HANAKO from MIYAZAKI
Copyright © Tony Richards 2012.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, incidents and places are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organisations or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Where do I begin to tell a tale that hasn’t even finished yet? With my arrival in Japan, almost five years back by now? With how it was that morning when I first woke up, the heaviness of the light and the constant drumming sound? Or with my first glimpse of her, huddled in that soaking concrete alleyway off Yasukuni Avenue?
The last option might be the best, I think.
It had been raining heavily in the city the past couple of days, the streets of central Tokyo transformed into thronged rivers of black umbrellas. One of them was mine.
It was a Friday evening, and already very dark by that time of the year. I’d quit my desk at the bank around seven o’ clock, and was now heading through the bustling Shinjuku district, not far from my home, to meet some friends for dinner at a restaurant. Thinking my own thoughts, really. Just minding my own business. Not taking too much notice of my surroundings at all – the maze of flashing neon lights, the enormous advertising screens high on the buildings all around me. Like a set from Blade Runner, I’d first thought when I’d got here – yet it passed right over me like water now.
Just walking, then.
Until I suddenly glanced to my left, into a pedestrianized offshoot of the main road … I am still not sure what took my eyes in that direction.
And then my gaze fell across her.
And abruptly halted there.
In contrast to all the fierce movement around me, she was entirely still. Unless, that is, you counted the fact that she was shaking from the cold. It was late autumn in Japan. The temperature had been plummeting all this month. And she was soaked to the skin as well, her thin clothes clinging to her slender body, her hair plastered along her neck and down over her brow.
How could I see this all so clearly? She was standing underneath a street lamp, in its yellow pool of light.
Other women? Would have looked a mess in that condition. Somehow, though, she looked amazing. Somehow … fascinating.
Her arms were wrapped tightly about her and her head tucked down, I took in next. And … what might I be intruding on, here? What strange, private grief? English as I am, and thus respectful of such privacy, I was about to look away, pass on – regretfully, I have to add – when she noticed my attention somehow, and her face came up, her eyes met mine.
I think that was the start of it. Right at that moment. There and then. When our faces both tilted towards each other’s and our gazes locked. I actually believe the whole rest of this story might have been inevitable, from that point on.
Because, when her dark eyes focused on my pale blue ones, even though we had to be some twenty yards apart with people hurrying in between us, I simply could not look away from her.
And have not done so, ever since.
There has to be more than staring, though. There has to be movement. Action. Choice.
I was hurrying across to her in the next moment, puzzled and concerned and wholly drawn in by her gaze. I held my own umbrella across her, senselessly, despite the fact that it was far too late to stop her getting wet. Was instantly aware of just how much I towered over her – she had to be five foot tall at best. Her features, when she peered up at me now, were pale and high-cheekboned and very delicate indeed.
I cleared my throat and asked her, “Are you all right? What are you doing here?”
All of it in fluent Japanese, of course. I took lessons three times a week my first year in the country, and the experience of living here has taught me all the rest.
“I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t mean to trouble you.”
“No, I’m glad to help. Why are you standing here like this, in all this dreadful weather? You will come down with a fever.”
“I am lost,” she informed me. “I am not from here, and I do not have a hotel.”
I noticed at that stage that she was wearing a small purple backpack.
I thought quickly. What was the correct protocol here? What would any of my colleagues do in such a situation?
The right thing, the answer came instantly back. The polite and the kind thing. Didn’t I know what that was?
“You must get dry and warm,” I told her. “Come back to my place, and we can find you a nice hotel later.”
For a second time, her gaze locked on mine. And she was carefully studying my eyes, this time. I could understand why. A big male gei-jin, a total stranger and a foreigner to boot, asking her back to his flat and suggesting that she get undressed, no less. And … could she really trust me?
When she gave me an accepting little smile, then I could see that she believed she could.
My apartment – reasonably sized by Tokyo standards – was a five-minute walk away. I led her there, showed her to the bathroom and lent her a toweling robe. And while the shower was hissing vigorously, I brewed us green tea and heated up some saké.
