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 . . .”

“Kana.”

“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.

“Oh?”

“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?”

Sensei?”

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.”

“Flight?”

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.

17. Catch and Release

For the first few months, the silence was disappointing, yes, but only mildly so—I was too busy to dwell on it, to be quite honest. But by the end of the summer, that disappointment started to grow into a gnawing resentment and I’m now embarrassed to admit it began to seep into the relationships I was having with students, my colleagues, my wife and sons. I wasn’t bitter, mind you. Just frustrated, very, very frustrated.

Ten months had passed since that night at the farmhouse, and I could still feel your breast in my hand, burning like the stigmata in my palm. I longed to feel that pert nipple between my fingers, so badly, that one sultry evening in August I stood, sweating before an oppai pabu, or a titty pub, in Tōkyō’s Kabukichō,[1] and debated with myself the merits of going in or not. I had never been to anything remotely fūzoku[2] in nature in Japan and I was hesitant to start. I worried that it would be a hard, and expensive, habit to break if I ever started.

As I stood there, two young women, one tall and slim with her hair in a long ponytail and another shorter and plump with a bob cut, stepped out and approached me. They looked Chinese.

“Why don’t you come in and join us, o-nī-san?”[3]

Their accents confirmed my suspicion.

“I, uh . . .”

“Come with us,” the shorter one with a bob cut said, sidling up to me and pressing her ample breasts against my shoulder. “You like it, don’t you?”

“It’s not a matter of liking . . .”

“Ooh, your Japanese is so good.”

“Yours, too.”

“That’s not the only thing I’m good at, o-nī-san,” she said, flashing me her cleavage.

“You are obviously a woman of many talents, but I’m afraid . . .”

And then the second lankier Chinese girl came and grabbed my wrist.

“Play with me, too, o-nī-san.”

“I wish I could, but . . .”

The two started to pull on my arms, yanking me into the direction of the oppai pabu.

“I’m afraid I don’t quite have the time . . .”

I dug my heels in, leaned back away from the direction they were trying to pull me, and started to squirm.

“Don’t be shy, o-nī-san,” the short busty one said, with a powerful shove from behind.

It was all I could do to free myself from their clutches. When I twisted out of the grip of the taller girl had on my wrist, she screamed: “You’re hurting me! You’re hurting me!”

“Oh, please! That couldn’t possibly have hurt.”

“You jerk! You injured me! Look my nail! It’s broken!”

She tore the cracked nail off and threw it at me.

Halfway down the street a beefy-looking man in a black suit and sunglasses noticed the scuffle and started galloping in our direction.

This doesn’t look good, I thought. And, I made a run for it, the girls hurling curses and insults at me in Chinese and broken Japanese.


 

[1] Located just northeast of Tōkyō’s Shinjuku Station, Kabukichō is an entertainment and red-light district, home to many host and hostess clubs, love hotels, restaurants, and nightclubs. The name comes from a never realized plan in the late 1940s to build a kabuki theater there.

[2] Fūzoku (風俗, lit. “public morals”) is the term most commonly used to refer to the Japanese sex industry, although in a legal sense it also covers dancing and gambling. The word originated from the law which regulated business affecting public morals (風俗営業取締法, Fūzoku Eigyō Torishimari Hō) of 1948. Since prostitution is defined as “intercourse with an unspecified person in exchange for payment”, most fūzoku establishments offer only “non-coital services”.

[3] O-nī-san (お兄さん) is an honorific term for an older brother or a way of addressing a young man. When used with a much older man, it is meant to butter the man up.

The first chapter of Tears can be found here.

This and other works are, or will be, available in e-book form and paperback at Amazon.

16. Nudging Destiny

The next six months were some of the busiest of my life. In addition to trying to balance being a good husband and father with my regular work responsibilities, I had to take part in many planning sessions and hearings and the incumbent parties with city officials. Having worked at a public institution, the university, for many years, I knew how painfully inefficient, how exasperatingly slow to act, those in public office were conditioned to be. Just naming the goddamn project took over four meetings. And once the name had been proposed, it had to be given a public hearing to which every Tomohiro, Dick, and Hiroki could voice his opinion. Let me tell you, this is like catnip to all the idle screwballs out there. Once the name was officially chosen, there was the requisite photo op of the mayor and other municipal grandees standing next to a sign that had just been placed by the door of the official headquarters of the project. This was accompanied by a banquet where long-winded speeches and toasts followed more prolix addresses by officials of all stripes, including yours truly. I can say with some pride that mine, given in Hakata-ben, was one of the more well-received speeches and even ended up being broadcasted on local news programs, making me something of a celebrity.

