ALLEZ CUISINE! Gourmet Battle Girls
When I came out of work, the June rain was just beginning. When I got off the train and ran back up the stairs of the station, it was pouring. I pulled my umbrella up and dashed desperately back to the Saibara Building, trying to keep myself as dry as possible. It didn’t work.
As I entered, I saw Mako standing at the door of her apartment, giving a payment to a delivery driver. “Thank you so much,” she said, receiving a brown paper bag that smelled delicious.
“Oh, hey! Evening, Mako-san,” I said, as I closed and locked my mailbox.
“Evening, Vanilla-chan. How was your day at school?” Mako asked.
“Well…” I shrugged, remembering my hurried conversation with Yomogi and the chance meeting with Taiga Shirogane. “I feel better, for one.”
“Yeah. You looked like you didn’t want anyone to bother you last night,” Mako said.
I turned the corner and opened the door to my apartment. Inside was stuffy. I didn’t have the money to run an air conditioner, but I could open the window just a crack to let the fresh air in.
Yomogi being so quick to forgive was so alien to me. I remembered how strange my friendships were when I was in elementary school, where we’d be best friends for two weeks and hate each other for three days before making up. Then there was the time I managed to alienate one of the girls in my class for what seemed like an eternity, after I told her that the boy she liked was an idiot. (Of course he was an idiot. Anyone who likes pulling legs off of spiders and watching them twitch and dance is an idiot.) I decided that maybe the best course of events was to talk to Yomogi again, and rummaged for my phone in my school bag.
I hope Yomogi’s home, I thought, as I dialed her number. The phone rang, and I heard her pick up. “Hello?”
“Hey, Yomogi-chan,” I said.
“Vanilla-chan! I was just getting ready to start dinner. How was work?”
“It was OK, but outside…yeesh.”
Yomogi chuckled. “I can imagine.”
“Say, um…” I tried to think about how best I could phrase my question. “I…” My face grew red. “I wanted to say I was sorry again,” I said. “I know it was fast earlier, and…”
“Vanilla-chan, it’s okay,” Yomogi said. “I don’t hold it against you. But yes, I do admit I need to get you back for not doing the dishes. Maybe I should have you do my homework for me for the next week?” She chuckled.
“It’s not that, I just feel like…” I tried searching for words again, but finally just gave up. “Why aren’t you mad at me?”
“Well…it’s not a big deal,” Yomogi said. “Believe me…I don’t have the energy or time to get mad at everyone that lashes out at me. Like water under the bridge, you know?”
“Yeah, I guess,” I said, nodding. It felt weird. Yomogi had the maturity of an adult, which I thought was pretty amazing.
“I’m sorry, Vanilla-chan, but I’ve got to go,” Yomogi said. “See you tomorrow.”
“Yeah, see you tomorrow,” I said. We said our goodbyes and hung up. I stared at my phone for a while, thinking about Yomogi’s quickness to forgive, and started to doze off.
I jerked awake as there was a knock on my door.
“Who is it?” I yelled.
“Your landlady,” Mako said from the other side of the door.
I got up and opened it for her, realizing that I had been asleep for almost an hour. Mako was holding a small plastic container of what appeared to be leftover Chinese fried rice.
“I ordered too much,” she said, “and I didn’t really like it. You want it?”
“Yeah, thanks,” I said. “This weather’s got my energy sapped.” She handed me the container.
“Can I come in?” Mako asked.
“I guess,” I said. Mako entered, taking her shoes off and stepping into the kitchen. “Man, times like this I really worry about Ebifry. I hope he’s using the shelter.”
“Well, you do put food out next to it every day,” I said, as I cleared away some of my dirty clothes to make room for Mako to sit down at my table.
“Hey, I wanted to ask you about what your plans are for summer break,” Mako said.
“I honestly don’t know yet,” I said. I’d have to talk to Kinoshita-san about the summer schedule, and my mother would obviously want me to come home to spend some time with her. “Do you need to know by a certain time?”
“Yeah. I’m going on a family trip in July, and then Daisuke wants to go camping with me some weekend. So the Yamadas are going to look after things here for me.”
I nodded. “I’ll let you know.”
“You doing all right at school?” Mako asked.
