Vaughn M. Watson
Reading Time: 11 minutes
"Omorimachi" originally appeared in Issue 17 of Tahoma Literary Review.
When I first read this essay, I keyed into the comments: "Love this. Has a bit of a Lost in Translation vibe." Upon subsequent readings, I realized it has so much more than that. That initial note does not begin to tell you how much this piece means to me. I've had the very great privilege and sincere pleasure of working with Vaughn Watson in developing the essay, which guides us and our narrator's coincidental companion through a layover in Tokyo. We're along on a strange, in-between-worlds tour, leading us in the end to what is not-so-strange—connection.
A corgi barks on and on at a connecting terminal in Haneda Airport as it paces in a crate beside the luggage carousel, waiting for its human. I watch it from a distance at the counter, panicking and refreshing Instagram as two flight attendants type furiously at the computers beside the dog. Moments later, one of the flight atten- dants approaches and bows deeply in a futile attempt to comfort me. “We’re so sorry,” she says. “We will put you on the tomorrow flight.” I silently fume. The tomorrow flight—my worst fear come true.
A twenty-something approaches the counter and I am immediately struck by his appearance. He is distinctly American, specifically Southern, in his look. His reddish skin reminds me more of my grandmother’s, my aunts’, my unmet kin’s, than it does of my own. His green eyes and curly blond hair are alien to me after having been in Japan for several months. The whiteness (or rather, the mixedness) of his features reminds me of the legends of Virginia towns where light-skinned people isolated themselves, inbreeding to maintain their color and privilege. In an American context, we might be divided by centuries of colorism. But after Japan, I feel some kind of kinship, some solidarity with him because of our shared black, American, and foreigner identities. He starts to look like something to be taken care of, standing there unsure as an unclaimed corgi.
The woman at the counter hands me a Post-It with a hotel’s address and apologizes for not being able to find anything closer. “How long by subway,” I ask in my best textbook Japanese. She isn’t impressed, but the young man is.
“Do you speak any Japanese?” I ask. “Not a single word,” he says. I begin judging him as the flight attendant escorts us down several escalators. How could he live here and not know a single word of Japanese? The subway station is eerily empty for a weekday evening. With a final bow, the flight attendant hands me an envelope containing exact change to cover the hotel and round-trip train fare. The young man still looks at me with that same clueless face. I tell him to come on and then I buy both our tickets. I show him how to insert his ticket into the turnstile. As the train pulls in and the doors open, I realize that somewhere between baggage claim and the subway turnstile, my paternal instinct has kicked in.
On the train, I learn more about him, as I cross-reference passing station names with Google Maps’ directions.
Amanori-Imachi. He’s 21 and in the Air Force. Most of the foreigners in Naha are American soldiers.
Kojiya. He’s deployed to Chatan, one of two bases located in the central part of the main island.
Keikyu Kawasaki. He’d never even been to Kokusaidori, Naha’s tourist trap, to watch dancers perform eisa or to enjoy Okinawan sea salt cookie ice cream.
Omorimachi. The trust he puts in me is astounding as we navigate a warren of quiet streets. Omorimachi, literally Big Forest Town, is a sleepy neighborhood not too far from the livelier parts of the city. There are many parks, but no children or parents to play in them. Instead, men just getting off work pack together in an oversized, transparent smoking chamber.
It can be exhausting to describe my intersecting identities to straight people. So to avoid talking about myself, I continue asking questions. He’s from Kentucky. One of his parents is German, and the other is not. He was in Naha for several months and it was difficult for him to be away from his wife and son. Wife and son. How can someone who can’t even figure out the subway possibly raise a child? Maybe he’s not as stupid as I think he is; maybe he’s just a victim of rural circumstance.
Several alleyways later, we arrive. We part ways to drop off our suitcases and pull ourselves together. We both need to recover from the shock of the tomorrow flight and from the momentum of fate forcing us together. A half-hour later, I wait for the elevator and look through the plastic foliage, down into the abyss the hotel’s rectangular floors form. His room is several floors above mine; I look up to see if I can see him. The elevator comes and he’s not in the lobby yet, so I cross the street to pick up a pack of Lucky Strikes, postponing quitting until tomorrow. As I take the first drag of the cigarette, I catch him watching me through the glass of the revolving door as if I am something precious, something unattainable. This is what having a little brother must be like. He expects me to wave him over. So I do, and he rotates the door.
