“So if you could choose which monk to marry, who would it be?” Sen asked. “ Though, we know Fuka already.”
Fuka nodded as she folded towels, stopping occasionally to rub her belly swell. In even just the few days that I had known her, she’d started to fill out more, and her pregnancy had become more apparent.
We looked expectantly at Yuko. “Aya-san?” I offered. His was the only name I knew. He is the kind of person that notices others. He made sure to greet you in the morning, with a smile and eye-contact. He always stayed until the end of the day’s clean-up to help remove the rubbish, and other tiny tasks, long after the other boys have clicked out their time-sheets and gone. I am coming to realise that not all Buddhist monks are of the same type. Aya got on well with everyone, but at the same time there is a distance between him and others. An internal quietness, a thoughtfulness.
Yuko shook her head slowly. “No… No one really. Really! Sen?”
“Everyone would probably say Mori-san,” She said, referring to the one young cook in our kitchen, who is at that moment sitting outside our doors, smoking an electronic cigarette. “I mean, we kind of act like a couple.”
“But you’re just friends?”
“Friends… no. Couple, no. Close, so close. I don’t know how to describe it.” She lifted a piece of tissue paper. “The difference is like this. We’re this close. But yet, it’s still not the same.”
“What about you, Hoku?”
“Me? No way. They are as young as my grandkids.”
“She said Aya-san already. So probably him, right!”
We finished folding the towels, and relaxed into our early morning break. Fuka packed up her stuff to go back to the dormitory to rest. As she left, Sen slid the doors of our small staff-room closed and leaned in to the table.
“I’m so glad she finally told him.” She whispered, “He likes her so much. It’s good that her heard it from her.”
“I saw them laughing together, so I think they’re still good friends.” Yuko replied.
I stared at my tea, not really sure of the context of any of this, or whether I was expected to understand, or be a part of the conversation. Sen nodded, and leaned out again.
“Feli, if you’re not too tired tonight. I’ll take you to a nice bath-house. Our bath is always so crowded, right? You can meet my friend.”
“Sure. Let’s do it.”
“Good, good.” Sen said, and then packed up herself and went out on the balcony to talk to Mori with a cheery, “Knock, knock.”
Yuko and I carried baskets of towels up to the second floor. It’s always such a mess. The single monks share rooms up here, and their belongings spill onto the narrow verandah. We need to clamber through a window opening to get onto the roof, which itself is strewn with ash-trays, and punching pads. Occasionally, after a storm, there will be puddles of wet clothes on the ground there too, though the area itself is covered. We need to bend, and dodge so to not hit the poles and hangers crisscrossing the low roof.
As I hunched to climb back out through the opening to the verandah with my arms full of towels, I noticed how incredibly tattered the shoji paper was on the boys’ room door opposite. There were large shreds of paper pulled away, and patched from the inside with hung clothing, or bath-towels. There were also innumerable finger holes.
“That’s Hamu’s room.” Yuko explained as we went past.
As we walked down the stairs we passed Bolta, one of the tallest Japanese men I’ve ever met, cleaning the floor with a zoukin towel. He gave us a hearty “Uhsssssss.” in reply to our “Ohayou gozaimasu.”
We sat in the rest-room and folded the towels, and then because we had a lot of time that day we did our naishoku “night job” and pressed chopsticks into their covers. Apparently naishoku is a job that housewives in Japan do to get a little extra cash. The per chopstick rate is really small, 0.01 yen per stick, so you’d have to be fast to make money. The weather was bright, and sunny, and the boys weren’t smoking outside so we had the doors open to let in the breeze.
“You know Feli, if you ever don’t know where something is, just ask me ok.” Yuko said, “Even if you have to ask over and over again, that’s totally ok! I mean, we had a coworker before,” and she leaned back and snicked the doors shut, “Actually it was Yama. She’s,” her face contorted a little, “she’s not bad at heart, but she was always putting things in the wrong places without asking.”
“I’ll ask.” I promised, “So Yama used to work in the kitchen right? But she quit after a month?”
“Noooo.” Yuko leaned closer, “Actually she was fired.”
“Fired? Really? So, is she doing a different job for them now? She’s still here.”
“She asked them if they’d give her a month to find a new job. She loves Koyasan and wants to stay here.”
“Has she found anything yet?”
“I don’t think so. I mean, Koyasan is tiny. There’s not really much up here… Why did you come here, Feli? Do you wish to be more Japanese?”