Kana, it was enough to make me want to throw my hands up and quit, but, I was determined to see the project through to completion, determined to leave my mark on my adoptive hometown, a city that had already left an indelible mark on me.

The one bright spot in the early days of the Hakata Ishin Purojekuto (HIP), or The Hakata Restoration Project—for that was the name that took over a month to decide—was the large number of research junkets I was allowed to take at public expense. Every other week, it seems, I was traveling somewhere to see how different cities were faring on similar projects. Once every one or two months, then, I was in Tōkyō, ostensibly taking part in a symposium, but in reality I was searching for you.

I suppose that it would have been easier to just contact you either directly, or even indirectly, but that would have defeated the sense of kismet that you were apparently yearning for. Only serendipity would lend legitimacy, an empyrean sanction if you will, to our bodily desires. I’ve learned over time, however, that even fate needs to be nudged now and then. And so, I blogged ferociously about HIP and my travels and tried to hint at where I would be next, what specifically I would be doing there, hoping that if you were to see it, you might be motivated to drop by and say hello.

But you never did.


15. HAKATA RESTORATION PROJECT

The new school year started in April, and for the first time in, well, forever, my heart just wasn’t into my work.

It should have been.

See, for a number of years I had been trying to convince the city and prefecture of Fukuoka to put more effort into preserving what little remained of the buildings and houses which dated back to the prewar years. Just when I was at the point of giving up, I got a letter from the mayor’s office, requesting my participation in a conference on beautification and urban planning.

Finally, I thought.

Not wanting to blow the opportunity, I spent the next several weeks with my seminar students putting together some concrete proposals on how to not merely “beautify” the city—what does that mean, really? One guy’s idea of beauty is another one’s eyesore—but add value back into properties that had lost it through poor planning, urban flight, and stupid neglect. Knowing the city would only move once it realized there was actually money to be made by preserving buildings, we set out to prove that our proposals would be a boon for the city’s bush-league tourism industry.

Our main proposal was to first restore the sandō[1] approach to Kushida Shrine and Hakata-dōri, the avenue which passes before the shrine, to their original machiya style. The city had already done it on a very limited scale with a museum called the Hakata Machiya Furusato-kan. Under our plan, the city would expand upon that, restoring the machiya that remained, building new machiya style buildings on existing parking lots in the area, and encouraging the local building and business owners to remodel their facades to better fit in with the original mood and style of the neighborhood. Finally, any new construction in the area would have to conform to new strict design guidelines, something most Japanese cities sorely lack.

My chief concern was that the city would take up the proposal, build a token number of prefab-like structures in the “machiya-style”, and then, content with what it had done, let it all fall to ruin. So, to not only make the area look like Hakata once did, but also feel like the old Hakata, we proposed that the city should invite all the traditional artisans and craftsmen—the Hakata doll makers, the Hakata textile makers, the magemono craftsmen, the blacksmiths, makers of o-hajiki, and so on—to come and open ateliers in the newly renovated area. Until now, they—that is, the few artisans who continued to ply their trades—were scattered throughout the city, pining away in shabby little workshops that were usually overlooked by passersby. And because so many of the traditional arts were not being taken over by the younger generation—because the crafts had been customarily carried on by family members, and the sons and daughters of craftsmen today preferred to become salarymen and OLs—we also proposed the creation of a vocational school on the grounds of the old Reisen Elementary School, which had closed over ten years before, to train and license takumi, or master craftsmen, and women—namely, something along the line of what Germany has done so successfully with its Meister program. The school would act as a community college and life-long learning center that would foster not only these traditional arts as hobbies, but also offer conversation classes in the local dialect, customs and history, and provide a place for children to learn traditional games, known as mukashi asobi, and so on.

So much of Japan, I had long lamented was beginning to look, sound, and feel like “Anywhere, Japan”. Here was a chance to demonstrate to the rest of country, and the world, that Hakata wasn’t just another city, but a unique brand, a place to be proud of, a place that more and more people would want to visit or live in.

As expected, there were loud, influential voices advancing the harebrained idea to reconstruct Fukuoka Castle. Why harebrained? Well, for one, no one really knew for sure what the old castle looked like—there were no drawings or photos left of it—and, two, the cost involved in building what would end up being another concrete “monsterment” would be too large. Three, once built the city would invariably welsh on its promise to provide adequate funds to maintain it. And, four, it was doubtful that many people would actually go out of their way to visit the castle beyond the first year of initial curiosity. Kumamoto Castle, considered one of Japan’s Three Great Castles,[2] received one and a half million visitors a year. Nothing to sneeze at, but, by comparison, Kokura Castle in neighboring Kitakyūshū had less than 20,000 visitors a year. Time and time again, city officials all over Japan were learning that even if you did build it, no one would come.

