Obon, the Town and Grandpa


Illustration by GWEN MURANAKA/Rafu Shimpo

Illustration by GWEN MURANAKA/Rafu Shimpo


(The Japanese-language winner of the third annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest, sponsored by the Little Tokyo Historical Society, was Shirley Watanabe-Nishida of Los Angeles for “Obon, the Town, and Grandpa,” in which a young boy learns the real meaning of Obon during a poignant visitation from his late grandfather. Following is an English translation by contest committee member Tiffany Tanaka, and the original text in Japanese.)

It was Saturday morning, but I was up early. Mom and I went to help out at the Obon festival taking place that day at Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple, where I attend preschool. There was a bake sale and I took my time looking at the assortment and made mental notes of the cupcakes to buy later.

“Ko-chan, let’s get you dressed for the festival!”

I felt a little embarrassed as Mom dressed me in my blue yukata and the other moms and teachers told me how cute I looked. I sat in a chair in the corner as the festival started.

“Ko-taro!” Someone called my name. It was a voice I had heard before. I looked around, but didn’t see anyone I know. “Over here, Ko-taro!” I looked outside the classroom window and saw Grandpa.

I went over to Mom and said, “I’m gonna go with Grandpa.” She nodded, but I couldn’t tell if she heard me.

Grandpa patted me on the head, smiled, and said, “Let’s go pay our respects together.”

We walked to the temple hand-in-hand, and then up the stairs. Last time we climbed these stairs together Grandpa had a cane, and had a hard time walking even a short distance, but today, he seemed full of energy.

We sat at a bench at the top of the stairs. “Little Tokyo has changed a lot….I’m a little sad…”

He pointed at a building at Third and Alameda. “There used to be a supermarket called Yaohan. Hatsu would shop there while I went to Asahiya Bookstore or Ginza Bakery across the street. Hatsu always said, ‘This is cheaper at Enbun Market, and that’s cheaper at Modern Food Market.’ So we’d head to the next supermarket, and the next one. Always Yaohan, then Modern Food…”

“Where was Modern Food Market?” I asked.

“The building where the Pinkberry is. Across the street in the Japanese Village Plaza, there’s a Nijiya Market now, which used to be Enbun Market. I’d sneak an Imagawa-yaki from Mitsuru Café before dinner, and Hatsu would yell at me.

“Once a week we’d go to Hanagame in Honda Plaza to eat tempura soba. Then we’d rent Japanese dramas and shows from Sun Video two doors down. On hot days like today we’d share a strawberry shaved ice from Mikawaya and we’d get those sakura mochi you like. You like the kashiwa mochi from Fugetsu-do too, huh.”

“I like the ramen from Kouraku too!” I burst out.

“That’s right. Next to Kouraku there was a photography store called Kimura-ya. They had a Leica camera that I wanted, but was too expensive. Hatsu bought it for one of my birthdays, though, and I’d never been so happy. That was the last birthday we spent together…”

A tear rolled down Grandpa’s cheek.

“Hatsu was in the hospital on our 60th wedding anniversary… I went to Mickey Seki at Honda Plaza and bought a diamond ring. The salesperson said 60th anniversary calls for diamonds. I went to the hospital and showed Hatsu the ring, and she clutched the box like it was so precious, and said, ‘I was happy.’ Then she closed her eyes and never opened them again.”

I looked at Grandpa’s face and felt sad.

Grandpa laughed. “What kind of face is that? C’mon, let’s put on a big smile and go pay our respects.”

Grandpa took my hand and stood up, taking in one last view of the area before going inside the temple.

“It’s changed, but it’s a good thing. People of different backgrounds are enjoying Little Tokyo – much different from when I was your age. I’m sad that the town has changed, but there are good things too. It’s an era where everyone can come together.”

“Grandpa, are you sad that you don’t get to see Grandma anymore?”

“Nope, I see her every day,” he said, laughing.

I was confused by his answer, but nodded.

Before we entered the temple, Grandpa gave me coins to toss into the offering box.

The temple smelled of incense, but I liked it. Grandpa’s house always smelled like incense.

“Toss the coins into the box and put your hands together.”

I did as told, and as I tilted my head forward and closed my eyes, Grandpa whispered to me, “Ko-taro, do you know what Obon is for?”

I opened my eyes and looked up at Grandpa, my hands still pressed together.

“It’s to see your loved ones,” Grandpa said, smiling. He took my hand once again and we walked outside together.

“I had the most fun today.”

Before I had the chance to say, “Me too!,” I heard Mom’s voice,.“Ko-chan.”

“Where were you? I couldn’t find you anywhere, and none of your friends had seen you.”

“I was with Grandpa.” I looked back towards Grandpa, but… he was gone. “He was just here.” I said.

Mom had her head down. She looked at me with tears running down her red face and smiled.

“Really? Did you have a good time?”

I didn’t understand why Mom was crying. But she was smiling so I smiled too.

“Yes! I had so much fun!”

shirley watanabe-nishidaBorn and raised in Los Angeles, I lived in Little Tokyo through my childhood as I attended Lumbini. I moved to the mid-Downtown area in my second year of grade school. I’ve always came to Little Tokyo assisting my mother with grocery shopping and other needs. I started working in Little Tokyo in 2010 in Japanese Village Plaza. I’ve been writing since middle school as a hobby and started getting into reading English and Japanese books as I got older.







































Pinkberry がある建物は昔大きなスーパーだったんだよ。その前にある小東京日本村広場の中にある、今はニジヤだけどな昔はエンブンという小さなスーパーがあってな。買い物に行く度にその三軒を全部回されたわい。ハツが買い物の間祖父ちゃんはミツルで今川焼きを買って外で待ってたんだ。いつもハツに見つかると


















































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