She emerged after a while with all the shivering gone, although her face was still very pale, her hair rubbed dry and lustrous by now, a big pleased grin in place. Lost in the depths of my robe like a child in the sheets of its parents’ bed. She had to fold the arms of it back just to accept the drinks I offered her.
I noticed something I hadn’t before, when her hair had been matted and dripping. In the front fringe of it, there was a single, purple, dyed streak. I wanted to remark on that, since it set-off her dark eyes perfectly. But would she think that I was coming on to her, at that stage? Would that make her nervous?
Sitting at my dining table, we began to converse properly for the first time. Her name turned out to be Hanako, which was entirely appropriate. It’s a beautiful name, means ‘little flower’. And she was from Miyazaki. I had already heard of the place. It was on Japan’s southernmost island of Kyushu, and a well-known holiday resort.
She was twenty-two, which made her seven years my junior. And worked as a waitress. She had hitchhiked here. And she’d had no idea what the weather would be like round these parts, since it was almost always warm back where she lived.
Then she wanted to hear about me. It took her several attempts before she could even get her mouth halfway around ‘Evan.’ She was fascinated to hear I came from North London originally. I told her briefly about my job in overseas investments, which I’d entered on a fast-track scheme, and explained how long I’d been here in the capital and just how much I loved the place.
I remembered my friends waiting for me at the restaurant at that point. Called up Yusuke on his cell phone and told him I’d not be making it, although I did not explain why. Hung up.
“Would you like to go and eat?” I offered.
“My clothes are still wet,” she pointed out.
“Then maybe I can –?”
“Your clothes are too big!” she giggled, second-guessing me.
“Which means we’re stranded here.”
“Yes, but I can cook us something. I am a good cook.”
She got up in the next moment, and asked me where the kitchen was. And when I pointed it out, she did something that amazed me.
She suddenly leant across the side of my chair, and kissed me quickly on the cheek. Completely out of the blue.
“I like you very much, Efan,” she told me while I was still reeling from that. “You are a very nice, kind man.”
And then she hurried away.
I knew there wasn’t too much in my larder that particular day. Half a box of eggs. Some leftover scraps of pork and salad stuff. Some dried noodles and various spices. But when she came out twenty minutes later with a tray between her hands … how on earth had she whipped up a meal like that? Where in heaven’s name had the soup come from?
I accepted it gratefully though, taking the chopsticks that she handed me. We spent at least the next hour eating slowly, still conversing. Moved on from the saké to some of my best plum wine, sipped from the tiniest of glasses.
And somehow, during the slow course of that dark and rainy evening, we gradually grew closer to each other, both physically and in spirit. Till we ended up folded around each other, turning over softly, in my bed.
I’d had a number of girlfriends since arriving in the city. But had never been with anyone like Hanako. She turned out to be pale all over, her skin very smooth and cool. But her passion was the hottest thing that I had ever known, so intense it felt like being willingly devoured.
When I finally fell asleep, I was wholly exhausted.
The next morning it was still raining – I could hear the fat drops of it drumming on my windowpane.
I came awake quite quickly, part of me suspecting that it all had been a dream. But there, in the chill half-light, was Hanako, her face totally placid and more beautiful than ever. I reached out and touched the purple streak in her hair very lightly. But she woke up herself at that. Blinked a couple of times. And then smiled hugely, seemingly delighted that I was the first thing she had seen today.
She proved it, moments later, by climbing back on top of me, resuming where we had left off last night.
And we spent the whole rest of the day like that, a Saturday, no work to do and no place to go in this kind of weather. Alternating between talking, snacking, and then making love again.
She had one curious habit, I noticed in the interludes when we were not in bed. In a side pocket of her backpack, she had a tiny cell phone, a pink one with silver glitter all across it. She had taken it out by this time, and would fiddle with it while we were conversing. Turning it over in her hands, opening it and shutting it again. As though she wanted to call up someone, and yet could not decide who.
I wanted to comment on that, but decided not to.
We were entering our second evening when the rain began to slow. She had pressed her clothes by that time and put them back on, and her backpack was lying beside her chair.
As the thrumming noise outside decreased, she abruptly looked out through my window. Saw that the weather was now clearing. Then stood up.
“I have to go, Efan.”
