[Valentine’s Day Short Story] April, I Arrive on The Shores of Your Love

Author’s Note: Here’s the first short story I wrote in college. It’s from 2017. I workshopped it in the first creative writing workshop I took at Harvard — thank you to Claire Messud and everyone else who gave me their precious feedback. The writing might be kitschy at parts and the style is also rather different from how I write now. But, here’s a story for those yearning for love and also those who are happily in love. Happy Valentine’s Day! x

All illustrations below are by a talented Vietnamese artist I came across on Pinterest tonight, Xuan Loc Xuan, whose artworks somehow tie in astonishingly, effortlessly with the lives of three women. 

Parrot

The bar is closed. Sometime between darkness and dawn. Kento sits behind the counter, surrounded by pyramids of bottles from floor to ceiling and an assembly of shimmering glass. His fingers, bathed in the dusky retro lighting from the lanterns overhead, drums on the mahogany. This is his crystal vestibule. But, right now, his fingers look like they are rubbed with faint streaks of blood. He is almost afraid to touch the book before him. What if he sullies it?

He unbuttons his vest, rubs his hands, and noiselessly mixes the cocktail that gave him his first sip of fame; it has been a while since he last made the Taiko for himself—It’s her favorite drink here, he thinks, as he downs it in a gulp. When his tongue swipes against the residuum of bitter matcha powder on the roof of his mouth, he wonders if this is why she drinks it so religiously. It has been exactly four years and eight months, he thinks, since she first walked in. Wearing sunglasses past midnight. Looking like a lost tori. That night, she sat there in silence staring at the Taiko she ordered. He alone saw the drops that trickled down from under her metal shades into the green swirl. He said nothing.

She came back the next week, and then, the week after. It took him a while to realize that she wasn’t frigidly aloof like those other moneyed Japanese women who frequented the bar. She was just painfully awkward. It took him even longer to realize that she was, in fact, a writer—her unsmiling photo on the back covers, hesitantly staring into readers’ souls from the bestselling racks. Her most recent novel published last year was even getting adapted into a film starring Ume Yuji.

Just yesterday, she asked him, “What is the Taiko to you, Kento-san?”

“Taiko? It’s love. I’m not sure if you’ve fallen in love before, Yuri-chan, but it’s everything. Bitter, sour, sweet, and a burning feeling that then dulls into solitude.”

Her eyes flew to his hands before looking down. A quiet moment passed between them. Then, she took out a book from her handbag. “This book to me is like the Taiko to you. It’s my gift. I hope you read it,” she said. She left without ordering anything.

Now, the Taiko has given him courage and awakened a long-dormant thought. Can it be?

He holds the book, feeling its smooth spine. His curved knuckles rest against the hard wood. April is scrawled across the light brown cover, which has printed creases. It looks like a piece of cardboard, he thinks.

He flips open the cover, his index finger briefly touching her printed name, and begins.

***

on a train

— March 31, 2013 —

She couldn’t help staring at him. She didn’t expect to see him again. An anorexic girl sat a few feet away, giving her the side-eye every so often; on the other end, a tiny kimono-clad grandma with a silver bun primly perched on a seat, orange Daiei grocery bags pooling around her sandaled, flaccid feet; and, sprawled across four seats, two high school boys with brilliantly bleached hair who, considering the hour, must have skipped school. While her usual rush-hour mornings were spent on trains brimming over with men and women in monochrome suits, this was a sparsely occupied carriage with specks of personality.

And there he was: a tousled-haired young man slouching against the white train door—of a small build, but lean instead of stocky. His dark eyes looked like they had been mascaraed—framed by very, very long lashes, she decided—below gently arched brows, resting slightly far apart above a roundish nose. There was a shadow on his left cheek, which turned out to be a dimple on second look. He wore a long-sleeve navy and white striped shirt, a ticket stub sticking out of the cotton pocket on his left chest. He didn’t look too poorly-shaven for a homeless boy. Perhaps, he lied that day?

She wondered how others saw him, a face constructed in delicate strokes, maybe soft and unthreatening, an underlying glint of narcissism in every curve and every line. He knew he was attractive. If so, she did not see him the way they did. He was to her violently tantalizing, appearing out of nowhere each time, searing her sensibilities. Her lips parted a little at the thought of walking up to him. She smacked them and tasted the bitterness; ah, the shimmering warm pink of Marc Jacobs Have We Met? 108. She inhaled sharply.

You are already late for work, she reasoned with herself. You told him off that day, why change your mind? You rarely change your mind. But, she could already feel the gears in her mind eagerly reverting their course. Let them watch.

His eyes darted down from inspecting the ceiling to meet hers. It was a disinterested glance. Bored, almost goading. He flicked his gaze away after a few seconds too long. She wasn’t sure if those seconds held in them any gleam of recognition, but she would know in a moment.

He looked back at her as her stiletto heels clicked across the carriage. She smoothed down her pencil skirt, wiping the sweat that gathered on her palms since she saw him.

“Hi, I’m Etsuko-chan,” she spoke quickly, before this spurt of crazy courage ran out.

“I remember you. But I don’t need a lady friend.”

At work, no intern around his age would have dared to treat her this way. But, right now, this didn’t bother her at all. The words tore out of her rouged lips awkwardly: “I’ve changed my mind.” She was trembling like a loose leaf, autumn-red.

He looked less wary now, the hard set to his mouth softening like the bowed wet edge of the cardboard in that Tuesday’s downpour. Ever since she had lifted the soaked lids of the cardboard box—a box that read “UNWANTED PET” in a Sharpie scrawl—beside the back entrance to her apartment building three days ago, she had been haunted. Angled towards her widening eyes, his striking face was lit by the dusky glow of the streetlamp. The raindrops slid off his cheeks onto the hollow of his collarbone. That day, he was curled up like an umbrella handle.