This made me pause a moment. “Not really. Being Australian is a very important part of my identity. But when I came up here, a lot of people said I wouldn’t be able to do it, so I want to show that even an Australian can work in a Japanese job.”
I realised then I had been taking from her pile of chopsticks, and using her basket to place them into, despite Yuko having had properly set up one of everything for me to use.
“It’s ok.” She said in English, “I know. All the chopsticks are yours.” She laughed. I smiled.
“Right! Everything in this room is mine.”
“I know that! You are a queen!”
I went out to drop off the towels then heard a loud burst of laughter, and “iyaiayaiaya” nononono.
Hamu-san has Yuko by the elbows and was levering her out of the rest-room. Yuko was laughing.
“She said itadaite ii, “you can take it”, so, I’m taking her.” He explained.
“iyayaya, I didn’t mean me!” Yuko broke free, and Hamu took off.
“Now I know which monk you’d marry.” I said.
“Hamu?? No way, he’s only 20 years old! And… he’s Hamu!”
“”Right”” I said, using air quotes.
“What do you mean??”
“Sure, no, I “believe” you.”
We go out into the kitchen where Hamu-san was doing a head-stand on the table.
The first three days were incredibly full-on, with a lot to learn. My coworkers have all been in Koyasan for months, and can work completely from muscle memory.
From the kitchen, Mori’s laughter bubbled near constantly out as he spun a machine that converts a daikon radish into one long, thin slice for kiriboshi. The girls are I were setting the shunkan, a multi part dish, including koya-dofu, konyaku, green beans, shreds of carrot, sweet potato and wheat molded into the shape of an autumn leaf. If anyone spoke to me, I would completely lose concentration.
“Feli-san!” Yuta, smiling, bounded into the kitchen, “Feli, would you teach me English? I am doing my TOEIC test soon, and I really want to get a good score.”
Yusuke is another tall guy, with clear skin and a big smile, who looks about 24 when he is actually 31.
“Ummm,” I stopped filling my bowl with konyaku. “I guess so, what do you have in mind. What’s your image of the lessons.”
“Oh… I don’t have one yet. I’ll get back to you.” He bounced out of the kitchen again, and I started to place the konyaku in the shunkan.
“Feli-san,” Jima, Fuka’s baby daddy, walked out looking serious, “Will you help me with my English? I want to improve my studying habits. Do you have any ideas of how I can learn more vocabulary quickly?” Jima is the shortest monk in the temple, coming up to maybe my shoulder. His girlfriend is a long-legged, yoga teacher, but the height difference doesn’t seem to bother them.
I stopped again mid-placement.
“I know someone who reads the dictionary to study. They highlight words they don’t know. Seems to work for them.”
He nodded, “If you have any other ideas. Please tell me.”
“Well, in Thailand, they do something called “monk chat” where people come to talk to monks. It’s a chance for the monks to practice their English, and guests to find out more about Buddhism.”
“I should go to Thailand?”
“No, not that…”
In the background, stubby chef Yoshida wandered past on his way back from a coffee break muttering, “Only 5 more days. Hoku, you hear that? 5 days only that I have to endure! Why are you girls talking so much? When you do moritsuke you should be silent! Shiiiiiiiin! Homma ni mouuu.”
And with that he slid into the kitchen, and started laughing along with Mori.
At least now I could concentrate.
After finishing the shunkan, I took the bowls back into the inner kitchen, a glass-door, walled off enclosure full of benches and gas cooking plates. Mori smiled as he took the bowls from me.
“Namae wa? Eigo de… How do you say it in English? Whatu isu yoru namu?” Itacho, the head chef, asked in katakana English. Itacho is as tall as Mori, despite being about as old as Hoku. His face is deeply wrinkled, but he was probably very good looking back in the day. He wears his white chef hat at a slight angle, and I wonder if it’s deliberate.
“Heli? Like a helicopter?”
“Ah, no, Feli, like the boat, ferry.”
“Pah,” He growled, “Your name is too hard. You are in Japan. You need a name that Japanese people can say. How about Hiroko.”
“Feli is ok.” I left the kitchen.
“Are you ok?” Yuko asked.
“Did you tell him, iyada! Feli ga ii?” Sen asked.
“Do I look like a Mii-chan?” I demanded.
“No. Don’t worry about him.”
“Ijime to omou.” I said. “I think he’s trying to be a bully. Why is it ok for them to be grumpy all the time?”
“They are old. Remember they were born in a different era. Back then, their teachers would hit their fingers with the back of a knife if they made a mistake. They are probably shocked at how easy we have it.”
