2010, Little Tokyo
The map he unravels is quaint; its bright colors and messy lines belong to a 2nd grader’s wall, and Naoki instantly misses the slick, clear lines of his metro map (the only guide he had ever needed back home). Yet, Little Tokyo is so small that a metro would be an impediment. According the map—which he trusts with all he has left—the town sits on the swamps of 1st East Street. No intersections, no additional winding roads, and certainly no autumn yellow taxis.
The only sounds are murmurs of the breeze and warnings of the clouds, whose wavering shadows cast ominous reflections on the pavement. Glances of confusion and consideration prevent him from blending into the slippery summer surroundings. The heat burns his brow, despite it being six o’ clock. Among the sea of Persian blue, the wings of a plane back to New York City wink at him.
His cheeks burn with the long lost feeling of ineptitude, and his mind roars in disdain. It has been years since he felt so small.
Graceful trees outline tall brick buildings, the types with high ceilings, harsh fluorescent panels, and rat infestations in the cellar. Naoki’s grandfather warned him of the rats.
“Their bite is poisonous.” His voice shook, like the portents of an earthquake. A scare of an earthquake at that, though, for he subsequently launched into a tirade against the booming coffee industry.
His grandfather was born in Wazuka Town, home to rich green shrubbery, sleepy ski slopes, and a culture wrapped in tea leaves. To everybody’s surprise, he took the slippery path against the grain—towards emigration to the States, towards a degree in medicine. When four numbers irreversibly excluded him from completing his journey, he became a tea specialist.
And that was why Naoki ventured out of the comfort of hustle and bustle city life—to come here, to the Annual International Tea Festival. Bearing the yoke of his grandfather’s legacy was not his responsibility, but his older brother charged him with it.
“In time the savage bull doth bear the yoke,” Akihiro quoted.
“Overusing Shakespeare is a waste,” Naoki quickly replied. “And that quote’s irrelevant. Marriage and recreation—”
“—are nothing alike. Yes, yes, I agree.” He smiled then, lips laced with danger and foreboding. “You’ll go, then.”
So, five months later, Naoki stood facing an empty tea stall. Across from Daikokuya, a ramen sanctorum, which tourists swarmed around, a young and grassy hill teased him. Its ground was glazed with rain, but even when the soil dried, Naoki imagined that it was an unstable locale—one prone to quicksand and other trickeries.
Weary cardinals and stray black cats form an audience.
“I’m not going to perform a miracle,” he murmurs, wryly. Naoki is a caged bird, but this time, he will sing.
Three hours pass as he works in silence. The night is ebony but auspicious blossom lanterns illuminate his stall. It is of red and white lines, and a thatched roof that hides no Jove. Kaori’sLisa’s Berry Bowls, the sign reads.
It is too late to find a motel. After all, his wallet is full of crisp photographs of the recent dead. Beneath them are 100-dollar bills, but Naoki does not want to see his grandfather’s disappointed eyes, so he rests his head upon the wooden counter and dreams of a home he has never known.
He wakes to the satisfied sighs of overfed children and relieved parents. Six in the morning is not too early for ramen, ne?
The hours temporize. With the rings of eight o’ clock, tea connoisseurs flood the narrow street, bags of merchandise in their hands. They flit from stall to stall, pecking at samples and recoiling at the price tags. The men and women wear yukata, and he is out of place with his black silk kimono. Naoki takes a gulp of the liquid and squirms. The concentrated ginger does not faze him as much as its heat. On this warm summer day, he wants a glass of iced lemonade—and air conditioning wouldn’t hurt, either.
Lisa’s does moderately well on the first day; three hundred dollars in earnings almost match the cost of his plane ticket. Rose oolong was the first to sell out, and he is left with piles of Earl Grey and cinnamon tea (a flavor that, while smelling heavenly, attacks his tongue).
It is nearly six o’clock, and the shops are starting to close. Tea lovers have been converted to ramen lovers, and their former mistresses have taken the signal. Stretching his back, he stands and nearly hits his head on the makeshift ceiling. A woman wearing an Evergreen Tea apron approaches his stall. Her eyes remind him of a child on Christmas morning, disappointed to learn that Father Christmas is a legend.
“You don’t care for this,” the woman offers.
His eyes, lazy, drop to hers. “No.”
“Tea is a way of life.”
“I don’t mean to personally offend you—” but to be quite honest, I don’t care.
“It’s our slogan. Just you wait, I’ll find a tea for you.”
“—drink tea?” She shakes her head, knowingly. “That’s what they all say.” She rummages through the pockets of her apron and thrusts a small bag beneath his nose. “Smell this.” The strength of concentrated peach and something even richer rises, a wave of blossoms that drowns him in its embrace. “Happiness bloom,” she whispers.
He cannot find the words to disagree, which is why he is still with her three hours later, only across 1st East street. Sprigs of cilantro pepper his ramen, and he gulps it, fingering the chopsticks clunkily. The thin noodles dangle out of Naoki’s mouth, and her eyes shine with mirth.
An hour passes. Her plate is littered with chocolate filled mochi wrappers and his earthen bowl is wiped clean. They are no longer smiling.
They cut across the road, pale green sprouts in a boulevard of roses.
She lingers in front of a small alleyway, casting glances of bewilderment at the cats, and breaks the silence with coughs of laughter. “Cats,” she murmurs, shaking her head. She turns to look back at Naoki. “Your grandfather misspoke. Rats aren’t the problem here.”
The words “I don’t understand” are eager to fly out of his mouth, but he pauses for a moment, putting two and three together, and nods. “Next time—next time, they won’t be.”
2060, Little Tokyo
At the end of the day, fifty dollars sit in the tin. They are limp bills, runts of the litter, but Naoki brings them to life with the touch of his fingers. Fifty dollars. Fifty years.
He looks at the woman standing beside him and smiles.
—Rachna Shah is a first-year economics student at Dartmouth College. She is primarily an author of short stories and poems, many of which revolve around the Japanese tea culture and the diversity of health and healthcare. Her work has been published in Odyssey Zine, The Telling Room, and Moledro. When she is not writing, she can be found munching on almonds and listening to the news in French.