The Last Stag
Welcome to Japan
I can barely believe it’s actually happening. Today is the best day of my life. At last, after years and years of waiting, I get to see Japan with my own eyes. My name is Alexander Ross. I’m seventeen years old and I’m obsessed, I repeat, I’m obsessed about Japan. I love its culture, its art, its history. I don’t know why but I find it fascinating. There’s something about it that really captivates me. For me, Japan is a magical land full of ancient traditions, amazing architecture and, most importantly perhaps, the best food in the world, sushi! I love, I’ll repeat it one for time for extra emphasis, I love sushi. It should be declared a universal treasure and I wonder why it hasn’t been declared as such already.
As I look out the window and admire the sea of clouds outside, I can only think of landing and begin my first tour of the capital city, Tokyo. I can’t wait to get out of this plane and see Kimiko for the first time since summer vacation began a week ago. Kimiko, or Kim as I usually call her, is my best friend. She returned to Japan to be with her parents who own and manage, to my delighted surprise, one of the best and most exclusive sushi restaurants in the city. My mouth waters heavily as I think of the delicacies I will get to eat there. My stomach can’t wait for it!
I’m going to stay in Japan for a month only, after which I will return to England. I wish I could stay longer but that won’t be possible until I finish school. I already know what I’m going to do after that. I will enroll at the Tokyo University of Arts, one of the most prestigious art schools in Japan, where I will study oil painting, Japanese painting and Japanese pottery and porcelain. If time allows, I might even become a bonsai master too. My parents wanted me to study in Italy so I could be closer to home but, as I already mentioned, right now, and since a year or so, I’ve become so inexplicably obsessed about Japan that nothing else can take my attention away from it. I want to know as much about it as I can and explore every inch of it if possible.
Kimiko has her plans as well. After graduating, she’ll move back to Japan, where she’ll study business management and learn to manage her parents’ restaurant so she can open her own later on. At first, she was going continue her studies in London but after finding out my plans and my enthusiasm for her native land, she decided to change plans and follow me. I’m truly happy about it. I’ll get to meet with my best friend practically as often as we always have. I already have plans to at least eat a meal at her parents’ place every day. My future will be delicious!
“I hope you’ve enjoyed your flight,” says the pilot thought the speaker. “We’ll be arriving to Tokyo in five minutes. Thank you for choosing Red Crane Airlines. It’s been our pleasure to fly with you.”
It’s about time!
I move on my seat as I try to wake my butt up. I think it’s been numb for hours. I then look out the window and realize most of the clouds are gone. I can see land instead. I can see Japan for the first time.
From my place high in the sky, I see mountains in the horizon covered by dense forests, a body of water here and there and the city below. It’s amazing. I’ve been excited all along, but I’m now absolutely thrilled!
We touch land and the airplane stops. I stand up at once, grab my backpack and hurry to the nearest door to be one of the first ones to get out. But as I look up, I see that there’s an elderly Japanese woman a few people in front of me who seems to be taking all the time in the world to exit the plane. It’s nothing bad. I would act the same if I was her age but, as a young and healthy guy, patience has never been my strength. I guess the universe always finds a way to make me exercise that weak patience muscle of mine.
It takes me almost another five minutes to walk out of the plane and down the stairs, but as soon as I step on the concrete ground of the Haneda Airport I forget the long flight and come to the realization that…
“I’ve done it,” I murmur. “I’m in Japan.”
I enter the terminal and, after clearing immigration, I begin searching for my friend. Kimiko said she’d pick me up and I couldn’t have thought of anyone else to welcome me but her. I look around and see her holding a colorful sign that says ALEX. She smiles and I hurry to hug her even though I read that hugging is considered to be a controversial greeting form for the Japanese people.
“Kimiko!” I exclaim as I put my arms around her. “So glad to see you. I’ve made it!”
“You have!” she exclaims. “I’ve been desperately waiting for you. Why did you have to wait until now?”
We end the hugging and I prepare to answer her question as she guides me out of the terminal. I’d missed her company so much, just as much as the Asian features of her face and her cascading black hair.
“My parents took me to see a university in Scotland,” I say with a hint of annoyance. “They tried to convince me to study art in Edinburgh. They want me even closer to home now. First it was Florence and then Scotland. Their next option will be to give me private tutoring at home!”
“Your house is pretty,” she says folding up the sign. “I wouldn’t mind that.”
“Are you kidding? I need a life too,” I say as I raise my eyebrows. “Just listen to this… They wanted to come with me! Mom said Japan was too dangerous to let me come on my own. It took me ages to convince them to stay and it took me even longer to get their permission to move and study here after we graduate. I just hope they don’t decide to move too!”
“You should be happy that your parents are so overprotective,” she says. “My parents have had no problem with me being away in London to study, and it’s been five years now!”
Before you start assuming anything, I have to let you know that Kim and I are just friends. She’s not my girlfriend but more like a sister I never had. I’m an only child (though Kim is too) and that may explain why my parents are so worried about me all the time. It was good in the beginning because they expressed their love by buying me everything I wanted but it’s starting to become a little…
My phone rings and it interrupts my thoughts. I take it out of my pocket and read the incoming message.
“Who is it?” Kim asks.
“It’s my mom,” I say in pain. “She wants to confirm I’ve arrived safe and sound.”
“She knew the time you’d arrive?”
“She knows everything about my life,” I mumbled as I reply to my mother.