No, here was an attempt to build at a modest cost something that would attract not only tourists from all over, but residents alike. And revitalizing those two streets would only be the beginning. Once the idea caught on, then it would breathe new life not just into the area, but into the arts, and in the culture of Hakata, as well. It was a no-brainer. Well, to me at least it was. The challenge, though, lay in convincing the city’s grandees.

And so, with my students’ help, we put together a well-researched, well-designed presentation, and gave it all in Hakata-ben.

To my surprise, the idea was not only taken up unanimously, but I was hired on as a modestly paid consultant to the project that would encompass much of the Reisen-machi neighborhood,[3] and initially run for ten years.

I should have been ecstatic, but in reality, I was overcome by a rare feeling of melancholy. At the party, celebrating our proposal’s success, I looked at my seminar students, who had all done a fantastic job—I was proud of them, every one of them—but I still wished you were with us, sitting across from me, our feet touching under the table.


 

[1] Sandō (参道) is a road leading up to a shrine or temple, the point of origin of which is usually marked by a torii (鳥居, lit. “bird abode”) in the case of a Shintō shrine and sanmon (山門, lit. “mountain gate”) in the case of a Buddhist temple. Tōkyō’s famous Omotesandō literally means “the front approach” to Meiji-jingū (shrine).

[2] The Three Great Castles in Japan (三名城, Sanmeijō, lit. “Three Famous Castles”) are, according to some, Nagoya Castle, Ōsaka Castle or Himeji Castle, and Kumamoto Castle. At one time, there may have been as many as 5,000 castles in Japan. Today, however, there are about one hundred, only twelve of which are considered originals. Himeji is one of them.

[3] The Reisen-machi neighborhood (冷泉町, also pron. “Reizen”) of Hakata is a block .062 square kilometers, or 15.3 acres in size, which is bisected the sandō approach to Kushida Shrine. Today it is home to a number of small, minor temples and several hotels and inns.

13. Graduation

In March of the following year, the university held its graduation and party. One of the traditions at the function is for the students to have a group photo taken with their seminar professor which will then be published in the university’s annual “graduation album”.

At the appointed time, I was ushered into a room where all my students were waiting for me. All of them, but you.

“Has anyone seen, Sawajiri-kun?” I asked.

There were shrugs, noncommittal turns of the head.

“Can we wait a few minutes,” I said to the photographer, who frowned at his wristwatch.

“One minute?”

The photographer sucked air through his teeth and gave a reluctant nod.

Just then, you rushed into the room like an explosion of light and music: “Sensei! I’m so sorry to have kept you waiting!”

You were wearing a long-sleeved furisodé kimono with a colorful abstract design like something from Marimekko[1]—large splashes of pale red representing camellias—and over this a pale bluish-green hakama. Your hair, dyed a deep auburn and worn down and over your shoulders, had flowers and other ornaments in it above the ear. I had never seen you look more beautiful.

Scooching down next me in the front row, you said, “I hope I’m not too late.”

“We would have waited. Or, at least, I would have waited. The cameraman, on the other hand, . . .”

The photographer, wasting no time, made a few suggestions—chins up, fists on your knees, men, smiles, everyone—then started shooting.

Sensei?” you said as the photographer snapped away.

“Hmm?”

“Remember what I said last autumn?”

“How could I ever forget?”

“I’ll be looking for you, then.”

“I’ll be looking for you, too.”

And just as the flash of the camera went off, you gave my hand a quick squeeze. As luck would have it, that was the photo which would end up in the yearbook.


[1] Marimekko is a Finnish home furnishing and textile producer, known for brightly colored printed fabrics, many created by designer Maija Isola (1927-2001).

The first chapter of Tears can be found here.

This and other works are, or will be, available in e-book form and paperback at Amazon.

12. Reading Silence Aloud

A few weeks later, I went back to the farmhouse to oversee some work on the kura and spent the night alone. In the evening, I sat on the engawa next to the paper lantern, reading the final chapters of Endō’s Silence aloud. Later that night, I went to bed in the tatami room you had used, and lay down in the futon you had slept in.

God, how I wished you had been there with me.


