A short story based on true events:
In Japan, I measured time in train rides. Though technically I was living in Tokyo, in reality, I was merely a part of one ward out of the 27 that make up the world’s biggest metropolis. Mitaka ward lies half an hour west of Tokyo proper. When we wanted to escape the monotony of the suburb International Christian University was in, my friends and I would have to bike for 10 minutes to reach Musashisakai Station, and take the rapid train to Shinjuku Station. Thirty minutes and 310 yen. Shibuya? One hour and 390 yen. Roppongi? One hour and 660 yen—they charged us more because we transferred to a subway line. We memorized the scores of station names and the color-coded lines of the subway and train systems that constitute the commuter’s unofficial map of Tokyo.
But one day I found myself traveling to Odaiba—one hour 30 minutes and 800 yen—in order to put to rest the myth of the goukon.
As a teenager, I discovered the term goukon as part of canonical Japanese shoujo, young girl, genre of manga. A direct translation labels goukon as a group date. Based on what I had seen in movies, dramas, anime and manga, a goukon is a mixer organized by one participating member who was in charge of bringing together two groups of friends—most importantly of the opposite gender. The number and place were debatable; on average maybe 6 to 8 people and anywhere from a restaurant to an izakkaya, or Japanese-style pub. What’s remarkable about a goukon is how it manages to appear as a casual meeting, but is in actuality a carefully planned operation for finding a boyfriend/girlfriend.
Like most fans of Japanese culture I had a checklist of things I wanted to accomplish while abroad: view the cityscape from Tokyo Tower, shop in Harajuku, witness a sumo match, go to karaoke, and visit a cat café. Except, my list also included being a member of a goukon. As my year abroad was drawing to a conclusion, my list was mostly complete, but the image of the unchecked goukon kept haunting me at night. I was waiting for a goukon to land ever-so-casually on my lap, but it seemed impossible for a foreigner to gain access to this key aspect of Japanese culture.
I didn’t know that all I needed was someone to show me the way.
When I first met Ryuta at a nightclub in Roppongi, he was the typical Japanese “salaryman” with his full piece suit and glasses. All he needed was a lanyard with his name and position on it. Ryuta and his two friends approached me with the hope of practicing English.
“Hello, how are you? What is your name? And ummm …” Right away I could tell that none of them spoke enough English to really have a conversation. So I spared them the pain of trying to, by answering back in Japanese. There was the usual polite response of, “that’s amazing” and “you sound Japanese,” which allowed us to skip ceremonies and to finally begin really communicating.
As Ryuta introduced me to his two friends, their social dynamic became clear. Yuki, the oldest of the 3, was Ryuta’s sempai, or senior, which meant he got to lead the conversation. Satoshi, the youngest, was Ryuta’s kouhai, junior, making him the bearer of Yuki’s teasing.
“You should talk to her more,” Yuki instructed Satoshi who was silently drinking his beer off to the side of the conversation. He looked up from his drink and awkwardly smiled at me.
This meant that Ryuta was smack dab in the middle of the sempai-kouhai hierarchy sandwich, leaving him as the designated wingman for both his friends.
Yuki turned to me and bluntly asked, “Do you like Japanese men?”
This was a question I got asked quite often in Japan and by a variety of people. Everyone from the Japanese high school girls I taught to the old man who sold me my vegetables wanted to know if I, an American woman, could find Japanese men attractive as if they were a separate species too different from American men. I would try to explain how I didn’t see race—Asian or otherwise—as a factor of ”hotness;” good-looking people are good looking. Judging from their blank stares and mute responses, I could tell that wasn’t what they wanted to hear.
Ryuta nodded and eventually moved on to another familiar question, “What do you want to do in Japan?”
I told him I had only one goal before I left Japan—going on a goukon. The Japanese student in me felt that it was a great opportunity to prove my Japanese as worthy. The anthropologist in me realized it was a chance to go behind enemy lines and see culture in action. But most of all, the girl in me wondered if it would work. Two years at a woman’s college, using dating apps and blind dates had made me cynical about modern dating. I longed for the love of romantic black and white movies, and for a time when you actually went on dates, not just Netflix and chill, when there was a certain secret etiquette we all followed. I needed to know if Japan had the secret to successful dating.
