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.
I transferred the bullet train to the local train to the area where all three apartments of my choice were located. There were no passengers but me on the train although it was a weekday morning. The station was an unmanned small shack. I walked along shabby houses, used-to-be shops and rice fields and found one of the apartments among them.
My first impression was that a photograph showed things much better than they actually were. The building had looked a lot more gorgeous in the photos on a website. I walked on and soon found the other two apartments. One was under refurbishment and I couldn’t see it from the outside. The other stood nearby and I saw a half-naked old man sitting idly on a balcony, who was a kind of person I didn’t like to have as one of my neighbors.
I took a rest on a bench, wondering if this trip had already become a fool’s errand…
Episode From Surviving in Japan / Hidemi Woods
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
I am a germphobic. I never go out without packs of wet wipes and always carry a small spray bottle of sanitizer. Whenever I touch anything that shares contact with others, I wipe my hand right away. It’s especially cumbersome when I go on a trip. My routine after check-in is to spray sanitizer to tissues with which I wipe the door knobs, switches, handles of the wardrobe and the refrigerator, hangers, remote controls, faucets, toilet seat, toilet cover, flush handle. If the hotel doesn’t have a duvet style bed for its rooms, I bring clothespins and wrap the cover with the sheet by fastening them together so that any part of my body doesn’t touch the cover that isn’t washed each time. Then I place two pairs of slippers that I bring from home, one for pre-shower and one for post-shower. As you can imagine, it’s so much fuss for me to stay at a hotel. I just can’t help it.
I took a short trip the other day to a neighboring prefecture. For this trip, I was extra nervous because of that Corona virus turmoil. The local train I got on was near empty and most of the sparse passengers were wearing a medical mask. A 2-hour somewhat tense train ride later, I arrived at the hotel. A big spray bottle of sanitizer was put at the entrance and all the hotel staff at the front desk were wearing a mask. I went out for lunch at a family restaurant and it was also empty despite lunchtime. The shopping mall I visited afterwards had only few shoppers around. Since I hate crowds and a jam, all places turned in my favor. It seemed I bought comfort with nervousness. Back in the hotel room, I worked through my room-cleaning routine and had dinner with my partner in the room with deli foods I had gotten at the supermarket, not because I was worried about Corona virus at a restaurant but because I am cheap.
Next morning, I used the elevator to have a free breakfast at a small eat-in space inside the hotel. I was off guard and didn’t wear a mask although the small elevator was unexpectedly packed with guests. Nobody was talking and I unconsciously held my breath. After an awkward silence, I was released to the designated floor. The breakfast was a buffet style. I took food with tongs that many guests used, out of plates that they slowly walked by and looked into. Everyone pushed buttons on the dispenser of coffee and juice. Wet wipes didn’t give me usual assurance for this particular trip. I went back to my room and washed my hands frantically.
I have once read an article that says excessive hygiene is counterproductive. It means that being exposed usually to germs builds resistance and thus makes people hard to get sick. If so, my germphobia is not only self-complacent unction but also simply a bad habit. That may be true, but I can’t, just can’t stop for the life of me.
The day was planned for my partner and me to go to the city that takes us a 90-minute train ride from home. It was Friday the 13th with a full moon. As a superstitious person, it gave me a slightly uneasy feeling. I tried to shake it off and went out anyway. And here are spooky things that happened on that day.
I had lunch at an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant. The buffet included Asian foods as their limited-time specialty menu. Even for a Japanese, they were novel to me. I tried them for the first time and quite enjoyed them. The lunch time was coming to an end and the customers were leaving. The large restaurant with many tables had gotten near empty. Then out of nowhere, tow young men appeared with plates filled with food and sat at the table next to ours. It was weird.
A new customer is usually ushered to a table by a server at this restaurant. The server asks if there are any additional orders beside the buffet, such as free refill soft drinks or alcoholic beverages, and puts down a check and a wet towel – a pack of a wet tissue is provided at almost all the restaurants in Japan – on the table, then leaves. The wet tissue and the piece of paper for a check are the mark telling the table is taken by customers while they are off to get food at the buffet. The table next to us had no wet tissues or check. The two men didn’t show up with a server but had already gotten food. And they sat right next to us among all those empty tables in a huge restaurant. I suspected that they sneaked in and tried to eat without paying by using us as some sort of camouflage.
While my suspicious eyes observed them eating merrily, one of them suddenly started looking around, uttered “What? What?”, and left the table hurriedly. I thought there he ran away. But he returned right away and said to the other man, “My bag is gone.” They began to look for it around and under other tables. When I was convinced that they finally ran away, they returned with a server and told her that his bag was missing. The server replied, “This table wasn’t your table. Yours was over there.” She brought their wet towels and check along with his bag from the far table. They were surprised, and said to each other, “This table wasn’t ours? I thought we were ushered here!”
It was my turn to be surprised. Didn’t they notice the wet towels? Weirder yet, were my partner and I invisible? Weren’t we the distinguishable mark for the table in the empty restaurant? They must have been tricked by some magic of Friday the 13th’s full moon. That seemed the only explanation. By the way, my partner himself had walked toward the wrong tables several times there by the same magic, which he kept from me and reluctantly confessed me later.
