Tag Archives: flophouse

Totoro in the Flophouse

With the end of my funds in sight, I stopped travelling and started to look for work. I found living quarters in what was then the north edge of Kyoto in an old building run as a flophouse for foreigners. Around thirty of us lived there: Africans, Arabs, North Americans, South Asians. There were no East Asians other than the landlady and her brother. Odd, now that I look back on it. The landlady’s brother was an aspiring fabric designer. I think she found him more of a burden than her varied clientele. The building was long and narrow. Traditional Japanese construction, I think it had begun life long before as a farm building of some sort. Working farms still existed just across the road. The rooms were floored with tatami, and all the doors were sliding shoji screens. Each sleeping room had two or four bunks and space for private belongings. The ceilings were high and the windows small. At night you could hear other tenants walking along the hardwood floors to the common toilet facilities; the squat toilet—which I had now mastered. Occasional unintelligible arguments drifted through the corridor until stopped by the landlady’s arrival and sharp words. She could scold and demand rent in many languages.

The other common spaces were a shared, Japanese style bath and a long room that served as our dining room and recreation area. Our landlady provided a simple breakfast and dinner, which were eaten at the determined time. No earlier. No later. In the evenings the air was humid and thick with coarse cigarette smoke as the rough, poor crowd of tenants smoked harsh cigarettes, drank cheap booze, and played card and board games until lights out. Disputes over rules were complicated by our lack of a common language. Heat came from a kerosene space heater in the corner, the daily ration of kerosene placed beside it each day.

A small TV that may or may not have seen better days provided more entertainment. Every once in awhile the picture would slowly roll. One evening as we set in to the usual after supper carouse, the man flicking through the channels stumbled upon the opening of Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbour Totoro). None of us knew the movie. None of us spoke Japanese well enough to understand it. But we were all captivated from the first. Thirty rough characters from around the world spent the evening glued to the small image on the TV; cheering, laughing, maybe even sniffling a little.

Great movie. Watch it.

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