As Fate Would Have It

After doing what was once called a “Junior Year Abroad” in Kyoto, I knew I had to go back. Not because I loved it, but more because I was so frustrated by what I didn’t understand. I needed more language and I needed more experience. So that’s what I got during my last year of college by taking any Japan-related course I could possibly find at the University of Kansas. This often meant I was in a class with just one or two others. I was the only one who graduated with a major in Japanese Language and Literature that year. And after a summer of saving, I blithely took off for Japan in August just assuming that I’d figure things out. Yep. No plans, no job, nowhere to stay etc.

Back then there were two possible places to stay in Kyoto for foreign travelers who were young and poor. I picked Tani House near Daitokuji. I slept in a room with a bunch of other foreigners. It was the cheapest way to go and you met interesting people. However, I was the only one who was planning to stay. The others were world travelers just passing through. Through luck and ignorance, I somehow found an apartment in Midorogaike. So, then I needed a job.

One night, at around 9:30 PM, I was waiting for a bus to get back to my apartment. I’d been waiting a while. A man pulled up in a car and asked where I was going. I told him, and he said he’d take me–and that buses were done for the night. I suspected that was correct, so I decided to get in his car. Note to young people. Just don’t do this sort of thing; times are different now.

He did drive me home and also mentioned that he owned a restaurant near where I’d been waiting for the bus. He gave me his meishi and said he would hire me as a waitress if I needed a job.

Back then there were two jobs for Americans. You could teach eikaiwa or if you were a woman, you could be a hosutesu. Both were very lucrative. And I had no idea how to find either of these jobs, so the next day I walked into Mr. Kobayashi’s small restaurant and told him I wanted a job. (That led to other adventures.)

Let’s face it. I was the worst waitress ever. Each day there was a daily special and every customer would want to know what it was. And unfortunately, it was usually a mix of foods as pictured below. So I had to learn what it all was, how to say it, and memorize it. I could not, most of the time. The customers were amused by me as a waitress at first. Then, I think they found it annoying that I messed up so many orders. It was just an average workingman’s type of restaurant and the lunch hour needed to move quickly.

Mr. Kobayashi paid me the same kyuryou as the other waitresses, i.e. no favorable treatment because I was a foreigner. I could have been making triple those wages if I’d been teaching English, which eventually I did do. But he did do me one favor. It turns out he was a bit of a chinpira (yes, he had a panchi paama which was the first clue) and he’d won the money to open the restaurant by gambling. And he accrued more debts and absconded into the night a few months after I started working there. The favor? He stopped by my apartment very late at night on the night he disappeared and paid me my wages. Nobody else got paid. Most of his waitresses were students who still lived at home with their parents and were working for spending money. He knew that for me, this was my livelihood.

You could go ahead and google that restaurant. It was called Himorogi and it was on Teramachi Street. But you won’t find a trace of it. Like its owner, it vanished into thin air that night.

  • Daitokuji – 大徳寺 a major temple in Kyoto that doesn’t get as many visitors as others. It’s really a temple complex and also has a restaurant on premises. If you’ve done the major sites in Kyoto and have time, it’s quite nice. Also, at times they have had foreign monks and some of their monks speak English quite well.
  • Midorogaike – 深泥池 an area of Kyoto to the north. Rents were a bit lower there because it was a hangout for ghosts. Really. More on that later.
  • meishi – 名刺 business cards. Fair warning. There is a whole etiquette that revolves around the giving and receiving of these cards and if you’re doing business in Japan, it behooves you to read up on this.
  • eikaiwa – 英会話 English conversation. Note that there is a complete difference between studying English and studying English conversation in Japan. Somebody needs to write a book about that.
  • hosutesu – ホステス hostess… but Japanese style. Not someone who guides you to your table, but a woman who sits with you, fills your drinks, and charms you. (I’d totally fail at this job.)
  • kyuuryou – 給料 salary. In Japan, in every job I ever had, it got paid monthly and not weekly or biweekly.
  • chinpira – チンピラ low ranking criminals in Japan
  • panchi paama – パンチパーマ punch perm. A tightly permed hairstyle that was popular for members of the Japanese crime world back in the 1970’s. For some reason, older singers also like this look so you can’t say someone’s a criminal for sure if they wear their hair like this. But, if they aren’t a singer, it might give you pause.
  • Himorogi – 神籬 The name of Mr. Kobayashi’s restaurant was a mystery to me. I’m still not really sure why he chose this name. My best translation is “sacred area” but what am I not getting here?
  • Teramachi – 寺町 Literally temple town. It’s a famous street in Kyoto. Part of it is an arcade, but the northern part of it is a lovely street filled with old shops and temples. Mostly. There are now two conbi on the street as well, but it is still charming to me.

