It’s that time of year when the nature and more lyrical writers amongst us come out in droves to wax poetically about the autumn season with all of its marvelous changes.
For me, it is about the kinmokusei. If I tell you what it is in English, it isn’t going to do much to explain it if you haven’t been to Japan and seen and smelled these blossoms yourself. I have a sensitive hana and I remember walking one autumn day and smelling the most wonderfully fragrant scent. I soon saw it was coming from the tiny yellow-orange blossoms on a tree I’d never paid particular notice to before.
I asked a friend. He rolled his me and said it was a curse to all men because when they smelled it they would be unable to sleep at night. I will just leave that for your sōzō to interpret. It is a wonderfully perfume-y scent, but very light and, to me, not overwhelming.
In fact, I liked it so much that I even liked it in the toire. It turns out that kinmokusei was a popular scent for air fresheners which were de rigueur for any toilet in a home and many public places as well. When I returned to America, I packed a few of them to take back with me so that I could remember and cherish the kinmokusei.
Dear reader, of course I eventually ran out of these air fresheners. And it is a sweet reminder of the thoughtfulness of my Japanese family that they once sent me a few more of them (probably thinking what a weirdo I was). Sadly, I was unable to find these air fresheners when I was back in Kyoto in 2016. There are trendier choices now. But I bet I am not the only old lady that misses them. Fingers crossed that the current Showa Boom brings back the kinmokusei air fresheners!
kinmokusei – 金木犀 osmanthus flower
hana – 鼻 nose. With a different character, it also means flower. Ponder that.
me – 目 eye or eyes
sōzō – 想像 imagination
toire – トイレ this is a general word for toilet. Men might use benjo 便所 (literally ‘convenient place’) instead and women could delicately use otearai お手洗い (literally ‘to wash hands’).
We knew it would be crowded and indeed it was. I thought that we should arrive there on the Randen, so we took the subway to the end of the Tozai Line and then it was just across the street to access the Randen which was founded in 1910 and is the only tram in Kyoto now. There was no place to buy a ticket at the very small station. It turns out it is a flat fee of 210 (in 2016) and you can pay when you get off. Indeed it was packed with city dwellers, but more so tourists. It is just one or two cars and very cute. We arrived at Arashiyama Station where there were hoards of people. I just wanted to get out.
So we crossed the street and started following the crowds to the bamboo forest which was high on my daughter’s list and is very famous. To be honest, I don’t find it all that interesting or attractive and having the hoards of tourists made it even worse. The narrow street was full of people walking and taking photos but cars also came through as well as jinrikusha, which made it so that you always had to be paying attention to something other than the bamboo. We did take all the requisite photos. I’m not sure that it was the best day for photo taking, or maybe it was too early in the day to get the full effect of the sun.
Or maybe I was grouchy and needing breakfast! As we walked we passed many small places for snacks but I needed coffee. Finally we hit gold with a place that had a dango set with coffee. It was delicious! But all I wanted to do was separate from the crowds and I had Adashinonenbutsu on my mind.
On the way there we went into some of the smaller temples that had fewer people. Eventually we were in classy suburbs and green fields and the bulk of the tourists were gone. We passed small shops, so we knew we were still in a tourist area. And we climbed upward and finally reached Adashinonenbutsu which is essentially a graveyard. It has always been special to me both for atmosphere and the admittedly sentimental aspect of it having a festival on the date of my tanjōbi. The grounds were absolutely lovely and the foliage was amongst the best we would see during this trip. Photo ops abounded. I’d say there were less than ten people there and we were able to peacefully enjoy our time. If I had to pick one place to go for Kyoto foliage, I’d pick this place. It’s a bit of a hidden treasure.
We left silently and started to think about lunch. We knew we wanted yudōfu since this area is famous for it. The problem was how to choose the right place. We randomly chose one and had an excellent tofu lunch. It included yudōfu, yuba, some mochi-like item etc.