To understand dating in Japan one must first come to understand the phrase “herbivore men and carnivore women.” An ‘herbivore man’ can be an otaku, an obsessive nerd, or even a ‘salaryman’ who has no interest in dating or marriage. With advances in simulation dating games and an industry dedicated to creating erotic 2D characters, men are developing relationships with virtual girlfriends who live in a Nintendo DS. In 2008 Taichi Takashita, a Japanese man, created an online petition asking the Japanese government to recognize marriage to 2D characters, so that he could marry Mikuru Asahina—an anime character, catapulting him to the paragon of true otaku culture.
Yet, even for those uninterested in 2D women, many jobs in Japan are so demanding that they don’t allow men any time to foster healthy relationships with women their age. Men’s apparent preference for 2D characters has since reached such a point that Japanese women are now facing a dating crisis, turning women into the carnivores.
My train made an abrupt stop at Nakano on the Chuo Line, and a throng of young men and women boarded the train, violently pushing me up against unsuspecting strangers. I found myself jammed between an otaku and an OL, slang for office lady. The Otaku pressed the precious figurine of a young girl up against his chest, protecting her from my curious gaze, while the OL, exhausted from a long day at work in chunky black heels and stockings, resisted the urge to fall asleep standing. They were beings of different dimensions existing simultaneously in one space. Only Japan, I chuckled to myself.
In a split second our train came to another halting stop at Shinjuku and in marched a mass of men in black and gray suits with their patterned ties: the venerated “salarymen” of Tokyo. Our train was swarming with them; they occupied every possible space like gas particles in a closed vacuum.
The life of a “salaryman” has become a trope in Japan, a dark irreverent joke about working oneself to death. But the figure has been a staple of the Japanese economy since World War II, a product of American occupation. In Japan, there’s an unspoken expectation that men must go to work for a large company, marry have kids, and continue to work until they die. Though it’s comforting to imagine yourself as a part of something bigger, a part of a company like Sony, that comfort is achieved through a gradual resignation of youth and individuality. It’s a sacrifice so great it’s not surprising that many young men don’t want to get married—at least not right away.
Ryo Yamamoto is a “salaryman.” He is also an ex-boyfriend of a Wellesley friend of mine. At 27 he’s still single—something his father can’t comprehend—and not interested in changing that. He doesn’t have time to think about goukons and marriage right now, not when he’s planning his retirement.
Currently, he works for a French bank in Tokyo, but as a self-declared “bad” student he doesn’t find the world of economics and finance interesting. “I just applied to this company and got in.” He takes a drag from his cigarette. “My favorite thing to do though is fly-fishing. My dream is to move to Texas and just fish every day. But I can’t just yet. I’m just working at this bank until I can retire. Then, I’m moving to Texas.” He explains that by 50 he should have enough money saved to finally pursue his dream. Until then he passes his time outside of work in bars, drinking with colleagues until 6 in the morning. He takes one last puff, before crushing the cigarette in an ashtray. “That’s just how it is.”
Once at Shinjuku, I had to make my transfer to the Yamanote Line, a giant circle connecting all the major stations of Tokyo—most notably Shinjuku, Ueno, and Ikebukuro. From the windows of our crowded train, we could slowly see billboards and signs replacing trees and homes. We were in an advertising jungle and the “it girl” of the year was Satomi Ishihara. Her flawless face and small figure were unavoidable, penetrating even the inside of our cabin with walled advertisements of her favorite beauty products. Perhaps if every Japanese woman looked like Satomi Ishihara Ryo would be attending a goukon every week.
As more and more men leave the dating field, women who want to get married have no choice but to go on the offensive, to devour the first eligible bachelor that they see. From the inside of our train, it was clear that the make-up and fashion industry had capitalized on the concerns of perpetually single women in Tokyo.
