by Jane Parry
He didn’t normally do a stopover on this trip, he told her. His work brought him halfway round the world from Toronto to various parts of Asia a few times a year, and he’d always sat out his connections at Narita in the lounge. On the way in he was too preoccupied with the work ahead; and by the time he was on his way home the last thing he wanted was another day of packing, getting from A to B, and unpacking. Somehow the option of a stopover in Tokyo had never seemed like a good idea.
“Oh, Tokyo’s always a good idea,” she replied with a broad smile. But he wasn’t convinced. He’d booked a stopover package, with airport train tickets and a room in a modest business hotel in Shibuya. “Less than 90 minutes from Narita! Be at the center of everything!” the package had promised. At the hotel he’d picked up a pocket guide: 101 Things To Do in Shibuya! But to his mind it had overpromised and underdelivered, at least for a middle-aged Canadian who didn’t want to scale the Nike climbing wall, or eat a foot-tall soft-serve ice-cream cone, or stock up on manga. And here he was, trying out Thing To Do in Shibuya #1: people watching from a window seat in Starbucks, overlooking the Shibuya Crossing. Wedged in between two Japanese couples, looking down at the street below, he was waiting to feel wowed. Maybe he wasn’t in the right frame of mind, but he couldn’t see what the fuss was about. The five-way pedestrian crossing was supposed to be quite the spectacle when the lights changed. The couples either side of him weren’t paying the legendary crossing much attention—one pair deep in conversation, the other two both glued to their phones—adding to his sense that he was somehow not in the right place at the right time.
Five o’clock in the afternoon. He’d been in Tokyo for a few hours already. Although he’d managed to doze on the plane from Taipei after an early start, in a city that runs twenty-four hours, maybe the travel was catching up with him because it felt like the day was almost in. For the last hour he’d enjoyed meandering around the side streets instead of following the guide and came across some interesting things. He spotted a tiny Buddhist shrine tucked between two buildings. Clearly it had been lovingly tended with flowers and freshly lit incense earlier that day. As he walked past a pachinko parlour, the doors slid open with a sudden blast of noise from the machines; and he caught a glimpse of the garish decor inside. Tiny fluffy dogs wearing diamante collars in a pet shop window were selling for the equivalent of his monthly mortgage payment. His daughter would have wanted him to rescue all the dogs and bring them home, but he didn’t. He did manage to find a nice handicraft shop and bought her some knitting wool and buttons (the shop was Thing To Do in Shibuya #30, so at least the list was good for something.) He’d also picked up Star Wars T-shirts, for his sons and himself, from a shop that seemed to sell every object known to man that could possibly be shoehorned into a Star Wars theme. That completed his gift shopping. It was too late to try visiting any of the museums in the city, and he wasn’t there long enough to get to grips with the transit system; so he decided not to stray too far, and just stick to Shibuya.
But here, looking down on a half-busy crossing from a coffee shop the same as the one round the corner from his office at Bloor and Yonge, he just wasn’t feeling what the big deal was. All day he hadn’t said more than four words to anyone. This wasn’t like him. He considered himself a likeable fellow and gregarious by nature; but here he couldn’t make himself understood and had given up trying to pass the time of day, as he was accustomed to back home with waitresses and shop assistants. Here he could sense he was just confusing them, and so he stayed quiet.
“Excuse me, is this seat free?” One couple had left without him noticing, and there stood a woman—Western with a British accent, he thought. Shopping bags of various sizes, a phone, reading glasses, a paper cup of coffee, and a cookie were all jostling for attention in one hand, while her other pulled out the bar stool next to him. As the woman struggled to stuff her bags under the table and put everything else down, her glasses dropped to the floor. He heard a muffled “fuckit” as she crouched down to retrieve them. When she bobbed back up, wearing the glasses now, he returned her smile. “They manage to make it taste identical the world over, don’t they?” she said, as she popped the lid off her coffee and took a sip. “Bit of a dubious achievement though,” she continued, “making the world all taste the same.”
And so it started. Those brown eyes over the rim of a paper coffee cup, holding his gaze while he told her he was thinking that his Tokyo layover wasn’t such a great idea after all. Then the big wide smile. “Oh, Tokyo’s always a good idea,” she said, looking down at the Shibuya Crossing. When he told her he wasn’t that impressed, she said, “Wait until dusk when all the neon comes on, and the office workers are let out. See if it moves you then.”
