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House of Tenten: Story of a Cat

The House was planned for single female cat lovers to live together for a while; maybe for several months or a few years. All residents
Story of a cat
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1

This is my beloved cat.
Her name is Tenzing. That’s a Tibetan name. We nicknamed her Tenten because that sounds lovelier and is easier to pronounce for Japanese. It is also to avoid the inquisitive minds of people to ask, “Why did you name her Tenzing?” She is now 22 years old.

Once she had a job. Her job was manager at the House of Tenten. The House was open from April 2012 until September 2018.

It had five Japanese tatami mat rooms, a tiny modernized kitchen, and one renovated bathroom with a Western-style toilet. But the exterior of the House remained as it had been built even though we can’t discover the exact year due to the lack of official documents. 

It was a typical so-called “Kyo-Machiya”, the traditional Japanese-style house with wooden architecture and mud wall that fascinated non-Japanese and even Japanese people from other localities, as one of the historical assets of Kyoto culture. 

Before opening the House, I made the following decision on the use of space: three rooms were for each resident’s private use, one was used for living and dining purposes, and one was designated as a small library-cum-reading room.

I also made a policy that books would be provided by each resident when they first arrived, at least 3 to 5 of each one’s personal books. That way, they could know each other through the books.

The House was planned for single female cat lovers to live together for a while; maybe for several months or a few years. All residents were expected to be below or around 30 years and from other prefectures, or even other countries.

Tenten
The house was planned for single female cat lovers.

People call this type of residence, a “share house”. 

In 2012, there were already several “share houses” in Kyoto but none of them had a cat. So, Tenten was the first cat appointed as a manager of a “share house”. 

That was a once-in-a-lifetime business of mine. I have no talent in business at all. Neither do I have any interest. 

So, there was a story behind why this all happened. And that goes back to March 11, 2011. 

On that day, the most destructive earthquake hit Japan.

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After the earthquake that was followed by the Fukushima nuclear power plants disasters, I self-evacuated from Tokyo to Kyoto with Tenten. Although Kyoto can be said to be one of my hometowns, it has been more than 30 years since I returned to settle here. Without any plans. 

In fact, it was all so sudden. I felt that I did need something as an anchor, or at least something like a base camp for climbers. Otherwise, I would have drifted away or blown off to somewhere, and finally would have disappeared from the world.

I asked Tenten if she could help me. She agreed.

My daughter was living in Kyoto back then. So, I stayed with my daughter, but her residence was not suitable for Tenten. 

It was on the fifth floor.  Tenten could not enjoy her freedom to go out and come in without bothering us. In the first place, she didn’t like to be kept indoors.

About this matter, she was once a freedom fighter:

It happened when we locked her in the house while we were away for a few days. 

When we came back home, we realized how furious she was to have been treated like being under house arrest. Every sliding paper door (Shoji) of our Japanese-style drawing room was miserably damaged by her scratching. It had 12 sliding paper doors, all of which were torn into pieces. 

However, even that was not enough protest against what we had done. Scratching paper doors barely helped in dissipating her anger. Then, she left home without saying anything. It was actually just her way to calm herself down. But we didn’t know her intention. After a week or so, finally she returned. By then, we were already panicked by her outrageous protest then absence, and we took oath that we would never deprive her of the right to free movement.

Yes, she loved wandering around whenever and wherever she wanted. 

That was a part of her identity.

After the earthquake that was followed by the Fukushima nuclear power plants disasters, I self-evacuated from Tokyo to Kyoto with Tenten. Although Kyoto can be said to be one of my hometowns, it has been more than 30 years since I returned to settle here. Without any plans. In fact, it was all so sudden. I felt that I did need something as an anchor, or at least something like a base camp for climbers.

Furthermore, she wanted to be independent as much as possible. She was born in the countryside and spent her younger days surrounded by trees and seasonal flowers.

She used to catch snakes, frogs, house lizards, mice and even sparrows for her snacks or as a toy to play with. She was quite capable and talented in hunting. 

But the residence on the fifth floor didn’t give her the opportunity to use her ability. 

Naturally, she was not satisfied at all. Never happy. When I asked her help for my resettlement, she took the chance and demanded her own house which, according to her, would be my anchor or base camp.

Being a cat, she couldn’t have her property (she herself is defined as a property according to our laws, though she never accepted this legal status. Anyway, that is another story). So, I became an owner and she was a manager, but in fact this house belonged to her. 

