Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

As a child, I sometimes accompanied my mother on her weekly Saturday trips into Little Tokyo.  My mom had her routine.  First stop was Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights, where my grandparents and many aunts and uncles rest.  When my mother’s mother was still alive, the next stop was her apartment to deliver food and whatever, along with the report that we already had paid our respects at the cemetery.  At that point, my mom left our car parked there and she and I took the street car across the Fourth Street bridge into J-town for the rest of my mother’s errands.

Back in the day before tofu and shoga – fresh ginger root – became stock items in every Vons, she considered the effort to get to the grocery store on First Street mandatory.  But back in those days when every storefront was owned by people who knew my grandparents and mother, you just couldn’t run, pick up a few things, and split.  Shopping meant stopping into each store to say hello to the proprietors, bowing deeply and constantly while keeping up some chit-chat, usually buying a little something, bowing deeply and constantly while receiving the purchased item with great ceremony, and backing out of the store while expressing great regret for not staying longer.  I learned to stand quietly by my mother’s side, bow when she did, and smile through the Japanese.

I was not bored by this.  Everyone always was so happy to see my mother.  The grocery store owner was some kind of Kamei relative, and the friendships went back to the 1920s and 1930s, certainly pre-war days.  Botan candy with a real toy or a manju at Fugetsu-do usually was my reward for good behavior.  Maybe this explains why my mother still buys me packets of manju.  Mostly I was mystified by the different retail world presented by the First Street stores – not quite a Diagon Alley, but the analogous otherworldy concept.  My absolute favorite was a store then near the end of the street almost to San Pedro Street: Anzen Hardware. 

Anzen Hardware has everything you’d ever need for household maintenance, Japanese-style, a little store jammed to the rafters with what to me were odd wondrous things.  I could only guess at what most of the kitchen and other items were for.  The knife display was almost frightening.  My dad got his nasu plants and seeds here for many years, and I got my gardening scissors here when we first moved into this Howard Street house. 

One afternoon my Paul, Hastings phone rang; it was my mother, back home in Anaheim from her J-town run.   A small cast iron tea pot for tea ceremony use in the shape of a kabocha, a Japanese pumpkin, had caught her eye in Anzen.  She thought it was so cute and took a liking to it, but couldn't bring herself to buy something unnecessary.  The next week, I got the same phone call and report that she stood in Anzen pondering whether to buy it or not, and again decided against it.  Ah-ha! I thought, a Christmas present, and I hustled down to Anzen to buy it myself before she bought it for herself, or before someone else did.

The following week, my mother called again, so disappointed that the little kabocha teapot was no longer there.  “Someone must have bought it,” kicking herself for not buying it.  “Shigata ga nai,” one of her favorite phrases – “it can’t be helped.”  I was sorry she was disappointed, but her regret reinforced me in my hopes that she would be all the more happy with the Christmas surprise.

And she was.  It was fun to watch her to open the box and realize she was reunited with this little teapot.  For years it has been in the cabinet my father had custom-built in their family room, until this past summer when she insisted I take it, along with the painting now by my piano. 

Whenever I walk down First Street, I see in my mind’s-eye that grocery store instead of a video store, and Iseri Men’s Clothing instead of a bail bond establishment.  Anzen, along with Fugetsu-do and Rafu Bussan, are among the few remaining stores from my childhood which have managed to hang on.  I must have done something right in raising Akemi, because she, too, loves shopping at Rafu Bussan.

Tonight I will accompany one of the classes in my Master of Liberal Studies Program on a field trip to Little Tokyo.  In this course “East Asian Humanities,” students are reading classic literary works from China, Japan, and Korea in translation, such as excerpts from Tales of the Genji.  The professor, a blond, blue-eyed specialist in Buddhism who speaks impeccable Japanese, has arranged for us to have an insider’s-look at Zenshuji temple and a tea ceremony.  My dad’s family’s temple is Koyasan, so I actually haven’t ever been inside Zenshuji. 

Although part of me continues to be dismayed at J-Town’s uninteresting commercial iterations, I’m glad to see a whole new community of urban dwellers living there, and I always like to accompany friends as they experience parts of J-Town for themselves.  Maybe some of the class will be willing to catch some dinner at Aoi after our temple visit, and there might be some willing takers for manju at Fugestsu-do.

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