Kyoto: My Barber Bowed to Me Today

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My barber bowed to me today. Tim and I were walking to the sento for our daily scrub ‘n soak at the public bath and I waved as we passed her shop. She put down her razor, left the poor lathered-up guy reclining in the chair, and rushed to the sliding door to extend a warm smile and a respectful bow. She glanced approvingly at the haircut she’d given me yesterday, and I recalled wistfully how glorious it was to have a razor tickling my neck instead of the garish whirr of electric clippers. Evidently the fear of AIDS hasn’t infected these small one-chair operations.

Earlier in the day, a steady stream of high school baseball players were doing their running through the narrow streets. What captured my attention were the same kids, still running three-quarters of an hour later. So, en-route to the market, Tim and I stopped by the HS athletic field for an amazing illustration of Japanese discipline. Every kid was on task, be it batting practice, fielding drills, shagging flies, or pitching; not a slacker in the bunch. Hitters cycled through BP by first hitting tennis balls thrown by a teammate, then hard balls by another player, and finally screamers fired at ’em from a hitting machine. Balls were collected in the cage by female assistants who knelt next to the BP pitchers and fed them a steady supply of ammunition. Fielders were shagging flies and dutifully throwing to the cut-off guy. A cluster of players were lying on rubber mats stretching, and the pitchers and catchers were in yet another netted area with four elevated mounds side-by-side. Three righties and a south-paw were throwing some serious heat, with their catchers yelling encouragement on every pitch. Oh, yeah, I forgot. There wasn’t an adult in sight.

Sooney and Jane were out and about, and so Tim and I found a small eatery around the corner. An older woman met us at the window displaying her entire menu in plastic. It’s uncanny how accurate these plastic models are; a plate of spaghetti can look so real you’d be tempted to bite right in if it wasn’t for the fork suspended above the mound and dripping with noodles and sauce. Furthermore, every item in the window will be served exactly as it appears in the window, so there’re no surprises. These displays are not only for foreigners as they’ve become standard in most of the smaller restaurants. She smiled and nodded encouragingly when she saw me pointing to the tempura plate (shrimp, a white fish, mushroom, yam, daikon radish, and maybe a carrot slice dipped in batter and deep fried to perfection) served with miso soup, rice, and some pickled somethings for flavor. Since Tim hadn’t tried tempura, we settled in and started with a cold Sapporo beer. After a delicious lunch, she practiced her English by dropping phrase after phrase written in a well-worn notebook. One that surprised us was “I am 68-years-old” when it was clear she was close to 80. We surmised she’d written the phrase years earlier and hadn’t quite figured out how to update it.

Near the door of the restaurant was an item that jarred my memory; insulated aluminum boxes that fit into a spring-loaded attachment on a small motorcycle. Japanese take-out consists of phoning in your order (e.g. a bowl of miso soba) and the item is prepared in a ceramic bowl, covered with plastic-wrap, and placed in the carrier. If necessary, the driver then checks with the local police kiosk for directions to whomever ordered the meal and delivers it, spanking hot, right to your door where you pay for the meal. There is no tipping in Japan, of course. The following morning, the driver will return and collect the dish(es) you’ve dutifully washed and placed outside your door. Quite civil.

Of course, if it’s late and you need soft drinks, power drinks, beer, sake, cigarettes, magazines, you name it, the item is probably available 24/7 in one of a million vending machines on nearly every corner in the country. When teaching here in the late 80’s, we wondered how foreign international-school students would handle beer so readily available. While expectedly abused by a few, older students soon learned that most Japanese bartenders would serve them anyway and learned to consume liquor responsibly. There is considerable pressure on employees of overseas companies stationed in Japan to behave in a responsible fashion. This, in turn applies to their children and parents accept their responsibility seriously.

All 18 photo galleries representing 3 weeks in Japan are compiled in our Photo Galleries 2007.