This face now seemed almost hopeful.

Taking a deep gulp of air, she continued rapidly, stumbling over words, but the invitation tumbled out before his warming gaze, “Have you been—uh, have you found a place yet? If not… if not, you can stay with me.”

“Why?” The question trailed out before them both. He uttered this one word in wonder.

“I don’t know,” she replied in equal wonder, “I don’t know.”

***

Ume ashore

“Cut!” the director, grinning through his grey stubble, yells in a hoarse voice. He sounds strangely choked up. His bloodshot eyes aren’t the only misty pair in the studio. A round of appreciative applause breaks out amongst the set crew.

Ume’s head hurts. This is a bit too much for her, she knows. Every engaging script is like this. They suck you in and then spit you out, rearranging the configuration your soul. It must be almost midnight.

He withdraws his lips from hers, and bows slightly. “Thank you, senpai. I thought you were really good, as usual, ” he says, eyes crinkling. She smiles, but her involuntary raised hand to her lips betrays the fact that somewhere in the middle of that long, passionate kiss she had completely forgotten that the reel was running. She has been exceedingly careful thus far not to let her budding attraction to him spill over the boundaries of their professional relationship, but now that she is no longer attached it is far too easy to indulge in her attraction and let herself fall.

Her assistant’s head pops up from behind one of the cameras, sending her a wink.

As Ume collapses onto her cushioned chair, she kicks off her heels and massages her sore feet. It feels good to forget for a while, no matter how briefly, the scrutinizing eyes, sympathetic looks, or, worse still, veiled messages from that smug harpy Ayane who must have been praying for her breakup since they competed for the same role two years back. When Ume started dating the heir of the Toshiba Group last year, she thought that she had finally found the right man—he might have been balding, but he certainly could be considered good-looking for a wealthy guy. Here was a man who was finally as successful as she was, if not more. Even the newspapers thought so, deeming them the power couple of the entertainment world. She must have been congratulated at least a thousand times. Yet, their perfect match began unraveling once Ume started filming April this year against his objections and the bald pig in turn got caught with some unknown model in the tabloids within a month of her strict filming schedule. What a joke.

Since breaking up publicly two weeks ago, Ume has been trying to figure out why she had felt the strangest tide of relief wash over her when she told Mr. Toshiba, “Let’s end this.” And then, there’s the tricky matter of her feeling a little too much attraction for her younger costar on set. At the first script reading in January, she had taken one look into his gentle eyes, single lidded, almond-shaped and slightly drooping, the white of his eye like fish belly, and felt the tension from her fights with Mr. Toshiba caressed away by softly lapping waves. She liked him immediately then. He may be seven years younger, but there is an almost Buddhist serendipity to his quiet demeanor. Being around him makes her feel light. Yet, the outside world will chew them up if she does anything about her attraction; she can already imagine the headlines in bold font: “Ume Yuji Dating a Toshishita after Losing Toshiba Heir”.

Feigning nonchalance, she turns slowly to glance at him, sitting a few feet away and diligently annotating his script. He seems to sense her gaze, suddenly looking up. Instead of averting her gaze as she usually does, this time she holds his eye. She catches the mild surprise on his face. He arches a brow, and makes a move as if to get up. It breaks the spell and she looks away instantly. What is she thinking being so forward?

Is it the script? The narrative is doing weird things to her. She has never thought about dating a younger man before reading the script and the novel of the same name that it is based on. April has a resounding sense of loneliness that resonated with her even while she was still dating that Toshiba heir. The novel’s last sentence encapsulated what she yearns to feel but has never felt despite dating several men:

Many years later, as she stepped onto the train, Etsuko would always remember that last day of March when she looked into the eyes of solitude and found another, arriving again and again onto the shores of a shared loneliness that can only be love.

Perhaps, Ume is, as much as she is unwilling to acknowledge it, lonely like Etsuko.

Despite how utterly bizarre April is as a love story, Ume has never felt this close to a character before. Her character, Etsuko, is a beautiful and successful twenty-seven-year-old woman. Yet, Etsuko is also broken in some way, always wearing a mask of control that everyone expects of a Todai grad; this nags at Ume the more scenes they shot. After a string of failed relationships with men who are inevitably intimidated by her intelligence and accomplishments, Etsuko adopts a homeless twenty-year-old young man like a pet, settles into what most would definitely consider a taboo pet and owner relationship, discovers genuine companionship and even the possibility of love, but one day finds him missing from home. Everyone tells her that they have never seen a young man with her. Etsuko checks the CCTV tape of her apartment building to try to find out when he left, but realizes as she goes further back that no such person existed in all these months. As she wanders out, Etsuko sees the same cardboard box labeled with “UNWANTED PET” again, opens it to see a cavalier puppy staring back at her, and smiles. What a great story. Ume knew without a shred of doubt that she was going to take up the role the moment she closed the book covers.

Yet, during the January script reading, the director had blithely announced, “Look at the powerful ending! We have a wonderful film in our hands about feminism and about finding oneself, which has been very popular since Hollywood’s Eat, Pray, Love. We might have a good run at the box office.”

She had immediately protested then before the round table, “Kubota-san, I don’t see how that can be the case. I read the book and it’s honestly all about solitude to me. I wonder if the writer-sama might be here to share?”

The writer, Yuri Yoshizawa, had not been there and never did come to the set at any point in the filming. After a month and a half on set, Ume has all but confirmed that the mysterious Yuri Yoshizawa is a recluse, but that is beside the point. Even if Yoshizawa-san were at the script reading to endorse the director’s interpretation, Ume would have still refused to concede that this is what the story is all about.

