This time, when I went back to Japan, I met love. I met a man whom I hadn’t seen in ten years, whom I had begun to care for deeply fifteen years ago. The last time I had laid eyes on him he’d been standing on the platform in the small country train station with his new bride, leaving on their honeymoon. We’d exchanged only the merest nods, the briefest politeness allowed. I was on my way back to Tokyo and the US.
Shall I start this story from just before that?
On a sunny, late weekday afternoon in the fall I made my way on the main Yamanote train loop line around Tokyo, onto its connecting trains, and out into the back streets of the older Tokyo that foreigners have little opportunity to find. I walked down a street, dusty in the slanting late afternoon sunlight, and crossed over one of the old, curved stone bridges at Iidabashi. It looked just like the bridges you see in old woodblock prints of Japan, or on picture postcards of the Imperial Palace. The streets got narrower and more crowded as I neared his neighborhood. I don’t remember any more exactly where or how our beings met but they melded as smoothly as they always did. I’m sure he helped me with my heavy traveling bag.
We stopped in front of a small old neighborhood ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn of the sort that’s getting rarer and rarer in Tokyo’s world of neon-lit, efficient, business hotels. A small, family run small place, it was barely discernable from the street amongst the other rickety old wooden buildings with their crammed together fences. It is difficult to make a reservation at a place like this if you are not Japanese; the owners often hesitate at the thought of accommodating a foreigner, who may not know the right ways of doing things, like using the proper slippers for the toilet, or the delicate etiquette for sharing a public bath. Foreigners are likely to upset the wa ( 和) of the place, the peaceful harmony guests come to a traditional inn to find.
When we’d talked about getting together, I had welcomed his suggestion that he would arrange accommodations for me for the night. “Omakase-shimasu, I’ll leave it up to you,” I had said, thinking that any place would provide us the freedom of meeting away from my Japanese family’s house, where I was going to stay in Tokyo before going up to the Mountain Country for his wedding, and wondering what he would come up with.
“I’ve taken a room for you here,” he said. “Will this be all right?”
“Oh yes,” I agreed, looking doubtfully at the inn’s name in faded paint on the weathered signboard posted on the wooden fence, but trusting his choice. We slid open the wooden gate, calling out the greeting Gomen kudasai to announce our arrival, and stepped into the tiny, stone floored entryway. Even in this modest place, which showed its years in faded gray, the Japanese love of wood’s natural color and texture was tastefully displayed in all its architectural elements. A bent over, older Japanese woman in a sober colored working kimono emerged from within and invited us to step out of our shoes and up onto the wooden stoop. A few pairs of slippers were lined up waiting for guests. The small number of slippers suggested to me that there were at most, perhaps eight rooms to be had in this local inn.
Akihiro introduced himself and handled the details and paperwork of registering me, including the old lady’s examination of my passport as she recorded its details for the local police registry. Sensing the obaasan’s discomfort, I slipped behind him, trying to disappear, to minimize the disturbance of being an unexpectedly foreign guest for whom he had made a reservation. She shuffled up the stairs ahead of us, led us down a corridor, and stopped in front of a room to slide open a door faced with opaque painted paper on a light wooden frame. As we stepped into the small entryway, to the right I noticed the unique decoration built into the plaster wall to identify this particular room. The symmetrically rounded form of an hourglass-shaped double gourd was cut out of the plaster, and small, naturally curved sticks created a pattern though the translucent paper covering the opening. Even this soft light through the paper revealed dust collecting in the edges, and I thought grimly that business here no longer provided enough hours for an inside maid to keep the place up as well as it had been in the past.
We left our slippers in the tiny portal and eased our stockinged feet onto the tatami flooring made of thick, rectangular woven straw mats. The fraying edges of the well worn tatami were visible even in the dim light of the room. Tea service was waiting on a tray set on the softly polished wooden table. I sank down gratefully on my knees after the long day’s journey from Kansai, the Kyoto-Osaka region of western Japan, where I had been on business. The proprietress poured hot water from the ‘Magic Bottle’ thermos into the teapot for us.
She soon left us sitting at adjoining sides of the low table. I poured the tea into the delicate porcelain cups on the tray, and the cellophane wrappings on the teacakes crackled when I unwrapped them in that quiet room above the street. I remember eating them too greedily to savor their sweet saltiness.
That familiar rush came over me as my body slipped automatically into the correct posture for kneeling on tatami, with my elbows up in the familiar prescribed gestures for pouring tea nicely. Another part of my heart started beating anew: the Japanese blood I must have from centuries past started coursing in my veins again. When I connect in Japanese settings like this, in these very Japanese ways like pouring tea for Japanese friends, I seem to slide out of one dimension into another. Yet it somehow feels utterly natural. I could almost feel long kimono sleeves hanging from the arms of my business suit as I held my elbows up to pour.
