Mikage Sakurai’s favorite place is the kitchen. She thinks lived-in kitchens, with “vegetable droppings,” tea towels, and fully stocked fridges are the best ones. She even hopes that when it’s time to die, she’ll draw her last breath in a kitchen.
Mikage loves kitchens because they are places where living happens: people cook, clean, chop, and repeat day in and day out. The reader will soon learn that kitchens are an important healing tool for Mikage as she navigates grief.
Mikage was raised by her grandmother, as her own mother and father died young. Her grandfather died when she was a teenager. Mikage’s grandmother died the other day, which took Mikage by surprise. The idea that she’s now alone in the world feels dark and unreal, like the “blackness of the cosmos.” When it happened, she couldn’t sleep. After a few days she dragged her futon into the “deathly silent” kitchen, curled up by the refrigerator, and lulled herself to sleep as it hummed beside her. Even though she feels listless, she knows that “Reality is wonderful” and thinks about pulling herself together, packing, and moving to a new place, but it all seems overwhelming, so she does nothing.
Mikage comes from a non-traditional family environment, as she was raised by her grandmother for most of her life. Yoshimoto uses the metaphor of darkness to capture Mikage’s suffering. The world feels dark because Mikage has lost the last person she was related to in the world and feels alone in the vastness of the universe. Yoshimoto shows that sleeplessness and lethargy physical aspects of the grieving process. Mikage is able to sleep by the refrigerator because it’s the most lifelike thing in the apartment, chugging away as usual.
One day, the doorbell rings. It’s Yuichi Tanabe, who goes to Mikage’s university. Mikage doesn’t know Yuichi well, though it seems he knew her grandmother, as he came to the house in tears when Mikage’s grandmother died and helped Mikage organize the funeral. Yuichi suggests that Mikage come to stay with him and his mother for a while. Mikage is dazed, but she blankly agrees. She doesn’t understand why, but she feels as if she’s bewitched. She hears a “spirit call [her] name.” Yuichi seems to “glow with white light” that draws her towards him.
Yuichi’s relationship with Mikage’s grandmother shows that a familial or loving bond can form between two unrelated people, a theme Yoshimoto will explore further throughout the story. Just as darkness represents suffering, light represents joy or happiness. Yuichi has extended an opportunity for support to an isolated, grieving Mikage, which is why she senses light around him.
Later, Mikage walks in to Yuichi’s place, noticing an enormous sofa in the middle of the kitchen. Yuichi makes tea while Mikage explores the kitchen, mesmerized by light bouncing off plates, sparkling glasses, appliances, and serving dishes of all sizes. Mikage usually feels painfully lonely when she’s at the homes of people she doesn’t know. She thinks about how she has no blood ties to anybody in this world, as the dark night stretches into the “unbounded loneliness” of the infinite cosmos beyond the window around her. Mikage wonders why Yuichi invited her over, and he responds matter of factly that he figures she’s having a hard time. Just as casually, Yuichi suggests that Mikage move in, and Mikage is deeply moved.
The Tanabes’ kitchen feels mesmerizingly full of life to Mikage, which is why she notices the way the dishes sparkle with light. When Mikage’s thoughts shift to her bereavement and sense of isolation, the atmosphere feels like a vast darkness. Mikage’s loneliness in unfamiliar spaces is a function of two things: first, Mikage didn’t have much family and always felt relatively alone in the world. Second, Yoshimoto alludes to the disconnected feeling of urban life, where millions of people live side by side but don’t know each other at all.
All of a sudden, a woman bursts in who is so beautiful that Mikage gasps. Her name is Eriko, and she’s Yuichi’s mother. Eriko has silky hair, long legs, and sparkling eyes, and she radiates with light that “vibrate[s] with life force.” Eriko welcomes Mikage warmly, explains that she’ll be stuck at work tonight but will be around in the morning, and dashes out the door. Yuichi runs after her to drive her, and yells back at Mikage to stay put and watch TV. When Yuichi returns, he teases Mikage about Eriko’s beauty, and confides to Mikage that “Eriko was a man a long time ago.” Yuichi calls Eriko “mother” because “Could you call someone who looked like that ‘Dad?’” Mikage agrees that Yuichi makes an excellent point.
