Chapter 28:

Side Story 2: Friendship is Best Shared

ALLEZ CUISINE! Gourmet Battle Girls

November, the second term of Vanilla’s first year at Umami GakuenBookmark here

“Hey, Sakamoto-san, can you give us a hand here?”Bookmark here

“Yeah, sure! What do you need?”Bookmark here

My classmates and I were putting the finishing touches on our fortune telling parlor, our homeroom’s contribution to the annual cultural festival. The wall of windows that faced the courtyard were covered over with dark curtains, and desks had been pushed together and covered with velveteen tablecloths. Candles with flickering LED bulbs were set in all sorts of strange and weird candleholders—an ornate brass candlestick, a crystal ball, a crystal skull—and everyone was dressed to the nines in various fortune teller costumes. (Well, everyone was dressed to what their idea of a fortune teller looked like.)Bookmark here

“Could you hold the stepladder while I drape this over the top?” Shimada, who had asked me for help, asked. He was carrying a wad of netting that was woven with a pattern of spider webs.Bookmark here

“Yeah, sure. This everything?” I asked.Bookmark here

“Just about,” he said, mounting the ladder. I grabbed the ends and steadied it as he reached the top and draped the fabric over a tent frame that make that corner of the classroom a parlor for reading Tarot cards. “How does it look?”Bookmark here

“Great!” I said.Bookmark here

As Shimada stepped down from the ladder to admire his handiwork, there was a shout from the front. “It’s almost ten! Places everyone!” yelled Masamune Shiotani.Bookmark here

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As the clock struck ten, the Kikunae Ikeda Memorial Culinary and Food Sciences Academy’s annual Cultural Festival went underway. For three days, every classroom would be a showcase, capped off by a massive banquet for our parents and families prepared and planned by every class in the four divisions. Our class was doing a fortune telling parlor, with students working in shifts doing Tarot card readings, crystal pendulum divination, coin fortune telling, and my role, tea leaf reading. I came fully prepared for my two hour shift at the booth, with a bunch of secondhand porcelain teacups and saucers, a dispenser full of hot water and a tin box of loose lea tea, which my future stepsister Caroline Koizumi provided for me. (Yes, I did just say “future stepsister.” Yes, my mother and Ryotaro Koizumi made it official; no, they haven’t set a date yet.)Bookmark here

I sat down and tested the hot water dispenser to make sure the temperature was hot enough, and just as I did, my first two customers came up to me. I recognized the first one immediately: Nadeshiko Enomoto, the Lolita fashion fan from the third year Yogashi Division, wearing one of her trademark outfits—this time, dark red with white lace. Next to her was a girl that right away I could tell was her younger sister, and she was dressed head to toe in black. I admit, she looked more amazing than her big sister, but I didn’t dare say it out loud.Bookmark here

“Welcome, Enomoto-sempai,” I said, formally.Bookmark here

“So this is what your class is doing. Very interesting,” Nadeshiko said. “I shall have to bring my friends here.”
“What about your class?” I asked.Bookmark here

“My suggestion of a proper Victorian tea parlor was outvoted in favor of a hot dog stand,” Nadeshiko said. “I have brought my younger sister Sumire to receive a reading from you.”Bookmark here

“Sumire-chan? Nice to meet you,” I said. She looked at me silently, like a doll, and blinked.Bookmark here

“She is quite shy. She’s in her second year of junior high.”Bookmark here

I had the two of them sit down on the bench in front of me. “I will explain the process of tea leaf reading,” I said. “I will make a cup of loose leaf tea for you, and when it’s done steeping, you will drink it down and leave at least two centimeters at the bottom. Then swirl it around and turn it upside down on the saucer. When you lift it up, I will read from the outside in.” I turned over a three minute timer as I finished adding hot water to the cup. “Sumire-chan, concentrate on the question you would like the tea leaf reading to answer,” I said. She nodded.Bookmark here

As we waited for the tea to steep, Nadeshiko picked up the tea tin and examined it, smiling. “Whoever provided this must be quite the tea connoisseur,” she said.Bookmark here

“Well, Caroline-chan is half English,” I said.Bookmark here

“Do you mean Caroline Koizumi?” Sumire asked, the first time I heard her speak. “She’s very nice.”Bookmark here

