Renée Cohen is a freelance writer from Montréal, QC. Canada. She is a world traveller who writes about food, travel and leisure.
Renée is sharing with us a story about Canadians visiting Japan: "A sweet gift for the ages. How the love of Japanese culture inspires a visit to the past and influences the possibility of a visit in the future."
Sweet Memories of Takarazuka
When Reiko Hashimoto’s family moved into the apartment next door to my family, we were both two years old. Reiko and I attended all of the same schools, from pre-Kindergarten to elementary, right through to University. As only children who shared such close proximity in both age and living quarters, we jokingly referred to ourselves as, “Sisters from another Mister”.
Reiko’s mother, Motoko Hashimoto, (nee Takahashi) was a toddler when her family moved from Japan to Canada. Her father, Mr. Takahashi had secured a corporate job at Bell Canada and in an effort to ease Motoko’s assimilation into her new bilingual homeland, the Takahashi family stopped speaking Japanese entirely. Communicating with each other in only English and French, Motoko grew up knowing relatively little about her heritage.
Over cups of ceremonial matcha tea, when Reiko and I were children, Motoko would regale us with stories about how at the age of eighteen she developed a budding curiosity about the culture of her ancestors and embarked on a solo trip to Japan. Since my family was Canadian, (and had been living in Canada for generations as far back as could be traced), Motoko’s stories about her country of birth greatly fueled my interest in Japanese culture. Reiko on the other hand, had no interest in hearing about her Japanese background and would whine that she wanted to go outside and play instead of sitting and listening to her mother’s, “Super boring stories for the hundred millionth time”.
When Reiko and I were eighteen, and had extended lunch periods between classes, we’d often go home to eat. One day, we were sitting at her mom’s kitchen table eating bowls of Kraft Dinner, (which Motoko and Reiko insisted on eating with ketchup) and Motoko told us, “When I visited Japan at your age, the ryokan that I had booked from Canada turned me away when I arrived. Can you believe it, girls? Back then it was uncommon for single women to travel alone. Only so called, ‘women of ill repute’ would stay in a hotel room alone. The ryokan owner feared that my presence would raise suspicion among their other guests, and that I would potentially tarnish their reputation as a decent establishment.”
Reiko rolled her eyes, not willing to listen to yet another story about her mother’s one trip to Japan.
Despite Reiko’s histrionic display of boredom, I encouraged Motoko to tell us more. In response to my request, Reiko glared at me and snarled, “Really, Amber?” She then lopped an orange tinged noodle at my head that promptly got stuck in my curls.
As I removed the macaroni from my hair, I said to Reiko “Did you know that there is an Italian proverb that likens people to macaroni? For either one to be considered good, they need to be warm. Is tossing macaroni your way of displaying warmth to your guest, Reiko?
“You’re not a guest Amber, you’re furniture in this house.” Reiko laughed between bites of noodles.
Ignoring our obnoxious repartee, Motoko continued, “I even became a minor celebrity in my parents’ village. People came rushing out of their homes to get a closer look at the young Japanese woman who couldn't even speak a word of Japanese. After the ryokan turned me away, my Aunt Sanae’s neighbour, Mrs. Sugimoto took me under her wing and let me stay with her and her husband. They had a car, which was rare for people in the village at that time. They even drove me to Arashiyama to visit the bamboo forest. The Sugimotos were so kind, they came to see me off at the airport and gave me a scarf as a gift”. Motoko left the kitchen for a moment and returned with a pale pink silk scarf that was covered in a cherry blossom motif and lined with a black border. Motoko draped it around my shoulders.
Reiko asked, “Why couldn’t you stay with Auntie Sanae? She didn’t have enough Kraft Dinner and ketchup to feed you?”
“You silly goose!” Motoko snapped, “Auntie Sanae didn’t have any spare room for me, but her neighbours did. Would you like some more noodles girls?”
We both declined the offer of more food. I wasn’t in the mood to pluck any more food out of my hair. I walked over to the mirror and admired the gorgeous silk scarf.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Motoko asked. She lifted her chin and pointed it in Reiko’s direction. With a scornful look she added, “Reiko thinks it’s ugly”.
“It’s not ugly Ma, it’s tasteless.” Reiko blurted, rolling her eyes repeatedly.
Motoko and I simultaneously yelled at her in disagreement, “No, it’s not!”
Many years later, not long after their wedding, Reiko and her husband Bill moved to Winnipeg. Soon after, they had a daughter Madison, (who is now seven). Maintaining contact with frequent text messages, and phone calls, Reiko and I occasionally have the opportunity to visit one another, (and without fail, I still manage to walk away from our meals with food stuck in my hair).
