Decisions, Decisions

One thing I love about Japan is that you often can get out of making a decision. Going along with the consensus makes you a peace-loving proper participant in life, i.e. not a wimp. I am, by nature, kind of a wishy washy type. Last weekend my son wanted to treat me to lunch for Haha no Hi, but he wanted ME to decide where. There were a couple of caveats; he didn’t want Mexican and he didn’t want to eat at the resutoran; COVID is still a concern. Even though I live in a small town, that still left me with too many possibilities and I was hopeless at making this decision. I would have been fine with anything.

When I was living in Tokyo in a small apāto (Just six units and a similar building next door) I often hung out with the other mothers and sometimes we’d go shopping together. None of us had kuruma, so we’d ride our jitensha down to the market by the train station. Or we’d take a taxi or train to a nearby small city. When we were out together, we’d function as a unit.

If only we’d had a small fish market like this, my neighbor might have had more options and still gone with the crowd choice!

One evening, we were shopping for bangohan at the market. One mother asked another what she was serving for dinner. She replied that it would be sakana, so we all drifted over to the fish department together. We were all on a budget so the obvious choice would be aji or sanma. I preferred sanma and there were two of them packaged together. Perfect size for me and my husband. Two other women chose the package of sanma, but the fourth woman hesitated. Her family was bigger. She had three children and though two were still baby age, the other one was not. She looked at the package of aji that had three fish in it. That would be the perfect size for her family. But she looked at all of us who’d gone with sanma, and bless her heart, she just couldn’t be the one who didn’t conform… so she took the sanma as well–and probably cooked some extra dish to supplement dinner.

Fish wrapped up for purchase at a supermarket

Unthinkable for the American mind! The aji would have been the logical choice, but decisions are not necessarily about logic in Japan. She wanted to be part of the group and not be different. I saw this over and over again, but to me, it was simply another sign that I was meant to be in Japan where I could happily go along with the crowd!

  • apāto – アパート apartment or apartment building
  • Haha no Hi – 母の日 Mother’s Day. Celebrated similarly in Japan. Note that Haha is how you refer to your own mother. Someone else’s mother is okāsan.
  • resutoran – レストラン restaurant
  • kuruma – 車 car, automobile
  • jitensha – 自転車 bicycle
  • bangohan – 晩ご飯 supper or dinner, i.e. the evening meal
  • sakana – 魚 fish
  • aji – アジ a type of fish, mackerel
  • sanma – 秋刀魚 a type of fish, (Pacific) saury. Though available all year long, it is associated with autumn.

An Inauspicious Beginning

Your first year in a new place, you’re bound to get sick. New environment, new baikin, more exposure in some cases. In my case, I spent my second week in Japan being byōki. Let me explain.

I had arrived in Japan along with my 20 odd cohorts for a year of study abroad. It was hachigatsu and we landed at Haneda Airport a little too late to catch our connecting flight. So, we took a basu into the city to stay at a huge modern hoteru. For me, the problem was the erebētā. It was one of those swift and silent types that immediately makes me feel nauseous. Not an auspicious beginning.

The next day, we flew to Osaka and took another basu to Kyoto, to the youth hostel that would be our first home in Kyoto before we met our host families. I remember passing gasorin sutando that looked like something out of outer space to me. Possibly a space shuttle would fly in to fuel up!

This style was prevalent when I lived in Japan. I always found it so New Age-ish

Though I was coming from Kansas, which also has hot summers, this heat was more oppressive. I lost my appetite what with the heat and the unfamiliar food. And that led to a whopping episode of natsubate. I lost ten pounds in ten days and ended up with a visit to the Kyoto Baptist Hospital where Dr. Alice Cary, the savior of foreign women in Kyoto, admitted me to the heavenly air-conditioned patient ward. The hospital itself looked like something out of the fifties, but it did the trick and I was restored to health.

One view of the hospital

I ended up living just around the corner from the Cary family and appreciated the chance to get to know them. They played no small role in Kyoto history. You can read about Otis Cary here.

