Tokyo Sketch (I)

Tokyo1 It was raining again

The first time i saw this picture at Dancing Mind, I fell in love with it. Everything depicted in this picture reminded me of the night lives that I used to know. The dollar bill on the counter, the elegant wine glass and its timid shadow, asking a stranger for a light, the hidden eyes, the wedding band, ... All is promising some mysterious encounter, something new yet something familiar.

I thought of one rainy night in Tokyo in particular...

The Matter of Words Tokyo Sketch 2 - Jamie


It was raining again. Light mist. The street looked tired under the street lights that had been blurred in the rain. The sidewalks were crowded with people in business suits. They passed along in a hurry. Many club girls were giving out gentlemen’s club flyers. Sumiko looked at her watch one more time. Five minutes past Seven. Another car of subway just arrived, crowd of passengers came out from the gate. Sumiko eagerly looked at each passing face. To her disappointment, Yukiko was not there. Derek and his friend were late too. She opened her purse, found her cell phone at the bottom of her bag, under the GRE books. The GRE class had been easy today. The exam was only two weeks away, to her surprise that she did not feel any anxiety at all. It had been months since Dave called or emailed. Maybe it was over already. She thought to herself when she dialed Yukiko’s number. Recently she had forced herself to take it lightly. What was there to do anyway. If he decided to leave her, there was nothing to hold him back. She had learned that long ago.

Yukiko’s cell phone was not answering. She must be on the subway. Sumiko was going to dial Derek’s hotel number. Then she spotted his white shirt in the crowd. He still looked as handsome as she remembered when they first met in Vegas a few months ago. It was kind of him to contact her. Another young man was with Derek, tall and square jawed, in shorts and a t-shirt. Such typical American look. Derek hugged her and introduced his friend, Thomas. They shook hands. Thomas had a radiant smile, his white and healthy teeth were shown.

"So where is your friend?" Derek clapped his hands, eager to begin his first night out in Tokyo.
"She said she would be a bit late."Sumiko suddenly remembered how Dave always liked to clap his hands, the same way Derek just did.
"You said that she knew Dave as well?"Derek was curious. Dave was his best friend since childhood. They grew up together, went to Michigan together and both accepted a job at BJ Consulting after graduation. Dave was assigned to a project in Tokyo a year ago. When he just met Sumiko, he left a very happy voice mail to Derek. In his usual terse and clean way, he simply said, “Hey man, I hope my project will be extended here for another year. Just met a very nice girl. I hope you can meet her one day.
"Yes! Actually she met Dave before me, and I knew her through Dave." Sumiko was trying hard to sound calm. She started to wonder whether it was wise to invite Yukiko along for the night. They had not seen each other since Dave’s going away party at the beginning of the year.

"And your friend speaks English as well as you do?" Thomas looked friendly. "Given our experiences for the past week, I didn't really believe Derek when he told me two Japanese girls will show us the town tonight and they both speak fluent English. Where did you learn your English? You hardly have any accent!"
"Thanks." Sumiko blushed a little. How I hate it when they say that. She answered coolly “I have been taking English lessons since elementary school. As for Yukiko, she went to college in LA.
"And Sumiko is going to University of Chicago for Business School this Fall." Derek put his arm around her shoulder and gave her a quick squeeze. A proud smile on his face. He is so much like a brother.
"Oh, you are joking again." Sumiko blushed some more. "I have to pass all the tests first."
"I am sure you will." Derek smiled.

A young woman patted Sumiko on the shoulder. Sumiko turned around, they started converse in rapid Japanese for a while. Introductions all around once again. Yukiko had her hair pinned up. She had almond shaped eyes, perfect Californian accent, soft voice with a touch of heavy nasal quality. Quite a sexy voice. She shook hands with Thomas and Derek. There was an air of a business woman’s efficiency about her.

Dinner decision was easily made because Thomas and Derek surrendered full control to their guides of the night. While Thomas was busy telling Yukiko about his amazing experiences in Japanese restaurants and the guessing games he had to go through with the Kanji characters on the subway signs, Sumiko stopped a cab on the street. They jumped in. Thomas was the last one to get in the cab, and naturally stretched out his hand to close the cab door. Both Derek and Yukiko shouted to stop him. Thomas withdrew his hand the last minute, remembered how the taxi cab driver was yelling at him in the morning because he closed the door himself. Seeing the embarrassed look on Thomas’s face, Sumiko started to tell her story in the States. "I was so used to the cabs that have automatic doors in Tokyo that I got yelled at in both Chicago and New York, because I got in the cab and left the door open." Everyone laughed in the back seat. Yukiko explained the story to the driver in Japanese, he looked back at Thomas and said something. "He said that you can close the door if you want to, but other drivers might not be as kind." Sumiko translated to Thomas. Thomas shook his head, "That is okay. I won’t touch the door again."

