If you haven’t read the previous blogs: So you want to live in Koyasan; Yappari Gaijin Da; and especially Boys and Girls, I might suggest you go back, to better understand the people who live with me here in Koyasan. This will be a very personality driven blog.
I live in a Buddhist temple, and everyday is different.
Not the work. The work is exactly the same everyday, only the speed changes depending on the amount of guests staying. At 9:30am and 6:15pm, I will be clearing trays, everyday; at 2:05pm I will be setting the plates of tsukemono, everyday.
But in any small community, where there are men and women of around the same age, who see each other constantly, and who have few responsibilities beyond the job itself, things happen. Politics happen. Relationships happen. Tragedies happen.
It was perhaps my 5th day of work in Koyasan. Sen was away in Fukuoka, meeting her potential bridal match. That day there were only four of us: Yuko, Fuka, Hoku and me.
I filled my Snoopy cup with coffee, and put my silicone cup-cap on top.
“Ala, kawaii!! So cute! With a ribbon and everything. Where did you get it??” Hoku gazed at the little pink cap with shining eyes.
Fuka came in with a basket of towels to fold. It was 11:45, towel folding time.
“Would you like some coffee?” I asked her.
“No.” She sat down heavily.
“Are you ok?”
“My tsuwari. Do you know what tsuwari is?”
“suwari? Sit down?”
“No, tsu-wari. When you feel sick during the beginning of pregnancy.”
“Ah, morning sickness maybe?”
“Yes. It’s really bad. Do you think I could take the afternoon off?”
“Take it, take.” Hoku said.
“Are you sure you’ll be able to manage just with three people?”
“We’ll manage.” We all chimed in.
And we did. The afternoon was relatively easy, and as there were few guests that day, dashimasu – when the food races out – went smoothly.
The next day Fuka came in with a guilty look on her face as she went around to each of us.
“How was it yesterday? Could you manage ok?”
“Yep, it was no problem.”
“Great! Then maybe I’ll take this afternoon off too?”
The next day, Fuka didn’t come into work. Hoku stared in consternation at Yuka.
“Did she tell you she wasn’t coming in?”
“She told Miya, and Miya messaged me.”
“But she didn’t tell you, not even send a message?”
“Me neither. She could have said something. Hmmmm.”
That afternoon the wife of Inge, Miya, came in to see us. She is a strong, Osakan woman, with two young daughters who have the run of the temple, and a third on the way.
“Girls, I want Fuka to take some time off. She went to the hospital today, and the doctor wants her to spend some time there. It’s not looking good with her baby.” Miya rubbed her own belly, wincing, “Ma, ma, it can’t be helped. At her age… But still, anyway, she’s in the hospital for a while. Maybe until the 18th. Can you cope? I’m sorry, you might not be able to take holidays for a few days, or just half days.”
Sen came back the next day.
Yuka leaned in. “She’s in the hospital. They can’t find the baby’s heartbeat. They will operate Tuesday. She will be in hospital probably for another few weeks.”
Sen’s eyes closed for a moment, creased in heart-break.
“When is she in until?”
If she comes back. The thought hung between us.
I couldn’t try to imagine what it would be like. To go from being a mother, to not. To be an expectant father, making preparations for a family, to not.
Mori and I were in the laundry, when Fuka’s danna Jima-san came back from the hospital.
“How are you?” Mori said.
“Fine, fine. No problems.” Jima said, too quickly, nodding too fast. “Thank you.”
Mori held his shoulder a moment, then left.
Our temple has an indoor, public bath. There are 6 showers along the wall, with the traditional wooden washing stools, and a small wooden bucket for rinsing. The bath itself can squeeze in maybe 5 people at one time, is made of a slippery, grey tile, and is kept at a temperature maybe 2 degrees above comfortable.
Bath-time is probably my favourite part of the day, and I usually try and go twice.
I’ve never felt the urge so strongly to be out of my work-clothes at the end of the day, and to have the literal grime of the kitchen, dregs of dish-water soaked in my clothes, smears of rice, slices of carrot, cleaning chemicals etc just gone. I’m definitely not alone in the desire to be finished with work, and transformed by the magic of the bath. Maybe for me, the transformation is more drastic. One night, after a bath, I bumped into Mori in the hall giving him a quick, “Otsukaresama – thanks for your hard work.” that made him do a double-take.
