A Consultation

In America as well as Japan someone might idly ask you, “So, what are you cooking for dinner tonight?” I often ask this of my own musume, curious to know what she’s feeding my beloved mago and also curious to know what local foods she might be eating. In Japan, my neighbors often answered with “Reizōko to sōdan shimasu.”

Exactly like my first fridge!

I get the meaning, but it still makes me smile. You could translate that literally as “I will have a consultation with my refrigerator.” This is especially meaningful at the end of the month before a gekkyū rolls in. And it also is a good way to ensure that you don’t end up with rotting vegetables or oniku past its prime.

I think there are two ways to grocery shop. In America, where people shop less frequently than in Japan, my friends often make up a menu plan for the week and then buy based on what is needed to prepare these dishes. I’ve tried doing that, but I cannot. I also can’t shop just once a week, or heaven forbid, once every two weeks.

When I was living in Japan most people shopped for food daily or once every couple of days. Many women my age still do it that way. Food shops are conveniently located near train stations so you could come home from work or school and buy what you needed for yūhan on the way home. My homestay mother went to the same local shōtengai daily to shop. Why? Why daily?

One reason is that Japanese homes are small and thus storage, be it reizōko or pantry is very limited. Think of the kind of refrigerator that you might find in a dorm room. Now they sell bigger ones, but they are still narrow and are simply taller. But I believe many women are still shopping daily or three times or more a week. This is because you want to see what is shinsen, what is in season, what is on sale and what simply looks good. In theory one should always be eating with the seasons and that is reflected in both food and tableware. It’s a lovely way to cook and eat. There’s not a Japanese alive who couldn’t tell you what month bamboo is in season and what fish is eaten in the autumn. The closest we have to any of this would be a pumpkin spice latte. (I cringe.)

It’s the end of the month today and I did indeed consult with my refrigerator. Plenty of carrots, so I pulled some chikuwa from the freezer and made a stir-fry with soy sauce and sugar. What else? Oh, this is embarrassing. But I had some sad looking broccoli and a lot of celery. A knob of ginger appeared and I always have miso.

So I cut the celery into small pieces, zapped the broccoli, and sautéd both vegetables with the ginger in sesame oil, adding miso and mirin to make a sauce. Not bad! But I now have two very rich dishes so I’ll add rice (already cooking in my suihanki) and daikon pickles—and cut up some fruit to eat along with it. Oshimai!

There’s enough left over for tomorrow at which point I’ll cook up a dashimaki to go along with it.

And…it would not be at all out of character to see me thanking my refrigerator for this gochisō!

  • musume – 娘 daughter
  • mago – 孫 grandchild
  • reizōko – 冷蔵庫 refrigerator
  • to – と particle and or with
  • sōdan shimasu – 相談します to consult or to confer with, adding shimasu makes it a verb
  • gekkyū – 月給 monthly salary
  • oniku – お肉 meat
  • yūhan -夕飯 dinner. You can also call dinner bangohan. Maybe this is like supper and dinner?
  • shōtengai – 商店街 shopping street
  • shinsen – 新鮮 fresh
  • chikuwa – 竹輪. a tube shaped fish paste product. It’s cheap and easily found in Japan. And it tastes better than it sounds. Unfortunately, in America I can only get a frozen version.
  • suihanki – 炊飯器 rice cooker
  • Oshimai – お仕舞い Finished! Done! You could also use it to say “I call time.”
  • dashimaki – だし巻き a Japanese rolled omelette made with dashi.
  • gochisō – a feast. Used to praise food not just for a real feast.

Happy New Year

Akemashite Omedetō Gozaimasu. (2023 is the Year of the Rabbit)

That’s how you say Happy New Year in Japan. But unlike in America where we start saying it near the end of the year, you can’t use this expression until the second the clock hits midnight. If you’re watching Japanese tv, then that’s the moment you’ll see the announcers bow and say this. Until this moment, what you can say is “Yoi otoshi o” which means Have a good year.

My first Oshōgatsu in Japan was in 1976. I was with my boyfriend and a group of Japanese people. Everyone was drinking. I think we were in Gion. It was a nigiyaka group and nobody noticed that the clock had struck midnight until about twenty minutes later. Quite different from what I was accustomed to.

My boyfriend had claimed that I’d have to move in with him during these holidays. He and my homestay program had claimed that nothing would be open for a week. I was living in a tiny room with no cooking facilities other than the ability to boil water. The shelf outside my window functioned as a reizōko. (The whole room could have done that since there was no heat.) The thing is, I didn’t believe that everything would be shut down. Maybe on January 1, but surely a few shops or gurosarii would open the next day.

