That Argument

As a student abroad in Kyoto there were many firsts. We were all excited about a new panyasan that opened just to the west of our campus. So many kinds of breads! And one of our favorites was meron pan. And we had avid discussions and even arguments on why it was called melon bread. We were sure that it must be slightly flavored with melon juice. In fact, sometimes it seemed a little green-tinted. If we could have banana juice, why not melon bread?

Melon Pan

Another faction said it was because it looked like a melon. You are probably going to go ahead and Google this, aren’t you? But in 1976 we had no internet and you would not find it in any guidebook. If we’d asked someone and they weren’t sure (they never were) they’d just prevaricate. We learned that “sō desu ne…” and “do deshō ka” were very useful expressions.

Meanwhile, the panyasan! They had descriptions, but we could not always read them. You could stay safe and stick with what you knew or you could get adventuresome… and end up with curry inside a roll for breakfast. We were great fans of the red bean rolls. Because beans are healthy, right? We had no idea how much satō was in anko back then!

A photo I took at a bakery in Kyoto in 2016

The pizza pan had mayonnaise and corn kernels on it. Why, to this day, I don’t know. Probably because corn looks pretty on it. Appearances are important in Japan. But my favorite after the meron pan was the uinnā pan. It would have fluffy bread around it and catsup and perhaps a bit of parmesan cheese. To this day I can’t resist it.

Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it. My foodie son will eat this, so you could too.

Miraculously, later that year a Mr. Donuts opened on the eastern side of the campus opening up our breakfast choices considerably and giving us access to unlimited cups of amerikan kōhī. Unlimited cups were a cause for rejoicing because that was a first for us in Japan. But that’s a whole other story…

  • panyasan – パン屋さん bakery. It has a bit of an old-fashioned feel to it, though, since bakery is one of those words that is now used widely around Japan
  • meron pan – メロンパン melon bread. There’s the r and l thing at work here. And pan apparently comes from Portuguese.
  • sō desu ne – そうですね “Is that so?” or “hmmm” or “well, yes.” I once had a whole conversation with a little old lady where I didn’t understand a word of it and simply murmured this phrase the whole time. It took her a while to catch on, so this is a handy phrase.
  • dō deshō ka – どうでしょうか “Hmm, I wonder….” “That might be.” A nice ambiguous phrase to respond without actually voicing an opinion. The meaning can change based on your intonation and facial expression.
  • satō – 砂糖 sugar
  • anko – あんこ red bean paste
  • pan – パン bread
  • uinnā pan – ウインナーパン wiener or hot dog bread
  • amerikan kō – アメリカンコーヒー American coffee. In the late seventies when I worked at a restaurant if someone ordered American coffee we made it by pouring half a normal cup of coffee and half hot water into a cup. European coffee is strong, American coffee means a weaker coffee. Don’t order it.

Things to Eat in April

Esoteric veggies start to appear in the spring. I’m calling them esoteric because you won’t really find them easily in America. But yesterday, I drove down the highway to West Hartford, Connecticut to what is now my happy place—a Japanese grocery store. But what blooms in April in Japan does not bloom in April in New England. I satisfied myself with some shungiku, which is decidedly autumnal or wintery in Japan. But my eyes lit up when I found some mitsuba. That feels like Japanese spring… now what should I do with it other than using it as a garnish?

The shungiku I bought, parboiled and topped with sesame seed and a dash of ponzu.

My best resource for simple Japanese recipes is the Japanese magazine Orange Page. When I lived in Japan I’d buy almost every issue. They came out twice a month. Lettuce Club was a similar magazine. These days I use the recipe database online here. These are all basic futsū recipes. I like futsū. Futsū de ii desu. Count me out for fancy time-consuming dishes.

Covers of a few Orange Pages I have owned

If I was in Kyoto right now, though, I’d be eating some of the esoteric spring veggies like fukinotō and udo. I like them. But the most famous spring veggie, takenoko, leaves me cold. However, every spring I’d still cook up a batch of takenoko gohan because once a year… well, you have to savor the seasonal stuff. Put some kinome on it and it’s very good.

