La Kokeshi

Just south of La Primera and on Avenida Obregon, just a few store fronts beyond the crowded Botica Kent where Americanos flock to buy their penicillin, birth control pills, Marlboros and tequila all in one place and for less than half what they would pay in the U.S. is Regalos Kokeshi—a Japanese curios shop. Yep, Japanese… like from Japan. The windows display the predictable Geisha dolls standing elegantly with their hands tucked inside the sleeves of their kimonos and their beautifully coiffed heads slightly tilted to one side or the other. There are Buddhas, too, in all sizes and materials—some in wood, others in jade and still others in what could be gold. Bamboo chimes hang in the window. But it is the little child kimonos—in aqua, coral and white—that make me wish I lived in Japan.

Inside, a little metal chime hangs from the doorknob and gently announces my entrance.

“Buenas tardes, Doña Maria,” I say. Stepping into the shop is like stepping into a world I only know from stories abuelo tells. For a moment, time stops and I stand at the threshold of another dimension.

“Pasa, pasa,” she says. “Como esta el Beto?” She asks about my father first to remind me that we are family. Her face is full of angles—a square jaw and cheekbones that jut out unapologetically. Her complexion, though, is creamy. Her eyes are unmistakably almond-shaped. Her nose flat, chata, as they would later nickname my tia Alicia. Her hair is jet black and thick, straight and heavy. The whole picture of her is familiar to me. She might as well be my grandmother.

She comes out from behind the counter where she sits reading and writing letters to the relatives back home and envelops me around the shoulders, bracing me for the work I am about to do. And like that, with her arms still around my little  frame, she guides me around the crowded store.

“That fan came in last week from Fukuoka,” she says. She points across the room to the space above the window. I imagine the gossamer wings of Pegasus and I see him flying across the Pacific with my grandfather and all his relatives holding on for dear life to his golden mane . Its gold threads catch the light just so and it appears to be on fire. “My sister Keiko won’t send me anything black anymore. She thinks I have too much black in the store.”

Doña Maria Katsurayama conducts a spontaneous lesson in Japanese culture every time I come in, that would be about once a week. The geisha, the fan, the incense, the tea… She compartmentalizes these lessons and teaches them as valuable a priori pieces of knowledge. The bathhouse, the slippers, the cherry blossoms, the sea, the silence, the bow…

She takes me to a corner of the store where she has her hidden treasures. “Mira, este me lo acaba de mandar mi hermano,” she whispers. It is a beautiful jade ring set in 24 carat gold that her brother just sent. She places it on my thumb. “Para cuando te cases…” It is her wish that I have something like this on my wedding day and, so, today’s lesson is about jade. Two variations on this essay title appear below.