Spring has come

The first place I lived in Tokyo was right across the street from a big otera called Tōkōji. I had a nice view from my window and was able to observe it through the seasons. Lovely! And smack in the middle of Tokyo.

Tokoji – the view from my window

This temple had a large yōchien and the children would arrive by basu each morning. I would watch the sensei teaching them etiquette. As each child alighted from the basu, the sensei would bow and say good morning. The child would reply with their own “Ohayō gozaimasu, Sensei.”

It was always fun to watch, because the now didn’t come naturally to some of the children, and the Sensei would place a firm hand on the child’s atama and “assist” them in bowing.

One by one the children stepped off the bus and bowed to the adult in charge

I also learned a number of children’s songs thanks to this temple. As is true of many schools in Japan, the sliding glass doors to the classrooms were almost always wide open regardless of the weather. Children would run freely between classroom and the outdoor space. It’s a very healthy lifestyle. And when they were singing, I heard it all. The first uta I learned was this one:

So simple that I picked it up easily

There were more to come, but to me this one was the most charming. Living across the street from an otera with a yōchien was an unexpected bonus in my quest to learn the Japanese language.

  • otera – お寺 temple. Of course this word uses the honorable “o” in front of it. Remember, Temples are Buddhist and shrines are Shinto.
  • Tōkōji – 東光寺 the name of a temple in Meguro Ward. It’s very much off the beaten track so only locals would visit it. Or parents of the students at their kindergarten. It also has a cemetery as the temple was created in memory of the death of a ten year old.
  • yōchien – 幼稚園 this usually gets translated as kindergarten, but can include classes of 3,4 and 5 year olds. It contrasts with daycare centers which are called hoikuen.
  • basu – バス bus
  • Ohayō gozaimasu, Sensei – おはようございます 先生 “Good morning, Teacher”
  • atama – 頭 head (part of body)
  • uta – 歌 song

The Bus Driver

One dreary evening in Kyoto, I tiredly got on a basu home. I’d gotten to know the bus system pretty well and there were a number of different buses that would stop near my home. After checking the number, I got on this bus jishin tappuri. I did not notice that the sign on front with the final destination was a different designation. If it was the right number, that was enough for me and Kyoto place names are diverse; the final stop was no concern of mine.

This is what a Kyoto bus looks like

I snagged a seat by the mado and as it began to rain, I closed my eyes and just felt happy I had a seat. This was not always the case, especially on a rainy day. I dozed a bit, woke up, felt the scenery was a little unfamiliar, but after all, it was the right numbered bus. I still felt fine.

The jōkyaku were weeding out now and soon there were just a few of us left. The bus made a stop and the scenery was totally unfamiliar to me. What the heck? Suddenly I was the only jōkyaku left on the bus! The untenshu kept going and then pulled into a big lot with other buses and stopped. Now I was really on alert. And the untenshu had noticed me on the bus.

Okyaku-sama, where are you going?”

I said I was headed to Hyakumanben. Had I missed my stop?

He explained that this bus wasn’t going there because it was shako-yuki. And I learned a new word. Oops.

Example of a bus route

So, what do you think happened next? I had no idea where I was and how far away I was. It was now dark out and it didn’t seem like an area where taxis would be found.

The bus driver was untroubled. He just started up the bus, turned around and drove me home! How embarrassing. I still wonder if he would have done this for anyone else, but at that time there weren’t that many foreigners in Kyoto and a Japanese person would have paid attention to the numerous announcements stating that the bus was SHAKO-YUKI. Live and learn…. And what a sweet guy, right?

  • basu – バス bus
  • jishin tappuri -自信たっぷり “with plenty of confidence.” jishin means confidence and tappuri means plenty of
  • mado – 窓 window
  • jōkyaku – 乗客 passenger
  • untenshu – 運転手 driver
  • Okyaku-sama – お客様 This is the polite way for someone to address a customer, be it in a store, hotel, or in my case, bus.
  • Hyakumanben – 百万遍 A district of Kyoto where Kyoto University is located. It’s good for cheap dives and has a real student vibe to it.
  • shako-yuki – 車庫行き the sign on the front of a bus (in this case) announcing it is heading for the garage and not necessarily doing the regular route since many routes are circular. Shako means garage and yuki in this case indicates the destination

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.

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

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

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.