Other than asparagus, I am not really sure what represents haru in New England. I look out my window and there are barely buds on the trees. It’s still grey and frigid looking. Wake me up when the ringo no ki bloom.

  • shungiku – 春菊 chrysanthemum leaf is what the dictionary says for this. It’s very good in sukiyaki.
  • mitsuba – 三つ葉 honewort. Now honestly, does that have any meaning for you? It’s a green vegetable used often as a garnish as it adds a bit of oomph to a dish.
  • futsū – 普通 average, usual.
  • Futsū de ii desu – 普通で良いです。An expression I’d often use when my mother-in-law asked me what she could treat she should cook or order. I didn’t like some of the more expensive delicacies she wanted to offer me and I’d just say that she shouldn’t fuss and the usual meal was fine. Truthfully, when I visited their small town, the fried tofu was the most delicious thing there!
  • fukinotō – ふきのとう butterbur shoots. A spring mountain vegetable.
  • udo – うど spikenard or mountain asparagus. Another mountain vegetable.
  • takenoko – 竹の子 bamboo shoots
  • takenoko gohan – 竹の子ご飯 bamboo shoot rice. You cook the rice with the bamboo and a few other ingredients. It isn’t spring in Japan if you don’t eat this.
  • kinome – 木の芽 Japanese pepper leaves is what the dictionary tells me. It’s primarily used as a garnish and has a very distinctive taste. I have never seen it in America. So sad.
  • haru – 春 spring
  • ringo no ki – りんごの木 apple tree. Literally the tree of apples.


You’re probably thinking that respect is a given in Japan. But I quickly found one place where it was lacking. It was at a playground. Oops. It was not a playground though it seemed to be. Rather, it was a tanki daigaku.

In order to return to Kyoto in 1978, I needed a Japanese person to act as my hoshōnin. Luckily, I’d made some friends at Honyarado, the hippie kissaten that was the plague of our study abroad program since we kept getting a little too involved with the staff and friends of staff—and there were rumors that they were involved in all kinds of underground activities (and I know the truth, but I’m not telling…yet.) But. I made at least one lifelong friend there and he was a professor at a junior college within walking distance of my apāto in Midorogaike. He said I should audit classes there.

Cute little train you’d ride to get to this college in the hills. It is still a cute little train… and leaves from Demachi Yanagi Station.

Back then, Seika College was a two-year school, primarily for joshidaisei. Nowadays, it is a proper daigaku with a daigakuin and special programs for foreigners. But back then I was only the second foreign auditor, they said.

To my amazement, the college now has its very own train stop! How on earth did they get it, I wonder? You used to have to get off at Kino and walk from there.

I ended up taking four different classes. I will speak about two of them here. The sensei was quite famous and had authored some books. It was unbelievable to have access to such an esteemed and knowledgeable professor. His name was Hidaka Rokuro and I took a Sociology class and shisōshi with him. They were both large lecture courses.

Now, in America, if you wanted to talk or sleep during a lecture class, you’d normally choose to sit in the back. Right? But these joshidaigakusei were audacious. They’d be chatting away while sitting in the front row, to the extent that Hidaka sensei would sometimes apologetically ask them to tone it down. That would work for about gofun.

There were only two times that he got the full attention and admiration of the class.

The first time was when there was a giant mukade in the room. Shrieks filled the air and Hidaka sensei calmly walked over and killed it. Everyone was impressed. I mean, it was HUGE.

[I was going to put an image here, but aren’t you glad I spared you?]

The second time was when he was talking about his war experiences. Nobody cared about that until he mentioned that during the war they did not have shampoo so they washed their hair with soap. Suddenly everyone was listening as he extolled the virtues of soap as shampoo. Because… Hidaka-sensei had a glorious full head of healthy looking hair. He was living proof of what he was talking about.