We reached Osaki Station and I finally had to get off my familiar Yamanote Line. I pushed my way past the OLs and “salarymen” who were going to continue their journey to Ikebukuro and Ueno. With a sigh, I took one long last look at the men in matching suits gripping their work bags. The haircuts of the women all began to blend together, a blanket of bangs and shoulder length dyed brown hair—mini Satomi Ishiaras.
The purpose of a goukon was to make it easier for young professional Japanese men and women with a healthy appetite to meet. In Odaiba, I would learn if this was true.
It was exactly as Ryuta had said—a rooftop barbecue. I looked over at Ryuta with a dubious expression. The iron grills and their preselected charcoal were evenly dispersed amongst 35 large tents each with its own added decoration of Christmas lights in lieu of stars. Barbecue in Japanese had a very different connotation than its English counterpart. I wasn’t sure if my braids and cut-offs were still appropriate in this setting.
I looked up at Ryuta and said, “I’m nervous.”
He disregarded my concern. “Don’t be nervous. It’s nothing serious.”
We walked over to our group’s designated tent where two long and narrow barbecue pits were waiting for us along with three other men. Ryuta quickly introduced me to everyone—surname first—and soon my head was filled with even more complicated Japanese names. It only got worse as they all began to talk in truncated slang and at such a fast pace that I began to lose track of where sentences began and words ended. Finally, Ryuta turned to me and asked if I wanted to get something to drink. Yes, please!
We returned from the bar—Ryuta with his Sapporo beer and me with my umeshu, sweet plum liquor—to find four other men waiting for us. All four worked with Ryuta in the administrative office of a university in Tokyo, whose name I had never heard of. The first one to introduce himself was Takumi, who was short for me and surprisingly short for Japanese standards as well. Next Yuki, the same Yuki I had met with Ryuta that night in Roppongi, introduced himself again, “Remember me?” and finally Hiroki, Ryuta’s sempai, made a bold first impression by greeting me in rough slang English, “Yo waz up?”
It took me a moment to break out of Japanese character and respond, “Hey Um—what up?” amongst stifled laughs from everyone.
Hiroki was the first one to take charge, asking me questions about Japan—why was I here, how was I enjoying my stay, and how long was I planning on being here for—it seemed that even at a goukon I was still the token foreigner. After three months of living in Japan, I had already come to memorize my answers to each question—I love Japanese culture, I was having fun living in Tokyo, and that I was only here for a year, but there was always the possibility of me moving here after graduation. Hiroki made an exaggerated noise at my last comment, “WAAA! You will marry a Japanese guy?” was his English reply.
Ryuta and his fellow coworkers all jokingly chastised Hiroki’s brashness in Japanese.
During this moment of bonding, Ryuta carefully pulled me aside out of earshot from the group. “He’s a bad guy,” he told me in what I hoped was joking English.
“What does that mean?” I asked in Japanese. “Is he the type of guy who goes out a lot, like a host club member?”
In Nishi-Shinjuku there was a hidden red-light district that housed a select group of prostitutes and host clubs, where men and women would whisper sweet nothings in your ear while their bosses laundered money for the yakuza, Japanese mafia. One night in July, only a week into my study abroad experience, I found myself walking through this pocket of sin clueless to what these men with their dyed blonde hair and slick suits symbolized. I tried to imagine Hiroki as a member of a notorious yakuza gang, and though he was a little rough, even if he donned the uniform black suit and black sunglasses Hiroki couldn’t pass as an extra in Kill Bill.
Ryuta laughed at my comment. “No. no, He’s not like that. He’s just not good for a boyfriend. And he’s too old for you.”
“How old is he?” I asked unabashedly.
“37. Just a little older than me.”
“How old are you?” I was shocked. During the whole time I had known Ryuta, he had never told me his age. I remember telling him my age, 21, jokingly over a vodka tonic, but Ryuta had been sly enough to conceal his until now.
“35,” he finally answered. His voice never wavered. Aside from the slight weathering on his face, you couldn’t tell if he was a mature twenty-something or a young thirty-something.
Hiroki, Yuki, Takumi and the three men from earlier, interested in our conversation, came over to us.
“What are you talking about?” Takumi asked.