I don’t think being old is a good enough reason to be an arsehole.
After work, Sen took me to meet Bushi.
“His room is dirty, so don’t be surprised.” She warned me as we approached, “Like, really dirty. Like, most of my friends when they come start just cleaning up… and then never come back again.”
We entered a garbage bin of a room. In the centre was a low table strewn with beer cans, shochu bottles, cups, wrappers, tissue boxes, and overflowing cigarette trays.
“Ooh!” Bushi exclaimed on first seeing me, as Sen ran quickly through my biography.
“She’s from Australia, she’s working with us in the kitchens now, her name is Feli. I’m going to get some beers. Feli, you want some?”
“Australia?! You come from Australia?!”
“Yes, have you been?”
“Australia? No. It’s got the…” He sketches out a trapezoid shape in the air. “You know, mountain, very famous.”
“Uluru! Homma ni. I want to go to Uluru. Yes! Sydney??”
“No, Uluru is in the middle…”
“Are you from Sydney?”
“Uh, no, I’m from further north. About 2 days drive from Sydney.”
“What?!” They said simultaneously. Sen plunked a beer down in front of me.
“Australia huh…” We kanpai our drinks, and Bushi opened another bottle of shochu, “But why are you here? And you can speak Japanese?!”
“Yes, I’m working in the kitchen with Sen.”
“Work here! At this temple. We really need someone who can speak English and Japanese.”
“Oooh, head-hunting. Lucky Feli!” Sen laughed, “But Bushi, she’s only just started working with us. She can decide after a month.”
“Mmm, ne, Feli, why don’t foreigners eat black food? Is it gross?”
“Probably a lot of foreigners are a bit nervous of eating food that they’ve never seen before, and is black. I think maybe sometimes there should be explanations for the food. This is hijiki, it’s seaweed, and meant to look like this.”
Note, hijiki seaweed is delicious, but actually full of inorganic arsenic, so if you come to Japan, and don’t eat it you can say it’s not just because it’s black and looks like shaved eyebrows. Try the mozuku instead, which is green and slimy looking, but very healthy!
After drinking several of Bushi’s beers, we visited the temple’s bath. Unlike the public one in our temple, this one is made of Koya pine, and has a wonderful smell. It’s also completely empty.
“I come here almost every day.” Sen said, “Partly because I feel bad for him. There’s a young guy he used to drink with, but he’s gone on his Buddhist training, shugyo, at the moment, and I worry Bushi is lonely. He likes to drink, I like to drink. So it works. Also, this bath is awesome, right? The customers here tend to go to sleep earlier than at our temple – it has a totally different atmosphere here, right? Our temple is more young, and progressive thanks to Inge-san. We have internet in all the rooms, and everyone is young. At the other temples the average age is around 80 years old. Everyone is like Hoku. They just find out through word of mouth. You found the job online, right? So this place is always really quiet. Sometimes, I’ll just sit in here and read a book.”
We relaxed into the hot water.
“So…” I said slowly, “Why did they fire Yama?”
“Uhmmm,” Sen let out a long breath, “Lots of reasons. One main big reason, but lots of little ones leading up to that. She couldn’t remember anything. I mean, anything. After only a few days you’re already remembering so much Feli, but she always needed a partner. It was exhausting. Finally Yuko and Hoku just had enough, they said they wouldn’t help her anymore. But that wasn’t the big reason. Mori came into work one morning and found the kitchen smoking. Yama had left a towel in the rice cooker. In the rice cooker!!! In a temple! That’s so dangerous. So that day, the Okusan asked her to quit.”
“And she’s looking for work.”
“Yes, but it’s already been 10 days. I think Okusan is trying to introduce her to a few places. Incredible right! What job would do that for its ex-employees?”
My first days off were only 3 days after I started work. Driving along a very familiar road in Wakayama with my husband, I was stunned by how wide the world was. My working world now is really narrow – the kitchen, the rest room (which adjoins the kitchen), my room, (which is above the kitchen) and the bath-house. I like cleaning the outside hanare toilets because I get to go outside. When the weather is rough, which it often is in Koyasan, I stay inside during the breaks. So we went to the ocean, and I just let the true enormity of the world sink in for a while.
When I came back, Sen had gone on her own trip, for 3 days to Kyushuu. I felt adrift without the person who had been training me. In her place, came Momoka who quickly established some important facts.