  • baikin – バイキン germs
  • byōki – 病気 sickness
  • hachigatsu – 8月 August, literally 8th month
  • basu – バス bus
  • hoteru – ホテル hotel
  • erebētā – エレベーター elevator
  • gasorin sutando – ガソリンスタンド gas station, or gasoline stand
  • natsubate – 夏バテ A special word used to describe suffering in the summer due to the oppressive heat. When you get natsubate you don’t feel like eating and you can quickly succumb to the heat. Natsu means summer and the bate comes from the verb bateru which means to be exhausted.


After some number of years in Japan, I got engaged to a Japanese man. It was bound to happen since I was past the kurisumasu kēki age already. Let me explain. There used to be a saying–and I’m hoping it isn’t popular anymore–that neither women nor kurisumasu kēki (which is eaten on Christmas Eve in Japan) are any good after the 24th. Indeed, the questions come thick and furious when you reach that age. But at 27, I was finally engaged.

Typical Christmas cake

This was the impetus for me to find a cooking school. I had learned to cook on the fly and wanted to be better. Of course, any lessons would be in nihongo, but I figured I could follow. Which was wrong because cooking requires a whole new vocabulary.

I went to enroll at Tsuji Cooking School (now called the Tsuji Culinary Institute). I was living in Tokyo at the time, but this school had originated in Osaka so I figured the recipes would be more to my taste. Of course I planned to enroll in a Japanese cooking class, i.e. not Western or Chinese. Alas, that would not be permitted until I took a fundamental class. So I reluctantly entered the basic class along with a group of other future brides-in-training.

Readers, imagine my chagrin when the very first lesson was on how to cook a hamubāgu! What the heck… anyone could do that, right? No. This was a Japanese hamburger. Here are the steps involved that I still remember to this day:

  1. Mince an onion. To do this, cut it in half and then thinly slice it, leaving it connected. Then turn and continue thinly slicing. (An illustration would help….)
  2. Take a slice of white bread and soak it in milk (this makes a filler for it).
  3. Sauté the onions gently. Let cool.
  4. Mix the onions with the hikiniku (probably a mixture of ground pork and beef).
  5. Gently squeeze the bread and tear it up. Add to the ground meat.
  6. Form patties with a kubomi in one side.
  7. Heat cooking oil and put in the patties with the kubomi side down. Flip when charred and then cook until juices run clear when pressing with a fork.
  8. Make the sauce. (Yes, there is a sauce!) As far as I remember, you mix equal parts catsup, tonkatsu sauce and cream to create it. I might be wrong about the cream.
  9. Put on plate with glazed ninjin and a green vegetable so it all looks pretty (color coordination).
  10. No bun. Eat with knife and fork!
Some of the steps

And I hate to admit it… but it was delicious!

  • kurisumasu kēki – クリスマスケーキ Christmas cake. Back in the 1970s Japanese people assumed that we Americans all ate this on Christmas Eve. And were surprised when we had no clue about this cake. They are still wildly popular and you cannot have Christmas Eve without one.
  • nihongo – 日本語 Japanese language
  • hamubāgu – ハムバーグ hamburger. There are a few words for hamburger depending on how it is served.
  • hikiniku – 挽肉 ground meat. Pork was cheaper than beef when I lived in Japan and a burger was always a mix of the two or even all ground pork.
  • kubomi – 窪み an indent in something
  • ninjin – 人参 carrots

The Crow

Before I went to Japan, I didn’t have much interest in kodomo.

That all changed when I turned twenty-seven and the proverbial biological clock went off with a vengeance. I quickly got pregnant and started learning to be a mother. I was very fortunate to be surrounded by other okāsan—three of us even gave birth in the same month. We got into a routine of spending our days together. There were five of us with infants who regularly gathered each morning.

Our apartment in Tokyo. Bottom left is us and there’s me… still pregnant

Each morning we’d gather at Naoko’s house for kōhī. We took turns coming up with snacks, or we gave Naoko money to cover it. Anyone who received a package of treats from their inaka would bring it to share. We’d put the babies down on the floor. As they grew older and began to crawl, we’d all keep an eye on them, but since the apartment and the room was so small, it was easy to do. The babies amused themselves as the mothers secretly compared their growth.

I was a little surprised when I saw the mothers put the babies on their laps and wrap their hands around a hot teacup. Each time they’d do it, they’d say “achichi” which is baby talk for atsui. This is how they taught the babies the meaning of hot. The babies would feel some discomfort and pull their hands away. At first it seemed like a mean thing to do, but the babies quickly learned that when somebody said “Achichi” it meant it could hurt, and it would stop them in their tracks. This was important because our homes were heated with gas and kerosene space heaters. Babies need to learn not to touch them or go near them. As our babies started to crawl, they’d hear a chorus of “Achichi” if they went too close to the space heaters.

