A few years back, an elderly woman passed away in my neighborhood. I didn’t know her name but I used to see her in calligraphy class each week at the community centre where I taught English.
The ambulance staff wheeled her away on a gurney and left her house to stand empty for two years. Then two weeks ago the Machines moved in. Where she once cooked, ate, slept and tended her chrysanthemums, the smell of a freshly-poured carpark now lingers.
When a house made of mud and bamboo walls, tiled roof and tatami floors falls to the Machines, it leaves an olfactoric imprint, a strange mix of ancient carpentry, clay, straw and horse hair, that is hard to forget.
“Nothing lasts forever,” says my old friend, Ono-san. “Not even a rock.” Not even the 100-year-old townhouse in which I’ve lived for the past 14 years. A few more years please!
But life in a declining traditional Japanese neighborhood rolls on, yes it does. Crowding the air with its odors, scents, aromas and fragrances--a whiff here, a waft there--smells that define the weather and seasons, daily rituals, festivals, people’s homes and businesses. Can YOU define your neighborhood in smells? In 500 words I’m gonna try...
...or at least you are. Go ahead, see if you can match the smells to their sources opposite:
And there are many others. When a southerly blows up my street, there’s a hint of Tahitian Lime hair tonic from the Funabiki Men’s Barber Shop in the air; a northerly brings the smell of camellia oil and the promise of a big hair day at the Wella Ladies Hair Salon a few doors down.
Smell the seasons, too: the heavy pungence of rainy season (now), the tang of altar incense in Obon (Aug), the sweet scent of kinmokusei flowers (early Oct) and the bitter smell of burning chaff after the rice harvest (late Oct).
Can’t wind this post up without mentioning the curious cocktail of smells which resides in my own house. Something like this: add one room of damp paperbacks to three rooms of tatami mats, soak in sweat for one long hot summer, drizzle with soy sauce and garnish with empty beer cans.
But more about the grand old Japanese house I live in next week.
Answers: 1i. 2g. 3h. 4e. 5j. 6.f 7.c 8b. 9a. 10d.
What is the essence of a traditional Japanese neighbourhood? Writing from my home in Himeji, a castle town in western Honshu, Seaweed Salad Days distills, ferments, presents!