I spent almost the whole first year at the private junior high school as an uncool geek. Every get-cool scheme of mine had failed. Neither breaching the school rules nor joining the drama club worked. I hadn’t come up with a new idea and had hung around with my not-so-cool friends.
One day we were having a hilarious time at recess with tongue twisters I had devised. I had made a list of oddly sounded words on a piece of paper and read it out quickly in front of my friends. I seemed to sound so funny and they laughed hard. As we were making a racket, other students began to look at us curiously. Some cool girls from rich families approached us and asked what was going on. They never came near uncool girls but I drew their attention this time. I showed the list and demonstrated my tongue twisters, which didn’t appeal to them at all. They sneered and left. But I realized one thing: cool girls starved for laughter because they put on airs and kept their countenance every day. If I could make them laugh regularly, they might like me and include me in their circle.I commenced my assaults in earnest. Since then, I had behaved in a silly way whenever I passed by cool rich girls at school. I made funny faces, walked by dancing weirdly, or mimicked a TV comedian. At first they just looked at me in dismay, but they were gradually interested in me. They stopped and talked to me, “You’re so funny!” Then I would press an insurance laugh with haphazard puns or gags. Since I didn’t have a talent for making people laugh basically, I was out of comic materials so easily. I had to use the fact of a farmer’s daughter to make them laugh. This last resort of mine really succeeded. Soon one of the cool girls asked me to have lunch together, and I was invited to her circle.
I officially joined the cool group at last. That acted like magic and other students stopped mocking me completely. In the end, after so many trials, to be the class clown was indeed the solution to be cool at school for me…The effect of being in the cool and rich group at junior high school was much bigger than I had expected and was almost magical. I was no longer a geek at school. Other students’ attitude toward me changed dramatically and they even respected me. I jumped into the whole new world.The girls in the group looked through a teen fashion magazine and chatted about its contents zealously at lunchtime. It looked like an adult life to me, as I had never been interested in fashion, let alone talked about it with my friends. After school, they would hang around the downtown area in the city, looking around the shops or having a snack at a fast food restaurant. I had seldom been downtown and I felt like I started a city life all of a sudden. Walking by elegant shops had never been my usual habit, and as for a fast food restaurant, I had never stepped into it before. On weekends, they would go to the movies together. My way of spending time outside school completely changed and it was almost like I began to live in America.
On the other hand, there was a huge set back to be a part of the group. It was horribly costly. My scant monthly allowance didn’t last more than a week while other girls from the rich family didn’t have to care. A coin jar in the dining room in my house became empty quickly. My younger sister’s stash of money in her desk drawer had been shrinking steadily by my regular stealing.One of the girls in the group had a friend in a boys’ school and he invited us to his school’s homecoming. Since ours was a girls’ school, it was an exciting opportunity to meet boys. There, the boys asked us out after the homecoming, but I was the exclusion among the group. No one asked me out. While they were headed for a fast food restaurant, I went home, crying.I would do anything to stay in the cool circle, including acting a totally different person by giving up being myself…
the new Kyoto
When I spent 40 minutes aboard the bullet train bound for Kyoto from Tokyo, an alarming notion popped into my head. “Did I miss Mt. Fuji?” It’s around this time that Mt. Fuji comes into view closely in the bullet train window. Somehow Mt. Fuji is a special mountain for Japanese people. It’s said that seeing the first sunrise of the year from the top of Mt. Fuji brings a happy new year. Many of them want to climb it once during their lifetime. They regard it as something holy and good luck. I myself try to see it every time I take a bullet train to Kyoto, and pray to it for a good trip. It was cloudy and rain looked imminent on that day of my latest trip to Kyoto. Whether the train already passed Mt. Fuji or it wasn’t visible because of thick clouds was uncertain. The outcome of the trip depended on Mt. Fuji. I felt that this trip might end terribly if I couldn’t see it, and I looked for it frantically. “There it is!” Above the dark clouds, its top section poked out clearly. “I see it! A nice trip is assured!” I was relieved and in high spirits. While I jinx it when I don’t see it, however, I’ve had horrible trips even when I saw a clear Mt. Fuji. Although I duly understand an outcome of a trip doesn’t have to do with whether I see it or not, there’s a