I nodded again. “Yeah. We’ve got tests, and then there’s the school championship beginning soon. I find out if I get accepted tomorrow.”
Mako smiled. “Someone like you could clean up. I hope everything goes well.”
“Thanks. Hey, do you want something to drink?”
I had a bottle of my favorite lemon soda in my fridge, so I got two glasses and gave one to Mako. She sipped it, with a look of contentment on her face.
“Man, it doesn’t even feel all that long since we first met,” she said, “but it’s like I’ve known you all my life.”
“And this place feels more like ‘home’ to me, now,” I said.
“Things that bad between you and your mom, huh?”
“Well…” I sighed. “I wouldn’t call them bad, it’s just…I want to give her some space. I’m glad she’s found someone.”
“Koizumi-san seems like a nice guy. Then again, I only really know him from TV,” Mako said. She sipped at her lemon soda. “Hey, what was your father like?”
I smiled, thinking of the ways I could describe him. “I think the best way I could describe him would be…whimsical. He was always talking about food, and ideas he had to make something different or make an ingredient shine. He could be stern to me, but he also taught me pretty much everything. Between him and my mom, I guess…she was kind of fed up with him working so often. Koizumi-san, well…he works a lot, but I think his personality is a lot different. He’s more down to earth.”
“He’s been through a lot, hasn’t he,” Mako said. I nodded.
We finished our lemon soda. “Hey, just leave that container by my door,” Mako said, as she got up to leave. “And let me know what’s happening this summer. I might just break out the barbecue one day or something.”
“Yeah. Thanks for dropping by with the food. I really appreciate it,” I said.
“No problem. My door’s always open to you,” Mako said, winking.
Thursday was the big day: the day I’d find out if I was accepted into the tournament.
Selections were mostly done by merit; if you were in the top of your class academically as well as in your culinary division, you had a good chance of being one of the few selected. Not everyone who was at the top of their game wanted to participate, though: being in the tournament took a lot of time out of extracurricular activities, so not many club members or sports team members participated in the tournament. Also, barring any unforeseen circumstances, every student had three chances to be a contender throughout their school career.
Of course, my grades and performance were high enough to justify me being chosen. After all, how many first year students had a three star rank?
A group of students were clustered around the bulletin board and looking at the names. I pushed my way among them and saw the names on the lists. I smiled broadly.
As I expected, my name was at the top of the Yoshoku Division list, but there were two other familiar names near the top of other division lists: Kei was #2 on the Wagashi Division list, and Yomogi was #1 on the Yogashi Division list. We’d made it together.
“Sakamoto’s number one, of course. Think she’ll stand a chance?”
“I think I can,” I said, and the boy who had muttered under his breath turned red as he realized I had heard him. “But Yomogi Kisaragi is something else.”
“She is,” said a girl’s voice which I recognized as her roommate, Aiko.
“Huh, Tominaga and Mitsurugi are 1 and 2 for Wagashi Division.”
“As to be expected. Have you seen them battle?” I said.
“Man, this is exciting! I wonder who won for the other two years?” said a boy near me, as someone emerged from the office with another sheaf of paper. They tacked the lists up to the bulletin board; first the second years, then the third years.
As I expected, I recognized a few names on the third years’ listings. Michael Furukawa Valentine was listed as #1 on the Yoshoku Division, Taiga Shirogane was #1 for the Washoku Division, and Nadeshiko Enomoto was #5 on the Yogashi Division. I didn’t recognize any of the names on the second year list, but a few people did notice one name in particular—Maria Masuda—who was #1 on the Yoshoku Division list.
“Wow, the roster’s pretty stacked this year, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, I wonder if any of the second or third years are going to repeat.”
“Hey, Vanilla-chan!” said a familiar voice from behind me. I turned to see Yomogi and Kei looking eagerly up at the list. “Hey, you two,” I said.
Yomogi was standing on tiptoes to read the names, and Kei was standing head and shoulders over almost everyone. “Hmm, so I’m up there along with Tominaga-san. Guess we’ll be having a rematch after all,” Kei said.
“Do either of you know who else is competing for the first years in the Yoshoku Division?” I asked them. I saw Kazuya Watanabe’s name at #7, but the rest of the names I didn’t recognize.