I studied his books and the pages are filled with my notes. His lectures were sadly above my true language abilities of the time, but I got a taste for some alternative history and a deeper understanding of what the radicals of the time were preaching.

The book that Hidaka-sensei’s class was based on. He lived to be 101 and only passed away recently. I hope somebody translates this someday.
  • tanki daigaku – 短期大学 junior or two-year college
  • hoshōnin – 保証人 to stay in Japan on a cultural or student visa you needed a Japanese person to ask as your guaranteer.
  • Honyaradō – ほんやら洞 a famous coffee shop that a bunch of hippies built in 1973. It burned down, sadly, in January, 2015.
  • kissaten – 喫茶店 coffee shop, not cafe. Old-style!
  • apāto – アパート apartment
  • joshidaisei – 女子大生 female college students. Calling them “coeds” as we used to do in America would be the right kind of feel for this word.
  • daigaku – 大学 university or college
  • daigakuin – 大学院 graduate school
  • sensei – 先生 don’t we all know this is teacher, thanks to the martial arts?
  • shisōshi – 思想史 literally the history of thought. I guess ideology works for a translation.
  • gofun – 五分 five minutes. Go is five and fun is minutes. However, fun changes in combination depending on which number it is used with. (You need either a teacher or a textbook to understand why this is.)
  • mukade – ムカデ millipede. Apparently they are NOT poisonous like centipedes are but I assure you there is not a scarier looking bug around. I once found one in my futon and I deserted my lodgings for three days due to the shock of it. Really.

The McDonalds Continuum of Culture Shock

When I first went to Kyoto there were very few Western restaurants. There was a makudonarudo and a Shakey’s Pizza Restaurant downtown. This was in 1976. There were other restaurants that appeared to be Western such as the Lipton Restaurant. We presumed it was British. We also found that the fancy department stores sold exotic chocolates imported from Europe and the United States. Imagine seeing a forlorn Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bar next to swanky Swiss and Belgian chocolate with a similar price tag!

The very first McDonalds to come to Japan in 1971. Located in the glamorous Ginza district of Tokyo. And still there!

I was not a kankōkyaku to Kyoto and was now here for the duration. After graduating from college with a major in Japanese Language and Literature I was back for a second shot at Japan.

There were not that many gaikokujin living in Kyoto at that time. After living there for six months, I felt like I’d probably seen them all and talked to the ones I wanted to meet. Kyoto had plenty of kankōkyaku, but they weren’t any of my concern. There was a certain level of snobbery among the foreigners who lived there, and your status was directly linked to your time in Japan, and level of language ability. If you were really cool, you strode around wearing a yukata like Clifton Karhu, a Minnesota artist who later became quite famous. Or you managed a beat coffee house like the poet Cid Corman. If you were a woman, maybe you dared to become a bar hostess instead of teaching English conversation like 95% of all foreigners. Back then almost all Western foreigners taught English, even if they came from Germany or France.

We had no virtually no connection at all with Asian foreigners. When we did meet one, we were excited. They seemed exotic and could “pass” unlike us.

The one thing that you did not do if you were living in Kyoto was to eat at McDonalds. It came up often in conversation, and you wanted to be that person who had not gone even once. Or if you did go, you wanted it to be only in an emergency, or once or twice a year. (It is hard to imagine what the emergency would be since it was located downtown within stone’s throw of any number of genuine Japanese eateries.) You wanted to be the person who didn’t know that to order French fries you had to ask for poteto.” And you wouldn’t know that kechappu wasn’t available unless you specifically asked for it, and then they’d squirt some into a tiny paper cup for you in the back.

I could be very smug here. I’d worked at a McDonalds back in the United States when I was in high school. I’d had my fill and didn’t feel a strong need to take a trip back down that particular memory lane. Though my first encounter with washoku had not gone smoothly, I now knew what I liked to eat and where to get it.

Osho, the cheap Chinese joint that students all loved.