We chose to sit at a table rather than tatami. We had a view of the garden which was lovely. After we ate I visited the restroom hesitantly because places like this usually had pretty primitive facilities. Again I was pleasantly surprised to find a very clean and high-tech toilet facility. This is the best change I’m enjoying on this trip. It makes me wish that I could see the toilet in my old homestay; I wonder if they have updated.
After lunch we walked back the way we had came and then turned off to go to Tenryuji which is a heritage spot. I did not enjoy it very much because, again, we were immersed in crowds. How does a heritage spot beat out other spots, I wonder? We spent some time there and then exited to the main street of Arashiyama, which again was packed. I thought my daughter should see Togetsukyo since it is one of the sights of Arashiyama. We crossed over it (with the crowds) and spent some time enjoying the beautiful sunny warm day sitting along the riverside—away from most of the crowd.
Randen – 嵐電 a small tram to Arashiyama
jinrikusha – 人力車 a tourist gimmick for those who don’t want to walk and would rather ride in a carriage pulled by a real live person.
tanjōbi – 誕生日 birthday
yudōfu – 湯豆腐 a simple tofu dish. The quality of the tofu is what makes this dish. It’s all about the tofu.
yuba – ゆば a soybean product often called tofu skin as it it forms on the top of soy milk during the processing of tofu
From my trip diary – first day back in Kyoto after 30+ years
"I knew Kiyomizu would be packed. I was surprised at the number of Chinese tourists, but this would become a recurring theme. There was also construction going on, which would also become a recurring theme. We meandered home from there through the Ni and Sannenzaka streets. Saw many tourists wearing kimono. Assume some are Japanese, but most are Chinese. And some Muslim girls. Also saw bride photography--I think a Chinese couple. Photos and more photos. I think Kyoto must be the most photographic city in the world. You can’t really take a bad photo. We amused ourselves by going into shops. We tasted dashi, umeboshi tea and curry senbei. I made my first purchase of yuzutōgarashi. No regrets! I should have bought more. It makes everything good. So, Marui Department Store apparently replaced Hankyu Department Store. I think I remember when the Hankyu was new. Takashimaya no longer has the hana tokei. I wonder what the downtown meeting place is now?”
In 2016 it was a real walk down memory lane for me and also a chance to introduce Kyoto to my daughter, who had left her young son in the care of her husband to join me for part of my trip. We’d fumbled around late at night trying to find our AirBnB. But we were up early and I had declared that the very first thing she needed to do was to see Kiyomizu. And there we were smack in the middle of foliage season. So, let’s just say we were not alone. No expectations there.
But that’s the thing. We walked there from our lodging which was near City Hall. And it was early enough that very few shops were open and even downtown was pretty empty. We meandered since we had no real schedule to adhere to. We headed in the general direction of Kiyomizu, depending solely on my body memory to do so. Even Gion was empty. But when we got to Kiyomizu, the crowds magically appeared. And that was fine because one always expects crowds at Kiyomizu. It adds to the festive atmosphere. And even on the grounds itself, we still found empty areas.
And that’s what I think about tourism in Kyoto. Let the tourists do all the famous places. Enjoy their joy as they take it in. And then for those of us who’ve taken the time to “know” Kyoto, well, we’ll just wander off and find our own special places. And that’s the best thing about Kyoto—that there is always something new to discover.
Kiyomizu – 清水 Possibly the most famous temple in Kyoto. Properly called Kiyomizu-dera 清水寺because Kiyomizu is also a kind of pottery etc. Literally means “pure water.”
dashi – だし a Japanese broth used for miso soup and other cooking. You can buy instant or make your own. If you walk through the streets early in the morning or right before dinner time, you can sometimes smell it cooking. There are so many kinds, but the smell evokes pure deliciousness for me.
umeboshi – 梅干し pickled plum
senbei – 煎餅 Japanese rice crackers
yuzu – ゆず a Japanese citrus. Becoming more popular and known here in the States now.
tōgarashi – 唐辛子 pepper
hananadokei - 花時計 flower clock. Maybe I dreamed it because all the Googling in the world isn’t yielding a photo. It used to be the place where you’d meet up with people downtown. It was in the lobby of Takashimaya and was a clock surrounded by flowers. Maybe it was known my a different name, but I always called it the hanadokei.