The last grains of sand dropped through the timer. “Okay, Sumire-chan, your tea’s ready,”Bookmark here

As she finished the cup and placed it upside down on the saucer, I lifted it up to see what patterns the leaves were making. “Hmm, let’s see…There are a few flying birds here and there, and those usually symbolize a journey or good luck. And since they’re right near the rim, it’s going to happen soon.” I pointed to the spots where the tea leaves had arranged themselves. “And right here is a heart shape. You’ll find love in the future, but not right now. And finally…” I looked at the bottom of the cup to see something vaguely resembling a sailboat. “The symbol at the bottom of the cup is the answer to your question, and the boat represents that you’ll get a visit from someone.”Bookmark here

“Really?” Sumire seemed to brighten up, but her expression was mostly the same. “Well…that’s okay, then.” I heard the sound of her unclasping a purse, and she handed me a 500 yen coin. “Thank you.”Bookmark here

“Nice to meet you, Sumire-chan,” I said. “Enomoto-sempai, I’ll see you later. Make me one with mustard, ketchup and relish.”Bookmark here

Nadeshiko muttered something through gritted teeth as she led Sumire off.Bookmark here

My next customer was…unusual. Her hair was dyed pale pink with temporary hair color, and she was wearing a bright yellow puffy jacket over a neon pink fluffy sweater dress and neon geometric print leggings. There were bright plastic beads strung on the laces of her sneakers, and she had bright plastic bead bracelets on both arms and around her neck. “Momo would like a tea leaf reading,” she said, as she came into my booth and loudly slapped a 500 yen coin on the table.Bookmark here

“Welcome, uh, Momo-chan,” I said. “If it’s okay to call you that.”Bookmark here

“Momo’s full name is Momoko Ijuuin, but Momo-chan is fine,” she said. “And you must be the girl that choked at the Summer Invitational.”Bookmark here

UGH. I felt like my stomach had been sucker punched. Momo smiled at me smugly as she held out the teacup. Silently, I put a big pinch of tea leaves in and added the hot water, then turned over the timer. “Concentrate on the question you want answered,” I said.Bookmark here

Momo blew some of her bangs in the air. “Momo’s had tea leaf readings done before, you know,” she said.Bookmark here

When her tea was finished, I looked inside the cup to see a bunch of clouds clustered on the side. “Looks like you have some dark clouds on the horizon,” I said. On the bottom was a shape that looked vaguely like a double headed battle axe. “However, I think you’re going to be able to overcome them.”Bookmark here

Momo got up without saying thank you, and threw back the curtain to the booth to reveal the person that had been waiting outside—and I recognized her immediately as Hanabi Sakuraba, the girl I had met in the audience at the Summer Invitational.Bookmark here

“Hi there! Sakamoto-san, right?” she said, in her Osaka dialect.Bookmark here

“Yeah! It’s been a while. How’ve you been?” I asked.Bookmark here

Hanabi approached my table, smiling. “All right,” she said. “What about you?”Bookmark here

“I’ve been all right,” I said. “Glad that things are a little less stressful.”Bookmark here

“Sorry about Momo-chan. She’s one of my classmates,” Hanabi said, in a low voice. “Not exactly the most pleasant person in the world either.”Bookmark here

I took her money and prepared a cup of tea for her. “All right, concentrate on the question you’d like answered,” I said, as I turned the three minute timer over. “Where else have you been? I haven’t seen the entire festival yet.”Bookmark here

“Well, I saw Kisaragi-san with the Outdoors Club doing the rock climbing wall down in the courtyard,” Hanabi said. “I went to the band concert earlier. And there’s a third year classroom that turned into a planetarium. It’s pretty cool.”Bookmark here

The final grains of sand trickled through the timer. “Tea’s ready,” I said. Hanabi started drinking, then put the cup upside down on the saucer. I waited a few seconds before picking it up.Bookmark here

“So up here is the arrow,” I said, pointing. “That usually means that you should go ahead and do what you’re planning to do right now. And the middle here…I’m seeing a lot of flowers and stars. Those usually signify inspiration and dreams, and the enjoyment of life. And at the bottom…that’s an owl, the symbol of happiness and wisdom.”Bookmark here