Japanese child rearing practices at that time dictated that a baby must spend three hours outside every day. If you went out by yourself with your baby, three hours passed very very slowly. But in a group, we could make it tolerable. We’d put the babies in their bebīkā and hang out in front of the buildings.

The three babies born in the same month in their strollers

I learned something new when our babies became toddlers. We’d take them outside and they’d toddle around the area in front of the buildings. Sometimes there would be a fall, or a toddler would be running and bang into something. When the inevitable tears started, the mothers would not immediately rush to check for injuries or to give comfort. Instead, they’d point up at the sky and say, “Ah! Karasu ga tonda!” Translated literally it means, “Oh, there is a crow flying.”

It was said with great excitement—as if this event was too good to miss and everyone’s eyes would turn towards the sky. If the injured toddler immediately stopped crying and was distracted, then the mother knew the injury was not serious. And most of the time that is exactly what happened. This makes for a tougher kind of kid that doesn’t get unnecessarily coddled as do children in the United States. It seemed harsh to me at first, but I began to use it myself with great success.

A famous song in Japan

I wondered why it was a karasu. Why wasn’t it just “Look at the birdie?” But karasu are impressive big black birds. I suppose they would be more worthwhile and interesting to look at than just any old bird. And crows appeared in children’s culture in songs and books. All children knew “Nanatsu no ko” which is a song was written in 1921. I doubt there is a Japanese person alive that doesn’t know it. But the karasu is also seen as an evil spirit or a sign of bad luck in Japanese culture as well. Thus the fascination for children. You’d want to watch out for them and they have the thrill that comes with something slightly scary. 

I felt fortunate that my daughter got a strong start in life with many loving adults around her. Days passed quickly, and quite often Naoko’s husband would return from work to find us still lounging around. We all took breaks at lunch and returned to our own homes to let the babies nap and to do some household chores, but mornings and late afternoons would always find us together. I’m very glad that I had that introduction to motherhood.

  • kodomo – 子供 child
  • okāsan – お母さん mother(s)
  • kōhī – コーヒー coffee
  • inaka – 田舎 hometown. This word and concept comes up a lot. Some translate it as ancestral homeland. You never forget your roots in Japan and your inaka is where you go for longer holidays.
  • achichi – あちち This is how you say “hot” to a baby or child. It’s baby talk.
  • atsui – 熱い hot
  • bebīkā – ベビーカー stroller (for a baby). Notice that it is literally “baby car.”
  • Karasu ga tonda カラスが飛んだ “Oh look, a crow is flying!” It’s an expression used to distract a toddler or small child. Kind of like telling a child to look up at an airplane to distract them.
  • Nanatsu no ko – 七つの子 The name of a famous folk song that everyone can sing the first few lines of.


Sigh…. How can I avoid writing about the last day of GW? After all today is Boy’s Day. Oops. I mean Children’s Day. Huh?! There is some confusion about this. Kodomo no Hi does translate into Children’s Day. But traditionally it was the counterpart to Girl’s Day, which falls on March 3. There’s something about odd months that brings out the Japanese holidays. 1/1 is Oshōgatsu, 3/3 is Girl’s Day, 5/5 is Boy’s Day or Children’s Day, 7/7 is Tanabata (not a national holiday, but widely celebrated). 9/9 and 11/11 have their own peculiarities based on puns, though, again, not national holidays.

So, koi nobori are flown on and around Kodomo no Hi. You used to see huge ones flying high from rooftops, but these days the smaller ones flown from tiny outside spaces are more common.


I had a surprise when I went to the sentō my first year in Japan and found “stuff” in the bath. I was with an American friend and she was on the verge of tossing these greens out and then a kind obāsan explained it to me. This was shōbuyu and these iris roots were meant to be there and had significance. It is said that they ward off evil spirits and foster the warrior spirit in little boys. Who knew?

Found in the bath on 5/5

Though I have a huge set of dolls that I purchased for my daughter for her holiday, I only have this small display for my son. He has plenty of warrior spirit!

