You’ll Never Find It

I’m a big fan of SMS and the internet. The ability to make connections, quickly find jōhō and verify old memories is invaluable to me. Thank you, world, for inventing such a great tool. I use it daily.

This isn’t it. But it might look like this. Just less fancy, though!

There’s a little resutoran near the Heian Shrine in Kyoto. Let’s call it S Restaurant. It’s an old style eatery that serves a setto breakfast and a wide variety of ippin ryōri during the day. You never know what you might find, be it a dish of Japanese poteto sarada, kitsune soba, hamburger with catsup spaghetti or ebi furai. It’s that type of restaurant that puts dishes out on a table or shelf and you can choose what you want on top of what you order. Nothing “extra” here. Plain old good food, but nothing gourmet, mind you.

S Restaurant does not have a website. It doesn’t have a facebook page or Instagram. It does have a denwa bango, but they don’t take reservations. It’s a neighborhood kind of place despite being near one of the top sightseeing spots.

You can’t pay with a credit card or your phone or any other way other than genkin. There’s no parking lot. Children are welcome, though. But it is what is known as a taishū shokudo. There used to be many of these in Kyoto, very similar to the cheap dives that catered to students—students who are now frequenting cafes and Starbucks.

So, how are you going to find S Restaurant? First off, you won’t find anything written in English about it (I checked). If you don’t speak or read Japanese and you walk by it, trust me, there’s no welcome sign for you. You have to do the work; learn the language.

Thanks to the internet, now anybody can become a Japan tsū. If you can’t read Japanese, presto… use Google translate and years of Japanese study become unnecessary. We live in the era of short cuts, instant gratification and instant expertise.

In 2016 I was astonished to see the multilingual signage in Kyoto. No more wondering about the history of a jinja or a street name’s pronunciation. Easy peasy. A wonderful boon to tourists. But for serious students of Japanese perhaps it might make them lazy since everything is done for them. I hope I’m wrong. Surely they are still huddled under their kotatsu memorizing kanji for hours upon hours. No?

So, I still think it is worth taking the time and making the effort to learn the language if you really want to know Japan. Or as they say, it’s not the destination, but the journey to get there. But hey, I’m just a grumpy old lady! Meanwhile, S Restaurant continues much the way it always has, hopefully never to be found in an article entitled “Top Ten Quaint Eateries of Kyoto.”

  • jōhō – 情報 information
  • resutoran – レストラン restaurant
  • setto – セット set, as in set menu
  • ippin ryōri - 一品料理  à la carte items
  • poteto sarada – ポテトサラダ potato salad (the Japanese version of the Western version of it)
  • kitsune soba – 狐そば a kind of soba dish with seasoned deep-fried tofu. One of the cheapest items on a menu.
  • ebi furai – エビフライ fried shrimp
  • denwa bango – 電話番号 telephone number. Literally telephone + number
  • genkin – 現金 cash
  • taishū shokudo - 大衆食堂  literally a “restaurant for the masses.” It describes the type of eatery that is simple, cheap, filling, unpretentious, and with no surprises. They seem to be few and far between these days.
  • tsū – 通 an expert or connoisseur. Often used as a suffix to indicate a subject one has expertise in.
  • jinja – 神社 Shinto shrine
  • kotatsu – 炬燵 a low table combined with a special futon that is used as a heating device

Mr. Donut

I was ecstatic when a Mr. Donut came to Kyoto and it was in easy bike-riding distance to my geshuku. With all that good Japanese food and pastry, you might wonder why I’d be so ureshii. Well, (as they say in Fiddler on the Roof) let me tell you.

At a certain point in your stay in Japan, you get cravings for tabemono from home. It might be a craving for a food that you genuinely miss, but sometimes it is for something really silly or minor. Certainly there were no donuts in Kyoto back then that were American style. You could find small soy milk donuts at the Nishiki Market, but I could not relate.

It wasn’t like I had really patronized donut chains in the US, but in my last year of daigaku, I lived in a house with one of my professors, and each Sunday morning he’d go out and pick up a copy of the Sunday New York Times and a box full of donuts. So, who wouldn’t indulge given that combination?!

My children want to correct me when I say Mr. Donut. First off, they are so used to Dunkin Donuts that they doubted it existed. But I remember when I lived in the Boston area and you’d see both chains.

Must. Be. Cute.