“Uh-huh…” Hanabi nodded, looking rather withdrawn.Bookmark here

“Are you okay?” I asked.Bookmark here

“Yeah, it’s just…My question was related to taking the entrance exams to Umami Gakuen,” Hanabi said. “I haven’t decided whether or not I’m gonna do ‘em yet, but…I was hopin’ maybe I could get some advice or something?”Bookmark here

“Well…” I looked at my schedule. “I get off my shift around noon. Maybe I could meet you here and we can go talk? I’ll tell you about how I ended up here.”Bookmark here

“Yeah, that sounds good,” Hanabi said. Bookmark here

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At noon, one of my classmates relieved me, and I got up to stretch my legs. I noticed Hanabi waiting for me outside the classroom.Bookmark here

“I know where we can go and talk,” I said, as I led her downstairs to the courtyard where we ate our lunch on a normal day. It was a little chilly out, but the sun was shining.Bookmark here

“I really like this place after everything I’ve seen about it,” Hanabi said as we sat down. “But I’m still not too sure about it.”Bookmark here

“Well…I have to say that my reason for coming here was purely selfish, but now…” I looked up at the bare trees and watched a cloud drift by. “I’ll tell you about it.”Bookmark here

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Chichibu, about two years agoBookmark here

“All right! One and a half stars!”Bookmark here

I woke up bright and early that morning to check on my National Professional Gourmet Battle League ranking and smiled as I found that my triumphs over the past two days had finally updated. Only six months since my fourteenth birthday, I had made it to a one and a half star ranking—something that took the typical gourmet battler a year of hard work.Bookmark here

As I triumphantly marched into the kitchen, I noticed that my dad Yoshiaki was awake—a rare occasion. Usually it happened on a day when he needed to go into Tokyo for a taping or a special event, and this was one of those days: he’d be leaving that afternoon with a group of chefs for a special expedition into the Himalayas where they’d be searching for some rare and exotic ingredients to use for an upcoming national competition.Bookmark here

“Good morning, Vanilla-chan,” Yoshiaki said as he held up his cup of coffee. “Do you want some? I just made a fresh pot.”Bookmark here

“I’m fine, thank you,” I said. “Look!” I brandished my phone.Bookmark here

“One and a half stars?” Yoshiaki took my phone in disbelief, smiling. “Vanilla-chan, where do you find the time to challenge all these people?”Bookmark here

“I’ve made a list,” I said. “Every restaurant and cafeteria within walking distance of the route between home and school. I’ve challenged half of them so far.”Bookmark here

Yoshiaki smiled and ruffled my hair. “Nothing but the best, huh?”Bookmark here

“Where’s Mom?”Bookmark here

“She’s still asleep. I already said goodbye to her. If you need to wash up, I’m all done.”Bookmark here

“How long are you going to be away?”Bookmark here

“I should be back in about two weeks. We’ll talk about our summer vacation plans then, all right?” Yoshiaki smiled again as he got up to put his coffee cup in the sink.Bookmark here

I nodded. “Be careful, Dad,” I said.Bookmark here

By the time I was done in the shower, my mother had awakened, and my father was nowhere to be seen. “The taxi came a few minutes ago,” she said.Bookmark here

“Darn, I wanted to see him off,” I said, as I put my lunch box into its insulated bag.Bookmark here

My mother didn’t say anything, but continued to drink her coffee. “Are you returning from school at the normal time tonight?”Bookmark here

I looked down at my phone to check my schedule. “Well…I don’t know. There’s three battles that I have the possibility of challenging tonight,” I said.Bookmark here

“Well, come home whenever, then,” my mother said, and I could hear her eyes roll in her voice.Bookmark here

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I got to school after a short walk, and entered the classroom. My classmates didn’t really take much notice of me, except for Emi Kawai, who sat next to me. She was always really friendly with me.Bookmark here

“Morning, Vanilla-san!” she said as she sat down. “I heard your father’s going on an expedition?”Bookmark here

“Yeah. He left this morning,” I said.Bookmark here

“Sounds exciting! I can’t wait to see what happens!” Emi smiled as she started arranging her homework.Bookmark here

The rest of the morning and afternoon was uneventful until math class started. As the teacher was explaining the quadratic formula, the school PA system suddenly clicked on. “Vanilla Sakamoto, please report to the faculty room immediately. Vanilla Sakamoto, please report to the faculty room immediately.”Bookmark here

