Copyright 2021 by Sarah Hozumi
Photo by the author.
Though I’d arranged
the time and place, I still found myself hiding in a boutique near
the train station when he showed up. He was in a nice shirt with dark
pants – a slim figure amid the crowd of people filtering
through the station’s entrance. I could see him from the
boutique’s window as he sat down on a bench nearby in the humid
summer heat, resolutely scanning the crowds for me.
We had met the previous week when his
friends got together with mine for dinner. I’ve often wondered how
anyone could possibly know they’ve found “the one.” Seeing him
sheepishly arrive at the dinner table twenty minutes late with his
friends, my knee-jerk reaction was to think, “That one. Right there.” I
played no conscious part in the decision.
I’d had a string of downright bad luck with
men, and before meeting Hiro, I’d only wanted a boyfriend and a simple
romance. It didn’t have to be long-term – marriage was far from my mind
– just something slightly normal and commonplace. A nice, quiet little
relationship. I always figured I’d be someone who either never got
married or would marry late in life, and that was fine by me. I just
wanted a boyfriend.
Eye contact with Hiro that fateful night
had blown everything out of the water for me. With my entire being
yelling at me that he was “the one”, I practically shoved my friends
aside to get his contact information that night.
We’d spent about a week texting each other,
my checking my phone a bit too religiously as I had prayed for a reply
from him. Finally, right as I had been texting him to invite him out on
a date, he had invited me.
I didn’t even care where we went, but I’d
always wanted to go to Tokyo Skyree, an engineering marvel in the land
of earthquakes. I’d seen it over the past year being built from the
train window while riding the Japan Rail Joban Line to and from Tokyo,
and I was curious. Choosing such an impressive monument was also a
risk, however; if the date ended badly, I’d always look at Skytree and
remember the heartbreak.
I knew he was my soul mate, yet there I was
in a boutique selling clothing with a hint of Japanese tradition to
them at the foot of Skytree, hiding. Nerves were getting the better of
me. What if I was wrong? What if every atom I possessed had completely
misread Hiro? I wasn’t sure I could handle more pain. Things ending
poorly with a man always felt like falling on a sword. For weeks,
sometimes months, I’d nurse the wound, believing it would never
heal. Any time someone asked me to meet someone new,
it felt like they were asking me to pick myself up and find another
sword to fall onto. This didn’t feel any different,
even with my instincts driving me to Hiro.
Maybe one minute had passed since Hiro had
sat on the edge of the bench, waiting for me. He checked his phone for
the time, I imagined, and a part of me wondered for how long he would
actually wait there for me. What would be his breaking point? I half
pictured myself making him wait just to see, but the majority of my
mind was already forcing my legs into action, pushing myself out the
door of the boutique. No, my mind said to
my panicked soul, you’re going to face him.
Japan is generally not the land of hugging,
especially in public, so when Hiro saw me, he shot off the bench and
nodded awkwardly at me with a shy smile. I smiled back and returned the
awkward nod. If I can do one thing well, it’s being awkward. I feel
like I have a gift for being painfully awkward. I’m the kind of awkward
where people find excuses to leave my presence early. Nearly every day
I wish I could be the charmful kind of awkward the general public so
seems to enjoy. That doesn’t seem to be in the cards for me, though.
Thus, to me, it felt like a waiting game with Hiro. For how long would
he tolerate my painful awkwardness before he, too, would find an excuse
to go home early?
Tokyo Skytree was built to help Japan
switch over to digital terrestrial broadcasting. At over 600 meters
tall, it’s the tallest broadcast tower in the world. At night, the
tower is usually lit up with either light blue LED lights or purple,
and during my long commutes to work, I used to love guessing what color
it would be before seeing it on the horizon since I have a horrible
memory and could rarely remember the previous day’s color.
Skytree had recently opened as Hiro and I
met up for our first date, meaning an hour’s wait just to buy tickets.
I wanted to ask him anything I could think of, but I’d been researching
about dates and learned men don’t like being bombarded with questions.
I tried to weave questions into our conversation while answering some
of his as the line slowly snaked toward the ticket counter.