A leftover New Year card from 1981
Example of a sign announcing hours for end and beginning of the year

Nowadays they do. But in Kyoto in 1976 every shop really was shuttered and had pieces of paper on it announcing closure until January 7th or even later. The shrines and temples were bustling but normal life had stopped. There was a reason why women were cooking boxes full of food. Would they really last seven days? Actually, no, but three days was definitely possible. I found that out in later years when I prepared the osechi ryōri myself. We’d be thoroughly sick of these boxes as they’d be brought out for all three meals, but we made it through snacking on osenbei and mikan.

Almost everyone would gather round to watch the NHK Kohaku Song Show. This year was the 73rd year of broadcasting it. I think it gets worse every year, but people my age are simply bound to say that. But the tradition of families gathering together to watch it as they did in years past seems likely to fade out. Still, though, it is some of the most incredible staging you’ll ever see. Check out Youtube for some clips. Or watch this as an example:

  • Akemashite Omedetō Gozaimasu – 明けましておめでとうございます ”Happy New Year” or literally, “Congratulations on the opening [of the year]. Isn’t used until the clock strikes midnight and the new year arrives.
  • Yoi otoshi o – 良いお年を ”Have a good year.” This is used at the end of December to people that you think you won’t see again until the next year arrives.
  • Oshōgatsu – お正月 New Year’s
  • nigiyaka – 賑やか lively, merry
  • reizōko – 冷蔵庫 refrigerator
  • gurosarii – グロサリー grocery store. There is a more Japanese word for this, but I think even this is old; so many shop at a suupaa now.
  • osechi ryōri – お節料理 New Year’s food, aka “the boxes.” Google it.
  • osenbei – お煎餅 rice crackers
  • mikan – みかん Japanese tangerines. So so good!

Hug

These streetcars no longer run up Kawaramachi Street

When I think about changes in Nihon since 1976 there are many that are technology-related. That happens. But there are also some that kind of blow my mind because they are such a huge cultural henka.

When I first came to Japan the word “hug”did not exist. Hugging itself did not exist. I’m going to prove it with this photo from my dictionary. See? Hug or hagu isn’t in the dictionary. The kotoba did not exist and people did not hug each other. Bodies were not touched in public in the way that hugs are done now. Imagine my shokku in 2016 when my (ex-)brother-in-law met us at the eki in his small town with a hug after not seeing me for over 30 years. That was different.

So if hagu as a word didn’t exist, how did the action of hugging get communicated? What I am trying to say here is that the concept of hugging in a friendly manner didn’t exist. Yes, there are words for a couple embracing. There is a word for picking up a child and holding it. But I can’t think of a word that equates to hugging as a friendly aisatsu.

So, I tried to research how this word ended up in Japan and when. I failed. (I didn’t try very hard and I should really ask a sensei of linguistics.) But what I did find was a premise that soccer brought hagu to Japan! When foreign soccer matches became popular television viewing, Japanese people would see players hug after successful matches or when scoring. And… that needed a word apparently. The other theory is that Americans would be seen hugging on the streets of Tokyo and that kind of culture gradually became popular amongst trend-setting young people.

I never once hugged anyone in my host family. And when I left Japan the first time and my boyfriend accompanied me to the kūko, we did not hug goodbye. It just was not done in public. And in 1988 when we moved to America and my ex-husband’s family saw us off at the airport, again, nobody hugged. We bowed. And cried. But, no hugs.

It’s probably a nice change for skinship’s sake! Sukinshippu? Oh, that’s a whole other post!

  • Nihon – 日本 Japan
  • henka – 変化 change, [noun]
  • hagu – ハグ hug
  • kotoba – 言葉 word or phrase
  • shokku – ショック shock, as in big surprise
  • eki – 駅 train station
  • aisatsu – 挨拶 greeting(s)
  • sensei – 先生 teacher or professor or doctor etc.
  • kūko – 空港 airport
  • Sukinshippu – スキンシップ A pseudo-Anglicism describing a close relationship like the one between mother and child. Or the act of getting closer by hanging out together. When I first heard this term and told people it didn’t exist in English they were shocked… simply shocked. Then what do you call it, they asked? Good question.

Overprotective

Who me? Was I a kahogo mom? My daughter and I were touring the after-school care center she’d be attending. She was in first grade and I was a working mother. The local government ran these gakudō kurabu so that kids didn’t have to be home alone after school got out. They accomodated first through third graders. Any child older than that was on their own. And this Gakudō Club made sure they were ready to be on their own by then.

They were just getting ready to have oyatsu and invited us to sit down with them. We were served glasses of cold tea by a second grade boy. Some of the girls were peeling the ringo that we’d eat. Yes, you read that right. In Japan apples always get peeled and a knife is used to do it, hopefully in one strip as you’d go round and round. And there in front of our eyes CHILDREN were using knives.

“Oh, doesn’t Shana know how to use a knife to peel an apple?” asked one worker.

“She’s SIX,” I wanted to respond indignantly. Instead I just murmured something about different customs. We’d just moved back to Japan after three years in America.