Here is how I rated the cultural adjustment of an American in Japan based on his relationship with McDonalds. Let’s call him Edgar.

  1. Passes by makudonarudo with slight longing in eyes, but nobly resists.
  2. Brags about how much he likes Japanese food and eats sushi every night for dinner.
  3. Starts wearing a yukata to work, and eats nattō. Disdains pasta.
  4. Refuses to talk to any other foreigners. Insists on speaking Japanese with them when forced to converse.
  5. Realizes MinMin, and Osho are really Chinese food joints (cheap greasy spoons with gyoza and fried rice).
  6. His Japanese gets good enough to read menus instead of relying on plastic food models in front of restaurants.
  7. Craves French fries and hates himself for it.
  8. Craves French fries and starts counting how long it has been since he’s had a hamburger.
  9. Realizes he’s being ridiculous and that where one eats is no genuine reflection of…. Well, anything.
  10. Takes off his yukata, walks into McDonalds and unselfconsciously orders a burger and fries. And a banana milkshake. (After all, it IS Japan.)

Omedetō gozaimasu, Edgar! You have now officially adjusted to Japan and can drop all the pretension. Sad to say, this process usually took a long time for Americans, I’m afraid. We have such ridiculous pretensions….

  • makudonarudo マクドナルド McDonalds. It’s a mouthful to say. I think you can get away with just saying makku if you are in context.
  • kankōkyaku – 観光客 tourists
  • gaikokujin – 外国人 foreigners. This is the polite form. In Japan, the shorter the phrase gets the ore casual or even rude it is. Because of that, it isn’t exactly polite when this gets shortened to gaijin. But it very often is shortened to the dismay of some.
  • yukata – 浴衣 summer kimono. These are generally made of cotton. In my mind, if it is not cotton, it is not genuine, i.e. please do not wear any made from rayon or polyester. Cringeworthy!
  • poteto – ポテト You might think this is how you say potato, but you’d be wrong. This means French Fries. Potato has its own word.
  • kechappu – ケチャップ catsup
  • nattō – 納豆 fermented soybeans. I have never even wanted to try nattō and there is a fierce battle between the nattō camp and the not nattō camp. I’m sure they are quite healthy, but yuck. Generally, people in Kyoto do not eat it. I rest my case.
  • MinMin – 珉珉 a cheap Chinese joint. A real greasy spoon that women used to not want to enter. But it was the saving grace for starving students.
  • Osho – 王将 Another cheap Chinese joint that is famous for gyōza. If you’re young and your stomach can stand it, it’s great food!
  • gyōza – 餃子 Fried dumplings.You should know this since they are pretty mainstream outside Japan now.
  • Omedetō gozaimasu – おめでとうございます Congratulations!

Didn’t your mother ever teach you to do laundry?

That was the question my homestay mother would ask each time I needed to do laundry. And I was at a loss to explain to her how different her sentakki was from what I used in the United States.

Doing laundry in that house was a big production from my point of view. You had to take a hose from the sink, connect it to the sentakki and fill the machine with mizu from that sink faucet. I was not allowed to touch the yuwakashiki at the sink, so I washed my clothes in cold water. My homestay mother had attempted to teach me how to turn on this tank-less gas water heater safely, but it had too many steps and directions for me, and we’d both given up. The washing machine looked nothing like machines in the United States, and it had two different compartments.

The smaller compartment was the spinner.

You’d load your laundry into one barrel along with the senzai to agitate it. You’d set a timer for how ever long you wanted to wash it. When it was done, you’d move the soapy wet clothing into the smaller barrel next to it which was the spinner. After placing what looked like a strainer on top of it, you’d spin it for about three minutes, and then move it back into the wash barrel to rinse it. Then after that was done, you’d give it another good spin. It worked quite well. When one-barrel washing machines first came out, many housewives were not impressed and said the two-barrel ones worked better. And, I agree! There were no kansōki in Japan back then, and even now many people hang their laundry outside to dry. So after washing my clothes, I’d take them outside and hop off the beranda to the very small yard to our multi-tiered clothes line.