“How tall are you Feli? 170Cms? Really? I’m 172, but I think you’re taller. Stand up, let’s check. Hoku, which do you think? Ne, Feli, when’s your birthday, and year? 1985? Really? Which month! Oh wow, we’re the same age! But you’re 6 months younger than me. Yes! Finally, I’m not the youngest anymore!”
Momoka wears short sleeved, floral shirts, despite the autumn chill, bright headscarves, and jeans. When she talks, she is very animated, and likes to laugh. When she works, she works really hard.
“Ne, Feli.” She lifted an o-zen tray I had polished, “There’s a white smear here. Make sure when you clean it, that by the end you can look at it from any angle and it will be shiny and clean. Put your affection for the customer in as you clean.”
Similarly as she showed me how to clean the hanare toilets. “See these hairs on the floor. Make sure they are all wiped up. Check the bins, even though they may not be our responsibility. Let’s make work easier for everyone! Ok, take a moment as you finish your work to check, and think, will the customer walking in here feel anshin?” Anshin as in: comfortable, at ease, safe.
Almost everyone gets on well with Momoka. She is a permanent employee and has been at the temple for over a year. As she was talking through the rest-room door to us, a monk called Kassan came up and put his hand on her head. She ignored him, and continued talking, even though – like an obnoxious younger brother, he would try and shake her off balance and distract her attention.
Later when she asked, “Ne, Feli, do you know who my boyfriend is?” I expected it to be him.
“No… Don’t you remember I got into a car with Uni-san the other night? Did you think we were just good friends?”
“Wow. Uni-san…” He is probably the opposite of who I would expect to be dating Momoka.
As it is just us, folding yukatas together in the tanzen room, I asked, “So, how did you two become a couple?”
“At first, I really didn’t like him. He never smiles, right.” Uni never shows any expression, ever. Never smiles. Ever. Occasionally mutters a response to good morning, but will never be the first to say hello.
“I used to think he was so shindoi – tiring. But then, I realised he’s really kind, and I fell in love with him.”
I still find Uni a little shindoi. He is only a little taller than Jima, and terribly serious. His grey samue is too big for him, so he looks like he is flapping as he strides around briskly. Our only meaningful interaction to date is when he laughed at my Japanese, because he thought I said ottchan, instead of ocha. It bothered me a lot more than I should have let it. It’s also still the only time I’ve seen him laugh.
After 3 days, Sen came back to work. She passed a business card to Hoku as we pressed chopsticks into their paper slips.
“This is him.” She said.
“A doctor, X-ray.” Hoku turned the card over, inspecting it closely. “How was his personality.”
“Not bad, we could chat together easily, but he was very specific about everything. He wants an answer by tomorrow, and that’s the latest he’ll wait. Also, he’s a little pochari – fat. If he could lose that, I wouldn’t mind so much. He smokes too, and not the electronic ones that Mori started smoking recently. Did you notice he’d switched? He knows how bad cigarettes smell, so he changed for us, I think.”
“What’s this?” I asked, deciding to join the gossip since I was in the room anyway.
“Shut the door, would you?” I slid the shoji shut.
Sen leaned in, “This is why I went to Fukuoka. To meet this guy and talk about marriage. I haven’t told him about it though,” she pointed towards the verandah where Mori usually smokes, because I haven’t made up my mind yet. But, I’m probably going to say no. He’s coming out, I think. We’ll talk more later ok.”
Yuko and Fuka come in.
“Oh, it’s so cold recently!” Yuko exclaimed, and we all agree heartily. Summer had thoroughly fled Koyasan, though Osaka still bathed in humidity. It was only the first week of October, and already we had started wearing neck warmers and tights. Except for Momoka of course.
Later that day, Mori walked through the kitchen, taking three, filled kerosene stoves to our room. We could now cook ourselves from all side.
“You know why he took the stoves in, Hoku-chan.” Itacho said sourly.
“No.” Hoku replied, her eyes wide.
“Because he wants to get in her good books.” He said, and laughed sharply.
It was nice being part of the girl team when Mori was trying to get in Sen’s good books. We were the recipients not only of functioning heaters, but also chocolates, and homemade kimuchi from his cousin in Osaka.
“Have you guys seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s?”
“Such a good movie.”
“I love Audrey Heburn.”
“Ne, which out of all of us do you think is the most like Audrey?”
“Probably Hoku-san, right?”
“Yeah, Hoku, she always wears nice clothes to work. She has such a good atmosphere.”
“Feli is gaijin though, but, she is a little different to Audrey, right? Ne, Feli?”
“Odori? Are you guys talking about dancing? What? ”