My first apartment was in a ghost town. No, not like an American ghost town. It was a ghost town because it was located on the Ghost Line that runs through Japan. You see, in August, during the Obon season, ancestors return to visit. They take the yūrei sen and my little area of Kyoto happened to be a stop on the line. It had a pond and of course ghosts get thirsty so they would stop by the pond to drink. I am not making this up. It’s what I learned from everyone when I said I lived in Midorogaike.
Reactions would vary. Many people would shiver either involuntarily or dramatically and say, “Oh, aren’t you scared to live there?” I wasn’t… but I was beginning to understand why the apartment rent was cheaper than other places.
Kyoto took its ghosts seriously. I started to learn the stories. For example, one of the popular ghost stories was about a takushii driver who picked up a woman downtown. She asked to go to Midorogaike and when they got there, he turned around and the woman had disappeared leaving just a damp spot where she’d been sitting. In fact, that story was so well-known that sometimes when I would try to catch a taxi home from the same downtown area, the taxi drivers would refuse to take me when they heard my destination. I am really not making this up. Take a look at this.
Every day I’d leave my apartment and walk to the bus stop to get into town. I’d walk past the same gentleman each morning. He sat ramrod straight in a kuruma isu with a fine red and grey woolen blanket draped carefully across his lap. He had a stern look on his face. Dignified, maybe you’d call it. He was older. I’d calculated he was just the right age to have fought in World War II and here I was, an American, walking by him each morning. I never dared to say a word. Should I apologize for the war? Surely the injuries that had put him in that chair were from the war. What did he think when I walked by? Did the sight of me bring back bad memories? There was no other way to get to the bus stop. And he was out there every morning. I just didn’t know what to do. (Let’s all keep in mind that I was just 22 and had a vivid imagination.) I felt like I had to do something. Our two countries had fought each other.
So one day, I summoned up all of my courage, looked at him straight in the eye and said, “Ohayo gozaimasu.” And made a tentative bow.
And to my great surprise, his stern demeanor crumbled up into a warm smile and he responded, “Ohayo-chan.”
Ohayo-CHAN? What the heck was that? Ohayo-san was a Kyoto version of “good morning” but why was I getting the ‘chan‘ treatment? I still do not know, but chan is what you’d use, instead of san, when speaking to a child. From his point of view–and age–maybe that was warranted. The other reason could have been an indication of warmth or affection.
From that day on, we greeted each other. I regret that I never had a real conversation with him, but my Japanese ability was very limited and I never dared try. I figured I’d done my bit for world peace and left it at that.
- obon – お盆 a holiday in August (or July in some areas) where ancestors return. So, many people travel back to their own home towns to greet them. Basically it serves as a summer holiday break.
- yūrei – 幽霊 ghost, or spirit. More spirit than ghost.
- Midorogaike – 深泥池 The name of a pond in Northern Kyoto, but also serves as the name of the area around it. It literally means ‘deep muddy pond.’ And it is.
- takushii – タクシー taxi
- kuruma isu – 車椅子 wheel chair. Isu itself is chair and kuruma is car or a wheeled vehicle
- ohayō gozaimasu – お早うございます good morning. This is a very polite way of saying it. WIth friends you can just use ohayō .
- ohayō san – お早うさん The Kyoto way of saying good morning. Used widely in the Kansai area (Western Japan).
- ohayō chan – お早うちゃん The Kyoto way of saying good morning to a child