“Let’s see…” Yomogi pulled out her phone and took a picture of the three lists. “It’s easier this way. Let’s stand back from the crowd.”
I laughed nervously, not having considered that. Kei, Yomogi and I stood off to the side as Yomogi manipulated the photo on the screen of her phone with her fingers.
“Oh, I know that guy,” Kei said, pointing to #2 on the first years Washoku Division list. “Koichi Date. He’s in my homeroom. He’s a huge fan of chicken.”
“That girl, Miyako Ohara, is in my homeroom,” I said, seeing another familiar name as #5 on the list for the Yogashi Division.
“Looks like there’s a lot of people we’ll have to research,” Yomogi said. “But just think, we’ll be meeting them for the first time on the field of battle! Doesn’t that sound exciting?”
“Heh. I guess it does,” I said. “I have to admit, I do like it when I have to come up with something on the fly, and it’s even better when I manage to win.”
The rest of that day’s excitement was dampened by the fact that today was the first day of our midterms. Everyone was tense and even the lunch rooms were quiet, as they were filled with people trying to do some last minute cramming.
Yomogi, Kei and I ate in our usual place, but there was hardly any talking. All three of us were doing last minute reviews of our tests as well, quizzing each other on academic and food preparation topics.
“Vanilla-chan, Kei-chan, what’s considered the ‘danger zone’ for the proper temperature of raw meat?” Yomogi asked.
“Four degrees Celsius,” we chorused.
“What are the three stages of beating egg whites?” I asked Kei and Yomogi.
“Soft peaks, stiff peaks, and you ruined it,” Yomogi replied.
We continued to pepper each other with questions until the end of lunch. As the bell rang, we looked at each other.
“Good luck, you two,” I said.
“Likewise,” Kei said.
“Let’s do our best,” Yomogi said, “and just think! By this time next week, we’ll be competing.”
“Yeah,” I said. “You two…promise me something. If either of you go up against me in the tournament, give it all you’ve got. I won’t hold back, either.” I held out my pinky finger.
“Let’s promise to meet each other in the finals,” Yomogi said, holding out her pinky. “If not this year, then next year. Or the year after.”
“I promise I’ll support either of you no matter how far we all go,” Kei said. “We’ll support each other.” She held out her pinky.
We touched the three of them together and chanted the familiar childhood rhyme about swallowing a thousand needles if one of us broke our promise before going back into the school building.
As the final tones of the school bell rang, I stretched in my chair triumphantly. Days of studying and reviews had paid off—this was the first time in a long time that I felt confident with my test performances. Now that everything was over, it was time to go to work.
I arrived at Kotobuki Supermarket to see that it was bustling, as usual. Everyone was buying food to beat the early summer heat. I thought about getting myself an unagi kabayaki (grilled eel) bowl for dinner after I was done. I opened the door to the locker room and was greeted with total darkness.
“Hello?” I said, and suddenly the lights clicked on. I was suddenly showered with spirals of paper confetti. My eyes grew wide as I saw all my coworkers cheering and clapping, along with the hand lettered banner reading “Good Luck In The Tournament, Vanilla-chan!”
“Surprise!” Auntie Yumiko said, as she put her arm around my back and guided me into the break room. The table where we usually ate our meals was instead laid out with various goodies and treats: chocolate cookies, a platter of hand-rolled sushi, tea sandwiches, and various sodas and other drinks. I made my way around the room, in a daze, as my coworkers all shook hands and patted me on the shoulder. Even Kinoshita was smiling.
“One of the teachers at Umami Gakuen told us you’d been chosen,” Aya, one of the checkers, said as she showed me a picture of everyone getting the room ready. “We’re all rooting for you.”
“I hope you get to be on TV,” said Hayate, who worked in the prepared food department. “Wouldn’t that be exciting? Maybe Kinoshita will spring for a flat screen for everyone to watch during your match.”
“Don’t bet on it,” Kinoshita said. He smiled as he patted my shoulder. “We’re very proud of you, Sakamoto,” he said. “No matter how well you do at this tournament, know that you’re one of the best.”
I finally found my voice and stammered, “Thanks, everyone. I promise I’ll do my best, and I thank you for being such great coworkers!” I made a deep bow.