It was raining hard. The taxi made several fast turns in the web-like, narrow streets. Now they were heading up a hilly street with quite modern-looking houses along the sidewalk. Briefly everyone was quiet in the cab. Derek wanted to ask Sumiko whether she had heard from Dave lately. Last time he met Dave, it was in Vegas. Sumiko was with him. He heard vaguely that Dave was back in Japan. But he was not sure. Sumiko sounded hesitant on the phone when the subject turned to Dave. Derek wondered if they were still together. He had been looking forward to the Vegas trip. Dave, Derek, and a few colleagues were there attending a conference. Dave had told him that Sumiko would be there as well. Derek had been wondering what she might be like, ever since he received that short voice mail from Dave. It was a delight to meet her finally. He remembered her comments on Vegas. "I don’t understand why it is here. Why anyone wants to build a place like this." He found that fascinating. Growing up in the suburb of Chicago, he had never questioned the existence of Vegas.

"This looks almost like Chicago!" Thomas was in awe. "Where are we going anyway?"
"Aoyama." Yukiko answered, "We are going to an Italian restaurant there. Do you like Italian food?"
"Aoyama? I read in the tour book that it was a very yuppie district, where tons of young people go for restaurants and trendy clubs." Derek said.
"Really?" Sumiko sounded surprised, “I guess that is quite accurate. You must have a pretty up to date tour book because Aoyama became popular only recently.
"So where else have you been in Tokyo?" Yukiko asked.
"This morning, we took the boat tour up the river to Asakusa."
"Oh, the Old Town!" Sumiko and Yukiko responded simultaneously, and exchanged a smile. "I have not been there since I was a child." Sumiko said.
"In that case, you have to show us where the real Tokyo people go tonight!" Derek suddenly felt a bit ashamed at being such a tourist.
The comment pained Sumiko like a needle. That was what Dave said to her the first night they met.

Behind her, Thomas resumed telling his restaurant story to Yukiko. "We stopped at this noodle place, watched this old man making noodles inside the glass window."
"Is it soba noodle?"Yukiko asked.
"Probably, what is soba?"
"A kind of flour, very high quality."
"That must be it. It was amusing to watch. The entire process of making a pile of white flour to a tray of evenly cut noodles that lined up like soldiers, took the old man less than half an hour. After watching the making of , what is it called, soba noodle? Yeah. We then went in the restaurant. Boy, you should see the face of the owner! He was bowing profusely, while leading us down the narrow path to our table. Everyone was yelling at the back of the kitchen in Japanese, and all we could recognize was the word English."
"There was probably only one employee there who knew English."Yukiko laughed.
"Yeah, I guess." Thomas laughed too, “The funny part was the menu. We were each handed this thick menu that was at least five or six pages long. All in Japanese, of course. When this girl finally emerged from the kitchen, she pointed at the menu, said, 'Shrimp, Vegetable, or Shrimp AND Vegetable.'That was all she said!"" Thomas started laughing at his own story.
"Oh, we are here." Sumiko pointed at the little restaurant surrounded by gardens. "I promise you that you will have more choices than Shrimp or Vegetable tonight." She smiled at Thomas.

The dinner menu was in Italian and Japanese. Derek and Thomas made an attempt to understand the menu. After listening to the explanation about the fettuccini course, which could come with three or four kinds of fish, each had subtle variation from the next; they decided to let Yukiko and Sumiko decide the entire meal, including the wine. The light was soft, the lamps were elegant, and the waiters were not Italian. They sat under a huge tent that was an extension of the main restaurant. They could see the bushes waving in the breeze at the edge of the tent, and hear the heavy rain drops above their head.

"So,"Sumiko had the first sip of the red wine, looked at Derek, "How was your trip to London? Did you enjoy it?"
"London was nice. But,"Derek picked up a piece of bread, started buttering it, "I worked so much that I only had one day to check out the town."
"You were in London?"Yukiko asked.
"Yes, I came to Tokyo first. Then I was told about the side trip to London for a week." Derek tried to sound casual, "I just got back to Tokyo the day before yesterday."
"I loooooove London." Yukiko said longingly. "I've been there three times, and I would love to go back."
"What were you in London for?" Thomas asked.
"For work." Yukiko poured some olive oil and vinegar on her plate, dipped her bread. "I wanted to go to London so badly. I just dreamed up a project so I could go to London."
"Yukiko is the creative director in her company." Sumiko commented.
"Wow, that sounds very important!" Thomas was easily impressed. "Which kind of project did you dream up to go to London?"
"I noticed this small graphical design team a few years ago. So I convinced my boss that we should produce their portfolio before other people discovered them. They were based in London."
"So you just went?!"
"Yup. It was actually pretty funny since I did not know anyone. I showed up at their door and said Hi, I am from Tokyo and I like your work." Yukiko made a face.

