After the drive, after the museum, after the bus ride and along the hike, my friend and I were wondering how much further until we’d reach one of the tunnels of Iwami Ginzan. We passed some smiling groups of elderly travelers as well as some scattered young couples, and actually going through Ryugenji Mabu Mine Shaft seemed an afterthought to the comfortable mountain stroll.

Pleasant though the weather was that day, it was a long enough hike that no one would have thought less of you for taking a breather here and there, and in weather any warmer than that you’d be foolish not to take your own drink. For those who are forgetful, however, there is a light up ahead–a tea house called Ginzan Chaya.

In all my travels through Japan and in all my stories I write in my head and sometimes go searching out settings for, this place more than any other I’ve chanced upon inspired stories in my head right away. It wasn’t run by just anyone–it seemed to be run by children.

The first thing I noticed when we approached was the kittens–a cage full of them, people holding them, and a decorative hand-written sign saying they were free. As if selling used cars, the girl in the red apron–who, for as far as I could tell, was the oldest sister and in middle school at the highest–was holding a couple kittens herself as she smooth-talked the young couple cuddling one of the kittens. Seeing as my current lifestyle does not allow me frequent fluffy animal encounters I couldn’t help but smile widely at the unexpected sight. Catching my smile, the girl saw her chance, and before I knew it I was holding one. The little orange tabby looked just as surprised as I was. “Sorry,” I said to my friend, “I think I need to stand here and hold a cat.”

The young couple politely gave the kitten back and politely declined taking her home, and I knew I’d have to do the same with the one I was holding. The sales-girl seemed unsurprised though she might have hoped they’d be takers, and she returned the kitten to the cage. But this time I had noticed who else was occupying the cage–for all I could tell, it was her youngest brother?

He was wearing a worn-out one-piece hoodie with ears of some kind of animal or otherwise, and he had a terribly running nose, but it didn’t bother him in the least–not when there were kittens to be held! The little tyke obviously loved them, though the kittens weren’t quite as appreciative of his hugs.

The other brother was on the outside of the cage, and looked to be only about the age of a 1st grader. The two clear indicators that he may have been a sibling was the nature banter between him and the older sister in how she’d nag him to do something and he’d give her some lip–and that he and the little brother in the cage both had the word for “autumn leaves”, 紅葉 (kouyou), shaved on the backs of their heads. It certainly grabbed attention and whoever shaved them that way was very talented, and I couldn’t help but wonder what the school might have thought of that.

Speaking of, school… school? I’m fairly sure we encountered them on a Saturday, but the naturalness with which they took to running the tea house made it seem as though that was their daily life. The younger sister was sitting away from the kittens and handling sales of bottled drinks from an old ice chest, and the table area set up outside was dotted with buckets and buckets of toys for free use at the establishment–a business move it seemed that only children could think of and employ. It was as if they ran the whole place freely, and it was their home-grown practice that brought for such independence and lack of shyness very uncharacteristic in most Japanese children.

What were these kids, homeschooled?!

In my experience in the US I have noticed that the lack of needing to “fit in” makes homeschoolers very unafraid of doing unconventional things and, contrary to stereotypes, rather unafraid of approaching people they don’t know. However, in Japan, homeschooling is usually unthinkable and I often need to explain that it is a legal and recognized form of education, it is not a matter of quitting or refusing school, and it is not a matter of being academically unfit for regular school, and that it’s not a bunch of shut-ins. I don’t usually bring this topic up unless I have ample time to explain it because it’s such a foreign idea. That all said, there are homeschoolers in Japan.

So they probably weren’t homeschooled–but even after moving on past the tea house, I found myself wondering more and more. Were their parents inside where the “real” business takes place? Maybe they were covering up top-secret stuff their parents were involved in by running the tea shop and distracting people with kittens? Maybe their parents have gone missing and they’ve quit school while very capably running a business? Maybe the tea house is really Neverland hidden away in the mountains of western Japan? I could just imagine all the ways the story could go.

Not that I stayed long enough to know, just long enough to wish I could keep a cat and have the kids bury themselves in my imagination. But we couldn’t linger–Ryugenji Mabu was up ahead and waiting.