Friday, January 8, 2010
Tiger and Towels
When I’m in Japan, I go to my local Super Sento a few blocks away. Super Sento is a popular entertainment center with hot springs, a restaurant, and massage shops. And I carry with me a blue and light brown tenugui, Japanese towels. Tenugui is about 35 by 90 centimeters. Yes, it’s narrower and longer than most western hand towels. And they are thin and made of cotton with Japanese designs. My blue tenugui has a print of small white birds, and my light brown tenugui, sumo-wrestlers.
Last month while bathing there, I spotted a baby in one of their hot-spring tubs. The color of the hot spring is dark brown. A young woman held the baby in her arms. I watched the baby’s chin and tiny hands. The floor with running water was wide open, so I went to lie down on it. Warm water ran to my head and passed to my toes. I watched the stars and thought about the word, “star.” “Star” in English was my first spoken word, my mother told me. She didn’t speak English, but she knew a few English words. She said she pointed to the stars and said, “arewa ‘star’ yo (That’s star),” to me on her back. She was on her way to a local bath house.
In a Jacuzzi, I saw the baby again. Their Jacuzzi contains clear water. I looked for him while I washed my body along the rows of many faucets, shower heads, and the bottles of shampoo and conditioner.
I was drying my back with the light brown tenugui, moving my arms back and forth over my shoulders when I heard a bubbly sound. A changing table is attached to the end of the lockers. I stepped over and peeked. The same baby boy was sitting there with a dark blue tenugui draped on his back. The tenugui showed the same white birds print as mine. The middle-aged woman continued to dress him. She wore a sweat suit and covered her hair with a towel. The young naked woman who held the baby in the tub was drying herself nearby. She must be about my daughter’s age.
“He is so cute. How old is he?” I said to the young woman.
“He is a year old,” she said.
“That blue tenugui is the same as mine,” I said. “It’s my favorite tenugui.”
“It’s ours,” she said with a smile.
“I bought mine at Kabukiza,” I said, “I used to collect all kinds of tenugui.”
“You probably received it from us. It isn’t for sale,” she said.
“Oh?” I said and stepped over to my locker.
“Mom,” she called.
I picked up my wet wrung blue tenugui and straightened it.
“That’s from our shop,” the woman dressed in a sweat suit said, “We are a hyogu-ya. My husband designed the tenugui.”
Hyogu-ya are traditional shops that create and fix Japanese traditional scrolls and screens. Good hyogu-ya operators are artists.
“Oh, it probably belonged to my mother,” I said, “I mixed mine with my mother’s tenugui.”
I told her how I love the design and how good quality the tenugui is. The color hasn’t faded much, and the edges and corners haven’t deteriorated. Most gift tenugui wear out fast.
“My mother was your customer, I see. This is such a coincidence,” I said.
“My husband had been to your house. He passed away,” she said.
“I’m sorry. It must be hard to operate Hyogu-ya without your husband,” I said.
She talked about the history of her shop. I thought it interesting because she branched out from her parent’s traditional shop which is still owned by her eldest brother. I thought she must be a strong woman because most Japanese women of our age tend to give up their right, and most eldest sons demand it. She started her own shop with her husband near my home while I was studying in the U.S.
“I also have a year old grandson,” I said to the woman.
“Then they are both cows,” she said. “Next year is my year.”
“Ah, I’m tiger, too,” I said.
We looked at each other’s eye and made a broad smile.