Masayoshi and Haruko Yoshikawa (79 and 73) deliver milk and yogurt to homes in Tokyo’s shitamachi (downtown). Every morning, except Sundays, the two make their rounds carrying dozens of old-fashioned, small glass bottles of Meiji milk to their faithful customers, many of whom have been drinking it daily from the time when Masayoshi was a toddler delivering with his father. While Masayoshi hops on and off his bicycle in front of apartment buildings, Haruko zigzags on foot from one alley to the next, dodging plants, cats and parked bicycles, as the two take away empty milk bottles from boxes placed outside entrance doors and leave fresh ones behind. With bottles clinking in sync, they circle the neighborhood, delivering a healthy dose of dairy calm for everyone.
Haruko: You can’t go wrong if you follow the advice of good people. The monk in my village was looking for someone to work in his friend’s meat shop in Tokyo and he thought that I would be perfect for the job. I was 16 and Tokyo sounded very exotic. I said yes. We prepared croquettes and curry rice and I delivered them to a bank. I cooked miso soup and rice there and served it to all the bank employees. We chatted while they ate and I got lots of chocolates as gifts. After lunch, I washed up and went back to the shop. Later on I worked as a dishwasher in a cafeteria. I loved both those jobs. Life in Tokyo was better than I expected.
Masayoshi: My parents were running a busy milk-delivery business and a milk hall. Back then, elderly relatives would try to set up young couples. One day we were introduced. We drank tea and chatted with my parents and the matchmaker. It was fun because Haruko was so talkative. I had no doubts about her because back then marriage proposals came with an almost 100 percent guarantee of success. Matchmakers investigated everything, from family dynamics to personalities ? even what kind of food we liked.
H: He looked kind and I was told that he was. He really is. Plus the milk business is interesting. We met that one time and decided to get married. We didn’t know better and maybe that was good!
M: Once people are emotionally attached, even logic can’t dissuade them. That’s how love is. All our customers order milk in 180 ml glass bottles because it tastes the best. Of course everyone knows that the milk is actually the same as what’s in the paper cartons, but since the glass bottle fits nicely in one’s hand and feels good against the lips, the milk tastes so much better. It’s also fun to see through the glass and watch waves of white liquid gently rise toward our lips.
H: Great packaging not only sells a product but it also keeps customers loyal forever. People recommend our service to their families and friends. That’s how we are surviving as just one of the 330 or so little milk shops left in Tokyo. We’re a dying breed, but we’re still breathing, although it’s getting tougher every day. Luckily, Masayoshi’s younger brother, Yuzuru, is helping us.
M: Drinking milk is good for your health but delivering the milk is even better! Six days a week, at 3:30 a.m, a truck arrives at our shop. I put away the milk, yogurt and ice cream. It’s too early for delivery so I clean the street. At first I only swept in front of our shop, but then I saw a few leaves by my neighbor’s shop so I followed them and now I walk up and down the whole block, sweeping. Too bad the wind only brings us garbage, never any money!
H: Once your body gets a break, so does your wallet. Now we have less work than when we were young, but we also have a lot less money. We barely make it each month because our pension is not enough to live off. A heavy body and a heavy pocket would be better!
H: Saving a little today might cost a lot more in the long run. We deliver for free and our prices are rock bottom, but we still can’t compete with the huge supermarket chains. The beauty of a neighborhood, though, is always in the unique small businesses, not the chain stores. Once they disappear, there goes the neighborhood.
M: We spend most of our money on food to keep us strong and healthy. We buy rice, tofu, fruit and veggies, fish and sweets from small stores. The town stays healthy if we support each other. The corner fishmonger sells fish for about 20 percent more than the supermarket, but the fish is much fresher and he even gives us advice on how to cook it. No supermarket can beat that level of service. Instead of saving a few yen, why not save the nice atmosphere?
M: Highrises look pretty on paper, but in reality, they still need a lot of improvement. The gusts of wind between these monstrous structures are strong enough to knock over children and the elderly. I have to hold on to my bicycle and milk for dear life so I don’t get blown about, but I often see elderly people being pushed around, almost as if they are ready for take-off. I wonder what the architects were thinking. We call these gusts of wind around skyscrapers “guerrilla storms” as they literally jump on you from out of nowhere.
M: Not to cause any trouble to anyone is the most important thing in life. I don’t hate housework and I actually love doing the laundry. During the war we had to do it all as our mom evacuated to the countryside with the smaller kids, while dad, my oldest brother and I stayed to run the milk hall. We must avoid getting sick because that causes the biggest problems for our families and ourselves. That’s why we must stay busy.
H: He’s so good, he’s always helping the neighbors and me. He does the laundry and the dishes, too, while I go out with my friends for lunch.
Judit Kawaguchi loves to listen. She is a volunteer counselor and a TV reporter on NHK’s “Out & About.” Learn more at: http://juditfan.blog58.fc2.com/