This wasn’t her first trip to Shibuya. She spoke of it the way his sister might talk of the outlet mall thirty miles from her home. This woman said she “popped over” to Tokyo from Hong Kong where she lived a few times a year for work. As she ate her cookie, she told him she liked to stock up on Japanese cosmetics, stuff her face with sushi, and go to at least one art museum (all the museums in Hong Kong were crap, and all the art on display in the city was for sale.) If she was lucky, she’d also find a piece of secondhand Yohji. He wasn’t sure what that was, but the moment passed to ask her. “You should do a stopover in Hong Kong next time,” she said. He told her he was skeptical, not least because of its crap museums. She laughed and said she loved going everywhere.
She’d made a promise to herself when she started travelling for work again—once her kids were old enough to manage without her for a few days—to never to complain about having such freedom, even when work took her to places she wouldn’t have chosen to go to on her own ticket: Manila, Karachi, Wenzhou. But Tokyo, now that was different. Whenever she received an email that told her work was going to bring her here, she mentally danced a little jig and booked a return flight a couple of days after the work would be done. Sometimes an old university friend came up from Yokohama to join her, but often she was alone. In a city of forty million people she liked the feeling of solitude, but she always knew when the appeal was wearing thin: she’d find herself starting little conversations with strangers, like now in Starbucks.
It would be a while yet before she would recognize how drawn to him she was in that moment she made eye contact—taking in his warm brown eyes; curly, almost woolly dark hair; his broad shoulders. As she sat chatting with him—slurping the froth off her cappuccino, feeling pleased with the great secondhand (read: affordable) Yohji Yamamoto dress she’d found at Ragtag and the Coleman Hawkins jazz CD—she hardly registered what it was about him, and his warm voice, that had made her glad to have started the conversation.
She only knew that as a wannabe Tokyoite she felt duty bound to show him why Tokyo was the greatest city on earth. He clearly needed the help: he was watching the Shibuya Crossing at the wrong time from the wrong place, and he told her he had ordered something he didn’t enjoy for lunch. With time to kill before dusk, the Standing Sushi Bar round the corner was where she would take him. He said they had pretty good sushi in Toronto, and she said pretty good sushi didn’t exist in Tokyo because no one would buy it. The Standing Sushi Bar was average by Tokyo standards, but she went there on every visit; and every time when she took that first bite of blowtorched mackerel, she had to steady herself against the counter. Having exhausted the possibilities of sushi he recognized, and with enough of a beer buzz to feel more adventurous, he said yes to the sea urchin despite its unappealing grainy texture and mustard colour. He rewarded her encouragement by looking up from his plate, eyes wide with surprise and pleasure.
Stuffed with fish, rice, and beer, they emerged onto the street which was brightly lit now against the fast darkening sky. They weaved through the bustling tourists and after-work shoppers, back to the Shibuya Crossing. She loved crossing here in the evening crowd. As they stood and waited, cars and buses streamed by before slowing to a stop as the lights changed. There was a quiet stasis, before the pedestrian lights responded. Then, just before they stepped out, she reached for his hand. The moment had surprised them both, and the moment was over as soon as it began. Once they reached the other side she let go again, and they went to Thing To Do in Shibuya #23: see the Hachikō statue by the train station. She could still feel the imprint of his warm hand on hers.
For the next few hours they walked—sometimes taking the wide main streets, other times down the small lanes and back alleys just to see what was there—wandering into the occasional shop, stopping to remark on this and that. All the while they talked and laughed, a lot. Quick with words and always good at reading people, he was delighted to find that he was making this smart, funny woman laugh; and every time he did, she looked so beautiful. She was also competitive: it never took long for her to volley the ball back, making him laugh in turn, with his head thrown back at something she said. By turns their talk went from humourous to serious because she had this knack of getting to the heart of the matter, asking him questions that could have been seen as impertinent. But the way she listened and encouraged him to say more, and shared her stories, he just felt better for saying it out loud. With marriages and divorces behind them, grown kids, decades of navigating the workplace, half a lifetime of love and loss— two fifty-somethings have enough stories to get them on foot all the way around the Yamanote Line if they had the time.
By ten o’clock they’d already wandered out of Shibuya, and were well into Shinjuku. He’d told her about his job as an engineer, how he loved knowing how stuff worked and making things of use to people. She’d told him she was a writer, too often about stuff she didn’t much care about, but that it gave her the money she needed to take the time to write her own stories, and that she was finally within spitting distance of getting some of her creative writing published.
Neither of them were unfamiliar with the power of chance meetings: his divorce lawyer had subsequently become his girlfriend; the casual rebound she’d met at her favourite noodle shop became her husband; the fellow passenger on a delayed flight led to a career change; the wrong turn while driving took him past the For Sale sign on the house he now owned. Even here amid the sensory overload of Tokyo, it was hard not to spot what was happening; but as if sensing they needed a reset or change of scene, she suddenly stopped in her tracks and looked around. “I know where we are! I’ve been here before. I know a great place. Do you like jazz?”