It was not a line, but rather bamboo poles. Trucks would go around the neighborhood selling laundry poles, which were then mostly made of aluminum rather than bamboo. You’d use a fork like tool to lift them down from the tiers. The highest tier was about fifteen feet from the ground, and thus in view of the neighbors. You’d load up the pole and then hoist it back up. My homestay mother was shocked one day when I thoughtlessly hung my shitagi on the highest tier for all the neighbors to see. She gave a stock comment that I heard from her quite often.

My homestay family had a three-tiered bamboo pole set-up just like this one.

“Didn’t your mother ever teach you to [hang laundry properly?”]

This family was slated to spend a year at Amherst College in the future, and I could not wait for her to find out why I didn’t know some of the things that she took for granted that any capable young woman would know. We also struggled with language since she spoke very little Eigo and my Nihongo wasn’t yet up to speed. I was never able to explain myself to her.

One day she said to me, “You’re Jewish. Explain the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to me.” She’d get me every time. I couldn’t even explain that one in English, let alone Japanese. Again, I felt like a dummy.

At the end of our first semester in Japan we had the option of leaving our homestay families and finding different living situations. It was no coincidence that all the young women chose to move out, and all the men were happy to stay. Being men, their homestay mothers did their sentaku for them and they weren’t asked to do any kaji. This was the difference between being a son and a daughter at that time in Japan. And maybe, still.

  • sentakki – 洗濯機 washing machine
  • mizu – 水 water. A general word for water, but hot water has its own word – oyu お湯
  • yuwakashiki – 湯沸器 tankless hot water heater
  • senzai – 洗剤 laundry detergent
  • kansōki – 乾燥機 clothes dryer. In all my years in Japan I never had one. Other than the rainy season, that worked fine for me. During the rainy season I’d hang the wash inside…sometimes for days.
  • beranda – ベランダ veranda
  • shitagi – 下着 underwear
  • Eigo – 英語 English language
  • Nihongo – 日本語 Japanese language
  • sentaku 洗濯 laundry
  • kaji – 家事 household tasks

How Not to Start a Fire

Kyoto is a beautiful city with many wooden structures nestled closely together. In 1976, it was imperative that I not start a fire. Which is why my homestay okāsan wouldn’t let me use hot water.

Let me explain that. See, it wasn’t a matter of turning a faucet. To get hot water, you had to turn on the gasu and light a pilot light. Or something like that. How would I know when I was never allowed to do it? All I could see were switches, dials, and blue tubing. Ditto for the gas renji. The only way I’d ever get to mess with gasu would be to dive for the turn-off valve should there be a jishin. (Nowadays there are cell phone alerts for earthquakes; I have no idea how that works.) Back then you’d start to feel the shaking and then immediately run to turn off any gasu valves, hesitate for a second to gauge intensity, and then depending on how it felt, you’d take cover in an oshiire or a doorway, or simply go on with life.

Typical sink situation of the late 1970s

Luckily, Kyoto is not very earthquake prone. 

But fires were still nothing anyone was taking lightly. In front of my homestay dwelling were big red buckets. And once a month the whole neighborhood got together for practice drills with these buckets which meant lining up and passing them down the line. Being a wimp for neighborhood stuff and still not knowing much nihongo at all, I’d try to be elsewhere when they were scheduled. Usually they were on Sundays.

On winter evenings in Kyoto you’d need even more of a reminder to be careful to not set a fire because most people were using heaters of some sort. They all got turned off when you went to bed under those layers of futon and blankets. The house would be ice cold, but leaving a gasu, kerosene or even an electric space heater running while sleeping would simply be too dangerous. So, one did not. 