In the late 1970’s I was living near Kyoto University in the kind of lodging that students favored. It’s called a geshuku and it was situated above the landlady’s home. There were four rooms that she rented out. My room was a 6 mat tatami room and at the entrance there was a small sink and a place to put a two-ring gas range. There was a closet for futon and that’s it. You had to buy your own small refrigerator and a gas range. The one I got came with a grill for fish that worked fairly well for toast. I didn’t buy a hot water heater, so I got only cold water. There was no heating at all. You’d have to get your own small space heater. And the bathroom, you ask? Well, at the end of the hall there were toilet facilities. The squat version. But at least they flushed. My previous dwelling was a squat toilet that needed to be cleaned out by the honey trucks every two weeks. You always knew when they were in the neighborhood cleaning out toilets; you’d have to run from the smell! Picture a huge hose all wound onto a truck that got carted into the bathroom and then worked as a vacuum. You’d avoid them like the plague.
So, that was the apartment. To bathe I had to go to the public bath or sento. In Kyoto back then they were all over the place and in this student neighborhood I had my pick of three, which was good since they staggered their days off.
The closest one was just a block north of me. I’d grab my basin, soap, shampoo, towel, and clean clothes and choose my time carefully. You’d put everything in your small basin, with the towel on top and walk to it that way. So you always knew if someone was going to the sento when you saw them carrying a basin like this.
It opened at 4 PM and if you went then, the water was the cleanest and you’d be with the obāsan and little kids. I taught English at night and if I went after work (the bath was open until 11 pm) it would be a different crowd. The first few times I went in the afternoon I was hesitant; what were they going to think about this foreign girl patronizing their bath? For the record, I never once saw another foreigner there; this bath wasn’t on a maim drag and there were very few of us then compared to now. And I definitely was an object of kōkishin at first. The grannies quickly asked me where I lived and no doubt got a lowdown on me from my landlady. As they grew accustomed to me, they’d sometimes come over and scrub my back and I’d return the favor. Let me just say how strange that was to me at first!
It was also a revelation seeing old people naked. In America, I’d never seen anyone older than me naked. It just wasn’t done. But I admit it was fascinating to see how women aged. It’s also very normalizing in a sense. After I’d washed in front of a set of faucets and mirror, I would go soak in the tubs, often with one or two others. You’d nod a greeting and then relax in the steaming hot bath. It became a routine I looked forward to and the grannies were now very comfortable with me.
So, one day, I idly asked one of them how to make miso soup. You would have thought I’d started a riot. Everyone had to get in on this discussion. In Kyoto there was a tradition of using white miso or lighter colored miso. Everyone had to talk about which miso and where they bought it. And then there was the issue of dashi and who was using instant (nobody confessed) and what they put in their dashi. I’d never seen the bath as lively as it was on that day. It went way beyond my language abilities at that time and all I really absorbed was what a huge topic it could turn into for the grannies.
But even though I didn’t get any real recipes, I did learn how miso soup was truly a family tradition and just how many variations there could be. In fact, you could make it differently every day of the year by using a mix of miso, different “gu” or ingredients, and a variation on dashi. And after that, the grannies were my friends for life. If I saw them at the fruit and vegetable shop, they’d advise me on what seasonal vegetables to buy.
In the winter, I chose to go to the bath late in the evening, so I could warm up. Remember, my apartment had no heating and some days there would be snow on the ground. I’d warm up in the bath and then hurry home and dive under the ample covers. It almost worked. I’d sleep in the clean clothes I’d changed into at the bath and the next morning I’d get out of bed and quickly head out to a coffee shop to warm up. They had heat. I just had long underwear and layers.