My daughter was wide-eyed at that one. And she could see these kids were really takumashii.

After we had our snack it was time for chores. Another surprise. The kids went in to clean the bathrooms!

The head of the center explained to me that these kids had two working parents so they needed to learn life skills so that they could help around the house. There was no coddling here of either children or parents. They were raising self-sufficient kids. Everything they did was based on learning a skill. So different from after-school care in America where kids were more apt to get extras such as art lessons or drama.

The children would go home at 6 PM. Parents did not pick up their kids. Some parents still wouldn’t be home, but the kids all had house keys. The kids walked home, often in the dark. They’d walk in groups, dropping each kid at their home and cheerfully saying goodbye. As luck, or no luck would have it, my daughter lived the furthest from the center and would be walking the last three blocks by herself. Gulp.

The second furthest away was another first grade onna no ko. Her mother was divorced so it was just the two of them. And her mother worked late, so sometimes she’d come back with my daughter. One evening she announced that she’d cook bangohan for the four of us (my son was two years old at the time). A six year old was offering to cook dinner for us… Okay.

And she did. Eggs, I think, and maybe a salad. She managed the whole thing on her own without my help. Very sugoi! My own daughter was amazed.

Now, what can we learn from this? I tried hard not to coddle my children and they both did their own laundry from the time they were in first grade or so. When my son went off to daigaku he was shocked that there were students that had never done sentaku before and didn’t know how to use a washing machine.

And this is just another reason why I am so deeply grateful that I got to raise my kids in two different cultures!

  • kahogo – 過保護 overprotective
  • gakudō kurabu – 学童クラブ after school care for kids with working parents
  • oyatsu – おやつ a snack, used mostly for children. Adults might take a midafternoon break and call it “osanji” or a “3 o’clock.”
  • ringo – りんご apple
  • takumashii – たくましい strong, capable, sturdy
  • onna no ko  女の子 - girl
  • bangohan – 晩ご飯 dinner
  • sugoi – すごい amazing
  • daigaku – 大学 college or university
  • sentaku – 洗濯 laundry

October

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.

Kinmokusei

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.

A popular brand

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’).

How I learned to make miso soup

A typical Japanese meal in autumn for me. Simple, but delicious.

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.

Miso soup

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. 
  • gu – 具 ingredients

Things That Didn’t Exist

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

A popular program that has allowed many non-Japanese to teach in Japan

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

I’ve never taken one. I wonder how I’d do with it….

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.

Clothes dryers

A laundromat in Kyoto near Toji.

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?

Internet

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.

Summer is so hot!

I think July was the worst month for humid heat when I lived in Kyoto. That’s not to say that August was much better, but by the end of August you could feel a whispering of aki in the air. I wonder if that still holds true.

Of course I had no air conditioner in the 1970’s. I depended on a fan kept within a foot of me when I was in my geshuku room. And I’d hightail it out to get some kakigōri at the peak of the day. Back then there wasn’t the enormous variety that you see now. It was simply strawberry, lemon, and a Kyoto speciality of Uji green tea with either dango or anko or both. That one was always more expensive and seemed very extravagant to me.

A few of my well-worn hankachi from many years ago.

I also was grateful for all the hankachi I had to daintily (?) pat the sweat from my face. I never once had to buy a handkerchief because they were such a common gift. You always had to carry one because public bathrooms had no paper towels or other devices for drying your hands. For that matter, toilet paper could be iffy as well, so you’d always have both a hankachi and a packet of tissues in your bag. Since tissue packets were given out at train stations with ads written on them, you never really had to buy those either… at least not in Tokyo.

Towelket for a child. Snoopy was and is always popular in Japan.

Commuting to work by jitensha was definitely a plus in the summer. Kyoto is pretty flat and you’d feel the wind on you as your pedaled. And upon arriving home, I’d head for the public bath each night and then turn on the fan and lay out my futon, of course with just a taoruketto in the summer.

I still love my taoruketto and think it is one of the better ways to sleep on a hot summer night!

  • aki – 秋 autumn
  • 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.
  • kakigōri – かき氷 shaved ice. Nothing like a snowcone though. We’re talking major upgrade from that!
  • dango – だんご dumpling. In this case they are small white mochi-like dumplings.
  • anko -あんこ red bean paste
  • hankachi – ハンカチ handkerchief. Very popular in Japan. I wonder why we Americans don’t use them as much.
  • jitensha – 自転車 bicycle
  • taoruketto – タオルケット a summer blanket made out of cotton towel material. They are wonderful on a hot summer’s night and are often given as gifts.

The Colors of Showa

I watched an interesting dokyumentorī on the NHK English channel. It’s a bit slow, but I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in Japan. Some of it felt so incredibly natsukashii to me. The colors of the Showa Era in the 1970s were very distinctive and it reminded me once again of the ubiquitous karā bokkusu.