11. Shut Out

The next morning, you slept in late. There was no freshly made coffee waiting in the kitchen, no friendly conversation. When you did wake up, you were . . . well, not exactly cold, but not very warm, either. You kept your distance from me; your smile seemed somewhat forced; there was parsimony in your words. I don’t mean to say that you were behaving like a woman scorned, but the change in your demeanor, however subtle, was palpable. The spell had been broken.

If I could have, I would have rewound the clock and returned to the engawa with your head resting on my lap, my hand on your breast, and I would have kissed you. But what was done, or rather the undone could not now be done. I had missed my chance; the door was shut.

When I got home later in the afternoon, my wife asked me how the “camp” had gone.

“Alright, I guess,” I said with a shrug. “I probably won’t do it next year, though.”

“Oh? Did something happen?”

“No. I just need a break from it all.”

 

True to my word, I wouldn’t hold the camp the following year. I wouldn’t take students anywhere, either, unless I absolutely had to. There wasn’t much use in it. For me at least, there wasn’t. I knew it just wouldn’t compare to the experience I’d had with you and your cohort. I knew it would be futile trying to rekindle the enthusiasm you had brought into it. The spark had been snuffed out.


10. The Second Night

When I woke the following morning, I found you in the kitchen brewing a pot of coffee.

“How did you sleep?” I asked.

“Like a baby. Thank you for . . .”

“Don’t mention it.”

“It’s really nice here,” you said, placing a hot mug of coffee before me. “Do you like it with sugar and milk?”

“With milk and sugar is exactly how I like it.”

“Me, too.”

“Thank you.”

“So, do you often bring students here?”

“Often? No.”

“That’s a shame.”

“But I try to do this weekend camp every autumn.”

“I wish you had brought us here earlier.”

“Oh?”

“It’s so peaceful in the morning.”

“It is,” I said, taking a sip of the coffee. Hmm, not bad.

“A place like this, you can really forget your troubles.”

“Troubles? You’ve got troubles?”

“Who doesn’t in this day and age?”

“True. So, what’s eating you the most?”

“Job-hunting.”[1]

“Oh?”

“The company I was hoping to work for never called me back for a final interview . . .”

“Sorry to hear . . .”

“It’s okay. I had offers at two other companies and now I can’t decide which one to take.”

“Perhaps I can help.”

“Okay, Sensei. What would you do then if you were offered a job with a smaller design-related company here in Hakata or a major general construction company in Tōkyō?”

“I guess it would depend on the nature of the work, the possibilities for the future, the people I was going to work with . . .”

“Exactly, but . . .”

“But what? What’s holding you back from either?”

“Well, one is too big and the other is too small.”

“And the company you were hoping to work at was . . .”

“Just right.”

“Ah, Goldilocks.”

“Excuse me? Gorudy-what?”

“Goldilocks.” And so, I related to you the fairy tale of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”.

“Just right,” you said again with a sigh.

“What are the drawbacks, then, of either company?”

“The size of the local company is a real turnoff. I have sempai[2] working for smaller companies and they never seem to have any time off. They like what they do, of course, but they normally don’t finish work until ten, eleven at night. My father died from karōshi.[3] The last thing I want to do is work myself to death, too. I want to have a life outside of my job; you know, that work-life balance people are talking about.”

“I hear you. And the larger company?”

“The work would probably be less interesting, but the benefits would be better. The chances for promotion and travel are better, too. And, if I didn’t like it, I could always quit and work for a smaller company. It’s more difficult the other way around.”

“True. So, what’s stopping you?”

“Tōkyō.”

“Tōkyō?”

“I’d have to live in Tōkyō.”

“Tōkyō’s fun! Why wouldn’t you want to live there?”

“I’ve lived my whole life here in Fukuoka. This is all I know. I mean, what would you do?”

I put my coffee mug down. “You’re asking someone who left his hometown to move almost halfway around the world and never once looked back. Tōkyō’s only an hour and a half away by plane. It’s not like you’d be living on the moon.”

And with that, the others, still muddled from last night’s binge, started to drag themselves out of the bedrooms into the kitchen.

After breakfast, we spent the morning doing odd repairs, such as repapering the shōji doors, chopping wood—something which none of you had ever done before—and cleaning out the kura storehouse,[4] which I was going to convert into a shosai, or private library. Later in the day, a sakan shokunin, or a plaster craftsman, came in to begin work on the kura. He showed us how to scrape the top layer of plaster down to the shitanuri, or inner layer of clay, first with gennō hammers and then with a scraping bar.