There are four elevators that can take a
group of people extraordinarily quickly to what is called the Tembo
Deck, 350 meters off the ground. Each elevator is themed around a
season, and I think we ended up getting the one for summer. Glowing
lights showing images of trees and fireworks soothed the panic I felt
that the elevator might plunge us all to our deaths at any moment. If
you look up, you get to enjoy the view of the elevator hurtling you
upward through the glass window. And then, the elevator seems to open
up to glass windows to make you truly feel like you’re now a superhero
off to save the world from high-flying villains.
Hiro happens to be scared of heights, as am
I, but we managed to pick our way off the elevator and meander around
the throngs of people all angling to see Tokyo from above.
Since Japan is prone to devastating
earthquakes, most of the nation, and indeed Tokyo, is flat. This meant
on a clear day, you can easily spot Mt. Fuji from the tower. I had fun
spotting Tokyo Disneyland, too. Hiro has a gift for directions, and he
gave me a nice guided tour of what would have otherwise been a sea of
Most tourists to Skytree will go up to the
Tembo Deck, wander around for maybe half an hour and then either pay
extra to reach the upper tier or take the elevator back down.
We, however, stayed on the Tembo Deck for
hours. I wanted to see the sunset. Hiro didn’t complain as he leaned
against the rail beside me, our hands never quite touching as we
talked. He taught me a bit of Japanese like the word for “peninsula” as
we found one around Tokyo Bay. I also learned the word for
“architecture” while we gave sometimes scathing reviews of some of the
buildings in Tokyo.
I’ve found many major cities in the world
seem to enjoy uniformity in their designs for buildings. Paris, for
example, will forever be beautiful for its unique architecture that can
be found throughout the city. London seems to have its own way of
blending old and new, while Wellington in New Zealand has created a
symphony of cobblestone sidewalks and charming architecture.
Then there’s Tokyo. I love Tokyo for its
never-ending discoveries, but it’s hard to love it on the whole for its
architecture. To me, it feels like they tear down weary buildings and
then, without a second thought to surrounding structures, put up
whatever happens to be the fashion of that time. To say Tokyo is
haphazard with its architecture would be an understatement. I suppose
that in itself is a kind of aesthetic, but to me it just seems
careless. So many cities in the world are probably driving architects
insane with their cohesion rules, but Tokyo is off in its own corner
throwing in the towel.
Just as the sun began to set, we paid extra
to take another elevator up to the second tier – the Tembo Galleria. At
450 meters in the air, I swear I could see the curvature of the earth
as stars began to fight against Tokyo’s light pollution to make an
appearance in the sky.
Hiro leaned a bit closer to me on the
railings as I stayed in a spot showing us a view of Tokyo Tower, the
older sibling of Skytree. I asked him about books, and he mentioned he
had loved The Catcher in the Rye. I
tried to sound nonchalant when I said I loved that book, too. Of all
the reading assignments given to me in high school, I’m most grateful
for that one.
We found the classic gimmick so many tall
structures seem to enjoy installing of glass flooring that offers you a
magnificent view of just how long you’d have to contemplate your life’s
choices before hitting the pavement below should you fall. Hiro didn’t
want to go anywhere near it, but I took the excuse to touch him by
pushing him onto the flooring. He staggered around the thick glass for
a few moments with a weak smile before retreating to the edges while I
knelt down to get a better view of the flecks of moving dust far below
that, upon closer inspection, turned out to be cars.
The stars were still bravely fighting the
light pollution when we took the elevator down to a hallway that,
naturally, funnels you out to a gift shop. I couldn’t begin to
understand Hiro. For hours he had stood next to me, often saying
nothing at all, giving no indication whether he was even happy to be
there. I would often steal glances at his face and saw something akin
to a polite smile, but nothing more. Did he just want to go home? He
said nothing. The only time he had lit up on the tower was when I had
suggested a photo with him.
I, on the other hand, never wanted the date
to end. If we could have set up a tent on the Tembo Deck, I would’ve.
It was another bold move, but I bought a cell phone strap of the tower
at the gift shop as a way to remember the night. If things ended badly
with Hiro, at least it was small enough that I could throw it
out. I could survive him, I thought as we
walked outside. I could find it within me to somehow survive him if it
didn’t work out.
“What do you want to do?” I asked. We
checked our cell phones to find it was 8 p.m. To me, the night was
young. Did Hiro just want to go home?
“What would you like to do?” he said with
his usual polite smile.
