Mid morning is rush hour here in the south of Osaka, but there is no honking. Traffic jams are more comic than stressful. Grandpas and grandmas make their way down the middle of the street patiently, bags of half-priced donuts in hand, passed by young moms carrying bags of groceries — and babies — in their battery-assist Panasonic and Yamaha bicycles.
Fancy bicycles called mamachari, come complete with one or two child seats, umbrella holders, and grocery storage spaces. These bikes can cost more than a decent used car, and for good reason: they’re often more useful.
Understandably, this will sound absurd to most Americans.
In truth, using a car to do grocery shopping in this Osaka neighborhood is inconvenient at best, and in some cases, just plain impossible.
The shotengai (Japanese for “merchant street”) in Kagaya is typical of what one might find in most older Japanese neighborhoods. Running the length of a dozen short blocks, Kagaya’s covered shopping street hosts over 100 small, local shops, and yet there are virtually zero car parking spaces.
Cars aren’t even allowed to drive down it.
Only pedestrians and bicycles can use this space.
Seasons don’t stop the daily routine here. Miracle of miracles, in Winter everyone in Kagaya bundles up and heads out as usual. Local volunteers serve complimentary bowls of hot red bean soup — a much-loved tradition in the Winter season — offered to anyone who spends more than a few dollars at one of the local shops.
When the heat and humidity of Summer is upon us, the vat of steaming red bean soup is replaced with blenders and ice.
With these tools, the local fruit shop turns most of their unsellable ‘ugly’ fruits into cold mixed fruit smoothies. Apparently, the owner started doing this about half a century before the ‘ugly fruit’ movement became a thing. Go figure. A glass filled with today’s concoction from the fruit shop — a real glass made of glass, not plastic — will cost you 100 yen (about $0.90).
As with most shop owners here, he seems to have only a minor interest in financial profit, and a major interest in making delicious or beautiful use of the things he has.
There aren’t many people who can say no to the prospect of sitting down on the improvised benches next to the fruit shop, to slurp down a glass of blended ugly oranges, apples, pears, and ice.
On the other side of the Pacific, grocery shopping memories from the United States are of a once-a-week job that was never very joyful. Some friends dreaded it so much, they went only every two weeks. Huge refrigerators we all had. Sometimes more than one.
Here in Kitakagaya however, our tiny house has one tiny firdge. A wee cube fridge that sits neatly under a counter. We purchased it used for about $15 at the local second hand shop on the southern end of the shotengai.
It’s not a great fridge, but it can hold a pint of milk, some butter and jam, a few blocks of tofu, a fish, and a few beers while keeping things mostly cold. It is probably a highly inefficient machine, but it does make it almost impossible to waste food . We can only buy what we need, and last week’s leftovers have no dark corner in the back of the fridge to hide.
The other positive side to our limited cold-storage, is that we should go to the shotengai for grocery shopping almost every day. I count this as a positive because, oddly, it is enjoyable here.
Admittedly, rarely would such a grocery shopping regimen have been a habit in my California life.
Like most American cities, my hometown (San Jose) was not built in a way that made it convenient — let alone an enjoyable thing — to go to the market every day. Farmers markets were a wonderful exception, if you were lucky enough to live near one. Yet they only happened once a week.
Though you won’t often find farmers at our local shotengai in Osaka, you will find many small, diverse shops, operated by the people who own them; people who spend their life working with vegetables, fruits, fish, or meat; or people who work at the craft of making things, from mochi, to ramen, to fruit smoothies, to bread.
There are shoe stores, toy stores, stationary stores, udon, tonkatsu, and cofeee shops. There is a rice shop with grain from small farms all over the country, where a man will fill your bag with however much you need. Across the way from him is a sake shop with a dizzying array of nihonshu, beer, whiskey, and even a few dusty, imported bottles of Scotch.
Small. Diverse. Based in craft. Owner-operated. Each shop here specializes in something.
The above are irreplaceable qualities, without which a car-free, neighborhood shopping street like this could not likely survive. These are also qualities that are unfortunately, increasingly impossible to live by in many urbanizing parts of the world.
Somehow, they are still viable to live by here.
I don’t know how long this will hold true. One might suppose it will last for as long as the people living here demand and support businesses in their communities that are small, diverse, and craft-based.
As for now, walking — or slowly cycling — down this shotengai reminds me of where I am. It connects me in unexpected ways, to the lives, stories, and dramas of this little corner of the world in which I dwell. It helps me know, to treat the things I buy here as preciously as the shop owners do.
All of which makes shopping for groceries feel more like a celebration than an onus.
Today especially is a celebration. It is Saturday after-all, and donuts are half price at the shotengai bakery.
This American still has his priorities.