Another message comes in: “Are you sure you don’t want me to call you?”
“Yes, mom. Don’t call me,” I type. “I’m with Kimiko now. I’ll sent you a message later at night.”
“Your father wants to talk to you.”
“Our bus is here. And to be talking on the phone when you’re in the public transportation is considered to be rude in Japan.”
“Oh right, my prince. Take care and say hi to Kim’s parents for us.”
“I will. Bye.”
I feel my energy drained as I put my phone back into my pocket. I look up and see Kimiko staring at me.
“You do need a vacation,” she says in a serious voice.
“I do,” I say, nodding.
Outside the terminal, a bus is waiting for us. I didn’t know if we were taking the bus and just lied mom we were so she could leave me alone. Kim knows I like buses because I once told her that they make me feel like a tourist, away from school and away from my parents.
We get on the bus and Kim lets me sit in the window seat so I can admire the cityscape. The bus is large, and its seats are comfortable. The tour, my vacation, has begun.
“I’m glad your parents will let you come with me,” I say. “I wouldn’t want to explore Japan with anyone else.”
“And I wouldn’t want to spend my summer vacation with anyone else either,” Kim says.
“Where are we going first?” I ask hoping the bus will leave soon. I want to be out in the city, walking, and not spending any more time sitting unless I have sushi before me.
“To the Tokyo Tower,” she answers. “I bought our tickets yesterday.”
“And right after that?”
“You’re thinking about eating sushi in my parents’ restaurant, right?” she says.
More people get on the bus and, once full, it begins to move. I can’t remember the last time I felt so alive.
“Is your backpack all you brought with you?” Kim asks, frowning.
“Yes,” I say, nodding. “I like to travel lightly. I can buy everything I need here.”
“Where’s your hotel?”
“Near the palace,” I answer casually looking out the window.
“Those places are expensive,” she exclaims. “You should have booked a room nearer to my house.”
“We’re just staying in Tokyo two days,” I remind her. “And I wanted to be able to see the palace from above. I told my parents I’d be safer in an expensive hotel that criminals can’t get into.”
“You’re evil,” she laughs. “What have you got in your backpack anyway? It seems to be almost empty.”
I zip open my backpack and take out a rolled-up piece of paper.
“What’s that?” she says.
“It’s the list of all the places I want to visit. I worked on it for six months, since my parents told me they’d allow me to come.”
“Can I see it?”
I hand her my list and she unties the red piece of thread that keeps it closed. My list looks like an ancient scroll, composed of several pages I glued together to make it look more impressive. Kim’s mouth falls open as the scroll unfolds and reaches the floor.
“What did you do?” she exclaims, shocked. “Did you write every single tourist attraction in the country?”
“Of course not,” I inform, taking the list from her. “I just included all the nicest places in each prefecture by order of importance and the things I want to do in each city, plus the things I hope to buy.”
I look up at Kim. She’s still shocked. Even her oriental eyes seem to be more open than usual.
“What?” I mumble. “What’s wrong?”
“You do realize we won’t be able to visit all the places in your list, right?”
“Because you’ll be here for a month, not for a decade!”
“But I want to,” I mutter. “If we plan our itinerary with utmost care, we’ll manage to make it.”
“Whatever,” she says shaking her head as she rests her back on her seat. “But I’m telling you, it won’t happen.”
“I’ve also got a gift for you,” I inform as I roll up my list.
“What is it?” she exclaims with excitement, strengthening herself once more.
I put my list back inside my backpack and take out of it a pencil-long rectangular-shaped black box. It’s not wrapped in gift paper because the airport staff would have made me get rid of it. However, its plain and elegant polished wooden surface is enough to keep the secret of what it contains safe until she opens it.
“For you, my friend,” I say solemnly as I hand over the box with a slight bow of my head as if it contained a sacred relic.
She grabs it at once and opens it, not caring to return my respectful bow. A golden spoon is revealed to her eyes. She gasps awed and mutters: “It’s beautiful.”
“I found a nice restaurant at the Dubai airport during my layover there,” I say. “They served the most delicious ice cream and gave you these 18k gold spoons to eat it.”
“Where’s the ice cream?” she asks, looking at my backpack as if I’m hiding it there.
“I ate it, of course.”
“With this spoon?”
I smile foolishly and we begin to laugh hard. The woman sitting next to us, on the opposite row, stares at us disapprovingly.
“How much was that ice cream?” Kim asks after we’ve managed to control our laughter.
“Let my parents worry about that,” I say as I close my backpack.
“Like I said before, you’re evil, Alex.”
The bus leaves the airport behind and Tokyo unfolds before my amused eyes. It’s so large and the buildings so tall. In spite of all the pollution floating above the city, visible to the naked eye, I think it’s a beautiful day and I cannot feel other than pure joy and excitement.
“What else have you got in your backpack?” Kim asks, hoping I do manage to take some ice cream out of it.
“Gifts for your parents,” I say.
“What did you get them?” she inquires.
“You didn’t?” she mutters. “Tell me you didn’t buy three gold spoons.”
“I bought four ice cream cups in fact,” I inform, four fingers of my right hand raised. “Chocolate, vanilla, strawberry and Napolitano. Hey, I was stuck in Dubai for three hours. I had to do something. The spoons came by default. And don’t worry, I didn’t use your spoon. I used mine only. Give me your box. It’s safer in my backpack. Does your restaurant serve ice cream?”
