A Forbidden Act

Excerpt from my book, BIG LIKE: CASCADE INTO AN ODYSSEY.

Tokyo, April 1996. Mr. Song has already left. Mr. Kim is watching a garish talk show on TV. The kitchen sink is full of dirty bowls, utensils, pots, and pans. Vapors of grease and kimchi hang in the air.

“I’m going to walk to school,” I tell Mr. Kim.


Now he has what he has been looking for: incontrovertible proof that I’m crazy.

I walk down Mejiro-dōri toward Takadanobaba. At a gas station, a suicidal attendant steps into the heavy rush-hour traffic and bows so low that his upper body and arms are parallel to the pavement, head pointed at the oncoming car. Surprisingly, the car stops. And the cars behind it stop. Within seconds, the entire curb lane backs up a block. No one tries to get around. No one honks. Another attendant—less suicidal, this one—blocks the sidewalk with a bow, but not as deep. A customer pulls from the gas station into the street, and as he drives off, all five attendants holler long polite phrases after him. Now that’s service!

A major intersection is covered with steel plates, the signature of subway construction. And wherever there’s space, there’s junk. For instance, the two-foot space between two houses is littered with a hot plate, rusting sheet metal, a bicycle frame, a chair, lumber, and flower pots with dead plants. A canal emerges from underneath a building, carrying on its water the flotsam of urban life. The scene is framed by run-down apartment buildings and narrow shoddy homes. But the commuter trains that burst every two minutes from the tunnel and run parallel to Mejiro-dōri are shiny and spotless.

More pedestrians appear on the sidewalk, and when I turn right to cross the tracks, I’m in a mass of people balling up at the clanging barrier. Train after train zooms by before the barrier opens for a few seconds. On the other side of the tracks are the alleys of Takadanobaba. People stream past restaurants, izakaya, and hostess bars without giving them a second look. Occasionally a car tries to inch through all this.

At my top walking speed, it takes forty-five minutes from door to door, five minutes faster than the commute by train. It’s free, healthy, and agreeable, the biggest no-brainer in the history of mankind.

Shirai-sensei, my cute Thursday teacher, is blindly determined to teach me Japanese. Though I’ve studied for hours, I can’t remember a thing, and nothing makes sense. We labor through a story in the textbook on the social importance of getting drunk with friends and colleagues after work.

“I want to get drunk now,” I say in Japanese, peeved by her steadfast refusal to resort to English to shed even a glimmer of light on Japanese grammar.

“Me too,” she laughs, and perhaps it’s an invitation, or perhaps it’s a practice conversation.

At any rate, driven to the limit of exasperation, I go to Ikebukuro after class and commit a forbidden act. In the gaijin corner of a bookstore, I purchase a Japanese grammar written in confidence-inspiring English. I study it at a Dotour’s coffee shop and grasp more grammar over a cup of house blend than I have in all my lessons combined.

Night arrives early in Tokyo, and when I step outside, the street that was drab in daylight is a jarring, flashing orchestra. A guy in a hut at the edge of the sidewalk is baking fish-shaped pastries with sweet red-bean filling. I love these things. I buy one, and as I bite into it, I espy a cluster of strange buildings up on a side street. Tokyo is full of strange buildings you’re better off not looking at, but these are decorated with fairy-tale European and Arabian motifs. Their entrances are concealed behind hedges and walls. Signs are in katakana and end with hotel in cursive pink. Love hotels! Hallelujah.

And I have a date with Izumi at 8 p.m.!

Excerpt from my book, BIG LIKE: CASCADE INTO AN ODYSSEY.

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