I like to spend my free time at a shopping mall. The first mall I had ever visited as a small child was called Rainbow Town. When it was built, people made noise about it because it was the first underground mall in western Japan -probably the first mall either on the ground or underground. The neighbors and the relatives of my family asked, “Did you go to Rainbow Town yet?” as daily greetings. My grandfather was fascinated by the concept of a mall. He often talked with wonder about what an artificial town was like and how it could exist underground.
Since the mall was located in the city next to ours, my grandparents and I finally went there one day by train. Although the destination was a mall, our purpose was sightseeing rather than shopping. My grandfather kept talking about his concern over sufficient air in the underground mall, while my grandmother got up early in the morning to fix lunch for all of us. We were headed for a mall as if we were going to NASA. The mall was crowded with cool, urban shoppers, and had a stream and a big fountain along the walk. I had never seen so many shops and restaurants gathering in one place. My grandparents were amazed that the mall was so bright with full electricity and decorative with water. They also couldn’t believe that there were restaurants, which used the fire to cook, though it was underground. My grandfather reminded me over and over that people and cars were passing through above us.
Because all the benches were taken, we sat on the rim of the fountain for lunch. We had my grandmother’s handmade rice balls and Japanese tea from our canteen there. Right in front of us was a nice restaurant where many customers had their decent lunch and a good time. My grandfather said to me triumphantly, “Do you know how much they have to pay in there? They’re stupid!” We left for home without eating or buying anything at the mall. My first mall experience wasn’t so good, but I love a shopping mall so much still…
episode from An Old Tree in Kyoto / Hidemi Woods
My childhood diet was very healthy. That may be the reason why I was such a skinny kid, contrary to how I am today.
I was born in a farmer’s family in Kyoto, an old city in Japan. My family used to be almost self-sufficient. We mainly ate the leftover vegetables of eggplant and spinach that weren’t fit to be sold at the market because of flaws. We also planted rice and other vegetables such as onions, potatoes, carrots, radishes, burdocks and green peppers, not for sale but exclusively for our daily meals. We kept barnyard fowls that provided fresh eggs every morning. Our breakfasts and lunches were almost always row egg mixed with rice and soy sauce, pickled vegetables and too-weak miso soup.
A natural life may sound beautiful and relaxing, but it’s not in reality. Our fowls would holler screaming crows at dawn every day which would induce the clamorous barking of dogs in the neighborhood. Sometimes, one of our fowls that I named and fed every day like my pets was missing, and we had chicken on the table at dinner that evening. It took time for me to realize I was eating my pet fowl while I was worried about its whereabouts. Sometimes, I did witness my grandfather choked and plucked our fowl.
Since we didn’t have to buy vegetables, we had large servings at meals. Unfortunately, all vegetable meals of ours tasted horrible because we had to pay for seasonings or cooking oil and we were stingy enough to refrain them. Everything on our table was flavorless and bland. It never stimulated my appetite and I stayed skinny. As time passed, shops had been appearing in the rural area around our house. Also, my grandfather began to loosen his tight reign of the household and my mother had been able to have some discretion to go shopping and spend money. Our self-sufficiency was rapidly falling. Foods from outside tasted awesome. My appetite finally came out of its long hibernation. I was hooked by ham and mayonnaise in particular, and became chubby in no time.
Of all the terribly-tasted foods that my grandfather had long eaten, he picked yogurt as the worst. When he saw my sister eat it everyday, he asked for one out of curiosity. He said he had never had such an awful food in his life. After I left home for my music career and started living by myself in Tokyo, he often asked my father to take him to my apartment that was far from Kyoto. He wanted to see what was like to live alone there. My father didn’t feel like taking on such a bother for him and used a clever repelling. He told my grandfather that I was eating pizza everyday in Tokyo.
Of course he knew both that I wasn’t and that my grandfather didn’t know what pizza was. He explained to my grandfather that a food called pizza was oily round bread covered with sour sticky substance called cheese that was stringy and trailed threads to a mouth at every bite. And he added a threat, “You would eat that thing in her small apartment. Can you do that?” My grandfather replied in horror, “Why should I eat such a thing rotten enough to pull threads? I can’t ever go to Tokyo.” That pizza description cleanly stopped my grandfather’s repetitive request.
