My Tea House of the August Moon

M

an, as I try to recall my year in Japan, a flood of memories flow back into my consiousness. I looked for old photos and the memories gelled into recollections that seemed recent–that’s me in front of my teahouse digs wearing a kimono. Although these events occurred twenty years ago, I recall many things very clearly, particularly the first few months when I was getting settled in Japan.

As fall turned to winter, the inside of my teahouse grew colder, and getting out of my futon bedding in the morning became increasingly difficult. I had figure out a way to warm up my room first before I got out of the futon and felt the twinges of a heart attack. Well, all I had to do was position the gas stove within arms length–too close and it would burn the bedding. When the alram went off, I would reach out into the cold of the morning, turn the handle clockwise until it clicked and gave off a spark for the gas to catch. It sould usually take two or three tries before it caught and started burning. If I remembered, I would put a kettle of water on top of the stove so that by the time the room warmed up, I would also have hot water for my instant coffee…

コタツWhen my December stipend came in, I went straight to Seiyu–the superstore–to buy a 180cm x 180cm kotatsu futon. For those of you unfamiliar–since SleepingCutie asked–a kotatsu is a table with two parts: the frame and a table top. Traditionally, the frame is placed over a square, one meter-deep hole in the floor, and at the bottom there is a small brazier with burning coals in it. The futon is placed over the frame and hole to keep the heat in and a table top is placed over the futon to hold it in place. (By the way, that is not me in the photo.) This is called a hori-gotatsu–a dug out kotatsu. Since there is a hole, you can dangle you feet as if you were sitting on a high chair. But you have to be careful. My relatives in the countryside have a hori-gotatsu and I used to love to sit in it. But once my feet got too close. I smelled something burning, and warned my cousin about it before I realized it was my own socks that were being singed. I pulled out my feet and pulled off my smoking socks in the nick of time. Whew.

However, in these modern times, most kotatsu do not require a hole. The frame includes an electric heating unit with temperature control. It is a great place to keep your legs and lap warm. And cats don’t die of carbon monoxide poisoning either. I remember my friends coming over and we would argue about who would have to get out of he kotatsu to get more beer from the fridge. People just seem to grow roots from their butt when parked in tha kotatsu. But a kotatsu is emblematic of the Japanese psyche, I believe. The Japanese have this incredible ability to control their physical reality psychologically. When a Japanese is in a kotatsu, only their front of their hips and feet are being warmed. their head, neck, chest and back is exposed to the elements, and yet they feel a great deal of warmth and comfort from the kotatsu. This ability to deal with their environment extends to their commuter trips. In crowded trains where everyone is pressed together shoulder to shoulder, chest to back, the Japanese can creat a physical sphere of privacy and act as if nothing is wrong, that nothing is bothering them. This would never fly in the US. Whenever I try to squeeze into a crowded Metro train, I am always greeted by dirty looks and snide comments beneath their breath. *sigh* I want to tell them that I only want to go home on time like them. No, that’s not true. I want to tell them to suck it up, that it’s not even close to what it’s like in Japan.

Anyway, I see that I’ve really gone off on a tangent. Let’s see… Oh yeah.

I went to Seiyu and bought the futon. It cost–and amazingly I can still picture the price tag–Y13,000, more than the TV. But it was worth it. I brought it home, spread it over the kotatsu, and bathed in its warmth. Gawd, I loved it. I would turn on the TV, lay down with my hip and most of my upper body scrunched into the kotatsu, prop up my head on my hands, and enjoyed my life in Japan. Further, by then I had taken care of most of the necessities–the soaps and Kleenex and assorted odds and ends–so I figured I could splurge and by a audio tape of my favorite singer, Nakamori Akina. I bought the tape at a record shop–this was before digital CDs, guys–in front of Nishi-Ogikubo station, brought it home, and read the lyrics to the songs. All I needed to get now was a cassette player to hear it. Don’t laugh. This was a conscious decision on my part. I could have saved up for a cassette player and have nothing to play on it, or have a tape and have nothing to play it on. Well, I chose the latter because it would give me more incentive to count my yen and not complain about eating only Y100 soba and Y90 rice balls. But by around New Years, I found that I had enough money to buy a player. I had started teaching English parttime in mid November and my first pay came in December, so I was as happy as a clam, sitting in my kotatsu, warm, turning on the TV, then listening to Akina-chan, then studying my Japanese. Life was actually pretty nice.

Then winter really came…

Born and raised in southern California, I had little contact with snow. I went camping once in Big Bear with my Boy Scout troop in the snow once. And I had encountered snow on my first trip to Japan in 1974 in the countryside when I stayed with my relatives. Both times I had adult supervision. Now I was the adult and I had to learn the hard way how to take care of myself in the ice and snow. How many times did I slip and fall on my ass before I realized that I needed better shoes. Did my pipes actually have to burst before I remembered to let the water trickle out before I went to sleep? It was definitely a learning experience. You will notice that the sliding-door shutters are up, and indeed, for much of my time from November to February I kept them closed unless it was an especially sunny day and I was able to air out my futon.

Oh, I forgot to mention that as well.

In Japan, many people still sleep in the traditional way, on the tatami mat floors. You usually lay down two “matress” futon–shiki-buton (lit. futon to spread out)–and then cover it with a sheet. Then you have the “comforter” futon–kake-buton (lit. futon for cover). Usually, the kake-buton is covered with a fitted sheet so you can just wash the sheet. Another item that many may be unfamiliar with is the taoruketto. This is made up of two English words, towel and blanket. Basically, it’s a large blanket sized towel used as a sheet. I thought it was weird at first, but once I got used to it, I was surprised at how indispensible this thing really is. Basically, it soaks up all the sweat we secrete while sleeping. This is true in the winter beneath the futon, but you can imagine how important this is in the summer in a country that has not yet grasped the concept of central air…

Anyway, while you can wash the sheets as often as you want, the futon are a different story. It is very expensive to send you futon for cleaning–you usually have to take the matress futon to a special futon store. Most Japanese try to keep their futon clean by using the sheets and towel-kets as a buffer, and at least once a week air out the futon outside in the sun–weather permiting. And that was about the only time I would open up the shutters. The glass sliding doors were thin and would let in the cold freely, as most Japanese wooden structures are made for the summer rather than the winter. I guess they feel its easier to warm yourself up rather than to cool your self down.

But that’s another story…

More soon…

Postscript: At cgran‘s suggestion, I asked if others would share their jokes, and I already have a contribution. Hahhahhaha. Check your PP…

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