Back to the reminder, which was very quaint and charming… but also effective. Each night someone in the neighborhood would be in charge of walking the streets with two plain wooden blocks attached with a string. Every ten feet or so, they’d bang them together while intoning, “Hi no Yōjin” or “beware of fire”. The minute you heard the clacks, you’d do a mental check to be sure you’d turned everything off. I did the walk just once with my boyfriend of the time who managed a beat coffee house. And he took it very seriously.

The clackers one wore while on Hi no Yojin patrol

In 2016 when my daughter and I traveled to Kyoto, on our very first night we heard the clacking and the Hi no Yōjin call. Yes, still. I couldn’t believe it and would have thought I was imagining it, but my daughter heard it as well and we were both thrilled. And that was the only night we heard it. Why, remains a mystery to us, but on that night it felt like a “Welcome home to Kyoto and while many things have changed, some things have not. Oyasumi nasai.

  • okāsan – お母さん mother
  • gasu – ガス gas. Used primarily for the utility, not passing gas or gasoline
  • renji – レンジ range. A shortened way to refer to a kitchen countertop gas range.
  • jishin – 地震 earthquake. Though Kyoto is not as earthquake prone as other places in Japan this is one word you should learn no matter where you are in Japan. They happen.
  • oshiire – 押入れ traditional style of double-decker closet found in older homes. It is big and deep enough to hold futon. It’s considered to be a safer place during an earthquake and mothers would often shove the children inside of it when an earthquake began.
  • nihongo – 日本語 the Japanese language
  • Hi no Yōjin – 火の用心 the chant that reminds people to turn off gas and electric heaters and appliances before going to bed so as to avoid starting a fire. Often translated as “beware of fire.” It’s more like “be careful not to start a fire”.
  • Oyasumi nasai – おやすみなさい Good night

The No-Speed Bicycle

Kyoto is an easy city to get around since it is built on a grid. You can’t really get lost and it is pretty flat, so a jitensha is ideal for getting around. I quickly learned to ride one while carrying an umbrella. In fact, I quite naturally mastered the art of riding with an umbrella and bowing if I passed an acquaintance. It just comes naturally after you’ve been there during a rainy season.

I had a mamachari of course. This is a purely functional bicycle with no speeds, but at least one basket. It was fine in the daytime, but at night it was much harder to pedal because the required light was powered by pedaling. You could switch it off on small streets, but if an omawarisan caught you, you might be fined. At the very least admonished.

The police also ride bikes….

I’d pedal home to Midorogaike from downtown often stopping on the way for a nikuman or ochazuke at a small sunakku that was on my route. I didn’t have a kagi on my bike but it was pretty run down and I never had a bike stolen in Kyoto. Tokyo is another story, though.

Ochazuke – sometimes the pickles are the best part

Just as I’d gotten pretty good at holding an umbrella while I rode, others had honed their own particular bicycle skills. One night I was walking home from the sentō holding my basin and towel in both hands in front of me. I heard a jitensha come up behind me which was nothing new, but darned if this guy didn’t ride past and grab me in the chest! With perfect aim! And he was gone before I could even properly react. I’d been accosted by a chikan!

That’s the only time that happened to me and to be honest, I couldn’t help but slightly admire his excellent aim. WIsh I had reflexes good enough to react, but who would expect such a thing?!

  • jitensha 自転車 bicycle
  • mamachari ママチャリ the kind of bicycle used by mothers for grocery shopping and transporting kids on either the front, back, or both.
  • omawarisan – お巡りさん police officer
  • nikuman – 肉饅 a kind of dumpling with meat inside
  • ochazuke – お茶漬け a bowl of rice with tea poured over it, usually served with a variety of pickles in Kyoto. It can also have salmon, or other ingredients with it. It’s a great late night snack.
  • sunakku – スナック Okay, you’re looking at it and you think it means snack. And it does… now. But in the 1970s this is what we called a bar. I think it is falling out of favor now, but you can still see signage for older bars using this term.
  • kagi – 鍵 key. Also means lock, so lock and key. Ponder that.
  • sentō – 銭湯 public bath. I’ll write more about that I am sure.
  • chikan -痴漢 pervert. If someone grabs you on the train, you should yell this at the top of your lungs to get attention.