I asked a carpenter to make special tiny entrances to every door through which only Tenten can go in and out freely. And being Tenten, she preferred being out so much more than inside, when she was young. So, it was only she who wandered around the house without any permission. Only she was allowed to enter and stay in whichever room she wanted. 

cat story from Kyoto
She was allowed to come in and go out as she wanted.

And since all the residents signed the contract of agreement, they had to accept all the conditions for living in the House—including Tenten’s right to freedom of movement.

And speech, too.

She sometimes woke up early in the morning, especially during summer season, and cried very loudly, even close to somebody’s ear while she was still in bed. I wondered how much the residents suffered from her morning activities, but they had to accept it and they did actually tolerate it, because all of them were crazy cat lovers.

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As a manager, Tenten was excellent. She helped the residents maintain good relationships with one another.

Let me introduce each resident:

Kayo-san was a piano teacher giving lessons to children as well as adults as an income generating job, but her main activity was stage performance together with other instruments. She loved Irish music and sometimes played the piano in an Irish pub. 

Mai-san was a film artist. Being a mother of a little girl now, her recent work is a small contribution to a Japanese director’s film, “Plan 75”, as one of the assistant artists. This film was screened in the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, where it eventually won a special award. I was glad to hear that.

Asami-san was a budding architect. Recently, she gave birth to a boy, but because of the pandemic, I could not see his face yet. She resided in the House for four years until her marriage.

Akane-san was a commercial photographer who studied in Paris. She was struggling as a freelancer and seemed to be always busy. She often missed our gatherings for Sunday lunch or Saturday dinner. 

Ringo-chan was a Japanese language student from Hong Kong. She was the youngest among the residents and the most energetic. She took full advantage of being a foreigner by using a special discount pass and traveled all over Japan. As a result, she became more knowledgeable about Japanese rural cultures than all of us. 

Yoko-san was a qualified specialist on water analysis for water quality inspection. Because of my lack of scientific knowledge, I didn’t understand what she did for work every day, but I was sure that she was an expert at something very important for our life and the Earth. She also gave birth to a boy in the same month as Asami-san recently.

Mako-san was a Sanshin player. Sanshin is an Okinawan and Amami Islands musical instrument. She worked in an office during daytime and played Sanshin in the evening at an Okinawan pub. That was her passion.

Among the seven residents, some stayed during the same period and others did not. But somehow, everyone knows each other, and it is because some of them often came to see how Tenten was even after leaving the House. Tenten also invited them for dinner or for somebody’s birthday celebration.

Tenten illustration for cat story from japan
Tenten was an excellent manager.

When Tenten took office as a manager, she was already 12 years old. The average life expectancy of cats is said to be around 16 to 18 years. 

In September 2017, Ringo-chan left for Hong Kong. Yoko-san, on the other hand, left in December and got married in January. Akane-san stayed on but the House had become too large to live in all by herself. Lastly, Tenten became too old to fulfill her duties as a manager. I discussed matters with Akane-san and finally decided to close the House. 

“It’s time for you to retire, Tenten,” I said.

“Are you all right, then?” she asked me back.

“Yes, I have totally recovered,” I answered.

Recovered from everything that I experienced after March 11, 2011. 

That day changed many Japanese lives—directly or indirectly, immediately or in the long run, in various ways.

She followed my decision and shifted to my home.

After that, she has been staying with me on the fifth floor. 

Now, she prefers to stay home. 

Sometimes, she still goes out on the verandah just to breathe the fresh air and walk between flowerpots. She smells the soil of the flowerpots and basks in the sun for a few minutes.

Tenten the cat
Tenten's birthday is on 25th December.

After she retired, the venue of our occasional gathering shifted from the House of Tenten to my home, and that continued for a year. Then the pandemic occurred. We can no longer gather to celebrate our birthdays. But Tenten’s birthday is celebrated every year by millions of people. 

That is December 25th.

She got her original name, Tenzing, after my Tibetan friend who was exiled in 1958, studied in Darjeeling and California, then finally settled in Kathmandu where I met him.

Illustrations were done by Kaori Usui who used to create greeting postcards with her drawings in her childhood, as a favour to her mother, and that activity cultivated her original artistic taste. She is now a lawyer by profession, and sometimes creates her drawings on postcards for her family and friends.

Mayumi Yamamoto is a writer and academic based in Kyoto, Japan. Her poems have appeared in Literary Yard, and some opinions in Indian Periodical. She authored several published books in the Japanese language.

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