Itsuo, The Shoe Shine Boy of Kyoto

W.F. Bellais II
(This is a continuation of the stories from “A Boy’s Adventue.”)

Standing at the entrance Kyoto Hotel, the rest and recuperation hotel in Kyoto, Japan, probably could have been similar to standing on a street in Paris; you eventually met everyone you ever knew. The Kyoto Hotel’s grandeur dazzled most American enlisted men, like the boy, a Marine stationed in Nara. When the boy needed to get away, visit the grand city of Kyoto, the R and R hotel in Kyoto met all his requirements. Officially the boy could not be classified as being on rest and recuperation (R and R), but the hotel opened its doors to all American military personnel of enlisted rank.

Whenever a weekend opened for him to go to Kyoto the boy would go to the Kyoto Hotel get a room and then sit in the lobby just watching the stream of men come and go. Every time he spent a weekend at the Kyoto Hotel some old friend from high school, boot camp, or from his company at advanced infantry training was spotted. They greeted each other and reminisced about times gone by; times actually not so long ago. He even came across two of his drill instructors from boot camp and gladly lorded over them his corporal stripes—both had been busted to private in the year and a half since they tormented him at the San Diego recruit center.

Actually, he liked most the band that played every day during his visits; professional musicians who knew how to play American swing and pop music and get everyone “in the mood.” The band members wore evening dress, even in the middle of the day, and a beautiful and young Japanese girl in a bare shoulders gown sang in the style of Doris Day. The boy usually sat in a
large overstuffed chair at the edge of the dance floor sipping on sloe gin fizz as he listened and watched.

Sometimes he traveled to Kyoto with a fellow Marine from his regiment in Nara but mostly he went alone. At the hotel he had to share a room with an R and R soldier or Marine from a unit in Korea and he enjoyed meeting new people. If his roommate happened to be a soldier, the usual service rivalry banter and bad jokes punctuated the conversation but never spoiled the times he spent at the Kyoto Hotel.

The best part of staying at the Kyoto Hotel happened to be that no officers or even senior non commissioned officers stayed there. In fact, they could not stay at the Kyoto Hotel; the boy learned that the place had been set aside by General McArthur back in the late 1940s or early 1950s as an enlisted man’s hotel for rest and recuperation. Nevertheless, everything about the hotel spoke of good management and all its guest knew, if necessary, the military police were close at hand to control an unruly private.

Everything a Marine or American Soldier needed for entertainment could be obtained in or through the hotel. In the lobby a representative of a Hong Kong tailor could have a cashmere suit tailored and delivered within four days. Or if anyone needed a new dressier uniform, the tailor could deliver that too with all ribbons and stripes in place. Japanese Boy Scouts from a local troop opened oysters at a stand for a price and if a pearl emerged, it went to the purchaser. None of the pearls had any value, but the boy found it to be fun to see how many he could collect. Also, a Japanese artist had a booth where he would paint on silk a picture of a guest, again for a price. But, better yet, give him a photo of a girlfriend back home and her likeness found its way on a silk scroll. Thousands of such paintings went home from the Kyoto Hotel annually.

On good days a crowd gathered at the front of the hotel. This crowd included cab drivers, girls, souvenir hawkers, shoe shine boys, and enlisted military. The shoe shine boys, souvenir hawkers, and cab drivers usually stayed in place trying to position themselves to their best advantage. The girls and the soldiers and Marines milled about coming and going. The girls dressed conservatively were, nevertheless, attempting to engage an American for the weekend or the night. They wore an inconspicuous badge, usually at the waist, indicating that they were licensed and had been inspected by a medical facility and certified “disease free.” The Kyoto Hotel offered many good features and its front entrance ranked high in the Americans’ evaluation of the establishment.

One weekend the boy had listened to all the music he needed to hear, consumed sloe gin fizzes beyond reason the night before, and looked at all the curios until curioed-out. Stepping out front entrance to experience whatever the front entrance offered came to mind. Meeting almost at once a colleague from the regiment in Nara he asked him what he planned to do for the day. The answer, “Get drunk.” The boy did not like being drunk, so he broke off the conversation and looked about for some other distraction.

Just a block away and around the corner, a large Shinto temple made entirely of wood and constructed without a single nail had been a good place to visit, but he had seen it many times. The unusual feeling of boredom began to set in and the boy did not like the feeling. He thought, “Maybe I should just go back to Nara.”

As he thought about returning to Nara he noticed a shoe shine boy, just a kid, squatting on the side walk with his back resting on the hotel wall. He seemed dejected and lonely. No one paid any attention to him. The boy surmised the kid’s size worked against him. The other boys, larger, apparently older, and more entrepreneurial, aggressively sought business; they poked their shoe shine boxes in people’s faces shouting, “Shine, mister?” “Shine, soldier?” Shine, Marine?” They meant business and they got it.

The boy pushed through the crowd to stand in front of the small shoe shine boy. The boy says, “Hey kid, aren’t you shining shoes today?”

The kid looked up and says, “Shine, Marine?”

“Sure, shine my shoes,” the boy says.

So the little shoe shine boy brought from his box polish and brushes and began to polish the boy’s shoes. Immediately the boy saw that the kid knew his business; he just could not compete in the mob of older boys who monopolized the front door of the Kyoto Hotel. When both shoes were polished the boy says, “I don’t think these shoes have ever been so shiny. You’re really good.”

The kid does not look up but only says, “One hundred Yen, Marine.”

The boy says, “Is that all? I bet you could ask for two hundred.”

The shoe shine boy says, “One hundred Yen, Marine.”

The boy pulled a hundred Yen note from his pocket and as he did he had an idea. At first blush the idea seemed stupid, but he would float it anyway. The boy gave the kid his one hundred Yen and then asks, “How much to you expect make shining shoes today?”

