The Doll’s Festival

The Doll’s Festival in Japan is for celebrating
girls and they decorate old style dolls on
stepped shelves. The festival I had when I was
12 years old coincided with the day to know
whether I passed or failed the entrance
examination for the best private junior high
school in the city. In Japan, each candidate is
given an applicant number and a school
releases the numbers of the passed ones on
big boards put up in a school.
After excruciating two years that I attended
the supplementary private school for the exam
additionally after finishing a whole day at the
elementary school, I was reasonably confident.
I went to see the announcement boards with
my parents and my younger sister. It was a
big day for my family, as the result would more
or less decide my future.
In front of the boards, I was astounded. My
number wasn’t there. I failed. On our way
home, we stopped at a bakery for cake for the
Doll’s Festival. While my mother and my sister
went in the bakery, I was waiting in the car
with my father. It started to snow. I still can
vividly picture those snowflakes falling and
melting on the windshield. I had never felt so
devastated before.
In the evening, my mother took a bath with
me and she wailed saying “I’m so
disappointed!” again and again. Because I
wasn’t used to seeing her crying, my despair
turned fear. The fear that I made a fatal,
catastrophic error. Since then, every year on
the Doll’s Festival, I remember that year’s
festival…

Episode From An Old Tree in Kyoto /Hodemi Woods

Audiobook : Japanese Dream by Hidemi Woods On Sale at online stores or apps. Apple, Audible, Google Play, Nook Audiobooks,  43 available distributors in total

pick up my family’s ancestors

In mid-August, Japanese people get a few
days’ holiday for the ‘Bon’ Festival that is a
Buddhist event to ease the suffering of their
ancestors in the life after death. It’s believed
that their ancestors’ spirits return to their
home during ‘Bon’ and the family and relatives
get together to hold a memorial service and
have a feast.
When I was little, I used to go to pick up my
family’s ancestors with my grandmother at the
beginning of the ‘Bon’ period. The pick-up spot
was a small, ordinary vacant lot on the edge of
the hamlet. Our neighbors would also pick up
their ancestors there. At dusk, we lit incense
sticks there and carried them home, on which
smoke our ancestors were supposed to ride to
our house. Once we arrived home, the incense
sticks were put on the Buddhist altar, and that
meant our ancestors came in there. We
welcomed them with many plates of food on
the altar.
Although it had been an annual sacred event
for my grandmother and me, it was stopped
abruptly one year for good. When I asked what
happened to the pick-up, my grandmother said
that our ancestors had decided to come home
by themselves from now on. In hindsight, I
assume the real reason was because my
grandmother’s bad leg had gotten worse and
she became unwilling to walk to the pick-up
spot, or simply the vacant lot was replaced
with a new house and there was no pick-up
spot available. But back then, it didn’t make
sense even to a child that our ancestors
suddenly considered their descendants’
convenience and stopped requiring a pick-up.
What about an old custom we had observed for
a long time…?

Episode From An Old Tree in Kyoto /Hodemi Woods

Audiobook : Japanese Dream by Hidemi Woods On Sale at online stores or apps. Apple, Audible, Google Play, Nook Audiobooks,  43 available distributors in total

lost over $1 million

This incident happened one New Year’s at the
end of the card game called ‘kabu’, in which
my uncle acted as dealer for the yearly family
casino at my grandparents’ house. He had lost
quite a lot to my cousin, who was his son, as
usual that night and my cousin had left the
table as the morning dawned.
My uncle, my mother and I were left at the
table and the game was about to close. My
mother asked for a few more deals because
she had also lost a large sum and wanted to
get it back. To recover her loss quickly, she bet
by the $100. The game was played for high
stakes every year, but I had never seen the
stakes this high. She lost in succession and her
loss swelled to $500 in a flash.
“This is the last bet,” she claimed in
desperation and put $500 on the table. She
tried to offset her total loss on the last deal of
the game. All at once the tension skyrocketed
and strange silence filled the room. I held my
breath and withdrew my usual small bet. The
cards were dealt tensely and my mother and
my uncle showed their hands of fate. Both
hands were ridiculously bad but my mother’s
was even worse. She lost $1000. Burying her
head in her hands, she repeatedly uttered, “It
can’t be! Can’t be true!” I saw tears in her
widely opened bloodshot eyes. Then she
repeated “Oh, my… Oh, my…” in a faint voice
for ten times and staggered away. I clearly
remember her state of stupor.
A couple of days later back in our home, I
enticed her into playing ‘kabu’ with me since I
learned how poorly she played it and I knew I
would win. I used to receive cash as a New
Year’s gift from my relatives during New Year’s
and it would amount to $1000. I dangled it in
front of her and said that it would be her
chance to get back her loss. She took it and we
played for $1000. As I had thought, she lost
another $1000 to me. She said she couldn’t
pay, and I offered her the installment plan. I
got $100 more to my monthly allowance of
$30 for the next ten months. That was the
richest year in my early teens.
Many years later, she failed in real estate
investment and lost most of our family fortune
that had been inherited for generations. The
amount she lost that time was well over $1
million. And that was the money I was
supposed to inherit…

