Thanks to the internet, I know what the weather in Kyoto is like today. I can also follow blogs, friends on Facebook, and websites in both English and Japanese to see photos of how nice and green it has become in Kyoto. And the weather has been jumping back and forth between natsu and haru in the last few weeks causing confusion to those who need to deal with it.
In America, we often think of Memorial Day as the beginning of natsu. There used to be rituals that matched the kisetsu. Not so much anymore. In Japan, I think it is still important. Things will come out of the closet. The senpūki, of course. Perhaps a katoributa if one is fond of the old ways. The zabuton may be switched out for one of rush. Even in the kitchen, there may be different plats and bowls used. Glass is nice in the summer. The illusion of coolness is just as important as real cooling which these days is provided by competent AC.
The fūrin will also come out of the closet. And one must be careful with pronunciation here. A fūrin is a wind chime, but furin is adultery. Oops.
And of course there is the gamut of summer food which merits its own post. We see some of it in Hawaii but here in New England I’m lucky if I see any of it at all. Yesterday, my grandchildren in California were eating green tea ice cream with mochi. The world is indeed getting smaller.
natsu – 夏 summer
haru – 春 spring
kisetsu – 季節 season
senpūki – 扇風機 electric fan. There are other words used for handheld fans depending on the type. I may get into that later.
katoributa – 蚊取り豚 a ceramic pig that holds mosquito coils
Japanese honyakusha often talk about the untranslatable words and phrases. We all have our own thoughts on this and there are many that are commonly discussed. We struggle with giving a literal translation (sometimes misleading), a footnote (can get long-winded and cumbersome)—or an explanation when we first use the word in a given text. Because Nihongo has so many ways to write a given word it is very nuanced. And sometimes a word just gets adopted into English. Kawaii is one example. It means cute, but it evokes so much more than that in Japanese modern bunka.
I have two new neko. They get along great and because one of them is a koneko there is a lot of mock fighting going on. He’s a strong kitten and sometimes the older one gets knocked around, perhaps a bit too much. This morning I found myself watching the roughhousing and saying to them “Nakayoshi, nakayoshi.” Since I learned my mothering skills in Japan, this phrase came out of my mouth naturally. It literally means “good friends.” But it also works as an admonishment to “stop fighting” to small children who are quarreling.
I thought more about it and sent a text to my busy family therapist musume. I wanted to ask her opinion about this way of stopping a quarrel. It seems to me that it would be therapeutically better to stop a fight by reminding the kodomo that they are “good friends” rather than saying to stop doing something. Or am I going too deep here?
There is a lot about childrearing in Japan that I like. In my mind I’ve combined the best of American and Japanese practices. Not sure my kids would agree, but this is certainly one of the advantages of being bicultural. In Part II I will let you know what my daughter thinks. It is benri that she also understands Japanese and the nuances!
honyakusha – 翻訳者 translator. Honyaku usually refers to written translation and sha is a suffix for person. There is another word for interpreters.
Nihongo – 日本語 Japanese language. If you’ve been reading my blog religiously, you should already have this one down!
Kawaii – 可愛い If you use one word to translate it, it is “cute.” But it is simply so much more and has unique parameters which is probably why it has been exported from Japan as is in many cases.
bunka – 文化 culture
neko – 猫 cat(s)
koneko – 子猫 kitten. Note that this is a combination of cat and the prefix for child. Now then, if you know that inu means dog, you can guess how to say puppy!
Nakayoshi, nakayoshi – 仲良し、仲良し Used like this toward children, it is meant as a reminder that you are good friends and to thus, stop quarreling. A nice way to admonish, I think!
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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….)
Take a slice of white bread and soak it in milk (this makes a filler for it).
Sauté the onions gently. Let cool.
Mix the onions with the hikiniku (probably a mixture of ground pork and beef).
Gently squeeze the bread and tear it up. Add to the ground meat.
Form patties with a kubomi in one side.
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.
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.
Put on plate with glazed ninjin and a green vegetable so it all looks pretty (color coordination).
No bun. Eat with knife and fork!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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”.