Thanks to his tour of Skytree’s
surroundings, I now knew Hiro had an excellent sense of direction. I
wanted to see just how much he knew.
“I want to go somewhere with a lot of
trees,” I said. “Somewhere beautiful.”
Hiro stopped our aimless walking long
enough to search through his phone’s map. I stood there waiting for him
to bid me a good night and head to the variety of train stations near
Skytree, but a few minutes of silence later, he simply said, “I found
We rode a couple of Tokyo Metro trains
until we reached Hibiya Station.
Hibiya Park is a little breath of nature
amid the concrete surroundings of office buildings in the heart of
Tokyo. There’s a beautiful fountain display, some nice paths I suspect
many worn out office workers like to enjoy on particularly hard days at
work, and tucked in the back, a pond with a crane acting as a fountain
in the middle.
Public displays of affection aren’t well
tolerated in Japan. While you might catch teenagers or those on the
fringes of society actively ignoring the unspoken social rule, the
majority of people here won’t go beyond holding hands when surrounded
by others. I wanted to find somewhere quiet and secluded to see what
Hiro would do. My hopes were a hug, maybe even a kiss. Away from prying
eyes, would Hiro continue his polite gaze and respectful distance from
We were completely alone when we found the
pond, and I led us to a slab of stone jutting out into the water. I sat
down to seemingly enjoy the view, and Hiro sat beside me. We walked
more, but I could barely concentrate on the conversation. The corners
of my eyes were glued to his hands. Was it my imagination in the
darkness, or was he slowly moving closer to me? Was his hand actually
reaching out to mine, which I had deliberately put there in the middle
of the gap between us?
Although it was 9 p.m. by that point,
lights were still on in the office towers we could see across the pond.
We both lamented the state of Japanese office culture, which favors
your devotion to your job over all else. I can’t tell you how many TV
dramas I’ve seen that have glorified the idea of bending over backwards
for your job. I can’t tell you how few I’ve seen that speak of family
above all else.
Hiro talked about his time going to a high
school in New Zealand. He spent two years in the Auckland area staying
with a family, walking for over an hour along the sides of roads to get
to school. He talked about how he wanted to be like his host father,
who pitched in around the house and was actively involved in raising
their young children.
“Not at all like how my family was growing
up,” he said. He put his hands behind his head and lay down on the slab
While my heart was pounding out of my chest
as I copied him, Hiro seemed almost peaceful as he stared up at the
gray sky, marred by the lights of Tokyo.
“It’s been ages since I’ve looked up at the
stars like this,” he murmured.
I couldn’t stop staring at him out of the
corner of my eye. To me, it was like he glowed from within a radiant
light of peace. Whether it actually is or not, I seem to live a life of
turmoil. That light pulled me in as I found myself moving closer to
He moved his eyes away from the sky and
settled on me. There, in his eyes, I found everything I had been
Ah, I remember
thinking. That’s what love looks like.
Hiro reached out, took my hand, and put it
on his chest. Then he moved his eyes back up to the sky with a deep
sigh of happiness. He didn’t move beyond that, and I found myself
looking up at the few stars that could be seen.
Hours passed, and I found myself falling
asleep despite how cold that stone was growing as the night went on.
Hiro seemed to notice my shivering at one point and handed me his
As much as I wanted to, I knew we couldn’t
stay at that park all night long. Even in the middle of summer, it was
too cold. The trains had stopped running, yet when we both finally sat
up, there were still lights on in the office towers across the
way. The city doesn’t sleep for all the wrong reasons, I
“What do you want to do now?” Hiro said. He
checked his phone. “I can’t get home either.”
Cheap family restaurants are open all day
and night in Japan, and after roaming the streets for an hour, we
stumbled across one called Jonathan’s. Despite wanting to sit next to
Hiro, I sat opposite him. I didn’t want to crowd him.
I ordered fresh blueberries, and Hiro sat
in stunned amusement as I ate the entire bowl in about a minute. I love
blueberries. Hiro ordered a mango parfait and offered me a few
The wait staff were growing impatient with
us despite the booth we’d chosen far from the entrance, but we ignored
them. I started falling asleep and thought maybe I could try putting my
head down on the table. My mind jolted me awake to see Hiro was still
politely looking at me, the light of love still shining through his
eyes in the poor restaurant lighting.