I was young and easily adapted to this lifestyle. My neighbors now are often surprised that I will go out to the mailboxes on a cold day without putting on a coat. My mother often noted that Japanese women of her generation in New York City also would run out without a coat to pick up a carton of milk. Living without central heat makes you tough and impervious to the cold. Yes, still. To this day!
geshuku – 下宿 boarding house. Rare, these days, but poor students usually lived in these. It would usually be one room, a shared toilet area and a nearby public bath.
tatami – 畳 bamboo mats that used to cover almost all floors in houses and apartments. Sadly, they are disappearing in new construction. There is nothing like the smell of fresh tatami.
futon – 布団 bedding. Note this does not refer to a sofa when in Japan!
sento – 銭湯 public bath. I will probably talk a lot about it in this blog because it was my life for many many years.
obāsan – おばあさん grandmother, granny, or any old woman of this age.
kōkishin – 好奇心 curiosity
dashi – だし a Japanese broth used for miso soup and other cooking. You can buy instant or make your own.
Clearly, I wasn’t going to fit in. I looked around the room miserably. The two other students, David and Carl, were way ahead of me in Japanese. I didn’t belong in an advanced class, but the other class was filled with students starting their second year of Japanese. I was ahead of them, but behind the advanced students. I was beginning to regret the intensive summer I’d spent at the Middlebury Japanese Summer School. Not only had I not fit in there either, but I’d hated every minute of it. I’d been in a class with a group of people who’d all used the same textbook and knew what itanda ebi were.
In 1976 there were just two choices for college level Japanese kyōkasho. My college used the less popular Nakajima and Young series. The vast majority of colleges used Eleanor Jorden’s books. Though we might have learned most of the same grammar points, the two texts seemed to have used entirely different vocabularies. Only one other student had used Nakajima and Young. He was an older man from Switzerland. Japanese was his fifth language and he wasn’t having the same adjustment issues as I had. In other words, he was having no pain.
To make matters worse, we were only to speak Nihongo, even outside of the classroom. This was a Middlebury rule, but the other language students were required to have three years of the language under their belt to even apply for summer school. It made sense for them. For us, not so much. My roommate and I cheated like crazy to stay sane.
Our director that year was a hard-nosed Japanese academic and she was determined to run things the Japanese way. We would all need exercise and she declared that volleyball practice was mandatory. I don’t do sports. I skipped. And she put her foot down. I immediately jammed my yubi during the next practice. It swelled up and a faint purple line appeared. Naturally, I asked to go to the clinic and naturally she told me it was fine. The next day she succumbed to the obvious and indeed my finger was broken; no more volleyball for me.
There was just a week between the end of Japanese summer school and the Associated Kyoto Program that I’d be participating in. I knew I wouldn’t fit in because I was not a student at any of the elite schools that made up the consortium. However, one of my sensei had served as a director for the program two years previously and he, well, pulled some strings. On the flight to Kyoto, students from each college sat together. I sat alone.
Still, though, I hadn’t anticipated that there wouldn’t be any other student at all at my level. I thought I’d finally be in a class where I could dig in and learn. No more “thirty kanji a day” memorization like I’d struggled with during the summer. I’d study hard, but it would be at a more normal pace. Meanwhile, David and Carl were already deep in discussion with our Sasaki-sensei, who was practically drooling over their linguistic magnificence. I hardly got a second glance. The textbook was boring. Did I really need to know how to say “feudal system.” (Unfortunately I still remember this word. See below for proof.)
