets. The house would be ice cold, but leaving a gasu, kerosene or even an electric space heater running while sleeping would simply be too dangerous. So, one did not. 

Back to the reminder, which was very quaint and charming… but also effective. Each night someone in the neighborhood would be in charge of walking the streets with two plain wooden blocks attached with a string. Every ten feet or so, they’d bang them together while intoning, “Hi no Yōjin” or “beware of fire”. The minute you heard the clacks, you’d do a mental check to be sure you’d turned everything off. I did the walk just once with my boyfriend of the time who managed a beat coffee house. And he took it very seriously.

The clackers one wore while on Hi no Yojin patrol

In 2016 when my daughter and I traveled to Kyoto, on our very first night we heard the clacking and the Hi no Yōjin call. Yes, still. I couldn’t believe it and would have thought I was imagining it, but my daughter heard it as well and we were both thrilled. And that was the only night we heard it. Why, remains a mystery to us, but on that night it felt like a “Welcome home to Kyoto and while many things have changed, some things have not. Oyasumi nasai.

  • okāsan – お母さん mother
  • gasu – ガス gas. Used primarily for the utility, not passing gas or gasoline
  • renji – レンジ range. A shortened way to refer to a kitchen countertop gas range.
  • jishin – 地震 earthquake. Though Kyoto is not as earthquake prone as other places in Japan this is one word you should learn no matter where you are in Japan. They happen.
  • oshiire – 押入れ traditional style of double-decker closet found in older homes. It is big and deep enough to hold futon. It’s considered to be a safer place during an earthquake and mothers would often shove the children inside of it when an earthquake began.
  • nihongo – 日本語 the Japanese language
  • Hi no Yōjin – 火の用心 the chant that reminds people to turn off gas and electric heaters and appliances before going to bed so as to avoid starting a fire. Often translated as “beware of fire.” It’s more like “be careful not to start a fire”.
  • Oyasumi nasai – おやすみなさい Good night

Thank you for the Bath

After my study abroad group arrived in Japan in August 1976, we spent a few days in a youth hostel in northern Kyoto for some orientation. After all, sending us in blindly to live with our Japanese host families could be a disaster… right? So, first things first, we had lessons on bowing. It’s not that bowing itself is difficult, but the placement of the hands is important as is the degree of the bow. And it is different for women and men. But after you’ve lived in Japan for a few weeks, ojigi comes naturally whenever you say arigatō or apologize for something. And Japanese say thank you a lot.

The youth hostel that was our home for a week or so.

For example, in my homestay family, I would say thank you for the bath each night. It might sound strange, but heating and preparing the ofuro in 1976 was a certain amount of work and cost. So it was proper etiquette to thank the family. My host family lived in a very traditional small wooden house. Strangely enough, both the toilet and ofuro were located outside of the main house. I suppose they’d been added later, but you had to open the sliding glass doors to the beranda at the back of the house, and then walk outside to the edge of the beranda where you’d find the toilet in a tiny closet-sized room, and then separately, the bath (another tiny room). There was a curtain that created a cubicle in front of the door to the bath, and this is where you’d get undressed and dressed. Yes, in the dead of winter, you’d be undressing outside to get into the bath. I found this a little daunting. Once in the bath itself, you’d stir it to make sure the heat was even, and then you’d wash outside the bathtub, and hop in to soak. Of course everyone in the family used the same bath water. 

After you finished bathing, you’d cover the bath tub to keep it warm for the next person.

On my first night there, I was honored to be the first one to use the bath. After that, I was treated like family and the order was: Otōsan, chōnan, jinan, me, okāsan. It was the mother who did the work of filling the bath, heating it, draining it each night or two, and cleaning it. I directed my thank you ojigi to her each night. Writing this now, it would seem absurd NOT to thank someone for the bath in Japan. When I visited my husband’s family I’d do it there as well. Note: My own parents would have thought I was crazy if I’d ever thanked them for a shawā I took at their home. It’s all about culture.

  • ojigi – お辞儀 a bow
  • arigatō – ありがとう casual way of saying thank you. There are many levels of politeness in greetings. One general rule of thumb is the longer they are, the politer and the shorter they are, the more casual.
  • ofuro – お風呂 the bath. Note that the honorific “o” is attached because I wouldn’t dream of saying it without honoring it.
  • beranda – ベランダ veranda. There is no equivalent to the “v” sound in Japanese, so when they borrow an English word like this, v usually changes to b. Usually….
  • otōsan – お父さん father
  • chōnan – 長男 oldest son
  • jinan – 次男 second son
  • okāsan – お母さん mother