In that glass-paneled room, crowded with the primary cast and the director, assistant-directors, and assistants of assistants, Ume had asked, “Is Etsuko schizophrenic?” But the director had declared, “No, no, making Hisao up in her head is just a coping mechanism! At last, our dear Etsuko-chan realizes that she needs no man. That’s more important, that’s way more important. We want to leave it open-ended for the audience.” If Ume were Etsuko, she would have wept bitterly when she opened the box only to see a dog. She knows what it’s like to want to fall in love so badly with someone who will love you unconditionally in return. It’s a yearning for someone to share in your loneliness, a yearning that can overcome pride, societal conventions, and render all the petty checklists you have inconsequential. It seems to her that April is a lonely woman’s plea for love. She feels herself echoing this plea wordlessly, with every laden line that she acts from the script. If she doesn’t do something, she might go crazy like Etsuko.

“Hey, Ume-chan,” a voice sounds from above her. Her costar has made his way over to her chair and now looms over her.

She looks up at him searchingly, curiously. So this is how she falls: despite every rational fiber in her body telling her how unwise it is, despite how she knows even if he says yes their relationship will not be fondly looked upon, she is about to exhilaratingly, unwaveringly throw herself onto the path that Etsuko wanted so badly to tread upon.

“Ume-chan? Are you okay? There’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you,” he draws a deep breath before speaking, droopy eyes unblinking, and crouches down to her eye level.

She knows her mind is made up in that moment. She inches her face towards him, places a finger on his moving lips, and whispers, “I have something to tell you too.”

“Hmm?”

“I want to ask you out on a date,” she says to him. A pause and then, her bold red lips, still slightly smudged from the prior scene, open and close: “Thoughts?”

As she watches his eyes lit up, Ume finally thinks she can grasp that feeling of arrival that Etsuko mentioned, that marvelous feeling of stepping ashore when your feet expects watery depths but instead finds an assuring foothold of solid earth.

***

April

Yuri gets off at the Yushima station when it’s dark. Outside, there are the few usual men drinking scotch and smoking cigarettes on the curb. She drags her luggage down the steps leading to her favorite bar with some effort. One of the men—half-drunk and pretending not to be—sways to his feet with an outstretched hand and yells slowly, “Blind obasan, d-o y-o-u n-e-e-d h-e-l-p?” By then, she is outside the basement entrance, but she would not have dared to answer anyway. She pushes her sunglasses further up her nose bridge before entering.

Her eyes make out the inside with accustomed ease. There are the same few Mesdames surveying the bar like hawks; they must have been beautiful once, with subtle, artful touches to their eyes and lips and cheeks that remind people constantly of that fact. Poaching rich men? she thinks to herself. She cocks her head as Kento appears behind the bar. The Mesdames’s alert faces melt into what might even be a smile when he slides the drinks to them.

She looks away. Beside the Mesdames sits a lone foreigner—male, in his mid-forties, and white. Definitely American, she knows this from his ill-fitting San Diego Zoo t-shirt inside a boxy blazer and the bowl of fries set before his Budweiser. Next to him is a young couple, too busy making out to drink their glinting Golden Daiquiri originals. And in a dim-lit alcove towards the side of the bar, huddles a group of adults—some sort of bonding gathering after work, probably—slurring “Kanpai!” amid bottles of Black and White, ties and glasses askew.

Kento, who she is here to see, wears a white slim fit tuxedo. His black hair, streaked with silver, is slicked back as usual, adding some color to his outfit, alongside a maroon red tie. He is shaking up a drink, as though cupping a heart in his weathered hands, when she pulls to a stop before him.

“Yuri-chan,” Kento says when he sees her, “you haven’t been here in three weeks.”

She can already feel her body trembling. “Oh,” she manages a reply, her voice humbled, “you’ve noticed.”

“And you are wearing sunglasses again. Like you did on the first day you arrived.” He pauses and then adds quietly, “I notice everything about you.”

Before Kento had opened his mouth, she was positively certain that he would have been taken aback by her book. Yet, here he is telling her that he remembers the first day she came to this bar.

She remembers it too. That night when she first met Kento was also the day her closest friend got married. At the dazzling wedding banquet, Yuri had looked around and felt then as though time had solely left her behind when it was busy transforming every woman she knew from girls to girlfriends to mothers. On the train back home, she caught a glimpse of herself in the window—an expressionless, unremarkable face lit up by the bluish phone screen, blurring with the rolling dark hills that receded into nothingness—and had the strong impulse to be anywhere other than on this train heading back to her empty apartment. She got off at the next station. When she found this bar after a quick Internet search, she had already begun regretting her rash decision. That night, the bar was crowded with a big group of raucous revelers that did nothing to drown her loneliness. She felt lonelier than ever. It was then when she saw the bartender, silent and smiling, like a priest intoning a mass to well-ordered rows of glasses. In the pool of warm light, she saw his dancing hands concocting drinks that swallowed worries without prejudice; his clear-headed sobriety in an inebriated world; and, through her sunglasses, she saw plain as day his brilliant solitude.

“Oh really?” she asks hesitantly, “Did you read April?”

“I did.”

“Then, do you know why I wrote that Etsuko and Hisao met on 31 March?”

Before he can answer, the American man gestures at Kento, taking him away from Yuri’s end of the bar, and requests for a Taiko in a butchered pronunciation. As she watches Kento make the drink, she feels her eyes moisten—fortunately hidden by her sunglasses. Kento is like an artist condensing the human experience into a glass: a few drops of rice wine, some green tea liquor, a spray of matcha powder, ice clinks and then, a sudachi citrus slice sinks into the shades of green, before finally a gold leaf rests with a sigh at the top.

In the past three weeks of self-imposed exile from the bar, Yuri had realized acutely for the first time how intolerable her suburban apartment was. How she had used to spend all her time within those walls for years was now unfathomable. Totoro her pet parrot, who was trained to squawk “I love you” passionately in twenty-four languages, no longer entertained. There were nights when the ceiling seemed to be descending on her and she got to as far as the train station. But, the thought of Kento having read her book and disliking it—disliking her—kept her away from the city. She returned to her dull apartment in Setagaya-ku where even Totoro did not bother to talk to her. In the silence, she allowed her fears to take root and grow.