"Where else have you been to for work?"" Derek became curious.

"Bali, Hawaii, San Francisco, New York, and Hong Kong." Yukiko listed out the names, "I am trying to get myself to Paris for my next project."

"Am I the least traveled person here?" Thomas threw his arms in the air extravagantly. "I did not even own a passport before this trip."

"Oh, come on. At least you are in Tokyo now." Sumiko gave him a tolerant smile.

Thomas and Yukiko started to exchange stories about LA, where Thomas grew up.

Derek seized the moment to ask Sumiko quietly, "So how is Dave doing lately? I have not heard from him since the Vegas trip."
"Last I heard that his mom was preparing to undergo an operation. He sounded very stressed."Sumiko shifted her eyes downward to her plate, remembering their last phone call. Dave sounded casual and remote on the phone. She was so hesitant to call in the first place. She tried to sound cheerful when he answered. Still it hurt her to hear his voice so indifferent and cold.
"Was his mom sick?" Derek was surprised.
"Yes, he said his mom has been sick for over a year. Cancer." Sumiko was surprised Derek did not know. Aren't they good friends?
"I guess he did not want people at work to know that." Derek was not sure how to react.

Dinner was consumed orderly and fast. Both Thomas and Derek were relieved to finally have some large serving of western food. Thomas made an observation during their second day in Tokyo, "The meal here is barely large enough to help me pass the starvation point." Sponsored snack food had been formerly approved by the project management team, otherwise productivity would be dramatically reduced starting at four o'clock each afternoon, when these American young men started to tower around the floor with a hunger look in their eyes.

After a short discussion, they decided to go to Roppongi for some beer and then clubbing.
"I heard Roppongi is very touristy and full of expatriates. Is that true?" Derek had been consciously avoiding that district because of its reputation.
"Somewhat." Yukiko was careful at choosing her words, "It is still the most sophisticated night life area. Many Japanese young people go there for fun as well."
"To watch the ganjin?" Thomas timely put in the new word he learned from his Japanese colleague.
"No. Well." Yukiko felt a bit embarrassed, she often tried not to use any insulting word like that. Somehow most American seemed to enjoy making fun of themselves using the word. "Maybe for some people."

They took a taxi at the curb outside the restaurant. Very soon, they were stuck in the traffic jam. Sumiko, sitting by the driver, commented something in Japanese. The driver’s response made Sumiko and Yukiko laugh. Yukiko explained to the Americans, “Sumiko said it might be faster if we walked. The driver said, he did not care.? So they walked. It was drizzling. They walked to the Roppongi crossing, one of the many huge and complicated intersections in Tokyo. Streets were packed with people. When the light turned, they followed the crowd crossing the streets, like fish stuck in rapid current. Derek suddenly had a craving for Irish beer. After a brief and rapid conversation in Japanese, Yukiko and Sumiko agreed on a bar that might be interesting.

"I have never come here before. "While walking down the stairs from the street, Yukiko said, "I was always intimidated by all the western crowds in the court yard."
Before Yukiko finished her sentence, they all knew what she meant. The small court yard had no chairs or tables, but every square inch of floor space was covered, by very tall people comparing to the normal crowd one saw in Tokyo. There were hardly any Asian faces. English conversation was loud and bubbling. They squeezed through the crowd to reach the door of the bar. Many people glanced Yukiko and Sumiko in a curious way. Irish music was loud inside. Thomas ordered a round of Guinness for everyone. The bartender had a heavy Irish accent. They found a table in the corner. The air conditioning was on full blast. Beer in hand, Thomas sighed. "It feels like home again." Derek grinned, pointed his chin at the other side of the room. Everyone turned to look. A couple was making out by the bar.
"I'm sorry." Derek smiled apologetically to Yukiko, "That is not appropriate behavior in the public. Trust me, not all Americans are like that."
"But, what is wrong with that?" Yukiko looked puzzled. "They are having a good time. Maybe they are in love. Maybe they have to say good-bye tomorrow."
"Would you do something like that in public?" Thomas was surprised by Yukiko’s tolerance.
"No. But that is because this is home for me." Yukiko laughed, "But I might if I were in a foreign country."
"Why is that?" Derek was amazed.
"There are less restrains when you are a stranger in a strange place." Yukiko suddenly became sullen. She drank her beer, watched the couple, and did not say another word.
"What do you think?" Derek turned to Sumiko.
"I would never do anything like that. But I do not mind them." Sumiko’s voice was even, almost cold. Thomas and Derek exchanged a smile. The subject was dropped.

