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”

Ghost Town

My first apartment was in a ghost town. No, not like an American ghost town. It was a ghost town because it was located on the Ghost Line that runs through Japan. You see, in August, during the Obon season, ancestors return to visit. They take the yūrei sen and my little area of Kyoto happened to be a stop on the line. It had a pond and of course ghosts get thirsty so they would stop by the pond to drink. I am not making this up. It’s what I learned from everyone when I said I lived in Midorogaike.


Reactions would vary. Many people would shiver either involuntarily or dramatically and say, “Oh, aren’t you scared to live there?” I wasn’t… but I was beginning to understand why the apartment rent was cheaper than other places.

Kyoto took its ghosts seriously. I started to learn the stories. For example, one of the popular ghost stories was about a takushii driver who picked up a woman downtown. She asked to go to Midorogaike and when they got there, he turned around and the woman had disappeared leaving just a damp spot where she’d been sitting. In fact, that story was so well-known that sometimes when I would try to catch a taxi home from the same downtown area, the taxi drivers would refuse to take me when they heard my destination. I am really not making this up. Take a look at this.

Every day I’d leave my apartment and walk to the bus stop to get into town. I’d walk past the same gentleman each morning. He sat ramrod straight in a kuruma isu with a fine red and grey woolen blanket draped carefully across his lap. He had a stern look on his face. Dignified, maybe you’d call it. He was older. I’d calculated he was just the right age to have fought in World War II and here I was, an American, walking by him each morning. I never dared to say a word. Should I apologize for the war? Surely the injuries that had put him in that chair were from the war. What did he think when I walked by? Did the sight of me bring back bad memories? There was no other way to get to the bus stop. And he was out there every morning. I just didn’t know what to do. (Let’s all keep in mind that I was just 22 and had a vivid imagination.) I felt like I had to do something. Our two countries had fought each other.

So one day, I summoned up all of my courage, looked at him straight in the eye and said, “Ohayo gozaimasu.” And made a tentative bow.

And to my great surprise, his stern demeanor crumbled up into a warm smile and he responded, “Ohayo-chan.”

Ohayo-CHAN? What the heck was that? Ohayo-san was a Kyoto version of “good morning” but why was I getting the ‘chan‘ treatment? I still do not know, but chan is what you’d use, instead of san, when speaking to a child. From his point of view–and age–maybe that was warranted. The other reason could have been an indication of warmth or affection.

From that day on, we greeted each other. I regret that I never had a real conversation with him, but my Japanese ability was very limited and I never dared try. I figured I’d done my bit for world peace and left it at that.

My route to the bus stop. Every morning.
  • obon – お盆 a holiday in August (or July in some areas) where ancestors return. So, many people travel back to their own home towns to greet them. Basically it serves as a summer holiday break.
  • yūrei – 幽霊 ghost, or spirit. More spirit than ghost.
  • 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.’ And it is.
  • takushii – タクシー taxi
  • kuruma isu – 車椅子 wheel chair. Isu itself is chair and kuruma is car or a wheeled vehicle
  • ohayō gozaimasu – お早うございます good morning. This is a very polite way of saying it. WIth friends you can just use ohayō .
  • ohayō san – お早うさん The Kyoto way of saying good morning. Used widely in the Kansai area (Western Japan).
  • ohayō chan – お早うちゃん The Kyoto way of saying good morning to a child