After we left the restaurant, I shopped groceries at a supermarket. The supermarket had handed out QR code mobile coupons that I had acquired. There was a machine to convert the QR code into a paper coupon inside the store since the checkout counter takes only physical coupons. The machine had a screen that showed a step-by-step instruction. It looked so simple and easy that a customer only needed to scan the code on a smartphone. With the instruction telling ‘Scan Your Phone’ I scanned, but no coupon came out. No matter how closely I put my phone to the screen, no response. I tweaked the brightness, tried to place it horizontally or vertically, uttering unconsciously “What? What?”. About ten unsuccessful sweaty tries later, I noticed a red light was blinking under the machine. That was where the phone should be placed. Instead, I was holding the phone to the instruction screen.
Before going home, I dropped in a cafe at the train station. The cafe had the sink for customers to wash their hands next to the pick-up counter. I wiped my hands with paper towels and threw them away into the trash bin. Although I pushed the lid, it didn’t open. I thought something had jammed and I pushed several times more, of course uttering “What? What?” again. It wouldn’t open. I pushed really hard and almost sprained my fingers. And I saw a foot pedal beneath the bin. I sweated all over again with my cheeks brushing while the lid easily opened with the pedal.
I shouldn’t have underestimated Friday the 13th’s full moon. Its magic is dangerous…
One summer in my childhood, my grandfather on my mother’s side invited
my mother and me to lunch. The restaurant’s specialty was eels. An eel
is an expensive treat in Japan. We arrived at an awfully old-fashioned
Japanese restaurant where we took off our shoes and sat on the floor at
the low table. Except for us, only one table was occupied by a woman
with a small child, who was busily stuffing the leftovers into a tin box
she had brought. Every time my grandfather needed a server to come to
our table, he clapped his hands twice and called out, “Hey, sister!” It
was an obsolete manner no longer practiced, which embarrassed my mother
and me. When our house was rebuilt, I had my own room for the first
time. That time, my grandfather took my mother and me to a furniture
store to buy me a bed and a wardrobe. After we chose the items, a young
salesperson calculated the total. My grandfather naturally asked for a
discount but the salesperson’s offer didn’t satisfy him at all. He was
an old patron of the store and had bought every piece of furniture there
when my mother got married. He was used to special treatment and
assumed he would get one there. But the salesperson declined the further
discount, as he was new and didn’t know my grandfather. Even so, my
grandfather persisted and decided the total amount of his own. He handed
bills to the salesperson, and told him how much the change to be
brought back should be. My grandfather’s way apparently perplexed the
salesperson. Standing next to my grandfather, I was so embarrassed
again. Eventually, a long tug-of-war was over and the salesperson
brought back what my grandfather had told him. My bed and wardrobe were
successfully discounted, but I learned my grandfather’s style was
outdated in the modern world…
Last Sunday, a gunning engine noise from the parking lot beneath my
apartment woke my partner up early in the morning. It was loud enough to
be mistaken for a construction noise, but the culprit was a middle-aged
man who was gunning his standing minibike. He seemed to enjoy the noise
immensely and kept on the disturbance for a good fifteen minutes. Then,
there approached a car from which a man said something to him.
Considering the time and the noisiness, my partner reckoned that should
be a complaint. To his surprise though, it was a compliment on the
minibike and the middle-aged man elatedly showed it off. Not everybody
takes that loud noise as a disturbance. Such situations have constantly
fallen on to me. When I’m tormented with shrieking kids at a restaurant,
other customers often seem pleasant for it. I like to shop at a quiet,
empty place while others purposely choose a crowded, thronged place. Is
it some kind of a punishment to coexist with humans who have totally
opposite values? Or, is it for learning anything from it? Although I
hate noisy people and I always make noise as little as possible, I may
offend someone with something other than noise. That would explain why
people don’t like me so much…
Having a daily #lunch special at a family #restaurant. Today’s special is broiled #fish with miso and #karaage – fried #chicken in a Chinese style. $8 including rice, miso soup, pickles. #Japan
A new restaurant opened one train station away from my new place
according to the Internet. It seemed an American cuisine restaurant
which specialty were a cheeseburger and a waffle, which is rare in this
area. There are many other restaurants on the street where the new
restaurant opened and I’d wanted to stroll along it sometime. Most
restaurants there were introduced with the pictures on the Internet and
looked neat enough. I was pretty sure that they wouldn’t disappoint me
this time around, and went there for lunch. But, sadly, my jaw dropped
yet again. It was as if the pictures I’d seen on the Internet had been
taken 30 years before or something. All the restaurants were rusty and
shabby. The street looked deserted with nobody strolling along. I
spotted the new American restaurant among them and a man dressed in a
white cook uniform was sitting in a chair in front of the place looking
at his cell phone. The door was left open and I glanced at the inside.
There was no customer in a cramped restaurant. The online photo of the
place was far better than the actual one. Whoever took the online photos
of the restaurants on this street must have a genius for making
dreadful sights look beautiful. As I was starving, I entered the least
unsightly restaurant where some customers had just come out. They served
the meal twice as much as an ordinary restaurant and it was so
delicious. Unexpectedly, It was a pleasant eating experience. I went
home feeling like trying other restaurants on that street as well. As
for the American restaurant, I’m still not sure if I have the courage to