Yoshimoto emphasizes Eriko’s beauty and femininity—and points out Yuichi’s preference of calling Eriko “mother”—to assert that, as a transgender woman, Eriko is indeed a true woman and every bit as womanly as a cisgender woman. The light that seems to radiate from Eriko clues the reader in to the fact that Eriko will be a potent loving force in Mikage’s life. Once again, the story illustrates a non-traditional family dynamic, this time between Yuichi and his transgender mother.
Yuichi explains that Eriko eloped with Yuichi’s biological mother—a strange-looking woman with short hair—when they were young. Before that, they had grown up together as foster siblings. When Yuichi’s biological mother died when Yuichi was a baby, Eriko quit her job, thought about what to do next, and decided to “become a woman.” Eriko had surgery, bought a nightclub, and raised Yuichi by herself. Mikage is amazed at the story. Mikage feels like she can trust their kitchen, and she likes the way their faces shine light “like buddhas when they smiled.”
Yuichi’s non-traditional family is exposed as even more non-traditional because Yuichi’s parents were foster siblings. The reader learns that Eriko has experienced bereavement in her life, which will become important later in the story. The pragmatic, practical way in which Yuichi describes Eriko’s decision to transition, run a business, and raise her child all at the same time normalizes Eriko’s story and establishes Eriko as an empowered figure. Yoshimoto shows that this non-traditional family environment is going to be a good, healthy one for Mikage because both Eriko and Yuichi radiate light.
Yuichi goes to bed. Mikage showers and settles into the “delectable” sofa, surrounded by plants, knowing that she’ll sleep well. She peeks at the kitchen one more time, and smiles to herself, thinking it’s funny that even here she sleeps next to the kitchen. Outside the window, the rain has stopped, and the sky has filled with the light of twinkling stars. Somehow, Mikage doesn’t feel lonely, and her mind is eased from the painful sadness that has enveloped her since her grandmother died. She feels peaceful and sleeps soundly.
Mikage needs to be in a comfortable physical environment to sleep—here, on a comfortable sofa that relaxes her body, and in a kitchen, which to her represents life and makes her feel insulated from the pain of grief—which shows that processing grief requires physical as well as mental comforting. The dark sky has been punctuated with glittering stars, showing the lift in Mikage’s state of mind.
Mikage wakes to the sound of Eriko bustling around cheerfully in the kitchen as light streams through the window and shines on the plant leaves. Eriko is hungry and Mikage offers to cook. Mikage’s “head clear[s]” as she steps into Eriko’s delightful kitchen, marveling at the thought that “[Eriko] was a man.” Eriko inhales the eggs, soupy rice, and cucumber salad that Mikage makes. The apartment is bathed in sunlight, and Mikage couldn’t have imagined yesterday that today she’d be eating with strangers, feeling strangely at home, with sunlight shining through her tea glass.
Yoshimoto reinforces Eriko’s womanhood by showing that Mikage has to remind herself that Eriko once “was a man”—the implication here is that Eriko is so thoroughly a woman, that it’s baffling to Mikage that Eriko ever lived, identified, or presented as a man. When Mikage cooks, she engages in an everyday activity that reconnects her with the rhythm of living, which boosts Mikage’s mood. Even though she is not related to Eriko and Yuichi, Mikage is starting to feel like part of the family, and her happiness is represented by the light that floods the apartment.
Eriko says that Mikage reminds her of Yuichi’s old dog, which is probably why Yuichi feels close to Mikage. Eriko thinks Yuichi is a “good kid,” though he’s often emotionally distant. Eriko says that Mikage is a “good kid” too, and earnestly asks Mikage to move in, explaining that she knows what it’s like to have nobody. Mikage’s heart swells, and she accepts Eriko’s offer with gratitude. Mikage thinks to herself that she, like Yuichi, knows how life can be “dark and solitary” when you grow up with only one family member because you’re aware early on that one day they’ll die, then you’ll be alone, and then you—like everyone—will also die. Mikage wonders if that’s why she understands Yuichi’s emotional reticence.
Eriko refers to Mikage with parental warmth as a “good kid,” just as she does with her own son, Yuichi. Describing them both in the same way reinforces the idea that Mikage is starting to become part of the family, and that chosen family can be just as significant and life-giving as biological family. Eriko also takes on a parental role when she provides emotional support for Mikage over the fact that they have both experienced the pain of living in the shadow of loss—something that’s again described through the metaphor of darkness. Yuichi’s emotional distance suggests that bereavement can have lasting effects on the psyche.
