There are air-conditioned trains in the summer, but they’re usually full. Seats, too, are hard-won. Whatever train you get on, grab one of the low-hanging handles. If you’re lucky: a side rail to sit on inconspicuously.
If guidebooks are hotel room supplements, local books are the vitamins. I’m talking basic aesthetics. The room needs the following: a plastic shopping bag on the table and a small stack of books in the market for waterfront suitcases. Can housekeeping read English? Who cares—you bought local books anyway. This is how you convince them you are fluent when you are not. The books aren’t meant to be taken seriously. In fact, don’t read them. If humans came with a guide or instruction manual, we’d have no place to think for ourselves. Travel is not a test, only an opportunity for challenge. Don’t read any guidebook. Read titles if you must, look at some pictures, and go to whatever you see a lot of.
Sit on the stairs outside by the laundry machine. Feel the concrete tremble. Watch the city’s lights, the world moving and turning in ways never before seen [by you]. Dress shirts flutter in the breeze across the alleyway. Cicadas scream somewhere. Perhaps they are wise enough to jinx the trains with squeaky brakes. A rumbling stomach will remind you to move. For food, for sustenance.
People will pay to speak English to you. You do it for charity. Pull and release the band around your wrist every time you forget: you are simply moving your mouth slightly for charity. It is easy. Don’t be so difficult, even if a Japanese man tells you to “relax.” Even if at some point you end up in the university’s restroom on a toilet playing ocean sounds, fully clothed, crying silent tears. It’s alright. Stay in the chair and the L2 English speakers will come to you. Now that you’ve surrendered, a girl whose name roughly means “flower bud” will tell you of her favorite food, okonomiyaki. You two will get along, and she will ask to add you on Line.
Their rice is soft and comes in small bowls. A man in Kashiwa gives やきとり (yakitori) to cute American girl(s). Hairdressers follow their clients to the street, bowing, using two hands to award business cards. There are little to no public trash cans. People take their trash home.
The girl from the charity event uses Japanese to explain to you it’s like a pancake. A savory pancake. Okonomiyaki is a word you’ll want to save for later. This flower bud has caused an idea to sprout in the prefrontal lobe of your brain. With sticky, crepe-holding hands in a Hiroshima alleyway, you wonder: how do you make お好み焼き(okonomiyaki)?
There’s a crumpled-up sheet of college ruled paper with runny blue ink. Heavy traffic launches it up into the air over and over. Humidity averages nearly 80% this rainy season. It’s just a sheet of paper, its ink bleeding of a recipe known to most. You are hesitant to chase after it.
Naturally, part of you is worried you’re doing travel all wrong. Not fluent enough. Not brave enough. Not enough okonomiyaki. Stop thinking that way, and start dreaming the way one dreams with scratch-off lottery tickets from 7-11: selfishly first—break even to dream again. Remember: the train may be different, but the tracks are the same. There will be one unexpected train you won’t leave your umbrella on. Forget whatever you think you’re supposed to be or find on this trip, break even if possible, and enjoy the ride.
東京チカラめし(Tokyo Chikara Meshi) sells 牛丼 (gyūdon), which are beef bowls. They’re cheap: just thinly sliced beef on a bed of rice. A popular and quick meal for salarymen. They fill nearly every stool. Hold the bowl up to your mouth in one hand, chopsticks in the other. If you eat there, you get a complimentary bowl of miso soup. Many restaurants have vending machines in the front to order from. Someone will show you how to use one. Put in about ¥1,000, press a button, and hand over the receipt to one of the people who yelled いらっしゃいませ。 If the cook asks a question, begin a sentence about your language ability and wait for a thumbs-up.
Eat gyūdon beside the hotel TV. Put on a gameshow. Hold hands, promise to come again next year.
1. Hold freshly-rinsed cabbage in shape between your palms. Meet for the first time to work on a Japanese project together. Gather all feelings and harness them into pale green butterfly wings. Spread them on the counter. Collapse on a twin-sized bed and dream about making okonomiyaki.