“Great. I’ll give it back to you there. We’ll eat ice cream with our gold spoons together!”
“You’re mad, Alex.”
“Yes. I’m mad for shiny things.”
“Like your hair?”
“Yes,” I mutter, rolling my eyes. “Like my hair.”
Kim seems to be obsessed about my blond hair. She’s always trying to find an excuse to touch it. Sometimes, she says there’s a leaf on my head. Others, she says that it looks untidy and when I really needed her help, like that time a spider came down from the tree under which we were enjoying lunch at school, she just took her mirror out of her backpack, held it up and said “There’s a humongous spider in your hair.” She let me jump up and down as I tried to get it off all while she peacefully ate her sandwich without bothering to do something to end my suffering.
It’s amazing to see the city from inside the bus as it makes its way through it. I really feel as if I’m almost in another world. It’s so different from London and I’m desperate to explore it. I love watching the people walk on the sidewalks. I love the signs written with characters I don’t understand. I enjoy the architecture, a different skyline that yells at me that I’m in Japan.
I focus so well on enjoying the city from my seat that I don’t realize some twenty minutes have passed already.
“This is our stop,” Kim informs.
“That was fast,” I say, looking around my seat to make sure I’m not forgetting anything.
The bus stops and Kim and I come down. I feel like a young kid. I feel like a new person. I’m in a new adventure. The most exciting thing I’ve lived so far. I’m so happy right now.
“This is Shiba Park,” Kim says as we start our stroll through the leafy place. “It surrounds a beautiful and very popular shrine known as Zōjō-ji.”
I’m feeling so great that I want to run though the park and get to the temple as soon as possible. I’d do that if it wasn’t because I don’t know the way to it. It’s moments after when I notice the Tokyo Tower standing tall above the vast and dense canopy the trees in the park make. The tower, a radio antenna, stands out from the rest of the city buildings because of its peculiar Eiffel-Tower-like shape and because of its vermillion paint which I think looks awesome. I can’t believe I’m actually here.
“Look at it,” I say as I look up at the imposing structure.
“Did you know that it’s actually taller than the Eiffel Tower?” Kim asks.
“I did,” I answer, proudly. “I’ve been reading about Japan for months.”
Fifteen minutes later, after a delightful walk though Shiba Park, we get to a beautiful wooden structure that makes me awe in amazement. It’s the temple’s two-storied main gate, painted in red. It’s huge. I guess it’s around twenty meters tall and I’m unable to resists sharing what I know about it with Kim.
“I read,” I say with excitement, “that this gate is the oldest wooden building in Tokyo. Isn’t that interesting? It’s a beautiful example of traditional Japanese architecture.”
Kim looks up at it, not that amused.
“If you say so,” she says as we pass through the gate and into the shrine’s inner courtyard.
The setting couldn’t be more perfect. Surrounded by smaller traditional buildings, the two-storied great hall stands graceful with its wooden beams and white walls. And right next to it, beyond the park and dominating the immediate surroundings, the Tokyo Tower reaches for the sky and claims its place in the Japanese culture.
“Look Kimiko!” I exclaim. “It’s amazing! It’s beautiful!”
I take my phone out and start taking pictures. I take pictures of me with the temple and tower in the background and of Kimiko and I smiling as if we’re on a vacation together... wait, we are in a vacation together. This is perfect!
“I’m glad you’re happy,” Kim says as we leave the temple and walk towards the Tokyo Tower. “I was beginning to think you’d find the place boring.”
“Are you kidding?” I exclaim. “I love it here. It’s better than I thought it would be!”
I’m glad Kim has already bought admission tickets for the Tokyo Tower observation decks. I can see a long line of people waiting to purchase theirs. We reach the tower, show our tickets and are let in an elevator with several other people. I hear them speaking Japanese and my ears enjoy it very much. I love languages. I always have. But because of my studies I haven’t been able to learn Japanese. Everything I know (apart from food related words like sushi and tempura and others like bonsai and kimono) is how to say hi, goodbye and thank you. I have a lot, and I mean a lot to learn.
The elevator doors open, and we step out into the main observation deck. I see the huge windows before me and hurry to see the view.
“Look, Kim!” I exclaim, marveled. “Wow!”
“Too bad it isn’t clear enough to see Mount Fuji,” she says as she joins me.
“It doesn’t matter. We’re going to the countryside to get a better view of it.”
“You’re right. But I was just saying.”
I gaze at the skyline and spot the Tokyo Skytree in the horizon. It’s the tallest structure in Japan. With a height of more than six hundred meters, it’s almost two Tokyo Towers one above the other. It’s got two observation decks and it’s on my list in case you’re wondering.
“Is that the Imperial Palace?” I ask as I point to a large green area in the middle of the city. I’m barely able to get a glimpse of its bright aquamarine ceilings because of the tall buildings in its vicinity that spoil a perfect view of the imperial residence and the huge park that surrounds it.
“It is,” Kim confirms. “It’s actually not that far away. We can get there in half an hour walking at normal pace.”
“That’s great! Let’s do that then! I booked our free tour a month ago. I don’t want to be late.”
“At what time is the tour supposed to begin?” She asks. “You didn’t tell me you’d planned to visit the palace today.”
I take my phone out and look for the confirmation email I received when I reserved our spaces.