The sudden heavy feeling in my chest, at the sound of that, told me what, deep down, I already knew. I had fallen for her massively in less than a full day. The most lovely young woman I think I had ever met. I would do anything to keep her with me.
“But …” I faltered, feeling quite stunned. “Why right now? We’ve the whole weekend. We –”
“I have to,” she insisted. “Please don’t look so sad, since we will see each other again soon. You must come and visit me in my home, now. In Miyazaki.”
She looked across at my phone, taking a note of the number.
“I will call you and arrange it. Very soon, I promise, Efan.”
She reached across quickly and hugged me, and kissed me again.
“Good-bye, Efan, and thank you. You are a lovely man. I cannot wait until we are together once more.”
Then she snatched up her backpack, and was out through my front door before I could do anything to stop her.
I was still completely numb. Couldn’t believe how quickly all of this had ended. I just stared at the door hanging off its latch for several moments.
When I finally thought to hurry to it and look out into the hallway, Hanako was gone completely.
It was at that point – I think – that I realized something else. During the whole time we’d spent together, I’d been so consumed with her, so engrossed in her company, that I hadn’t bothered to find out details like her address, how to contact her.
Or even what her last name was.
She didn’t call all Sunday. I presumed that she was hitchhiking again, and so that didn’t surprise me too much. Monday, though? Tuesday?
By Thursday, the fact that the weather had lifted and the days had become far milder again wasn’t much reflected in my mood. Had my whole interlude with Hanako been just an overnight encounter, nothing more than that? I couldn’t quite convince myself that was the case, but I had to accept the possibility.
By the time that I got home from work on Friday, I was forlorn and depressed. I was just struggling out of my business clothes when the phone started ringing. So I went across to answer it with one shoe missing and half of my jacket hanging off.
My heart leapt abruptly. It was her.
“Where have you been?” I asked her.
“Between there and here.”
Which seemed a curious kind of answer.
“Efan, can you come and visit me, the Monday after next?”
“Yes.” I was delighted by this time, after a full week of being anything but. “Of course.”
“Can you come for a week?”
I had been putting in the hours at the bank, and was long overdue for a vacation.
“Sure. That will be great.”
“I’ll book you a hotel, then. I will ring through with the details.”
“A hotel? Why can’t I stay with you?”
“I still live with my parents,” she informed me quickly. “They are traditional and would not much like it if you stayed. There are very nice hotels here, though.”
“Okay, then. Hanako, I still don’t have your phone number. Could you –?”
“I will call you back, don’t worry,” she broke in across me before I had even finished. “I will see you soon.”
And the next moment, the line went dead.
Why’d she just hung up like that? What on earth was happening now? Wondering about it kept me up half the night, tossing and turning with my stomach boiling. It seemed to me, the way she’d disappeared like that, the length of time she had been gone, the strangeness of the phone call, Hanako might be keeping something from me. Was she already involved with someone else? Did she have some kind of secret?
Nonetheless, the whole of the next day I found myself confined to my apartment, afraid that I might miss her call were I to venture out. I paced my living room like a caged animal. Was this some kind of joke?
Twilight was already creeping in when the phone finally started ringing. And despite my annoyance and puzzlement, I pounced on it.
“Hanako, what’s going on here?”
And I must have sounded pretty angry, but she cheerfully ignored it.
“I’ve booked you a nice hotel, Efan. Happy, yes? Room 227 at the Plaza. It looks out over the river, and I’m sure that you will like it. Come on Monday in a week’s time, please. I just can’t wait to see you!”
And then – before I’d even had the chance to throw in my next question – the disconnect tone sounded again.
What in God’s name was she playing at?
I’m not quite sure how I got through the following week. Hanako didn’t call again. When friends asked me out I refused, and my colleagues at the bank moved more gingerly around me than was normal, looking faintly puzzled themselves, taking in the fact that I was not my usual self.
I did book my flight, though, and with a sense of strong anticipation. Apart from anything else, in all my time here in Japan I had never even visited the island of Kyushu.
The weather was cooling down and clouding up again in Tokyo when I left that Monday morning. I changed flights at Osaka and, within another hour, my plane was coming down in brilliant sunshine over verdant mountain peaks, and I could see the gleaming ocean not far in the distance.