Banana Juice

When I first started studying Japanese, the writing system was a fascinating mystery. First off was hiragana, a phonetic syllabic alphabet of sorts. I loved the idea that something that read ”か” or “ka” was always going to be read that way, unlike English where ghoti can be read as fish. The system made sense to me. Next was the kanji, or Chinese characters. There were a shit load of them and it even took Japanese kids nine years to learn to read them. Somehow, at Middlebury College’s Japanese summer school, they thought we could learn 30 of them a day. Oh, and they each had AT LEAST two different ways they could be read depending on how or if they combined with other kanji. But, still, I could see the necessity.

However, katakana, which was basically the same as hiragana but used for telegrams (!) and foreign words made no sense to me at all. It seemed redundant. I slacked on memorizing them. I did not plan to send any telegrams and foreign words? I mean, why would I need them and not Japanese when I was living there. Little did I know….

So, there I was in Japan, now unable to make my way through a menu at a coffee shop or kissaten as they were called. And that’s why I started to doubt myself as I looked at drinks on a menu. Now, this is a current menu, but it will show an issue. (In fact, it practically authenticates itself with a spelling mistake….)

So, making one’s way through the juice list alone, we get – pineapple juice, cranberry juice, orange juice, banana juice, apple juice and tomato juice. I know all of these… but banana juice? You can see why I doubted myself. And why is it one of the more expensive juices?

In the end, I got better at reading katakana so that I could deal with a menu like this. And learned that banana juice is delicious even though banana milk might be a more apt description.

  • hiragana – ひらがな syllabic phonetic writing system
  • katakana – カタカナ syllabic phonetic writing system (because apparently we need two of them
  • kanji – 漢字 Chinese characters. If you learn them, it will help you slightly in a Chinese restaurant, too
  • banana juusu – バナナジュース banana-flavored milk served on ice. It’s good!
  • kissaten – 喫茶店 coffee shop, but now refers to an old style coffee shop as opposed to a cafe. Grouchy grannies like this style much better.

It all begins in April

In Japan, April is really the beginning of the year. Most importantly, it is the beginning of the new school year and also when work starts for new graduates. Cherry blossoms are in bloom in many locales and there is a feeling of both renewal and poignancy.

Or at least that is what it is supposed to be about. It’s also a season of nerves over new beginnings and even disappointment when cherry blossoms are too early, too late—or are blown from the trees by a violent storm and trod upon as everyone runs for cover.

Traditionally, you should eat some sakura mochi, which is unexpectedly salty. Yes, salty.

Less traditionally, you could walk into a conbini such as 7-11 or Fujimart and choose from a wide array of chocolate or other products celebrating the cherry blossom. I advise that you skip this, but I’m just a grouchy granny stuck in post-war Showa, which I think was a glorious time in Japan.

  • Conbini – コンビニ convenience store such as 7-11
  • Mochi – おもち sorry, but what planet are you living on if you don’t know what this is?! Google it. (But if you can read Japanese, notice I put the honorific “o” on it when I typed the Japanese because I couldn’t help myself.)
  • Sakura – さくら cherry blossom or tree
  • Sakura mochi – さくらもち a Japanese sweet which is pink, contains red bean paste wrapped in sweet glutinous rice and then further wrapped in a salted sakura leaf.
  • Showa – 昭和 the period of Japan that waxes oh so nostalgic for those of us who lived it. It represents the reign of Emperor Hirohito and goes from 1926-1989. Of course most people are nostalgic about the last forty years of it, though those war years are not to be forgotten.