It is about rush hour and I am rushing. Cooking class is finished and I am scurrying downtown for Ikebana (Japanese flower arranging). The schedule is not ideal but worth the commute a million times over. Students and workers heading home on bike and foot clog the sidewalk. The energy is serious and focused. I am in this stream, but headed the other direction, downtown. Here in Hiroshima yellow tiles make a path down the middle of the sidewalk for the blind. This yellow brick road is very helpful, except that walking on them makes my footing unstable. I walk on it to stay out of the way of the bicyclists zooming past me. The walk provides the second wind I need and the chance to shift my brain from Japanese cooking to Japanese flower arranging. The air has an unfamiliar warmness to it, like hot breath, on my neck. The train passing above my head rattles my entire being, as two school kids approach me on bikes. I move to the right, looking over my shoulder in time to see that I have just stepped in front of an old lady on a bike. She has to slow down not to hit me and I as try to get out of her way, she has moved that way too and so I stop, bowing and apologizing profusely in Japanese, as she passes. It is then that I see that her face is one like an old hag in a Disney movie. Catching my breath, I notice her white terry cloth hat nodding; intuitively knowing she is bowing to me.
I pass the beautiful old Buddhist temple, a coffee shop, the ‘fruit and flower’ shop, a seven-eleven. This is my neighborhood. The mixture of hiragana, katakana and kanji are starting to make sense on the signs and posters. The blooming flowers offer a sensual contrast to the concrete. As I round the corner headed to the crosswalk, I see her. The old woman in the terrycloth hat is looking at me. I weakly smile and needlessly adjust my shopping basket. I look up to two intense smiling brown eyes coming my way. “Konnichi wa”, I say bowing. Like a veil lifting, her smile unmasks her face.
“Where are you from?” she asks, quivering. She is so excited to speak English. In Japanese I say, America, the state of Idaho, but I live here in Ushita honmachi now. “I am going to the reusable center (dang the light turns green and we are walking enmass together across the six lane road) I may have something here you may need.” Her face is so cute. Every inch of it is sparkling and friendly. She is frantically trying to walk her housewife bike, and open up the bag in the basket to show me. We stop at the other side. I can feel our obtrusiveness to the commuters. She doesn’t seem to care. I tell her I am very late for ikebana, she immediately understands. “I hope to see you again.” She says and I scurry off. I can feel she is watching me. I hope we do.
Don’t judge a book by its cover
If you come to Japan you must live by this idiom. Everyday we walk by hidden treasures in all forms. We can smell wonderful smells but see dark forbidding doorways. We pass stone-faced peoples of all colors. I am learning over and over again not to judge.
Takehara is considered Hiroshima’s Little Kyoto. It is a historical place, houses preserved from pre-war days. Yorie san is a wonderful guide, making sure we see all we can. She even has staked out a certain restaurant. While we are shopping at the bamboo basket-weaving booth, she inquires about lunch. The owner tells her to go to his favorite place instead. Down the street we go, turn a corner, down another street, we end up in front of a western looking house. Following Yorie like duckilings, in we go. There is one tiny woman behind the counter. The tables are like my great grandmother’s. Steel legs and Formica counter top. The place feels like a forgotten set of a sixties show. Yorie sits right down and so do we. The owner brings us a laminated piece of paper. It says ‘ranchi’ (lunch) ‘seto’(set)-soup, salad, rice, fish, coffee or tea. We have no choice. We order. It is a simple, beautiful, nutritious, traditional Japanese meal. A couple of times people came in and immediately went back out. I am glad we had not done that.
One Saturday Rich and I decide to check out Yokogawa station. I have not experienced any place in the US like the train stations here. In my mind a train station is where Thomas and his friends hang out. It has taken a while to absorb the concept that a train station is where it stops along its route and the shops surrounding that stop. We park our bikes and walk down a narrow street lined with interesting storefronts. We feel like tourists. There is scant roman lettering. It feels like Diagon alley. Things are not shiny and new. Some stores are about the width of your closet, but much deeper. Dusty, grimy good luck tokens sit on the sills. This place feels hundreds of years old. All the doors are sliders, some with paper windows, others with glass. The wood is dark and rough. The bookstore’s garish light draws our attention. Adult men and teenagers are hunched over, reading all sorts of anime. As we walk by the women at a tiny women’s clothing store quit talking. These small, hunched women are looking but Not looking at us. I want to go check out the tunics and aprons since I too am a Japanese housewife. (Another time, with Etsuko is my plan.)
We are too early for the ramen shop whose reputation brought us here. At the end of the street I see beautiful Japanese treats in the window. They are smooth and white. They are made with omochi (pounded rice) flour and colorful ingredients decorating the outside. They look too good to eat and according to most foreigners are. The Japanese love a mildly sweet red bean paste. It is what is inside and although it all tastes the same to us, it doesn’t. All the shop’s doors have a noren-a curtain that displays the name of the business and protects it from the sun, wind and dust. They all contribute to the feeling that they have been around a long time. We follow our noses and down the street, turn a corner, pass a fish shop with huge clams, fish and sea creatures. We stop at a shop that has boxes of fabric, a rack of kimono jackets, and a hand carved picture of a beautiful Japanese woman. Rich encourages me to go in.
Up to this point we have not entered one business. Their lack of westerness makes us shy. Their smallness, oldness, darkness is not inviting. Before I can protest Rich pushes open the sliding door and escorts me in. We have to bend to get through. When I straighten up, eyes adjusting to the lack of light, we are in a shop of treasures. A beautiful kimono hangs on the back wall. In front of it is a tatami. It is covered with piles of rich, thick, brightly colored, neatly folded kimonos. There is barely enough room to walk between the counters and tables. The store is about the size of our living room back home. A bell has tinkled when we came in and a kimono dressed woman comes up from a back room. This must be her storefront. She is surprised to see us by the look on her face. A light scent of incense adds to the specialness of this place. I really appreciate Rich’s uninhibited manner at these times. He is touching all the objects. Picking them up and looking at them. Kimonos have colorful, unique accessories-ropes, ties, doodads of every shape and color. He is looking for his mom something special. I realize this is a second hand shop. We find a pile of obi-the thick ornate belts that are specially tied around the kimono. Emi has said that her generation does not wear kimono. It’s too uncomfortable. But they are using the obi as a table runner. We find one that we like. I have not spoken because I have a feeling this is not going to be easy. Rich on the other hand asks questions and gets wide-eyed nods. We can’t tell if she wants us to leave or is just nervous. When we pay, she is friendly. She tells me my Japanese is skilled. She is speaking slow and clear. I know I will be back.
We hear it over and over from other foreigners. “It looks old and dirty but the food is awesome”. Many times you go through a door to go down an alley and up stairs before you find the little restaurant. A sign of our growth is that we now visit establishments with the address for f4 or L3. Buildings house many businesses. Adventures are had just entering and climbing the stairs.