Kento pushes one of the two glasses towards the waiting American. The other Taiko he places gently before her.

He says, “It’s because we met on March 31st in 2013. Tell me if I’m right.”

Yuri takes off her sunglasses, eyes still fairly red and eye circles a garish greenish-black from weeks of insomnia, and stares at Kento.

“We are also seven years apart in age,” he continues, looking at her so closely that he seems to see into her and past her at Etsuko.

He says, “And I am also as lonely as you are.”

Yuri knows she is crying but she finally doesn’t care.

“So, Yuri-chan, will you accept this from me?” he asks, cupping the Taiko in two hands, sliding it slowly but steadily across the mahogany countertop at where the wooden edge meets her heart.

She remembers the plot that stretched back four years, eight months and three weeks, on the first day of April when she emerged from the bar into a kinder, more hopeful world and felt the wet sunlight on her face; when she locked herself in a dark apartment to write another woman’s life and her own intertwined, wondering if it could say what she would never tell him to his face; when she ventured into the city once a week on a fifty-seven-minute commute past rolling hills to observe another’s solitude, murmuring a soft prayer each time that perhaps he would one day consider sharing it with her. She feels a heaviness as if she had just awakened from a years-old slumber with unspoken words, imagined moments, and fully-written sentences in her body. She finally arrives ashore.

Ashore

In the mood for love:

[Story] 7-Eleven: A Summertime Romance?

[Story] On Black Friday Morning, in a Sun-lit Café

[Story] Macau: Casino Lights Dancing

Yuri and kento

From A Foodie: Tasting Japan & Its Shokunin Spirit

Although my two months in Japan were ostensibly for Summer School (note the emphasis on my liberal arts education), with the overarching agenda of weight loss (refer to my birthday post: From 20-year-old Me, With Love), it was in truth spent on eating, diligent planning of where to eat, and lovingly documenting every piece of food that went into my stomach. It was a glorious two months in a land that worshipped food as much as I did. I present to you the best food I’ve eaten—sadly, not an inexhaustible list and very much narrow in scope as I don’t eat raw fish (no sushi/sashimi etc.! I hear your cry of ‘travesty!!!’)—in Japan, with most of the places in Kyoto (which was where I was predominantly located). Some brief thoughts on the shokunin spirit at the end.

Dessert

Tokyo

  • Asakusa Suzukien Nanaya Gelato

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Eaten on my first full day in Japan, this was the unforeseen beginning of my two-month-long obsession with matcha ice cream. Located on a street behind the famous Sensōji Temple, this shop is famous for having the richest matcha gelato in the world (see the round blob below). It was overwhelmingly bitter (considering the fact that I have a huge sweet tooth) and I immediately wished that I had gone for one of the lower levels instead of the highest out of the seven levels of matcha. Instead, I took over my dad’s Hojicha (roasted green tea) and level 1 matcha gelato cup—it was heavenly.

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  • Dominique Ansel Bakery Omotesando Store

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Tucked in an alleyway behind Omotesando, the zelkova tree-lined avenue leading to Meiji Shrine, this bakery is slick, modern, with incredibly photogenic pastries. While everything looks pretty, the best of the bunch is the Tokyo-exclusive Paris-Tokyo Matcha Passionfruit Cake (top left), which tastes as good as it looks—it’s a spin on the classic Paris-Brest with passionfruit curd and matcha ganache. Other innovations include the Frozen S’mores which are burned before you as they are being served.

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Osaka

  • The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios Japan

Butterbeer is a must-have! With a sweet, creamy layer of foam above the carbonated, bubbly drink (non-alcoholic), it tasted like an interesting mix of foam milk soda and butterscotch macchiato. The amber color (resembling beer) is beautiful, the mug is a souvenir to keep, and the taste is smooth. It also magically cured my motion sickness after the Final Fantasy XR Ride with the virtual reality headset.

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  • World’s Second Best Freshly Baked Melonpan Ice Dotonbori

Located in Dōtonbori, Osaka’s over-the-top food/entertainment/shopping district, the name of the food truck caught my eye: why proclaim itself as the world’s second best? (And, honestly, who’s the first??) The melon-pan was still warm and crispy, with a subtle sweetness, which lightened the richness of the vanilla ice cream. It was a larger, fatter version of Singapore’s iconic ice cream sandwich, and no less delicious. More points for the experience (rarely did I see melon-pan sold with ice cream throughout the rest of the trip) than for the actual taste.

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Kyoto

  • Kyo Cafe 

This cafe is operated by KYOBAUM, a famous brand of baumkuchen (a layered sponge cake, resembling a tree with concentric rings). The matcha and vanilla soft serve rests on several small, chewy pieces of baumkuchen (made with Uji green tea and soy milk). The sprinkled powder on top is a nice finishing touch. If you’re shopping along Shijo Avenue in Gion and need a pick-me-up, go for this different spin on soft serve.

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  • Gelato Pique Cafe Bio Concept

Since I was passing through Kyoto Station every day on my commute to school, I spent a lot of time exploring all the underground (and overhead) malls connected to the sprawling transportation hub. This newly opened cafe in the basement of the CUBE caught my eye due to its bright, minimalistic interior. I ordered a Rouge Smoothie and an assorted gelato set (I chose chocolate, matcha, and pistachio), which was surprisingly good with its granola bits and a butter cookie. It lasted me for more than an hour on my Kindle, reading Yuko Ogasawara’s Office Ladies and Salaried Men. ^_^

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  • Sir Thomas Lipton

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My absolute favorite dessert place. ❤ The white peach tart (pictured above) was love at first bite. I went back three more times—twice with friends and one last time by myself—to eat it. Everything else on the menu, from matcha tiramisu to matcha kakigōri (shaved ice) to hibiscus black milk tea was delectable. The pot of tea, however, was not a standout.

