When it was growing up, my relatives told stories about growing up with a lively downtown and specialized stores. When people needed milk, they went to the dairy. When they needed meat, they went to the butcher. Sweets and bread were purchased freshly made at the neighborhood bakery. Salons, restaurants, boutiques, and bars were locally owned. You couldn’t just go to Target or Walmart and get all your shopping done.
Now, I am experiencing this way of life in person. The city of Iida, Japan is a mix of old neighborhoods with specialized shops and the newer development of big chain stores offering one stop shopping. The outskirts of the little city are full of discount department stores with full grocery stores, hair salons, travel agencies, sweet shops, full service restaurants, mall-style food courts, rotating vendors of all sorts, and retail spots rented out to various boutiques. They even have an arcade, a book store, and a dollar store within them. It is kind of like the Target and the mall having a baby together. I have literally spent six hours straight in these stores and not run out of things to do, all with a baby or two in tow.
Back in the historic downtown, another world awaits. A bygone era comes to life. The local train runs through the center at an old-fashioned pace. The nearest bullet train is over an hour away by car. The streets are lined with small shops topped by the owners’ homes. Many of the businesses are run by the elderly and many look untouched for thirty years. The camera shop still develops film and sells disposable cameras. There is a store just for. Japanese dishes in a hue of ceramic glazes. There is a liquor store, a tea store with tastings, and a small market just for fresh produce. If you want fish, you go to the seafood shop, chockfull of fish tanks and seaworld oddities. If cows are your thing, there is a genuine butcher shop with delicious homemade roast beef. There is shop to get your custom Chinese character stamp. There are separate tailor shops for men and women’s clothes. There are three ornate shop with intricate kimono fabrics where you can order a custom made kimono if your wallet is fat. One of the kimono shops even has a real koi pond and stream running through the shop. Unfortunately, photons are obtrusive and inappropriate, so hopefully the verbal depiction is painting a mental picture.
Today, the baby and I passed the morning in a bakery shop run that remains unchanged for almost forty years. The hardwood floors are worn down from the many visitors. The decor is dark wood and burgundy, reminiscent of a Rat Pack steakhouse. As we devoured a savory pumpkin bun and chestnut cake, the owner asked about America and our path to the Japanese countryside. The grandmother came out to play peek a boo with the baby. She even brought a blanket fresh out of the laundry to keep him warm. When it came time to leave, the shop owner escorted me out, covering us both with her umbrella. She even directed traffic so we could safely pull out of the parking spot and face the rain.
We could all use a little more small town hospitality in our lives, even as an outsider.