SHORT #26: Kawaguchi and the Oden Route
a winter day in a small Japanese neighborhood by the trolley station
Hey everyone. I am planning in the months to come, a series the looks into the daily lives of people in very specific kinds of urban places.
To begin this series, I have taken the liberty of hand drawing for you, a map of what we’ll call “Kawaguchi’s neighborhood.” Kawaguchi is our first character. Exploring this map a bit might enhance your enjoyment of this story, and some of those to come.
You’ll notice the mess of dotted red lines on the map. Kawaguchi tell us there are about fifteen ways to get between his home and the trolley station platform, all of which more or less take the same amount of time on foot. The dotted red lines are these routes. The difference in the routes, so far as Kawaguchi is concerned, is mostly in the experience. On his commute to the train station, Kawaguchi chooses the way he will walk based on things like the weather, or what shops he wants to visit or avoid, or what living beings he wants to encounter on a particular day.
This particular morning, was that of Winter Solstice. Kawaguchi could see from his kitchen window, the cold winds trying to whip the chins of unsuspecting people with the last bit of frost. The wind was wicked like that some days. That is why it had become Kawaguchi’s habit on Winter Solstice day, to take what he called the Oden route.
When Kawaguchi walked out the door of his tiny two-story machiya house, he was dressed in layers with a flannel shirt, wool sweater, long wool coat, and his favorite yellow scarf.
The wind nevertheless, nipped at his chin.
He smiled. “Nice try, wind.” Tightened his scarf. “But today I am taking the Oden route.”
Just a few paces from his home, he snuck left down the first narrow pedestrian alley. Halfway down this alley is the home of one of his favorite trees in the neighborhood. Though it is just a few seconds from his own house, Kawaguchi always thought of moving here, wondering what it would be like to have a house with a view of that tree. As it were, three families with young children lived on this alley. The kids probably enjoyed the tree more than he would anyway.
He was several steps still from the tree when a wee voice yelled. “Mister Kawaguchi!” This voice was followed by another “Yeah! Mister Kawaguchi!”
He greeted two children, no doubt on their way to the day’s lessons. “Happy Winter Solstice boys. The wind! What to learn in this weather?”
“Making a table!” shouted the younger boy. He stood tall with his head held up proudly.
“Ah. I am expecting a masterpiece.” Kawaguhci nodded as he then turned to the older boy. “And you?”
“Forest Science! We are going to Sumiyoshi Forest, to learn about the life of trees.”
“Well then! Both of you are working with trees today.”
The boys looked at each other and laughed. “My brother cuts them, and I grow them!”
Kawaguchi nodded at them and then looked over to the small courtyard, where the old Camphor tree was growing. With this glance, both the boys both put on their best, most serious faces.
“Lets visit the Camphor together, yes?”
The boys skipped, and Kawaguchi walked, the distance of several paces, until they faced the shrine in front of the Camphor. All of them clapped and bowed and thought some thoughts. Kawaguchi, as usual, took a deep breath, from his toes up through his whole body. He could never pinpoint why, but he was always more at ease in the presence of this tree. And he thanked the tree for that.
The two boys meanwhile finished and ran off to catch their train. “Bye Bye!” “Yeah! By Bye!” Kawaguchi thought that, maybe one of those boys could some day uncover the mystery of how he felt in the presence of the tree, maybe through science, or through the deeply thoughtful craft of woodworking. For now though, he was content to enjoy the feeling for what it was. Kawaguchi bowed a slight bow again as he left the courtyard. Then he continued along his Oden route, for the wind had not yet let up.
Though his route today did not take him through the busier shopping streets, Kawaguchi nevertheless greeted eight people over the next three minutes of walking. A nurse on his way to the clinic, then a dentist, the florist cutting stems in front of her shop, the suspiciously thin butcher who most surely never ate much meat, the two young daughters of the miso maker, who always had extra bright smiles, and the owner of the biggest sushi restaurant in the neighborhood who was returning to their shop with the day’s catch from the dockyards, looking a bit frigid but declaring nevertheless “You’ll want the Flounder if you come today!” It had been weeks since a proper sushi dinner, and Kawaguchi replied to the shopkeeper “Is that so? Maybe see you tonight.” before continuing.
Kawaguchi turned again to his path and paused for a moment. The sun felt warm here, and the wind had let up slightly. Then, finally, it appeared before him — a cloud of steam from around the corner. This was the sign. The place of triumph over the cold was near. Around that corner, a small shop of about three by four meters had just opened for the day.
While most other shops shorten their hours in the Winter, this one extends. The result is that in the coldest months, a current of soupy Oden steam emanates from a little vent in the window of this tiny little space, every weekday from 7am—9pm. This was Kawaguchi’s heaven on windy morning commutes.
Kawaguchi entered the Oden soup shop and took a position at the bar. He ordered an Egg, two pieces of Daikon Raddish, and two Fish Cakes in his soup. His eating began with three big sips of the soup, to which he had added a dab of Wasabi and one of Hot Mustard. This combination was his technique for achieving maximum sustained body warmth. In anticipation of the effect, he took off his favorite scarf, settling into the barstool and finishing slowly, the rest of the hot bowl of Oden goodness.
Though the wind was whipping again by the time he left the shop, Kawaguchi walked around the next corner, crossed the small one-way street in front of the station, and made it clear to the train platform without the need of his scarf. He was on the trolley just in time, and enjoyed both the warmth in his belly, and that of the under-seat foot heaters for the next 20 minutes on his commute into the center of the city.
On the trolley ride he thought of how the wind tried what it could, but this time, just as all the times before, it was no match for his Oden route.
This short took place in what is a relatively typical compact, transit-oriented neighborhood in urban Japan. Countless neighborhoods like this one have been served by streetcar or trolley lines for over a century, and those lines — and sometimes the old trains too — are still going today. Many interesting results of this kind of urban planning are uncovered during Kawaguchi’s walk, the close-knit social fabric, the joy of exploring a new scene every day, the reverence for old trees, the freedom of children in the neighborhood, and most especially, the amazing number of small, owner-operated businesses.
There are many reasons for this vibrant small business culture in particular. Sadly, such a culture is technically illegal in the United States (you can check out some past stories below, for more about why that is).
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