The Yellow Candies of Old Tokyo

`THAT sweet shop, the one called Okina-san, is gone,'' my mother said to me over the phone. ``What?''

``A new building, a big four-story one is being built there.'' Her voice over the Pacific sounded flat, without feeling.

Now, living in California, I still remember that shop in the neighborhood I grew up in, deep in the center of Tokyo. I would run home from elementary school, throw my red school bag on the bed in my room, and I would sit at the dining table and wait for my mother to hand me a sweet from Okina-san. If she had failed me, if she hadn't bought the sweets yet, within two or three minutes I would be standing, glaring at the glass counter in the small shop, a 500-yen bill clutched in my hand. Which one to buy?

The old man with thick round glasses would look at me and mumble something through his white beard. His dry wrinkled hand would move automatically toward my favorite round yellow sweet made of bean paste, egg yolk, and lots of sugar. With the other chosen sweets, it would be placed in a bamboo leaf, folded over and tied up neatly into a small packet to be carried home and shared with my mother and older sister.

And now, the sweet shop is gone. Along that same block was a tatami mat workshop, a tofu store, the public baths, a dry cleaning shop, a large bank building, apartments, and a lumberyard, all facing each other. My home was two blocks away and this street was my daily path to school.

I couldn't walk this block unnoticed. The tofu-shop lady, clean in her white apron, would look up and wave. Her family were the earliest risers in the neighborhood.

A big lumber truck would rumble down the narrow street and suddenly, from the driver's window above me, the lumber man would yell, ``Good morning, Yoshiko-chan.'' I was a shy, young girl and would just bow back in return.

As I would pass Okina-san, the old couple inside never greeted me, never even looked up to nod at me. But they were always sitting there, back in the shadows, half hidden behind the large glass counter.

``Not only that, that Western restaurant, the one on the corner, it's now a new bakery.'' My mother's gossip continued over the phone. ``You know, we're becoming one of the most expensive areas in Tokyo, since city hall is being moved nearby in Shinjuku. Land has more than doubled in value this last year.''

``I know, I know,'' I said impatiently. ``But I'm really upset about all these changes.''

``You can't help it, it just happens,'' my mother said, her voice sounding impassive, like a radio news broadcast.

``But some things,'' I argued, ``some things are nice to be kept. Like old houses, old buildings, and sweet shops ....''

``Well, when you were here, you hated the area. You told me how it's better over there, in America. Now nobody cares whether you paint your house red or gold. And remember, you always complained that here, everybody was always watching you, that you couldn't sneeze without your neighbors hearing it.''

``I remember,'' I admitted. In those days, I was disgusted by the crowdedness. Here, where I live with my husband next to the Pacific Coast, during our evening walk to the beach, people don't leave their doors open to the outside, no one sits on the front doorsteps watching the street's activities.

In some ways, it's a relief. But at the same time, there's no sign of welcome on each doorstep. I feel isolated here. I'm also scared. Even in this calm, peaceful seaside town, my friends warn me not to go jogging by myself. They tell me it is not safe.

Back in Tokyo, I never heard of anyone being raped in my neighborhood. After I turned 18, I started being able to stay out after midnight. I, a young female, felt no danger walking back home late at night by myself. In that old neighborhood, the people living above their shops, like the tofu store, like the sweet shop, always watched over the night.

``They were getting old,'' my mother went on, ``so they felt they had to sell it. And the land became so valuable too.''

``Yes, but Mama, I really liked those sweets, the yellow egg sweets. Those were my favorites. Did you know I tried making them here in America, but it was never the same.'' I was talking as though to myself. ``I always dreamed about going back there, about eating those sweets again. Well, ...'' I couldn't continue. I wasn't sure if my mother could understand.

Only now did I finally understand. Growing up in Tokyo, Okina-san had just been part of my life. It was all too usual, all too familiar. And now, here on the other side of the Pacific, my heart aches over the loss, over the loss of something that is irreplaceable, over the loss of so much that I really loved.

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