“We have to be there at least ten minutes before one thirty,” I inform, putting my phone back in my pocket. “It’s going to last a little more than an hour.”
“We’ve got some time then. Why don’t you eat something first? There are a couple of restaurants in this tower.”
“Nope,” I say, shaking my head like a kid not wanting to eat something he detests. “I refuse. The first thing I want to eat in Japan is something from your place.”
“Let’s go then,” she says. “The restaurant isn’t that far away either. Ginza is right over there, behind those buildings. It’s actually closer than the palace.”
“That’s my hotel,” I say pointing at a building right across from the palace gardens. “Can you take me there first? I want to take a quick shower.”
“At what time can you check in?”
“Oh, gosh,” I mutter bitterly. “Until three.”
“Well, that’s in five more hours. We’d got plenty of time to meet my parents, eat lunch, tour the palace…”
“And go shopping,” I interrupt. “I want to buy some clothes.”
“Didn’t you bring a change of clothes at least?”
“Do you see a butler carrying my suitcase? I just brought my wallet, my phone, my passport, my list and the spoons.”
“Alright. Let’s get going.”
“Just let me take a last look at this stunning view.”
I turn and look out the window. It’s a glorious view and it’s still welcoming me to Japan. I look at the horizon and notice a bird above the city. It’s a large bird and it’s flying really close to the tower. To my surprise, it gets so close to the observation deck that I’m able to realize it’s an eagle, a golden eagle perhaps and I say perhaps because the imperial eagle looks similar and I don’t know to how to distinguish them.
“Look, Kim! An Eagle! Even the animals are giving me a warm welcome.”
“I hope you say the same thing after we ran into a macaque and it steals your precious backpack.”
It’s after ten minutes or so and after a hundred pictures later, and even after looking down at the passing cars from the glass-flooring that we come down the Tokyo Tower. We begin walking towards Ginza, the business district that’s famed for its upscale shopping stores and where Kim’s restaurant is located. I follow her since I have no earthly idea how to get around on my own. It’s a huge city. It’s far larger than London. I don’t speak Japanese and plan to stay near Kim at all times. I wouldn’t want to get lost and not be able to find anyone to help me, although I’m sure lots of Japanese people speak good English.
“We should’ve come in April or October,” Kim says as we wait for a street sign to change color.
“Why?” I ask.
“Because it gets really hot in summer. We won’t admire fall’s bright-red maple leaves nor spring’s blush-pink cherry blossoms. Just wait a little and you’ll start feeling you’re about to melt.”
She turns and stares at my clothes, scanning my outfit from head to toe. I’m wearing all black. Black t-shirt, black hoodie, black pants and black slip-on shoes. Even the cord of my wing gold pendant with diamonds, that I keep under my t-shirt, and my aforementioned backpack are black as well.
“You better buy clothes that aren’t black,” she says as we begin crossing the street after the light changed.
“No way!” I exclaim. “I like black.”
“Do what you want, but you’re going to melt faster.”
“What? It’s true. Black will absorb all the sunlight and you’ll start sweating like a pig.”
“Say that to the shoguns, who ruled in the emperor’s name. If you take a look at many of their portraits, you’ll discover them wearing black kimonos. My clothing makes me feel like a modern shogun.”
“The shoguns are death,” she snaps. “What do you think is this, Medieval Japan?”
“Actually, their descendants still live,” I say as we reach the sidewalk, with an air of scholar wisdom. “When the last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, lost power during the Meiji Restoration he retreated from the public eye and went on with his life. The person who would be the shogun right now if nothing of that had happened is somewhere. Isn’t that amazing? I wish I could meet with him!”
“You did read the history of Japan, didn’t you?”
“Just the bits I liked,” I say, smiling.
I love my friendship with Kimiko. She’s truly like a sister to me. She’s genuine and doesn’t refrain from letting her thoughts out even when she knows I’ll have a different opinion. We’re constantly laughing, and something always happens to us that makes us laugh harder than usual. I hope my time in Japan will have many of those moments.
I look around with curiosity. Tokyo’s streets are full of interesting surprises. I see signs in Japanese all over and wonder if I’ll ever manage to master at least one of the language’s writing systems. They have three: Hiragana, Katana and Kanji. I know it’ll be a challenge so, instead of draining my energy with overwhelming thoughts, I turn my attention to the architecture and people that surrounds me.
“Where do you want to go after Tokyo?” Kim asks as we pass by a busy restaurant, packed with tourists and locals chatting and having a good time.
Quickly, I take my list out of my backpack and began sharing my carefully planned itinerary. I feel so proud about it.
“Alright, let’s see,” I begin. “After we’ve wrapped up Tokyo, we go south west and visit Mount Fuji. Then, we travel to Nagoya and then to Inuyama. After we’ve taken at look at the castles in those cities, we’ll visit the most sacred of all the shrines in Japan, Ise Jingu. After I’ve paid my respects to the Sun Goddess Amaterasu-omikami, we’ll go to Nara to feed the bowing deer, then to Osaka to visit Osaka Castle, the largest in the country and former seat of the powerful feudal lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi. After that, we’ll go to Mount Koya, and then we shall head to Kyoto to visit every single one of its temples, castles, palaces and museums. After staying in Kyoto for a few days…”
“Stop! Stop! Stop!” Kim interrupts, alarmed, turning around. “Mount Koya? I’ve never been there before. Why do you want to go to Mount Koya?”