Back to Kyoto. One of the great miryoku of Mr. Donut on the corner of Kawaramachi and Imadegawa street (university student territory for sure) was a bottomless cup of coffee. Refills! That didn’t exist in Japan at the time, though it was normal in America. Sure, it wasn’t the best coffee, but sometimes with coffee quantity is what really matters. The donuts were fresh and oishii. My favorites then were the French cruller and the cinnamon donuts. When I have a certain repetitive dream of donuts (blush) it always involves cinnamon donuts. And finally, it was open at all hours. If I am remembering correctly, it might have been a 24 hour operation. That meant that when I had jet lag and was up at 2 AM, I could have breakfast there.

When I moved to Tokyo my donut habit continued. Sweet potato donuts! Mr. Donut was getting into the local scene and Japanese flavors began to show up. I was a fan and so were my kids. In fact we talk about the sweet potato donuts to this day. When I look at today’s choices in Japan, though, I think they are very overdone and way too sweet. But, that is just me.

If you travel to Japan, don’t be shy about trying out a chain restaurant from the States. There will be surprises for sure!

  • geshuku – 下宿 lodgings
  • ureshii – 嬉しい happy
  • tabemono – 食べ物 food
  • Nishiki Market – 錦場 Google it, if you don’t know it. It’s a famous food shopping street in downtown Kyoto. It might be more famous for being crowded than for food at this point, but admittedly, you have to visit it.
  • daigaku -大学  university or college
  • miryoku – 魅力 charm or fascination
  • oishii – 美味しい delicious

Arashiyama, 2016

From my trip diary:

We knew it would be crowded and indeed it was. I thought that we should arrive there on the Randen, so we took the subway to the end of the Tozai Line and then it was just across the street to access the Randen which was founded in 1910 and is the only tram in Kyoto now. There was no place to buy a ticket at the very small station. It turns out it is a flat fee of 210 (in 2016) and you can pay when you get off. Indeed it was packed with city dwellers, but more so tourists. It is just one or two cars and very cute. We arrived at Arashiyama Station where there were hoards of people. I just wanted to get out.

Bamboo Forest with Rikusha

So we crossed the street and started following the crowds to the bamboo forest which was high on my daughter’s list and is very famous. To be honest, I don’t find it all that interesting or attractive and having the hoards of tourists made it even worse. The narrow street was full of people walking and taking photos but cars also came through as well as jinrikusha, which made it so that you always had to be paying attention to something other than the bamboo. We did take all the requisite photos. I’m not sure that it was the best day for photo taking, or maybe it was too early in the day to get the full effect of the sun.

Dango with coffee! A breakfast that was perfect for me.

Or maybe I was grouchy and needing breakfast! As we walked we passed many small places for snacks but I needed coffee. Finally we hit gold with a place that had a dango set with coffee. It was delicious! But all I wanted to do was separate from the crowds and I had Adashinonenbutsu on my mind.

On the way there we went into some of the smaller temples that had fewer people. Eventually we were in classy suburbs and green fields and the bulk of the tourists were gone. We passed small shops, so we knew we were still in a tourist area. And we climbed upward and finally reached Adashinonenbutsu which is essentially a graveyard. It has always been special to me both for atmosphere and the admittedly sentimental aspect of it having a festival on the date of my tanjōbi. The grounds were absolutely lovely and the foliage was amongst the best we would see during this trip. Photo ops abounded. I’d say there were less than ten people there and we were able to peacefully enjoy our time. If I had to pick one place to go for Kyoto foliage, I’d pick this place. It’s a bit of a hidden treasure.

Adashinenbutsu

We left silently and started to think about lunch. We knew we wanted yudōfu since this area is famous for it. The problem was how to choose the right place. We randomly chose one and had an excellent tofu lunch. It included yudōfu, yuba, some mochi-like item etc.

We chose to sit at a table rather than tatami. We had a view of the garden which was lovely. After we ate I visited the restroom hesitantly because places like this usually had pretty primitive facilities. Again I was pleasantly surprised to find a very clean and high-tech toilet facility. This is the best change I’m enjoying on this trip. It makes me wish that I could see the toilet in my old homestay; I wonder if they have updated.

After lunch we walked back the way we had came and then turned off to go to Tenryuji which is a heritage spot. I did not enjoy it very much because, again, we were immersed in crowds. How does a heritage spot beat out other spots, I wonder? We spent some time there and then exited to the main street of Arashiyama, which again was packed. I thought my daughter should see Togetsukyo since it is one of the sights of Arashiyama. We crossed over it (with the crowds) and spent some time enjoying the beautiful sunny warm day sitting along the riverside—away from most of the crowd.

