Tales From Earth:Chanko-nabe
introduction by the author
This is the beginning of a longer story set in contemporary Tokyo. I include it here because it refers heavily to the ancient Japanese sport of sumo wrestling. Sumo wrestling is a martial art generally contested by two very large men; they train and eat a special diet in order to evolve great weight and girth. It is a high-impact experience; the two wrestlers take their place facing each other in the centre of a ring about 4m in diameter. They explode towards each other like a couple of human dump trucks and attempt to win the bout by forcing the other out of the ring or throwing the opponent to the ground. It seemed to me like a metaphor for a certain kind of love affair. I warn you that the story ends suddenly - the rest is to be completed at a later date.
Chanko – nabe
The first time I lived in Tokyo was in my last year of school, when I worked the summer at Disneyland. I won an internship in an essay competition. The title of my essay was ‘The Importance of a Smile’. I was sent to stay with my mother’s brother, who lived with his wife in a two-bedroomed apartment. They began trying for a child as soon as they were married, and decided that their first home should have room. Six years later, the room was still empty. According to the tests, neither of them was completely infertile, so there had always been hope. The day before my induction I arrived at the house. My uncle was a slight, balding man, but in the small lift he still towered over me. I had always been little, since my first day at school, surrounded by terrifying giant children who loomed up out of the corridors like the kappa in my mother’s stories. He ushered me into the flat and showed me the room. It had been decorated in a neutral colour, and there were no mobiles or toys or anything like that, but I still felt that I was trespassing. I had a lot of stuff, it seemed – more than I could ever remember carrying on my own before. I had told my parents firmly that I was quite alright to travel to Tokyo on my own, and that I would get a taxi from the station. My mother cried and told me how grown-up I was, and to be careful, and that Tokyo was full of strange things and I should be careful, and I told her she had already told me that and she cried some more. I didn’t cry. I don’t know what I felt. Nothing, I guess. My mind was full of skyscrapers, and I couldn’t see my family at all. My father said little, but just before I left he pressed a brand new credit card into my hand. He said, ‘This is only for emergencies. But, if you need to use it, use it.’ My aunt arrived home from the store with two bags of groceries. I tried to help her unpack but of course I didn’t know where anything went. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said, as I opened the door to the waste disposal unit. ‘It’s fine. The tofu goes in that cupboard there – no – there, yes, that’s it. This way, you can find out where everything lives and we can have a catch-up. So, you won a prize!’ ‘Yes. I want to do a degree in marketing, so this internship will be great experience.’ She asked me all the usual questions, about my family, my studies. I began to relax a little and the walls of the kitchen retreated slightly. As we sat down to eat there was a great thump that seemed to shake the building. I thought for a moment that there was going to be an earthquake. My uncle, noticing my confusion, laughed, and said; ‘Don’t worry – it’s just the sumo wrestlers training next door. Sometimes they make a terrible crash! But the old place hasn’t fallen down yet.’ Over dinner I told my uncle all the things I had told my aunt in the kitchen. She listened with perfect attentiveness, as if hearing them for the first time. The city made so much noise, even through a closed window: cars, aeroplanes, sirens, drunken shouts, and the occasional discreet rattle and crash, from what I imagined was the dojo.