reason why I’m nervous enough to pray to the mountain. A trip to Kyoto means homecoming and meeting my parents. Three out of every four visits, they give me a hard time. They insult me, deny me and complain everything about me. I sometimes feel my life is in danger when I’m with them because of their relentless attacks. Not to be strangled by them while I’m sleeping, I avoid spending the night at my parents’ home and stay at a hotel instead. I would rather not visit and see them, but I know it would make things worse. I couldn’t imagine how this particular trip would go especially as it was my first visit since my parents sold their house. They could no longer afford to keep their large house and its land inherited by our ancestors. Their financial crunch made them sell it where my family had lived for over 1000 years. They moved out to a small, old condominium outside Kyoto. Thinking about the situation they were now in, I couldn’t imagine their state of mind other than being nasty. The bullet train slid into Kyoto Station after two and a half hours. I stepped out on the platform for the first time as a complete tourist who didn’t have a house or a family there. To my surprise, Kyoto looked different. I couldn’t tell what and how, but it was decisively different from Kyoto I had known. It used to look grim and gloomy as if it was possessed by an evil spirit. But now it was filled with clean fresh air and looked bright. I would see all but mean people, but they also turned into nice people with smiles. I checked in a hotel and looked out the window. Rows of old gray houses were there. I used to think Kyoto was an ugly city with those somber houses, but I found myself looking at even them as a tasteful view. I’d never thought having the house I grew up in torn down and parting with my ancestor’s land would change the city itself altogether. Or maybe, it was me that changed…
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…
Back to Montreal
A trip to California I took in May changed my mindset. When I found bargain fares online, I quickly decided to go to Montreal for the first time in seven years by using my emergency savings. I felt it was ridiculous to keep money in a bank although we are mortal and we don’t know when our time is up.
I once lived in Montreal for about a year in total. I wanted to stay there, but I had to leave and come back to Japan as my money ran out. Since then, I have always hoped to live there again or at least to visit there as a tourist. What I like about Montreal are its beauty, a relaxing atmosphere and people there who seem to live to enjoy life rather than achieve success. I’m not sure if it’s because of their ways of life or the French-spoken region of Canada, but they are fashionable with excellent taste. For that combination of the city and the people, just walking down the street is fascinating enough.
I took on a 12-hour flight to Toronto during which I happened to find ‘Tomorrowland’ among the in-flight movies, saw it twice and cried yet again. I went through immigration where an immigration officer gave me lengthy, irrelevant, even harassing questions including about my pin I was wearing on my jacket. It was a pin from ‘Tomorrowland’ and she almost made me begin to explain the whole movie story.
The airport system in Toronto was somewhat odd. I was just in transit en route to Montreal, but I needed to pick up my luggage, carry to the distant counter and check it in all over again. Although I had already been through the security checkpoint before I got on board in Japan and had never left the airport, I had to do it again. I ended up gobbling a whole bottle of water in front of the security gate, which was exactly what I did on the last trip to California.
After the security checkpoint, I saw an information screen for departure to make sure the gate number for my flight to Montreal. The flight was missing. There was no information about my flight, no cancelled, no delayed, no nothing. Among the long list of departing flights, my flight itself didn’t exist. I was close to panic. And I realized we don’t have anybody around for something like this nowadays. There is no information counter, airport workers don’t know about flights, and airline personnel at the gates don’t know other flights’ status. I had no one to ask.
The only place I came up with as where the airline personnel with flight information were working was an executive lounge. I went up there and asked about my flight. She glanced at her computer display and said, ‘It’s on time.’ My flight did exist, but for some weird reason, the airport screen showed information only for selected flights. I had scurried around the terminal for this absurd system.
I finally arrived at Montreal after a one-and-a-half-hour flight. A cab ran on the freeway at 75 miles per hour through the night and downtown Montreal appeared in 20 minutes. It was the same freeway on which a cab carried me in the dark before dawn seven years ago when I was leaving for Japan. I remember I wished upon the moon that I could return here someday, as I had no way to find the money to come back. The moon satisfied my wish, I supposed.
