After doing what was once called a “Junior Year Abroad” in Kyoto, I knew I had to go back. Not because I loved it, but more because I was so frustrated by what I didn’t understand. I needed more language and I needed more experience. So that’s what I got during my last year of college by taking any Japan-related course I could possibly find at the University of Kansas. This often meant I was in a class with just one or two others. I was the only one who graduated with a major in Japanese Language and Literature that year. And after a summer of saving, I blithely took off for Japan in August just assuming that I’d figure things out. Yep. No plans, no job, nowhere to stay etc.
Back then there were two possible places to stay in Kyoto for foreign travelers who were young and poor. I picked Tani House near Daitokuji. I slept in a room with a bunch of other foreigners. It was the cheapest way to go and you met interesting people. However, I was the only one who was planning to stay. The others were world travelers just passing through. Through luck and ignorance, I somehow found an apartment in Midorogaike. So, then I needed a job.
One night, at around 9:30 PM, I was waiting for a bus to get back to my apartment. I’d been waiting a while. A man pulled up in a car and asked where I was going. I told him, and he said he’d take me–and that buses were done for the night. I suspected that was correct, so I decided to get in his car. Note to young people. Just don’t do this sort of thing; times are different now.
He did drive me home and also mentioned that he owned a restaurant near where I’d been waiting for the bus. He gave me his meishi and said he would hire me as a waitress if I needed a job.
Back then there were two jobs for Americans. You could teach eikaiwa or if you were a woman, you could be a hosutesu. Both were very lucrative. And I had no idea how to find either of these jobs, so the next day I walked into Mr. Kobayashi’s small restaurant and told him I wanted a job. (That led to other adventures.)
Let’s face it. I was the worst waitress ever. Each day there was a daily special and every customer would want to know what it was. And unfortunately, it was usually a mix of foods as pictured below. So I had to learn what it all was, how to say it, and memorize it. I could not, most of the time. The customers were amused by me as a waitress at first. Then, I think they found it annoying that I messed up so many orders. It was just an average workingman’s type of restaurant and the lunch hour needed to move quickly.
Mr. Kobayashi paid me the same kyuryou as the other waitresses, i.e. no favorable treatment because I was a foreigner. I could have been making triple those wages if I’d been teaching English, which eventually I did do. But he did do me one favor. It turns out he was a bit of a chinpira (yes, he had a panchi paama which was the first clue) and he’d won the money to open the restaurant by gambling. And he accrued more debts and absconded into the night a few months after I started working there. The favor? He stopped by my apartment very late at night on the night he disappeared and paid me my wages. Nobody else got paid. Most of his waitresses were students who still lived at home with their parents and were working for spending money. He knew that for me, this was my livelihood.
You could go ahead and google that restaurant. It was called Himorogi and it was on Teramachi Street. But you won’t find a trace of it. Like its owner, it vanished into thin air that night.
- Daitokuji – 大徳寺 a major temple in Kyoto that doesn’t get as many visitors as others. It’s really a temple complex and also has a restaurant on premises. If you’ve done the major sites in Kyoto and have time, it’s quite nice. Also, at times they have had foreign monks and some of their monks speak English quite well.
- Midorogaike – 深泥池 an area of Kyoto to the north. Rents were a bit lower there because it was a hangout for ghosts. Really. More on that later.
- meishi – 名刺 business cards. Fair warning. There is a whole etiquette that revolves around the giving and receiving of these cards and if you’re doing business in Japan, it behooves you to read up on this.
- eikaiwa – 英会話 English conversation. Note that there is a complete difference between studying English and studying English conversation in Japan. Somebody needs to write a book about that.
- hosutesu – ホステス hostess… but Japanese style. Not someone who guides you to your table, but a woman who sits with you, fills your drinks, and charms you. (I’d totally fail at this job.)
- kyuuryou – 給料 salary. In Japan, in every job I ever had, it got paid monthly and not weekly or biweekly.
- chinpira – チンピラ low ranking criminals in Japan
- panchi paama – パンチパーマ punch perm. A tightly permed hairstyle that was popular for members of the Japanese crime world back in the 1970’s. For some reason, older singers also like this look so you can’t say someone’s a criminal for sure if they wear their hair like this. But, if they aren’t a singer, it might give you pause.
- Himorogi – 神籬 The name of Mr. Kobayashi’s restaurant was a mystery to me. I’m still not really sure why he chose this name. My best translation is “sacred area” but what am I not getting here?
- Teramachi – 寺町 Literally temple town. It’s a famous street in Kyoto. Part of it is an arcade, but the northern part of it is a lovely street filled with old shops and temples. Mostly. There are now two conbi on the street as well, but it is still charming to me.