  • Randen – 嵐電 a small tram to Arashiyama
  • jinrikusha – 人力車 a tourist gimmick for those who don’t want to walk and would rather ride in a carriage pulled by a real live person.
  • tanjōbi – 誕生日 birthday
  • yudōfu – 湯豆腐 a simple tofu dish. The quality of the tofu is what makes this dish. It’s all about the tofu.
  • yuba – ゆば a soybean product often called tofu skin as it it forms on the top of soy milk during the processing of tofu
  • tatami – 畳 bamboo mats

2016 – Our First Day

Kiyomizu, 2016

From my trip diary – first day back in Kyoto after 30+ years

"I knew Kiyomizu would be packed. I was surprised at the number of Chinese tourists, but this would become a recurring theme. There was also construction going on, which would also become a recurring theme. We meandered home from there through the Ni and Sannenzaka streets. Saw many tourists wearing kimono. Assume some are Japanese, but most are Chinese. And some Muslim girls. Also saw bride photography--I think a Chinese couple. Photos and more photos. I think Kyoto must be the most photographic city in the world. You can’t really take a bad photo. We amused ourselves by going into shops. We tasted dashi, umeboshi tea and curry senbei. I made my first purchase of yuzu tōgarashi. No regrets! I should have bought more. It makes everything good. So, Marui Department Store apparently replaced Hankyu Department Store. I think I remember when the Hankyu was new. Takashimaya no longer has the hana tokei. I wonder what the downtown meeting place is now?”

In 2016 it was a real walk down memory lane for me and also a chance to introduce Kyoto to my daughter, who had left her young son in the care of her husband to join me for part of my trip. We’d fumbled around late at night trying to find our AirBnB. But we were up early and I had declared that the very first thing she needed to do was to see Kiyomizu. And there we were smack in the middle of foliage season. So, let’s just say we were not alone. No expectations there.

But that’s the thing. We walked there from our lodging which was near City Hall. And it was early enough that very few shops were open and even downtown was pretty empty. We meandered since we had no real schedule to adhere to. We headed in the general direction of Kiyomizu, depending solely on my body memory to do so. Even Gion was empty. But when we got to Kiyomizu, the crowds magically appeared. And that was fine because one always expects crowds at Kiyomizu. It adds to the festive atmosphere. And even on the grounds itself, we still found empty areas.

And that’s what I think about tourism in Kyoto. Let the tourists do all the famous places. Enjoy their joy as they take it in. And then for those of us who’ve taken the time to “know” Kyoto, well, we’ll just wander off and find our own special places. And that’s the best thing about Kyoto—that there is always something new to discover.

  • Kiyomizu – 清水 Possibly the most famous temple in Kyoto. Properly called Kiyomizu-dera 清水寺because Kiyomizu is also a kind of pottery etc. Literally means “pure water.”
  • 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.
  • umeboshi – 梅干し pickled plum
  • senbei – 煎餅 Japanese rice crackers
  • yuzu – ゆず a Japanese citrus. Becoming more popular and known here in the States now.
  • tōgarashi – 唐辛子 pepper
  • hananadokei - 花時計 flower clock. Maybe I dreamed it because all the Googling in the world isn’t yielding a photo. It used to be the place where you’d meet up with people downtown. It was in the lobby of Takashimaya and was a clock surrounded by flowers. Maybe it was known my a different name, but I always called it the hanadokei.

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?!

Kandagawa

Here’s where we can find a generational divide. There’s a river called Kandagawa in Tokyo. I just did a google search (in English) and the word Kandagawa brings up some anime. Or a chef by that name. That is not my Kandagawa nor that of my generation. For us, it immediately brings up an uta and a certain seikatsu and seishun.

Kandagawa – a gritty city view of it

In 1973, the folk movement was flourishing in Japan and a group called Kaguyahime was singing Kandagawa. For many a binbō student, it resonated deeply as it described our lifestyle. And yes, it was my lifestyle as well at that time. I have surprised Japanese people during conversations by describing something as “very Kandagawa.” It might have been when talking about the public bath. Or a tatami room in a wooden building. I miss those days, inconvenient as they were. And I’m not alone. There is a huge nostalgia for the Showa style of lie that had fewer choices, but a simpler way of being. Here are the words of the song:

Maybe you've already forgotten
How we went to the public bath down the lane
With our red hand towels as mufflers
You said, "Let's go together" 
But you always made me wait 
My damp hair was frozen down to the roots 
I rattled the small soap 
You held me 
And said, "You're cold" 
When we were young, I wasn't afraid of anything 
Only your tenderness made me afraid 

Maybe you've already thrown away 
The drawing of me you made 
With the twenty-four-color set of pastel crayons you bought 
"Make it good," I said 
But it didn't look like me at all
 I can see the Kanda River from out the window 
Of my three-tatami room at the boarding house 
You looked at my fingertips 
And asked, "Are you sad?" 
When we were young, I wasn't afraid of anything 
Only your tenderness made me afraid 
Credits: http://megchan.com/lyrics/index.php?title=Kaguya_Hime/Kandagawa 
A public bath in Kyoto circa 2016. Slowly they are becoming extinct….