There was a brief bit of chatter from the other girls. “Ooh, Sakamoto’s in troooooouble,” someone murmured, and there was a giggle that was immediately silenced by the teacher.Bookmark here

“Go now,” she said, indicating the door. I got up, bewildered, and slid the door open.Bookmark here

How come I had been called to the office? Did something happen at home? I made my way down the corridor towards the faculty office, which was on the lower floor, and as I did, I heard the sound of a TV: “…initiated an emergency descent, and that was when the tower lost contact. Search and rescue crews have been dispatched, and we will keep you apprised of any further details. Once again, a flight carrying a Ginga TV crew and five passengers, including Yoshiaki Sakamoto, has been reported missing over…”Bookmark here

“Oh my god, turn that off! She’ll be here any second!” Someone from inside the faculty office yelled as they opened the door, and realized that I had been standing there all this time. It was Tanimoto-sensei, my literature teacher. “Sakamoto-san…your mother is here. There’s an emergency.”Bookmark here

Dazed, I moved towards the door of the faculty office almost robotically, and saw my mother sitting in one of the chairs, looking extremely panicked. She noticed me and reached out her hand.Bookmark here

“Vanilla-chan…Did you hear on the TV just now?” she asked.Bookmark here

I nodded.Bookmark here

“I’m taking you home.” Bookmark here

I nodded again, barely able to speak.Bookmark here

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My mother and I rode a taxi back home from the school. It was a different one than usual—ours had dark tinted windows, and I realized as we got closer to our house, that they were there for a reason: reporters were beginning to make their way over.Bookmark here

When I got home, my mother’s brother and wife were there. Like my mother, my uncle was involved in the family’s hotel business, and lived in Chichibu. They were often my babysitters if my mother and father were both on business trips. My mother led me into the living room and seated me on the couch.Bookmark here

“I am going into Tokyo,” she said. “I expect I’ll be there at least a few days. Shintaro-san and Sakura-san will be staying here with you while I’m gone.”Bookmark here

I nodded, still shocked, still unable to speak, as my mother went into her bedroom and came out a few minutes later with a hastily packed overnight bag. “Watch over Vanilla-chan,” my mother instructed her relatives. “Make sure no reporters get anywhere near here. I’ve left the number for the taxi company on the kitchen table if you need it, and the school knows she’ll be absent…”Bookmark here

Uncle Shintaro put his hand on my mother’s shoulder. “Go now,” he said. “Vanilla-chan will be safe with us. I’ll try to keep her away from the news.”Bookmark here

As my mother raced out the door, Uncle Shintaro went over to our TV set and disconnected the power cord from it. “I will take this for now,” he said. “Your mom will let you know the news when it’s time.”Bookmark here

I nodded. I felt like a rock at the bottom of the ocean.Bookmark here

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The feeling didn’t go away for days. While I didn’t have the TV, I did have my cell phone, so I kept up with the news. I learned that after my father and the other members of the expedition left Tokyo, they were headed towards the Himalayas—and that’s when they disappeared from radar. The weather was clear in that area, and there were no signs of a crash landing or any debris field. It was as if they had completely vanished.
My mother came home from Tokyo after about five days, and it was like she was a completely different person. I saw her go into the bedroom she shared with my father and started packing his possessions away. “I don’t even want to see these,” she said as she pushed boxes into the closet.Bookmark here

I didn’t go back to school for over two weeks, and when I did, I opened the door to the classroom to almost complete silence. Everyone’s eyes were on me as I came in and sat down at my desk, which was covered in envelopes containing sympathy cards.Bookmark here

“Sakamoto-san, welcome back,” said Hinoda-sensei. “It’s been a very difficult couple of weeks for you.”Bookmark here

“Thank you,” I murmured as I sat down and neatly stacked up the cards.Bookmark here

During lunch, Emi came over to me. “Sakamoto-san, how are you feeling?” she asked. “I’ve been very worried about you.”Bookmark here

“I don’t know,” I said. “What am I supposed to feel?” I felt like I was completely numb and all my feelings were robbed from me.Bookmark here

“Do you want to come over to my place for dinner tonight?” Emi asked.Bookmark here