After my study abroad group arrived in Japan in August 1976, we spent a few days in a youth hostel in northern Kyoto for some orientation. After all, sending us in blindly to live with our Japanese host families could be a disaster… right? So, first things first, we had lessons on bowing. It’s not that bowing itself is difficult, but the placement of the hands is important as is the degree of the bow. And it is different for women and men. But after you’ve lived in Japan for a few weeks, ojigi comes naturally whenever you say arigatō or apologize for something. And Japanese say thank you a lot.
For example, in my homestay family, I would say thank you for the bath each night. It might sound strange, but heating and preparing the ofuro in 1976 was a certain amount of work and cost. So it was proper etiquette to thank the family. My host family lived in a very traditional small wooden house. Strangely enough, both the toilet and ofuro were located outside of the main house. I suppose they’d been added later, but you had to open the sliding glass doors to the beranda at the back of the house, and then walk outside to the edge of the beranda where you’d find the toilet in a tiny closet-sized room, and then separately, the bath (another tiny room). There was a curtain that created a cubicle in front of the door to the bath, and this is where you’d get undressed and dressed. Yes, in the dead of winter, you’d be undressing outside to get into the bath. I found this a little daunting. Once in the bath itself, you’d stir it to make sure the heat was even, and then you’d wash outside the bathtub, and hop in to soak. Of course everyone in the family used the same bath water.
On my first night there, I was honored to be the first one to use the bath. After that, I was treated like family and the order was: Otōsan, chōnan, jinan, me, okāsan. It was the mother who did the work of filling the bath, heating it, draining it each night or two, and cleaning it. I directed my thank you ojigi to her each night. Writing this now, it would seem absurd NOT to thank someone for the bath in Japan. When I visited my husband’s family I’d do it there as well. Note: My own parents would have thought I was crazy if I’d ever thanked them for a shawā I took at their home. It’s all about culture.
ojigi – お辞儀 a bow
arigatō – ありがとう casual way of saying thank you. There are many levels of politeness in greetings. One general rule of thumb is the longer they are, the politer and the shorter they are, the more casual.
ofuro – お風呂 the bath. Note that the honorific “o” is attached because I wouldn’t dream of saying it without honoring it.
beranda – ベランダ veranda. There is no equivalent to the “v” sound in Japanese, so when they borrow an English word like this, v usually changes to b. Usually….
From the very first summer day that I arrived in Kyoto, I found myself annoyed by all of the puddles I’d come across when walking through the street. Only the really big streets had sidewalks and for some reason, shopkeepers kept throwing buckets of water in front of their shops. Was it really necessary to keep washing the sidewalks?
It took awhile before I realized that this was purposeful and deliberate. It turns out that uchimizu it was just a way of dealing with the mushiatsui summer weather. The water would quickly evaporate and cool off the air above it. Or at least that was the theory.
You can’t mess with a Kyoto summer. Kyotoites will tell you that it is because Kyoto is a bonchi. In fact, they will often explain something away by saying “bonchi dakara.” Whatever the reason, summers could be dangerously hot even back then.
Nobody carried water bottles back then or paid for water. Instead you’d take advantage of the jidōhanbaiki that were found everywhere. I quickly learned how to interpret them without being able to read the labels. Of course a picture of an apple meant ringo jūsu, and an orange was orenji jūsu. After determining the type of juice you wanted to look for a % mark. You could find juice in 10%, 30%, 70% etc. Finding a 100% was rare, but as an American that was what I was accustomed to drinking. So I always hoped.
Carrying a small fan and a hankachi was also necessary. I marveled at the Japanese women in suits on the basu. I couldn’t bare to wear stockings or a jacket in this weather.
And though water on the sidewalks was okay, you would never see an open window on the basu if there was even the slightest drizzle outside. And, most basu did not have AC. You simply had to suffer in the sweltering heat.
That was a Kyoto summer and I survived all of mine without any AC and only a small senpūki. Happily it was all before chikyūondaka.
uchimizu – 打ち水 The deliberate sprinkling of water to cool the air. Does it really work? They say that even looking at the water should make you feel cooler….
mushiatsui – 蒸し暑い humid, an adjective
bonchidakara – 盆地だから Bonchi means valley and dakara means because. This expression is used fondly by the people of Kyoto to justify anything about the weather.