“To visit the grave of Oda Nobunaga, of course,” I say, surprised as if the reason for going there wasn’t obvious enough. “He was the feudal lord who built Azuchi Castle. He was best buddies with Toyotomi Hideyoshi and he’s my favorite character in Japanese history.”
“Alright,” she says, slowly. “What will happen to us after that?”
“After we’re done with Kyoto, we’ll go to Lake Biwa,” I continue with excitement. “There, we’ll visit the ruins of Azuchi Castle, its archaeological museum and Hikone Castle in a nearby city. Then, we’ll continue our journey further still and visit Himeji Castle, Takeda Castle, Matsue Castle, Hiroshima Castle, Kumamoto Castle and all the castles in between until we fly to Okinawa so I can visit Shuri Castle where the kings of the Ryukyu Kingdom once lived and I can buy myself a beautiful Ryukyu kimono that I shall treasure forever. Then, we take a plane back to Tokyo and begin our tour of the rest of the country, the whole northern half of it, Hokkaido included, of course.”
I stop staring down at my list and look up. Kim’s mouth is open, and her face seems to have frozen with an expression of horror.
“What?” I ask, innocently.
“That’s not going to happen,” she says turning around and resuming our walk. “I told you you’ll be staying here a month. Just a month and no longer.”
“But, but... what I told you is not even the tip of the tip of the iceberg,” I say holding my list up as I follow her. “I still have to visit Matsumoto’s striking black castle, the Japanese Alps, the Ushiku Great Buddha and even the Ussuri brown bears up in Hokkaido.”
“Do you want to visit every one of the castles in the country?”
“There are just a little more than one hundred…”
“One hundred!” she exclaims. “One hundred castles!”
“You should be grateful. It’s estimated that once there were five thousand…”
“Yes. But only twelve survive that are in their original shape. They aren’t reconstructions. But five thousand is nothing compared to the more than eighty thousand shines that exist in the…”
“No, Alex,” she interrupts. “You’ll have to wait until we move here the next year to check every one of the places in your list. If we try to make it happen this time, you won’t get to enjoy the experience. You’re just going to be worried about visiting more and more places. I want you to slow down, breathe deeply and relax. You’re on vacation, not on a competition. Now tell me, what’s the place we’ll visit after Tokyo? What’s the next city by order of priority?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Because I’m thinking about asking my parents for one of their cars. We can go to more places more quickly since we won’t be depending on the public transportation itinerary.”
I look down at my list again and try to find the answer. However, I don’t need much time to realize what’s to be our next destination.
“I guess it’ll be Kyoto,” I say, slowly. “It was Japan’s capital for a thousand years. After all, I think it’ll take us quite a while to visit its one thousand and six hundred temples, plus all its…”
“Not again, Alex,” she interrupts, shaking her hands in an alarmed way. “We can’t be visiting every single temple, palace and castle out there. We’ll visit the main attractions and move on with the trip. Understood?”
“Remember last year?” I ask, putting my list back inside my backpack.
“What about it?” She mumbles.
“We visited every castle, stately home and cathedral we could find in all of England, Scotland and Wales because someone wanted to show off to their parents the fact that you’re having a great time. It was my nightmare to have my mom drive us around like young children all the time. ‘Alex, dear, put on your sweater,’ ‘Alex, dear, eat your vitamins,’ ‘Alex, dear, put on some sunscreen.’ I swear my head was going to blow up!”
“I remember,” Kim says, laughing. “It was like a song playing over and over again. It was so funny!”
“Funny?” I mutter.
“Actually, I tried to get my parents to visit me by showing them all the nice places. And by the way, it took us a whole year. What you’re trying to accomplish in a single month is impossible.”
I keep silent and think about it. She’s right. Visiting every place in my list is not a feasible thing to do. I wouldn’t get to enjoy the places because I’d always be in a hurry.
“Alright,” I say at last. “I’ll try to calm myself down and enjoy the trip.”
“Good,” she says as we reach another crosswalk. “It’s going to be so exciting!”
I look up the elegant establishment and see a large sign that says KIMIKO’S above the entrance. The restaurant that Kim’s parents own is literally on one of the most affluent and busy shopping streets in Ginza. It’s located between a clothing store and an art gallery I feel curious to explore.
“You didn’t tell me it was named after you,” I say as we go up some steps.
“I didn’t think it was that important.”
We enter the restaurant and find it almost empty. There are just some men in suit and tie chatting in some tables. The interior is well-lit, and the walls are all white with wooden touches here and there. It’s got a very sophisticated look.
“It’s slow in the mornings,” Kim says as she takes a seat in one of the tables. “But it gets super busy at midday.”
“This place is very nice,” I say as I take my seat opposite to Kim and put my backpack on the chair next to me.
A woman comes in from one of the doors and Kim stands right away.
“My mom,” she says to me.
I stand up and marvel as Kim introduces me to her mother in Japanese. I figure she speaks no English. That’s alright because I like to listen to them talk their language. It’s so interesting and entertaining even though I don’t understand a thing they say.
Kim’s mother is a beautiful woman and has a delightful smile. To my surprise, she’s wearing a superb peach dress and I begin to wonder her role in running the restaurant. She probably takes care of the management. I’ll have to ask Kim about it.
“Alex,” Kim says. “She’s my mother, Ayuko.”