That’s when my friendship with Emi really started. During that first dinner with Emi and her family, I think I smiled for the first time in weeks. My mother was happy to hear that, and from then on, Emi and I were almost inseparable. She walked with me to and from school, and I spent hours listening to her talk about her dreams. Bookmark here

“I want to be a model,” she said, looking up at the tree lined walk. “My mom and I took some time and talked about it and she agreed to support me if I keep my grades up. So I’ve been sending some headshots to magazines and agencies and such!”Bookmark here

“Will the school let you be a model?” I asked. (We went to an all girls’ Catholic private school, remember.)Bookmark here

“Well, as long as I keep it modest,” Emi said. “No swimsuits until I’m 18, and I need to be at a healthy weight.”Bookmark here

One day, which must’ve been about six or seven months after I started my friendship with her, we were on our way to school together one morning when we passed by a man I vaguely recognized sweeping the outside of a restaurant. “You’re Sakamoto-san’s daughter,” he said as we walked by. “I heard they’ve officially called off the search…I’m so sorry about your father.”Bookmark here

He can’t be gone, I thought, shaking my head. He’s still out there…somewhere. But the words punched a hole in my heart, and as we walked past, I felt the tears spilling out.Bookmark here

“Vanilla-chan…” Emi and I sat down together on the side of the road, and she held me as I felt the tears coming down my face. I was crying so loudly and brokenly, everyone was stopping to look. I felt uncomfortable.Bookmark here

From then on, I decided the best way to deal with my pain would be to swallow it, and put on a mask. I took down my list of restaurants and made a schedule: every other day would be a challenge. I spent all my spare time at home in the kitchen, experimenting on one thing or another.Bookmark here

I’m going to be a five star Gourmet Battler like my father, so I can get the corporate sponsorships and become rich enough to unravel the reason why he disappeared, I vowed to myself as I started improving my ranking.Bookmark here

Around that time, everyone in my class was starting to think about what they wanted to do for high school in the future. Since my school had a high school division with automatic entry, many of my friends and classmates were staying on, but I had another goal in mind: Umami Gakuen.Bookmark here

“Look at this,” I said to Emi one day as we spent study hall in the library, looking at higher education pamphlets. “They have a whole building devoted to the culinary arts, and a whole building dedicated to food science!”Bookmark here

“Wow, that’s amazing,” Emi said as she looked at all the state of the art equipment. “I don’t know what any of the stuff is in these pictures, but…”Bookmark here

“That’s a sous-vide immersion heater,” I said, pointing. “That’s a nitrogen canister for dispensing whipped cream.”Bookmark here

“You really know your stuff,” Emi said. “What division do you think you want to be in?”Bookmark here

“The Yoshoku Division.”Bookmark here

“That covers cuisine from pretty much everywhere in the world, isn’t it? Do you think you can handle that?”Bookmark here

“Of course! It’s what I’ve been training for,” I said.Bookmark here

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When I presented the pamphlet to my mother and told her my wishes, she answered with a flat, “Absolutely not.”
“How come?” I asked. “Is it because of Dad?”Bookmark here

“I can’t see why you don’t want to take things easy. You’ve got a wonderful high school education waiting for you, and you don’t even have to lift a finger,” my mother said.Bookmark here

“This is what I want,” I said. “I want to go to Umami Gakuen and become a professional gourmet battler!”Bookmark here

“Vanilla-chan…all you’re doing is thinking about gourmet battles. You need to step back and breathe.”Bookmark here

It seemed like nothing I could do could persuade my mother, so I expressed my frustrations to Emi the next day. “Let me see what I can do to help,” she said. “I think my mother knows someone who went to Umami Gakuen…”Bookmark here

Sure enough, Emi’s mother did, and one afternoon I came home to see a middle aged man that I recognized as the manager of one of the restaurants affiliated with our family’s hotel talking with my mother over a cup of coffee.Bookmark here

“Even if she doesn’t go pro, she’s pretty much guaranteed steady employment,” I heard him say as I stopped in the genkan to take off my shoes. “I’ve had seven Umami Gakuen grads on staff since I started, and every one of them has left having made some great improvements. It’s not just cooking all the time. There’s classes in business, accounting, nutrition…”Bookmark here

I stepped into the kitchen to see my mother looking somewhat chastened. “Vanilla-chan, do you remember Yukiyama-san? He’s the manager of one of our restaurants,” she said, and Yukiyama-san nodded cordially to me.Bookmark here

