Lost in Japan
There was a movie theater at the top of the mall. It was small. I doubted it had more than three screening rooms. Sean was looking at the posters for different films. There seemed to be a romance film with one girl and at least a hundred men pinning after her. Another that looked like a cheezy yakuza film, given the actor’s tattoos and silly faces. Sean was looking at what I would’ve guessed to have been a family drama. “You wanna catch a movie? It’d be a good way to kill some time.”
He leaned back away from the poster. “No, I’m not really in the mood.” He got on the escalator back down.
“Well, then," I said, boarding after. "How about we look for yukata to wear at your grandma’s inn? Didn’t you say it’s pretty traditional?”
“Those are expensive.”
“Oh, right.” The ambient chatter from the mall sat in its monotone. “Is there anything nearby to do? Shizuoka seems pretty big.”
“I don’t know.” He moved his hand from the escalator’s rails to inside his sweatshirt pocket. Was he feeling sick? We did go overboard on the sweets today. But Sean usually has such an iron stomach.
“We can just walk around. I mean, that’s what we’ve been doing anyways. Plus, the fresh air will do some good.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just that we, uh, you know, have been traveling a lot today. Good to get some exercise, ha ha.” We rode down without another word and walked outside without direction. “Woah, Sean, look at that,” I said, pointing up the street. “There’s a castle right over there. That’s crazy. We’ve just walked outside.” He nodded and then walked up the street.
It surprised me for it seemed both ancient and new. There was a beauty to the walls. Its base of cobblestone ascended from the moat to a pure white, death-like, as waters rippled and koi fish swam in a circle. Except there wasn’t a castle. The large building was merely the eastern turret of a much larger and now vanquished structure. We crossed through a wooden gate not into a courtyard but into the sun reflecting off spring grass, pinching our skin.
It was a ruin. Unlike the Tintern Abbeys of the world, which are left abandoned to the caretaker of mother nature who reluctantly preservers herself for tourists' melancholy meditations, here there was a park, a school, and government offices. The shadow of Shizuoka’s buildings before the gate passed like a cloud, though coldly. It reminded me of home where the suburbs sprawled like moss and ivy.
There was a playground in the far back where two people were hanging out on the swings. Closer in that direction, I saw a familiar sprouting green and light pink. Cherry blossoms. If they were already that color, there was a chance I would see them in full bloom while in Japan. “Sean, look!” I yanked his arm so his head would look up from the ground. “Sakura!”
I lay down in the dirt under the trees and watched the clouds drift along the sky like boats on the ocean. Sean was digging a small hole in the dirt with a twig. I thought I should say something or take his temperature. Wait. I’m not just gonna touch his forehead. What am I? His mom? When I looked into his eyes, they were like the stones at the bottom of the moat. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. One moment we’re laughing at a bookstore and the next…well, he wasn’t laughing all that much. Isn’t he having fun?
A group of friends were laughing as they wandered through the park, like we had been in our few days through Tokyo which had fizzled out to the somber silence. It was already late into the afternoon. After tomorrow my trip would be halfway over which meant that day was the last day I could enjoy the nation free from the lingering worry of departure. “You know, Sean, you’re being really quiet. Not feeling well?”
He stopped digging. “I’m enjoying our hanami.”
“Hanami. Means flower viewing.”
“Gotcha,” I said. “It’d be nice to see them in full bloom while I’m here. This is nice though. Almost makes you wanna write a haikyuu, ha ha.” I nudged his shoulder and he swayed like a tree branch in the wind. “Got anything?”
“Sure. I’ve got one.” He held his twig like a pen and pointed it at me. “Early spring sunrise. / A fly yearns with a dogwood, / the last moonwatchers.”
I wasn't expecting something so out of pocket. “Yeah, that’s pretty good," I said. I couldn't admit I didn't understand it, so I tried to offer some more substantial commentary. "You got the moon in there.”
The twig snapped. Sean stood up. “We should get back. Eat something before we go,” he said, heading back to the gate.
Off to the side of the wall was a small thicket that concealed a large stone. White moss grew in the cracks of the eroded engravings. “What’s it say?” I asked Sean. “Is it a grave or something?”
“I don’t know,” he said, with hardly a glance. I knew he could read Japanese, he’d been doing it this whole trip, plus he goes to a Japanese school. If he was feeling exhausted from all our socializing, he could just say so. I knew he was more introverted than me. I wouldn’t take it personally.
We returned to the station at the same time all the students from the stores, or from clubs at school, would have flocked to their trains to return home had they not been on break. Among this commotion existed a group of people who rotated every day. This group were the last-minute errand runners, whether housewives, children called at the last moment, or estranged salarymen living alone, this specific group of people took comfort in knowing that anything they could need before returning home was underground at the station. We joined this latter group.
The marketplace was filled with rambunctious store clerks welcoming passersby, the ringing of registers opening and closing, the sizzling of food, giggling, and all other normal walks of city street life amplified by the indoor echo. Croquettes, pastries, and loaves of bread were on display within the wooden baskets of the tables. Sean grabbed a baguette and paid. I thought it might be our dinner, but Sean followed his nose to the opposite side of the market where different food stands lined the walls. There were meats and sweets, fish and fruits, bowls and things you could hold. Sean found a stall that had a wonderful display of all kinds of meats and vegetables shoved together with bamboo skewers.
After Sean ordered, we sat at some tables in the corner and opened out skewers. Sean had chosen quite the variety for us, but he wouldn’t talk about it. Not about the name, flavor profile, or origin. The first skewers opened were a stack of thin white meats that looked like squished and grilled gyoza. He looked down at his food as he ate.
I took a bite. “This is so freaking good,” I said, before taking another. “It’s so crunchy but also soft. What's it called?"
"Cartilage," Sean said, letting a smile escape him, but he kept his head down.
“Someone’s happy,” I said, as Sean was mid-bite. He retracted from his skewer, looking to the market crowd dim down. “That’s the first you’ve smiled since we left the mall.”
Sean continued chewing, but slower. He set it down half eaten.