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  • Arashiyama Obuu

What a blessing on any swelteringly hot, sticky day. My friend and I ventured into Arashiyama (with its famous bamboo forests, scenic railways, and picturesque temples) on a 40 degree Celcius afternoon—the whole time, we were immersed in an inescapable outdoor sauna. After lining up for half an hour, we got seats by the counter facing the Togetsukyo Bridge. This was the only time I tried a Hojicha parfait throughout this trip. The slightly bitter, roasted taste of the ice cream perfectly complemented the doses of matcha.

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The tea room of this breathtakingly gorgeous museum (an architectural feat nestled in the mountains) offers a tasty Anmitsu. With natural sunlight streaming through the glass ceilings and metal beams, both this space and the food are meant to present a harmonious blend of natural beauty, architecture, art and food—this museum’s object, after all, is to use art (in its broadest sense) to bring about a religious experience. Founded by the Shinji Shumeikai religious organization, even the culinary experience of the museum’s restaurants adheres to its philosophy. This dessert item utilizes ingredients produced by the Shumei Natural Agriculture approach, free of any additives such as fertilizers and agrochemicals. The azuki beans are boiled to a soft texture while the round balls made of mochi rice flour are chewy and the matcha ice cream cold and soothing. Almost a transformative experience, but not quite yet.

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  • Ito Kyuemon Uji Honten

My host family brought me to this traditional tea-maker shop, now famous for its parfaits. Absolute matcha heaven! Although everyone at the table ordered a parfait, I really couldn’t help but order the matcha cheesecake option with the Hojicha jelly (because it looked so pretty on the menu). The chilled Hojicha jelly was bouncy and slightly bitter even after honey is poured, but it lightened the palate between bites of a rich, creamy cheesecake. I happily bought several boxes of matcha goods—sandwich cookies, chocolate, and warabimochi—from the shop before we left.

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  • Saryo Suisen

Best parfait. With matcha waffle roll, dorayaki (red bean pancake), azuki paste, dango (sweet dumplings), mochi, cookie, baumkuchen, and jelly decorating the matcha soft serve, eating this parfait was like unearthing a seemingly bottomless treasure chest. I choose to disregard the number of calories contained in this beauty.

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***

Okonomiyaki

Tokyo 

  1. Asakusa Okonomiyaki Sometaro

Delicious beyond words. Definitely make a trip here if you’re in Asakusa. This Japanese-style savory pancake is called okonomiyaki (literally ‘grill as you like’), with flour, eggs, tempura scraps (tenkasu), cabbage and some form of protein. The final pancake is topped with a variety of condiments like okonomiyaki sauce, Japanese mayonnaise, dried seaweed, and dried bonito flakes. Seated on tatami mats around an iron griddle on the tabletop, everything is do-it-yourself (we also asked the friendly staff to help us flip the pancake). The rustic interior is charming.

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***

Unagi

Nagoya

  1. Atsuta Horaiken Main Restaurant

THE BEST UNADON I’VE EATEN IN MY LIFE. Nagoya’s hitsumabashi (hitsu = ‘wooden rice bowl’ and mabushi = ‘to scatter’) style entails eating the unagi in four steps: as it is; garnished with the served condiments such as spring onions, nori seaweed, pickles and wasabi (I gave wasabi a pass); mixed with lightly-flavored broth or tea; and lastly, whichever of the three ways one prefers. It was such an interesting way to eat unagi, apportioning the eel out of the bowl, but then I gave up halfway through since the second way was so delicious. Also, I recommend ordering the Umaki (omelet-wrapped eel) as a starter.

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***

Tempura

Nara

  • Tendon Makino

Golden, crispy, melt-in-your-mouth kind of buttery goodness. The huge bowl includes a generous assortment of tempura—conger eel, shrimp, egg with a soft center, green pepper, enoki mushrooms, seaweed, squid, and scallops all coated in a thick batter—overflowing above the rice (a second smaller bowl is used as a lid to keep the tempura from falling off). The order is done on the spot, so everything is fresh and piping hot. Incredibly, despite how unhealthy this looks, there was no oily aftertaste. Honestly, the best tendon I’ve had.

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Kyoto

  • Yoshikawa Tempura

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Compared to the tendon at Makino, this restaurant offers tempura almost as an artisanal experience—the batter is light, each item barely dipped into a cauldron of oil by the skilled chef before it is expertly placed onto the plate before my eyes. Consuming each item in the nine-course meal—two prawns, one fish and six vegetables—was a savor of the ingredient, the natural flavor brought out by the tempura coating. The different kinds of salt, dipping sauce and the slice of lemon also offered diverse ways to experiment with taste. So, so delicate.

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***

Wagyu

Kyoto

  • Hafuu Honten

I regretted going for the teriyaki sauce option, but it did not detract that much from the quality of the beef. I ordered the fillet steak medium to well-done, and it still retained its juicy texture, which was impressive. Slightly overrated as one of the best places for wagyu beef in Kyoto, but I can imagine how much better the steak would have been without the teriyaki sauce.

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  • Teppanyaki Gozanbo

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In terms of overall atmosphere, my best meal in Japan. On the fifteenth floor of Hotel Granvia, the restaurant had a gorgeous view of the mountains, the Kyoto Tower, and the city skyline. The chef prepares the meal from scratch before you—from preparing the raw ingredient to the final plate presentation. The eight-course meal hit all the right notes—particular highlights were the teppan-grilled fish with Manganji pepper puree and the dessert (coconut ice cream with passionfruit puree).