By the time we had finished three hours later, we were all covered in two hundred-year-old dust and straw. Squeezing into back of the plasterer’s minivan, we drove to a nearby supā-sentō bathhouse[5] to clean up and have dinner. Then, it was back to the old farmhouse to finish off the bottles of imo jōchū and nihonshu we had opened the night before.

Like the previous night, you and I were the last two up. And, once again, you came to where I was sitting on the engawa and asked me if I would read to you. I could tell, though, a bedtime story that was not really what you wanted from me.

As I read, you rolled over toward me and rested your head on my thigh, facing upward. I put the book down and slowly, timidly placed my arm across your chest, my hand on your shoulder.

I remember feeling unsure of myself, eager and yet terrified of what might happen.

“Last July . . .” you began.

“Yeah?”

“Last July, when we went to Kitsuki and got caught in the rain and took shelter under the eaves of that old samurai house . . .” And, pausing, you took my hand and placed in on your breast. “I wanted you to kiss me.”

I could feel that you were not wearing a bra; your breast was firm, the nipple hard under my ring finger.

I tried to speak, but my throat was too dry. The words tumbled out: “I, um, wanted to, but that . . . that damn official. What timing! If only . . .”

And you held my hand tightly against your breast and raised your chin as if to invite me to finish my words with action. I leant down to kiss you, but as I did the image of my wife crying and my sons’ faces twisted in pain flashed for a second through my mind, and I hesitated.

Sensei?”

My hand relaxed.

“What’s the matter, Sensei?”

“Everything,” I sighed.

“But . . . I love you.”

But so does my wife, so do my children . . .

I removed my hand, reluctantly I should confess, from your breast, and straightened up.

“I can’t . . . As much as I want to . . . I can’t . . . I shouldn’t.

“Don’t you like me?”

“I do. More than you know it, I do. I have liked you and wanted you ever since you first came to my office last year.”

“Then why stop now?”

“You must believe me when I tell you that stopping is the hardest thing for me to do.”

And then I lied. I told you I hesitated for your sake when in fact it was fear that was holding me back. Mind you, not the fear that my wife would find out. Rather, the fear that the full force of karma would come crashing down on me and rob me of everything—my content, my happiness, my success, my family . . .

Sensei?”

“Yeah?”

“Are you a man of your word?”

“I like to think that I am.”

“Then promise me one thing.”

“Promise you what?”

“I’m probably going to take that job in Tōkyō, after all, meaning that come late March, I will have to move away from here. I may return every now and again for the holidays, but . . .” Your words trailing off, you pushed yourself up off of the floor, then knelt before me. “If we ever happen to meet, say, in Tōkyō, or here,  or even in Kanazawa . . . What I mean to say is, if fate deems it right for us to be together, kiss me then. Promise me that.”

What did I have to lose?

“I promise,” I said.

And with that, you stood up, and, never once looking back towards me to give me a second chance I would have surely taken, disappeared into your room. The sound of the fusuma closing behind you resonated like regret.


 

[1] Much of the fourth year of a college student’s life in Japan is occupied with job-hunting. In 2015, there was an effort to shorten the job-hunting season by having it start in the spring, or the first semester of the last year of college, and finish by late summer, but many companies had difficulty making hiring decisions in a timely manner. In 2016, the government relented and permitted companies to start the multi-stage hiring process a few months earlier.

              In 2014, the old system was still in place, whereby third year students like Kana would begin investigating companies near the end of the second (autumn) semester, have interviews the following spring, in the first semester of their fourth and final year, and receive job offers as early as July or as late as autumn.

[2] Sempai (先輩) is an upperclassman or someone senior in age who acts as a mentor. This mentor system can be seen in all levels of education, sports, business, and other organizations. Even children in kindergarten use the term sempai when referring to children older or cleverer than themselves.

[3] Karōshi (過労死, literally, “excess”, ka + “labor”, + “death”, shi) is death caused by overwork or job-related exhaustion.

[4] Kura (倉or蔵) is a traditional Japanese storehouse usually built with a wooden frame and thick fire-proof walls made of bamboo lathing and clay.

[5] A sentō is a public bath, typically located in an older residential area. A supā-sentō or “super sentō” is a much larger facility offering a variety of spas, baths, Jacuzzis, saunas, and so on. Where the smaller sentō are something of a dying breed, the supā-sentō have been growing in popularity.


The first installment/chapter of Tears can be found here.

This and other works are, or will be, available in e-book form and paperback at Amazon.

9. At the farmhouse

Once a year, usually in early autumn when the weather tends to be cool and dry, I invite my seminar students to a two-hundred-plus-year-old farmhouse I own in the countryside just west of Fukuoka city.