For those of us who remember going to the public bath with a partner and separating as you entered the women’s side and he entered the side for men— and trying to coordinate leaving at the same time, it is particularly poignant. You’d finish bathing and step outside hoping that your partner had either finished a few seconds before you or would step out momentarily. In fuyu it meant the difference between staying warm and being cold again, which defeated some of the purpose. And you’d walk home together, perhaps stopping for some oden. But that’s another story.

The original version, though many singers have covered it since.
  • Kandagawa – 神田川 a river in Tokyo. Kanda is a part of Tokyo, and kawa means river. Very straightforward. If you’re riding a train through Tokyo you may see it from the window. Very urban. The Kanda area is where all the used bookstores are and was a favorite lodging place for students back in the day since it was cheaper to live there.
  • uta – 歌 song
  • seikatsu – 生活 life style
  • seishun – 青春 youth. Often combined with jidai, which means era or period to talk about younger days
  • binbō – 貧乏 poor. What did you think it would mean?!
  • Showa – 昭和 the period from 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.
  • fuyu – 冬 winter
  • 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.

Special Places

We all have them. Or maybe we all had them but they’ve been ruined by the advent of sōsharumedia which seems determined to out every special hidden place anyone has found, complete with detailed chizu. It’s benri, but it is also the easy track when it is done for Japan.

One of my biggest shokku upon returning to Kyoto in 2016 was the amount of signage offered up in English, Korean and Chinese. Kyoto is a tourist city, but really? You’re going to make it that easy for people? Don’t they need to pay their dues (like I did) and learn the language and the ins and outs the hard way? Grumble, grumble. Can you see why the original title of this blog was the Grouchy Granny?

Japanese, English, Korean and Chinese

Even worse than this is the amount of jōhō that is easily found online about places that used to be secret, isolated, empty and shizuka, that are now overrun with kankōkyaku. I do not like to share. Especially when I put in the work!

In the summer of 1979, a friend and I took another friend to visit Kiyomizu Temple. That’s almost the number one tourist spot in Kyoto, but we also knew it would feel cooler up in the hills. After we’d walked around the temple grounds we found a little tea shop with a niwa in back. You’d never know it was there unless you could read Japanese. It was unassuming… and beautiful. The owner took this shashin of the three of us.

Old times, good times

It seems ironic for me to complain about kankōkōgai when I myself was a tourist in 2016. But… I put in my time. And was able to find the Kyoto I missed on the back streets and in restaurants with no language but Japanese. So there.

Right off the main drag, but we were the only foreigners there.
  • sōsharumedia – ソーシャルメディア social media
  • chizu – 地図 a map
  • benri – 便利 convenient
  • shokku – ショック shock(s), surprise
  • shizuka – 静か quiet/peaceful
  • kankōkyaku – 観光客 tourist(s)
  • niwa – 庭 garden
  • shashin – 写真 photograph(s)
  • kankōkōgai – 観光公害 overtourism. Literally tourism pollution.

Mugi Tei

In haru of 1979, I went to work at a small Eikaiwa School called REC (Recre-Educational Center). The foreign staff once had a smirky laugh over the name when a student got up during a Q&A gathering and asked with a serious look on his face, “How did you come to this REC?” But REC was no wreck; it was a classy joint with classy students for the most part. In fact, Nitani Hideaki, (family name first as is Japanese custom) a famous haiyū, had started the school and had even taught there for awhile. You can read about him here. Located directly across the street from Nijo Castle, it was an easy bike ride for me from any location, i.e. no hills. I’d work either an eight-hour or a four-hour shift.

Me giving a speech at fancy holiday party for REC. Second photo shows Mr. Nitani clearly.

During ohiru or bangohan breaks, I often went to a tiny resutoran around the corner called Mugi-Tei. It was popular with a lot of factory and small business workers in the area. When you become a regular customer in such places, you often get to know the owner/chef. Eventually he would cook me my favorite dishes. In fact, he put my favored meal on the wall menu as “The Sara Special.” It’s a good pun, because my name in Japanese can mean plate. The Sara Special would have an tamago-yaki with a Japanese spinach salad and whatever else, I forget now. I once asked him if anyone actually ever ordered it and he laughed and said a few people had.

Part of the huge Mugi-Tei menu. The owner really could cook anything and varied the menu often.


