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…
My grandfather’s sister lived in a small house right at the back of our family’s house a long time ago. Until I was five or six years old, I had visited her house alone frequently. The main reason I spent a lot of time there was that my strict grandparents took care of me instead of my busy parents and I couldn’t feel comfortable with them for tension in my house. But, there was another reason.
Half of her small house was a print shop. It was a tiny typography place run by her husband, which mostly printed fliers for neighbors. I liked to watch the shop so much. The printing machine was running only occasionally, but looking at innumerable wooden types arranged neatly in the shelves was interesting enough for me. I used to spend hours sitting toward the shelves and just gazing the wooden types. If it was my lucky day, her daughter was home and cooked me fried rice.
Back then, I had been troubled with auto intoxication. I spent so much time in her house that my mother instantly imputed the cause to printing ink when I was diagnosed at the doctor’s office. In the following ten years, both my grandfather’s sister and her husband have passed away, her children have left home, and the house was demolished. The print shop was gone. A new house was built for sale and a young couple moved in. The husband was an office worker but soon he quit his job. He started his own business at his home and that was a print shop. The couple was newcomers to our neighborhood and had no way to know that there had been also a print shop on the site of their house. The site must be predestined to be a print shop…
There was a small old cemetery near the house where I grew up. As the Japanese law hadn’t been changed to cremation until I left home, all of my ancestors were buried there when I was a child. A patch of land was allocated to each family in our hamlet of an old city Kyoto, and a family would divide the patch into individual graves for the deceased. Our family’s patch had about ten small graves each of which was marked with a few small insignificant stones. It was a very primitive burial site that young people nowadays wouldn’t believe.
My grandmother used to accompany me when she visited there twice a year. We would bring incense sticks, a box of matches, stale cookies and a tin kettle filled with water. She would stick lighted incense into the ground of each grave, put a cookie beside it and spilled some water from the kettle onto the ground. Since the stones didn’t bear names, who was, or were, under the particular grave depended on my grandmother’s memory and what she was told. After we finished praying to each grave, she always said, “Now, the dog,” sounding like the most important event remained. And she would stick the last incense and spill the rest of water along with the last cookie onto the foot of a weed-grown mound that was beside the narrow trail to our family graves. Under the mound was the place where our family dog had rested in peace.
I had never kept a dog but my father had. My grandfather reigned harshly over his family members and never allowed me to keep a dog. But he hadn’t started his hobby of growing chrysanthemums when my father was a child. No chrysanthemums meant an approval for a dog. When my father told me that he had kept a dog, I couldn’t picture that a dog was running freely in the yard of our house.
From time to time, I visited the cemetery with my father. His main purpose there was to pull out the weed that easily gulped up the entire grave patch, rather than to pray. After clearing up the ground of our ancestors’ graves, he would pray to each grave shortly. And in the end, he prayed to the mound, for his dog. Although among our ancestors, there were his brothers who were twins and died shortly after birth, he prayed for his dog longer than for them. Seeing him do that every time, I knew how much he loved his dog. That also explained my grandmother’s ritual for the dog’s grave. He was an important member of the family back then.
According to my father, the family never decided or even talked about keeping the dog. He was a stray dog that showed up one day from nowhere, and kept coming. Soon he stopped leaving and just began to stay in the yard. My father fed him and he slept under the eaves of our house. That was how they got to keep a dog. He was a big dog with long fluffy white fur. My father named him Maru, that means ‘round’ or ‘circle’ in Japanese, because he looked like a big white hairy ball. In those days, keeping a pet was so easy and casual that Maru didn’t wear a collar and wasn’t on a leash. They had never taken him for a walk because it was unnecessary. He was strolling and running around the yard all day. Although he had died long before I was born and I had never seen him, it was one of my customs to pray to Maru on a visit of our family cemetery.
