Oh lordy. My old neighborhood is now a hipster place. It’s turning up on lists of cool neighborhoods or hidden gems or ”places to discover.”
I moved to Kōenji in 1983. I would take the Chuo Line from Shinjuku Station and it took about fifteen minutes. You’d get off the train and have a choice between the minami and kita exits. Mine was the south exit. From there I’d walk ten minutes or so through an old shōtengai. I loved that walk. It’s worth saying that the shōtengai extended all the way to a subway station of the same name. And there was another shōtengai on the north side. If you like shōtengai, you were all set.
As I would walk home, I’d see a futon store to my right where I’d often browse looking for new covers for my zabuton. Next to that store and on the second floor was a restaurant that served fried rice with an ebi furai on top of it and a dab of curry. It’s a great combination that I’ve rarely seen elsewhere.
On the right side I’d pass a few pharmacies and small grocers. Eventually I’d pass a kōen on the right that was featured in the novel 1Q84 by Murakami Haruki. It’s always a quiet thrill when you unexpectedly encounter a place you know in a shōsetsu.
From there, things got seedier. Kōenji, for some reason, was where many bar hostesses and other creatures of the night chose to live. There were a few jazz coffee shops, and some good oden spots. But what really proved to me that this was indeed the home of the tattered butterflies of the night was the public bath. And it was simple. Unlike any other public bath I’d been to, this one stayed open until 1 AM. Every other bath I’d ever been to—be it in Kyoto or Tokyo—closed at 11 PM.
I’d sometimes go right before closing and join the raucous group of women hanging out there. I never really chatted with them. I usually came with the guy I’d end up marrying and I didn’t linger or try to make friends. We’d meet outside after bathing on our respective sides of the bath and then go eat some oden.
Checking the internet now, I see that our bath had been around since 1929! I’m very happy to see it is still open and still open until 1 AM. I guess there are still some things that do not change!
minami – 南 south
kita – 北 north
shōtengai – 商店街 shopping street
zabuton – 座布団 floor cushion
ebi furai – エビフライ fried shrimp
kōen – 公園 park (the kind children play at)
shōsetsu – 小説 novel
oden – おでん a type of food that is sold by street venders and in bars (it practically cries out for beer) and now in 7-11 and other stores. It has an unmistakable smell to it due to the fish products it uses. A lot of non-Japanese fail to see the charm of it. But in the winter, before many homes had heat, it was a great way to warm up before returning to a stone cold room.
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.