My interest in visiting Japan never waned; in fact it rubbed off on my husband Duncan. On the eve of our fourth anniversary, he surprised me by booking us a month long trip to visit four different Japanese cities. I was ecstatic. I immediately called Motoko to tell her the news.
Now in her eighties, and wheelchair bound, I asked Motoko if there was anything in particular she wanted us to bring back from our trip. She said, “Promise to return with stories and lots of pictures from your modern day Japanese adventure”. Raising her voice she added, “And show Reiko what she’s missing, you know what her tastes are - go to malls and photograph the stores, she doesn’t give a hoot about culture!”
“Sure she does, Motoko. She just likes to pretend that she’s completely shallow, that’s her thing. In any case, I will remember not to buy her a silk scarf with a cherry blossom motif as a souvenir”.
“Well no, of course not Amber. You wouldn’t want to be tasteless!” Motoko joked. We laughed and she wished me “ki wo tsukete”, which she said was, “a close approximation of “have a safe trip” in Japanese”.
When Reiko and I had last spoken over the phone the week prior, she reminisced, “I can’t believe how often we used to have tea with my mother. My daughter would never sit down and have tea with me! I still don’t get all the fuss you two made about Japan. Seriously, my mother grew up here and she’s as Canadian as you and your family are! I mean really Amber, she only went back to Japan once in her life. Personally, I’d rather go to somewhere beachy!”
“Beachy?” This time it was I who rolled my eyes. “Reiko, you do realize that there are beaches in Japan?” I said. “There’s...”
Before I could start listing them all, Reiko interrupted me. “Oh Amber, just go to Japan already! I have to get off the phone. I have to go extract a chick pea from Madison’s nose. Such is my exciting life! I should never have taught her how to use the electric can opener.”
As she was hanging up I could hear Reiko yelling, “Madison get that tweezer away from your nostril, let me do it for you, you silly goose!” I couldn’t help but laugh, Madison was just as precocious as her mother - and whether or not she realized it, Reiko sounded exactly like her own mother.
The day of our departure finally arrived and en route to the airport, I texted Reiko: “Duncan and I are off to Japan for one month!”
Reiko replied within seconds: “I know, my mother told me. I’m happy for you. Now maybe you’ll stop talking about Japan, at long last! Bon voyage! She concluded her text with a smiley face animated emoji that rolled its eyes repeatedly.
During our third week in Japan, when Duncan and I visited the Takahashi’s hometown of the Hyogo prefecture of Takarazuka, we first went to see the Osamu Tezuka Manga Museum and on our way back to the subway, we walked by a giant white structure; The Takarazuka Grand Theatre. We entered the building on a whim and once in front of the ticket counter, Duncan turned to me and asked, “Shall we go for it?”
“Why not? It’ll be fun, we won’t understand a thing!” I replied exuberantly. So Duncan purchased two tickets to see that day’s matinee performance of a show called “Puck.” ”
He handed me my ticket and looking up at him, my eyebrows raised in expectation I said, “Thank you Duncan, but guess what?”
“You’re hungry again…am I right? Having guessed correctly, he said, “Unbelievable!” Incredulous, Duncan stood shaking his head and laughing so hard that his glasses fell off of his head onto the floor. Luckily they didn’t break.
“I’m sorry it can’t be helped. I must have a tape worm!” I joked. My constant need for food on this trip was becoming the bane of Duncan’s existence. I needed to be fed, (and watered, as it were) every two hours without fail. We sat down in the theatre’s lobby café to a lunch of takoyaki- the common Japanese street food dish that consisted of round, dough covered pieces of octopus- a dish that we’d lived off of during our time in Osaka, the week prior.
Food cravings satisfied, we made our way to our seats. An employee walked along the front row of the theatre holding up a large sign, which I deduced was a warning not to eat, speak or use cellphones during the performance.
Before the show started, I looked around the theatre and noticed that Duncan and I were (seemingly) the only non-Japanese audience members in attendance. I thought about how just like Motoko, Duncan and I couldn’t speak Japanese, (no matter how many hours we spent listening to audio language lessons). Unlike Motoko’s experience however, our lack of comprehension wasn’t perceived as an oddity; instead, it was consistently met with patience and compassion.
When an elderly woman attired in a beautiful kimono patiently stood to the left of my seat silently indicating that she would need to pass in front of me to get to her seat, I stood up to make room for her and automatically uttered, “Oh, I’m sorry, excuse me”, in English. The woman looked at me sweetly and giggled.