When you’ve traveled enough, you realize all big cities are variations on a theme. Alleyways, wide streets, commuters pouring out of trains. But there’s always a distinct joy that comes from showing someone around a city you know well. Unfortunately, Tokyo is not one of those cities, with its myriad subway lines and infuriatingly similar station names like Asakusa and Akasaka and Omori and Omori- machi. I’m sure, though, that the most important stop in a one-day tour of Tokyo is Shibuya. In the midst of Tokyo’s extended rush hour, my New Yorker walk returns to me and the calmness I’ve worked so hard to cultivate in sunny Naha, the Hawaii of Japan, evaporates with each quickening step. We end up on a train so packed that we disappear from one another. At Shibuya, I crane my neck to find him taking in all of the advertisements and people surrounding us. I yell “Hey” because I have forgotten his name.
We follow throngs of commuters to the Hachiko exit, named for the bronze statue of an Akita that patiently awaited its owner after the owner’s death. I bring him over to the statue and explain how commuters fed the dog while it waited for its owner, but my companion’s emerald eyes sparkle at the intersection beside us. The three crosswalks extend across the massive street, forming a scalene triangle. People pool at the crosswalk, buzzing with anticipation for a walk signal. Not a single person jaywalks, though this mass could easily bring the intersection, this city to a halt. He stands close beside me as we assimilate into the crowd.
A red 109 sign lights up the iconic silver column that towers above us. Across the street from it, we window-shop in the men’s department and stop each other from spending money we don’t have. Deeper into Shibuya, we have ramen at Ichiran, ordering it from a vending machine and savoring the pork-bone broth in adjacent private booths. The experience is uniquely Japanese: there is no human interaction and the service is highly efficient. My companion savors his first bowl of ramen, glad that I advised him to order kaedama, extra noodles. I ask him what the hell he even does here, if he doesn’t eat ramen or go to Kokusaidori. “Mostly get drunk on the base,” he says. I tell him about my travels to the islands surrounding Naha and about a drive to the northernmost point of the island with my classmates, about steaming bowls of Okinawa soba and the joys of ordering too many skewers at izakaya and overpriced hookah at Mafali Cafe. Everything I’ve learned for the past few months is foreign to him, as if we were as far apart in Okinawa as Shibuya is from Queens.
I lead him past Hachiko and back onto the subway. In Shinjuku, a bar’s cheap highballs stand out among the many neon lights. As we descend the steps, a drunk young man greets us and asks if we speak Japanese. We are the only foreigners in the bar. During our second round, I look at my watch and tell him in my best big brother voice that we can’t miss the last train. When I ask the bartender when the last train is, he looks at his watch and only says, “Go.”
We run through the city’s streets, frequently asking passersby if we are even going in the right direction. We giggle the whole while as we climb the many sets of stairs to the train station. People are walking alongside us. He has a lot more stamina than I do, but I do my best to keep up. I buy both our tickets to save time, and we race through the turnstiles and down the stairs, where the last train waits for us. A salaryman stands in front of the train doors, so drunk that he thinks he’s on the street. The man waves his hand to hail a cab as the last commuters slip past him and the doors close.
After we say goodnight, I check my Grindr and arrange for a cute local nerd to meet me in the lobby. As the elevator doors open on the fourth floor, I see the soldier standing there in the hotel-supplied robe, an intricate full-chest tattoo visible through its opening. Though Grindr nerd is cute and more importantly, actually gay, I can’t help but let my eyes wander to the tattoo, to the sexuality he now radiates. Though I am caught off-guard by the tattoo and by the embarrassment of being caught, I manage to stammer out a question. “What are you doing here?” I ask, laughing out of nervousness.
“Looking for a vending machine,” he says. I find it hard to believe this, but why shouldn’t I believe him? I worry that he’ll ask me the same question. I start to think of excuses, like going down for a smoke. But how to explain the random Japanese guy next to me? I look for Grindr nerd but he’s acted quickly, heading down the hallway as if he were any ordinary hotel guest. We don’t know what to say to each other for a bit, and I find it both nice and worrying that he never asks me what I was doing. Maybe he knows and maybe he doesn’t care. Maybe he’s cooler, more liberal than I think he is. The tattoo certainly suggests that. He gets into the elevator to find his vending machine, though the elevator goes back upstairs.
The next day, we meet downstairs and eat a convenience-store breakfast of bread and milk-tea-flavored water. I ask him if he ever found the vending machine. “I have trouble sleeping sometimes,” he says. I worry that one day he might find it even harder to sleep. His base is so close to the Korean Peninsula and tensions are escalating.