  • Kodomo no Hi – 子供の日 Children’s Day or Boy’s Day in Japan. It falls on May 5. Note that Girl’s Day is NOT a national holiday, but Boy’s Day is. Which may be why it is now diplomatically called Children’s Day.
  • Oshōgatsu – お正月 New Year’s. The Japanese celebrate it on January 1, i.e. not when China does.
  • Tanabata – 七夕 a festival that generally falls on July 7, but varies from region to region.
  • koi nobori – 鯉のぼり carp kites on a stick. See illustration. If you have a son, you’ll display them.
  • sentō -銭湯 public bath
  • obāsan – おばあさん grandmother, granny, or any old woman of this age. (I am one now and I wear it with pride)
  • shōbuyu – 菖蒲湯 Bath with iris bulbs in it for Children’s Day

But, why Japanese?

I often get asked why I went to Japan or why I chose to study Japanese. I honestly wish I had a better answer to that question than the truth itself. In the 1970’s people got interested in Japan if they were artists, or if they were drawn to Bukkyō. At the very least, you’d expect someone to have an interest in Ajia if they were undertaking a study of Japanese.

Not me. I got to Japan because I was lazy and hot one late August day.

Kansas in the summer

In the late summer of 1975 I was scheduled to enroll in classes for my sophomore year of college at the University of Kansas. I’d had a pretty good freshman year, but had not yet come to terms with the foreign language requirement. I knew I had to deal with it that year, since two years of a language were required for graduation. I supposed that I should do what others did—that is continue with my high school language. But I hated Furansugo and did terribly. I just dreaded spending two more years with it. And I apparently did not have an aptitude for languages. I had reluctantly decided that my best bet, i.e. easiest one, would be Hebrew. I could go into a first year class and maybe something I’d learned in Sunday School would help to make up for my poor language aptitude, as my French teacher had labeled my ability. I wasn’t enthusiastic, but rather simply resigned.

Registering for classes meant going to the cavernous Allen Fieldhouse. It wasn’t air-conditioned, and this was hachigatsu in Kansas. I cannot stress that enough. Each department of our huge university had a table. You had to locate the table, and then pick up a card for the class you wanted to enroll in. There were always lines, and sometimes you got to the front of the line only to find the section or class was already closed. You could take another section, and then figure out your schedule all over again—and hope that it would work out. The list of classes offered was printed out in a huge handbook that looked like a big city telephone directory, but was even flimsier. Nobody liked this process. Freshmen and sophomores needing to enroll in required classes were always at the bottom of the heap and had the longest lines for classes.

Allen Fieldhouse at the University of Kansas – imagine it filled with tables and students

Departments were arranged in alphabetical order around the fieldhouse, but also by Colleges. So you walked in circles… literally… as you looked for them. You needed a sakusen. You would want to head for the most popular ones first. You needed a pencil with an eraser, because your first plan never worked. It was hell. I knew the line for Hebrew would be shorter than the one for French, though, and that perked me up a little.

The only problem was that I could not find the Hebrew table. It wasn’t where it should be alphabetically. I did another round of the Fieldhouse, but I still wasn’t seeing it. It must be under another department. I tried Middle Eastern Languages. Nothing. I went to the Religion table, but I didn’t see it listed there, either. No, it did not occur to me to ask someone. Hebrew wasn’t that popular. I didn’t think anyone would know. (Really, they wouldn’t have.) I was dead tired and hot. I had all my other classes and I just wanted OUT. Maybe I should just give in and do French. I started to walk over there, when I saw the sign for Japanese. Not a single person was waiting in line!

That summer I had met some Japanese students when I worked in the dorm cafeteria. One of them had even helped me fix a flat tire on my jitensha. I’d gone to one of their association events. What the hell. They’d probably help me study. They were all very nice. The class would probably be small. And I was just too hot to stand on any more lines. I just wanted to leave. Propitiously, Japanese 101 fit with my schedule though it meant M-F 8:30 – 9:20 and a lab on Tuesday and Thursday. I took my card and got out of the heat.

Japanese Association Tanabata Party – 1970s

This is the true story of how I ended up studying Japanese in college—which ended up having not an inconsiderable effect on my life at all!

