Local Japan – Yutenji: A Salon, a Café, and a Guinea Pig

My guinea pig was famous. The calendar I clutched beneath my arm contained her picture, about the size of the average thumb. Sure, she wasn’t a lucky one who had her own page to herself. And sure, most months were mosaicked with pictures, as if all submissions had been crammed inside. But there she was. And there was her name. At least they would know her name.

Wagashi. It isn’t a name that Japanese people would think of. Traditional Japanese sweets? they’d say. Why would you name her that? As a baby, she was small and cute and pretty like her namesake. I was hoping to eat her, I’d say. But now she’s Yōgashi, Western sweets. The portion size has changed.

Her name would stand out if her picture size didn’t, and that size more fittingly went with her name. I thought about how, at any rate, she was on her way to becoming more famous than me as I carried the calendar and wondered where to hang it on my limited wall space.

Then someone was calling, “Excuse me! Excuse me!” I thought for sure it couldn’t be for me. So I kept on walking. But she kept on calling. I slowed down. She hurried up. “I work at the salon that just opened next door. Would you be willing to model for me?” So both of us were going to be famous after all.

Modeling sounds kind of glamorous, but it was actually pretty low key. I went in early before they opened; she trimmed and styled my hair, did my makeup, put me in a dress, and took a bunch of pictures. Then she styled it again and took some more pictures. And then did it one more time. It was breezy that day, so one of the pictures has my hair blowing up around my face while I’m laughing behind it. I never thought that I was particularly pretty, or that I would ever model—let alone be asked to—but the pictures she took of me that day, just with the camera on her phone, are the nicest I have.

The salon would be having live music one night, so she invited me to that. It was nice; they served bubbly wine and small slices of bread and Philadelphia cream cheese, and we listened to a girl with a lovely voice play on her guitar while she sang. Then it ended and we chatted and my hairdresser friend remembered I owned a guinea pig. She abruptly suggested I bring it on over.

What’s a little pet hair in a place that deals in human hair? I was starting to be known as that foreigner with the guinea pig with the weird name. But I was starting to be known. The hairdresser ended up pet sitting for me while I was out of town. Then, when introducing me to people, she would say, “You know that guinea pig that we had here for awhile? Yeah. She’s that guinea pig’s mother.”

One time we went to the coffee shop right across the street that had opened around the same time the salon had. She suggested I bring along Wagashi again. People bring dogs to coffee shops, right? The owner’s hair was longer than my hair had ever been, and he didn’t seem concerned about the animal’s. In fact, his hair was longer than most women’s that I’d seen. It was his most distinctive feature. Another man there had the distinctive feature of John Lennon-style glasses. He was the owner of the shop underneath the salon that had opened when they had. Both the owners met me. Both the owners met my pet. After that day, when I would pass by, the owner with the hair would wave through the window. Or, if we were walking past each other on the street, the owner with the glasses would nod his head.

I took to actually getting my haircut at the salon instead of the cheap fast places, and she took to charging me only a third of what their website said was the regular price. It was nice having a friend in high places—a second-story salon. I decided to go short, since with my special discount I could afford to get a cut more often. She was also super skilled. Even after going short, she always seemed to find a fresh way to arrange it.

I was starting to feel more at place in my town, with the friends I had met forming the nostalgic suburban neighborhood scene where you go outside and everybody knows you. I hadn’t been expecting that, wasn’t necessarily aiming for that, didn’t think it was possible in Japan, or anyway Tokyo. More than half the time I told someone I lived in Yutenji—near Naka-Meguro, Daikanyama, Ebisu, Hiroo, and Shibuya—people always said it was a stylish place, and oohed and aahed that it was so “oshare.” It struck me from that description that it might be a little snobby, a little exclusive.

Yutenji streetBut here was my gem, and it was exciting to finally be trying it on. That led to more exploring, since I realized more and more that I hardly knew my local-stop home. I had lived there for a year, owned a guinea pig for a year, and hadn’t known there was a guinea pig café in Jiyuugaoka (it’s bring your own, but they have guinea pig themed merchandise and will draw your pig’s face on a coffee). Finding out about them was how I was able to enter the calendar contest. And only one stop away, there was a petting zoo with guinea pigs. How had I not known about these things?

So I decided to try out some local cafés. I already had what I referred to as “my café,” but it was in Sangenjaya, a 30-minute walk, pricey bus ride, or out-of-the-way train route away. They did have good cheesecake, but now that I didn’t work across the street from it anymore, it wasn’t as easy to go there.

One café across the street from me stamped your point card twice if it was raining. Ten stamps and you got a free drink, so since I only had to be out in the rain a couple of minutes to go there, I took advantage. Then I ventured farther, and found a café playing reggae music. The owner had dreads. There seemed to be a lot of characters in my town. I was a little intimidated, but that café served bagels. I hadn’t seen bagels very often in Japan.

Sooner or later, I developed the habit of going there once a week. I got to know the owner, and he got to be less intimidating, even before he got his dreads cut off. Pretty soon, I started sharing about the guy I like, and he started sharing green tea adzuki cheesecake and cinnamon chocolate yōkan that his customers would bring him. I became one of the regulars, along with the gay Mexican ballet dancer and the bald Pomeranian owner (the owner, not the dog) who would do magic tricks.

Yutenji CafesI had perks at my café just like I had at my salon. When I raved about the guinea pig cappuccino art at the café in Jiyuugaoka, I challenged him to try and do the same. I would actually say that his guinea pig was even a little bit better. And when I got there half an hour late for the morning set, he would cave and still give it to me.

Yet when I brought my bubbly blonde college-aged friend for the coffee and the atmosphere, they somehow started dating. But that’s another story.

Local cafés are community hubs. I was meeting more people there. I was wearing my headphones at the supermarket once, when someone tugged at my basket: a girl from the café. She said hello and asked if there were any more updates about the guy I like. People were starting to know me.

I had chosen my town because of my apartment. It wasn’t that it was big. When my agent asked me, “Why this one?” I told her that it was because it had character. The accent wall, the window sill, the cavernous closet, the pink exterior. I hated pink, but there was something about the lipstick shade of the building named after a flower, maybe the same flower as the painting that greeted you entering the doors. It stood out. When people asked me if I lived around here, all I had to say was, “Yeah, you know that pink building over there?” And they usually did.

I stand out too now. Walking down the street, there’s usually someone to wave back to. That’s what happens when you’re famous.

Okay, so I’m only a tiny bit famous. But if I lived in any other town, I might not have been famous at all. And it’s not as if I know that many people in my town. But at least the ones I do know my name.

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