I had been to Disneyland once before, when I was nine years old, and I had loved every moment. From the first sign on the freeway to the characters from the TV screen made flesh, to the scary rides and even the queues, I was as happy as I can remember being. So this job was a big deal for me. Also, it was a real job, with training, not like helping out in the fish restaurant in my home town, clearing tables and fetching more sake. I had received a letter from the company, detailing every possible thing I could want to know about my internship. At the bottom of the letter, Yukio Mishima, Vice President of Marketing, had handwritten; “Great Essay! Look forward to making your acquaintance!” I had been told to go to the main gate and give my name. They issued me with a plastic laminate pass and directed my to a small building about a hundred yards away. I pushed the buzzer and was led into a smart set of offices. There were six of us, four girls and two boys. The person who gave the induction was not Yukio Mishima. He was not much older than we were. ‘Okay, please let me introduce myself; I am Toshiro ______, Assistant Marketing Officer here at Tokyo’s Disneyland. I would firstly like to congratulate you all on winning a place here. I myself won the same competition not so many years ago, and I can assure you that it will stand you in very good stead for your university applications and job prospects. Who knows, you might even secure a position here! As you will have read in your information packs, your internship will take in all aspects of working life at Disneyland. You will each rotate through six areas, working a week in each. You will be given a roster with your shifts, which will include some evenings and weekends. You will be given written assignments to complete based on your experience; these are very important and will be taken into consideration when we come to write your references. Any questions so far?’ No hands were raised. We were taken on a whistle-stop tour of the complex. I sat next to a girl whose name was _____. She lived in a rich suburb of Tokyo and seemed bored with the idea of working already. Before I could meet anyone else we were siphoned off to our first position. Mine was on the reception desk of the African Savannah Hotel. I was introduced to the duty manager who was told to take good care of me. One morning before work I went looking for the sumo stable. It was an old building, surrounded by a wooden veranda, set back across a large courtyard where a few chickens scratched in the dust. The concrete apartment building where I lived loomed up behind. Delicious smells emanated from what must have been the kitchens, mingling with sweat, overpowering the usual city odours, and a man’s voice called out, to be met with the response of twenty answering in unison. I hovered around the gate, hoping to catch a glimpse of the fighters. Suddenly a man burst across the courtyard right in front of me, carrying an armful of vegetables. I was so startled that I screamed, which in turn startled him, so that he dropped some of them. He lunged to rescue them and tripped, sprawling on the floor. He leapt up and began gathering the vegetables, and I hurried across to help him. He looked up and said; ‘Don’t you think you’ve got me into enough trouble?’ When I saw his face I realised that, although he was much bigger than my father, he was no older than I. ‘I’m sorry – ‘ I said – ‘I was just looking, and you did scare me.’ His face was flushed as he scraped together a bundle of spring onions that had scattered across the courtyard. ‘Look at this mess!’ he said, ‘The master is going to kill me!’ He paused for a moment and looked up. ‘What are you doing here, anyway? Don’t you know that girls aren’t allowed?’ ‘I work at Disneyland. I just moved here from ____________.’ ‘You don’t look old enough to work at Disneyland’, he said. ‘You don’t look old enough to be a sumo wrestler’. I answered. He smiled shyly. ‘I have to go. What’s your name?’ ‘Mieko. What’s yours?’ ‘Kizuki, but everyone calls me Mr Chanko’, he shouted as he hurried off.
My first few days at Disneyland were wonderful. I set my alarm for five a.m., showered, did my hair and put on make-up, walked to the station, bought a pear and a newspaper, and caught the six thirty train. I experimented with the different routes I could take, and every new thing I saw excited me – a stray dog, a noodle bar, a disused park, a canal. Most of the time I spent on the reception desk, checking people in & taking messages, and once I helped organise the working hours for the following week. My boss was kind and polite and went out of his way to explain what he was doing all the time. I decided that part of my routine would be to read the business pages of the newspaper while I ate my lunch. That way, I reasoned, if I fell into discussion with any of the Disney executives I would be able to make conversation with them on the issues of the day. The articles were full of tales of businesses closing down, economic conditions in the other Far East markets, and news of the recession. There was one article on the continuing boom in leisure consumption that I cut out and kept. I ate my lunch every day at a hotdog stand just outside the hotel, facing on to the main plaza. Because the hotel desk had to be manned all the time I usually took lunch on my own. The hotdog vendor was a young man called Tayeshi, who always smiled and after a couple of days, started calling me ‘the business lady’. “Hey, Ms Business Lady!’ he would whisper, if no customers were around, ‘what’s the business today?’ I just smiled and sat down with my food and my paper. Once or twice, he started to greet me in this fashion and a customer appeared, and he instantaneously assumed the demeanour of a polite employee and trotted out his spiel of greeting. I was very tired in the evenings and, although I offered to help with the chores, I usually just ate and went to bed. I had brought two books from my father’s library – a copy of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens and Anna Karenina by Tolstoy. I had begun Anna Karenina on the train down, but after reading the opening pages several times, had put it to one side. On the other hand, Dickens’ vivid description of the boy on the marshes and the terrifying convict had drawn me immediately and I had read almost a hundred pages. I never read for very long. Once I awoke at midnight to find I still had my glasses on and the book in my hand. I heard the front door to the flat slam and the sound of my aunt and uncle arguing. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, except when my aunt suddenly broke into song, a sentimental American ballad I half-recognised about life on a farm, ‘where the deer and the antelope play’, which ended abruptly halfway through a line. I fell asleep almost immediately after and, in the morning, when sitting down to breakfast with a bright, cheerful and happy couple, was only half sure that I had not dreamt the whole thing. The whole of the first week went by and my route did not take me past the dojo once.