The kid looks up and says, “Maybe a thousand, maybe more.”

The boy says, “If I told you that I would give you five thousand Yen today, would you help me?”

Still not looking at the boy, the kid says, “Help you, Marine. Do what? Get you girl?”

The boy shakes his head and says, “No, I would not pay five thousand Yen for that, I want you to do something even better and more fun.”

The boy explains he wants the kid to be his guide and take him around Kyoto to see places he could not see on his own. The told the kid that he wanted to visit people in the shops where the kid’s family buys things, see sights most Americans cannot visit. The idea is, as the boy explained, “Just take me around Kyoto today for five thousand Yen; okay?”

Standing and slinging the strap of his shoe shine box over his left shoulder the shoe shine boy says, “You bet, Marine. Let’s go!”

The boy says, “Wait, wait; what’s your name? And I’ll pay you now, but you have to be honest with me.”

The shoe shine boy says, “My name is Itsuo.”

“Itsuo? Does your name mean anything?” the boy asks.

Itsuo says, “It means I am the fifth son. My father has too many boys.”

Itsuo then moved at a spirited pace away from the entrance of the Kyoto Hotel toward a busy intersection. The boy had a difficult time keeping Itsuo’s gait. Measuring only a little over four feet tall the shoe shine boy clearly out stepped the boy. Even with the additional load of carrying a fully equipped box made of pine with a leather strap, once a belt, and filled with polish and brushes. Itsuo gave every indication of being up to the task of tour guide.

At the intersection Itsuo jumped onto a trolley car and signaled the boy to do the same. The boy jumped on and immediately felt out of place. Only Japanese patrons rode the trolley. Americans were expected to hail cabs and ride in splendor. The shoe shine boy says, “Trolley cost three Yen. You have ten Yen?”

“No, the smallest note I have is one hundred Yen,” the boy says.

Itsuo says, “That do.” Then he adds, “You give me one hundred Yen I pay for trolley all day.” The boy knew the shoe shine boy would make an additional profit on this arrangement but he willingly handed over an additional one hundred Yen.

Hanging on to an outside hand-hold on the trolley the boy began to see Kyoto has he not seen it previously. Shops of all sorts where food could be purchased including meat carcasses hanging from door lintels and gaudy signs in brilliant reds and yellows announced what wares were for sale in the shop. Workers, clerks, salesmen, housewives, and children mingled on the streets and were carrying on a normal Japanese life. A normal Japanese life could not be experienced at the front entrance of the Kyoto Hotel or from his barracks in Nara. This is what he wanted. His only regret, he had not been able to purchase the camera he had hoped for. “All this,” he thought, “will have to be buried in the back of my brain.”

Suddenly Itsuo jumps from the trolley. The trolley did not stop and the boy did not think he could jump safely to the street but he gathered his courage and jumped off. He landed onto the street a little off balance and had to dodge a speeding Datsun pickup truck headed for some commercial enterprise. Itsuo with the shoe shine box now hanging from his neck laughs and then says, “You come, you follow me.”

Again, and despite his short legs and stature, Itsuo runs very fast, faster than the boy had anticipated and he thinks he is being abandoned and expects now to be lost in Kyoto and will struggle to find his way back to the Kyoto Hotel. Itsuo stops suddenly, his shoe shine box swings wildly, and he points to a large hedge.

Itsuo makes a gesture to remain quiet and then moves into an opening in the hedge. The greenery grew thick and made a shelter. The boy wondered if this is where Itsuo lived. But as they continued to follow the path through the hedge the boy’s eyes widened as he saw before him a grand building, a palace he thought. Again, Itsuo made a gesture to tell the boy not to make any noise.

They had come onto a ceremony of some sort. A man in a cut away morning coat and other formal attire, including a top hat, bowed before another man in an ornate costume while others all around the palace garden smiled. The man in the ornate costume placed a sash of blue and white over the bowing gentleman’s shoulder and spoke. The people in the garden then applauded.

The boy whispers, “What’s this?” Itsuo gestures for the boy to be quiet and then leads him back to through the hedge to the street. On the street the boy says, “What was that?” Itsuo shrugs and says, “Don’t know.” The boy asks, “Was that the Emperor?” Itsuo says, “No, just a big-shot.” Itsuo then runs on and the boy, who believes he is in good physical condition, works hard to keep up.

At lunch Itsuo took the boy to a tea house for noodles and soup. From there they walked more back streets and if something interesting came in view, Itsuo attempts to explain, much of which the boy does not understand. Finally, the two come to a shop selling Chinese medicines and other strange things, but the item that catches the boy’s eye is a large Japanese flag.

The boy says, “Is the flag for sale?”

Itsuo asks the store clerk and learns it is for sale, but not to an American. The boy asks why not and Itsuo tells him the store person believes that Americans write bad words on Japanese flags.

“Bad words?” the boy asks.

Itsuo responds, “That what store man says, ‘bad words.'”

The boy shakes his head and says, “If I buy the flag, I will not write on it and I will keep it safe.”

Itsuo told the store clerk what the boy said and the clerk takes the flag down and charges one hundred Yen.

With that the boy thinks, “This has been a great day, but I think I have had it.” He says to Itsuo, “Let’s go back to the hotel.”

Itsuo takes him back by way of the trolley again and then says, “Good bye, Marine. See you later.”

The boy did see Itsuo again in front of the Hotel Kyoto. Still slight in stature he seemed to reach more customers. Itsuo showed the boy a new shoe red shine box made of sturdy metal and his name written on both sides.

The boy asks, “Where did you get that beautiful shoe shine box?”

Itsuo says, “I buy with money you give me to waste a day riding the trolley.”

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