Work-Feli wears 4 or 5 layers of baggy clothes to keep warm underneath a denim apron, a hair scarf, and crocs. Outside-of-work-Feli wears her hair down, big earrings, jeans and knits. On my days off, I’ve been asked by monks at the temple if I’m checking in.
Before work, Sen and I will often meet in the bath-house. In the mornings, it’s usually empty of guests, and is an excellent way to warm up before heading into the freezing kitchen.
“Mori and I had a big fight last night.” Sen said
“We went out for a drink together, and we were having a good time. Then we started talking about December, and what our plans were. He was saying, “Maybe I’ll take the month off, there’s nothing to do in December.” But it’s my birthday! I’ve told him over and over again, but he forgot. So I was quiet, and he kept asking me what was wrong. So I told him, like it’s my birthday, but it’s not a big deal. We’re not dating. You’re not my boyfriend. I mean, he mustn’t really care about me if he keeps forgetting. So it wasn’t fun after that and he got too drunk. He tried to sleep in the car park, and I wouldn’t let him – it’s cold you know! But he yelled at me, “Go home, baka! Leave me alone!” I’m so sick of this. I guess I will quit in December after all.”
“Are you going to be ok today when he comes in?”
“He’s got the next three days off as a holiday. He’s gone back to Osaka.”
“That’s both good and bad, I guess… But don’t worry. Friends fight. It’s a natural thing. I fight with my best-friend, and later on one of us will apologise, and it’ll go back to normal.”
“Yeah, but we’re not really best-friends. Not friends. Not boyfriend and girlfriend.”
The rest of the day, the fight weighed heavily on Sen. She wore a face mask, and worked alone in at the rice-station, quiet but for frequent sighs.
“The foreigners are increasing!” Our boss, Inge, said, wandering into our kitchen with a big grin on his face.
“What?” We all looked up placing slices of radish on the sesame tofu. It was around 4:15pm.
“Some Australian guy.” He looked at me with a nod, “Volunteering. He’ll be here for two weeks. I think his name is Jackson.”
A few minutes later Tamu-san came into the kitchen too.
“There’s a gaijin coming?” We asked, “An Australian?”
“Yeah, he just turned up suddenly. Australian? No. English, I think.”
“English. Nice.” I looked over at Sen, who seemed to perk up a little.
“Oh… And he’s here for two weeks?”
“No… two months.”
“Yeah, and he’s a super hippie. He’s starting tonight.”
“Hippie?? Does he speak any Japanese?”
“Not a word.”
The super hippie slouched through the kitchen, following Jima-san. His blonde, unbrushed hair was held back by a strand of tie-dyed cloth. He wore a super loose shirt and shorts. He did not say much as he passed by.
“How old do you think he is?” Yuko asked Sen.
“It’s hard to tell with foreigners. Maybe 35? Over 30 in any case.”
“I don’t know.” I said, “Foreigners tend to look older to Japanese. I reckon he’s in his 20s. He has that atmosphere.”
“No way. With that face? And beard?! How long do you think he’ll last?”
“A day. Maybe two.” Sen replied.
Jackson was still there at dinner-time. He seemed a bit lost so I went up to him to explain the dinner flow – where to get rice, and the meal that night which was oden.
“Hey Jackson, do you have any allergies or anything?”
“Nah, I’m good, but actually, I’m a vegetarian.”
I abandoned the poor man, and went straight over to Sen.
“He’s a vegetarian.”
“No way. What’s he going to eat?”
“I don’t know. Isn’t there something we can find.”
“Let’s see what left overs there are.”
As Sen went back to the fridge, I went back to Jackson.
“I don’t want to make a fuss. I’m pretty easy. This looks ok.” He had probably never seen oden in his life, and I was impressed that he was so calm when faced with a plate of knobbled white tubes, brown half-circles, and grey triangles floating in a thin stew.
“Uh, most of it is made of fish. Compressed fish-paste.”
“But we’ll get you something from the fridge.”