I looked at the childish-looking, short man and desperately asked, “Takumi, how old are you?”
He laughed. “I’m only 31.” Only!
They all went around in a group saying their age. They were all around 30 or older with a couple of them in their very late twenties. They all laughed as they spoke their age and asked me how old I thought they looked. I was usually 5 years off in my guesses.
“People say Japanese people look young.” Yuki tried to assure me, but I couldn’t believe that my age didn’t somehow put me at a disadvantage here.
At that moment three girls came over waving and smiling at our group.
“Haruka-chan, Mizuki-chan, Enna!” Ryuta smiled and waved at them. All the guys went over to greet them casually. “Thanks for coming out with us tonight.”
In the dimly lit light, Mizuki looked taller and more elegant than her stature would suggest she was. From her practical outfit to a shy smile, she radiated comfort in a way that very few strangers can. We bowed and introduced ourselves in slightly formal Japanese. I tried to make sure that all my verbs were polite and honorific.
Though she was the shortest one there, Enna seemed the most in her comfort zone. With a short pixie cut and enough bang to almost hide one side of her face, her eyes stood out like two black pools. Equipped with a compact fanny pack and trainers, Enna casually strode over to where the men were standing together. I was probably twice her size, but if this was a judo match she could easily throw me over in just one move—K.O. She casually looked over at me, “Yoroshik,” the Japanese equivalent of “Yo.”
There was nothing that could have prepared me to come face-to-face with her. She had hair the color of melted chocolate that cascaded from her scalp into perfectly formed waves whose stray curls shaped her milky white face like a model in a black and white 1930’s fashion magazine. Two perfect dimples formed as she smiled at me. “Hi, I’m Haruka.” She held out her hand for me and I eagerly returned the favor. Her fingers in my calloused hand looked delicate and manicured, and her arm was smooth and hairless. In contrast, the hair on my arms never looked more undesirable.
My dorm mates and I commemorated my first night in Japan by taking a communal shower. Behind the sliding mosaic door, laid our shower room which was a rudimentary set-up of five separate detachable showerheads in front of five mirrors and five plastic stools for sitting, all within a large white tiled room, with one large basin-like bath in the corner. Though many of the other girls living in my dorm were hesitant to bathe naked in front of this strange new group of girls, I was ready to engage in the Japanese tradition of ‘skinship,’ bonding through mutual nakedness. Once inside I found it liberating, the way showering with your soccer team after a game feels. “Wow, you have a lot of hair on your arms!” The familiar phrase woke me from my place of comfort. Soon everyone else in the shower room was curious about my arm hair, and why I didn’t shave it. Apparently, it wasn’t that Japanese girls didn’t have arm hair they just shaved it. That night I wondered if maybe I had come unprepared for bath time.
I was still reeling from my encounter with Haruka when the final member of our party made an appearance.
“Sorry for making you wait for me!” A young tall man profusely apologized as he came over to us.
“Oh, Daiki!” Ryuta called him. “You were able to make it after all.”
“Yeah, my other friends canceled our drinking party at the last minute so I thought I would show up.”
“Cool, do you have money for the participation fee?”
“Yeah, I have it.” Daiki padded the man purse casually lying on his right hip.
With that, the goukon officially began.
As per ritual, we began with self-introductions going around the two tables. Contrary to what I had prepared for, there were four girls for the eight guys there that night. Naturally, all of us girls had managed to sit at the exact same table. Furthermore, I found out that the median difference in age between men and women was 7 years—me at 21 being a minimum outlier, and Hiroki at 37 being the maximum. I knew I wasn’t the goukon master of ceremonies, but I eagerly wanted to point out the mistakes in our leader’s math.
At my table, there was Ryuta, Takumi, Daiki and myself on one side, and on the opposite side were Hiroki, Haruka, Mizuki, and Enna. Our self-introductions were brief—name, age, profession, hometown, and hobby—the same information I had learned to recite in class perfectly. This type of small talk continued for 10 minutes before someone thought it a good idea to start preparing the food.