The beef cubes literally melted in my mouth. I used to read descriptions like this and immediately label them as hyperbole, but the beef actually did melt in the literal sense of the word! It was buttery, fatty in all the right amounts, freshly seared, and absolutely heavenly when dabbed with salt and eaten with garlic chips. Typing this right now at 10PM makes me so incredibly hungry. 😓 This is the kind of meal that compels you to close your eyes to etch the taste in your mind.

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***

Takoyaki

Osaka

  • Takoyaki Juhachiban Dotonbori

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Best Takoyaki I’ve eaten. Due to the constant line before the stall and the huge volume of orders, everything is made on the spot with a flurry of hands at almost inhuman speed. With crispy tempura scraps in the flour-based batter, the crunch in my mouth as I tried to eat each ball without burning my mouth was a great respite.

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***

Throughout all of these culinary experiences, as I traveled from Tokyo to Nagoya to Osaka to Kyoto, what struck me most was the level of devotion and diligence that goes into the craft of cooking—from roadside stalls to rustic inns to air-conditioned cafes to modern restaurants. What I deeply admire is not only the exquisite precision of its artisanal chefs or the decades spent specializing in a single category of food by generations in a family, but also the smiling salesperson painstakingly wrapping up my cake with an ice pack, the scruffy boy making Takoyaki in the hot sun with a tireless smile on his face, and the many other anonymous faces that deeply moved me with their immense sense of pride in feeding my stomach and delighting my palate.

The Japanese word shokunin is defined by both Japanese and Japanese-English dictionaries as ‘craftsman’ or ‘artisan,’ but such a literal description does not fully express the deeper meaning. The Japanese apprentice is taught that shokunin means not only having technical skills, but also implies an attitude and social consciousness. … The shokunin has a social obligation to work his/her best for the general welfare of the people. This obligation is both spiritual and material, in that no matter what it is, the shokunin’s responsibility is to fulfill the requirement.

— Tasio Odate

I was at first surprised and then intrigued by this shokunin spirit that surfaced in the most mundane of interactions and at places where I least expected to find craftsmanship (to put it bluntly). This assiduous focus on the smallest, most trivial of details and a relentless pursuit of perfection while cooking the same dish, preparing the same takeaway box, or even doing the same singular action at the grill over and over again moves me. I can’t begin to fathom what drives their dedication to this ‘craft’—or what many might not even perceive to be a craft—when I find myself faltering in persisting in a habit after mere days. There’s something special about each of these meals that I’ve eaten in Japan that has moved me beyond its sensory aspects. From my perspective, each of these meals is a singular life experience. Yet, for them, I am but only one customer in a sea of consumers who have come and gone. But, somehow, driven by perhaps what Odate calls a spiritual and material obligation, they hold themselves up to an invisible bar that cannot be found on such a wide scale in any other country I’ve been to.

I think that’s what lies at the heart of Japan for me this summer, beyond its cuisine, the earthquake and the flooding, the heat, its shrines and temples, its quaint alleyways and wooden buildings, its punctuality and the efficient transportation system. Amongst its people, are millions of dedicated shokunin, who are unnamed but not unnoticed.

Lots of love,

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[Story] 7-Eleven: A Summertime Romance?

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When she trudges home that night, it’s forty minutes later, after two transits and twelve stations. She is about to turn left, head down the bridge, cross the crossing under a flickering street lamp and follow that path she has walked for twenty-one days when she notices the 7-Eleven store. Undimmed, the fluorescent white from its windows beams steadfast into the night’s dark canopy. The orange, green, white and red stripes wrapping around its boxy edges are cheery, like a loud invitation to wandering souls. A stop for replenishing. A sanctuary for the untethered. Pre-packaged warmth, microwaved sentiment and cold douses of refreshment are for sale.

She pauses. On a night like this, hungry from dieting and exhausted from interaction, in a mood that can only be called ‘sunset’, the too pristine, uncomfortably synthetic, universally bright convenience store she has seen hundreds of times over in three continents suddenly looks welcoming.

The bell rings overhead when she walks in and a male voice intones a greeting. She moves briskly down the aisles. No one else bothers her after that initial welcome. Packets of food stare dully at her. The undemanding isolation of this shopping process ought to comfort her, but she feels a darkness descend. Whatever she has come to find, there is nothing here but the overwhelming urge to leave. She gives the fridge before her a perfunctory flick, chooses a small carton of strawberry milk and strides to the check-out counter.

There are a few prolonged beats of silence after the milk is scanned as she fishes out the coins from her pockets. She heaps the fistful of pennies and dimes onto the small tray, forming a tiny, tumbling glossy hill.

Sorry, sorry, she says, flustered, fingers clumsily picking out the unnecessary coins. Her head is bent in concentration because, after three weeks in this city, she still has trouble telling the coins apart. The cashier’s fingers enter into her vision, swift and practiced.

She’s pulling back her hand when her little finger and his index finger accidentally touch.

When she glances up, the cashier is blushing. He is slender but not skinny, with a buzz cut, a slightly tanned face, cat-like eyes, and an inscrutable countenance behind the practiced smile. Yet, as he blushes, his eyes crinkle and the banal demeanor ripples. She holds back a laugh. A sunrise, suddenly. Arigatō gozaimasu, she says. And unlike the other thirty-five times that she has said it today, she means it.

He stares at her and then, the blush recedes before he nods politely and recites the ritualized thanks, eyes unblinking and his role reassumed.

When the automatic door closes behind her, she eyes herself from torso to toe. She’s dressed in a baggy t-shirt and shorts, with sore feet clad in dusty sandals. Altogether unremarkable. She considers it for a moment and then sips her strawberry milk before turning left.

***

She goes through the same routine with him the next few times she visits the store on different days, at 11:07PM, 8:13PM and 8:30PM. She even feels something close to disappointment (but not quite yet) once at 3:23PM when it’s a glum-looking middle-aged man with an oily forehead who gives her change while cheerlessly smiling and bidding her thank-you. She doesn’t have time to stop by the 7-Eleven in the next three days. Serendipity, she thinks. And then she kills the thought.