“Yes, I do,” I said, vaguely remembering him from a visit we made as a family.Bookmark here

“I’ve been talking with your mother about my time at Umami Gakuen,” he said. “Do you have any questions for me?”Bookmark here

I did, so I sat down at the table and asked him about the curriculum and facilities—questions that I thought my mother would consider intelligent. We spent a few hours talking, and by the time that Yukiyama-san left, my mother felt convinced.Bookmark here

“Vanilla-chan, I’ll let you take the entrance exam to Umami Gakuen,” she said. “However, if you don’t get in, don’t be disappointed. They do have a very strong collegiate program.”Bookmark here

I nodded, but I knew that I was going to ace the entrance examination. Every afternoon that I wasn’t gourmet battling, Emi and I were having study sessions. Since she was moving on to Sacred Heart’s high school, she didn’t have to go through exam hell, so she helped me with my academics.Bookmark here

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The day the exam was scheduled, I woke up to a quiet house. “Mom, are you there?” I called. She would have accompanied me on the train into Tokyo to take the exam at Umami Gakuen, but when I looked around the house, I found she was nowhere to be seen. Then I spotted a note on the kitchen counter:Bookmark here

To Vanilla-chan: There was a fire and flood at the hotel early this morning. I need to be there to assess the damage so I can’t come with you. I called Emi and her mom and they will meet you at the train station. Be there at 8 AM sharp and don’t be late. –MomBookmark here

“How convenient,” I muttered, as I checked the time. It was 6:30, which meant I had to get down to the train station fast. No time for a conventional shower—I washed up and quickly braided my hair, then packed everything I needed into a shoulder bag. My school uniform was a little wrinkled, but it would have to do, and breakfast would need to be on the go.Bookmark here

When I arrived at the station, I hardly had time to relax. I ran towards the nearest donut shop and ordered a donut and a coffee, when I saw Emi and her mother approaching. “Emi-chan!” I yelled, waving from inside, and the two of them entered to meet me.Bookmark here

“You ready to go?” Emi’s mother said.Bookmark here

“Yeah…I’m nervous, but I think I’ll be able to do it,” I said.Bookmark here

Emi smiled. “It’ll be all right! You can definitely do it.”Bookmark here

A couple hours and a train change later, we arrived at the station serving Umami Gakuen. I looked around at the unfamiliar scenery, and saw the gates of Umami Gakuen looming in front of me. My eyes were drawn to the shiny apple spilling out of the cornucopia. “They say if you rub that, it’s good luck on your exams,” Emi whispered.Bookmark here

I took a deep breath and looked back at Emi and her mom. “Well. Wish me luck,” I said.Bookmark here

“You’ll do fine. Trust me,” Emi’s mother said.Bookmark here

I stepped towards the gates and reached out, brushing the apple with my fingers. I was one among a sea of different school uniforms.Bookmark here

“Everyone, come this way!” said a boy’s voice. He and another boy were standing in front of a sign directing all the incoming testing students towards their designated lines for registration. I followed the arrow that indicated my family name towards a line, and got into it. In front of me, I noticed a green haired girl with glasses wearing a navy blue sailor-style uniform with a white striped scarf, wringing her hands nervously. The tallest girl I’d ever seen, who was wearing a dark green suit jacket over a white blouse, navy blue tie and plaid skirt, got into line a few paces behind me. This is it, I thought. No turning back now.Bookmark here

“Your name, please?” the woman at the head of the line said. She was typing into a laptop computer.Bookmark here

“Vanilla Sakamoto, from Sacred Heart Girls’ School Junior High,” I replied.Bookmark here

“You’re testing into the Yoshoku Division, correct? Your practical exam will be this morning. This afternoon will be your written exam.” She handed me a professional looking folder. “Here are your forms and documents for your parents. Don’t lose them.”Bookmark here

“Yes, ma’am,” I said, and then glanced over at the building where the practical exams would be taking place.Bookmark here

My eyes widened as I stepped into the kitchen.Bookmark here

“Wow…”Bookmark here

Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d ever be given the freedom to cook in a place like this! It was like the sets my father had done his shows on, but for more than one or two people. I stepped over to my designated station and looked down at the gleaming chrome countertop and stove, then at the refrigerators and pantries that were chock full of various ingredients.Bookmark here