From the outside, down an alley off a side street, the only sign of something happening behind the dark door was a tiny spotlight, illuminating a small button on the wall. She pressed the bell, and they waited. After a minute he was ready to walk away, thinking she must be mistaken, but then footsteps could be heard coming up the stairs. The door opened, and the unmistakable sound of Miles Davis drifted out into the street. Down the steep staircase they saw the musicians were chatting and setting up, one tightening a double bass string, another adjusting an amp, the pianist running some scales.
They sat side by side at a tiny table facing the band, waiting for them to start. Sipping their pretty good Manhattans, they were treated to an hour of frenetic hard bop that put him slightly on edge; but after a while he’d stopped focusing on the music. Sitting slightly behind her, he noticed the strip of bare skin between the top of her dark jeans and her white T-shirt; it was all could do to stop himself reaching out to caress her skin, just to see if it was as soft as it looked. He watched her disappear into the music—her closed eyes, the sway of her shoulders, the almost imperceptible movements of her waist and hips—like she was listening with her whole body.
Three Manhattans and two barely digestible sets of jazz later, it was time to leave. Try as he might to focus on what time he needed to be at the airport in the morning, as she stood up to go it was her perfect curves that were all he was thinking about now.
They stepped out into the alley, quiet as soon as the bar door closed behind them. The main street was slick from a rain shower, and the surface of the road glistened with the reflections of the street lights, neon, and car headlights. He was tipsy and not at all sure how to get back to his hotel, but she was already beckoning him over to a waiting taxi. “We’ll take it as far as the Shibuya Crossing,” she said. “Can you find your way from there?”
There was less traffic as they sped along. Almost touching but not, the air crackled with static tension as they made the small talk of short journeys. She didn’t trust herself to touch his hand again, or even hold his gaze too long. Where was that bold girl she knew that existed inside, she wondered. If she’d met him in a Tokyo coffee shop when she was much younger, he’d be in a lot of trouble, she thought.
At the crossing they hugged goodbye and wished safe travels. They promised to email, before she turned to head in the direction of Shibuya Station. Suddenly she turned back, cupped his face in her hands, and kissed him lightly on the lips. She then darted across the road. He stared at the crowd, unable to see her, unable to look away. The lights changed again, and the road filled with traffic. He couldn’t run and catch up with her now. He looked up and down the wide street where he stood, then down at his hand. Among his own bags, he saw one of hers— “Ragtag” on the outside, something black inside.
Back at his hotel he emailed her, thanking her for the company and introduction to Tokyo. “And thanks for the dress. It’s a bit tight around the waist though. I think I may pop a button if I sit down in it,” he wrote, suggesting he could post it back to her. He also told her that she had no idea how much he was looking forward to reading her fiction. As he hit send, he wished he’d said: “Write me in as the polite Canadian who couldn’t believe how much regret he felt at not kissing the main character goodnight.”
She just made the last train, and sat turning over the day in her mind. A most unexpected evening—with a broad shouldered, funny, handsome Canadian with a warm voice and a great smile. A chance meeting in Starbucks at the Shibuya Crossing. Replaying all the things they’d talked about—some tales neither had told for a long time, sometimes never—she thought of the Chinese word for touched, or moved: 感動. Literally one’s feelings have been moved, and that’s how she felt; she had been shifted, mentally and emotionally, from one place to another. There was no ignoring it. She was all the way back to her guesthouse before she noticed the Ragtag shopping bag was missing.
In her email she arranged to meet him at the ticket counter of the Narita Express at Shibuya station at 9am, which would give him plenty of time to make his flight. It was easier to find than he expected, and he was there by eight thirty. He found a coffee shop in the station, had an espresso, and noticed a small florist’s stall nearby. On impulse he bought a posy of flowers, and tucked them into the Ragtag bag, before walking back to the meeting point. He was a punctual person, and by five to nine was already antsy. It wasn’t his style to scoot into the airport with minutes to spare.
Ten past nine, he saw her. She was some distance away, weaving through the streams of passengers. As she got closer he could see she was scanning faces, looking for his. Closer now, they made eye contact. Through a gap in the flow of people she emerged, walking, and now running across the station concourse. As she ran towards him, it looked as though she wouldn’t be able to slow down in time. He watched her getting closer and braced for impact. Then he opened his arms to catch her.