Months pass, and Mikage slips into an easy rhythm of working at her part-time job, cooking for Eriko and Yuichi, watching TV, and sleeping on the enormous sofa. She sleeps soundly each night, and wants for nothing more. “Light and air” starts to come back into Mikage’s heart, and she is grateful for finding herself in such a warm and happy place after being in such a dark one. One day, Mikage goes back to her old apartment to finish cleaning it out. It feels cold, dark, and unfamiliar, as if time stopped when her grandmother died. Deciding to get on with it, Mikage starts humming and scrubbing the fridge.
Mikage has reconnected with a rhythm of living by doing very ordinary things like cooking and watching TV as days pass. Although these actions seem small and insignificant, they help her to process her grief, and her environment begins to feel light and happy instead of dark and painful. Mikage’s life-filled world at the Tanabes is contrasted with the deathly stillness of her grandmother’s apartment. The only way for Mikage to push past the feeling of death is to do the same thing as she does at the Tanabes. Mikage starts cleaning the kitchen, which represents the everyday actions that bring life back into a place.
All of a sudden, the telephone rings. It’s Mikage’s ex-boyfriend, Sotaro, who’s called to check in as he just heard about Mikage’s grandmother. They converse easily and decide to meet. The wind blows clouds around outside the window, and Mikage decides there’s no place for “sadness” in this world. Mikage meets Sotaro at a coffee shop, happy to be in his easy company. Sotaro says that that everyone in school is talking about Mikage moving in with Yuichi, because Yuichi’s girlfriend slapped him in the cafeteria. Mikage is so surprised that she spills her tea. She protests that it’s not like that: Yuichi lives with his mother, Eriko, and they more or less took her in like a pet.
Mikage’s symbolic act of cleaning the kitchen reconnects her with a the rhythms of daily life and prompts her to think that life will always continue to chug along, which helps her feel she can push past the “sadness” of grief. Yoshimoto thus gestures to the idea that everyday actions can push a person past the feeling of being crippled beneath the weight of their grief by reconnecting them with the feeling of living. Sotaro’s interjection shows that it’s hard for the outside world to see Mikage’s newly formed non-traditional family as a family. Yoshimoto infuses a bit of comedy into the cafeteria incident in order to show that such narrow-minded views about non-traditional families are silly and immature.
Mikage and Sotaro walk home through the park. Mikage points out Yuichi’s apartment and Sotaro teases Mikage about not having a plan for getting her own apartment. Mikage imagines that if she were still with Sotaro, he would shake her into action, make her get an apartment, and get back to school. Mikage loves his sunny, frank, and energetic attitude but recalls that when they were together, she felt sad being herself. Now she feels more drawn to Yuichi and Eriko’s “strange cheerfulness.” Mikage looks up at Sotaro and wonders if he still has feelings for her, but Sotaro is cheerfully oblivious and they say a friendly goodbye.
Yoshimoto juxtaposes Sotaro’s easy, pragmatic, sunny outlook with Mikage, Eriko, and Yuichi’s more unusual sense of peace and cheer. Unlike Eriko, Yuichi, and Mikage, Sotaro hasn’t experienced loss in his life. Yoshimoto implies here that the kind of happiness a person feels after experiencing loss is different from the kind of happiness a person feels when they are comfortable and haven’t known suffering.
That evening, Yuichi walks in carrying a new word processor and suggests Mikage send out change-of-address cards. Mikage asks if her living there is causing problems but Yuichi just looks at her blankly. Mikage wants to slap him for being so dense. They work quietly. Mikage asks (more directly) if Yuichi worries the cards will get him slapped. Yuichi smiles bitterly, deflecting with a nonsense crack about a “postcard game.” They both laugh. Mikage thinks she understands why Yuichi deflects: he’s painfully sad. Yuichi’s girlfriend gets angry because she can’t understand why Yuichi’s so closed off. Mikage understands, though. Yuichi says the incident couldn’t be helped, and it wasn’t Mikage’s fault. Mikage sees that he’s touched by her concern, and wonders if she’ll fall in love with Yuichi.