Despite the grave reservations of my wife, I went ahead and purchased the house which had been in shambles after years of neglect. I knew it had potential, though.

“It’s a fixer-upper,” I insisted, using a word that could not be translated into Japanese. If the typical house in Japan lost all its value after only fifteen years or so, a house that was over two-hundred years would surely be a money pit.

Sitting on twenty-five hundred tsubo (坪) or about two acres of land,[1] the farmhouse was built in a traditional style with a hardened earthen floor called doma (土間) at the entrance, an internal veranda, or hiroshiki (広敷), covered with thick planks of hardwood flooring, and a hearth called an irori (囲炉裏) in the center of the room. There were exposed beams of sturdy, good-quality timber throughout; the lumber alone made purchasing the house a no-brainer to me.

The purpose of those weekend camps was to, one, reinforce what I had been trying to instill in the students—namely, the notion that old didn’t have to mean uncomfortable or inconvenient; two, demonstrate how modern architecture and convenience could be tastefully incorporated into traditional design; and, three, introduce the students to traditional modes of carpentry and home maintenance.

One year, for instance, I invited a craftsman to show the students how to make clay walls. (I had to bring the craftsman back in half a year later to redo the wall the students had made because the quality was so poor, but the kids had fun all the same.) Another year, we helped thatch the roof of a neighboring farmhouse. As far as I know, the roof does not leak. I could be wrong, though.

After several years of renovation projects, the old house had become a source of pride, and had been written up by several magazines and papers. Even my wife came to see the sense in my having bought it and now enjoyed taking the boys out one weekend every month to let them run around and get their “yayas” out.

In the summer months, our boys collect insects and frogs, climb trees in a nearby forest, and help the neighbors plant rice. In the autumn, they return to help harvest the rice, and to pick the fruits and vegetables grown by some farmers to whom I leased the arable land for free in order to keep the farmland in use.

 

My seminar class and I arrived at the farmhouse on a Friday evening. After everyone had settled into their rooms, we came together in the kitchen and prepared dinner: a nabé hot pot made of thin slices of pork, kimchi, hakusai (napa cabbage), and tōfu that was flavored with miso, ground sesame, ginger, kochujang paste, chives, chicken bouillon, and nihonshu or saké.[2]

We drank imo jōchū,[3] nihonshu, and beer as we cooked, drank as we ate, drank as we cleaned up, and continued drinking late into the evening. One by one students retired to their rooms, but you remained, tidying up after the others had had passed out or gone to bed. When you finished putting the last of the dishes into the dishwasher, you came to where I sat cross-legged on the engawa, reading.[4]

“Do you read to your children?” you asked, sitting down next to me.

“I do. Or at least I try to every day. Why?”

“My father never read to me.”

“Oh? Why not?”

“He never had the time.”

“No time? It doesn’t take much . . .”

“He always came home late from work, long after I’d gone to bed. And on the weekends, he slept all day. Come to think of it, the only memories I have of my father are of him sleeping.”

“Surely, you talk to him from time to . . .”

“He’s dead.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“It’s okay. It’s not as if there was anything to miss.”

There was a blunt frankness to the way you spoke that I always admired—so different from the typical young Japanese woman—but this water ran a little too cold.

“How old were you when he passed away?”

“Ten? Eleven? I don’t remember exactly, but what I do remember was seeing him in the casket, a halo of flowers around his head, and thinking how at peace he looked, like he was in the deepest, most comfortable sleep. He died from overwork, they say. The company paid some compensation to my mother, but it was really only a token amount . . . I don’t really want to talk about it. Read to me. Read to me, Sensei.”

So, I read to you. Do you remember what I read? You probably don’t. I read to you from the English translation of Endō Shūsaku’s Chinmoku (Silence).

And as I read, you fell asleep. I put the book down and looked at you, the way the shadows from a paper lantern played on your features. I wanted to kiss you, but I didn’t dare.

Instead, I picked you up, as I often do with my own children, and carried you inside, laying you down on the sofa and placed a kaké-buton quilt over you, a pillow under your head.[5]

And as I turned the light off, you murmured in your sleep, “O-yasumi, Tōchan.”[6]


[1] One tsubo (坪) is equivalent to 3.306 square meters or 3.954 square yards. One acre equals 1,224.1 tsubo. Before metric was adopted in 1924, the Japanese used a traditional system of measurement called Shakkan-hō (尺貫法) which was Chinese in origin. It was officially adopted in Japan in 701. Today Shakkan-hō is still used in real estate and farming.