When I returned home for a visit once, my grandfather asked me a question at dinner time. Pointing the four corners of the dining room and drawing invisible lines in the air with his chopsticks, he said, “Your entire apartment is merely about this size, isn’t it?” As I replied it was about right, he asked, “How come you chose to do all what is necessary to live in such a small space and eat stringy rotten foods with threads although you have a spacious house and nice foods here? Is music worth that much? I don’t understand at all.” He looked unconvinced. As for me, while I had a certain amount of hardship, I had a far better life with tasty foods and freedom compared to the one that I had had in this house. Nevertheless, I didn’t utter those words. I said nothing and pour sake for him into his small empty cup, instead.
My late grandfather liked to go out and often wanted to take me with him when I was little. Although I didn’t like to go out with him, I couldn’t say so because he was a tycoon in my family.
There were two reasons why going out with him wasn’t fun. One was because I was tense all the time being with him who used to be very strict. The other was because he sometimes took me to weird places such as the porn movies or a betting ticket office. So, when he said to me “Let’s go to a Christmas party together!” one day before Christmas, I sighed and felt dismal. It wasn’t common in Japan to have a Christmas party back then and I couldn’t imagine what it was like. It sounded shady enough since the offer came out from my grandfather. Of course I didn’t say no and left for the party with him.
The site was a small place looking like a community center. Several men were busy working in and out of the place. One of them spotted my grandfather in front of the building and greeted joyfully. He seemed so happy to have us. My grandfather was a head of a local senior citizen club and it turned out to be the club party. We arrived before the party officially started, but he led us inside. We were handed party hats and told to put on. The small hall was dark and had pretty Christmas decorations and music. There were a few snack stands and we were given tickets for the snack. Just for two of us, they worked in a hurry and let us know when the snack was ready one by one.
While people working there and my grandfather were all cheerful, I was cautious and sit tight because everything was totally new for me. I had never seen grown-ups having a Christmas party, had never put on a party hat, had never been suggested dancing, and had never seen my strict grandfather in such a good mood. We left when other guests began to show up. It was a sort of handmade party and not a gorgeous one. But unexpectedly, it was the best Christmas party I could remember…
episode from An Old Tree in Kyoto / Hidemi Woods
The elders of old families in the hamlet where I grew up had regularly practiced a Buddhist chant when I was little. My grandfather was one of them. He didn’t come home from the practice one night by the time he was supposed to. When we were worried and about to go look for him, he turned up at our doorstep sweating and getting muddy. He was shaken by fear and said, “It was a fox! A fox got me!”
Usually, he would come home by passing through the narrow unpaved alley that led to a wider street near our house. According to him, he was walking home on the familiar dirt alley as usual after he left the elder’s house where the chanting practice was held. But on that particular night, the alley he had walked hundreds of times didn’t come to the wider street. It didn’t end. When he reached the end of the alley, the entrance of the same alley started again instead of the street. The alley continued endlessly and he couldn’t get out of it. He began to panic, ran, tumbled, repeated countless trips through the alley and finally landed onto the street.
In my hometown, people believed that an inexplicable incident like this was caused by a fox that bewitched them. A fox sometimes pulled mischief around us, and my mother had a similar experience. Because it had been a common knowledge throughout the neighborhood, everybody in my family was fully convinced that my grandfather’s story was true – except I inwardly suspected that a fox might mean drunkenness. By the way, we call a shower when the sun is shining a fox’s wedding…
episode from An Old Tree in Kyoto / Hidemi Woods
When my grandfather was young, his father wanted him to be a schoolteacher. He had been visiting schools to have his son hired. Behind his back, my grandfather, who didn’t want to be a teacher, secretly applied to the biggest department store in the city and got accepted for the job there without any connections.