Yoshimoto alludes, through Yuichi’s deflection, to some of the coping mechanisms that can develop when a person grows up in the shadow of death. Yuichi’s experience of life is tinged with sadness, which prompts him to be emotionally closed off. Once again, Yoshimoto implies that the dissonance between people who have grown up with death in the background (like Yuichi and Mikage) and people who haven’t (like Sotaro and Yuichi’s girlfriend) is tangible. Although Yoshimoto has established that Mikage and Yuichi’s bond is a familial one, this passage introduces the idea that it might evolve into something different.
Just as Mikage is thinking she should move out soon, Eriko bursts in with a new juicer. Mikage chuckles at the Tanabes’ frequent electronics purchases. Yuichi jokes that he doesn’t think a juicer will do much for Eriko’s skin at her age, and Mikage marvels at their cheerfulness “in the midst of such abnormality.” Eriko pulls out another package: a moving-in present for Mikage. It’s a glass with little bananas all over it. Yuichi jokes about drinking banana juice and Mikage is deeply moved. She imagines herself saying she’ll keep it as a memory of her time with the Tanabes and come back often to cook for them, but isn’t able to voice the words.
Eriko’s gift for Mikage shows that Eriko is embracing Mikage as a bonafide member of the family: she even has her own glass, which will live among the others in the kitchen now. The Tanabes’ frequent electronic purchases place the story historically because they allude to the economic boom that Japan experienced in the 1980s. Similarly, the mention of bananas is a subtle nod to Yoshimoto’s pen name, “Banana.”
The next day, Mikage sluggishly visits her old apartment to wrap things up. She drinks tea with the landlord in his office, and notices how old he’s become. It doesn’t feel right, sitting here and chatting so casually. Mikage feels as if an “irresistible shift” has “put the past behind [her],” and she’s in a daze. The shift itself had been “agony.” Mikage thinks about the light-filled empty apartment, which no longer contains the smells of her life there, her warm bed, or the sound of her grandmother’s slippers on the floor. Everything that was once there is gone.
The apartment is full of light now because Mikage’s grandmother’s death has been literally and metaphorically cleared out: the apartment is ready to accept new life. The metaphor of the light-filled apartment alludes to Yoshimoto’s optimistic view that even in the painful face of grieving, eventually time will pass, people will heal, and life will continue to go on.
Mikage leaves the apartment at dusk with the last of her things. It’s chilly and her coat flutters in the wind. She notices blue-lit windows in the building across the street and imagines the people behind those windows sparkling and melting into the twilight. Mikage realizes that her life won’t be split between two places anymore and is shaken, feeling strangely on the verge of tears. A packed bus arrives, and Mikage climbs on, feeling tired and irritable as the bus jerks in traffic. She looks at a blimp sailing across the sky beyond the bus window and feels happy.
Mikage is beginning move on from her grandmother’s death but the grieving process is long, confusing, and disorienting, as Yoshimoto shows through Mikage’s feelings on the bus. Even though Mikage thinks she feels happy, she is also simultaneously on the verge of tears, showing that she is not really in control of her emotions or her body.
A grandmother on the bus cheerfully points out the blimp to soothe her sulking granddaughter. Mikage is jealous: she’ll never see her grandmother again. Mikage concentrates on the blimp, and is surprised to notice she’s crying. Heavy tears pour uncontrollably down Mikage’s face, and she feels as if she’s having an out-of-body experience. She runs off the bus and into an alley, sobbing like she’s never sobbed before, over her grandmother’s death, and also, somehow, over many things. Looking up, Mikage notices steam and light pouring out of a window in the dark, and hears voices, soup boiling, and pans clanking. It’s a kitchen. Puzzled that she’s able to suddenly feel “wonderful,” Mikage stands up, smooths her clothes, and starts walking, willing the gods to let her live.
Yoshimoto continues her exploration of the sensations and processes of grief. From Mikage’s out-of-body sensation, the story highlights how grief can cause feelings of disassociation. Mikage has a physical need to cry, and once she finally lets herself do that, she starts to feel better, pointing to how grief is both physical and mental. The lift in Mikage’s mood is represented by the steam-filled beam of light (representing hope) that punctuates the dark (representing Mikage’s pain). The light comes from a kitchen, which is filled with sounds of life going on. Connecting with these sounds enables Mikage to feel that she, too, can go on.