On Saturday my aunt and uncle woke me at eight with the news that they had planned a day of treats for me, to welcome me to Tokyo. My aunt was going to take me shopping and then we were going to visit their favourite restaurant in the evening with some friends of theirs. I dressed in my nicest outfit and went into the kitchen. My aunt appeared; she had tied her hair up in pigtails and was dressed in a pair of cropped trousers, a white cotton Hello Kitty T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up, accessorised with bangles, a stylish and expensive watch, and platform shoes. She could have stepped straight from the pages of one of the magazines my friends and I pored over at school. All week she had worn business suits, so the transformation was a complete shock; she looked no older than me, and I suddenly felt frumpy and provincial. She affixed me with a glittering smile, and said; ‘you look sooo cute! I could just eat you up! We’re going to have such fun today, you and I – I’m going to take you to all the best places, buy you new outfits, hey, if you’d like, we could get our hair cut and our nails done together! I’m so excited I can’t eat! Shall we go? Lets go, lets, and then we can get coffee and donuts together at the diner later!’ I was so bowled over by her charm and enthusiasm that I forgot the confusion I had felt at her appearance and acquiesced, and she swept me out of the house and to the station. She spent the journey on the metro chattering excitedly about new looks, new shops, what her colleagues at the office (she worked at a large accountancy firm) were doing with their weekends, whether or not she might run into a woman called ______ who was clearly her rival, and so on. I listened, amazed, as a girl my age stepped out of the skin of the sensible, motherly character I had seen at dinner during the week. We had spent more money before I sat down to breakfast than I had spent on clothes in my life. We had bought matching bracelets, ear-rings (even though I didn’t have my ears pierced and it was against Disney regulations to do so), make-up, and a dress in which I felt impossibly glamorous and alluring. My aunt didn’t like it at first, said it was too old-fashioned, but then abruptly changed her mind and said I looked like a film star, like Audrey Hepburn, and that I must have it. I tried to buy the bracelets in the first store we visited (even those would have cost me about a tenth of my savings which were supposed to last six weeks), but she insisted on paying for everything. As we sat down to coffee and pink, sugar-frosted doughnuts in Joe’s Diner, I said; ‘Thank you so much for your kind gifts. I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to repay you!’ ‘Don’t be silly!’ she answered, ‘you’re my guest! I love shopping, and it’s not like I have much else to spend my money on. You know, the flat we live in belongs to me – it was left to me by my grandfather. That’s why we live in such a poky old corner of the city. But hey, no rent!’ ‘I like Ryogoku,’ I said, ‘I like the feeling of the old and new all nestled in together. You’ve got the freeway, and the glass apartment buildings, and then you’ve got the sumo stables, all old and mysterious! It’s cool!’ ‘You’re so clever!’ she replied. ‘So clever! But wait ‘til you see where I’m taking you this afternoon – now that’s cool. Not like boring old Ryogoku district, or the boring old restaurant we’re going to get dragged to tonight.’ ‘Oh! I didn’t mean that all this isn’t cool – it’s amazing, it’s cooler than cool – I just meant that I liked it where we live, that’s all.’ We sat quietly for a moment, and then our waiter arrived with our order on rollerskates, and he set them down with such deftness and smiled so sweetly that we laughed, and the moment of awkwardness passed.
