Mr Foong glares at me like I’ve just murdered his second-born.
That’s slightly unfair. All I’ve asked is “Toire o tsukatte mo ii deshō ka” – whether or not I can go to the bathroom.
Sure, I ask it ten minutes into every single lesson of his. But when you compare it with a homicide confession, it really isn’t that deep.
There’s a monochrome map of Japan behind him. I click my pen against my jaw, imagine grey waves burbling down its
He drags his stumpy fingers through his hair. Rows and rows and rows of grey thistles, they grow at odd angles, a choppy semicircle around his scalp.
He chews his bottom lip. Nods.
“Arigato gozaimasu.” I stand up, knock my knees against my desk’s underside.
After three terms of Japanese, I’ve only learnt those two phrases. NCEA needs to question its teaching programme.
I don’t bother sliding down my shorts when I’m on the toilet. Take sharp breaths through my mouth.
This bathroom – the one in the gym by the top rugby field – always smells of sweaty cotton from Saturday morning, weed and sour raspberry vape from Monday lunch.
My phone dings. There’s an email, forwarded by Mum. Air New Zealand in the title.
Two tickets to Tokyo, one way.
Leaving on the third. Leaving next week.
A text from her, too.
I close my email app. Open up Pokémon Go instead.
Dad can’t come with us. He works in Takapuna with his three-person team (two Samoan coders, one Korean – all recent AUT graduates). Runs a small healthcare programme. It tells people who don’t need to be in the emergency department to fuck off to a GP – in a polite way, of course. Lots of pastel colours.
Mum’s the one who wants to save me. And, apparently, a Māori consultancy agency can consult from sofas all over the world with the magic of Skype. Her meetings don’t have to exclusively be on our home faux leather two-piece.
My snack box from the airport KFC sits on her suitcase. I dig through mine – bury my forearms between sock balls and
pineapple lumps, scrap-hunt through android chargers and puffer jackets.
She asks me what I’m looking for.
Neither of us are quite sure, really. Just a feeling something’s missing.
I switch on my Microsoft Surface, log into Te Kura. I’m signed up for mostly the same subjects that I took back in New Zealand: biology, statistics, film studies.
I’ve switched out Japanese for psychology, though.
Outside my motel window, there’s more kanji than in any textbook Mr Foong ever made me skim through. They decorate bus backs, karaoke bar signs, buzzing billboards that advertise real estate agents who specialise in anything above the thirtieth floor, a brand-new passionfruit sake.
He was born in Beijing, anyway, and specialises in digital tech. The original teacher applied for maternity leave three days before the school year began. They didn’t have time to hire anyone else.
I pour my ramune down the Surface’s charging slit, jiggle and jangle the bottle to get every carbonated drop out. The marble rattles in its cavern.
A diagram splits the prefrontal cortex in half. It flickers, flickers, fades into black glass.
Three hours later, I rub my eyes, tell Mum it was a spill. She doesn’t buy it, accuses me of giving up on my academics.
I quarter-lie to her that I haven’t yet.
I’m only in the process of it.
There’s a guy on the street corner handing out free Red Bulls. He scratches his stubblestache every ten seconds and grins when I reach out my hand for a can. He’s missing his left canine.
The lid hisses at me. It’s the first time I’ve tried an energy drink. It tastes like someone blended one cup of white sugar and four AA batteries.
I continue to sip it as I wait with seventy others for the green man to tick. Small sips.
Shoulder to shoulder with men in Givenchy suits and oval watches, knock-off NBA singlets and hi-vis hardhats. Hip to head with kids carrying Megatron bookbags, bracelets made of tiny neon rubber bands, a frayed Wilson basketball.
The green man wakes. The footpaths of Tokyo empty onto this intersection: marbles pouring into a concrete funnel.
There’s a store for everything. I walk past places selling antique fishing rods, diamond-encrusted shoelaces, live rhinoceros beetles.
I stop by one.
It’s the Pokémon Center. Looks hectic, busybusybusy. Eleven, twelve parent–child combos at each checkout, each aisle of plushies contains a line of shoppers.
The plushies are colour coded. Gastlies, Gengars, Grumpigs face off against Sceptiles, Serperiors, Snivies – an army of purple against an army of green.
Scratch that. They’re too cuddly for an army – hardly the Manchurian invasion. Hirohito would be disappointed with how his country has fallen.
When I was seven years old, I was asked to fill out a form saying what I wanted to be when I was older. Milo said “detective”. Veronica said “vet at Kelly Tarlton’s”. I wrote “Pokémon trainer”.