There used to be Mister Donut stores in the United States. There’s one in Godfrey, Illinois, but it’s not the same according to Yelp. They have free wifi, at least. Mister Donut has donuts thicker than the width of the center. Eat them (especially the “honey” kind) at every opportunity.
“Coco’s” in Flagstaff reminds us of “Coco’s Curry” because of the name. Signs for both places are yellow, though the one in Flagstaff is described as a “bakery restaurant” rather than a curry house. It can’t possibly be sweeter. The world has a variety of curry, both sweet and spicy. In a country of mostly mild flavors, Coco’s Curry House is an anomaly: it’s dangerously spicy. People start sweating in there, and for good reason.
We found shelter in Osaka, an escape from Kyoto. We left the Pokémon Center not quite empty handed. On the opposite side of the shopping district, through some back alleys, there was a yellow sign. We ran past little kei cars, with their yellow license plates—yellow like the sign. It was drizzling outside, the plates were steaming, and the music was jazz …
I remember waking early, reaching over him to get to a brown paper bag with half a honey donut left. I pressed my fingers into his cheek with a hand free of sugar. And later, I tapped on his shoulder to point out a Mister Donut from the bus in Kanazawa. Mister Donut evokes nothing but sweet memories. It’s too bad there isn’t one in Flagstaff. Or a Coco’s Curry House.
A strict old woman has her own full production kitchen. She makes okonomiyaki and ramen at the same time, and doesn’t smile once while doing so. The noodles are too thin, we think. It’s too late; we know what we like, and the others on the trip don’t pay attention enough to know the difference. Abiko spoils us with hand-made noodles and sides of rice, which are great with a spoonful of shoyu broth. Go there every day you can.
A young male sat close to the ground, his elbows resting on his knees, phone in hand. Perhaps he was expecting a message from someone. He followed four customers into the ramen shop, pointed them toward the machine with all the buttons, and read the kanji out loud. He adjusted his headband in the kitchen and shifted his eyes towards the five or six stools. To one of the customers, he was calculating the time until he could step outside, unlock his phone, and read a girl’s messages again. Nothing else.
Wishful thinking for young travelers counting change at a 7-11: travel is equal parts sweetness and calm refuge.
2. Mix flour, water, and eggs. If you would like, snap the butterfly wings in half and stir in gradually, slowly. This will keep the mass in a presentable shape, almost if by magic.
Miyajima is an island in the rain with free-roaming deer and a loneliness that starts in the water and finds you on the shore. Hold shoes in one hand, wave from under the great Torii with the other. Watch his umbrella disappear behind the balcony. The vermillion color works to drive away evil spirits. Wonder if it was you or the nature of evil spirits who made sure he’d never meet you at the gate. Laugh with the group, share a friend’s umbrella, take pictures, stop at the ice-cream machine on the way back to the hotel, try. Try to find him. His roommate doesn’t know where he went. The other guy hadn’t seen him since the bath. The deer know, but don’t bother asking them. All they have are wants, the way they eat tourists’ clothes.
Sneak to his room every night. Love him, kiss him. Read more Murakami with the window open, a clean tatami mat, a lantern in the corner, the waves gently lapping the shore, the total absence of seagulls. Only the smell of fried curry oyster bread, and a melting popsicle that’s slipping red beans into your sandy hands.
The cicadas are screaming somewhere. Kendo participants are yelling, their bamboo swords clapping like heavy waves. From behind the painted white line, you’ll yearn for the former.
3. Heat oil in a frypan. Feelings will intensify. Even anger, even hurt. This is it. You know the risks. You have your expectations. Continue or not. It’s up to you.
The elementary school kids give presents and sing a Western song while their teacher plays guitar. You make a thank-you note, drawing a mermaid for the girl who covered her mouth shyly and told you she loves Ariel. They run to the balcony and come into view cheering, waving a goodbye meant to last forever and ever. “Isn’t it neat?” released to the sky in a Japanese accent. Telephone lines on the way back to the train station border the streets like tightrope. Remember that he was not just quiet but happy when you accidentally mentioned the future in Miyajima—even after slipping on rocks in the rain and cutting your elbow, bleeding all the way down the mountain.