That night, I wore a completely new outfit of jeans, ultra-cool sneakers and a customised t-shirt, and put on make-up before we went to dinner. My uncle, who had been playing golf all day, saw us both and exclaimed; ‘look at you! A couple of fashion models! You’re far too stylish for poor old me,’ and made as if to hide in his room, and we had to plead with him to come out and join us. We played our part with great enthusiasm, and suddenly he appeared and took my aunt in his arms and waltzed her up and down the hallway of the flat. It was in this spirit of intimacy and boisterousness that we walked to the nearby restaurant. It was a small place, clearly connected with sumo in some way, as the walls were covered in prints and woodcuts from many different eras showing the sport. We were seated, and the proprietor, a vast man of about fifty who clearly had been a wrestler at some point. He greeted my aunt and uncle by name, enquired after their health, and asked to be introduced to me. My uncle said; ‘Tatanaki-san, this is my niece, Mieko.’ He leaned towards our host and added, conspiratorially, ‘she’s a fashion model!’. Tatanaki smiled thinly and said to me, ‘a fashion model? How – glamorous.’ I blushed, and said, ‘Actually, that’s not true. I’m just here visiting while I do an internship at Disneyland’. ‘Very good, very good,’ Tatanaki replied. ‘Yes, I want to do a degree in marketing, so this internship will be good experience.’ ‘Have you ever eaten chanko-nabe before?’ he asked. ‘What’s chanko-nabe?’ ‘What’s chanko-nabe? What is chanko-nabe? Oh, pretty lady, you wound me! You are sitting in the finest chanko-nabe restaurant in Tokyo, and therefore the world! Chanko-nabe is the dish that sumo wrestlers eat every day, so that they can become champions! Well, if you have never heard of chanko-nabe, we must educate you! And there is no better to way to be educated than to eat! Bon Appetit!’ And with that flourish, he bowed and bustled off to attend to other customers. Once I had been reassured that I had not offended our host and that he had thought me charming, my aunt and uncle ordered some warm sake and I asked for a Coke. My aunt insisted on pouring me a small glass of sake. We chatted about all sorts of things, from my parents, to my aunt and uncle’s jobs, to the first written assignment that I had to work on the next day. Soon the meal arrived, served in a gigantic wok over a burner that a waiter brought to our table on a trolley. The wok was filled with a rich broth that smelt of chicken stock, soy sauce, and malt, to which had already been added chicken, shrimps, strips of omelette and deep-fried tofu. The waiter then added cabbage, spinach, thin strips of peppers, and, last of all, finely chopped spring onions and sugar. He then tasted the dish with a wooden ladle, thought intently, adjusted the seasonings, tasted it once more with a studied slurp, pronounced it ready, transferred the wok to the table, and served it to us in deep china bowls filled with steamed rice. It was the most delicious thing I had ever tasted in my life. I had worked up a fearsome appetite whilst shopping all day, and the tantalising smells of the dish as it was prepared and the glass and a half of sake that I had drunk had only served to sharpen my hunger to the point where I had internally urged the waiter to stop messing with the fucking seasoning and serve the food now, damn it, and fortunately he had. I sucked down my first serving with singleminded ferocity, each mouthful a new sensation, a new combination of delights, where all the good things in the world had been rendered into the rapidly diminishing contents of the bowl before me. I looked up once I had finished, leaned over, and helped myself to more. The second bowl was, if anything, better than the first. The soup had cooled a little (I realised that I had burnt the soft flesh on the roof of my mouth in my haste, but I was in no mood to stop, and in fact, the pain seemed to complement my enjoyment) and I was able to savour each bite with a more considered and patient attention; here the crispy chicken skin wrapped in a crunch of cabbage, here the bland pleasure of the tofu with a sharp dart of chilli, all anchored to the taste of the richest, roundest, sweetest, most perfectly salted broth I could imagine. I paused only for slugs of coke and more sake, which seemed to go very well with the meal, and which miraculously kept reappearing in my glass. It was only as I reached for my third helping that two things became apparent to me. The first was that this must be the dish that Kizuki, the young man I had met at the sumo stables, had been helping to prepare, an insight which came with the pleasing remembrance of his smile as we had parted. The second was that my aunt and uncle had not yet finished their first bowl and were looking at me with astonishment. ‘This is delicious!’ I said, ‘I love it – it’s the most delicious thing I think I’ve ever eaten!’ My aunt smiled and said, ‘no, that’s great – you go for it. Watch out though, or we’ll have to send you off to fight with the sumo wrestlers – it’s terribly calorific…’ I filled my bowl. The third bowl lasted me the rest of the evening. Every corner of the restaurant was crowded with customers eating, drinking, and enjoying themselves; I spent as much time looking at them as I did listening to my aunt and uncle’s conversation. I was fascinated by the way the waiters kept the trollies moving through the tiny gaps between tables, and even more fascinated by the way the proprietor manoeuvred his gigantic belly around the place. I was so full now that I could only manage the occasional spoonful, but kept returning to enjoy one more slurp before the experience was over. I got up and realised how drunk I was. I went to the lavatory and splashed my face with cold water, and on my way back to the table became distracted by the images on the walls. Near our table there was an old black and white picture of an imposing looking wrestler. As I stared at it, Tatanaki appeared at my shoulder. ‘So, my little fashion model, do you know about chanko-nabe now?’ I put my hand in his. ‘Oh, Tatanaki-san, it was wonderful! I could eat it every day!’ Pointing at the picture, I asked, ‘who is this fine fellow?’ ‘That is Onishiki Uichiro, “the father of modern sumo”. A great man.’ My attention had wandered to a woodcut of what appeared to be a small woman, dressed in pantaloons and a red sash, throwing a male wrestler out of the ring. The look on the woman’s face was one of warrior-like intent, and the spectators’ faces were drawn in a rictus of shock. ‘And who is this?’ ‘How clever of you to spot her. Let’s go back to your family and I will tell you the story.’ He led me back to the table, gently removing my hand from his, and sat me down. ‘I’m going to tell you a story, as a favour to my little fashion model here, about the only recorded female sumo wrestler in history. At the end of the sixteenth century, a grand palace was built for the Lord Fushimi, and a great sumo tournament was held in celebration. Teams were sent from every prefecture, and over the thirteen days no-one could best the champion of the host team, Tateishi. On the final day, the referee stood in the ring, and said, ‘are the talents of your wrestlers so exhausted that there is no-one left to challenge?’ and no-one stepped forth. Suddenly there was a commotion from the east side, and voice cried out, ‘here is one who will challenge’. A young nun of no more than twenty entered the ring. The assembled throng fell about with laughter, at the sight of this slight figure, staring defiantly at the crowd. She raised a hand and the crowd hushed. ‘I have been watching these young wrestlers,’ she said, ‘and I will best your champion.’ Tateishi snorted. ‘Why, I could thrash fifteen or twenty of you at once!’ The referee tried to dissuade her from this seemingly suicidal course of action, but she insisted that she would fight Tateishi and no other. The crowd were so amused by this that they insisted that Tateishi take her on, so the ring was prepared.’ ‘The nun removed her robe to reveal flowing pantaloons in the Nagasaki style. Tateishi stamped a few times to warm himself up, and took a strong stance. The nun sprang at him and forced him back. Shamed, Tateishi began to wrestle in earnest, attempting to secure a two-handed grip. Quick as lightning, the nun grasped him by the thigh and toppled him out of the ring, from whence he ran from the jeering audience as fast as his legs could carry him. The nun remained in the ring and bested several more wrestlers with a technique so fast that no-one could say how it was done. She appeared at several other festivals over the next decade, and remained undefeated, and was spoken of as one of the great wonders of her age.’ That night, I lay in bed, relishing the fullness of my stomach and the drowsiness behind my eyes, and thought of Kizuki, and resolved to try and find him the next day, once I had finished my essay.
It proved much easier than I had expected. He was walking out of the courtyard, alone, as I approached. He saw me and paused, nervously, as if he might run. I stopped and fingered the hem of the shirt I was wearing. We were still about fifteen feet apart. I advanced towards him and said ‘Hi!’ My throat was sticky flypaper and the other words got stuck there, twitching aimlessly. ‘Hi!’ he said. We remained in this attitude for a minute or so, then a sentence struggled out of me. ‘So, where are you going?’ ‘For a walk by the river,’ ‘Great! The river is great, isn’t it?’ ‘Yup.’ ‘Er, can I –‘ ‘Mieko, would you like to come and walk by the river with me for half an hour or thereabouts?’ This was said with such focus, such serious intent, that I giggled. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘ if you would prefer not to I will be on my way. Good day to you.’ ‘No! I’m sorry. I would love to walk by the river with you.’ We walked down to the river. We must have made a strange-looking pair. He in his old-fashioned robe, with his rubicund face nestled atop like a naked baby on a marble statue, me in my ultra-fashionable top and newly-slashed hair. Walking next to him, I was increasingly conscious of his mass, a body that I felt, at first, I could do no more than orbit around. We started to exchange histories, and I discovered that he had been scouted as a talented novice from a remote village about four years ago. He saw his parents rarely, and his entire life revolved around his training and the daily regimen of the stable. He was fascinated to hear about life at Disneyland. ‘Have you ever been?’ I asked. ‘Disneyland?’ He laughed. ‘Oh no, I wouldn’t go to that sort of place. It’s not befitting a wrestler of my stature. I have many responsibilities, and a great deal to learn – we have lessons in the history of sumo, physiology, calligraphy, poetry, and general studies. I haven’t time for such things.’ ‘Oh. The other day, when we met, were you preparing chanko-nabe? I tried it for the first time last night.’ ‘Yes! Isn’t it delicious? Where did you eat? I told him the name of the restaurant, and he clucked and looked thoughtful. ‘Well, the owner of that establishment used to be a wrestler at the Kazoumi stable. The food isn’t bad, but all true connoisseurs know that the dish is best prepared by the cooks of the Isenoumi stable. That’s where I’m from, you know.’ ‘Really? Well, the meal I ate last night was the most delicious thing ever, so I can’t wait to try yours. And in your history lessons have you heard of the only recorded female sumo wrestler?’ He had not, so I related the story of Tateishi and the nun. He looked at me and said, ‘well, of course it’s a nice story, but it can’t be true. There’s no way a hundred and twenty pound woman could best a three hundred pound man, no matter how heavy he was. It’s just simple maths. Trust me, that much weight? It would be like me fighting one of the Hawaiian yokozunas. Hai! What a thought! You’d get squashed like a bug.’ I became quite indignant. ‘But Tatanaki-san told me that it was a true story! Who are you to say it couldn’t happen? You silly – puppy!’ ‘Puppy, eh? Okay then, let’s see. If you can push me over, I’ll believe that the story is possible.’ With a satisfied look on his face he lifted his leg high into the air, slammed it as hard as he could into the path, and indicated that I should begin. It was like trying to push over a house. I could not believe that his seventeen-year-old body was made out of the same material as the few others I had touched. I pushed, pulled, yanked, with absolutely no effect. I was already incensed by his smug certitude and my ineffectuality infuriated me still further. I retreated to a distance of a few feet, crouched, and exploded up at his midriff, except that I misjudged the location of his midriff, and instead my shoulder made unerring contact with his soft flesh of his genitals. He was poleaxed, falling away from me with terrifying swiftness. I pulled back. He lay on the ground, shoulders hunched, the sinews in his neck standing out, as if the upper half of his body was straining to detach itself from the agonising pain emanating from his crumpled crotch. His face turned in on itself and his powerful aura of strength dissipated utterly. I was stricken with guilt and fear, unsure whether to run or to kneel down and stroke his poor tortured frame. Slowly, he began to exhale, a throaty shuddering hiss that turned into an animal wail, and then into a stream of spectacular profanities. I knelt down. ‘I’m so, so, so, so, so, sorry – I didn’t mean to hit you there, oh god –‘ ‘Goddamn motherfucking son of a dirty bitch that hurts, fuck, shit, whore, ow, fuck –‘ ‘It was an, was an accident, I meant to hit you in your middle -’ The swearing continued unabated. I wasn’t even sure if he knew I was still there. Part of me was thinking that if he came to he might well chase me, beat me even. But I was bound to stay. And slowly, as his breathing returned, he began to wheeze, and laugh, and then he was rolling around in hysterics. ‘So that’s how the nun did it! Ha, ha, hee, hee, what a good trick! That’s how a one hundred and twenty pound girl beats a three hundred pound man!’ He propped himself opened one eye and looked at me. ‘I pity your older brother,’ he said, and then a wave of pain washed over him and he flopped on to his back like a landed fish. I dropped to his side and stroked his hair. He was covered in dust and tiny leaves. Gently brushing them off, I said, ‘Kizuki, I’m so sorry,’ and, seized by an impulse of tenderness, kissed his forehead. After a few more minutes he was able to return gingerly to his feet. I fussed over him and brushed the worst of the matter off his robe, hoping that if I could somehow restore his external appearance to as it was before I felled him it would heal him internally as well. He stood there, letting me attend to him, his attention still almost entirely focused on what I assumed to be the still – agonising pain. I kept up a steady stream of apologies, and after another few minutes he looked a bit tidier and a little colour had returned to his cheeks. I took him by the arm and led him to a nearby bench, where we sat. ‘Are you okay?’ I asked. ‘I’ll live.’ He forced a brave smile. ‘Although I don’t think I’ll climb any mountains today.’ ‘Will it affect your wrestling?’ ‘I don’t know. If it does I’ll say I was attacked by a dog or something.’ I must have looked mortified because for the first time since it happened he really saw that I was still there and said, ‘I’m sorry – I didn’t mean that you were a dog – I mean I didn’t mean that you attacked me – I mean that I meant that you didn’t mean to –‘ I kissed him full on the mouth. After a few seconds he gripped my arm, and pulled me into him. My mouth and his opened, and we clumsily explored each others’ tongues. He tasted of toothpaste, battery acid and milk. I realised what I had done, and leant away. I will never forget the look of confusion on his face; it expressed all the pain and joy a person could feel at one moment, and it was so beautiful I leant in and kissed him again. ‘So,’ I thought once we had said goodbye and promised to meet that week and I had returned to the flat, skipping past the questions of my relatives, ‘I have moved to Tokyo and started my job and read the paper and been given a whole new wardrobe of clothes and got drunk and tasted the most delicious food in the world and kissed a boy who I nearly killed and I have only been here a week. I wonder what the next week will hold?’ My aunt walked into the room without knocking. ‘Telephone for you,’ she said. It was my parents. I had not thought of them once since I had been here, save for calling them to say I had arrived safely. As we spoke I had to be thinking one sentence ahead, deciding what to include, what to leave out, what not to mention at all. Needless to say, Kizuki did not come up. The line was not good and my parents voices were muffled and scratchy; after a few minutes the quality deteriorated again and I said, ‘Mother, if you can still hear me, the line’s gone dead and I can barely hear you, but I will call you next weekend. Good night!’ and I hung up the phone.
When my alarm went the next day I felt so unrested and sleepy that I hit my snooze button three times, which meant I failed to get into the shower room before my aunt, which set me back even further. Once dressed I was way behind schedule and I hurried nervously to the station, grabbing a coffee and a snack on the platform. I just missed my connecting train and I arrived over half an hour late, hair wet, coffee lurching around my stomach, clutching my essay, hurrying through the gates to the offices where we had been inducted the previous week. I burst into the meeting room to find Toshiro, the young marketing officer, putting some papers into his briefcase. ‘I’m so sorry!’, I said, ‘I missed my train and then we were held up and –‘ He held up his hand. ‘Don’t worry, at least you’re here. Three of your fellow interns have decided they are not coming back. We only had two to send out on placements this morning. The others have decided that the working life is not for them, it seems. I don’t know. A valuable opportunity like this –‘ ‘- Yes! It’s a very valuable opportunity for me. I sincerely hope to pursue a career in marketing, which is why I’m so sorry I was late. It was unprofessional and it won’t happen again. Here’s my essay.’ My apologising and nervousness had a curious effect. He became puffed up, serious, as if he were a senior executive about to sign some major contract for a new building project. ‘Don’t worry, Mieko,’ he said, ‘it’s easy enough to be late every now and again. And your essay looks most impressive. I shan’t mention this to Mr Mishima when I report to him later this morning. Now, let me send you over to your next assignment.’ I was to work in one of the offices in the same building. I had my own desk with a computer, and was given a temporary username and password so I could log on to the system. The display had a picture of Mickey Mouse in a wizard’s uniform in the background. My job was simple enough – I had to process a pile of surveys that had been filled out by visitors to the park, log the information in a spreadsheet, and notify a senior colleague of any serious complaints or praise for an individual member of staff. The things that people had written fascinated me. Our family have had a wonderful day at Disneyland – the shops are beautiful So clean! The queues are far too long. I have done nothing all day except look for rides with manageable queues, and found none. I will write a full letter of complaint upon my return home and request a refund. We saw a young man and woman embracing each other in the Plaza. The young man had both his hands on the young woman’s behind. It was delightful – what a happy place this is! The young man who served us at the All American Hot Dog Stand, outside the Savannah Hotel, was extremely rude to us. He made eyes at my daughter, and when I reprimanded him for his incivility, he laughed and said ‘don’t be crazy, old man’. He then offered us a free hot dog. We decided not to complain at the time as we wanted to make the most of our day but I am very disappointed that a member of your staff would behave in this way and I expect him to be reprimanded, sincerely, _____ _______. There was a Tokyo phone number at the bottom of the page.