Akihabara, the nerd mecca of Japan and one of my favorite places in Tokyo, seems a fitting way to end his first trip to Tokyo. Sometime between shopping in Shibuya and the vending-machine incident, I’ve accepted that I care for the soldier. Ascending at the Electric City exit, we walk down an alleyway to the main street. He points at a shop. I slowly decipher the katakana: “Sekksu shoppu.” “Can we check it out?” he asks. My first time in Tokyo, my friend Natsuko pointed to a sex shop and I was amazed at how open, how obvious it was. She told me to follow her in as if were a convenience store, but I hesitated, embarrassed to go to such a private place with a friend. Four years later, with a relative stranger, I enter without hesitation. Besides, he caught me on a Grindr hook-up the night before. There’s nothing to lose.
The first floor is tame. Signs forbidding minors from entering are politely plastered in several places. Photos are definitely not allowed. The map by the staircase describes seven or eight floors of pleasure. Several carpeted staircases later, out of breath and leaning on the railing, I come face-to-crotch with an encased sex doll fashioned as a student no more than 15 years old. The hyper-realistic girl is posed in a kneeling position, her skirt inching up. I look up at her face, its innocent-but-suggestive look. The doll is displayed as if it is completely normal, alongside pocket-sized vagina sleeves, maid costumes, and a dildo shaped like an ear of corn. “Country girls make do,” the Tumblr meme said. He moves on to the next room, impatient with my lack of endurance and careful study of each object. I call him over to show him the doll he so quickly passed by. “Weird,” he says. And just like that, he walks away too quickly towards the pocket vaginas. Everything here is weird, is funny to him. Granted, there is a lot to laugh at, but this doll deserves disgust.
I want to pull him back, make him understand how strongly I feel about this doll, how it disturbs me to my core. But it’s already too late; that explanation would be in vain.
We visit one of Akihabara’s several arcades and he presses the elevator’s “up” button, intrigued by the prospect of virtual-reality games on the top floor. We are disappointed when we see it isn’t VR in the 2017 sense of the word, but when the attendant offers to set us up in a gigantic, makeshift cockpit we don’t refuse him. We each climb into opposing cockpits. An orientation to piloting the fighter robots blares inside the cockpit in very excited Japanese and then we are divided into teams. I look through the cockpit’s Plexiglass but all I can see is the attendant, waiting for customers who are probably not coming.
I don’t know my motive or my enemy. All too often I boost towards a robot and swing a lightsword at it, only to realize they are impervious to friendly fire. By the time I am able to boost and jump effectively, my robot explodes into flames. And then it’s almost time for the tomorrow flight. Tomorrow is now.
Our last meal in Tokyo is hamburger steak and karaage in sleepy Omorimachi. The lunch set includes his first taste of tofu and Japanese pickles. He doesn’t like either of these commonplace foods. At the airport, the agent asks if we are brothers and we laugh. “We don’t all look the same,” he says. “We’re not even the same color,” he adds, while comparing our skin tones. My suspicion was wrong. Even here, people see us as the same, but the past twenty-four hours have proved just how different we are. Flashing his military ID, he easily gets onto the flight. I glimpse his name a final time, vowing to remember it.
Half a day later, Minneapolis-St. Paul greets us with newsstands, long lines at McDonald’s, and a couple in matching MAGA hats. We have time to kill before our flights, so we sit and talk, mostly reminiscing about the events of the last thirty-six hours. It’s strange talking to someone whom you know you’ll never see again. It’s painfully clear that we have nothing in common, that fate can rip us apart as easily as it has stuck us together. Either way, the drop-off is complete—mission accomplished.
His flight departs first and we say goodbye with the hug-hand-shake I still don’t really have down. It is an awkward and yet, fitting, end to such a strange trip. He strides into the distance, disappearing into the crowd.
I move closer to my gate. LaGuardia, home, is so close now, but the sudden disappearance of my companion in the crowd is an uncrossable, silent chasm. I’m an only child again, okay with being alone, but constantly grasping for connection and fearing goodbyes. I refresh my Instagram feed and try to remember the boy’s name. How many times did I learn and forget it? I scroll through the images one by one—model, food, selfie. No matter how hard I try, I can never remember his name.
Vaughn had this to say about "Omorimachi":
While I was shepherding this soldier around Tokyo, I didn't think much of it. However, as I was recounting this story to friends, the whole situation started to become more and more surreal, which led me to write this piece.
Vaughn M. Watson is a New York-based writer currently working on a hybrid collection entitled Payaos.