18. Just When I Stop Looking

I have long believed that the best way to find something is to stop looking for it. This aphorism, if you could call it one, applied not only to lost keys, but to missing people, as well.

And so, after the close call at the oppai pabu, I tried to put you out of my mind. Whenever you returned to my thoughts, I would dig my fingernail into the tender part just above my thumbnail until your image receded.[1] It might sound to you like a severe thing to do, but it was a technique I had learned years before to help rid my mind from negative thoughts, doubts, and fears, and it worked like a charm.

But then three months later, the unexpected happened.

One Sunday evening in November, the 16th to be precise, I was riding Kyōto’s Karasuma Line from Dōshisha University[2] back to Kyōto Station to catch the Shinkansen home.[3]

I’m not sure where you boarded the train—probably Karasuma Oike—but I noticed you as the train was pulling out of Shijō Station. A loud sneeze by a foreign tourist distracted me from the notes of the speech I had given earlier that day. Looking up, I saw you standing next to the exit, earbuds in your ears, staring vacantly out the darkened window.

Your hair had been cut above the shoulders and was now jet black. After watching you for over a year, play with your long hair, it took me by surprise to see your hair in such a severe, subdued style like that. But then, you had been with your company for only half a year; you probably had little choice in the matter. The style suited you, nevertheless. No matter what you did with your hair or what you wore, you always looked beautiful.

“Next stop, Gojō Station,” came the announcement.

Now or never, I thought.

For a moment I hesitated, Kana. Would you be happy to see me? Or would you be repulsed? Was that night at the farmhouse something to be cherished a year on, or something to be ashamed of?

I stood up, walked over to the exit and stood near you. When the train arrived at the station and the doors opened, you glanced to your right and saw me.

Oh, Sensei . . .”


“How long have you been standing there?”

“Just a few seconds. I was sitting over there.”

As if in chorus we asked each other in Hakata-ben what we were doing here, in Kyōto of all places.[4]

We laughed at first, then explained in the little time that remained what had brought both of us to Kyōto. In your case, you had been transferred in October to fill in for a woman in the local office who had become pregnant and was now on maternity leave. It was any guess how long you would end up being in the city.

“How do you like it?”

You scrunched up your nose.


“It’s not that I don’t like it. I do. There’s so much to see in and around the city. It’s just . . .” You looked around to see if anyone was listening and in a hushed tone continued: “The people tend to be a bit . . . gloomy.”

“This ain’t Hakata. That’s for sure.”[5]

You laughed.

“Kana, I would love nothing more than to talk to you, but . . . I have to run and catch the nine-ten Sinkansen back to Hakata.”

“Hakata.” The way you said it made the town sound like distant Shangri-La. “I wish I could come with you.”

It was so tempting to just say fuck it, but the next train would have gotten me home almost an hour later with no guarantee of a seat. I didn’t want to risk having to stand all the way back to Fukuoka.

Sensei, are you on Line?”

Line? Um, no.”

“No? How ‘bout Instagram?”

“No. I am on Facebook, though.”

The look in your face suggested that you weren’t on it. What was it about Facebook that turned so many young people off of it? Probably because it was populated with old farts like myself.

Then I remembered my business card from HIP.

“You can text me at my cellphone number here.”

You looked down at the card and with a quizzical look said: “Hippu?”

Hakata Ishin Purojekuto.”

“I see. But why on earth hippu?”

Hippu is what the Japanese sometimes call the “fanny”. A more common word for the buttocks is o-shiri.

“Our other name for the project was ‘The Old School Hakata Initiative to Restore Inheritance.’”

“Excuse me?”

“O. S. H. I. R. I.”

“O-S . . . ?”

“O. S. H. I. R. I., as in o-shiri.

And you laughed and laughed as if you hadn’t laughed for a dear long time. The hand with which you were covering you mouth came down, rested on my shoulder, and, as if to confirm that I was really there, gave it a slight squeeze that sent my heart racing.

Just then, the train pulled into Kyōto Station, yanking me back into reality.

“Are you getting off here?” I asked.

“Actually, no, but . . .”

“I see,” I said, stepping off the train and onto the platform. “Kana?”


My heart was pounding so hard I thought it would explode. “I made a mistake that night and I’ve regretted it ever since.”

“A mistake?”