We collected a feast of hijiki, black seaweed, ume-boshi, pickled plums, and other slightly old food we wouldn’t give the guests anymore.
Jackson was still there the next day.
“How’s he going?” I asked Aya who had come into the kitchen.
“Well! He’s got a lot of skill.”
Jackson mooched in.
“Hey Jackson, I hear you’re doing well.” I told him.
“Yeah, I’ve worked in hotels before in Australia. They’ve all got their own little folds and such, but it’s basically the same. Oh, and by the way, it’s just Jack.”
“Oh, ok. Pretty much everything we heard about you has been wrong then. I might grab an interview with you, if that’s cool.”
“Yeah, sure, no worries. Just not on camera. I really don’t like cameras.”
As non-Japanese staff, particularly as European, non-Japanese, there are a lot of perks at the temple. One of them is getting to play-act as customers in any of the TV specials that come to visit. Jack and I starred in a segment on tea-ceremony for an NHK documentary set in Koyasan.
“They tricked me.” Jack said glumly. “You know I told you I don’t like cameras, right? I didn’t know they were going to be videoing. They just said, “Hey Jack, there’s a job for you in here.””
“Have you done tea-ceremony before?” I asked him.
“Oh, is that what this is? No, I’ve never actually heard of it.”
“Do you know matcha?”
“Ah, ok. You’ll probably like it.”
That night Yuko and I arranged all the vegetarian extras we could find, and arranged them on the table for him, but after work Sen and Hoku sat me down in our break room.
“This can’t go on. It’s not our job to find food for him, Feli. I spoke with Okusama today, and she never knew he was a vegetarian. The cooks can’t make a special meal just for him, and the monks are not going to help him – make no mistake! They aren’t kind like us. When Mori gets back and hears we have a vegetarian he’s going to explode! Also, he still hasn’t even said yoroshiku onegaishimasu to Okusama and the other o-ima.”
“Well, that can’t be helped. I think he literally knows nothing about Japan. He only arrived here 6 days ago.”
“Yeah, but it’s just common-sense. He doesn’t say ohayou gozaimasu in the mornings. Not even in English.”
“Well, what if I take a list of things to him. And what if we do the aisatsu with the o-ima now?”
“It might be too late. The Okusama doesn’t really like him. She didn’t expect him to be this much trouble.”
So I wrote a list of words for Jack. Ohayou gozaimasu for good morning, along with other aisatsu words, like konnichiwa, and yoroshiku onegaishimasu, Jack desu for first meetings.
I went up to his room.
“Hey Jack, there’s a few things I need to tell you…”
To his enormous credit, Jack didn’t take anything personally.
“Oh yeah, I went to the Family Mart, and got a lot of my own vegetables. Don’t worry too much about my food.”
We went down together to perform aisatsu with the o-ima. Okusama’s face was incredibly sceptical as she said, “maa, kore kara yoroshiku onegaishimasu. – well, from now on let’s have a good relationship.” Inge was a lot more cheerful, as he often is, replying to “Jack desu.” in English, “My name is Sesshu.”
“By the way,” I asked Jack as we headed back towards our rooms, “How old are you?”
“21.” He said.
“Twenty one!!!” Sen, Hoku and Yuko stared at me in shock as I came back to report. “No way! No wonder he doesn’t know how to do aisatsu. No 21 year old knows that, anywhere in the world. I don’t think I knew how do to it until I was 27. Jack really is amazing, huh~! But, we’ll see if he’s still here at the end of the week. I mean, they put him in the “KD” room.”
“Named after Kobayashi Daisuke. Said, “conbini itekimasu” “I’m just going to the conbini”, and then never came back. They didn’t know where he was until they found a note in his room saying to throw away all his stuff.”
“Yeah, but not just KD. Nobody in that room stays long.”
The next day Mori returned. He looked sick. His naturally dark face shadowed, and down-turned.
“How was your holiday?” I asked him.
“bochi bochi ya na.” He said, blanching, which is kind of like, “So-so.” in Osaka-dialect.
In comparison to the previous days, Sen was cheerful, and bright, talking and chatting with everyone. Mori skulked about in the kitchen, with sighs instead of his usual rippling laugh.
