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June 27, 2011 / Karen Hill Anton

A perfect transition to the city

Our family on the engawa of the Hirosawa house, circa 1983.

                

(January 24, 1991)     

When my family and I moved from our home in the mountains into the city, we moved into an old house n the center of one of the oldest neighborhoods of Hamamatsu. The house was part of an estate – the owner lived in the house on the adjoining property. The house was well known in the area because, we were told, the mother of the Showa Emperor had once spent a night there.

We chose the house because we felt it was perfect for making the transition from country to city living. Surrounded by a garden, it was closed off from the street by an imposing gate. Although it was located in the center of a tightly-packed neighborhood, no other houses could be seen once behind that gate. What we could see was the pond in back, and a glimpse of the famed wisteria trellises at Seirai-in, the temple next door. And this venerable institution was known because it holds the remains of the wife of the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Similar to the people in the village where we’d lived in the mountains, the people in that neighborhood had never lived anywhere else. Everyone knew everyone – often they were related. The corner store was the kind of place you sent a child with your purse and a note. If you went yourself, it wasn’t just to pick up the tofu, but to get the lowdown on the weather, listen to community gossip, or to ask in which direction your child had gone.

The house we moved into was exquisite. It was a fine example of traditional architecture and skilled craftsmanship no longer being practiced. While trying to make the house comfortable for our family and efficient for modern-day use, I did my best to maintain the integrity and beauty of its simplicity and traditional design.

The house had ten rooms, and except for a reception room off the genkan (entry hall) that my husband used as his study, all the rooms were tatami, and none smaller than eight mats. My own study was a 10-mat room that had the best view of the formal garden. I found out just how formal that garden was when I awoke one morning to see two men up in the pine trees directly outside my second-floor bedroom. They were clipping the pine branches using scissors about the same size as the ones I use for my nails.

There were no screens for the windows, and before summer was upon us we had to have some custom-made since the size of the windows were of a height and width greater than what are standard today. When it got really hot, we removed all the shoji and replaced them with yoshizu-bari.  These screens, made entirely from bamboo, provide shade while allowing cool summer breezes to pass. The owner told me these screens hadn’t been used for years because they were so bothersome to take out and store away. When I took them out of their storage space, I saw that the newspaper they had been so carefully wrapped in when they were last put away was from the 1930’s.

One day a saleswoman came in through the front gate. Glancing around the garden at the manicured pines and old maple trees, the stone lanterns and large rocks placed just so, she rang the bell before stepping into the large entrance hall.

“May I help you?”

“Who lives here?” she wanted to know, seeming to forget her manners along with her original purpose in coming to my door.

“Well, I do,” I answered.

“But who,” and here she began to stammer, “who, who – decorated the house?” she asked, looking around at my idea of a flower arrangement on top of the geta bakko (cabinet for shoes), glancing at a scroll my calligraphy teacher had given me – in gratitude for a loaf of bread I’d baked and given him.

“Well, I did. Of course. Now what can I do for you?”

Although we talked for a minute, I forget what she was selling. I think she did too.

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POSTSCRIPT

We left that house after just six months, because I found it impossible to maintain. We’d moved in just a week or so before I gave birth to my fourth child, my daughter Lila. It was also the time I began publishing regularly, as I had just started writing a column for the regional edition of the Chunichi Shimbun. Knowing I would need help, Kiyoko Izuka, who I’d met in my women’s group, offered to help me until Lila entered nursery school. And that’s just what she did – coming three mornings a week to help with the housework and the children.

But even with Izuka-san’s help it was just too much. We were both busy with the house, and it didn’t seem to make sense – not least because one of the reasons I’d left our farmhouse was because I realized that with the constant daily chores – I was literally working for the house. 

In any case, in this house we’d had the kitchen completely remodeled, added a toilet, and were on the verge of having screens custom-made for the entire house. It wasn’t making sense to make that kind of investment in a house we didn’t own. And never mind the cost of retaining gardeners for regular upkeep of a huge property.

I noticed a new apartment building going up and went and checked it out. After conferring with Billy, we decided to rent a 4-bedroom apartment on the top floor of this 3-story building. Although hardly as big as the house, I still had my own room — with a view westward, over a lake. 

The “Pop” of the Mom and Pop store on the corner in Hirosawa died shortly after we left. For awhile I returned to do some of my shopping there, and just to say hello to the owner, who kept the store open as long as she could on her own. They had one daughter, who was certainly not returning to take over. Like Mom & Pop stores everywhere, there was no way they would survive in the coming onslaught of shopping centers. At the time, there wasn’t a shopping mall anywhere around here. Now, that’s all there is.

About a month ago, I had some time on my hands after a dance class and before a dentist’s appointment, and thought I would just drive around that old neighborhood.

The house was gone.

In its place, something new.

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© Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” 1990-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

                                  

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