I had planned on returning from Japan with an authentic kimono, a life-size Maneki neko (happy cat) and platters of Japanese food plastic replicas to trick my friends when they came over for dinner. But those items weren’t going to fit in my Jansport backpack. So I decided on getting a summer hat. I figured I could fold it up and toss it in a pouch without a problem. The last summer hat I had was made from a fake fur collar that I took off my corduroy jacket to wrap around my head. It wasn’t really a summer hat, although one could argue that the hole in the middle provided a cooling effect to the top of my head. I only wore it to get into the Longchamp Racecourse in Paris for free on Ladies’ Day. At the ticket counter the vendor asked to see my chapeau. I pointed to the bird’s nest atop my head and restrained myself from feverishly scratching at my scalp. “I’m wearing it,” I said. The man shook his head, but I insisted that it was a hat. “Almost,” he said, and finally agreed to let me in.
This time was going to be different, though. There were no tricks up my sleeve. I just wanted a hat. When I mentioned it to Sebastien he suggested that I buy a rice picker hat so I could start a new fashion trend in New York City. I suspected that Sebastien had a limited knowledge of fashion trends and laughed it off, certain that those hats remained in another century.
I was wrong. One morning we were walking down the street in Kyoto when we passed in front of a store with a rack of rice picker hats that called to Sebastien. “Look, here it is,” he said, taking one and placing it on my head. His eyes sparkled. A husband couldn’t have been prouder and I couldn’t understand why. I wasn’t actually serious about wearing the hat. By the looks of it, the thing wasn’t fashionable or even comfortable.
We stood in the doorway for too long because a woman inside of the store began walking towards us. Sebastien pulled out his wallet and the next thing I knew I was the proud owner of the most ridiculous hat (aside from the aforementioned fake hat, of course). I wore that hat around all day because I had no other choice. It was so big and inflexible that I couldn’t just crumple it up and toss it in my backpack. If I hung it off my back the chin strap choked me and if I held it in my hand I couldn’t reach my camera to snap photos. I quickly started to regret the purchase. I had to lug this flying saucer all over the country from shinkensan to subway, from ryokan to rokka [locker]. It was like a pimple that just wouldn’t go away. I would have thrown it out, but the Japanese don’t believe in garbage cans on street corners. (Surprisingly it was incredibly clean though.)
On the last few days of our trip however, I started to get compliments. A young woman who looked to be in her early twenties approached me in a train station. “Where did you get that?” she said, pointing to my hat. Her voice shook with desperation. “From a store on the street,” I said and considered just handing it to her. She turned to her friends, a group of backpackers from North America. “She got it on the street,” she yelled, running back to them.
Then, at a hotel in Tokyo, a clerk admired the fine craftsmanship of the hat while placing our belongings behind their concierge desk. “Wow you do not see this hat anywhere,” she said. Very nice.” I beamed with pride at my burden.
I was beginning to think that the hat was a good investment and imagined wearing it around town when I returned home. Maybe I would show it off at a Broadway show or treat it to a stroll through Central Park. But I was reminded of its bulk as I tried to shove it in the overhead compartment on our return flight. I knew if I wore the thing on the subway during rush hour that only one of us was actually going to squeeze on. The hat was just too big for any city.
When we got home I couldn’t even find a proper place to hang it in our tiny apartment. I placed on top of the living room lamp until I cleaned out some clothes in the closet. That’s when it hit me that the hat made a perfect lampshade.