Sunday Photographer

This is an excerpt from my book, BIG LIKE: CASCADE INTO AN ODYSSEY.

Tokyo, June 1996. Satoru-san is already at the izakaya near Mita Station when I get there, and I’m early. Despite the swelter, he’s unflinchingly dapper in his charcoal blazer, gray shirt, and silver tie. “I’m sorry I’m early,” he says, perhaps his standard greeting when he isn’t late, which he probably never is.

Unlike Izumi, he doesn’t dither over a menu. He doesn’t have to unravel the whole damn thing before making up his mind. He orders faster than the waitress can write.

“Dark draft beer?” he asks me.


“I benefit from my freedom,” he says with his sheepish grin. “My wife doesn’t allow me to drink. Like many Japanese, I lack the enzyme that breaks down alcohol.”

And we talk. Or rather, he talks. And when he asks me to, I help him with vocabulary. He swerves into health issues. He and his wife are walking three times a week because the government has been promoting it.

“Recently, they started promoting weight lifting for older people. So I’ve joined a gym for retirees.” He flexes his bicep, but nothing visible happens under his jacket. “At any rate, one man in our group always tries to push the maximum weight, and he grunts and makes this face.” He makes an ukiyo-e grimace of bulging eyes and contorted lips. “He tries to be, how do you say, macho. He forgets we’re old men. Last week, he grunted and made this face, when—” He gestures breaking a stick with his hands.

“He broke the weight?”

“No, a bone.”

He sheds his jacket, loosens his tie, and rolls up his sleeves. His face reddens. “The missing enzyme,” he explains. He orders more items without asking me and flirts with the waitress. He scours his memory for big words and constructs entire stories around them.

“When I take photos, I like being in nature, and I try to unite with it,” he says. “It’s good for my, how do you say, mental equilibrium.”

I reward his efforts with a nod and a smile. “Do you do photo shows?”

“Oh no. I’m a Sunday photographer. Even my wife refuses to look at my photos. So I don’t get them printed anymore. I just like taking them.”

“Now that’s what I call a hobby.”

“I believe there are two kinds of Sunday photographers. One takes photos of birds and plants. He won’t be successful. Birds and plants don’t change. Years later, someone else can take a better photo. The other takes photos of Fuji-san. He will be very successful when the top of Fuji-san blows off and photos are the only thing left of the mountain.”

The crags around his eyes deepen. He orders ocha to round off the meal. He slurps his tea, which isn’t that hot and doesn’t need to be slurped. “It tastes better if you slurp it,” he says. So we both slurp tea. He nods, satisfied with my progress.

Outside, his face glows like the red lantern by the door.

“Do you have time on Monday, 15 July?” he asks.

“I’ll be in Korea.”

“When are you coming back?”

“I might not.”


And we part ways with a handshake and a nod. No phone number. No address. Only memories.

This is an excerpt from my book, BIG LIKE: CASCADE INTO AN ODYSSEY.

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