“I didn’t reply to any of his texts.” Sen explained during our break.
“He sent some?”
“Yeah, mostly just angry ones. “Come pick up your stuff.””
“You have stuff at his place?”
“Yeah, like a book, and such. But I ignored all of it.”
“What will you do now? Keep ignoring him.”
She got up, and went out. We heard her usual, “Knock, knock.” as she went into Mori’s small rest-room.
“Did you guys make up?” I asked when she returned some time later.
“Yes, we talked. He apologised.”
“Maa, something. Not as good as before. I’m still probably going to quit. I’m ready for the next stage. I can’t wait around here forever.”
Sen took Jack to do aisatsu to Mori.
“This is Mori, he makes our food.” She told Jack in English, before quickly explaining to Mori that this was the vegetarian.
“yoroshiku onegaishima. Jack desu.”
“We’ll have to find something for you to eat.” Mori said emphatically in Japanese. “Make sure you get enough vitamins, and protein. Eating is important!”
“Looks like Mori is going to try and make you food after all.” I told Jack who looked relieved.
The kitchen seemed like it was back to normal. Sen and Mori were laughing together again. Mori had brought us home-made kimuchi from his cousins in Osaka, and threw in half a packet of chocolate covered almonds for us to share.
Itacho leaned out of his kitchen window.
“Who counted the fruit today?” He demanded to Sen.
“Feli.” She replied, her face tight.
“Feli.” He gestured for me to come over.
“I’m sorry.” I said as I approached. He ignored me, looking at Sen.
“There’s 45 in here. 11, 22, 33, 44, 45. Right?”
“And we have 45 people today?”
“Well done, Feli-san.”
“Huh?” It took me a moment to comprehend.
“You did a good job.” With a cheeky smile he turned away.
“Congratulations Feli, Itacho is happy with you.”
“What?” I couldn’t believe I had survived that, and our lead grump had actually been nice for once.
Hold on a second.
“Itacho even said my name! Banzai!”
We all threw our hands up in celebration.
“Iya iya, that’s not right.” His voice floated out of the kitchen as his sliced the fruit, “How about Yuriko? Mao? Sayaka?”
The short cook, Yoshida was in a good mood too.
“Only a week left til I’m gone. Back to Gifu! Going to the dentist.” He told me as he poured soup during dashimasu. “I had my farewell party two nights ago, and we went out drinking last night. I don’t even care! I’m still drunk now!”
Distracted by his unusual chattiness, I stepped on the sticky-pad meant to catch mice. Suddenly there was a huge, flapping piece of cardboard on my foot.
“Oh no, Feli!” Yuko rushed over and tried to pull it off, but was ridiculously sticky. Way more than necessary to catch a mouse.
“Take off your shoe.” Mori said leaning out of the kitchen, “You can’t walk like that. We’ll fix it later.”
So I limped through the rest of the evening in socks, red-faced, and laughing in embarrassment at stepping on the stupid thing.
I came back from setting our table for dinner to find the cardboard removed from my shoe, and it immersed in boiling hot water.
“That won’t be enough.” Mori said, “It’ll just warm it up. But I tried putting some flour on it, and rubbing it against the concrete outside. It started to come off. Just leave it to me.
As we ate, we could hear the sound of Mori scratching my shoe against the gravel outside, and peaked out to see him rubbing more flour onto the sole.
“Like a soba maker.” Yuko said.
“Like a boyfriend.” Hoku said.
During the final clean-up, as I was slipping and sliding across the wooden floor, Mori returned my freshly cleaned shoe to me. It was still slightly sticky, but the sensation lessened the more I walked on it. I could not believe how kind he was.
“This is awesome. It’s better than new!”
“Iya, iya, it’s nothing.” He said, donning his big, brown jacket and preparing to leave. I gave him a hug, which I think he received with a mixture of embarrassment and pride.
In Japan, you often give presents to people when they do something nice for you. The next day I rode to the conbini to buy some of the almond covered chocolates Mori had given us as a thank you for my shoe.
Yuko was helping me write the note when Sen came in.
Thank you for your help. My shoe is just like new. On a whim, I drew a picture of a mouse on the card.
“That looks good.” Yuko said.