Color boxes were the best friend of any student trying to live cheaply. You could put them upright or on their side. They worked for books, as a pantry, clothes etc. They were yasui and came in a variety of sizes. Of course I had a green one. And an orange one. The colors were almost neon in their intensity.

The current asadora had a shot of a Showa room this morning that could have been my room. I could swear I had this very table.

Screenshot from the current asadora

Being a curious type, I tried to find out more about the color box. It first appeared on the scene in 1970 and came from a company called Kuroshio. Apparently it was one of the first pieces that required at-home construction with a screw driver. The chairman of the company saw colorful plastic goods in a depāto and thought it would be a nice change if furniture (mostly wood up until that time) could have those bright Showa colors as well. They had instant appeal among young women who thought they were kawaii.

Timing was everything here! They were a huge hit and eventually were sold around the world. With the current “Showa Boom” maybe the original iro are in again! Sorry, but those colors are still kind of hideous to me.

  • dokyumentorī – ドキュメンタリ documentary (the kind you see on tv)
  • natsukashii – 懐かしい nostalgic. This word gets a LOT of use in Japan.
  • karā bokkusu – カラーボックス color box (used for storage and favored by students)
  • yasui – 安い cheap (adjective)
  • asadora – 朝ドラ literally morning drama and refers to dramas that are broadcast in the morning (duh)
  • depāto – デパート department store
  • 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 in reference to manga, Hello Kitty goods, etc.
  • iro – 色 color

Brrrrrr

They say that in the summer you should think of cold or scary things to keep you cool. Perhaps a ghost story to make you shiver deliciously. Or in these more modern times, you can try going to sleep with the sounds of water dashing down a mountain taki.

The waterfall at Kiyomizu Temple

To keep myself cool, I go back to the omoide of a very cold winter’s day in January. I’ve woken up and am already shivering in my small apartment which has no central heat and indeed no space heater either. And no hot shower or even a bath at all. It’s 1979 and I’m living at the foot of the mountains in northern Kyoto.

It’s the first week of January and my local sentō has odd hours due to the New Year’s holiday. This morning they have asaburo. This is a rare event since usually the sentō is open from around 3 PM until 11 PM. I’ve never done asaburo before but I’m desperate to warm up. But first I have to get there. I reluctantly crawl out of the futon and get dressed.

The area is rural and has some magnificent old farmhouses. No doubt they all have their own baths and the local sentō is quite a walk away. Snow had been falling and it’s a quiet morning. Peaceful and beautiful–and cold.

I walk out of my apartment building, turn right and head down our tiny street to the intersection of three tiny streets. One leads to Midorogaike. One leads to a bus stop, and the one I need to take leads to Kamigamo Jinja after meandering for some minutes. It’s still very quiet as I pass our tiny grocery that is good for milk and bread. They won’t be opening today since it is still the New Year’s holiday. The road is covered with snow, as are the trees and roofs. It’s a quiet winter wonderland and I’m the only one out.

After walking for about seven minutes, I come to the block that houses a few shops. I breathe in deeply as it seems the soba shop is preparing dashi. There is simply no smell like it. Even today, the smell of dashi brings me right back to this street. The buildings are all old here; I could be back in the Meiji Jidai with this scenery. Maybe even the Edo Jidai. The appearance of a samurai would not be at all jarring.

Soba shop

And after I walk past the soba shop, I’ve come to the bath. And… snap. As soon as I enter the changing area, I feel the warmth from the steamy water.

And I need to stop reminiscing right here because this is all about conjuring up COLD memories this morning. Oops.

  • taki – 滝 waterfall
  • omoide – 思い出 memory or memories. A word that is used very often in Japan as omoide are considered very precious.
  • 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.
  • asaburo – 朝風呂 a bath taken in the morning. Traditionally, baths are always in the evening. With the advent of shower heads, the idea of a morning shower was introduced… and at first seemed a little bold. Like, why would you need a morning shower if you had bathed at night? So, when the public bath had asaburo during the week of New Year’s it was very special and different.
  • Midorogaike – 深泥池 The name of a pond in Northern Kyoto, but also serves as the name of the area around it. It literally means ‘deep muddy pond.’ Rents were a bit lower there because it was a hangout for ghosts. Really. But it was a nice place to live!
  • Kamigamo Jinja – 上賀茂神社 A very famous shrine in the northern section of Kyoto. You could google it.
  • 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.
  • Meiji Jidai – 明治時代 The Meiji Era (1868-1912) By the way, this is an utterly fascinating era since it is when Western culture started to be more prominent in Japan.
  • Edo Jidai – 江戸時代 The Edo Era (1603-1868)
  • samurai – 侍 I can’t even. You know this. Okay, warrior. Did you really not know this?!