On June 24, 2018, at 10:58PM, the local train pulls up at this nondescript station, twenty-seven people disembark and stream out through the gates. One of them feels her bloated stomach from a dinner of kishikatsu, furrows her brows almost imperceptibly and then gravitates towards the brightly-lit convenience store—standing like a beacon in the roiling silence of the night.

She feels his eyes on her the moment she enters the empty store. Did she imagine the swallow in his voice? The staple greeting sounds different to her. Her footsteps grow lighter. She doesn’t bother to think why she loiters at the central aisle in full view of the check-out counter as she blithely scans the fridge. The strawberry milk has grown on her, and she carefully picks one up after scrutinizing the expiry dates.

His lips twitch when he sees her in front of the counter.

After reading aloud the payment amount in his hackneyed intonation, she does not expect him to say anything (the sonata he performs has three movements: he announces the amount he has received from her; there is a lull, followed by a clear statement of the change amount; then, it all culminates in the dramatic thank-you—his unvarying finale).

In silence, she searches her skirt pocket for coins.

Strawberry milk again, he says slowly in English. His voice, stripped of the affected intonation, is unexpectedly boyish.

She freezes for a moment before hiding a smile.

Your English is good, she comments, looking up.

I’m having an English test. Tomorrow. he says, as he respectfully receives her handful of coins.

Daigaku? she casually asks. Her summer program classes take place at a private university a few subway stops down from Kyoto station.

High school, he corrects her in English. He meets her eyes steadily when he says those two words.

She tries to hide her surprise. You’re younger than me, she thinks.

I’m older than you. That’s what she says.

Really? he replies nonchalantly.

He thanks her as usual when she turns to leave, but before she’s out of the door, she hears him speak into the air behind her, Goodnight.

***

She comes back again the next day and the next. Ever since that first off-script conversation they had, a tacit agreement has been reached. He no longer bothers performing his sonata.

Not strawberry milk? he asks when she places a cup of yogurt on the cashier counter. She wishes she could have bought the strawberry milk but she doesn’t have enough coins with her after using them daily at the store. She thinks his English has gotten significantly better since she first remembered his face two weeks ago.

ī e, yōguruto tai, she replies. So has her Japanese.

He watches her empty the handful of coins from a pouch and blinks.

He suddenly bends down behind the counter and surfaces a few seconds later. There’s a dollar in his outstretched, sweaty palm.

You drop this? he says, slightly stumbling over these three words.

She is first confused. No, I didn’t— Oh, she says, oh.

When he gestures at the fridge, she floats there and back, a carton of strawberry milk in her grasp. She doesn’t even remember to check the expiry date.

***

So they keep talking—a few words here, a few words there. She mostly never lingers for too long. He never asks her to stay. Sometimes, there’s another customer and then, he gives her a shrug from behind the counter and she hears herself humming as she crosses the crossing.

Sometimes he tells her about this girl in his class he finds cute, or the Germany World Cup match he streamed on his phone. She would lean against the counter, sipping her strawberry milk.

Once in a while, in that winding two months, she watches a World Cup match with him on his cracked phone screen after he is off-duty, the phone propped up by two boxes of sour gummies between them on an unused countertop. He would pass her candy and recycle the wrappers. She would find herself stepping across the threshold into darkness hours later, the convenience store light a halo behind her silhouette.

***

She tells him that the date of her departure flight is near.

He just tilts his head.

I’ll send you off at the station, he finally says. It’s right beside the store, I can sneak out for a few minutes.

***

On the flight, she wonders what the past two months meant. She wonders about the first feather-like brush, the once-stale sonata, the coins passed between them and the blurry-eyed World Cup matches. She wonders how she ever thought to look up that day, from the isolation and her sunset, to glimpse a human face.

One person wanders, as she did. But two people are always going somewhere. She doesn’t know the route they treaded or the destination they wanted to reach. When he had leaned in beside the gantry to whisper ‘mata ne’, so close as if to kiss her, she had stuffed a carton of strawberry milk in his hands and pivoted on her luggage, darting into the station.

Moments later, he would have seen what she had written on the side of the carton and he would have smiled. He would.

strawberry milk carton

When In Kyoto ≧◡≦

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With the most adorable Sae-chan ❤

Kyoto is one-hour strolls along train tracks, washed-out pink carpets hanging on strings, bottles of sake behind second-storey windows, two scrawny girls trying to catch a pale yellow butterfly with a net, watery rice paddies beside a parking lot full of Toyotas & Hondas. Kyoto is that moment my hair almost rustles as my bones quiver with the ground, with the rumble of the passing train across a few thin walls. The train tracks are embedded in a sea of rocks, streaming to where the horizon meets the sky—so clean yet intense that, despite all differences, it’s almost reminiscent of the sixth station scene in Spirited Away.

sixth station vsixth station

Kyoto is light grey sheets of rain on wooden houses, bright red gates before tiled rooftops, the simultaneous terror and wonder of Yayoi Kusama’s black dots in an endless space of yellow, the swish of the obi in a maiko’s (apprentice geisha) kimono in spotlight, the cool softness and stickiness of mochi against a parched tongue, and the heavenly pleasure of matcha ice-cream in all possible weathers and places. It’s touching a love rock in aged temples and above waterfalls, and trying but failing to touch a deer grazing freely in the precincts of Nara.

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Kyoto is spending buckets of coins at a game arcade with a six-year-old, a thirteen-year-old and a fifteen-year-old, in a ruthless game of air hockey, in deceptively promising claw machines that cheated my feelings (I swear, it’s rigged), in the pew-pew sounds of Jackpot, in the vortex of Coin Pusher which sucked all our money away, in the tiny space of Purikura photo booths (the photos help you discover new levels of cuteness that you never know existed within your features), in the din, the clamor, the furrowed brows and upturned mouths.