One tsubo is equal to the area covered by two standard tatami mats, laid side by side. The area covered by a single tatami mat is called one (畳), and measures 1.653 square meters or 1.979 square yards. Rooms in Japanese homes are measured in . A standard six- room will have the same area as that of a traditional Japanese-style room covered with six tatami mats.

Keep in mind that the size of tatami mats can vary from region to region. In Kyōto, where tatami are larger and measure 0.96m by 1.91m, they are referred to as Kyōma (京間) tatami. Tatami in the Nagoya region, which measure 0.91m by 1.82m, are called ainoma (合の間, lit., “in-between”) tatami. It is one of these ai-no-ma tatami that equals one (畳), and measures 1.653m2. Two ai-no-ma tatami, side by side, equal one tsubo (坪). And, in the Kantō region, Edoma (江戸間) or Kantōma (関東間) tatami are smaller, measuring 0.88 m by 1.76 m. Got that? There may be a test later.

[2] In Japanese, the word saké (酒) can refer to any alcoholic drink. If you order “saké” in Kagoshima, for example, you will be served imo jōchū (shōchū made from sweet potatoes); in Okinawa you will be served awamori (a clear liquor made by distilling long-grained rice from Thailand). Nihonshu (日本酒, lit. “Japanese liquor”) is the rice wine most Westerners are familiar with.

[3] Imo jōchū (芋焼酎) is a distilled beverage primarily from Kagoshima prefecture (Satsuma) that is made from sweet potatoes (which are known outside of Kagoshima as satsuma imo). There are many different kinds of shōchū produced in Japan, the chief ingredient of which—be that barely (mugi), rice (komé), buckwheat (soba), brown sugar (kokutō) or even chestnuts, sesame seeds, and so on—depends on the region in which it is made.

[4] An engawa (縁側) is the wooden strip of flooring just outside the windows and wooden storm shutters of a traditional Japanese home. It is protected from rain and snow by the overhanging hisashi (庇) or eaves.

[5] A shiki-buton (敷き布団) is the thick cotton mattress that is laid out on the tatami floor and on which you sleep. The duvet-like quilt that covers you is called a kaké-buton (掛け布団).

[6]O-yasumi, Tō-chan” (おやすみ、父ちゃん) means “Good night, Daddy”.


The first installment/chapter of Tears can be found here.

This and other works are, or will be, available in e-book form and paperback at Amazon.

8. Caught in the Rain

We made our first trip to Kitsuki, Ōita a week later.

You may not have known it at the time, but my stomach was in knots waiting for you to arrive at the station.

I knew from past experience that half of the students in the seminar were not going to show up. Instead, they—the ones with a conscience, that is—would mail me to say they had a fever or had caught a cold. A cold in May? The more creative students would kill off a distant relative, uncles being the most popular to dispose of when groping for an alibi.

But you came, a few minutes early at that, carrying a furoshiki[1] full of homemade muffins and bread in your hands. You were the first person who had ever gone to the trouble to prepare something to share with the others on the journey.

“Sawajiri-kun, I think you may have just earned yourself an A in my seminar.”

“Oh, these aren’t for you, Sensei.”

“Wh-wh-what?”

“Just kidding!” And with a devilishly playful smile you added: “You can have as many as you like . . . Sensei.”

We waited until we could wait no longer, and with only half of the seminar assembled made our way toward the platform where our train was preparing to depart. On board, you sat with one of the other co-eds, and I remember wishing you had sat down next to me, but it was just as well because I could see you and every now and again during the long trip, I would look up from my notebook computer and watch you smile or laugh as you talked to your classmates. And every now and again, our eyes would meet. Rather than look away embarrassed, though, you would maintain that eye contact, then smile, and every time I could have just died.

 

Two months later in early July, we returned to Kitsuki to present the results of our study and offer suggestions on how the town might better preserve and promote its heritage.

Typical for the rainy season, it had been unbearably hot and muggy all day. And as we were walking up a cobbled slope between century old samurai houses, lightning flashed, followed immediately by a deafening peal of thunder. The heavens unloaded its burden, sending all of us scrambling for cover. Soaked to the skin, the two of us huddled under the thatched eaves of a home. There, you pulled a terry cloth hand towel from your bag and offered it to me. I took the towel from your hand and began to gently wipe your brow, your ears, your cheek, your chin, your long neck. You turned your face towards mine, raised your chin, and ever so slightly parted your lips . . .

Just then, an official from the city came scurrying through the torrential rain towards us.