The break room started to disperse as everyone went back to their tasks. I took a few pieces of sushi to munch on as I tied on my apron and got ready to do my assignment. “Were you surprised?” Auntie Yumiko asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Thanks. This…really means a lot. I’ve had a rough week with tests and all.”
“Of course. You’re like our little sister, and we’ve got to look out for you,” she said.
“Oh, come on! I came all the way to Tokyo for this, and you don’t even like anything that I’ve picked out for you?”
Emi blew her bangs into the air as I stepped out of the dressing room, the three dresses that she had picked out for me draped over my arm.
“This one is too loose at the top,” I said, holding up a black and white sleeveless dress. “This one is too long at the bottom,” I said, holding up a seafoam green maxi dress. “And this one…” I held up the third dress, a black shift dress that was covered with glitter, and watched as it flaked off and fell on the ground. “I’m gonna leave a trail of glitter like Hansel and Gretel.”
Yomogi and Kei were seated on the bench outside of the fitting rooms, looking bored. Emi’s fashion picks had gone well for both of them, as she matched Yomogi with a dark blue strapless knee length dress with a fluttery hem, and Kei with a pink and purple floral print maxi dress.
Emi took the three dresses back from me. “Ugh, I have no idea why I’m having so much trouble with fitting you,” she said. “We’ve got one more place to check out before we’ve covered Shibuya 109 from top to bottom.”
So why are the four of us at Shibuya 109?
That Friday, the day after the ninety-six competitors were chosen for the summer tournament, we were called to the lecture hall for a meeting. The school headmaster spoke to us about the rules of the tournament: what types of preliminary preparations were allowed, the dress code, when friends and family could spectate. He also passed out copies of the schedule and informed us about the tournament format, and then finally came to the most important announcement of the day: There would be a formal party and icebreaker next Friday evening, which meant only one thing: we needed to dress up.
That’s when my best friend, Emi Kawai, came in. I called her with the news when I got home from school, and as soon as I mentioned the words “formal party” to her, she decided that she’d come to Tokyo and become our personal shopper for the day. She was on a break from her part-time modeling work, and was more than happy to use her fashion sense to outfit the three of us. A few calls and messages with Yomogi and Kei later, and our Sunday fashion shopping date was scheduled.
We had all decided to meet at Shibuya 109 together, and start looking from there. I’d been to Shibuya 109 on a few occasions, and Yomogi was apparently a frequent visitor. “I like seeing how they interpret it in video games,” she said, as she took a picture at a store and showed me a screenshot from a video game that showed a couple of teenagers battling monsters outside of “Shibuya 104.” Kei was also excited to go, but was fairly reluctant because of her height. “I hope you can find something that suits me,” she told Emi as we walked from the station towards the mall.
“I can definitely do that! By the way, have you ever thought about becoming a model?” Emi asked. “You’ve got the perfect height for it.”
We spent a lot of time browsing through stores and holding up dresses to ourselves for approval. I kept to myself as Yomogi, Kei and Emi started getting acquainted with each other. Emi was fascinated with Kei’s karate training and love of all things cute, and Yomogi talked about her activities with the Outdoors Club at school: taking hikes and going rock climbing. I told Emi about the other people I had met, and the fact that the tournament finals were going to be televised.
“Oooh! I’ll have to come down here again!” Emi said. “I’d love to see you battle in person! By the way, we never really did set up that livestream battle, did we?”
“Yeah,” I replied, sheepishly. “Things have just been so busy, though.”
“Don’t feel bad,” Emi said. “Just do your absolute best, and I’m going to do everything I can to see you in person!”
We had arrived at the “one more place” Emi had mentioned, which carried clothing that had sort of an edgy look to it—bright colors and interesting patterns. She found an off-white dress that had an interesting pattern of gold chains that had jewels in various colors and shapes hanging from them. “Try this on,” she said, holding it out along with a gold chain belt.
I did so and found myself transformed. I looked at myself in the mirror and thought I saw my mother for a moment, until I reached up to touch my braids that were pinned to the back of my head as usual. I smiled and stepped out of the dressing room to display to everyone.
“So. What do you think?” I asked.