I checked in a hotel and looked out of the window. Beneath the window was Sherbrooke Street where many people were still passing by. Above the town lights of the city, I saw the cross on the Mont-Royal that was lighted up and floated in the dark sky. It was a view that I felt like I was strayed into a dreamland. I thought my bold decision to spend money for this trip was right. It would be a big loss not to come to such a beautiful place like this when it exists. I literally fell down to bed to sleep since I was completely exhausted from the 24-hour trip from home to here and the turmoil at Toronto Airport.
Next morning, I woke up early because of jet lag. The first thing I decided to do in Montreal wasn’t to get a rest in the hotel room or to take a walk in the city. It was going to casino to win back all the money I had spent there in the past…
Marriage in Japan
I went out for lunch with my partner at a cafe the other day that stood across the train station in a Japanese desolate rural town where I live. To call it a cafe is a bit too fancy. It’s not the likes of Starbucks but rather a small old mom-and-pop diner that was built well over 30 years ago and remained as it was, which perfectly matched this old town itself.
We sat at the table and overheard a conversation from the table next to us. Three old women in their eighties sat around the table by the window. “She has passed away, too.” “This could be the last time we get together.” Although they were exchanging a downright sad conversation, they were talking in a matter-of-fact way and their chats were lively.
While we were eating a salad with watermelon that came with our main dishes of curry and rice with a fried pork cutlet, a family of three came in. A boy about ten years old and his parents in their thirties sat at the table near ours. As soon as their orders were taken, the boy started reading one of comic books that the diner placed for customers, and his father went outside to smoke. His mother was staring into space.The father came back in when their dishes arrived on the table but they didn’t talk while they were eating. Except that the parents occasionally said something to the boy separately, there was no conversation between the parents. After they finished eating, the father went out again to make a phone call, the boy played with diner’s puzzle toys, and the mother stared into space again. I saw through the window the father talk with someone over his phone pleasantly while smoking and laughing. He came back in and also began to play with a puzzle toy. I thought it was much more fun for him to have lunch with a person on his phone.
Quite too often, I see a married couple having almost no conversation at a restaurant. I wonder if people stop talking each other when they get married. While they must have clicked each other enough to get married in the first place, what makes them fall silent? Since I have never been married, I have no idea whether it’s because they have changed or they have lost interest in each other after marriage.
The closest married couple I know is my parents, which means my knowledge about marriage is a generation old. My parents are from farming villages in Kyoto that is the oldest city in Japan. According to the old custom, their marriage was arranged by their families’ intention not their own. Inevitably, they were strangers with no affection whatsoever. In my childhood, my mother used to say, “I wouldn’t have married such an ugly guy like your father unless he had money.” Times have changed, and people get married by their own will in Japan. Nevertheless, if a couple who liked each other finds it difficult to talk once they marry, I don’t understand what marriage is for. The mystery deepens still more.
The family of three left hastily after they were done with the toys and staring. The party of three old women ordered refills of their soft drinks repeatedly and lingered at the table with their conversations, as if they were reluctant to leave the diner.
In voice mail, there was a message from my father that said he needed to be called back immediately. I was chilled to the bone. I have never received a single phone call from him that’s not disturbing. When he calls me, he does it to vent his spleen about his daily life and about my career as a musician. What comes out from the receiver is his lengthy verbal abuse. Nevertheless, I mostly return his call because things get worse if I don’t. This time was no exception and I called him back fearfully with trembling hands. Instead of a spurt of anger, he told me to come home as soon as possible and stay for a few days. I asked him what happened and he didn’t answer that. As his request sounded urgent, I repeatedly asked for the reason. He just dodged and kept saying that he wanted me to come home right away. I hung up and felt alarmed. Something must have happened. Since he had never given me good news, that something was most certainly a bad thing.
My parents’ home is located in Kyoto that is 500 miles away from where I live. It takes me over five hours to get there by bullet train. I don’t have so much free time to take that long trip without the reason. Besides, such an unusual request requires extra caution. I called my mother’s cell phone and asked her what was all about. She told me that they had decided to sell their house and move out. They were looking for a condominium to buy and moving in as soon as the house was sold. The house could be sold next month at the fastest, and they wanted me to sort out my stuff and spend time together under this house’s roof for the last time.