Episode From The Girl in Kyoto / Hidemi Woods

Audiobook : Japanese Dream by Hidemi Woods On Sale at online stores or apps. Apple, Audible, Google Play, Nook Audiobooks,  43 available distributors in total

extraordinarily thrilling

The living room in my grandparents’ home was
used for a card game when the house turned
into a family casino during New Year’s. The
game was a blackjack-like one called ‘kabu’
and organized by my uncle. It used to be the
best treat of New Year’s for me in my
childhood and early in my teens.
Unlike ‘mortar roller’ I had introduced before,
this game was played seriously and intensely
because it was for high stakes. The players
usually bet a dollar or more, sometimes as
high as a hundred dollars. The deeper into the
night it got, the higher the bet went. The
family members would leave the table one by
one, as the higher bet would make them tense
and deprive them of pleasure. As for me, I
liked to see the game get heated so much and
would play throughout the night until the game
came to an end in the next morning.
The usual players who stayed at the table
near dawn would be my uncle who was a
dealer, my eldest cousin, my mother and I. My
uncle was a successor of the family by
marriage and so my grandparents were his in

laws. He was on terrible terms with my
grandmother who raised my eldest cousin in
place of him and his wife because they were
too busy working at the family farm.
Consequently, he didn’t get along well with his
own son either. New Year’s ‘kabu’ would
become an intense battle between my uncle
and my cousin by dawn.
My uncle couldn’t lose especially to his son
and that made the game extraordinarily
thrilling. My cousin would bet more than $10
on each deal and my heart would be pounding
by seeing bills on the table. My uncle would
concentrate on the cards dealt to him and his
son too deeply to care about my small bets.
Because he would forget to count me in and
settle my deal thoughtlessly each time, I would
end up winning quite a big amount of money in
total every year.
He would summon all his strength when he
saw the last card dealt to him. In spite of his
prayer-like chants “Come on! Come on!”, most
of the time the card would be the least one he
had wanted. Hand after hand, he drew the
worst card possible while my cousin was rolling
on the tatami floor to stifle his giggling.
As far as I remember, he had never won
against my cousin. He was manly and frank,
but I can still picture him going back to his
room after the game in the morning light with
unsteady steps, worn out, drooping, and on
the verge of tears. Three months after the
house was burned down, he died of cancer
without becoming the head of the family…

Episode From The Girl in Kyoto / Hidemi Woods

Audiobook : Japanese Dream by Hidemi Woods On Sale at online stores or apps. Apple, Audible, Google Play, Nook Audiobooks,  43 available distributors in total

New Year’s family casino

I ask you to keep what you are about to read
in here to yourself since it concerns an illegal
activity I was once engaged in.
Until I was about sixteen years old, my
parents, my younger sister and I had visited
my grandparents’ home every year during the
New Year’s. Limited for that time of the year, a
quiet countryside house of my grandparents’
would turn into a family casino. It consisted of
three different areas. In the card game area,
which was the living room, a card game called
‘kabu’ that is similar to blackjack would be
played. In the coin game area, which was my
grandparents’ room, would be for a game
called ‘mortar roller’. And the break area,
which was the dining room, would be for those
who didn’t like gambling or who needed food
and drink. It would be open for 24 hours but
only the family members could play.
The coin game was organized by my
grandmother. She set up a huge china mortar
for sesame on the tatami floor and the players
would sit around it on the floor. They would
take turns and roll a 10-yen coin, which is
worth about ten cents, inside the mortar. The
coin rolled along the side of the round mortar,
descending gradually toward the bottom. If it
landed on other coins at the bottom, the player
could get them. Although the game was
simple, we would be absorbed in playing and
our heads and eyes were rolling above the
mortar with a coin inside. My cousin was good
at it with her own devised technique to throw
in a coin. I would also win snugly with my
fixation on money.
Beside the excited circle, my grandfather and
my father, who were not interested in
gambling, would talk over Japanese tea that
my grandfather would make.
My grandmother would start fretting after
midnight and tell us to be quiet because she
had believed that the military policemen could
bust in with bayonets. We laughed at her
anachronism while seeing her try to mute the
mortar and still live in the WWII era. She
upgraded the mortar one year by putting a
round piece of cardboard near the bottom. The
mortar’s floor was raised and became wider
and flatter so that it was harder to make the
coin lie on top of the other. More coins to take
would be left at the bottom and the game got
more exciting. Those were such fond memories
and I can still hear the sound of a rolling coin
inside a mortar during New Year’s. Later on,
the joyful grandparents’ house was burned
down by my grandmother’s carelessness with a
candle. It’s gone forever…