I wasn’t fitting in at my homestay either. The Inoue family was nice enough, but they had two small otoko no ko and had always preferred to have young men stay with them. They ended up with me because at the last minute I got nervous about getting motion sickness during a bus or train commute and asked to be near campus. They were just around the corner and being able to walk to school in just a few minutes was great. Oddly enough, I never got motion sickness on the buses or trains of Kyoto, but I loved the neighborhood. The little boys were like aliens to me as all I’d ever experienced were my three younger sisters.
I had gotten sick though, the moment I arrived in Japan. It could have been the heat and humidity, the totally strange food, or the long plane ride. Before I knew it, I hadn’t really eaten in over a week and I ended up in the hospital. Looking back, I know there’s a word for it. Natsubate is what I had.
After spending a day or two in air conditioning and a day or two under the care of my director’s wife—who was Japanese-American, but knew darn well that chicken noodle soup would cure me—I moved in with the Inoue family. My director’s wife had kindly hinted to them that I could do with some American food to start with.
That first dinner I was served two small hamburgers and a side helping of frozen peas and carrots. And given a pair of ohashi. I looked around the table to see how I was supposed to manage the vegetables. Luckily I was an old hand with chopsticks so that wasn’t the problem. But was I to eat one pea at a time with them? The answer to that was, no. And for the first, but definitely not the last time, I was introduced to Kewpie mayonnaise in its convenient tube. Apparently we squirted it onto the vegetables and mixed it up a bit. It was then possible to eat the vegetables more easily with chopsticks. Unfortunately, I hate mayonnaise. I somehow ate the vegetables. Maybe I was offered a small fork. I don’t remember. But what I do remember is that there was no way I could eat two hamburgers. So I ate one of them and apologized and said I simply couldn’t eat them both. Mrs. Inoue was unfazed.
“That’s fine. You can have it for breakfast tomorrow morning.”
I smiled. Nice joke, I thought.
The next morning I got a piece of toast for breakfast on my plate next to the hamburger. Which was stone cold. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Who eats cold hamburgers for asagohan? Friends later declared my homestay family as weird. But dinner leftovers often appeared at breakfast at any temperature. Eventually I even learned to eat curry for breakfast.
Mrs. Inoue was determined to have me eat a good breakfast. I’d come downstairs in the morning and cheerfully greet her saying, “No egg for me this morning, please” and go into the bathroom to wash my face. When I walked back into the kitchen she’d have a plate waiting for me. With a barely cooked fried egg on top of some even less cooked bacon. It was an impossible situation. It made me gag everyday. I got up earlier and earlier hoping to sneak out of the house without eating her breakfast. Yes. We were in a battle.
itanda ebi – 痛んだえび Apparently this was taught in the textbook written by Eleanor Jorden that was more popular than the one I used. Itamu is the verb for spoiled (when applied to food) and ebi means shrimp. Itamu is in the past tense here and modifies (OMG, I’m doing grammar!) ebi, so the sentence was about getting food poisoning from shrimp at a restaurant in Ginza. Seriously? Ginza? The most high-class restaurants are there. Why not Shinjuku with its wealth of cheap eateries? I consider this a Jorden fail.
kyōkasho – 教科書 textbook
Nihongo – 日本語 the Japanese language
yubi – 指 finger
sensei – 先生 teacher. It’s also used as a suffix after the family name for teachers, professors, doctors etc.
kanji – 漢字 Chinese characters. If you learn them, it will help you slightly in a Chinese restaurant, too
hōken seido – 封建制度 feudal system. Make sure you memorize this entirely useful phrase.
otoko no ko - 男の子 boy or boys
Natsubate – 夏バテ A special word used to describesuffering 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.
ohashi – お箸 chopsticks
asagohan – 朝ご飯 asa means morning and gohan is meal, so together it means breakfast.
In the 1970’s we were roughing it. Or, we were living the life. I suppose it depends on how you look at it. For me, I think the 1970’s in Japan were the golden era for foreigners. I say that despite having no AC, sometimes no flush toilet, and always no bathing facilities of my own. No phone either. But things were quieter and we had opportunities that no longer exist. Off the top of my head, these are the things that came most quickly to me when I thought back on those days.