The Ideal Husband

I’d made a best friend during my time working at the restaurant. She was the same age as I was and she spoke some English. We had fun hanging out together. She had been a ryūgakusei in Mexico, proving to me that she was a real maverick since most girls studied abroad in America or England. She was studying to get her tour guide menkyo (a doozy of a test) and wasn’t looking to settle down anytime soon.

Me as a ryūgakusei with my homestay family

However, her parents were of the exact opposite opinion. They thought it was high time she married and they had already put her through a number of omiai meetings.

“How many have you done?” I asked out of curiosity.

“I don’t know. I lost count. Maybe 20?” (!!!)

So, I could see that an omiai wasn’t a done deal and was almost more like a blind date. Keiko certainly was treating them that way.

One day, her parents had had enough. They announced that the next one was for real and she WOULD marry him. Keiko’s response to this was to run away to my geshuku where there was no phone and they couldn’t reach her. But she admitted to me that she was resigned. It was going to happen.

Thanking their parents for arranging the marriage?

It did. Beneath all the rebellion Keiko knew that her parents had her best interests in mind. She told me he looked old enough to be her ojisan and that he was stodgy. But she married him and they are still married to this day with grandchildren now.

There’s a Japanese expression that goes “teishu wa genki de, rusu ga ii.” It means that the best husbands are healthy and not around too much. I’m pretty sure that most women my age still hold this to be true.

  • ryūgakusei – 留学生 study abroad student
  • menkyo – 免許 license. You can use this for driver’s license, but there are also licenses for teaching flower arranging, calligraphy etc. Just about anything in Japan seems to require some license or another and the tests are usually quite rigorous.
  • omiai – お見合い arranged marriage. Usually what happens is that photos and written profiles are exchanged and if there is an interest, a meeting is arranged. Better than perhaps?
  • 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.
  • ojisan – おじさん uncle
  • teishu wa genki de, rusu ga ii – 亭主は元気で留守が良い Teishu =master of the house, genki=healthy, rusu=not home, ii = good. Wa, de, and ga are particles that hold the expression together.

Let’s Stay in Touch

When my daughter became of age to attend daycare, I became acquainted with the municipal hoikuen system. It’s Japan, so you can just bet it was highly organized. And from Day 1 I knew I was going to have a charenji with it despite my oral language abilities.

It was the darned renrakuchō that had to be filled out each and every day. It went back and forth between daycare and home so that we’d all know exactly what was going on with my daughter. Some of it simply involved checking a few boxes, but it asked for details on dinner, breakfast, how long she’d slept, bowel movements (consistencies!), bathing, mood, and health. On their part they’d report back on what she ate, how long she napped, toileting, health and activities or special notes. Thanks to that, I know exactly what my daughter did 35 years ago, today:

April 15th entry

It did not occur to me to write my response in eigo though I often jotted down our meals using English words I thought they would recognize. Nor did it occur to me to foist this off on my daughter’s otōsan. It was a job for mama and I stepped up. But…. dear readers, I did lie sometimes. The thing is, our dinners were not always something I could be proud of. There were a lot of dinners of just yakisoba. I did not think that would pass muster as a proper dinner so I’d enter it as yasai itame, which just sounded better than a noodle dinner. Breakfast also was embarrassing since my daughter wouldn’t eat much. Too many times it was just jūsu and a banana. I imagined other mothers were doing better. But the staff at the hoikuen never said a word.

Renrakuchō were part of my life for many years. When my daughter attended shōgakkō in Tokyo the first graders also had them, at least weekly. My son had one at his Japanese preschool in New Jersey and they continued to be a charenji for me.

Typical no-frills daycare center. My daughter’s daycare would sometimes hose down the courtyard and create a giant mud puddle for playtime!