It was a famous, long-standing department store and before he started his job there was a three-way interview, the company personnel, my grandfather and his father. Now he came to a point to tell the truth to his father. Because he knew how much his father wanted to see him as a teacher, he braced himself for a stormy opposition. Instead, his father came to the interview, suggested to eat out on their way home, and ordered unusually expensive dishes for both of them, saying, “This is the best day of my life. I’ve never been this happy.”
My grandfather was quickly regarded as an executive candidate at the department store for his earnest and diligent work. But only a few months later, his father suddenly died. He was a farmer and the family lost its breadwinner and the master of the house. My grandfather had no choice other than quitting his job to take care of the family as a successor. He gave up his dream, became a farmer and dedicated his life solely to succeed the family, which I left although I was supposed to succeed…
episode from An Old Tree in Kyoto / Hidemi Woods
It was my grandfather’s birthday on Sunday. He would be 100 years old if he was still alive. His motto was to live until 100 years old. The reason was simple. A TV show. There was a show in Japan that introduced people who were 100 years old along with their family and their daily life. My grandfather’s dream was to appear and be introduced in the show.
He always had to be the center of attention. Every time his name happened to be mentioned in a local paper or a community bulletin, he would underline his name, clip the article, and show it to everyone. To me, it looked so stupid because he kept pointing at the underlined name although I knew his name duly. He craved to be famous. So, to be 100 years old was the chance of a lifetime for him to be on TV. He instructed us to be prepared for the filming. For instance, he told me to return home on the day of filming and answer questions about him from a reporter in front of the camera. His dream didn’t come true and I was the only one who celebrated his 100th birthday…
episode from An Old Tree in Kyoto / Hidemi Woods
Nephritis confined me in the hospital during the summer break when I was in the fourth grade living in Kyoto, Japan. Although I didn’t feel so sick, the doctor ordered me to be inactive all the time. Inside a six-bed pediatric ward and a hallway between the nurse station and the hospital kitchen was the allowed portion for me to move around. When I needed to go beyond it, a nurse put me in a wheelchair. Within a couple of days, I thought I would be bored to death, not from nephritis. I walked back and forth along my restricted stretch on the hallway many times a day, which also bored me quickly. One of my daily routines was to go take a tray meal of an unseasoned diet three times a day from the hospital kitchen on the furthest end of the allowed stretch. Next to the kitchen was a small recreation room that was carpeted and had a television. Watching TV was banned for some reason, and I used the room to blow bubbles. My mother brought me a bubble blower on one of her visits and I played with it out of the ward window. One day, I found out that bubbles remained for some time on the carpeted surface and that fascinated me. I blew as many bubbles as I could on the carpet in the recreation room and got me surrounded by glittering bubbles. I was obsessed with it as the room looked like a dreamland or heaven. That became my main pastime during my lockup and made the carpet so soggy and drenched that nobody could sit on it anymore.
One night in those hospital days, I woke up to the disturbing noise in the small hours. Doctors and nurses were hastily coming in and going out of my ward. They gathered around a girl whose bed was right across mine. She uttered in a faint voice, “It hurts, it hurts.” repeatedly. The curtains had been drawn around her bed and I had no idea what was going on, but at least I sensed something bad was happening to the girl. Next morning, I found her and her bed gone somewhere. I asked a nurse where she went, and she told me that the girl moved to a two-bed ward on the same floor. I understood that the number of beds in a ward corresponded with the patient’s condition. The fewer the beds were, the worse the condition was. A chart was made in my head. If a patient in a six-bed ward recovered, the one would be released from the hospital. But if a patient got worse, the one would be sent to a two-bed ward. And if a patient moved to a private room, the one would be close to death.