I smile and bow slightly, wondering if I’ve done it correctly. I should’ve asked Kim about Japanese greeting customs before getting here instead of looking for cute ducklings at the Hamarikyu Gardens, a beautiful park nearby that had been part of one of the shogun’s palaces that no longer exist. I wouldn’t want her parents to think of me as just another ignorant foreigner who didn’t bother to research their etiquette rules well enough.
“Hi,” I greet her. “It’s very nice to meet you. Your restaurant is beautiful.”
Kim translates my words to her mother. She smiles and returns my bow. She then says something that, judging by the movement she does with a hand, I guess it has something to do with my hair.
“Why did she say?” I ask with curiosity.
“She likes your hair and wants to touch it,” Kim informs after a short laugh.
“I should’ve known.” I say. “It runs in the family.”
“She says your handsome too.”
I blush. It’s awkward to hear someone say that.
“Arigato,” I tell her mother with another bow. “Arigato.”
Kim and her mother talk between them, speaking at lighting fast speed. I wait patiently, staring at the far end of the restaurant where a couple of chefs in full white uniforms are preparing sushi rolls behind a large counter. My mouth begins to water. I haven’t eaten anything since I arrived. Soon, I’m entranced by the chefs’ moves as their experienced hands spread soft white rice and tasty avocado on seaweed, roll it all up and cut it in small bite-sized round pieces that I just want to grab and put in my mouth at once. I swallow.
“Alex,” Kim says.
“Yes,” I say, getting out of my trance.
I see her mother walk to the door she came out of while Kim takes her seat again. I do the same, not taking my eyes off the freshly made sushi rolls that one of the waitresses is taking to one of the tables.
“Hungry?” she asks.
“Yes,” I mumble, putting a hand on my stomach.
“My mom went to get my father,” she continues. “He’s interviewing some potential new employees. They’ll be back soon. Take a look at the menu. It’s got pictures like you like it. What do you want to eat?”
I extend my arm and grab one of the menus on the table. I swallow once more when I see all the mouth-watering dishes they serve. They all look so delicious! The menu is in both English and Japanese which is helpful, so I don’t have to be asking Kim what every single dish contains. They’ve got many varieties of sushi, baked rolls, deep fried food, soups and even some type of meat called Wagyu beef.
“What do you think is the most delicious thing on the menu?” I ask.
“That’s easy,” she says. “Everything!”
“I can’t decide,” I say.
“Well, in that case, let me treat you with a feast you’ll never forget.”
She stands up and walks straight to where the chefs are. She tells them something in Japanese and returns with a large plate of edamame (boiled soybeans) and a smaller one containing soy sauce.
“What did you tell them?” I ask.
“I told them to prepare us smaller portions of everything in the menu. You shall taste everything we have. Our best amakase, the chef’s tasting course, will be nothing next to what we’re getting.”
“Seriously? I can’t wait!”
“That’s why I brought the soybeans. An appetizer while we wait for my parents and for the food.”
Fortunately for my stomach, we don’t have to wait much for some food to arrive. It’s barely a couple of minutes after Kim talked to the chefs and waiters have begun covering our table with beautiful plates that hold the most eye-pleasing dishes I’ve seen in my life. It all smells like glory! I wish I could put everything in my mouth at the same time, although I doubt Kim’s parents would approve it.
“I can hear the angels sing,” I say, delighted. “Or something more Japanese, I can hear the angels playing the koto.”
“You know the koto?” Kim asks.
“Of course, I know the koto,” I say as I grab my chopsticks. “I actually want to learn to play it. I put in my list that I have to buy a koto when I’m in Kyoto and receive some lessons.”
“Are you buying a koto?” she says, surprised. “But they’re huge!”
“I can always have it shipped to London.”
“Why don’t you wait until next year? There will be no need to ship it.”
“I’ll think about it later. Let’s enjoy this feast!”
“Itadakimasu,” Kim says.
“Eh, are you talking to me?” I ask, pointing at myself with a finger and looking at both sides.
“It means bon appétit, Alex,” she informs with a smile.
“Oh, I get it,” I say with a short laugh. “Itadakimasu to you too.”
As I grab a piece of salmon sashimi and put it in my mouth, I think that there should be someone playing the koto to make the experience even better. The koto is a long traditional instrument that makes a beautiful sound. It’s similar to the harp but it’s played while you seat on the ground. Some of the songs that the Japanese nobles from the medieval period listened to are still played today, unchanged! Truly fascinating! I love Japanese traditional music.
I’m glad my parents aren’t here to see me eating. I go through each plate, devouring everything without worrying if people are looking at me. I drink my miso soup in an instant. I eat my potato salad like a starving rhinoceros. I eat my broccoli tempura as if I’m a caveman biting at a piece of meat. I invite the various sushi rolls inside my stomach one after the other and even venture beyond my half of the table to get my hands on some of Kim’s food.
“They forgot to bring my rolls with crab meat,” she says, looking around the table.
“They didn’t,” I say as I grab some ginger and just a tiny bit of wasabi.
“Where are they? I don’t see them.”
“In my stomach.”
We laugh as usual and it’s in that moment when Kim’s parents walk in just as I was about to tell her something I had read. When Tokugawa Ieyasu was first brought some wasabi, he believed it to be too valuable to be shared with the masses and forced farmers to cultivate it in secret.
I hope it wasn’t disrespectful to start eating without waiting for Kim’s parents.
