HUNDREDS OF FEET ABOVE Osaka’s streaming avenues, Janice and I are sharing a hot dog. Or some form of one. The sausage has been tucked delicately into not a bun, but an undersized French roll that leaves the dog sticking out the ends. Still, it satisfies, and we watch the blinking lights of planes arriving and vanishing above Kansai International as we dip into a conversation about the things we’ve lost.
The last six months have been taxing; an unconventional start to married life. The adjustment has wrung us of creative energies, and so much of what we sought in coming to this side of the world seems to have thus far escaped us. Weekends that could have been better spent traveling were frittered away on errands. Regimens designed to help us study language, write daily or cook more often were abandoned. Our friends have spread diasporic across North America, falling out of touch across an ocean, and we’ve yet to make any solid acquaintances.
We see the stage and the countdown clock ticking towards midnight. Perhaps it’s the altitude, but after several days of rest and exploration we feel ourselves sobering, realigning. The things that matter float to the surface as our minds settle in quietude. We talk now about what we want; what we promise we will do. And a New Year looms, almost literally, on the horizon. A half-rotation of the earth and Japan will again greet the sun.
I pulled on my bathrobe and looked at the television. The blackout blinds had been pulled back, allowing the delicate haze of day to spill into our room. But I was fixated on the documentary on the screen, on the images of the lazuline East China Sea. An American woman in her 40s was driving down a leafy byroad somewhere in Okinawa. Her collie sat panting at her side; diving equipment lay heaped in the back. She spoke fluent Japanese, from what I could tell, and I gathered after a few minutes that she was an underwater photographer who had spent a good deal of time on these summery spits of land.
Her car stopped at a house where barbecue smoke was rising from a couple grills in the front lawn, and she was greeted by friends and their children, in front of whom she later delivered a tearful speech. Maybe it was my own longing for saltwater and warm sunlight, to feel as tan and healthy as this woman looked, but something about these snapshot’s from her life resonated in me. Perhaps at the root it was a desire to blast open the ends of this escape — for Janice and I to keep going, to fall off the earth down to the islands and continue floating.
We grabbed pastries and coffee to go at a bakery in the lobby and started off on an aimless late-morning stroll that wound us through the quieter sideroads of upper Umeda — which were even more silent that day, due to it being New Year’s Eve. Coming upon a sunny bench, we sat and drank in what felt like the first breaths of spring. There were flecks of new green in the trees; down the block, a kid was playing on a Dance Dance Revolution machine set up outside a convenience store.
A woolen-gray blanket of clouds unrolled over the sky as we followed our feet through downtown, popping into narrow shop spaces, browsing through bookstores (I was on the hunt for the latest edition of Monocle) and poking around the shelves of, yes, another housewares store — not as inspired as the one in Kyoto, but still enough to entertain our domestic daydreams. We ate a light lunch at a gyoza bar and had the entire place to ourselves, munching on crispy dumplings filled with shrimp and pork. I thanked the cook for the delicious meal with a practiced Oiishi-des! and drained the rest of a pint of Asahi before we headed back out into the empty streets.
Through dingy and eerily vacant shopping arcades, through Tower Records and Uniqlo, and through still more bookstores, we meandered. We grabbed a Japanese-style crepe, wrapped up with strawberries and chocolate sauce. We rambled past the soft-light waiting room of the intercity bus station (Janice remembering when she took the overnight from Tokyo in 2005) and passed under a rusting train yard to finally arrive at the base of a mammoth arch of modern architecture: the Umeda Sky Building.
The glass-elevator ride to the top wasn’t quite as white-knuckle as the escalator to the “Floating Garden,” which took us over a 50 foot expanse of nothing. Janice pointed out, like a true disasterist, that all it would take was for one of the bridge’s ends to disconnect and we would tumble into the empty air below.
Out on the crown of the skyscraper, sound seemed to dissolve into wonder. In the southwest, the yawning mouth of the Yodo River spilled its current out into Osaka Bay, its formless waters cast out to mix with the roaming molecules of the Pacific. The orange light of the year’s last sunset seeped through cracks in the clouds before fading with the onset of night. We took our time, looking at one other and then out into the twinkling city, driftless in the gentle wind.
As per Japanese tradition, we ate soba noodles for dinner (bland, to cleanse the palate for the New Year). We sat next to the window at a restaurant on the Sky Building’s bottom floor, positioned underneath an outdoor waterfall illuminated by a spectrum of colored lights. On our slow walk back to the hotel, we passed the same DDR machine we had that morning, where a crowd was now gathered watching a young man moving his legs with furious accuracy. Everyone clapped when the song was done, and he stepped off the dance floor with a sheepish smile.
Cozy and settled in our room, we flicked on the TV to a Japanese countdown show packed with young bubble-gum pop groups along with older acts singing what, in Korean, could be called gayo — throaty, tear-jerking ballads about love, loss and change. The costumes and dress were fantastic; I’m pretty sure we saw at least one guy wearing a velvet, royal blue suit. But as it neared midnight, the program took a more subdued tone, suddenly switching to live video feeds from the nation’s major shrines and temples. Great throngs of people had gathered at these sacred places. When the clock struck 12, those at the front of the lines said their prayers and then quite literally rang in the New Year by striking massive bells at each site, filling the small hours with humming reverberations.
We were handed cedar boxes of cold sake when we emerged from the elevator the next morning, greeted by the clanging of a gong and a dragon floating around the lobby on human legs (it bit me and a number of other guests on the head, gently, and I presume bestowed us a bit of good luck). I tried to take a couple photos, but with it so early in the morning I was reluctant to become the awkward tourist, clunking around the hotel in his hiking boots and waving his camera at a group of men dressed as a mythical beast. I’ve always felt there’s a level of composure that good photographers maintain when capturing their subject; it’s not something I exhibit when fumbling frantically to adjust aperture and shutter speed for indoor lighting.
Over breakfast, I unfolded a copy of the Yomiuri Shimbun — the first newspaper I’d seen in a week, though with the pace of events it might as well have been months. Israel was several days into its invasion of Gaza and already there were a terrible number of casualties. As someone who nearly always is hungrily scouring the news, I marveled at how easily I had slipped into the void — and at how quickly all the information I had digested and stored became obsolete.
Shinkansen Hikari, bound for Fukuoka. The train whirs, almost silently, as it cuts into the black of a mountain tunnel. Then whish — we pass into the open gray light of January, and it is snowing. The flakes fall like a curtain over the countryside, a barrage of white veiling the towns and quiet wooden homes we pass as we glide southward along the tracks.
Janice is resting her head against the window, by turns dozing and staring out into the shifting distance. I sit with my open journal, the butt of a pen between my teeth. Our boat doesn’t leave until tomorrow morning but already I can feel the island pulling away beneath my feet. I try, almost frantically, to commit the memories to ink, to gather the pieces of what we felt here and preserve them before the color drains.
I feel the lurching momentum of the clockwork: the shuddering certainty of departure and arrival, the unbreakable gridlines that dictate the timetables. I try to pause, taking a breath and looking out the window myself. But it all keeps disappearing, the last place giving way to the next.