I felt this slip into being in my Japanese persona very keenly with Akihiro, since all our previous experience together had been in the U.S. I so loved the give and take of Japanese manners as I poured for him and he accepted. There’s a gift given back when someone accepts from you, and Japanese politeness recognizes this. I only know I wanted to linger at that inn with him, in that atmosphere which defied the bustle of twentieth century Tokyo outside its silently sliding wooden doors. We chatted comfortably, switching smoothly between Japanese and English, while catching each other up with ourselves over the several years we had been apart.
I was getting hungrier by the minute but reluctant to interrupt the flow of our conversation. Besides, if I suggested we go to dinner he would have to apologize for being so inconsiderate as not to realize I was hungry while he kept me there talking so long. I was thankful when the gurgling of my stomach prompted him to apologize for monopolizing the conversation and ask “Shall we go out for something to eat?”
We went out into the streets and found a place that we would both enjoy: sort of the old time Japanese equivalent of a neighborhood pub, up narrow stairs and into an upstairs room with dark wood paneling. Maybe it was supposed to look like an old English pub. It was Japanese food, however, because I remember eating my rice with hashi - chopsticks, and the pleasure of pouring sake rice wine for him. We talked easily, freely ranging between both our languages in that convenient blend known affectionately as ‘chan-pon’ （チャンポン）‘mixing it up,’ by those who use it to interlace English and Japanese as the words suit the topic or action. Akihiro relaxed and enjoyed himself. The boisterous fellows drinking at the next table kept glancing over at Hiro with admiration and envy, conversing so fluently with that pretty gaijin foreigner.
After dinner we took a long walk through the back streets of Tokyo. “Do you want to see my place?” he asked. He was then living in Yokodera-cho, a neighborhood in an older part of Tokyo, a real Edo-ko shomin ‘born and raised child of old Edo ordinary people’ sort of place, a neighborhood of Tokyo-born home boys and those who come to Tokyo to work and aren’t picky about their temporary accommodations. His building looked like a cheap American motel, I thought, when he led me to his small, dark upstairs apartment, the last one at the end of an outside concrete hallway. I peered into the small and cluttered rooms, and saw them piled high with his familiar stacks of projects and papers. He planned to live there with his wife when she came to join him in Tokyo, sometime after they got married. I didn’t envy her living in those cramped rooms.
We wandered the streets afterwards that night; we loved to walk together. He used to wonder, when he lived in the States and we walked the streets of Seattle, where all the people were. Here in Tokyo we strolled amidst the crowds of people cruising from one to the next of their favorite nomiya - drinking places, or standing in front of the lighted aka-cho-chin red lanterns of the yakitori-ya shops to eat their skewers of barbecued chicken parts hot off the grill. We let our footsteps carry us where they would, as we followed the twisted threads of our own meandering conversation. Noise from the pachinko parlors blared into the street, as did their garish neon lights. At some point I noticed I’d lost my gold bracelet. We had wandered so far up and down and into those crazy narrow, winding back streets of Tokyo that I was sure there was no way we’d find it. I shrugged and gave it up, saying, “I’ve lost a valuable piece of jewelry at important moments before. Dozo, okamawanaide kudasai – please, don’t trouble yourself about it.”
At length we stood before that tiny ryokan again, and I wanted so much to invite him up, invite him to stay over with me. But it was just a few days before his wedding so I reined in my desire–even though we had joked about my being his last date. It wrenched my heart to say, “Good night. I’ll see you at your wedding,” bow and turn away from him.
Akihiro surprised me by calling me two days later at myTokyo home. The Sakamotos’ big place is where I often happily stay with ‘my’ four generational Japanese family. We’d been friends for many years, since the eldest son had lived with us while he went to college in Seattle, and we had visited back and forth. It was the Thursday night before Akihiro’s wedding that Saturday, and the call came while we were all still sitting around in the kitchen where we congregated most often, even in that big house.
“Are you going up north tomorrow?” he asked me. I was glad he was using English, giving our conversation a little privacy from the Sakamotos.
“What are you still doing here in Tokyo?” I asked, puzzled, knowing his family was expecting him home by now to prepare for his wedding. “Shoushou o machi kudasai,” I asked him politely to “please wait a minute” while I went upstairs to the phone in my room and had someone transfer the call up.
