Stewing At Ikebukuru Station

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

Tokyo, April 1996. Takano-sensei is mysteriously pleased with my progress or has changed strategy and is using false positive reinforcement to motivate me to work harder. Either way, it emboldens me, and I’m in high spirits when I enter an Internet café and ask in Japanese if they have AOL. I want to access my email, which I haven’t been able to look at since I left home. The attendant doesn’t know what I’m talking about. I rephrase and repronounce it several times. No go. My Japanese is still useless for anything other than introducing myself to a salaryman.

I’m still stewing at Ikebukuro station, and I’m frustrated and stressed the way Tokyo makes you on a normal day, and I’m waiting for the English text to appear on the departure screen of the Seibu-Ikebukuro line, when I hear a female voice.

“Do you need help?” she says.

To be talked to in a station! By a Japanese woman! In English! I turn toward her. She’s in her forties, has shoulder-length hair, and is dressed in an earth-tone pants suit.

“Thanks, I’m okay,” I say.

“Where do you want to go?”

“Ekoda. I’m waiting for the local.” On the screen, the line for my train scrolls into view. “Platform one,” I read out loud as proof that I know what I’m doing.

“I’m waiting for the express. It leaves after the local.” She tells me the name of the place she has to go to, but it means nothing to me.

“Do you live there?” I ask.


“How far is it?”

“One hour by express.”

“That’s a long commute.”

“Yes, but I don’t come to Tokyo often. Today I had an appointment.”

“I’ve got to go to platform one or else I miss my train.”

“I go with you. I can take the local.”

“Isn’t it too much trouble?”

“Not trouble. I can change to an express later.”

As she cobbles together her words, and as I endeavor to make sense of them, it occurs to me that I’ll never, ever speak Japanese as well as she speaks English. We wander to platform one and board the local.

“Japan can be lonesome for foreigners,” she says, violating with apparent impunity the rule not to talk on the train. “We are not very welcoming.” As the train jostles along, she scrawls her name and phone number into a little notebook, carefully separates out the page, and gives it to me. Uehara Yasuyo.

“Thank you,” I say.

“You’re welcome to visit me.”

“That’s very nice of you.”

“It will be good for my sons.”

She hands me her notebook and pen. I write down my name but don’t remember the number of the pink pay phone in the apartment. I tell her that. Pay phone in the apartment puzzles her, but I don’t have time to explain. Ekoda is coming up. I apologize. The train is screeching to a halt. I give the notebook and pen back to her and get up.

“Can we make appointment?” she says as the doors are opening.

“Um, sure.” But the fast-paced door chime puts on the pressure, and I can’t come up with an actual appointment, like a day or a time, nor do I know what she means by appointment, and I need to think things through and understand them before I can agree to them.

“Call me if you need anything,” she says.

“I will. Thank you.” And I jump out.

“Call me if you want to talk,” she says through the door.

She’s so nice I’m stunned. And this in the same city where a hotel operator gave me a curt no and hung up on me when I asked her if she spoke English—that was before I discovered love hotels.

And I do want to talk. I have nothing else to do. I could have stayed on the train with her. We could have gone for a cup of tea or coffee at a station café somewhere. She could have explained what she meant by appointment, what it included and didn’t include, for example. But I’m skeptical by nature. I need to evaluate risks and estimate outcomes. I want to know why she’s so friendly and what her motives are. I’m systematic and lack spontaneity. To sort things out, I need time, not much time, a few minutes—but too much time.

Frustrated with my own iniquities, I promise myself to call her. And I promise myself to be more spontaneous next time. Wasn’t that one of the goals of my trip, to learn to become more spontaneous? To learn to go with the flow?

Mr. Kim’s sliding door is shut. Mr. Song is sitting on his futon, textbook on his knees, mumbling Japanese words under his breath. I lower myself on the tatami and open my textbook, but instead of studying Japanese, I think about Izumi. What’s surprising is how much I want to be with her. It’s the what-you-can’t-have syndrome. And it’s weird how I spend so much time thinking about her and so little time being with her. This is my fourteenth night in Japan, of which I’ve spent three with her.

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

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