Hidemi’s Rambling by Hidemi Woods

Singer, Songwriter and Author from Kyoto, Japan.

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.

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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.

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My Social Distancing hr629

I’m not good at being with people by nature. I always like to being alone and stay inside my room. Basically, any contact with others is uncomfortable. Not to mention phone calls, public places are dreadful for me unless they are near empty with few people. I hate to have a person standing right behind me at the checkout counter in a supermarket. Whenever I take a train, I search for a car that has the least passengers. My so-called ‘body bubble’ seems excessively large. I often almost utter a scream when a person bumps into or even slightly brushes me. Needless to say, chattering with others is excruciating. My apartment building has a communal spa for the residents and I use it everyday. The residents are inevitably acquainted with each other and small talk between them is rampant in the spa. I’m often caught up in it and desperately try to find closure of the conversation by sweating all over. To avoid an ordeal, I’m usually careful not to share time together with familiar residents as much as possible. When I see them, I practically run away. My partner calls me a robot because of my behavior.

black crt tv showing gray screen

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The time of recent social distancing shouldn’t bother a person like me. Social distancing has been already my thing for a long time. At least I had believed so. I had thought it wouldn’t hurt a natural ‘social-distancer’ as myself. But I found I was wrong.
One of my favorite Japanese comedians from my childhood was infected with Corona virus and was killed by it in a matter of days. Until just recently, he had appeared on various TV shows and his funny face had been the norm for TV. The daily TV time in a Japanese living room has changed suddenly, completely. He was a nationally popular comedian who earned the monstrous TV rating. When I was a child, my family gathered in front of TV for his show at 8 p.m. every Saturday and laughed so hard together. Kids at school would talk about the show next Monday and laugh again together. When I was in my early teens, I danced his signature gig called ‘Mustache Dance’ so frantically in the dining room that my foot slipped and I fell hitting my face on the dining table. Those memories made me feel as if part of me was lost with him by his death.
Among my familiar residents in my apartment building are a mother and her daughter. They are athletes and rough, thudding around restlessly and talking loudly in a vulgar tongue all the time. I heard that they were moving out soon. Since I was bothered with their noisy manner and pushy conversations toward me at the communal spa, I felt relieved that I could reclaim the quiet bath time. One evening during the days I had waited for them to move out, I saw them at the spa. They left for the locker room while I was still in the bath and I intentionally took time in there to avoid meeting them at the locker room, as usual. After giving them enough time to clothe and go home, I stepped out to the locker room, assuming they were already gone. On the contrary, they were still there, standing side by side courteously toward me. They had been waiting for me. The mother told me that they were moving out tomorrow and this would be the last time to see each other. She said politely, “Thank you so much for all these years. You helped us in various ways.”
I had known them since I moved in nine years ago. The daughter was still a small child back then, who was running and shrieking around the locker room. She is to be a freshman in high school this spring. She occasionally talked to me about her school days or her passion for skiing. The mother once broke her foot at her workplace and she had been on crutches in the spa. I got out of the tub to open and hold the door to the locker room for her every time until she stopped limping. When we were late together at the locker room that went black after the spa’s closing time, we would clothe together under the light of my pocket LED lamp. Those memories flooded back to me all of a sudden at the last time I saw them although I had thought it would evoke nothing as I had been looking forward to getting rid of them. While I was looking at the daughter’s liquid eyes that were staring straight at me, I was overwhelmed by inexplicable sadness and my eyes began to be filled with tears in spite of myself. I clumsily said goodbye and returned to my apartment. A robot couldn’t say goodbye well.

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Mona Lisa hr618

It was about when I was eight years old and visited my grandparents’ for the first time since their house was rebuilt where their old one in which my mother was born and grew up had stood. I stepped into the living room of their brand-new house and my uncle welcomed me.
The house belonged to my grandparents on my mother’s side. As an old custom of Japan, the first-born child used to live with his or her parents after marriage. That’s why I had lived with my grandparents on my father’s side all the way until I left home. Accordingly, my mother’s elder sister took a husband into the family and had lived with her parents. Her husband was this uncle of mine. He was married to my aunt as an heir-to-be and related to me by marriage not by blood.

woman wearing kimono dress

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He has gotten the best seat in the new living room. It was placed at the top of the table and the closest to the TV. What caught my eyes was the painting hung on the wall behind him. It was a large copy of Mona Lisa.
I don’t think I recognized it as Mona Lisa back then, but I knew it was a Western painting and felt a decisively unsuitable, out-of-place sense. The house was located in a rural area in Kyoto, in typical countryside where Western paintings were hardly spotted. Though it was new, the house was Japanese-style. The living room had no chairs as they sat on the floor around the low table. Yet, above my uncle was a gorgeously framed, dignified Mona Lisa. I’m still not sure if someone gave it as a housewarming gift or he got it himself, but it was certainly the furthest thing from my uncle who was a lean, uncultured, gamble-inclined man. While I gaped at the painting thinking how opposite it was to my uncle, he said to me smiling, cheerfully and proudly, “Isn’t this painting nice? I like this. It’s nice, isn’t it? Nice, hah?”