So, after awhile, I started to hang out with him after hours and then to pitch in as a waitress in my free time. The owner of the school I taught at absolutely hated having his gaikokujin sensei doing this. But it gave me new opportunities to meet less classy people. I was all about meeting the average jūmin and not just the people who were trying to learn English. As you can see in the photo, I was a very absent-minded waitress!

The daydreaming waitress that I was

About a year later, I took a trip back to the US for a couple of weeks, and when I returned the resutoran was gone and the owner had disappeared into the night. They’d had a fire in the kitchen, and this is cause for huge disgrace in Kyoto where buildings were still mokuzō and close together. Reopening the resutoran would not have been an option.  I remained friends with many of his customers, but we all had to find another place to eat in a neighborhood with few good options.

  • haru – 春 spring
  • Eikaiwa – 英会話 English conversation
  • haiyū – 俳優 actor
  • ohiru – お昼 noon, but often used to mean lunch
  • bangohan – 晩ご飯 dinner
  • resutoran – レストラン restaurant. There are many ways to say restaurant in Japanese depending on the type of food it serves. You would not use this for a cheap Chinese joint or an eatery that serves only soba. It implies Western-like food and probably came into popularity due to the 1970s invasion of “famirī restoran -ファミリーレストラン” like Big Boy and Dennys. Shorter still, famiresu (ファミレス)
  • tamago-yaki -卵焼き Japanese style omelette
  • gaikokujin sensei – 外国人先生 foreign teacher. If you’re a Western foreigner you get a special status as a teacher, i.e. higher salary than your Japanese counterpart. We call this privilege.
  • jūmin – 住民 resident
  • mokuzō – 木造 made of wood. Tokyo burned so quickly during WW2 because of all the wooden structures. And since homes and buildings are so close together in many cities, it’s important to know what your building is made of and if it is wooden or has some steel support, etc. Fire spreads when you live and work in tight quarters.

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.

There is Nothing to Eat in Tokyo

That was what people would tell me when I said I was thinking of leaving Kyoto to move to Tokyo. I had a few friends there and I was curious to see what it would be like to live there. But the natives of Kyoto repeatedly would tell me that there was nothing good to eat there. In the whole city, I’d ask incredulously? And they’d assure me that was the case. Have you ever heard anything more ridiculous?

It wasn’t just the food. I had been studying kouta and learning to play the shamisen. When I asked my sensei if she could recommend a teacher in Tokyo so that I could continue, she said there weren’t any. Again… in the WHOLE city? Seriously, this rivalry was kind of overplayed. I thought.

Imagine me on my knees like this for an hour-long lesson with a No Mercy teacher. I’d fall over in pain when we finished and I’d try to stand up. She would simply look bemused.

You cannot disregard the differences between these two areas. Tokyo is in Kantō and Kyoto is in Kansai. There are different dialects, different foods, and even different electrical frequencies, i.e. you need a converter for some appliances. To this day.

Nonetheless, I brushed all this off and made the move. And spat out the broth the first time I had soba in Tokyo. It was awful. Shioppoi! It just tasted wrong. It turns out my washoku tastebuds had been formed in Kyoto and that was that. Even after years of living in Tokyo I could not tolerate the way food was seasoned. I wanted to go back to Kyoto and stuff my face with delicious food.

Nishin soba. A dish you will not find in Tokyo

And it wasn’t just the seasoning. During my first summer in Tokyo, I went into a cheap Chinese joint and ordered reimen. I got a blank stare in return. Turns out that you call cold noodles hiyashi chūka in Tokyo. So even the language was a little different.

And my shamisen teacher was correct. There were no teachers for my particular ryū of kouta.

I think I speak a fairly standard Japanese at this point, but put me in the room with some folks from Kyoto and my speech patterns change. Because yokareashikare Kyoto is where I started my life in Japan.

  • kouta – 小唄 literally small song. Short songs that are accompanied by shamisen. Very traditional
  • shamisen – 三味線 three-stringed Japanese instrument
  • Kantō – 関東 the Eastern area of Japan
  • Kansai – 関西 the Western area of Japan
  • soba – 蕎麦 buckwheat noodles
  • shioppoi – 塩っぽい salty. Shio alone is salt.
  • washoku – 和食 Japanese food, i.e. not Western or Chinese
  • reimen – 冷麺 cold Chinese noodles in the Kansai area
  • hiyashi chūka – 冷やし中華 same as above, but this is what they are called in the rest of Japan
  • ryū – 流 style or school, You have different ryū in tea ceremony, karate, flower arranging, etc. People are very loyal to their ryū.
  • yokareashikare – 良かれ悪しかれ “for better or for worse”