“Ohhhh!” the girls chorused, all of their expressions turning to admiration. Emi had chosen well, and I struck a few poses in the trio of mirrors, imagining a faux fur stole draped around my arms and carrying a black purse. I could see why Emi enjoyed fashion so much.
“That’s perfect on you!” Emi said. “Now, come on! It’s time for the three of you to find some shoes!”
Emi, Yomogi and I shared a glance that could only be interpreted as saying, “Not again!”
Luckily, the shoe hunt went well, as the three of us were able to find some shoes that went beautifully with each of our dresses—inexpensive flats from a store that carried lots of cute accessories. We practically had to drag Kei out of there, but with our mission accomplished, we exited Shibuya 109 and headed towards a ramen restaurant that some of my classmates had recommended.
“I’m glad that everyone likes what I picked out,” Emi said as she broke her bamboo chopsticks down the center. “I haven’t been in the business for very long, but I know how to dress people to accentuate their best traits. Like your eyes, or your hair.”
Yomogi reached down to take another peek at the beautiful navy-blue dress that Emi had picked out for her. The way she was looking at it made me think that she’d never seen something as beautiful, and that she could hardly believe how good she looked with it on. (Believe me, she did look good. Leave it to Emi-chan!)
“How long have you and Vanilla-chan known each other?” Yomogi asked, as she slurped some of the broth from her tonkotsu ramen.
“Well, we went to the same school since elementary school, but we really didn’t become good friends until my first year of junior high,” I said, deftly picking up my soy sauce flavored boiled egg.
Emi nodded. “There were a bunch of other girls bullying her after her father disappeared. I put a stop to that quickly.” She slurped up a mouthful of noodles.
“Did you get into a fight with them?” Yomogi asked.
“Nah. I just was privy to some very private information about one of their fathers and some illegal activity that I let Vanilla-chan in on,” Emi said. “By the way, I saw that girl that was the ringleader the other day. She was out with a guy old enough to be her dad! Ah, how the mighty have fallen.”
Yomogi looked somewhat uncomfortable upon hearing that, so I decided to change the subject. “Where do you want to go after this? Do you think you have room for dessert?”
“There’s a place near here that serves the best waffles in the world,” Kei said. “They make pink strawberry ones and you can get them with ice cream and chocolate sauce.”
“Ooh! Waffles!” Emi squealed. “That sounds awesome! Let’s do it!”
After the waffle dessert, it was getting close to the time for Emi to catch the train back to Chichibu, so we walked her back to the train station so she could take the branch back to Ikebukuro. “I’ll make it to a televised match! Promise me you’ll make it that far, Vanilla-chan!” she said before we parted ways.
As we watched her go through the turnstile, I turned to Yomogi and Kei. “Well, what do you think of her?” I asked.
“She’s…unique, definitely,” Kei said. “I can see why you two clicked so well.”
“She…reminds me of someone,” Yomogi said, getting a faraway look in her eyes, “and…it’s not someone that’s good.”
“Really?” I asked.
Yomogi nodded. “I’d rather not talk about it right now.” She reached into her bag to check her phone. “I still have some time before I need to get back to the dorm. What would you like to do next? Sing karaoke or go get our pictures done?”
“Hmm…I have a better idea,” I said, looking across the street towards the building housing the Shibuya branch of the World Food Mart. Not only did it feature the best and greatest of all ingredients, there was a whole three floors devoted to the best and most state of the art appliances and tools.
“Oh?” Yomogi noticed it too, and smiled. “Well…maybe we do need to get some shiny new equipment, if we’re going to potentially appear on TV.”
Kei nodded to the two of us, and we walked across the street to the building. The open plaza in front of it was bustling with activity, with stalls showcasing all sorts of different world cuisines—curries, exotic fruits, noodle dishes, and breads both sweet and savory. I tried not to let myself get distracted as we passed through towards the open doors of the main floor.
“This place is making me feel hungry all over again,” I said as we walked through the general grocery aisles that took up the bottom floor towards the escalator.
“I know. What’s worse is this place is so far away compared to school,” Kei said. “Buy anything here and you’d have to lug it all the way back.”
“At least there’s mail order,” I said. We boarded the escalator, and rode a succession of them upwards to the fourth floor. The fourth, fifth and sixth floors were devoted solely to appliances and equipment—tools and small appliances on the fourth, typical household appliances on the fifth, and high-end and commercial appliances on the sixth. Beyond the sixth floor, though, were three more floors that were devoted to the high level gourmet battlers—four stars and above. We got off at the fourth floor and started looking around.