I had wanted to keep a dog all through my childhood but never been allowed because my grandfather filled the yard with his chrysanthemums. When I was a teenager, my first boy friend gave me a big white stuffed-animal dog for my birthday. My father looked at it affectionately and said, “It looked exactly like Maru.” Instead of to a live dog that I couldn’t have, I named that stuffed-animal dog Pon-maru by mixing my nickname ‘Hidepon’ and ‘Maru’. He became my official make-believe pet. A few years later, I left home. My grandparents passed away. The family house was demolished and the site was sold. The rest of my family moved out of Kyoto. The custom to visit the family cemetery was gone. Only, Pon-maru still lives with me in my apartment that is far from my hometown, in a shape of a big, a little-grayish fur ball.
One day in my childhood, a family of stray cats appeared in the front yard of our house in Kyoto, Japan where I was born and grew up.
I was raised by my grandparents and my grandfather had cherished several hundreds of chrysanthemum pots in the yard in those days. The yard was practically a sea of chrysanthemums. For that reason, the apparent house rule existed, which was not to keep a dog. I had never had a pet.
The cats family stood in the middle of the ragged path between the front door and the gate. There were four cats, one was big and others were very small kittens. I was about six years old and standing probably ten feet away from them when I found them that day. While I had constantly talked with my staffed animals, I was quite foreign to live animals. I walked toward them slowly and carefully with full of curiosity and a twinkle in my eye. As I got closer, a mother cat and two kittens quickly ran away. But one kitten didn’t move. He stayed where he was and just stared at me. I reached right in front of him and crouched before him. He was a tortoiseshell cat with gray and brown marks on his fur. He fixed his gaze upon me and never left. We looked into each others eyes for a while. I tentatively stretched my arm and touched him. He didn’t so much as flinch and kept looking at my eyes. I sensed that I was chosen as a friend by this kitten since I had no human friends back then. I held him with my both hands and felt surprising warmth of his body. I brought him inside the house.
I showed him to my grandmother and she promptly prepared a small dish of dried bonito. As I saw him nibbling it, I asked my grandmother if I could keep him with absolute certainty of no. Her unexpected reply was, “As long as it’s not a dog, your grandfather will allow if it’s kept inside.”
I got my first pet. I named him ‘Joe’ because he looked nothing else but ‘Joe’. I asked my grandmother for something like a collar now that he’s my pet. She scrambled and got me a bell and a red ribbon. I put them together and proudly presented to Joe’s neck. His quarters were decided at the entrance of the house, right behind the front door. I gave him some milk in the evening that day and talked to him into the night although I had been sometimes regarded as mute by others to whom I rarely spoke.
I thought Joe was as happy as I was. But after I went to bed, he began to cry. He didn’t call me though because he cried toward outside. Soon, I heard a cat meow outside too. It seemed his mother came to him. They meowed to each other with the front door between them. His fragile meows to the door continued till late at night. My grandmother suggested that I should release him because she couldn’t bear to see him miss his mother so much. I agreed that it was cruel to separate them. He wanted to be outside with his mother. I opened the front door and took him out. He swiftly scurried away. The time I had a pet lasted for less than 12 hours. The time I thought was liked by someone was laughably short.
A few days later, I felt I heard a bell ring. I went outside hurriedly and saw the yard. It was Joe. He huddled together with his family in the middle of the path, at the same spot where we first met. I called out, “Joe!” His mother and siblings ran away on my call, but Joe responded and turned to me. I was amazed that he had learned his name was Joe although our time together was so short. He remained there alone and gazed at me. This time, it looked to me as if he was smiling. At that moment I understood. He came back to see me. I felt an undoubtedly sure connection between us. I walked to him and held him in my arms. I took him into the house and told my grandmother that Joe came back. As she fixed a dish of dried bonito again, she told me not to repeat what we had done to him previously. While I was so happy to be reunited with him, I also knew I shouldn’t keep him. My happiness wasn’t the same as his. After I watched him eating his meal and talked with him briefly, I said goodbye to him. He left again.
In the next few weeks, I heard Joe’s bell on and off. I rushed outside every time, but didn’t see him. Since at least I was informed that he was around, I assumed that I could see him again sooner or later. Then, I made a finding one day at the foot of the bush beside the path in the yard. A red ribbon with a bell was laid on the ground. Joe had come to return it to me. The moment I saw it, I realized I would never see him again. And that was to be proved right. That was precisely how it ended.
