The Hidden Life

written and photographed by Aimee Wenyue Chen (山梨県)


The supermarket I usually go to near my workplace is expensive, clean, beautiful, has individually wrapped vegetables and fruits, and plays inoffensive (or rudely offensive, in other people’s opinions) pop music. It is overall quite sterile, like many places in Japan.

Today, I leave work early (in other words, on time) and go to my favorite bread shop that has a huge wall painting of a cheerfully rotund guy in a chef’s hat and a Lars-the-Viking mustache. Got me some bread—its name in incorrect French makes it all the more delicious—and randomly decided to go to the meat shop and vegetable store that I heard was near my apartment. I first arrive at the vegetable/fruit store and it is tiny, crowded, disorganized, and dirty with flies and more dirt. The vegetables are lumpy and misshapen and some are mysteriously discolored. It’s also dirt cheap. It’s like the antithesis of all supermarkets in Japan. I ask where the baskets are, hear a response in unintelligible old-man Japanese, and get ignored when I ask again. I finally—aha!—find the baskets hidden in a grimy corner, grab me tons of mushrooms, skip the peppers (which, when poked, simply gurgled and let my finger sink in), bean sprouts, cherry tomatoes, and garlic (which, in nice supermarkets, are usually one dollar for a head!). 

I arrive at the counter and the total is 425 yen—about 4 dollars—for an entire bag’s worth of food. (Granted, it might be expired, but it’s still food.) The old lady, whose Japanese is only slightly less unintelligible than the old man’s, grabs my money, dumps all of the mushrooms in a bag, and then stacks the rest of the vegetables on top of it. She then proceeds to forget what the operating hours of the store are when I ask her.

This is the part of Japan that I love, and strangely miss the most, even though I’m living right here. I miss the coarse, perhaps rude (or just well-meaning but comes off as rude), intimate, and hidden part of Japanese life. Little alleyways with cigarette butts and who-knows-what-else on the ground, tiny restaurants that only fit one, max two, customers; old obaachan and ojiichan who barely understand standard Japanese and thus don’t care whether I’m a foreigner or not; graffitied walls and rusty bikes; ramshackle houses. (Don’t forget the squatting toilets.) Japan is not only about the glitz and glamour of skyscrapers and neon lights, tea ceremonies, and Shinto shrines.

There’s the dirty, dark parts of it. So much of it. And no one speaks of it, at least not publicly.

But there’s this side too, this coarse but intimate part of Japan. She bears her face to me not with a shy coyness, but with a cigarette hanging off her lips and a belch ready to erupt, as if saying, “Take it, or leave it.” ◆

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