ALT, JALT and other convenient opportunities to get set up in Japan teaching English
I think if you wanted to go to Japan and support yourself by teaching English, you either had to rely on kuchikomi or The Japan Times which had the most ads on Mondays. So you’d leave your cheap lodgings and ride your jitensha downtown (or take a bus) and go to one of the big hotels to find a copy of the Japan Times. Then you’d have to find a public phone to make calls on because nobody could afford their own phone back in those days. You’d call, a real person would answer, and you’d set up a mensetsu. You’d bring your resume (if you had one) to the interview and hope for the best.
The Japanese language proficiency tests
There were no national tests let alone different levels. If you were job hunting to teach English, nobody wanted you speaking Japanese anyways. And the only other job around for English-speaking foreigners would be for women, hostessing. So, there was no way for you to prove you spoke Nihongo fluently or semi-fluently. People would pretty much die of shock if you could carry on a conversation in Japanese. Oddly enough, or perhaps, predictably, my spoken Japanese elicited less shock than my blonde friends. Appearances played a big role on how you were viewed and my dark hair and eyes somehow made me “less” foreign.
When I first arrived in Japan there really were no laundromats. You needed to have your own washing machine or share one with a neighbor. They were simple (but wonderful) machines and hanging laundry out to dry was the norm. If you were starting from zero in Japan, you’d want to purchase: futon, a small table, small fridge, a gas range and a washing machine. When you rented a place, nothing was included and back then it was all tatami, i.e. life on the floor. People have dryers now. At least some of them do. Probably very convenient to have them during the winter and rainy season, but not a necessity. In fact, hanging laundry to dry inside during the winter helps increase moisture in the air and serves as a natural humidifier. A nice pharmacist gave me that little piece of advice after he’d seen me through several winter bouts of kikanshien.
One room mansions
First of all, a manshion is not a mansion. I once lived in a place called Prince Heights that was a sunless falling down hole of a place where I could hear every sound my neighbor made. A manshion is a modern style of housing and that’s all. And the one-room mansion is what an apartment would be like if it had to be on an airplane. Tiny and functional. Especially the bathroom. The closet is half the size of the old closets and it probably doesn’t have tatami. What it does have is its own bath–thus the demise of my beloved sentō. It’s economical and affords privacy but totally lacks in character—and isn’t that what you really came to Japan for?
Well, duh. No internet in the 1970s and 1980s. You had to discover things yourself, rely on monthly tourist magazines, and other foreigners who might have been there longer and know things. You had hand drawn maps and asked directions constantly. You walked into restaurants not having researched the menu online, but possibly aided by plastic models outside of them. I could go on. Maybe I will later on. Because crucially, there were definitely no bagels in Kyoto in the 1970s.
kuchikomi – 口コミ “word of mouth.” This is actually a really cool word and one I often use as an example of language oddities. Because it is a combination of Japanese and English. Kuchi means mouth in Japanese. But “komi” comes from the English word “communication.” So, kuchi gets written with kanji and komi in katakana as all borrowed words are. There aren’t a lot of commonly used phrases that act like this, so it always tickles my fancy.
jitensha – 自転車 bicycle
mensetsu - 面接 (job) interview
Nihongo – 日本語 Japanese language
tatami – 畳 bamboo mats that used to cover almost all floors in houses and apartments. Sadly, they are disappearing in new construction. There is nothing like the smell of fresh tatami.
kikanshien – 気管支炎 bronchitis. The curse of many foreigners who spend their first winter in Japan with inefficient heating.
manshion – マンシオン a type of apartment. Someone should investigate how the heck this made it into the Japanese language. Aspirational, perhaps? At any rate, trust me… it is definitely not what you first think!
sentō – 銭湯 public bath. I will probably talk a lot about it in this blog because it was my life for many many years.