“I should have . . .” People were jostling to get onto the train, but I couldn’t have cared less. “I should have boarded that flight and taken off.”


A chime announced that the doors of the train would soon be closing.

“I should have kissed you that night.”

Sensei, you’re in luck.”

“How’s that?”

“The flight has been delayed.”

And with that, the doors closed. I remained on the platform, frozen, watching the train disappear into the darkness of the tunnel.

[1] Paulo Coelho fans will recognize this technique from the author’s autobiographical The Pilgrimage.

[2] Founded in 1875, Dōshisha University is one of Japan’s oldest private colleges. The school’s attractive campus, which features a number of Meiji Period structures many of which have been designated as Important Cultural Properties in Japan, is located just north of Kyōto Gosho (京都御所), the Kyōto Imperial Palace.

[3] The Shinkansen (新幹線), also known as “bullet train”, is Japan’s network of high-speed railway lines. The trip from Kyōto to Hakata (Fukuoka) takes about three hours, give or take ten minutes depending on how many stops the train makes.

[4]  “I doubt most Anglophones appreciate how dramatically regional dialects can vary. Mind you, it’s not just a matter of accents, which betray a speaker’s origin like ‘shibboleth’ did in Biblical times, marking my Dad as having hailed from Dublin, my mother from Cork. No, I’m talking about huge variations from region to region in grammar, phrasing, and vocabulary that make the sundry dialects sound as if they are distinct languages in their own right.

“It was frustrating enough when I first began studying Japanese to discover that the phrases in my textbook that I had gone to the trouble of memorizing were seldom used in situ

“Listen: A simple question like ‘What are you doing?’ ought to be straight- forward, right? Well, my good-for-nothing textbook taught me to utter the following mouthful: ‘Anata-wa nani-o shite-imasuka?’ Had I ever managed to get that doosie to roll properly off my tongue, my curiosity might have been duly answered. The trouble is, it’d be as natural as jogging on the beach in clunky ski boots. Your average Tarō, after all, usually rattles off a curt ‘Nani shiteru no?’ or something close to it.

“When I figured this out, I wasted little time taking my Sensei aside and telling her to please, please, please throw politeness out the window and start teaching me real, living, breathing Nihongo rather than the embalmed and entombed Japanese she had been inflicting on me. I don’t care what the old Japan hands say; a little confrontation can go a long way.

“With time and encouragement, my very square Sensei mended her stubbornly proper ways, but, even then, she took great pains to warn against using casual Japanese too lightly. ‘You must never cause offence by saying something inappropriate,’ she’d instruct sternly as if her very reputation were at stake. I’d remind Sensei to let her hair down because this wasn’t the Edo Period anymore. A samurai wasn’t going to lop off my head because I had dis’d him.

“No sooner had I got phrases like ‘Nani shiteru no?’ under my belt than I moved to neighboring Fukuoka and slammed up against an unexpected brick wall: the local dialect known as Hakata-ben. Suddenly, it was as if everyone around me were speaking in tongues. If a Fukuokan wanted to know what I was doing, he didn’t ask, ‘Nani shiteru no?’ He said, ‘Nan shiyoh to?’ or ‘Namba shiyotto?’ or even ‘Nan shon?’

“In a matter of six months, I’d gone from ‘Anata-wa nani-o shite-imasuka?’ to ‘Nan shiyō to?’ Let me tell you, Italian and Portuguese couldn’t be more different from each other.”  Excerpt from A Woman’s Nails.

[5] As one might be expected from a country of with different climates and terrains like Japan, there are regional differences, not only in how people speak—the dialects mentioned above—but also in the character of the people living there. The Japanese call this kenminsei (県民性), or “the character of the people of a prefecture”.

Go barhopping across the country, as I—hic!—often do, and you will quickly notice the difference. People in Tōkyō are surprisingly friendly, much more so than the people of Fukuoka. But in Fukuoka, people tend to be more animated, louder. At a bar in Fukuoka, there will be a lot of cross-communication among strangers. The laughter will be much more full-throated.

In Nagoya, I have found, people tend to be quieter, speaking in hushed tones to those next to them. There is little intermingling with strangers. Kyōto, too, is withdrawn and subdued, almost dark, like this—very different from the drunken roar, punctuated by bursts of laughter, in neighboring extrovert haven Ōsaka.