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Kyoto is waking up earlier than I ever did since college, at 7.30am every morning, being greeted in a cascade of murmurs of ohayo gozaimasu, being ushered out of the house with itterashai and welcomed back with okaeri. It’s the simple warmth of daily dinners, eating at a table of more than three, of strangers who now seem to be almost like another family.

Kyoto is the daily routine of three-hour classes—one on East Asian religions, one on inequality in contemporary Japan—in a cool, white classroom. It’s venturing in underground malls, running down alleyways in the rain and tasting food samples with newfound friends. It’s everyone in the photo below. 😊

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It’s also my first experience of an earthquake. Fingers crossed for the days to come.

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Little Princess, Sae-chan~ 💓

Praying, with love,

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From 20-year-old Me, With Love

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Today I turn 20! I wonder how past birthdays feel like because this one feels very homely despite the fact that I’m in a country I’ve never been before. Last night, I was sitting cross-legged in a hotel room on the 46th floor of Japan’s tallest building, wearing a dripping sheet mask, clad in Mickey Mouse PJs, typing out this blog post while my parents enthusiastically exchanged scintillating tidbits of gossip and news glimpsed from their phone screens, engrossed faces enclosed in bluish halos.

We’ve got to close the windows, my mum comments, curled up on the bed.

However pretty the view is, my dad concurs, you can’t eat it.

As always, when I occasionally tune in to my parents’ conversations, my brain thinks: hmm…?? It’s so weird, but so them.

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The last few times I’ve been on a family trip were Bali and Macau at the beginning of 2017 (read about a countryside episode in Bali here and a heart-pounding first encounter in a Macau casino here). This time, our vacation to Japan was entirely planned by me. To celebrate my 20th, my parents submitted themselves to my whims and bucket list items for a full ten days. The day after tomorrow, we will be on the last leg of our trip, Kyoto, where my parents will drop me off for a two-month Harvard Summer School program from June 3 to July 28.

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Today, I spent my birthday at Universal Studios Japan (featuring The Wizarding World of Harry Potter!!!). What a dream. How amazing it is that people of all languages from across the world—there’s a smattering of Cantonese, Chinese, English, and some European tongues mixed in the staccato lilt of Japanese surrounding my ears—are enchanted and invested in the world that J. K. Rowling created. Her words have taken on a life of their own, to be re-woven by each person. We take a slice of this fictional world and make it ours—even the tiny granny sipping Butterbeer while tottering in Hogsmeade on wooden clogs and the excited forty-year-old lady in a pink dress waving her wooden wand in front of Ollivanders. How powerful stories are when they seep into our concrete architecture to become tangible, tangible things. They compel into existence a new physical reality. It’s every writer and reader’s ultimate fantasy.

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Spending time so intimately and completely with my parents on this trip has grounded me. They pronounced at the beginning of our trip, as I was happily munching on dim sum in the airport lounge, that their main present to me was to help me to slim down. My saddest takeaway from freshman year had been fifteen pounds of flesh (mostly fats. biological inaccuracies not considered)—when people laugh about Freshman 15, BEWARE. It is real. After a winter of snacking, hibernation, and a final month of belated awakening, I returned to my parents’ arms a much chubbier version of myself. This trip, surrounded by matcha everything, gyoza, unagi, cheese tarts, okonomiyaki, takoyaki and all sorts of infinitely tempting foods presented exquisitely (even the fake food put on display looks absolutely delicious), I’ve been compelled by my parents’ withering glances and snarky remarks to exercise self-control. For someone who loves food as much as I do (e.g. our Japan itinerary is basically a food-centric sightseeing, extensively researched based on food blogs, gourmet guides, GURUNAVI, Tabelog, TripAdvisor ratings etc.), this has been tremendously painful. My parents had the weirdest conversation about how I would have thrived in medieval times when chubbiness was desired since the state of plumpness represented sufficient resources at one’s disposal. Time spent apart from my parents abroad has heightened my awareness of how precious such face-to-face contact is. Talking to them almost constantly in every waking minute about everything and anything is a real blessing. They love generously, unconditionally and wisely, with an empathy that is almost intuitive and most singular. On this day, I am most grateful for them. 爸爸妈妈,我爱您们!💕💕💕

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Tonight, after a day of Harry Potter, roller coasters that go backwards, 360 degrees and parallel to the ground, yellow minions and pink Hello Kitty, virtual reality headsets, and 3D and 4D rides; of eating fudge and exploding bonbons, drinking Butterbeer (heavenly calories in a mug); and of puking after a ride, squelching across park zones in the rain and waiting in some queues, it’s a good day. When I left the park, I was cold, shivering from wet toes, hungry but ineffably happy. 😊

It has been slightly more than a year since I started this blog. Thank you, always, for interacting with this corner of my world and pieces from my life—for reading (as you are right now in your inbox!), commenting and sending messages, and for your support, criticism, and attention. Thank you for coming along for this ride and becoming part of this experimental space that I started on a whim in 2017. To be utterly honest, I had no idea how long this blog was going to last. Many short-lived blogs have preceded it. But, somehow, in my 19th year, documenting my life became a habit. It’s disarmingly easy writing here, to you, you and you. Among you are many wonderful, precious friends, old and new. I’m thankful for your friendship ^_^

I told my parents that I had no idea what to wish for this year, but as I clasped my hands and closed my eyes before blowing the candles, I ended up taking more than three minutes to run through in my head all the wishes I had.

My wish for this blog is for it to keep growing with stories, with footsteps of those who come and go, with a trace of my words in your thoughts and feelings, with an honest account of my personal growth—mistakes and jubilations, stumbles and detours, ascents and conquests, explorations and experimentations alike—as I step into my twenties.

I hope we’ll all grow alongside each other.

Here’s to my new decade on Earth! 🌏

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Lots of love,

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