Five weeks in Tokyo, and I’ve never been into this Center.
I turn around. Wait back at the same crossing.
I buy some red earbuds from a gas station for six hundred yen. It’s about eight New Zealand dollars.
I head back out, say “Arigato gozaimasu” to the cashier as the doors slide closed. She’s already chatting with the next customer as he pays for his petrol.
I sit on a steel bench looking over the Meguro River. Its water is dark, calm. Like someone’s at the other end of the city, drizzling out the contents of an oil tanker. I double-tap the button on my earbud’s string, skip to the next Frank Sinatra song. An electronic organ crackles. Cherry blossoms stick out over
Their petals are delicate, like bubblegum. A girl jogs by with her dachshund, her trainers magenta. My cheeks blush, a shade of watermelon. I lift my hands, press my nostrils together, chew the inside of my cheek.
The tops of my fingernails dampen. I wouldn’t be surprised if my tears were pink.
Mum thinks it would be good for me to do some touristy things for a change. Over breakfast, I mention that I’m too old to take selfies with Goofy at Disneyland, even though I’m definitely not. So, instead, she books us a class for English speakers at a traditional art studio.
The taxi’s air conditioning and GPS are both broken. We arrive late, sweatpatched. The wife – the session is run by a married couple – doesn’t mind, gestures us downstairs with a flurry of right-handed points.
Only two other groups are there, both American families. The kids aren’t my age, though. They have scrappy beards hiding their Adam’s apples and tight UCLA hoodies on.
The husband adjusts his beanie, strokes his wooden workbench’s edge. It’s littered by rolls of electric tape, pointy paintbrushes, a thin hammer that looks like a surgeon would use it to split open a ribcage.
His English is clear; his syllables sharp. Maybe he learnt it watching police shows set in London. Maybe I should start watching police shows set in Osaka.
Nah. I’d probably still rely on the subtitles.
Today, he says, we’ll be doing kintsugi to mend broken pots.
He brings out a terracotta vase the size of my fist, wraps it in a threadbare cloth, takes the hammer, cracks it in two like it’s made of brittle bone.
Kintsugi, I learn, is what happens when a culture has too much gold and too few recycling centres.
Not that anywhere had operational recycling centres a thousand years ago. Still, Japan definitely had too much gold if it was being used to fix broken tea bowls and wine ewers.
I do as he does. Not the hammer part – that would probably result in Mr UCLA losing his eye and trying to sue me for personal injury. The instructor’s already prepared our own broken bowls. Mine is turquoise, with a sketch of Mount Fuji on the side when I hold it together. The snowy peak stops just short of the lip.
I glue the pieces back together while keeping my attention on his hands. Notice the nuances of his finger movements, so particular, so romantic as he strokes the pieces together. I treat the gold paint like he does, flicks and pads with the brush, never go back over the same spot twice.
The wife’s iPhone alarm windchimes. Our two hours are up.
She tuts at her husband. He shakes his head, asks for something in Japanese.
I still haven’t learnt the language beyond toilet pleasantries. But I feel like I don’t need to any more.
I cradle my bowl in my palms. Gold lines bloom through like spiderwebs, the paint seeps onto the backs of my knuckles.
There’s a little man on top of Mount Fuji I didn’t notice before, little stick-figure. He’s probably smiling at me. He’s probably high from the altitude.
I wonder if the sun’s warmer, 3776 metres up.
Cornwall Park has cherry blossoms, but not many. You can probably count them on your fingers. It’s so unlike the sides of the Meguro, where even your mind can’t keep track. The flowers look plasticky, too, and all the low-hanging ones have been picked off. I rest my hand on one of the trunks; the bark itches my skin. I tilt my head.
A kid kicks a football against my calves, apologises in sputters. I turn around, shrug, pass it back.
I sit down, rest my knee across a root. Chubby cows trot and chomp in the farmfields. A boy and a girl sit cross-legged in their maroon King’s College uniforms, they eat a bag of raspberry licorice together. I let myself smile.
Hm. I was wrong two years ago. I must’ve been.
Because here on the grass, the sunset is warm on my nose.
Down here in New Zealand, the sunset is pink.
Taken with kind permission from the latest anthology of new writing by Māori writers Huia Short Stories 15 (Huia Publishers, $25), available in bookstores nationwide. It will be launched on October 28 at Tākina in Wellington. Contributors include Pine Tamahori Campbell, Te Ataakura Swannell-Kaa, Zeb Tamihana Nicklin, Nadine Anne Hura and the author of the number one bestselling novel in New Zealand for eight weeks this year, Airana Ueroa Ngarewa.