When telling me about Southern belle etiquette my mother would pull a parable out of the Holy Scripture, Gone With the Wind, in which Mammy instructs Scarlett to eat before she gets to a barbecue. Scarlett, like me, sees no reason why eating in front of a gentleman should undermine her femininity. Yet, that night as the members of the goukon all stood around the tantalizing fumes of cooked meat and vegetables wafting from the polished grills in front of our nostrils, the women held themselves back. The men in our group quickly took charge of making sure to flip the meat in a timely order so that no side received more attention than necessary. With the sizzle of each piece of juicy fat, my stomach wanted to pull me forward. “Eat!” It begged of me, but I would not move. Not until Haruka or Mizuki took a cautious nibble.
Takumi, sitting on my right caught me staring and playfully joked, “please go ahead and eat if you’re hungry.” He had betrayed my silence, admitted my weakness in front of Haruka. Though I feared being judged, I feared hunger more. Without any more words of encouragement, I used my chopsticks to snatch a piece of meat before anyone could even notice.
Smack! Haruka and I had both unintentionally reached for the same perfectly tender beef.
There are many Japanese superstitions surrounding chopsticks, largely because they are used in many funeral practices. But I had learned that two chopsticks reaching for the same piece of food was a taboo equal to signing your own death certificate. I looked up at Takumi, Ryuta, and Haruka expecting to see shocked faces and disapproving stares, but they all just looked back at me blankly. Takumi was the one to speak first, “What’s wrong? You look like you’ve seen a ghost!”
Haruka responded, “Go ahead you can have that piece.”
Ryuta laughed, “it’s ok it happens. There’s nothing you can do about it.”
Even though everyone sitting around our grill was willing to laugh off our omen as a trivial affair, there was still a lingering shroud of shame around my chopsticks, which remained on my plate for the rest of the night.
To forget about things I tried to make conversation with, Daiki who was sitting to my right. “So Daiki, how do you know Ryuta?”
He put down his chopsticks in order to answer me. “We work together in the same department.” With one swift answer, he turned back to his plate, picked up his chopsticks, and tried to eat.
Feeling awkward I tried to continue our conversation. “So you said you play soccer as a hobby, do you have a favorite player?”
Again he put his chopsticks down in two perfectly parallel horizontal lines on the table and turned to me, “I don’t know too much about that so I can’t say.”
And with that, our conversation ended and Daiki resumed eating.
Japanese may be a second language for me, but I never had a problem with conversing—as long as there was a willing partner. Now sitting down at a long narrow table with everyone and everything out on display, the conversation moved at the speed of molasses.
Defeated I quickly got up to get another drink from the bar. Ryuta noticed me standing, and came over to me.
“How are you doing?” he asked.
“I’m ok, I just want to get a drink.”
“Cool let’s go together.”
On our way over to the bar, Ryuta began to ask me more questions.
“So what do you think of everyone so far?”
“Everyone’s really nice.”
“That’s good. Do you have somebody you’re interested in?”
“What do you mean interested in?”
“You know, like someone you want to get to know more about.”
At that moment we approached the bar, and I ordered another umeshu. Who did I really like? I thought to myself.
“Well…I guess if I had to pick someone I would pick Daiki, since he’s only 25, and he seems polite.” Plus he’s the only one who won’t talk to me.
“Yeah! He’s really good-looking!”
“I guess. Yeah,” I absentmindedly replied.
“You should go for him.” Ryuta’s words caught me by surprise; I almost choked on my sweet plum wine.
“Go for him?” I wasn’t sure what Ryuta meant by this.
“Yeah, go sit next to him, talk to him, and then ask for his number.”
Woah, woah, woah now, I thought to myself. I only said I was interested in him, not that I was in love with him, and ready to have his kids. I couldn’t help but think Ryuta had misheard me somehow.
“I can’t do that. That’s too embarrassing.” I tried to explain, but Ryuta was only too ready to fulfill his role as my goukon liaison. By the time we got back to the barbecue table, he had already devised a plan.
“Hey guys,” he called over Hiroki, Takumi, and Yuki, “Sophie likes Daiki.” They all laughed and smirked to themselves.
“He’s totally good looking and nice!” Yuki said.