I peered around at the airport, but Hanako was not there to greet me. Of course not. She’d not been back in touch, and so she had no way of knowing which flight I’d be on. I got a cab to take me to the Plaza, taking note that it was by far warmer round here than in the city I’d just left. It might still be late autumn here, but we were in the tropics of Japan by now.
Hanako wasn’t at the hotel either, which would have been the better bet. But room 227 was waiting for me, just as she had promised. It was on the second floor, with a view of the broad Oyodo River. There was a grassy promenade lined with palm trees just below me, cyclists and joggers and dog-walkers making their way along it.
Hanako, where are you? was all that was really going through my mind. I must have asked that silently a hundred times in my first two hours there.
At the end of which, I got so sick and tired of waiting around that I went downstairs, fetched a map from reception, and then went out to explore this new city I had found myself in under such odd circumstances.
Like most provincial Japanese towns, it was by-and-large a low-rise, shapeless urban sprawl. But the downtown area, centered around Tachibana Street, was neat and colorful and lively, with big department stores and a long covered arcade of shops and eateries. I had lunch at one of those. There was none of Tokyo’s ferocious bustle to the place at all, I noticed as I stared out through the café window. People moved at a relaxed and amicable pace in this neck of the woods.
It was five by the time that I got back to my hotel room. Still no sign of Hanako, not even a message waiting for me. Dusk started falling not much later.
The phone suddenly jangled crudely, making me almost jump. I threw myself across the bed, so desperate I was to snatch it up.
“Hallo, Efan! I am so glad that you’re finally here!”
“Are you coming over here, or should I come to you? Just give me an address.”
Her tone, though, became apologetic. “Efan, I’m so sorry, but I cannot see you yet.”
Which set my head reeling all over again. “Why not?”
“Really, Efan, it’s impossible at the moment. You know that I would come there if I could.”
I felt like biting through the phone cord by this stage. “But … what makes it impossible? I’m right here! I’ve come all this way!”
“I understand that, Efan. And I realize how you must feel. But please, trust me. Take my word for this. I’ll see you as soon as I can, Meanwhile –“
“What on earth is going on?”
Had I fallen foul of some cultural aspect I had not been aware of before?
“Don’t be angry with me, Efan, please. There is much to do in Miyazaki. So much history and culture. You can keep yourself amused for a few days.”
“But I didn’t come for any of that. I came here to see you!”
“And so you will – when it is possible. Meanwhile, Efan, enjoy being here. It won’t be very long till we are reunited.”
“How long?” I’m afraid I actually bellowed into the receiver.
But it was no use. The line was dead again.
I was fuming, but I did what she had asked me since, essentially, I had no choice. I hired a small car and began, rather frustratedly, to tour the area. And actually, she turned out to be one hundred percent right. Miyazaki isn’t just a small provincial city, it’s the entire prefecture around it, taking in dozens of lesser towns. As I’d noticed from the air, the terrain was very mountainous, thickly forested with cedar and pine. Quite spectacular looking. There were deep gorges and hot volcanic springs, and stretches of coastline that just took my breath away.
But as I went from historic site to shrine to beauty spot, I began to understand one other thing I had not known before. This whole area had a very special place in the culture of Japan.
It was the home of almost all the country’s legends. The Shinto gods were supposed to have lived here once. And most of Japan’s folklore and myths had their origins right here.
A magical place indeed, then. But that didn’t stop me thinking about Hanako, equally magical to my mind. Where was she now? What could she be doing?
Standing on the swaying metal bridge in front of the Sekino-o waterfall, feeling its spray across my face, I couldn’t help but close my eyes, and recreate inside my head that rainy Friday night in Tokyo. Would I ever know that kind of happiness again? And when I visited the Udo Shrine – deep in a cave above a foaming, rocky seascape – when I heard the myth associated with it, of the Hunter Prince who went under the sea and found a gorgeous princess there … well, wasn’t that where Hanako and I had met, almost? Underwater?