Out of boredom and curiosity, I decided to explore the further back of the pediatric floor. I sneaked into the banned area beyond my allowed stretch of the hallway. I turned the corner over the hospital kitchen for the first time. There was also a long hallway with wards on both sides, but it was a lot different from the one in front of my ward. Probably because it was far from the nurse station or the kitchen, this hallway was oddly quiet. It was completely empty with nobody walking and as still as a picture. Tense air filled the stretch like down the hallway in that hotel in ‘The Shining’. A room number and the name of the occupant were put up beside each ward door. I slowly walked along the two-bed wards and further down to the section with the private rooms. Although I was just walking down the hallway, a strange fear had gradually grown inside me that I was walking toward death, closer and closer. Then, a name tag on one private room caught my eyes and I froze on the spot. It was my name written on it. I gasped with surprise, confusion, and horror. I couldn’t grasp what it was. Had my private room been already prepared secretly? Was I being moved here soon? Had my condition turned so bad? I peered at the name tag with my heart thumping hard, and noticed one of the Chinese characters used for the name was different from mine while the pronunciation was the same. The patient had the same name as mine with one different Chinese character. Instead of relief though, I felt I saw what I shouldn’t have seen. I turned back hurriedly, almost running, feeling dreadfully scared of being chased by death. Back on my bed in my ward, I tried to figure out what it meant. Could it be a sign that my condition would worsen and I would die? Could it be a punishment for my exploration of the banned area? Could it be a warning that I would end up there unless I stayed inactive? Or would the person with the same name die in place of me? For a child, it was an uncomprehending, frightening, shocking experience.
A few weeks later, at the end of the summer break, the doctor decided my release from the hospital, possibly because of my shift to a more obedient, inactive patient. On the day of release, my mother brought me a pink summer dress into which I finally got rid of pajamas. The nurses told me about a hospital’s custom. A patient should visit a shrine on the rooftop of the hospital to thank for the release. I didn’t know there was a shrine in the hospital and felt strange. It didn’t make sense to me. At the center of medical science like a hospital, a place to count on unseen power existed. I wondered if the hospital conceded that everything here depended on God in the end. The hospital was big with many tall buildings, one of which had a shrine on the rooftop. It was far from my ward but now I walked throughout not in a wheelchair. Opening the door to the roof top, I went outside. The sunshine, the sky, the breeze, all of those things outside looked new to me. Numerous washed bandages that were hung from the rods to be dried outside were swayed by the gentle breeze like some sort of festive decorations. I plowed through the long pieces of white bandages and the small orange gateway to the shrine appeared on the back. From up there, I saw the building in which my ward was across the courtyard. I counted the floors and windows and spotted my ward. My ward mate’s mother was sitting by the window as usual. She had been staying at the hospital with her daughter because she was little and the hospital was too far from her home to visit, which made my hospital days as if living with her as well. I waved at her for a long time until she noticed me. Finally she waved me back. We waved at each other frantically for a while. Then I put my hands together to pray at the small shrine that was visited only by those who survived, thinking that it was God who decided life and death after all and what the hospital could do was limited compared to that.
That long summer in my childhood is unforgettable to me. And I can tell, it must have a great influence on my life thereafter.
One day, an unfamiliar middle-aged woman visited my family’s house when I was little. She was the first daughter of my grandfather’s sister. A long time ago, a man tutored my grandfather’s sister at our house when she was a high school student. She got pregnant, and the tutor ran away. She had a daughter whom she gave up for adoption right after her birth. A few years later, my grandfather’s sister got married by arranged marriage and had lived with her husband and her children at the back of our house. And now, her first daughter came up to see her birth mother, and we met her as her relatives.
When she came to our house again, she asked my grandparents to go out with me. To my surprise, they allowed her to take me. Although I had met her before, she was practically a stranger to me. I felt nervous, but my grandparents’ decision was always something that must be obeyed. We set out and she bought me an expensive toy at a kiosk in the train station. I began to feel certain that I was being kidnapped by her because she was so nice. During the train ride, all that I was thinking was she found her birth mother for revenge and would hold me for ransom. I imagined I could be killed by her. I was trembling with fear when we arrived at her friend’s house. Her three friends were there, all dressed gaudily, and they looked like accomplices to me. We had a backyard party with delicious food under blue skies and had fun except for me who still thought of the whole thing as kidnap. Then, the party was over and she took me home safely. Finally I realized it wasn’t kidnap. I was so stupid that I was sullen all the way of the merry trip. I haven’t seen her ever since. I hope it has nothing to do with my attitude from misunderstanding…