My First Two Favourite Tokyo Boys
Yuki took me to meet her family and childhood friends in Toyota - a shinkansen away from the city. Mount Fuji spared us an uninterested glance through the mist as we sped by and left the high rises behind to move closer to the sea and to greener land.
I was humbled to be there. I think her folks and her grandfather enjoyed the novelty too: her mum wrapped me up in a red yukata shortly after I arrived, thrilled to play with my long hair, which was deftly pinned up before she arranged me around the house and garden for photographs (where propping and backdrops were considered with great seriousness).
Yuki's (stupidly attractive) fireman friend Yoshihiro drove us to the beach and she twisted string balloons into shapes in the backseat - we had picked them up during a pit stop at a conbini. Yoshihiro and I spoke in a jumble of easy English and staccato Japanese, where I happily flung about the simple words I knew to describe whole stories and experiences - wondering if they were doing me any justice. His laughter and keen interest in the tumble of languages between us won me over pretty quickly. He used the drive to teach me the local dialect (or Nagoya-ben). We stopped at a sunflower farm to pick a fresh bunch of fat blooms to take back to otosan, obasan and ojiisan in time for dinner.
In the evening, we sat with Yuki's family around a hot plate on the dining table and cooked pork, scallop and prawn okonomiyaki in butter, which was sprinkled with tempura flakes and followed with gulps of homemade umeshu.
The batter whittled down to make 'mini-nomiyaki' small enough to stack on our plates. The little egg pancakes flipped, bubbled and stretched in front of us and I felt thrilled to be a part of this personal ritual. I remember the bemused expression on Yuki's dad's face that evening and now realise I must have done a poor job of hiding my glee.
In the morning, Yoshihiro sent us a text to say thank you. Yuki's mum made us tamagoyaki for breakfast, and I marvelled at the sweet folds the egg made in the deep black pan on the gas stove.
We took the train back to Tokyo with Keishi, another old friend who was a kaishain turned cobbler.
"Hazukashii?" He asked me amusedly as the three of us stepped into the carriage.
"No, I'm not shy. I just don't speak a word of Japanese!" I huffed in reply. In English.
Where Yoshihiro had been funny, curious and genuinely accommodating - Keishi was relaxed, sweet, searching and as sharp as a whip. Mid-conversation I realised he had been gently drawing out my vocabulary by asking me about my sister, my mother, my father, our recent holiday in Sri Lanka and my friends in Melbourne. He showed me a picture of a malt-brown pair of leather shoes he made for his father's 60th birthday.
I liked his big, round glasses and how he drew Mount Fuji for me on a spare piece of paper because I was disappointed that it was again obscured from our view ("now you can say you've seen it"). I became quickly smitten once more, and kept that drawing of his for a little while after the trip, to hold on to those few hours the three of us spent speeding back to the city together.
Before saying goodbye - we had dinner outside Tokyo station at a small izakaya and ordered a few hefty pints of Asahi to go with our fresh sashimi. I drank my first ever shouchu out of an ornate blue crystal glass.
Keishi promised to keep in touch. He wrote me a postcard in hiragana not long after, kindly kanji-free so I could bumble through most of it on my own.
I don't think I ever saw those two again after that visit but their charm still makes me beam giddily when I think back to that summer. Over the meals we had together I learned that humour, kindness and great personalities will transcend language easily. Their endearing warmth and gentle interest in who I was are as palpable today as that first melting bite of okonomiyaki was 5 years ago.
First published on 29 October 2016