Like many Japanese American families of my generation who grew up in Seattle, I remember my mother (a Nisei or second-generation Japanese American), taking me to Tobo on 12th, Sagamiya’s sweet shop and Higo Variety Store on Jackson. The two amiable sisters, Aya and Masa, were part of the experience of going to the HIGO shop. Kids were often offered Tomo Ame or some other treat.
In 1995, after living in New York City and Tokyo, my husband, John, and I returned to Seattle where we both grew up and opened KOBO, a small gallery featuring Japanese crafts and design. Nine years later we were invited to open a second location at Higo Variety Store.
When we moved into the space it was like stepping into someone else’s life and another time. We discovered clothes from the 1940s—put away in Japanese straw storage containers—and discovered cabinets which had not seen the light of day since the 1930s.
We saw the things they made with materials they had on hand using techniques learned from Japan and living through the Depression era. They saved everything: coins, matchbooks, stamps, old candy, and old cans of “unagi” (Japanese eel). They lived in the back of the store with access to a garden. They tended an Asian pear tree, the fruits of which they shared with customers. The red Camellia tree produced the flowers used on their family altar.
It took months and hours of volunteer time to make the transition from the old to the new. With a community of friends, family, and supporters, we worked side-by-side cleaning, washing, sanding, priming, painting, sanding, priming, painting, and more priming and painting. We could sense that there was a strong desire to see the space continue and revitalized. No one wanted to see Higo disappear.
Getting to Know the Family
After we opened KOBO at Higo, not everyone knew the space was occupied by a new business. People would come in, some disappointed they could not buy tobacco, shoe laces, or rice cookers. Some were puzzled by the change and others pleased at the renewed use of the space. Every effort was made to retain as much of the history as possible and merge it with a new business.
Working at Higo, we learned more about each member of the family. The more we learned about the family, the more we understood how hard they worked to accomplish what they had. They also enjoyed life – we know that they enjoyed eating out in the neighborhood restaurants. We know they loved to travel and enjoyed reading books. The history of Masa’s family tells the remarkable story that begins with an immigrant who leaves Japan to make a new life in a foreign country. We are reminded of their story and their legacy each day we open our doors.
Today, groups of school children come through regularly, and perk up when they learn that a family with children lived here in the back and ran a store out front. They can see the old registers and other items that the family used. We see people coming through who bring their out-of-town friends and now tell the story on their own as “unofficial” docents of Higo Variety Store.
A Look at Life Well-Lived
Although we did not know Masa well we feel we have a special connection with her as we got to know the space where she spent most of her life. After we had reopened the space as KOBO, Masa wanted us to make sure Aya, her sister, who had passed away several years before, would approve the changes that were taking place. With Paul, Masa’s cousin, we assured her we would. The two Murakami sisters were inseparable.
Five years later, people continue to come in and ask about Masa. It is extraordinary the large circle of people who remember Masa and have stories to share about her. They come from all walks of life – from people who knew them at Minidoka, to people whose parents and relatives had businesses in Nihonmachi (Japantown), to long-time customers who came to Higo as children, to those less fortunate who were shown kindness by the two Murakami sisters. Masa and Aya touched so many lives.