And as for the mystery of where the Hebrew table was? It turns out that the Hebrew Department was so small that it was located in the Linguistics Department. That is what I should have been looking for. Oh well.

  • Bukkyō – 仏教 Buddhism
  • Ajia – アジア Asia
  • Furansugo – フランス語 French language
  • hachigatsu – 8月 the month of August, i.e. 8th month
  • sakusen – 作戦 plan or strategy
  • jitensha – 自転車 bicycle

Topics I’d like to Avoid

But it is hard to ignore the fact that we are in the midst of gōruden uīku right now. But what is there to say about it that someone else hasn’t said already? Yes, a holiday-studded week that gives impetus to travel both locally and abroad depending on how the holidays fall. Yet, gōruden uīku is sometimes more trouble than it is worth, particularly if you live in Tokyo.

Bus, train, car…..

During my first year in Tokyo, everyone told me to avoid travel during gōruden uīku because the densha would be packed. They said it was a great time to STAY in Tokyo because the city would empty out. This was fine for me, but your average working class folks feel very compelled to travel to their hometowns since it could be such a long vacation. And when I married a Fukui fellow, we did make the trek a few times. And yes, the trains were horrid. But not quite as horrid as during Oshōgatsu.

If you’re wondering if someone will yield a seat to a nursing mother on a crowded shinkansen, the answer is nope. I thought I’d have to sit on the floor of the train to nurse my akanbō. But a conductor came by and let me know that there was a special junyūshitsu. It was a small cubby that he let me into at the end of one of the train cars. What a relief!

This is a nice modern one.

But with trains being the main mode of transportation for me, I did end up nursing my akanbō a few times on a commuter train. And got nothing but looks of approval from older women. And let’s face it. Nobody likes a crying baby and if nursing in public will quell the cries, then it is The Done Thing!

  • gōruden uīku – ゴールデンウィーク Golden Week or these days abbreviated down to “GW”. Three national holidays fall between the span of a week and when you add a weekend in, you get a nice period of vacation. Avoid visiting Japan from abroad during this time because trains between cities can be very crowded.
  • densha – 電車 train
  • Fukui – 福井 a prefecture in Western Japan in what is called the Hokuriku Region
  • Oshōgatsu – お正月 New Year’s
  • shinkansen – 新幹線 bullet train
  • akanbō – 赤ん坊 baby
  • junyūshitsu – 授乳室 nursing room. If you have a nursing baby or toddler, watch out for signs that will lead you to a nursing location. Department stores have quite nice ones.

An Unusual Friend

One day when I was browsing in a honya-san, a young man struck up a conversation with me. It appeared he was new to Kyoto and started asking me for recommendations. Seriously? He was Japanese and why on earth would he ask me, an obvious foreigner?! I guess he figured I must speak Japanese since I was browsing books written in Japanese.He seemed harmless, teinei and earnest. And a friendship began.

Kenji was not looking for English practice, unlike many Japanese who approached me. He didn’t speak a word of eigo and wasn’t interested. He was a member of the Jieitai stationed near Kyoto. He came from a small town and was honestly overwhelmed. We started to meet on nichiyōbi and indeed I ended up guiding him around Kyoto.

I will never forget taking him to the grounds of Gosho. He was awestruck by being somewhere related to the Emperor. This was the 1970s and most young people I knew were hippie types and had no interest in the Emperor. But Kenji practically fell to the ground and bowed. It turned out to be the most meaningful place I ever took him. Seeing these grounds through his eyes did make it seem more sacred.

Kyoto Imperial Palace

He sometimes brought me small gifts, the most impressive being my very first digital watch… because he’d noticed I didn’t wear one. It was a Seiko of course.

Very similar to the watch he gave me, though mine had a blue band.

Eventually he was transferred elsewhere and we lost touch. But I’ve always treasured the sightseeing we did together each Sunday.

A photo he kindly took of me when we visited Ota Shrine to see the irises in bloom. I wish I had a photo of him, but if I did it is long gone.
  • honya-san – 本屋さん bookstore
  • teinei – 丁寧 polite
  • eigo – 英語 English
  • Jieitai – 自衛隊 Japanese self-defense force, also known as the JSDF. This is a post WW2 military only for the purpose of self-defense. You should google it if you’re interested.
  • nichiyōbi – 日曜日 Sunday