Mikage walks into the apartment, climbs into the sofa, and sleeps soundly after her cry. She dreams about scrubbing the yellow-green kitchen floor in her grandmother’s apartment. Yuichi’s there, also scrubbing, and they stop to drink tea in the empty, echoing space. Still in the dream, Yuichi implores Mikage to stay with them longer, knowing she’s not well enough to leave yet, and jokes that Eriko’s money isn’t just for juicers. Yuichi starts mopping and sings about two people seeing a lighthouse’s rotating light. Mikage joins in and they sing loudly and cheerfully. Suddenly, Mikage blurts out that they’ll wake her grandmother. Yuichi looks up with worried eyes and Mikage’s embarrassed. Yuichi says he’s craving a bowl of ramen, and Mikage feels much better.
Mikage’s ability to sleep soundly after crying implies that the release of emotions is a necessary part of the grieving process. It’s only after Mikage has a proper cry over her grandmother’s death that she can sleep soundly. Mikage’s dream represents the place that Mikage is at with her grief: she has reconnected with a feeling of living (captured by the scrubbing kitchen) and with people (represented by Yuichi), which brings joy into the empty, painful space (represented by the lighthouse in the song). Part of the grieving process entails those moments where a person almost forgets that the person they grieve has died and has to remind themselves, which can be emotionally disconcerting.
Suddenly, Mikage wakes up. She goes into the kitchen thinking about her strange dream, which is fresh in her mind. In the chilled silence she hears the stars moving across the sky. Yuichi comes up behind her, mumbling sleepily that he’s hungry and wants some ramen. As they sit under the kitchen light in the little room suspended in the dark night, Mikage suddenly thinks: “ramen! What a coincidence!” She playfully mentions that Yuichi also wanted ramen in her dream. Yuichi gapes, astonished, and realizes they had the same dream. Without missing a beat, Mikage thanks Yuichi for mopping the floor. Yuichi is wide awake now, and starts juicing grapefruits loudly, as Mikage slides noodles into boiling water.
The experience of a shared dream shows that Yuichi and Mikage are developing a special bond. Since kitchens represent life in this story, this passage indicates the possibility of a new life blossoming between Yuichi and Mikage. In addition, given the symbolic significance of light in the story—representative of happiness and joy—the kitchen light represents Mikage’s feeling that a bond of love and happiness is growing between her and Yuichi, which stands in in sharp contrast to the dark expanse of pain and sadness that Mikage’s life has been recently.
Mikage is amazed, and feels that the shared dream is a miracle and utterly natural all at the same time. She dwells on the specialness of the moment, but feels no urge to discuss it. They have all the time in the world. Mikage muses that in the endless cycle of nights and mornings, this moment might also become a dream.
Mikage’s thoughts about the cyclical nature of time reflect the endless passage of time in which all good and bad things come to pass. Yoshimoto is about to explore this idea more fully through the voice of Eriko
One evening, as Eriko waters the plants, she imparts her outlook on life to Mikage. Eriko thinks that taking care of someone helps you understand your own shortcomings, and even though life is hard, it’s only after experiencing hopelessness that a person can truly understand joy. Mikage is moved, and notices the light around Eriko’s “slender, graceful hands” forming a rainbow in the water she pours. Mikage thinks she understands, and Eriko smiles. Though Mikage can’t fathom it now, she knows that one day she’ll have to move out. But she’s here now, and that’s all that matters. And though Mikage knows she’ll experience pain many times over, she also knows that each time she’ll keep going. There will be many “Dream kitchens” in her “heart” or “reality,” in all the places she’ll live.
Through Eriko’s voice, Yoshimoto imparts one of the story’s key messages. The pain of grief is formidable, but it comes with a silver lining: only those who experience deep pain are able to fully appreciate joy. This is why Eriko’s strange sort of cheerfulness feels different to the sunny outlook of people like Sotaro who have an easy happiness but no pain to contrast it with. Eriko watering her plants is symbolic of her motherly nurturing. Yoshimoto also emphasizes Eriko’s femininity through the description of Eriko’s “graceful” hands. The light around Eriko’s hands represents Mikage’s growing bond of love with Eriko, and the “dream kitchens” represents all the life experiences that are yet to come for Mikage, now that she feels more hopeful about the future.