My great-grandmother was a geisha. She grew up in a remote village surrounded by the mountains and left home for a big city to become a geisha. She had a daughter by a patron and died right after she gave birth. The daughter was my grandmother on my mother’s side. She didn’t remember her mother at all and didn’t know her father, either. No one still knows who her father is, except that he was a rich and powerful name.
She was taken in and raised by her mother’s parents at their home in the mountains, but for various reasons, she was soon handed over to one relative to another. She lived in countless different homes of her relatives and changed her school for innumerable times in her childhood. At every school she attended, she was the smartest honor student and had never dropped to second.
One of her relative’s homes where she lived for a while was my grandfather’s. Years after she left, he told his parents that he wanted to marry her. She got married with him at the age of sixteen and moved in his house again as his wife. She settled down and got her family at long last. But only five years later, my grandfather was drafted for World War II and she was left with her two daughters, one of which is my mother, and her in-laws.
A former prodigy with no home and no parents found herself working hard as a farmer everyday in the fields with her in-laws…
Episode From An Old Tree in Kyoto /Hodemi Woods
When I was nine years old, I suffered from a kidney disease called nephritis. I skipped school and stayed in bed at home for a week as I felt sick and had a fever every day. It had gotten so worse that I vomited blood one night and passed out. My mother found it next morning and called in a neighbor who worked as a nurse. She urged my mother to take me to the local clinic which doctor in turn urged her to get me examined at the hospital. As a result, I was hospitalized for nephritis.
As it was when I lived in a small village of Kyoto, Japan, no one in my family knew what nephritis was. My mother rummaged out a supplement of a homemaking magazine that featured medical issues. It had charts of disease that showed a result according to symptoms by following the arrows to correspond applicable symptoms. I chose the arrows of my symptoms and ended up the result of ‘death’. No matter how many times and how many different patterns I tried, the bottom of the chart concluded with a word ‘death’. “Does it mean I’ll die of this disease in any case?” My mother and I asked the same question to each other and closed the booklet.
My hospitalized days in a shared room of six patients at the children’s ward began. As a nephritis patient, I didn’t have freedom of flushing the toilet. Urine had to be kept in a glass jar each time to be examined. Its amount and color told a condition of a patient. Other patients’ jars were put on the shelves along with mine. Compared to others’, mine was less and darker. I was afraid if my condition was so bad. Because I didn’t want to admit it and didn’t want doctors and nurses to find it either, I tried to cheat. Into a one-time jar, I urinated twice so that at least my amount seemed normal. It had escalated gradually and I urinated the whole day into one jar. Ironically, the abnormally large amount of urine drew an alarming attention of a nurse who thought my illness had taken an inexplicable turn for the worse. It worked directly opposite to what I had intended and I confessed my cheating helter-skelter.
My six-patient room wasn’t usually lonesome as we were kids and some of their parents were allowed to stay with them on the couches next to their beds. But some got permission to go home for the night provisionally, some got well and left the hospital, some got worse and moved to a single room, all of which coincided at the same time and the room was almost empty one night. A girl whose bed was on the opposite side of mine and I were only patients in the room. After the lights-out time, she asked in the darkness if I was still awake. As I answered yes, she started telling me a story that she made. I thought she felt lonely and couldn’t sleep because the room was too quiet that night with just two of us. Her story was about two rabbits. They seeded, watered and grew carrots at each section in the field. The night before the harvest, one of the two rabbits sneaked in the field and pulled out all the carrots from the other rabbit’s section. He ate them all and put leaves back on each hole to cover it. Next morning, two rabbits came up to the field and started to harvest their carrots on their each section. The other rabbit, who knew nothing about the night before, was excited to reap his carrots since he had been looking forward to this day for long. But every time he pulled out his carrot, there was nothing beyond the leaves. He was puzzled and sang, “Nothing but leaves my carrot gives!” While his friend rabbit was pulling out a ripe carrot one after another next to his section, he pulled out only leaves out of a hole repeatedly and sang each time, “Nothing but leaves my carrot gives!” I dozed off and woke up by the girl’s voice of “Hidemi, are you listening?” a few times during the story. Unfortunately, my patience didn’t last until the end. I had been completely asleep at that part of the story and didn’t get the ending. With hindsight, her story may not be her original but something she read or heard since it ‘s too good for a story that a small child makes. Either way, I still remember the story for some reason. When my song didn’t sell at all although I had spent many years to complete it, I heard “Nothing but leaves my carrot gives!” from somewhere.
