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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Vegetables, Yogurt, and Pizza hr632

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.

sliced red strawberry fruit

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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.

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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 Rich World Requiring No Wealth hr617

The most luxurious hotel in my small, rustic town is not far from my apartment. I visited there again the other day, not to stay the night but to use the club lounge.
The club lounge is exclusive to a member of the hotel’s loyalty program. The members can use it free of charge. The hotel has a regular lounge for its guests which menu has heart-stopping prices. Nonetheless, it was alive with customers who came to ski on the skiing slopes adjacent to the hotel. At the entrance, just by telling the server that I am a club member and flickering my membership card, she ushered me to the back of the regular lounge. Behind the glass door is the club lounge.
Once I stepped inside, I was in a heavenly place. Despite the hurly-burly of the regular lounge, I had this secluded section to myself. A cartridge coffee machine brewed freshly each cup. Bottles of sparkling wine and club soda stood in the ice-filled silver cooler. Kiss chocolates in silver wrappers, Hershey’s almond chocolates in gold wrappers and packs of a specialty cookie were arrayed. The place used up two-story-high vertical space and the wall-wide window reached to the second floor ceiling. Out of it was a side of the snow-covered mountain. I enjoyed sparkling wine in a flute glass as much as I want, sitting in a cozy sofa. The thing is, I didn’t pay a dime for this service since the membership fee is free. Other occasions I use my membership card except for this lounge are when I travel to the city a couple of times a year and stay at one of the same hotel chain to get its lowest rate.

two round pendant lamps in cafeteria

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Happiness seems to be enlarged 10 times when a gorgeous experience costs none. I don’t think that the wealthy feel happy when they pay a lot of money to use a luxurious hotel lounge because it’s how things usually go. I’ve seen many rich people who don’t have a good time with a frown no matter how expensive the place they are at is. My parents used to be rich, but they were always unhappy and pulled a long face. The schools I went to were exclusive Catholic schools, but the students and their parents alike didn’t seem happy at all from any angles I could have ever taken to observe them.
It’s an illusion that money brings happiness. I have just finished my second book that I wrote disregarding big sales. Since I didn’t bother about how many copies would sell, I had fun in all the processes such as writing, an enormous amount of editing work and publishing. My happiness is 100 times as much as the one that I felt when I was desperate to be famous and rich.
A long time ago, I got in a facility of a soft drink company when I visited Walt Disney World. The visitors there were allowed to drink a various kinds of soft drink from the dispensers as much as they wanted for free. The minute I entered the place, I noticed a strange atmosphere. It was crowded, but people were all smiling. Each of them was laughing, talking, jesting, and having fun with a small paper cup in their hand. While I lived in U.S., it was the only place that I saw people look joyful and relaxed without influences of alcohol or drugs.
Does wealth really make people happy? We can be happy without it if we overcome fear and create the world where money doesn’t work on us. I know, though, the way to happiness is of course long and hard…

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Japanese Millennials hr609

A big open-air rock festival is held annually every summer in the small town where I live that is enclosed by mountains. More than ten times as many people as the town’s population visit during the few days of the festival. People all over the country and even from overseas fill up the train station that is usually inactive and quiet. In front of it, an endlessly long line is formed in the heat for the shuttle bus to the concert venue. The attendance trend has changed in recent years. While a young attendance has been down, more and more men in their fifties and sixties come by their own. The reason mirrors characteristics of today’s Japanese youth. They have been getting poorer than the generation before and the tickets and the transportation for the festival cost too much for them. Also, they don’t like being dirty. It’s not appealing to them to watch concerts in the rain soaking wet and getting muddy in the open air. That attributes a less crowd on Japanese beaches, too. They opt for a pool where they don’t get covered with sand. I’ve seen young people’s behavior change everywhere. In restaurants, chairs and booths are disappearing and replaced by a Japanese-style space with tatami mats. They prefer sit directly on a tatami floor at a low table by taking off their shoes and folding their legs. In a restaurant that has a Western style without any tatami space, I sometimes see shameful people who take off their shoes and sit folding their legs on a chair as if a chair was a floor. Knives and forks are less available because they like to use chopsticks and suck pasta by making slithering noises. In a movie complex, less and less American movies are showing and Japanese movies are abundant instead. To make things worse,the majority of that small number of American movies is dubbed into Japanese, which spoils original actors’ performances completely. Up until a decade or so ago, almost all the foreign movies were subtitled. Since I exclusively see American movies with subtitles, which by the way I prefer without them but have no choice at a theater in Japan, the selection for the movie is excruciatingly limited nowadays. I sometimes see trailers of Japanese movies before the one I came to see and even a glimpse of it disgusts me. A main character is always a female high-school student or a child or an animal. Most are animated and a story is lukewarm and saccharine without any contention. I don’t understand what is the point to spend time and money to watch those. It seems that American movies, in which things are destroyed, people are killing each other, lives are at stake, emotions are exploding, are too intensive and strong for Japanese gentle millennials. Their taste for fashion is gentle, too. They choose somber, obscure colors with no patterns or accessories so that they look lowly. They seem peculiar to me especially because my taste is fancy and colorful. I like wearing clothes with bright colors and patterns and confusingly complex accessories. Although I’m not rich, I tend to have a glass of sparkling wine at a Western-style restaurant in a hotel. As my favorite restaurants and shops aren’t popular anymore and have been closed or remodeled into a cheap Japanese-style one by one, Japan has been getting an uncomfortable country to live in for me. Well, come to think of it, it has never been comfortable to me since my childhood. I had thought it would have been better by the time I became a grown-up, but it just didn’t happen. It was an illusion of a child and Japan has treated me the same way with different people…

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