Until mid-teen, I had often visited the house. Mona Lisa was always there as my uncle’s favorite. In every New Year’s holiday, my uncle acted as a dealer for our annual family gambling card game at the living room. It may sound peaceful, but it was a serious high-stakes battle between my uncle, my cousin, my mother and me. Although my uncle loved gambling and was buried into every bet, he would lose big every year. From above, Mona Lisa watched him losing to his son with tears in his eyes, with her archaic smile.

selective focus photo of group of people taking picture of mona lisa painting

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I went abroad for the first time when I finished high school. I visited France and saw the real Mona Lisa at the Louvre. I wasn’t interested in art so much then, and walked through rather than appreciated. But once I entered the big hall where Mona Lisa was displayed, I noticed something fundamentally different. Although there were quite a few visitors, the hall was almost completely silent. The air was strained and tense. It was as if everybody had been holding their breath. At first, I didn’t know what was happening. I walked forward and found Mona Lisa at the back of the hall. Since it was beyond security guards, tasseled ropes and the reinforced glass, there was still some distance from me when I stood in front. Nevertheless, the real one was surprisingly powerful and captivating. I clearly remember I felt like being gravitated to it and couldn’t help fix my eyes on it.
As for my uncle’s favorite copy of Mona Lisa, when my grandparents’ house was burned to the ground in after years by my grandmother’s carelessness in which she lit a candle too close to a sheet of Buddhism talisman paper on the alter one morning, Mona Lisa was burned away with the house. When the fire broke out, my uncle, who had been even thinner because of terminal cancer, carried in his arms my aunt, who had been fat and suffered from dementia and was asleep in the upstairs bedroom, ran down the stairs holding her, and saved her life. I thought I found out who his favorite lady really was, and who he really was…

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A Trip after The Storm hr611

Although I had received “the last letter to me” quoted as written from my mother a few months before in which she wrote she wouldn’t like to see me or hear from me or receive any gifts from me or stay in contact with me any more for the rest of her life, I ignored it completely and made an annual visit to my parents as usual. She had sent me that offensive letter behind my father’s back and he doesn’t know about a broken relationship between me and my mother.
My father also used to be bad-tempered and attack me when I returned home once a year or two. But since he sold our family’s house, he has welcomed me in a good mood at his small apartment in an unfamiliar town and hasn’t criticized me. He seems simply happy to see me each time I visit their apartment. And I know that is exactly what annoys my mother to the limit.
To her, her new life is degradation. She was always unhappy when she lived in a big house with her husband to whom she married for his money. And now she has become even unhappier living in the small apartment without our family’s fortune. It’s easy to imagine how disgusted she is by my father’s upbeat attitude toward his new life. She must have sought revenge to make him equally unhappy and come up with that letter. She thought I would stop visiting them as she asked to. That would take away one of his pleasures and get him one step closer to unhappiness. She loves any kind of plot all her life but none of them is ever clever. This one is no exception that is too apparent for me to be fallen into. My decision to carry out a visit despite her letter implicated harassment to her because it would show her that her wicked plot failed yet again.
A week before the trip, a big typhoon hit the western part of Japan where my parents live. Much damage resulted from it including to Kansai Airport on which my flight was going to arrive. As the airport is a man-made island in the sea, its runways and facilities were flooded by a storm surge. On top of that, a tanker crushed into the only bridge that connects the airport to the shore and broke it. The airport has been shut down.
I hesitated about the trip. I couldn’t decide whether I should cancel my reservations for the flight and the hotel. Above all things, I wondered if this was a sign telling me not to visit my parents.
But I had to go at all cost because it was my mother who had told me not to come. I’ve discovered and followed the unshaken rule since I was a teenager -do the opposite of what my mother says and I’ll be happy and everything will go well. This rule has worked 100 percent and has never failed in my life.
Meanwhile, the airport partially reopened unexpectedly sooner than reported. Among most suspended flights, mine was one of the few that partially started re-operating. The damaged bridge to the shore returned passable by the limited lanes. I visited my parents as I had planned.
I knew it would be so awkward to see my mother but I had determined not to get angry at her or blame her on her letter. If I did so, it would be her achievement. Her purpose is always to make me unhappy with any blow she could think of. I should behave unbreakable, which would be my blow against her.
My mother met me at the entrance of their apartment as if nothing had happened between us. She desperately acted joyfully, uttering shallow flattery like I looked young or my outfit was pretty. Not only when my father was around, but also when there were only two of us, we never mentioned about the letter. She just kept on flattering and wearing fake smile. She even told me what she had never told before -tons of complains about her favorite, my younger sister. What surprised me more than that was the fact my mother had aged so suddenly. Her countenance had changed too. She had a face like a devil. With her aged shape and evil countenance, she looked exactly like a witch in “Snow White”. Looking at her sudden change, I realized that she regretted the letter. The moment she dropped the letter into the mail box, she became aware that she was old and helpless. Numerous unusual disasters that hit her region after the letter, such as crazy heat, a big earthquake and the typhoon, made her more insecure and anxious. She regretted that she had cut me off from her life because she threw away a thin rope by herself that she could have relied on in the future. It’s too late now.
On the train back to the hotel, I felt good as everything went well on my side. At the same time, I felt an enormous relief and found how nervous I was during the visit. As it turned out, it was a showdown rather than a visit…

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