I silently berated myself. I should have said ‘sumimasen’. "Sumimasen", (meaning ‘I'm sorry’ or ‘excuse me’), was the most useful word that Duncan and I had learned, given all the social errors that we kept committing. ‘Gomenasai’, (a more emphatic version of sorry), was reserved for more serious faux pas - like this morning, when I forgot to exchange my shoes for slippers before setting foot into the hallway of our Ryokan. I must have repeated ‘gomenasai’ and bowed to our Ryokan owner at least six times by way of embarrassed apology.
The lights finally dimmed and the show began. Loosely inspired by Shakespeare's, "A Midsummer Night's Dream", the show was a musical love story about a pointy eared elf named Puck. It wasn't until half way into the show that I leaned over and whispered to Duncan, “The entire cast is comprised solely of women; did you notice that they’re even playing the male roles!” He laughed and whispered, “You just realized that now?”
During the intermission, I quickly consulted my phone and read online that after the mid-1600's kabuki shows had entirely banned female performers. Takarazuka was established in the early 1900’s as a response to that ban.
The lights dimmed and the second half of the show now titled, "Chrystal Takarazuka" began. The stage which had formerly been set to look like an outdoor garden was now decorated with a giant illuminated staircase at its center.
The actors performed a variety of short numbers in different musical genres and dance styles. All the glitter reminded me of a Liberace show that I’d seen in New York as a child. The finale was wildly retro with everyone donning ornately bejewelled costumes with mile high feathers atop their heads.
When the show ended and Duncan and I made our way down the carpeted staircase to the lobby, I noticed some people openly staring at us and smiling. An elderly man pointed to our hair, smiled and gave us a thumbs up. Duncan smiled and told the man, “Arigato”, thank you.
“He’s a fan of our curls? We should move here, I could throw away my straightening iron. To think, all those hours of my life wasted on taming this hair.” I said.
“Did you enjoy the show?” Duncan asked me, changing the subject.
“I’m a tad perplexed. Was that flashy spectacle supposed to have been taken seriously, or was it a parody?” I asked.
“Honestly, I’m not sure.” He replied, “But I am sure that I could go for an ice cream now…how about you?”
“Have we met?” I joked.
Hand in hand we walked to the ice cream stand outside the theatre as I hummed some of the catchier tunes from the second half of the show. Feeling creative, I began making up my own lyrics and doing a silly two step while Duncan laughed at my impromptu performance. I sang, “I bring new meaning to the term ‘triple threat’, I can’t sing, I can’t dance, and I can’t act!”
“But you certainly can eat!” Duncan sang back to me, and then bent down to kiss me.
Upon our return to Canada, we discovered the reason behind my voracious hunger. When I shared the news with Reiko that she was going to be an ‘Auntie,’ the first thing she said was, “That’s great Amber, but take my advice, hide your electric can opener - extracting beans from your kids nose ain’t fun.”
Duncan and I met up with Motoko when Reiko and her family came to town for the week. I brought my laptop to show them the thousands of photos that we had taken in Japan, as promised.
When Duncan described the performance at Takarazuka, Motoko said that all she remembered about her visit to the Takarazuka Grand Theatre, were the konpeito – the small colorful sugar candies- that she discretely and rebelliously ate throughout the performance.
As luck or fate would have it, I had some konpeito sweets in my purse - a souvenir from our time in Kyoto. I happily gave them to a teary-eyed, sentimental Motoko who in turn, handed some over to Reiko, Bill and Madison to taste.
“Madison the candies are to be put in your mouth, not up your nose.” I said teasingly as I wagged my finger at her.
Just as Reiko would have done, Madison rolled her eyes at me and sarcastically said, “Ha, ha Auntie Amber, aren’t you funny! But don’t you worry, “bean” there, done that...get it?”
Both Reiko and I looked at one another, then shook our heads and rolled our eyes at Madison, who burst out laughing.
Enjoying the candies, and apparently inspired by the photos of temples, museums, architecture and people, (with nary a mall photo in sight), Reiko shocked us all by announcing that “Japan looks like it might be worth a visit after all. Tokyo looks especially exciting”. She called out to her husband, (who at the moment was busy pouring champagne into flute glasses while Duncan poured apple juice into cups for Madison and I).
“Bill did you hear me?” Reiko cried out, “I want to go to Japan!” Standing by her mothers’ side, Madison wholeheartedly agreed, repeating “yes” in Japanese, “Hai, hai, hai!” as she reached for more konpeito.
Motoko smiled at me and discreetly winked.