“Can we take the train together tomorrow?” he continued as if he hadn’t heard me, ignoring the directness of my question. It would have been almost impossible to ask my question if I followed the prescribed ambiguities of Japanese politeness. “I’ll meet you at the Silver Bell at Tokyo Station tomorrow morning,” he said, naming a popular spot for machiawase, a rendezvous, in that most crowded station. “I’m so glad we can go together,” he said, excused himself, and hung up.
Early the next morning my Japanese ‘brother’ Yūji explained to me how to find the Silver Bell, and picked up the smaller bag I’d repacked for this brief excursion north to Hiro’s wedding. Yūji escorted me to the station and left me with just a few anxious minutes before Hiro and I spotted each other through the dense, milling crowd. “I’m so glad we can go together,” he said again, smiling at me and taking my arm to lead me through the throng.
It was a long train ride to the Mountain Country in those days before the Shinkansen Bullet Train extended to the Tohoku North Country. Hiro didn’t talk much, but gripped my hand most of the way. I clearly recall that when we got off to change to a local line, my hand was stiff. There was no place to sit on the crowded commuter train, so we stood, crammed and swaying together, surrounded by schoolgirls in their uniforms of navy blue plaid and white blouses, boys in dark blue uniforms and caps, and businessmen in their virtually identical black suits. He looked at me in my pale blue, ultra suede coat with a fox collar tinted to match and said, “You look gorgeous.” I was startled by his rare and unexpected compliment, but figured it stemmed mainly from the contrast of my style to the homogeneity of the Japanese all around us.
He gazed sadly out over the passing countryside of untended fields and moldering farmhouses. “Young people are leaving the land here. They don’t know how they can make a living here, so they run off to find jobs inTokyo.” Then he was quiet again, and moodily watched the passing scenery. He sighed, turned back to me, and said, “Maybe someday I’ll live here again.”
Part of that brain drain from the Japanese countryside he was lamenting, Hiro too worked for one of Japan’s big corporations and lived now in that old second floor apartment in the big city. After his years of study and research in the U.S., which began when he was a young Rotary sponsored scholar, a friend from his college days abroad had gotten him a good job. That’s the way good jobs are usually gotten in Japan - by introduction. He’d spent so much time abroad working on his degree that he’d missed his step on the lower rungs of the Japanese corporate escalator at the proper time after college graduation. Japan’s major corporations used to invite bright young graduates into entry level positions, and keep them advancing within the company for their whole lives, but that form of “guaranteed employment” has almost died out with more difficult economic times. Hiro must have found some spot that suited him though, since he’d made the decision to take on a wife.
It was quite late in the day, almost evening, when we got off the train in his home town. He insisted on accompanying me to the hotel where he informed me that his mother had made a reservation for me. In Japan, when you are invited to something as important as a wedding, you can trust your host to take care of most of the details. I tried to shake him off – I knew he had things to do. He had mentioned that the family barber was expecting him at his shop for a trim before the big day. “Daijoubu. Mo kekkou desu yo. 大丈夫、もうけっこうですよ。I’ll be just fine. This is far enough, thank you. Please go do what you need to do,” I said, anxious about his waiting family. But he got in the cab with me to go to the hotel, on the way pointing out the ‘Wedding Hall’ surrounded by its spacious gardens where the festivities would take place the next day.
He insisted on checking me in, then came up to my room. Putting my bag down, he stood there looking at me, that soft haze of desire I later came to recognize moistening his eyes. I think he wanted to kiss me. Now I know he remembers this moment differently. He says I invited him to bed. I’m sure I didn’t, considering my concern for the lateness of the hour and for his family awaiting him. Yet I can believe my eyes flicked longingly to the bed next to us, and that he saw the invitation there. “Don’t you remember what I said to you then?” he demanded to know ten years later. "It’s still true.”
I remember it this way: We stood facing each other, arm’s distance apart, gazing at each other in silence. Then he put his arms around me and drew me close. Still we looked long at each other. When our heads came together, he spoke next to my ear.
“You are the sweetest,” he said. “You are the very sweetest. You are,” is what he told me then, as he reminded me years later.
“You have to go,” I said, pushing myself away from him. “You must go now,” I repeated, my hands on his shoulders turning him around. I opened the door and pushed him away from me, and out the door.
I closed it, bereft. Later, after my face had sorted itself out again and I’d refreshed myself and changed my clothes, I went down to the hotel restaurant and ordered the seasonal fugu feast for one I’d noticed advertised in the lobby. I’d always wanted to try fugu, that poisonous Japanese blowfish which still kills some people every year amongst those who take up the challenge of eating it. “Besides, it’s a good day to die,” I thought, recalling the phrase that sums up the philosophy the native Plains Indians of my homeland lived by.