“Alex,” Kim says standing up. “He’s my father, Yoshihiro.”
I stand up and greet him with a hi and a slight bow. He’s very tall.
“Welcome,” his father says with an accent as he bows too. “Welcome to Japan.”
“Thank you,” I reply smiling. “Thank you. It’s nice to meet you.”
I see that Kim’s mother is holding a gorgeous vase. She steps forward and hands it to me.
“Gift,” Kim’s father says. “Gift for you.”
“I told them you like Japanese pottery,” Kim says. “They took forever to find a vase worthy of their only daughter’s best friend.”
I take the vase and bow as if I’m in presence of members of the Tokugawa princely house who’ve decided to give me one of their priceless treasures.
“Arigato! Arigato!” I say with contentment. “It’s beautiful! It looks like ceramic from the Ming Dynasty!”
Kim translates my comment, and his parents seem happy about it. His father says something in Japanese and I wait for Kim to tell me what he’s said while I look down at the vase and admire its bright white surface and the enchanting mountainous landscape it’s got in a radiant and attractive blue color.
“He says it’s not a National Treasure,” Kim tells me. “But a fine modern example of Imari porcelain.”
“Tell them it’ll be a National Treasure to me,” I say. “Tell them I’ll treasure it forever.”
“You know, I told them to get you a mawashi instead,” Kim says. “But they insisted on giving you a vase.”
“What on earth is a mawashi?” I ask, brows raised.
“The loincloth worn by sumo wrestlers.”
We laugh and I put the vase on the table, making sure it doesn’t get dirty. I then take the boxes with spoons out of my backpack.
“I have gifts for you too,” I say as I turn around. “I hope you like them.”
I hand the boxes to Kim’s parents and wait for their reactions as she translates. Before opening their presents, they bow with wide smiles. Her mother says something I don’t understand, and her father says “Thank you” several times. They seem happier now and I’m hoping I’ve impressed them. At last, they open the boxes and I manage to see the golden spoons reflected in their eyes. They ooh in unison and mutter a few more things in Japanese.
“They love your gifts,” Kim tells me, smiling. “You’ve managed to impress them very much. They like you. They say that you’re a nice guy.”
“I’m glad,” I say with relief as I hand her the box with her spoon. “I was worried they wouldn’t think that way.”
“They adore you,” she says. “And my father wants to touch your hair too. He wonders if it’ll give him good luck.”
I would let them do that if it wasn’t because I haven’t taken a shower. My hair tends to be a little greasy and I wouldn’t want them to believe that touching my hair gives one a greasy instead of marvelous good luck.
Kim’s father says something to a waiter who’s cleaning one of the tables and she tells me that he’s ordered ice cream. Finally! I’ve been waiting for someone to get the subliminal message I’ve been trying to convey by giving them spoons, although a simple Can we have ice cream now? was all I needed to say.
We take our seats as another waiter cleans the table and takes all the empty dishes away.
“Kim, did you ask them about letting you take the car?”
“Don’t worry about it,” she replies taking her spoon out of its box. “I’ll take care of it.”
I’d planned to visit the Imperial Palace on my first day in Japan. It’s in my list and it’s now come to pass. The free tour to see a small part of the inner grounds was not very informative because, unfortunately, the guide only spoke Japanese. Kim couldn’t tell me what he was saying on the spot because we had to keep quite the whole time. The biggest disappointed though was the fact that I didn’t get to see the emperor. A shame really because I’d love to tell him how great of a fan I am. However, taking a closer look at the white Fujimi-yagura and Fushimi-yagura watchtowers made the tour well worth it. Finding out that the later had actually been constructed in Kyoto, dismantled and brought to Edo (as Tokyo was known before the Meiji Restoration) was quite surprising. I’m sure I’d done something similar if I’d been the shogun.
Now that the guided tour is over, Kim and I are taking a walk through the palace’s huge East Gardens which are open to the public without having to book a tour. This is the site where the first Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, built the Edo Castle, his seat of power. It’s all mostly gone. All that remains are the moat, the stone foundations and very few original buildings.
“The castle’s main tower should be there,” I say pointing at what looks like carefully arranged pile of very large stones, the keep’s foundation.
“You don’t sound happy,” Kim says.
“I am,” I mumble. “It’s just that I’d had liked to see this place in its heyday. Edo Castle’s keep was the tallest one that was ever built in Japan. It was as tall as a modern twenty-storey building.”
“Just check it off your list and let’s move on,” she says, quite tired of constantly listening to my history bites.
I do as she says and we begin our walk out of the gardens. I’m glad there’s a lot of shade around. The day has gotten hotter just like Kim said it would. However, that didn’t stop me from buying more black clothes after we left her parents’ restaurant once we’d finished the delicious green tea ice cream her father had us served.
“What are you doing?” Kim asks with raised eyebrows.
“I’m looking for the emperor,” I say with my casual tone of voice.
“Are-you-kidding-me?” she mumbles shaking her head.
“What?” I say. “My trip won’t be complete until I see the emperor and the empress. They’re the only people with those titles in the entire world. There are lots of kings and queens, there are even far more princes and princesses, but they are only one emperor and one empress.”
“If we didn’t run into him at the palace, there’s even less chance you’ll be lucky enough to see him out here,” she says. “By the way, your trip will never be complete for you. After you meet the emperor, you’ll want to shake hands with him, walk around his private gardens, and ask him if you can buy one of his precious bonsai trees.”