The house was built when I was nine years old at the place where our old house was torn down because it was too old to live in. That old house was built about 100 years ago. My ancestors lived at exactly the same spot generation after generation for over 1000 years since my family used to be a landlord of the area. We are here for around 63 generations. My father succeeded the family from my grandfather, and I would have been the next successor if I hadn’t left home to be a musician. Because my father failed the family business and didn’t have the next successor for help, he had sold pieces of our ancestor’s land one by one. Now his money has finally dried up and he can’t afford to keep the last land where the house stands.
When my grandfather passed away nine years ago, he complained to me again about financial help I wouldn’t lend. I promptly suggested that he should sell the house and its land. He got furious at my suggestion. He shouted, “How could you say something like that? Do you really think it’s possible? All ancestors of ours lived here! I live to continue our lineage right here for my entire life! Selling the house means ending our family lineage! It’s impossible!!” He bawled me out like a crazy man while banging the floor repeatedly with a DVD that I had brought for him as a Father’s Day gift.
But nine years later, the time inevitably came. Considering his mad fury about selling the house back then, it was easy for me to imagine that he planned to set fire on the house during the night I would stay and kill my mother and me along with himself. That seemed the true reason why he wanted me to come back. Those murder-suicide cases sometimes happen in Japan, especially among families with long history.
But the first thing that I felt at the news was not fear but relief. As I had known my father wouldn’t sell the house, I had thought that I would end up reaping the harvest of his mistakes as his daughter even though I didn’t succeed the family. I would have to liquidate everything in the house to pay his debts and sell the house and the land by myself after I would argue with all my relatives in the family’s branches who would most certainly oppose strongly. That picture of my dismal future had been long hanging low in my mind. But now, completely out of the blue, my father was taking up everything and I was discharged…
The Beginning of A Winter Trip
The mountainous region where I live is in the depth of winter and it snows day after day. Now that the snow covering the ground has accumulated over my own height, I was having a sense of claustrophobia. That’s a cue for my annual three-day trip to the Tokyo metropolitan area that doesn’t have much snow.
I set about arranging this year’s trip online. I successfully booked the room in a hotel of the Japanese luxury chain at a greatly economical rate by making the best use of coupons and their off-season promotion. The stay would come with preferential treatment at no extra cost as part of the promotion. To get to the Tokyo metropolitan area, I need to ride the bullet train that is expensive. But I got a 35% discount for the ticket by reserving early in advance. I was all set to get out of snow.
Although it had snowed every day, it rained on that particular day when I set off on a trip in the morning. Rain is more troublesome than snow. I would take a local bus to the bullet train station. The bus stop is near my apartment but it has neither a cubicle nor a roof. When it snows, I can pat off the snow that comes onto my clothes while I’m walking to the bus stop and waiting there. But in the rain, my one hand is occupied with an umbrella as I carry all the bags, which would cause awkward walking that inevitably wets me.
I would freeze while I’m waiting for the bus. I bore an unexpected expense and called a cab. The dispatcher told me it would take long to come to pick me up due to high demand. Since I had the bullet train to catch, I gave in to my umbrella and walked toward the bus stop in the rain. I felt miserable while I was waiting for the bus with many bags around me drenching.
Out of the bus window, I saw snow plains beneath which were parks, rice paddies and sidewalks. The road was plowed, but the snow was pushed off to a long, tall snow wall alongside. The lengthy massive white wall was taller than the bus and it looked almost like a snow-made tunnel. I started to feel claustrophobia again. I cheered myself up by thinking I was soon in the snow-free city. I made a wish for a nice trip upon the closest mountain that had turned completely white.
On the platform for the bullet train at the station, I found many Chinese families and tourists. That suddenly reminded me about the Lunar New Year during which Chinese people took vacation and traveled. The hotel I was staying at might be crowded with Chinese tourists as well. I couldn’t believe why I was so careless that I’d forgotten about Chinese New Year. Among the gleeful Chinese tourists, I stood waiting for the train with a long face. Rain and the Lunar New Year seems more like a bad omen, and now I became unsure as to whether or not this trip was the right move…
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.