Episode From The Girl in Kyoto / Hidemi Woods

Audiobook : Japanese Dream by Hidemi Woods On Sale at online stores or apps. Apple, Audible, Google Play, Nook Audiobooks,  43 available distributors in total

New Kindle ebook was published! ‘The Japanese Family Goes to Europe / Hidemi Woods’

Loneliness Is My Norm hr635

The nearest grocery store from my home is a 25-minute walk away. That small local store carried a sale on eggs at one dollar for ten. I walked there with my partner to get them. Since my town is so small and rural, there are usually almost no pedestrians on the streets. Except that cars are passing by sparsely, I hardly see anybody. But on our way back home from the grocery store, I saw a woman standing by a field and watching wild flowers. It was rare to see someone on the street. As I was getting closer, I perceived her looking at me with her face filled with a big smile that was totally familiar to me. I knew her.
She used to be a resident in the apartment building where I live. We often came across and shared some time together at the communal spa in the building. She is much older than I am, but we somehow got along well and chatted heartily every time we saw each other at the spa. About six years ago, she moved out of the apartment to the different one in the same town. I unexpectedly felt so sad because I had regarded her as if part of my family unconsciously since we met and talked almost everyday. However, when I saw her for the last time and she tentatively hinted her suggestion to exchange contact information and invite me to her new place, I just chickened out and dodged a reply. I wavered tremendously but didn’t have courage to step into a new friendship. We parted without even asking each other’s names. The spa had become quiet ever since. Occasionally from nowhere, a thought about how she has been doing came up to my mind while I was taking a bath with no one to chat. I regretted my decision not to be friends with her. I missed her more than I had thought.
And I saw her again after those years by this incredible coincidence. I jumped for joy to have bumped into her like this. Her big smile and loud laughter hadn’t changed a bit and she told me how she had been doing. After we chatted for a while, I sensed the time to say good-bye again was approaching. And I was swallowed by one single thought: Should we exchange contact information this time? I ran through a scenario in my head. If I asked her info here, she would expect me to get in touch later. Then if I got in touch with her, she would invite me to her place. Then if I went to see her, she would expect me to invite her back in my place next time. Then if we found little left to talk about, we would be distant gradually. Then if it broke off, I would regret my contact exchange of today retrospectively. While I was trying to see the future, she also tried to judge my feelings and tentatively brought up a plan to see each other again, like deja vu. The time to decide had come.
I had missed her. I had wanted to be friends with her. I made a wrong decision last time and this could be the second chance falling from the sky. On the other hand, I had too many bitter experiences about friendship and wanted to add no more. I felt harsh loneliness every time I lost friendship. The closer my friend and I were, the harder it was to be estranged. I tend to have high hopes and expect too much for someone I make friends with, that usually leads to painful disappointment when she or he doesn’t meet my expectation. I had had many friends and lost them. For me, getting along well isn’t enough to build friendship. I need to respect someone as a friend. People change. Once I can’t respect my friend any longer, my friendship is over. I also need to be accepted as who I am. That’s why most of my friends left me when I decided to become a musician. I wonder how I could ever start a new friendship as long as I know how I would feel when it ends. Disappointment would be huge this time all the more because I like her. I couldn’t bear the loneliness it would bring.
Since I was a child, I have struggled to escape from loneliness. I had searched for someone to get along, thought I found one, and realized I didn’t. Repeating the cycle had accumulated loneliness. I reached the point to afford no more loneliness long ago. But in the course of my life, I’ve got the solution. I think loneliness may be overestimated and it’s not so bad if you see it from a different perspective. Sometimes loneliness is freedom. Sometimes it’s self-esteem. It works for me to stop looking for the way not to be lonely, but accept to be lonely instead. To fend off loneliness, be lonely already.
I didn’t ask her contact information and neither did she mine after all. We said our good-byes without giving names again. We waved and resumed our ways in opposite directions. Immediately the blame on her crossed my mind that she should have pressed on our contact exchange. If she had cornered me and I had had no choice, I could have told. Why didn’t she simply ask me so that I could answer? No, I reconsidered, it was better as it went. I felt her kindness more than ever not to ask me and walked on with holding a lot of fresh eggs.

Marriage in Japan hr634

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.