Sensei! Sensei!” he said, handing us two convenience store umbrellas. “Please, use these!”

“How thoughtful of you,” I replied. But, in my mind, I was cursing the man: Thanks for nothing, you knucklehead!

 

Later, on the train back to Fukuoka, you chose the seat next to mine and, like many of the others in our group, quickly nodded off once the train had departed. Before long, your body was leaning against mine, our arms touching, your head resting against my shoulder. My heart beat like a hummingbird’s keeping me wide awake and aroused all the way back to Hakata.

 

[1] A furoshiki (風呂敷) is a Japanese wrapping cloth used to transport gifts, bentō boxes, and so on. Furoshiki were first used in the Nara period (710-794) at public bathhouses to wrap one’s clothes to prevent them from being confused with those of other bathers, hence the name furo-shiki (Lit. “bath” (furo 風呂 + “cover or spread” shiki 敷).


The first installment/chapter of Tears can be found here.

This and other works are, or will be, available in e-book form and paperback at Amazon.

7. Keeping the Embers Hot

I don’t know whether you were doing it consciously or not, for my benefit or for someone else, but over the next few months there were things you did that would keep the spark glowing.

Whenever it seemed as if my interest was waning, you would change something about your appearance. That shoulder-length dark brown hair of yours, for instance. It had grown quite a bit over the months since we first met, and now that it was long enough, you would arrange it in a variety of ways. One day you would wear it in a ponytail; another day you would come in with your hair down, and yet another day you would wear it in braids. You would color your hair from time to time, too, something I said I wished I could do myself, but with that increasingly limited resource on top of my own head, I didn’t dare. You would go from dark brown to light. From light brown to jet-black with a lock of it dyed burgundy.

And one day, you came with your hair done up in an elaborate bun. I never liked women wearing their hair in buns until I saw you wear yours that way. It revealed a neck, so long and slim that when you stood next to me after class, your head tilted slightly with your neck curved towards me, it was all I could do to not sink my teeth into it.

And then there was the way you dressed. I’ve always had a thing for fashionable women—not the types who follow all the silly crazes, mind you, but the ones, like you, who had their own sense of fashion. When we first met, you were wearing those maroon Doc Martens laced up high and tight. You would wear them every now and again with a denim mini skirt and black tights or with tight-fitting jeans rolled up at the ankles, accentuating those long slim legs of yours. Some days you would wear a casual dress, another day, a nice skirt and blouse. So many different styles, from punk rocker to o-jō-sama[1] to studious co-ed complete with glasses. Anticipating what you would be wearing and how you would have done your hair became one of my simple pleasures.

And then one day in early May, we were having one of those perfect spring afternoons. The sun was shining and it was hot but not oppressively so. You came into my office wearing a loose fitting white cotton blouse with an open neck. You wanted to show me some information you had found about Kitsuki online and as you were leaning over me at my desk, I couldn’t help but look down the opening of your shirt—we men are wired that way—and I was surprised, happily so, to discover that in spite of your otherwise willowy figure, you were endowed with full, milk-white breasts.

“I was thinking . . .,” you began, “and, well, I haven’t been there yet, so I don’t really know what it’s like, but . . .”

And I was looking down your blouse at your breasts and my heart started to beat faster. My breathing became strained.

“. . . that a fun slogan for Kitsuki would be ‘kitto suki’.[2] You know, like, ‘If you visit Kitsuki, you will surely like it.’ Get it? Kitsuki, kitto suki. Don’t you think that’s cute? When I first heard the town’s name, I was reminded of Nestlé Kit Kats[3] . . .”

Mesmerized by your breasts, I mouthed a dry: “I like it . . . I do . . . I do . . .”

Appetite piqued, that night I gorged myself at home, so to speak.

“You certainly are energetic today,” my wife commented after I rolled off of her.

“Am I?” I panted.

 

[1] An o-jō-sama (お嬢様) usually refers a young woman from a good, often wealthy family. There is also a fashion look related to the term that is refined yet coquettish.

[2]Kitto suki”, (きっと好き), which means “surely like”, is indeed Kitsuki’s marketing catchphrase today. I jokingly call it “Kitsui-ki” (きつい気, lit. “tough/hard+heart/spirit”) because the journey to the remote town can be exhausting.

[3] Nestlé Japan markets its Kit Kat candy bars at exam time with the catchphrase “Kitto katsu!” (きっと勝つ! Lit. [You will] surely win!), suggesting that if you eat a Kit Kat while you’re studying for your entrance exam you will pass. God damn, marketers!