"Have you guys ever tried salsa dancing?" Sumiko was smiling in a mischievous way.
"No, but I've always wanted to try." Derek was interested. "Have you?"
"Yes, Dave loved to salsa! We enrolled in an introductory class together." A shadow passed over Sumiko's face. But she shook her head, smiled at Derek cheerfully, "interested in salsa tonight?"It turned out that the club where Sumiko had been taking salsa lessons was only several blocks down the street. Yukiko had also been there before. Thomas preferred to stay in the bar, but was afraid to be left alone in this confusing city, so he said he would not mind to have a look. Derek was eager to check it out. The rain had stopped. On their way to the club, Yukiko and Sumiko took turns to describe the usual characters in the club. The boring accountant from Chicago, a lousy dancer with sweaty hands; the shy but handsome college kid from Berkeley, a good dancer only when he drank enough; the half Korean, half Indian young man with his outrageous hair-do; the thin tall British musician with his pale skin and scarecrow-like messy blond hair; oh and that passionate Brazilian with his charming smile. They painted a vivid and often hilarious scene for the two young Americans in rapid English mixed with Japanese to themselves, and often giggles.

"There is this middle aged man from one of the French Caribbean islands. He is a great dancer, and likes to flip his partner in 360 degrees at the end of each dance." Sumiko started.
"Oh! It scared me so badly when he flipped me!" Yukiko interrupted, "But the best part about him is his stories."
"What do you mean, stories?" Sumiko asked.
"You don’t know his stories?" Yukiko was on the verge of bursting with laughter, "He made up a story to each partner he ever danced with. And he never danced with the same girl twice."
"I don’t understand. He told me he was a social worker, currently working for a government contract made between the UN and Japan." Sumiko looked puzzled.
"Oh, God! I can’t believe you don't know!" Yukiko was laughing, "He told Noriko that he was working for a large international investment bank. He was sailing around the world in his 30 feet Georgina when he danced with Laruen. To Kyoko, he was teaching English in a small village at the foot of Fuji mountain."
"But he looked so sincere." Sumiko still couldn’t believe it.
"That is the best part. Isn't it? He is having a ball making up stories." Yukiko finally managed to stop laughing, "I have to give him some credit for his imagination."

The club was small, but was filled with people. It was not hard to pick up the famous ones after Sumiko and Yukiko’s story telling. South American deco covered the wall. The wall was painted green, pictures were framed in bright colored frames - red, yellow, and blue. A couple of disco balls were hanging down from the ceiling. A large screen TV covered the wall at the other end of the room. World Cup soccer game was playing. People often stopped in the middle of the music to cheer for their teams. Not a fancy place, but cozy and friendly.

Yukiko and Sumiko went around to say hello to their friends. Derek went to the bar, bought another round of drinks. Sumiko introduced the accountant to Derek since they were both from Chicago. Yukiko kindly led Thomas to the dance floor, patiently helped him to understand the basic steps about salsa. Derek’s white shirt looked even whiter in the disco light. He managed to use his disco steps to match with Sumiko’s salsa ones. The effects were engaging. The crowd were cheering for them. Sumiko seemed to be a popular dancer. Later, Derek and Thomas stepped out and watched the women dance with different partners.

Somehow it felt real. A salsa club in the middle of Tokyo, filled with people from all kinds of places with all kinds of stories. The imaginative French man was dancing with a tall Asian girl tonight. They were dancing cheek to cheek. Her body was completely wrapped in his arms, they moved very nicely in synch regardless of how the music changed from Latin to Techno back to Latin. They seemed to be very alone. She kept her eyes shut. At the end, when they finally stopped, sweat was rolling down their faces. He kissed her hand in a knightly way. She smiled shyly and excused herself. Navigated her way out to the door, she disappeared into the colorful night of Roppongi. The French man did not dance again that night. He sat at the bar, drinking, and people watching. Once he looked in the direction of Derek and Thomas. Derek noticed that his eyes seemed to be focusing on somewhere far. Somewhere that was outside of this small hot room filled with ear-blasting music.

Sumiko was watching the French man and his partner that night as well. She was a bit disappointed when the Asian girl left. She did not get to see her face. She danced away, not really caring who was her partner. Dave seemed a far away story. Someone else's story. She would leave Tokyo by the end of year. I would not miss this place. She said to herself.

Outside, it was raining again. The tall Asian girl was waiting at the pedestrian crossing, holding a transparent plastic umbrella that looked like a thin jelly fish floating above her, protecting her. A black BMW M3 emerged from the night, stopped in front of her. She opened the passenger door, stepped in. A young man with chestnut hair and hazel eyes in the driver seat reached over, brought her closer. They kissed. “I missed you.? He sighed in a low voice, his hand was gently caressing the inside of her thigh. "How was dancing?" “Fine.? She moved his hand away. Held his chin in her hand, looked directly into his eyes, "How come you never go dancing with me, Dave?"

It was raining harder.