“What you don’t like me?” Hiroki joked. After teasing me he added, “don’t worry, we’ll help you.” Though I appreciated all the support and kindness this group of strangers was so willing to give me, I couldn’t help but also feel as if I was digging myself further into a hole.
I looked over at Daiki, whose chopsticks were still in his hands. He hadn’t moved from his spot. He was now talking with Haruka, who had moved from her seat on the opposite side of the table in order to sit by him. She was smiling up at him, causing him to lower his head, attempting to hide his flushed cheeks.
Mizuki came over to join Yuki, Ryuta, Takumi, Hiroki and I who were now standing at the head of one table away from everyone else, whispering in secret.
“What are you guys doing?” she jokingly questioned. “You guys better be nice to Sophie!” she lightly commanded them.
“Of course we are!” Yuki retorted. “We’re being super helpful!”
“Yeah, we’re trying to help her find love,” Takumi added.
“With who?” Mizuki looked surprised. “With someone here?”
“With Daiki,” Ryuta remarked.
“REALLY?” she exclaimed. “That’s great! He’s really good-looking and sweet.”
The prospect of love caused the excitement in their voices to carry; our hushed conversation turned into a rambunctious discourse on what made a man attractive.
“A good-looking guy must be tall, but not too tall, and have slender wrists and fingers but a manly build,” Mizuki insisted.
“And a suit!” Ryuta threw in.
“Not just a suit. He must know about fashion and those things.”
“What about women?” I asked.
“They’ve got to be kawaii!” Ryuta, Hiroki, Takumi and Yuki all answered in unison. “She’s got to make my heart squeeze when she looks up at me with big, doll-like eyes,” Yuki explained.
“I think it’s cute when girls wear mini-skirts with boots,” Ryuta added.
“No, that’s not what’s in anymore. The new thing is looking innocent in like knee-high socks,” Hiroki commented. “If you keep saying things like that people will start calling you an old man.” He took out a pack of cigarettes from his suit pocket. “Anyone want to step out for a smoke with me?”
“I do.” Mizuki came over to stand next to Hiroki. The two were about to head away from barbecue pit into an unperceivable darkness away from all these twinkling lights when Mizuki stopped to give me some last-second advice. “You should totally go for him, Sophie! After all, you’re super kawaii!” With that, she smiled and disappeared into the night with Hiroki and smoke fumes.
Everyone had ceased eating the food from the barbecue in order to stand and talk while taking strategic sips from his or her drinks. The smell of yeast from fizzy beers and fermented plums from the umeshu fused together in the air, getting caught in our nostrils with each inhale of the cold air. I kept drinking in order to push past the chilly fall wind.
We were all out of order now, as people broke up into smaller conversations. I found myself talking to Mizuki, Daiki, and Ryuta. Takumi and Enna were in the middle of talking about an episode of Ame Talk (ame tooku) in which the panel members were showing off their 007 like skills in seducing women when Takumi decided to reenact one comedian’s hilarious “gentleman swagger,” causing Enna to laugh so much she burped.
In that moment all of our side conversations ended.
“What was that?” Takumi joked. “Enna are you sure you’re actually a woman?” Takumi’s face was red all over as he laughed and pointed at Enna.
In response, Enna made a motion as if she was going to smack Takumi upside the head. “IDIOT!” she yelled. “Of course I’m a woman, I have boobs don’t I?”
“Barely!” Takumi continued, “Maybe if you stopped drinking beer like a guy and drank girly drinks like umeshu or sours this wouldn’t happen.” I looked down at my cup of umeshu as the two of them continued to playfully insult each other.
“Really, Enna you should be more like Haruka; she looks like Satomi Ishihara and always behaves kawaii!” Takumi went on.
“Not really,” Haruka responded, “I’m not really that cute, Sophie’s cuter!” She looked over at me.
All of a sudden I was Elizabeth Bennet sitting on a couch at Netherfield Park, listening to Caroline Bingley’s sly innuendos, trying to answer back while remaining as lady-like as possible. But, I wasn’t as witty as Lizzie; I can’t handle myself in Japanese, nor did I really want to. I thought I was supposed to get away from all of this game playing abroad. Yet here it was looking me straight in the eye, asking me a simple question that I couldn’t respond to.