“If everyone can please settle down, we can begin,” said the exam proctor. He was a middle-aged man with glasses. Everyone stepped behind one of the cooking stations and we looked as one up at the whiteboard, where the teacher wrote four kanji on the board behind him:Bookmark here

一汁三菜 Bookmark here

Ichi juu san sai. One soup, three sides,” the proctor said. “Your assignment for the next few hours is to create your interpretation. You are welcome to use any of the ingredients in this room, and any cooking techniques you so desire. All work must be done independently, and if you have any specific questions on locating any ingredients or equipment, I will be available at the front of the room.” He looked down at his watch. “You may begin now.”Bookmark here

A few people sprang into activity. A few others hesitated, trying to think of a plan. I grinned, because I had dealt with making a full entrée in much less time many times before.Bookmark here

All right. One soup three sides, huh? I thought. Bookmark here

I decided to go for a traditional Japanese meal with a Western twist: vegetable miso soup, a green salad with freshly made carrot ginger dressing, ginger pork, and rice cooked with seaweed. I took off my suit jacket and rolled up my sleeves, until I realized my braids were swinging around. I reached into the pocket of my skirt and realized I still had some hair clips from the other day in there, and used them to pin the ends of the braids to the back of my head. Perfect. I caught a look at myself in the reflection of a shiny chrome pot, and even if it was distorted, I liked the way I looked.Bookmark here

First: miso soup. I found a bunch of savory root vegetables—carrots, onion, potato, taro root, turnips—that I cut into tiny cubes and braised a bit with some vegetable oil in a stock pot before I poured in some instant dashi broth. I set the pot to low heat so the vegetables could simmer and get tender.Bookmark here

Second: rice. I started washing rice in a colander, scrubbing it between my hands until everything rinsed clear. I let it soak while I pulled some dried seaweed from a bag and started chopping it into small pieces, which I mixed in with the rice. Everything went into a rice cooker, which I closed and turned on.Bookmark here

Third: the ginger pork. I tried not to let myself get distracted by the selection of meats they had in the refrigerator, but selected a package of pork cutlets and started tenderizing them on a cutting board. I dredged them lightly in flour before putting a frying pan on the stove, adding some oil, and letting it heat while I grated ginger, garlic and a little bit of a sweet green apple into a small bowl filled with a mixture of soy sauce, mirin and sake. I divided my attention between the simmering vegetable soup and the frying pork cutlets, making sure everything was tender in one pan and browning evenly in the other.Bookmark here

“All right!” I said, wiping my brow. “Let’s get everything assembled!”Bookmark here

The pork cutlets were cooked thoroughly, so I poured my sauce into the pan and let it reduce over the heat as I shook the pan, letting the flavor wash over the pork cutlets thoroughly. Satisfied, I put it on the back burner as I turned to the pot of soup with a bamboo skewer. I dipped a ladle in and brought up a piece of potato, which yielded easily when I tried to push the skewer through it. I grabbed the tub of miso and put a good sized dollop into a wire strainer, which I carefully dipped into the simmering soup and stirred so that it would be evenly distributed.Bookmark here

Fourth: the salad and dressing. I got a head of romaine lettuce, and tore the leafy parts from the top. I cut up a long cucumber into thin slices and found some tiny cherry tomatoes. The dressing would be next: it was something that my dad liked to whip up when we were out, and I felt like I had to use this particular recipe. I started grating carrots one by one on a grater, and as they began to fall apart and become juicy, I grated another piece of ginger, enough to flavor everything before I started binding everything together with a bit of mayonnaise. It was a pale orange throughout, and absolutely perfect as I took a brief taste.Bookmark here

Suddenly, my father’s face flashed in my mind. If he were here…he would’ve taken me to Umami Gakuen instead of Emi-chan and her mom. The room seemed to become quieter, and that feeling of being a rock at the bottom of the ocean threatened to overtake me. Dad, if you were here right now, what would you think about me? I thought as I stared down at the salad dressing. My hands were trembling and tears were beginning to spill from my eyes.Bookmark here

Put a mask on. Swallow the pain. Remember. You’re here because it’s the first step to become a five-star Gourmet Battler, I told myself.Bookmark here