Kei reached into her purse (a black patent heart-shaped purse) and checked her phone. “After that shopping trip, I just hope I have enough money to justify another big purchase,” she said, as she glanced at a display of gleaming chef’s knives made of folded steel. I glanced at the price tag and winced.
“Ugh. Too rich for my blood,” I said. “Hey, do they carry the knives with the cute prints on them?”
“Like what?” Yomogi asked. “I know they’ve got colored ones, but I’ve never seen ones with designs.”
We continued browsing the aisles, picking up pieces of equipment that appealed to us, then putting them back down when we saw the price tags. “This is more expensive than I thought,” I said, as I looked longingly at a ladle that was shaped like a long necked dinosaur, complete with little feet.
“Yeah. Maybe we’d better end things off here,” Yomogi said. “I’m not finding anything that’s calling out to me.”
“Well, we’ve still got time,” I said. “We’ll know where we stand by this time next week.”
“Is it OK with you if I just leave from here?” Kei asked. “I just realized that my train’s in 15 minutes, and my family wanted me home to help clean tonight.”
“Yeah, that’s fine,” I said. “Guess this is where we part ways?”
“See you Monday, Vanilla-chan,” Yomogi said. “And thanks for thinking of us.”
“Thanks for coming out,” I said, smiling as Kei and Yomogi waved to me before making their way down to the escalator. I didn’t really have a reason to leave, so I decided to wander about the store a little more to see if anything caught my fancy.
I found myself in front of the bank of elevators that led to the upper floors that were open to four-stars and above. I glanced down at my phone and my ranking, and wondered if anything would happen if I tried to make my way upstairs. Maybe they’ll make an exception, as I’m the daughter of Yoshiaki Sakamoto, I thought.
I pressed the button on the elevator and watched as the indicator on the wall lit as it descended. The elevator chimed and the doors opened, and I strode inside as if I was the owner of the entire building. So far, there were no security scanners or fingerprint readers or any special high tech meant to keep the riffraff out. I pressed the button for the seventh floor, and the elevator glided up.
“Seventh floor,” the elevator speaker said as it stopped, and the doors opened to a quiet hallway. The storefront for the high level foodstuffs and appliances was walled off behind glass windows, with two uniformed guards flanking the entrance ready to check my credentials. The elevator bank was outside their field of vision, so they hadn’t noticed me yet. I squinted to see if there was any activity in the store behind them, and saw that there was hardly any.
Hesitantly, I stepped off the elevator, looking to my left and right. I didn’t know what kind of childhood whim decided to guide me up to a forbidden kingdom reserved for the world’s best, but my stomach fluttered with the feeling of rebellion. I started down the hallway, but then started to hear voices up ahead.
“…so good to see you doing so well, Shinji-kun,” said a woman’s voice.
“Likewise,” said a very familiar voice. “It’s an exciting time for all of us.”
“Yes. I can’t wait to see what happens.”
I froze, realizing who was the speaker, and backed as quietly as possible back towards the elevator, which was just about to close. I smashed the down button to get to the ground floor, hoping that whoever was approaching would miss this elevator and catch the next one.
My heart was pounding as the elevator glided downwards. There was no mistaking it—that was the voice of my creepy upstairs neighbor, Tenmyouji, that I had heard. But what was he doing here, of all places? And who was it that he was speaking to? There was no way he was also a gourmet battler of this high a caliber—I’d have heard of him, for one thing. And he probably would’ve wanted to challenge me as soon as we met.
The elevator doors opened, and I stepped off, wanting to get out of the World Food Building and back home as soon as possible. I heard the other elevator stop and the doors open as I walked away, and risked the briefest of glances back to confirm my hunch and see who Tenmyouji was traveling with.
But there was no one there.
Now pretty much thoroughly creeped out, I made my way back home, but my apprehension went away as I lifted the dress and shoes I purchased and draped the dress on a hanger that I placed on a hook. I stepped back and looked fondly at it, filling myself with excitement for the days ahead.
Little did I know what else the future would hold…