It was a Thursday evening again by this time. And was she ever going to show? I took myself out, in a black mood, to the nightlife district downtown. And found, on Ebisu Street, a packed and noisy restaurant all filled up with young people. I was getting pretty sick and tired of eating on my own, so when I found myself being seated next to half a dozen slightly younger men on a rowdy, beer-fuelled night out, I took my chances and struck up a conversation with them. They were a little surprised, at first, to find themselves confronted with a foreigner, a gei-jin – I’d seen nobody else western in my whole time here. But their natural hospitality overcame that quickly – they invited me to join them.
I‘d been out on such nights out in Tokyo numerous times. An all-male evening in Japan consists of much beer swilling, many toasts, a variety of chants which you accompanied by thumping your fist on the table, and a vast number of lewd jokes and scatological mimes.
It occurred to me, after a couple of hours of this – my head now swimming lightly – that, this being a small town, people might know of each other far more easily than in Tokyo. And what the hell, I decided. It wouldn’t hurt to ask.
So I described Hanako to my new companions. They just looked bewildered, at first.
Then one of them – a tall guy called Satoshi – leant across to a young couple sitting not far from us, and then called out to the woman, “Niko, weren’t you friends with a girl called Hanako? The one who was always on her cell phone? What happened to her?”
“Hanako Saito?” came the answer. And Niko’s face, as it came up, went suddenly quite blank. I understood what that meant, in Japanese terms. She was pretty unhappy about something. “Why do you ask?”
“This Englishman! He thinks he might have met her!”
Niko joined us at our table, nodding to me gently. And listened politely as I described the young woman I had come to meet.
“It cannot be the same girl,” she came back at me at once.
Niko’s expression was still like molded plastic.
“Hanako used to be a lovely girl, the friendliest in town. Always with some crowd or other, always ringing people up.”
“With a pink cell phone?” I put in. “One with silver glitter?”
“Yes. And so, one day, almost a year ago, a stranger comes to Miyazaki. A wealthy young businessman called Shoji, here on vacation from Sapporo.”
Which was on the upper island of Japan, Hokkaido, I knew. Hundreds of miles north of here.
“He and Hanako met, and were inseparable for two whole weeks. She took to staying in his hotel room, and I am pretty sure he was her first. At the end of that time, though, without even saying a proper farewell, Shoji just went home.
“Hanako was beside herself. She couldn’t believe that he had just abandoned her. And so she decided to go to him.”
The way that I had now come here, perhaps?
The rest of what had happened? Niko told me. It was only pieced together later.
“She hitchhiked all the way up to Sapporo, staying in the cheapest guesthouses and saving her money for the ferry. She had never been off Kyushu before, though. I don’t think she realized what the north was like in winter. It was freezing cold when she got there, and pouring with rain. Hanako was still wearing the same clothes she wore here.”
All of which reminded me exactly of our first meeting in Tokyo.
“She only finally arrived at Shoji’s place come nightfall. There was his big house, with his expensive car parked in the driveway. She rang at the door, but Shoji would not even open it properly, and spoke to her with the chain on. She had been merely a fling so far as he was concerned, he told her, just a brief seaside romance. He did not want to be associated with a humble waitress. She should go away.
“Hanako refused to leave, though. She stood out there in his driveway, in the cold and rain, and tried calling him over and over on her cell phone. But he refused to even pick up.
“Eventually, exhausted and confused, she huddled down and fell asleep, right there in the open. When she woke up, it was morning and the rain had stopped. And –“
Niko’s face had lost its numbness and looked tearful, now.
“She saw that Shoji’s car was gone. She understood the truth at that stage. He had simply walked right past her sleeping body and gone off to work. He cared for her that little.”
Every pair of eyes at the table was fixed on Niko by that time, all the high-spiritedness of before forgotten.
“Heartbroken, she began her journey home. But that night in the open had taken its toll. She made the last few hundred miles to Tokyo in the back of a truck, all on her own. And when the driver finally stopped, he found her in a fever and delirious.
“She was rushed to a hospital, of course, but lapsed into a coma on the way. They did everything they could to save her, but it was too late.”
She looked straight at me. “So this could not have been the Hanako you met.”
“But the purple streak in her hair?” I could only mumble. “And the phone?”