One day, we had a new comer in the six-patient room. Although she was a junior high school student and wasn’t supposed to be in the children’s ward, she was sent here because the women’s ward was full. She was unhappy to be confined with kids and complained to her mother and the nurses. She looked a grown-up to me and I liked her instantly. I went to her bed to talk to her and tried to console her. I had been stuck to her bedside every day since. She often told me not to make her laugh because her wound from an appendix operation hurt. She laughed at my talks anyway. When she left the hospital, she gave me a gift. It was a small porcelain doll who was wearing a white bouffant skirt beneath which was a bell. On the skirt, there was a printed inscription saying, “I wish for your happiness.” I had put her on the shelves in my room long after I left the hospital, until I grew up and left home.
I think those hospital days have influenced me immensely. I had been constantly aware of death in those days. I got well after all but I had never felt death so close to me in my life. As it’s said that people don’t live life unless they understand death, that experience has driven me to think things based on the idea that I eventually die, and therefore to do what I want for my life. Even if my carrot gives nothing but leaves.
Once, on the festival for the local shrine of my hometown, my favorite grandfather on my mother’s side and I were talking alone at the front yard of my house. He knew a lot about plants and taught me the names of trees in the yard. There was a rooftop space above the garage and it was surrounded by a fence. We went up the rooftop and my grandfather began to climb the fence.
I tried to stop him but he said he could walk along the top of the fence. He was a war veteran and had been a POW in Russia for many years. In those days, according to him, Russian soldiers made POWs climb up tall chimneys and shot them from the ground for fun. His fellow POWs fell or got shot to death. Luckier men continued to climb up and survived.
My grandfather was one of the latter. Although he was old and a little drunk after the festival meal, he balanced himself and walked on the narrow fence, which was merely 4 inches wide and 13 feet above the ground. Watching him easily walking on the fence, I understood how dreadful his life as a POW was. This must be a cinch for him compared to forced acrobatics. He jumped off the fence and said smiling, “See? It’s easy!” while I was crying for many reasons…
Episode From An Old Tree in Kyoto /Hodemi Woods
I spent my schooldays from junior high to college at a Catholic school not for religious reasons but for my mother’s vanity. She wanted me to attend the most prestigious school in Kyoto in order to brag about it. With no religious background, I encountered quite a few unfamiliar events at school that held Catholic ceremonies regularly.
The school often celebrated the Mass, which was an entirely new and different culture to me and I hadn’t the slightest idea what they were doing. Christian students sat in the front row with white lace veils on their heads at the assembly hall. The priest gave them something that looked like a soft snack and they ate it. I regarded it as the believers’ benefits to have a snack during the Mass.
The school held the annual Candle Service near Christmas. Before my first-ever Candle Service at junior high, a Catholic sister told us to bring something from home as a donation for the Candle Service. She added for those who couldn’t think of what to bring, that bars of soap would do. I had no clue what the Candle Service was. All I could imagine was I would receive some sort of service from sisters. I looked forward to it because I thought sisters would serve cake or tea like a Christmas party, and I could get it just with a bar of soap. But as it turned out, we just stood in line holding a candle at the dark assembly hall and sang several hymns endlessly to the poor accompaniment of the orchestra club students. While singing, we got on the stage one by one and put a bar of soap or other donations into a cardboard box. When all the students finished putting their donations into the box, the service was over without any cake.
The school had a big, tall fir tree across from the entrance gate. It stood by the side of one of the school buildings like a wall decoration. Its top reached as high as the third floor of the building. Judging from its size, it was planted there when two sisters came from U.S. after WWII and opened the school.
Around Christmastime, the tree was decorated with ornaments and made the school look beautiful. I was a member of the student board when I was a sophomore. Until then, I hadn’t known that the decoration was a student board’s task. I felt exhilarating for the first time as a student board member. The boring board revived and every member had so much fun decorating the tree together. The tree was too tall to decorate the upper part from outside by a ladder. We got inside the building, put an ornament on the tip of a broomstick and stretched it out of the window of the third floor. Gold tinsel garlands were thrown toward the tree from the forth floor window. It was the biggest Christmas tree I had ever decorated.
I had had all those Christian events and classes in the Bible for years until college and yet I never really understood the meaning. I left school, got out into the world, and worked as a musician. Through the years of making music that hasn’t been paying, I feel I finally know why I continue and have spent so much time and energy to create a good song, which hasn’t brought me money or fame. It took a long time to understand, but better late than never, I suppose…