Go to karaoke drunk. They won’t ask for an ID. When the screen asks you if you are over the age of twenty, press the green button. It means yes. And voilà: you have vodka. Take it home, hold onto his back all the way down the block like a koala. Stop the arcade business if you’ve won something. The machines are designed to inch prizes closer and closer with each coin. Buy stuffed animals from the kid’s store in the mall instead. Buy matching koalas—the symbol for your enigmatic attachment to each other. Smuggle the little fur balls onto every bus and train. I think the students from the University thought we were losers at karaoke: the only line we could come up with was, “Won’t the real Slim Shady please stand up?”
I’ll hope for you to speak up more than whispering grammatically correct Japanese into his ear, correcting his mistakes, reminding him of how it all started: studying for a midterm in a library of people who had absolutely no idea. Perhaps that was the moment of no return.
I felt an overwhelming sensation of “no return” when at a modern hostel called Glocal in Nagoya, June 2016. We were told there wouldn’t be much for us to do there besides homework. That wasn’t true at all: we found shortbread melon pan in a nearby underground mall, played miniature golf, pathetically, in a well-lit sport’s store, and went to karaoke so influenced by alcohol that I was able to speak Japanese to the employee—on my own.
One night, we decided to watch a movie. There were two bunk beds in the room. Four guys and then me. We had the top bunk, and luckily there were curtains all around to hide behind. Down the hall, one of the girls walked in on one of the guys in the bathroom. They both shrieked and I couldn’t help but smile as the group chat lit up with messages that went back and forth between not locking versus not knocking. My right hand rested on the bed facing up, admittedly an open invitation for his hand to cover it.
We watched Inception. My favorite part has always been:
Cobb: “You’re waiting for a train. A train that will take you far away. You know where you hope this train will take you, but you can’t know for sure. And it doesn’t matter. Now, tell me why!”
Mal: “Because you’ll be together!”
I fell asleep during the movie, but in my dream we were still watching. I heard him say something about how he feels about me, and it made my hands sweat and my heart beat fast, like butterflies dumped from a bucket into my stomach.
4. Combine mix with cabbage, and pour onto pan. We’re cooking now. Please don’t let it burn.
There is so much talk about okonomiyaki. The girl at a charity event urged you to try it. In Hiroshima, it tasted like fish and you didn’t like it. It’s underwhelming even at the homestay, when you helped make it.
Alone with him, you eat omurice. It is perfect because only the pan itself had any role in shaping it. It is perfect even though nobody had ever mentioned it at all. After omurice, an excited little kid takes you both to the entrance of Kyoto Tower right before closing. He helps you put the money in the machine. Soon, you find yourself watching the city’s lights again, this time with a telescope. And when you are able to make out individual faces, feeling far less alone, that makes all the difference.
If okonomiyaki translates to “how you like it,” then maybe I’ll make omurice and call it okonomiyaki. Maybe I like my okonomiyaki to be omurice. For this I have no recipe. Only a folded slip of smooth, white paper that I suggest holding onto when on trains or next to quiet dryer machines. Let it stand for your clean expectations.「うれしい？」「幸せ。」
5. Neaten the edges. Spread a generous amount of sauce. Forgive, forgive, forgive. The deer in Miyajima don’t need to know—they’re not in it for the process, only the food.
Author’s note: The “I” becomes more and more prevalent as the essay continues because that’s sort of how people grow up. When we decide to start—and I mean actively start—we take position on the block unsure of ourselves: unsure of the block itself and the way our toes curl around the edge, the dive with the splash and its impact, how to do any of it, unsure we should be around at all. Eventually, we find the confidence and capability to tell others how we want things to be. This essay exhibits confidence in the way it gives directions, but the subjects are elusive and hiding somewhere safe until the “I” feels sure enough of herself to show herself. While not conventional, these shifts in point of view came naturally to me.