“You do know me!” I say, pretending to be so touched that I’m crying. “But,” I say with my normal voice now, “you forgot that I’ll request to have the bonsai shipped to London in a private jet and that I’ll ask him if I can take a quick look at the Three Sacred Treasures of Japan.”
“Not even the emperor himself is allowed to do so!” she exclaims. “I don’t think there’s anyone living who’s actually seen them.”
“I know. I know. But wouldn’t it be nice to see how they look?”
We reach the end of the park without getting a glimpse of the emperor or of his wife. I guess it’ll have to be on another occasion, hopefully when I’m granted the Order of the Sacred Treasure for my contribution to Japan’s art and culture. After returning the tokens we received when we entered the East Gardens, we continue our long way towards my hotel. I can’t wait to get a shower before we explore the surroundings and look for another nice place to have dinner.
“It’s a shame the minimum age to get a driver’s license here is eighteen,” I say.
“I know. I had no idea about it until I asked my parents,” Kim says. “But don’t worry, the public transportation is great. We’ll get to the other cities way faster than how we would on a car. The bullet train is a marvel.”
After a twenty-minute walk along the border of the palace gardens, we cross the wide avenue and reach the hotel. It’s many stories high, modern and, most importantly, earthquake proofed. I was almost temped to ask the staff for the building’s blueprint before booking my stay. After all, I love my life.
“I’ll be waiting for you at that store,” Kim informs pointing at the establishment right next to the hotel. “Don’t take long, please. We might have enough time to go to Ueno Park and take a look the university.”
“What about the National Museum?” I ask.
“Maybe, if it’s not closed.”
“Alright. I won’t take long. A quick shower is all I need. Are you sure you don’t want to wait for me in the suite?”
“Nah, it’s fine. I want to check out their clothes and accessories. Hurry.”
She leaves and I enter the hotel lobby. I’m feeling so sleepy that I practically check-in with my eyes half-closed. It’s almost five-thirty in the afternoon and I hope the shower will re-awaken me.
The hotel staff is very friendly. The man that’s taking me to my suite even tried to carry my backpack. I would have let him carry my vase instead if it wasn’t because Kim’s parents took it with them so I wouldn’t have to worry about it until I left the country.
“This is your suite,” the man says with a smile. “I hope you have a nice stay. Please, feel free to use the phone for our 24-hour room service.”
“Thank you,” I say with a slight bow. I then give him a few thousand-yen bills as a tip for guiding me to my suite in one of the top floors.
The man leaves and I use my key card to open the door. I’m glad my parents always want to give me the best. The suite I booked is just gorgeous!
I drop my shopping bags and my backpack on the bed and hurry towards the windows. It’s a little tricky but I manage to slide the fake sliding doors that serve as curtains and that give the place the look of being a traditional Japanese room.
“Awesome!” I exclaim as soon as I see the view.
I feel wide-awake again and decide to contemplate the Imperial Palace and gardens from above for a brief moment before my shower. I should have brought a pair of binoculars so I could try to see the emperor talking a leisure walk in his gardens. Sadly, I realize that’s impossible because all the trees surrounding the property create a dense canopy that doesn’t allow one to see the paths and gardens beneath it all.
I soon notice there’s a bird flying above the palace roofs. I think I should take a picture of it, although I doubt I’ll capture the bird in great detail because it’s very far away. It’s in this moment that I remember I have to buy a camera, a professional one. How could have I forgotten to do it before getting to Japan? I was busy working on my list, I guess. So, I take my phone out and try to focus the camera on the animal. To my surprise, the bird changes direction and begins flying towards my hotel.
Cool. Just what I need. I’ll be able to discover what bird it is.
The bird gets closer, closer and closer still. I can now recognize it. It’s an eagle.
I’m puzzled now. I don’t think eagles could survive in Tokyo in the first place. I would actually think they couldn’t be found here if it wasn’t because I’ve seen them two times today. I think it’s odd. I should probably do some research on my phone but instead, I keep on admiring it as it flies straight towards my suite.
I jump, abruptly, and take a few steps back. The eagle has just landed on my window. It’s standing on the edge and looking at me with those powerful eyes that are able to detect a tiny rabbit from a great distance.
I froze, surprised, shocked, confused. What’s going on? The eagle moves its head, looking around the room, inspecting its contents and scanning me from head to toe. Its feathers are dark-brown and it’s the size of a very large and fat chicken, a dangerous chicken with huge talons that can actually be used to kill. I can dare to say it’s the same eagle I saw when I was at the Tokyo Tower observation deck.
I swallow, not because I’m hungry but because I’m beginning to get scared. The eagle lifts one of its talons and something golden falls to the floor. It then makes a move with its head and I swear it looks as if it’s bowing before me. After an uncomfortable moment, the eagle jumps up to the sky and disappears in the horizon below the sun that’s preparing to come down.
I hurry towards the window and pick up what the eagle dropped on the floor. It looks like a gold coin. It’s squared, like some of Japan’s feudal coins. It’s got the image of a walking stag with two Japanese characters below it I don’t understand on one side while the other side is plain.
“What on Earth is this?” I wonder, intrigued.
I look up at the view but no matter what direction I turn to, I’m unable to spot the eagle. I wouldn’t want to start thinking something strange is happening but I’m simply unable to.