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Tuesday, Mar. 25, 2008

WORDS TO LIVE BY

Snack mama Hiroko Mito


Hiroko Mito just celebrated the 10th anniversary of Kyoya, her small Kyoto-style snack and karaoke bar in Shibuya's Sakuragaoka district. Always dressed in a kimono and a freshly pressed kappogi, the white apron that used to be commonly worn by housewives, Hiroko-mama means business. Everyone is treated like family, and regardless of whether her guests come in for just a beer or a glass of sake, she gives them what she thinks they need the most from her daily menu of 10 or 15 delicious dishes. Just like her mother, who used to serve out tiny portions among her seven children to make sure they stayed in good health, Hiroko-mama believes that love can be expressed without words — and that all her guests know what she's talking about..

Hiroko Mito
Hiroko Mito JUDIT KAWAGUCHI PHOTO

Because of karaoke, we have gotten much worse at holding conversations. This is especially true for women who work in bars and don't need to do anything else now except pour drinks and select songs for the patrons. Before the invention of karaoke, bartenders and waitresses had to come up with topics to entertain their customers, so we all studied hard to please our guests. Now most bars just blast music and everyone tunes out to the songs. Sounds bad to me.

Your parents' legacy is always huge. I kept the noren (fabric hung at entrance of shops) from my mother's restaurant in hope of one day using it in my own place. Even though I've been in business for over 40 years now, the cloth is still too wide for my little bar's entrance.

Children copy their parents. My mother owned a ryo-tei (a luxurious Japanese restaurant) in Kyoto and she was always busy. I loved following her around and wanted to do whatever I could to help her. Guests would arrive by rickshaw and I would greet them and put their shoes into the shoebox. Most wore geta or zori (sandals) but a few had beautiful Western shoes. I wiped them all carefully even though they were so clean to begin with. I was just 3 or 4 years old and got lots of tips.

Life repeats itself. My mother ran her restaurant with two of her pretty sisters, and I went into business with two of my cousins, who were very cute twins. I served food up front, and they had a bar behind my place.

At the end of our lives, we all want to return to where we grew up. Kyoto was — and still is — too traditional and conservative for my taste. For example, you can't go out on the street in a colorful outfit because it might upset the neighbors. Even my own family wouldn't allow me to open a restaurant in the same town where my mom once had a business because restaurant owners were looked down upon. So I escaped to Tokyo when I finally could. I love the freedom here, but still, it's Kyoto where I can relax the most because it will always be my hometown.

A woman must pretend that things are OK, and she had better do it very convincingly. My husband was far from perfect: He had girlfriends, lost all of our money and was not around much. Of course, I hid that part of him from our children. I always talked about him with respect and love because I wanted the kids to feel happy and safe, and loving their father was essential for that. For kids, a parent is always a parent, no matter what he or she does, and it's the wife's job to make sure they have the kind of father they can love, even if it means enhancing his good qualities to the point of lying.

If you are healthy, thank your good fortune! You are very lucky. My grandson is 2 years old and has already had three heart surgeries. Whenever I think of him, I feel his unstoppable strength.

No child wants his or her parents divorced: they love both their mom and dad. So if parents love their children, they should pretend to be happy for the kids' sake. Of course, really being happy is even better!

A carefree childhood prepares one to survive even the greatest hardships. Although I lost my father when I was 3, until middle school I had a very peaceful life. I was educated so that one day I would take over my mother's business and studied the same skills that geisha learned: the tea ceremony, Japanese dance, how to sew kimono and to play songs with the shamisen. When I was 16, my mom suddenly fell ill and we lost the restaurant. I felt like I'd been dragged and beaten by a giant tsunami, but today I am still alive.

Unless you throw your pride out the window, you'll never survive. By the time I was in my late 30s, I had owned my own restaurant for a good 15 years. I was always working and never asked my husband what he was doing. Unfortunately, he accumulated an immense amount of debt. Not only did we lose everything we had — including the restaurant — we still owed a ton more. To make things worse, he had a stroke and could no longer work. For the next 17 years I don't remember sleeping much, because I only thought about paying back what he owed. At 6 a.m. I would clean a store, then I made beds at a hotel, waitressed at lunch, bartended afternoons and hostessed till late. I raced from job to job, and in between I'd run home to take care of the kids and him.

Children don't feel hardship if they are loved and included in their parents' struggle. My kids always helped each other and me. They felt like we were working together, and that it was fun. They understand everything as long as mom hugs them enough.

Smile, even if you feel down. That way you feel better, and you make others happier. Everyone has hardships, and there is no point in showing them.

Reflect on what you hear. When my staff and my guests give me advice, I become more mature.

You must live long, because there is always something better ahead. I thought of suicide before, but I never actually tried to do it. If you die, it's all over. If you're alive, you meet good people and notice that there are always ways other than death to solve even the most difficult of problems.

Work is not done for money. If I wanted to be rich, I would not have chosen this business, because there is no way to make a big profit from a little restaurant. But I make enough to survive, and this way I can return the kindness shown to me by friends and other people who helped me through my struggles.

Find a place where your heart can relax. I go to my favorite sushi bar after I close at night. I just sit, feel at home and recharge. I suspect my place serves the same purpose for my guests.

Judit Kawaguchi loves to listen. She is a volunteer counselor and a TV reporter on NHK's "Out and About." Learn more at: juditfan.blog58.fc2.com/


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