“Many girls have dye in their hair,” Niko reminded me, teardrops gleaming in the corners of her wide eyes. “Many girls have pink cell phones. Yours, I am sure, is a lovely girl. But not Hanako Saito.”
The quality of the darkness itself seemed to have altered, by the time that I emerged onto the street again, the lights around me harsher in the blackness of the night. Looking up, I could see clouds were massing overhead now, blotting out the moon and stars. And I could hear a faint rumble of thunder, off in the direction of Mount Kirishima. Well, this was the tropics after all.
My head was buzzing, filled up with strange thoughts, as I made my way back to the Plaza hotel.
Yet again, I tossed and turned for ages. When I finally slept, I dreamt of her. Standing in that alleyway. And lying in my bed. And … dying, in a hospital in Tokyo somewhere?
I woke up quite suddenly. A brilliant bolt of lightning had jolted me back to consciousness. Rain was pounding hard against my windowpane once more.
The strangest feeling overtook me.
Slowly, I got up. I then went over to the window, and pulled back the drape.
There was a lone figure standing below me on the grassy promenade. Instantly recognizable.
She was in the same position – almost – as I had first seen her. Soaking wet, with her hair plastered to her shoulders. Her arms wrapped around her narrow frame. Except that … her head was not bowed this time.
She was looking off to the side. Maybe north? I wasn’t sure. Her eyes fixed on the far distance, as though searching through the depths of thought and memory.
Then, the next moment, she seemed to sense that I was watching her. Her face swiveled towards me and lit up with a spontaneous smile. She lifted herself on the balls of her feet, and her arms came free and waved.
And the very next moment after that, she was hurrying away into my hotel lobby.
Her knock came at my door a minute later. Whose else could it be? I just stared at it frozenly, wondering what to do.
When the tapping came again though, something else occurred to me. Shoji had refused to answer properly when she’d arrived at his door. Could I do the same? Whoever – whatever – she was?
I think I realized at that moment what strong feelings I still had for her, despite what I had heard this evening. And, because of that, it simply wasn’t in me to be cruel to her in any way.
I stepped quickly back away from her as soon as I had opened up, however. And she noticed that. She seemed to know exactly what it meant. The broad smile vanished from her face within an instant. When she stepped into my room, now, it was softly, her whole manner very solemn.
“Hallo, Efan,” she said quietly, ducking her head, her small hands clasped in front of her.
“Hanako.” I nodded. God, in spite of everything I knew, my heart had lifted at the sight of her. “Hanako Saito?”
“You know who I am?”
I explained that I had met someone who used to know her, quite by chance.
“You now know the whole story, then?”
“Then what more can I tell you?”
“Firstly, why did you pick me?”
Her face came up again. And she stared at me directly with those bottomless dark eyes of hers.
“I did not, Efan. You picked me. Out of all the people who passed by me that night in Tokyo, you were the only one who tried to help.”
It all came flooding back to me so sharply that it seemed to split my brain and wrench at my insides. Lord, that first Friday night. Taking her to my place, and the time we’d spent together.
I was fighting pretty hard simply to think straight, by this juncture
“Secondly –“ I managed to get out, “what’s this whole long charade been about? The phone calls and the waiting?”
“No charade,” she told me then. “It is because of the way I died. I can only come back to this world when it is raining. Otherwise, I am just a voice on the telephone line, and nothing more than that.”
She was still looking at me directly, not even blinking, her gaze mild and full of questions.
“And now that you know the whole truth, Efan, what will you do about it? Will you walk past me like Shoji did, considering me not suitable? I won’t blame you. It is entirely your choice.”
My bank turned out to have a branch in Miyazaki, and I got myself transferred here practically a year ago. I still love the place, the friendly, amiable people and the gentle pace of life.
As I said, we’re in the tropics here. We get plenty of heat and sunshine, but plenty of downpours too.
It isn’t always the case. There can be week following arid week when the sky stays wholly blue and the sun dazzles. And most people enjoy times like that.
But me? On such occasions, when I’m not at work, I usually just sit in my apartment, staring through the window. Waiting for the clouds to fill up the horizon, and the rain to come again.
‘Hanako from Miyazaki’ is part of my collection ‘Touched by Magic’ on Amazon Kindle.