I started grabbing bowls and plates for my creation. A ladle full of vegetable soup went into a soup bowl, and a good scoop of rice, snow white with flecks of green seaweed, went into a rice bowl. The large plate was reserved for the fragrant, steaming ginger pork cutlet, and on the small plate, artfully arranged, was my green salad, drizzled with pale orange dressing. I stepped back from my creation, breathing in the scent.Bookmark here

This is probably my best work, I thought, imagining the faces of the exam proctors as they tasted each portion of my meal. I was excited as I looked down at the clouds of steam rising off everything. I glanced around the room to see some of my peers finishing up, and others freaking out as something didn’t work out the way they intended it to. Bookmark here

“Excuse me, sir, I’m ready to present,” I said to the exam proctor. He looked up from the paperwork he was grading.Bookmark here

“Excellent. There are trays right over here, and if you could load everything up, the judges are in the next room,” he said.Bookmark here

I followed his instructions and put the trays on a wheeled cart, which I slowly pushed down the hall to the next room. A group of what appeared to be teachers was sitting around inside, and as I approached the door, I noticed one of them get up and accept the tray.Bookmark here

“Thank you, miss,” she said as she took my food. “I’m Toyota-sensei, by the way, and I’ll be judging your finished dishes. You’re free to take a break now.”Bookmark here

“Thank you,” I said, and as I turned my back and shut the door, I heard her excited sigh as she must’ve been admiring my food.Bookmark here

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After a one hour break, which I used to take a walk around the facility and check out the cafeterias and the library, we were ushered into classrooms in the academic building, where everyone would be sitting the written exam. It was the standard high school entrance exam one might encounter at any Japanese high school that offered a quality vocational education—general academic questions, as well as once centered around aspects of food preparation or science. I felt confident looking down at the paper and filling in my answers, and finished the exam feeling good about myself.Bookmark here

As everyone was dismissed from the building, I pulled out my phone to message Emi that I was waiting for her at the entrance to the school. Sure enough, she and her mother were already there.Bookmark here

“How did everything go?” she asked.Bookmark here

“I think I did pretty well,” I said. “I’ll know in two weeks or so.”Bookmark here

“That’s good to hear. I’m glad everything went well,” Emi’s mother said. “I found an ice cream place nearby, why don’t we head over there for a little treat?”Bookmark here

“I’d love that,” I said. “Thank you!”Bookmark here

After we finished our ice cream, we made our way back onto the train and on our way home. I didn’t see any messages from my mother asking about how everything was going, so I decided to send one to her.Bookmark here

To: Mom From: Vanilla
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I think I did all right. I will know in 2 weeks.Bookmark here

There wasn’t any reply for a while, so I decided to settle back down into my seat and take a nap for the rest of the ride home, now that all the tension of the day had melted away.Bookmark here

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“…so now you know,” I finished, as Hanabi listened, transfixed. “Of course, I’m skipping all the parts where my mom and I fought because…well, you don’t really want to hear about it. We patched things up, of course.”Bookmark here

Hanabi nodded. “I had no idea you had such a sad reason for coming here. I’m so sorry.”Bookmark here

“Thank you,” I said. “Honestly, though, after this past summer, I’ve had to really reexamine myself, and I think I’ve got you to thank for it.”Bookmark here

“Huh?” Hanabi said, blinking.Bookmark here

“Well, you’re the first person I ever met that was a fan of me and not my father, so…If I’m reaching out to a new generation then…I guess I found my reason to be here, didn’t I?” I said, smiling.Bookmark here

Hanabi got up. “Well, thanks for taking the time to talk to me. I think I’ve decided, I’m going to take the exam for next year!” She smiled broadly and stuck out her hand for a handshake. “Thanks so much, Vanilla-san! I owe you one!”Bookmark here

I shook Hanabi’s hand. “If you need help on the exam, you know who to turn to,” I said.Bookmark here

I watched and waved at Hanabi as she walked away towards another part of the campus. I looked up at the blue, cloudless sky and sighed, the painful memories of a couple years ago still feeling raw, like I had just ripped off the bandaid. But it was for a good reason.Bookmark here

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I think I’d better find Nadeshiko’s class’s hot dog stand, I thought to myself as I walked back into the building.Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.