When I lived in my hometown, there was our distant relative’s house at the back of ours. The relation was too distant for us to consider them as more than old neighbors. The man in the family was usually just one of our neighbors but once a year, he behaved as if he was our close relative. In the New Year, he would visit our house, coming right into the living room. No doorbell, nor calling. He would simply walk in, pass along the hallway, open the living room door and say, ‘Happy New Year!’ Unlike my parents, I would never complain about his behavior, though, because he gave me money as a New Year’s gift each time, which was also the Japanese tradition. Actually, he was generous all the time. He liked to hold events for the neighborhood such as a golf competition, and treat people to dinner and drinks. He had long been a PTA president. He was well-off enough to build a new house of a modern style with the lawn. I often heard his daughter play the piano. The mystery was, we didn’t know exactly what he did to afford his generosity. One day, we noticed that we hadn’t seen him and his family for days. Then, his house got off limits with a banner of foreclosure. The family had run away with huge debt. A collection agency came to our home, as they thought we knew his whereabouts as a distant relative. Later on, his beautiful new house was demolished. The lavish family disappeared with its house…
New Year is the biggest holiday in Japan. There is a traditional meal for it, which is called ‘osechi’. It’s assorted foods of beans, boiled vegetables, boiled fish, and steamed fish paste, boxed in layered containers. The kinds of an assortment are slightly different at each family according to the family tradition. My family’s traditional ‘osechi’ was absolutely terrible. The assortment consisted of only three kinds of food. Boiled carrots, boiled burdocks and black soybeans. That’s it. We even didn’t have to buy them except for black soybeans because they were grown in our family’s field. It was accompanied by miso soup that had sticky rice cake and big taro in it. Big taro was grown in our front yard and my family held a superstition that you would become a head of something by eating it in the New Year. Unfortunately, it’s huge and painfully tasteless. As a child, I always wondered how they could call them a New Year’s special feast since our daily meals were better. To conclude the ‘feast’, we drank special tea. A cup of Japanese tea with a pickled plum sunk in the bottom. As another superstition, my family believed that it would bring happiness, but it tasted horrible and made me unhappy right away. And then, what I thought couldn’t be any worse hit the new bottom. On one New Year’s Day, there was a new addition to our traditional meal. It was called ‘kuwai’ and looked like a chestnut with a sprout. My mother heard that eating it in New Year made you ‘sprout’ to the world. It became her new superstition and my father began to grow it in the front yard. It tasted utterly awful. If primitive people found it in the woods and tried it, they would certainly dismiss it as inedible. Although I had endured the terrible feast until I left home, I’m not a head of anything, nor don’t sprout to the world…
My preparing for moving recalls the time my family built a new house when I was nine years old. By then, our house got too old to live in, as it had stood for about 100 years. After the old house was destroyed, we had lived in our old barns that stood beside the old house until the new house was completed. That was when I became ill and got nephritis. In the middle of the construction, an executive of the construction company that was building our new house disappeared with the whole money our family paid. The construction stopped and our new house was left only as the wooden frame. Since my mother was extremely vain, reporting it to the police was out of the question. She turned to her relative who ran a construction company in a distant town from us. He kindly came all the way from there, fixed the plan and rearranged everything for us. Although we lost money, our new house was up at last thanks to him. A couple of years later, we read a news article on a local newspaper that the construction company executive had been found dead in a gutter. He must have had much bigger troubles other than his embezzlement of my family’s money while he was on the run…
It was my birthday and my parents sent me presents. The gifts from my mother were exactly the same necklace as the one she had sent me a couple of years ago, a vinyl bag which she apparently had got as a freebie, and some towels she didn’t use anymore. She also enclosed a bag of rice crackers. My hometown is in Kyoto that is a Japanese historic city with a lot of old temples and shrines. Many stores there take advantage of the location and use the historic sites and events as their signature design for wrapping. The store my mother bought rice crackers used a Japanese classic card game. It’s played with 100 cards on each of which an ancient poem is written. For some reason, I was very good at the game when I was a teenager. I haven’t played it for a long time. Some of the 100 poems were printed on the wrapping of the rice crackers and I remembered how good I was. The best present from my mother this year was a wrapper of a snack…