So I didn’t.
“Why is it that kawaii in Japanese has so many meanings—cute, hot, sexy, attractive, pretty, beautiful—but in English, it just means “cute,” which has a childish connotation to it?”
My question caused everyone to pause and think for a second. Ryuta tried to explain to me that kawaii really was more about a “loveable” aspect of a person. Takumi said it was more about the context that kawaii was used in. While Daiki just stood and agreed with everyone’s opinion.
Two hours into our barbecue goukon and we were all ready to put out the fire. I looked at my cell phone, ten o’clock already. It would take me almost two hours to get home from here, which meant I probably wouldn’t reach my dorm until one in the morning. As a group, we walked over to the nearest station, but once there we split off in different directions.
Hiroki, Mizuki, and Ryuta took the Yurikakome Line heading towards Roppongi for more late night fun. On a Saturday night, no one worries about having to take an early morning train for work. The rest of us continued on the Rinkai Line, transferring at Osaki Station for the Yamanote Line. As the central railway hit the familiar popular stops—Gotanda, Meguro, Ebisu—the group kept shrinking; both Takumi and Enna wanted to grab drinks in Meguro, perhaps even call up some friends in the area and go out for karaoke, and Daiki had plans to meet friends in Ebisu and had invited Haruka along. By the time our train reached Shibuya I was the only one left. From my train window, I could see the Hachiko Statue outside of the Station’s main entrance, where a swarm of people—not just Tokyo natives—were standing around waiting for friends, lovers, and fun. From up here the sea of people was so thick the thought of penetration seemed impossible.
At Harajuku, teenagers in costumes and outfits reserved for days in which they weren’t forced to wear a school uniform looked at me with uncertain eyes. Where is she going? They must have thought. Does she not see that the heart of Tokyo is here? What could possibly lie beyond these city walls? The train door closed as the last two passengers got on. Aside from her delicate hand clinging desperately to the opening of his suit jacket, you couldn’t tell they were a couple. When we got to Shinjuku the two of them exchanged quick side-glances before rushing off the train and towards the nearest exit.
Here was my last transfer for the night. From Shinjuku on I would take the Chuo line all the way back to the humble hamlet of Musashisakai. The towering buildings and bright lights of the city dissolved into darkness as our rapid train took the rest of us home. At each stop, a handful of tired, mostly older, people would hobble off the train and into a crowded station.
People always say that New York is the city that never sleeps, but in Tokyo, there’s no rest. Sitting on my right-hand side, slumped forward in his train seat was a “salaryman” in a half-awake, half-asleep state, silently drooling onto the floor. None of us dared look at him for more than a second; there’s a silent agreement on trains to let drunken citizens lie in peace. At Kichijoji Station the “salaryman” sitting next to me, quickly gathered himself and ran to get out of the train car door before it was too late. In the process, he bumped into an older woman standing by the exit door. “I’m very sorry! Please excuse me,” he bowed his head and pleaded. She waved off his apology with a flick of her wrist over his head, and the man exited the train, content.
As our train made its way slowly to Musashisakai Station, I took one last long look at those of us who remained, the final passengers of a homeward bound train. There were many older women wrapped up in thick shawls for warmth, a couple of OL’s wearing their office suits fighting a desperate urge to sleep, and one or two kids still in their school uniforms, coming back after a long day of cram school. And me.
I was ready to call it a night; prepare myself for the long and lonely bike ride that awaited me. Coming from the darkness surrounding the deserted shops and alleyways, a voice rang “Miss Sophie!” I jerked my head and saw Mr. Nakarai, the old man who sells me my vegetables, standing by his compact van. “Where have you just come from?” he asked in his small hushed voice.
“I’ve just come back from a goukon actually.”
“Oh! Did you get a boyfriend?”
“Umm…no actually it was a little different from what I had expected.”
“Well, that’s ok. You know you can always marry my son.”
I guess the wife of a grocer’s son never goes hungry.