I imagine this may be all online now or by email. The hobosan put a lot of work into making the covers of the renrakuchō so they now serve as fond omoide for me.

  • hoikuen – 保育園 daycare center
  • charenji – チャレンジchallenge
  • renrakuchō – 連絡帳 a notebook that goes back and forth between institution and parents so that they always know what the child is doing and how they are. Can be very detailed!
  • eigo -英語 English (language)
  • otōsan – お父さん father. This is what a child would call their father, or perhaps Papa.
  • yakisoba – 焼きそば a fried noodle dish that can be kind of junk food.
  • yasai itame – 野菜炒め literally stir-fried vegetables. Considered to be a proper dinner dish, though you’d want to be sure there was also protein involved.
  • jūsu – ジュース juice
  • shōgakkō – 小学校 elementary school. Japanese elementary school goes from Grades 1-6 in most cases. After WW2 the American system of the time was thrust upon them so that they still have three years of junior high and three years of high school.
  • hobosan – 保母さん a daycare worker
  • omoide – 思い出 memory or memories. A word that is used very often in Japan as omoide are considered very precious.

The Doshisha Girls

After the restaurant owner pulled a yonige and absconded into the night, I gave up waitressing and started to work teaching eikaiwa at a school that a fellow waitress had attended. It was a popular school called REC Kyoto and catered mostly to young women in college. It had deep ties with Doshisha University. It also had a unique cafe style of teaching; small tables filled the room and students could drop by any time and have a twenty minute conversation. We’d go out to the waiting area and pick up 1-3 students of similar levels and work from there. There were textbooks, but we often just conversed.

Me teaching English at a REC seminar in Izu

Of course the first questions were getting to know our students. Ninety percent of the female students seemed to be majoring in English Literature. The rest, perhaps some sort of social science. If they weren’t in school or had graduated they were usually doing kaji tetsudai or hanayome shūgyō, i.e. getting ready for marriage.

I’d often perk up when a student would tell me her club associations. The first time a young woman told me she was manējā of a soccer club, I was duly impressed. This was different! And then I met one that was manējā of a baseball club. Wow! These girls were cooking. And then I asked what a manējā did. It turns out that the manējā of the team did the boys’ laundry. And not much else.

In preparation for marriage many of them were mastering the arts of ikebana, oshūji, chadō and Japanese dance. The marriage was almost always going to be an omiai kekkon. And needless to say, all of these students lived at home with their families, during college and after college. Yes, they were young women of a certain class and they were ubiquitous in Kyoto. I used to look out of the window of the building and watch prospective students enter and immediately know which of them were Doshisha girls. They had a certain look to them.

My study-abroad program had been located on the Doshisha campus, so I myself could be called a Doshisha girl which thrilled the owner of the school. And Doshisha has a strong relationship with Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts where I live now. I suppose I’ve made a bit of a full circle in life….

Doshisha Campus
  • yonige – 夜逃げ literally night running away or absconding into the night. This is, unfortunately, more common in Japan than you can imagine and is usually due to debt or being unable to support one’s family.
  • eikaiwa – 英会話 English conversation – which has always been challenging for many Japanese, particularly the ones who are my age.
  • kaji tetsudai – 家事手伝い literally “helping with household work.” Women use it to describe that period when they are not working outside of the home and just sort of waiting to get married. It is probably outdated at this point.
  • hanayome shūgyō – 花嫁修業 the kind of training a young woman does before marrying. It used to be flower arranging, tea ceremony, possibly cooking school or calligraphy. Depends on the family.
  • manējā – マネージャー simply means manager, but if it is a woman manager of a sports team she’s probably just doing their laundry.
  • ikebana – 生花 flower arranging
  • oshūji – お習字 traditional Japanese calligraphy
  • chadō – 茶道 tea ceremony
  • omiai kekkon お見合い結婚 – arranged marriage. This is in contrast to renai kekkon 恋愛結婚 which is a “love marriage.”