“May I borrow your shoulder?” I said.
“Absolutely,” he said and slid over to the
wall to allow me more space.
For seven hours, Hiro didn’t move as I lay
my head on his shoulder. Every now and then I would be jostled awake as
he slowly flexed his feet or checked his phone, but otherwise he stayed
perfectly still to let me sleep. What kind of a
person does that, I couldn’t help but think. Who was this
amazing person lending me his shoulder like this?
The restaurant was starting to fill up with
the lunchtime rush. We paid our tab while avoiding the pointed glares
of the staff and then headed out into the sun.
Surely this is good-bye,
“What do you want to do next?” he said.
I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. Next?
Maybe, just maybe he didn’t want to let the
date end as much as I did.
I told Hiro I had been hoping for some kind
of fruit and yogurt as a kind of make-up breakfast. We had thought it
best to leave Jonathan’s before ordering more food, and now both of us
Another phone search pointed Hiro to the
basement of a classically styled shopping center in front of Tokyo
Station that offered fruit smoothies. It was almost 2 p.m. on day two
of our first date. No one in the crowds of people pushing past us
seemed to notice the profoundest foundations of my life had been
“Could we see a movie?” I said.
Hiro buried his face in his phone again.
With Hiro leading the way, we walked to the
nearby Yurakucho, a posh area one station over from Tokyo Station that
offers incredibly trendy shops and restaurants while also housing a
On the way there, Hiro didn’t hesitate to
take my hand and lace my fingers with his. As he did, I could almost
picture an enormous question mark appearing above us.
Love never came this easily to me before.
Ever. Why was it suddenly happening now? Even with my own instincts
calling it fate, even with Hiro happily offering his shoulder for seven
entire hours, I still couldn’t simply accept this was actually
happening to me. Nothing this glorious had ever happened before.
We sat through the whole movie holding
hands, both engrossed in the movie. More than once I had hoped for a
kiss in the darkened theater, but I lacked the courage to do anything
myself, and Hiro seemed truly intrigued by the movie. Either that or he
lacked courage, too.
It was around 7:30 p.m. by the time the
“Should we go home?” Hiro said.
I knew he had work the next day, as did I.
We should have been responsible adults and gone home, but I didn’t want
to say good-bye. I asked him to come with me as far as Ueno Station and
eat dinner with me there. Ueno Station is in the opposite direction to
where his home was.
He didn’t even hesitate.
Inside Ueno Station, we ate what Japan
deems Western food called an omuraisu. The
chefs mixed rice, vegetables, chicken and ketchup together, topped it
with an omelet and drizzled more ketchup on top. It can be quite
Once again, I found myself borrowing his
“For the last time, anyway,” I said.
Hiro’s shoulder seemed to stiffen.
“Last time?” he
Wasn’t it? I had managed to take away two
entire days of his life, most of which was spent sleeping beside him.
While to me it had been a perfect date, surely he was hitting a wall
tolerating me. Surely.
“For tonight anyway,” I said. His shoulder
seemed to relax.
We finally headed for the train platforms
at 11 p.m. He would be on a train bound away from me, but he gladly
missed his own train to see I made it safely onto mine. We held hands
right up until I had to step into the train.
For a second, I had an overwhelming
instinct to reach out and kiss him. I felt so comfortable around Hiro
that it was as if we had been on ten dates already. I had to actively
work to stop myself from moving. Japan frowns on public displays of
affection, and it might make Hiro uncomfortable. This was still
technically the first date.
Instead, I smiled at him and thanked him
for everything. He beamed back at me a smile that I had never seen
before. My heart stopped, temporarily paralyzed by sheer joy.
“It was truly an unforgettable date,” he
He waved until my train disappeared out of
sight. I continued staring out the train window where I stood, holding
onto the little bars they offer inside the train for support. My eyes
were locked on the memory of his face, of that smile.
Tokyo Skytree appeared in the distance,
glowing a brilliant blue as my heart sang the song of Hiro.
I am a translator and editor who
has lived near Tokyo for about 12 years. Along with having a
fantastic time learning Japanese, I love traveling. To read more of
what I’ve written, along with a blog on Japan and other random thoughts, please visit sarahhozumi.com.
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