Sen’s face was expressionless. I realised as I was delivering the present that I was probably overstepping boundaries.
The next night, Sen, Yuko and I were leaving to visit her friend Bushi again. Yuko looked sceptically at my clothes. “That’s pretty thin. Are you going to be warm enough?”
“It’s ok today.” I said, and popped up to my room to grab something. When I came back, Mori’s brown jacket was on the table.
“He said he left it for Feli, so she won’t get cold. You should wear it. ” Sen said.
What do you do in this situation? Take the jacket as an act of friendship? Leave the jacket out of concern for Sen’s feelings, though she would probably insist strongly otherwise? Take the jacket to not catch a cold? Leave the jacket to not appear like there was more to the relationship between Mori and I than just friends? At 31 years old it feels weird to be revisiting the girls/boys relationship minefields I associate with high-school. Maybe it’s wrong to think we ever out-grow it… Living in Japan I’ve seen it time and again – from JETs reliving college together, to incestuous school staff-rooms.
“Put on the jacket Feli, it’s cold out.” Sen said.
So we went out. The jacket was large, with warm fuzz on the inside and a tough, leathery outside that cut the cold wind. I was nearly punched in the arm by Bolta, mistaking me for Mori, but otherwise I was glad to be wearing it.
“Oooh!” Bushi greeted us, as Sen grabbed some of his beers. “Australia!”
“Yep, that’s me.”
“So Jack came up and said konnichi wa to me today, but I couldn’t help it, I just replied, “Hello!””
“Oh no, Hoku! After all his hard work to try and speak Japanese!”
“I couldn’t help it. I don’t get the chance to speak with a gaijin everyday!”
“What?! You talk to me every day! Every! Day! Hoku!”
“What plates are these? Why isn’t it tagged properly? Is this matsu? Why are they the square plates? Who set this?”
Oh no. I had been so stupidly proud of my fruit victory.
Itacho lectured all of us with a stabbing finger.
“How can I be expected to do this properly if you aren’t even teaching the new ones right? Do you even understand? Hurry up and fix this. Get me the matsu plates.”
Hoku with an absent “hai, hai” in his direction, led me over to where the mistaken plates were.
“Donmai Feli. He hasn’t had a day off in a long time, and he’s in a bad mood.”
Ever since Mori left, the kitchen has become a different place.
The two cooks, Yoshida and Itacho are constantly angry. Okusan came in to ask Yoshida to extend his contract until they can find Mori’s replacement.
Itacho asked one of the monks who wandered through the kitchen, “Where is he?”
“I don’t know. He’s not at his house. He hasn’t been back for a few days.”
A night on the town had somehow ended in the lock-up.
It didn’t sink in until the o-ima gave Jack Mori’s old work-clothes. Sen physically wilted throughout the day, red-rimmed eyes above her face mask.
We always thought he would come back. Still hope he will.
Fuka came back on the 21st, strong and self-possessed as ever. She brushed off concerns for her physical health with a smile. She and Jima laugh a lot together when they meet in the temple hallways. Jack continues to continue, and has moved out of the KD room, into a room with Hamu. His Japanese increases everyday, as does his smiles. When Fuka came back to work, he went straight up to her, alone, to say yoroshiku onegaishima, Jack desu. He starts everyday with a big ohayo gozaimasu! I feel so proud of him. Since Mori left however, the cooks care little about making more veggie friendly food, and in fact we are all starting to suffer from a lack of vegetables, fruit, diversity and flavour in our food.
Yoshida’s contract keeps extending, despite the two new cooks hired. Somehow, he doesn’t seem to mind. Mori lives in Koya still. He and Sen hang out a lot. Maybe they are finally friends, or more than friends. Maybe they’ve finally ripped through that tissue paper.
I live in a Buddhist temple but more than that, I live in a community of 20 men and women who laugh with each other, sometimes fall in love with each other, frustrate and fight with each other.
Then, every so often, Jyogo or Inge will walk through the kitchen in white robes, or red and gold ceremonial kimonos, or a group of orange monks will clatter past the window on their wooden geta, and I’ll remember: I live in a Buddhist temple.
But it’s easy to forget that most days.