Parrots of Ookayama 4

Episode 3

Episode 4: Kayoko Kida, a.k.a. Mama

It was in the clear day light that Kayoko Kida got out of a taxi with both hands full of plastic shopping bags. The driver had offered her help, which she had declined.

After the taxi drove away, Kayoko, carrying all the bags herself, climbed the steps to the entrance of Un Chat Errant. At the top of the stairs, she got the key out from her purse and unlocked the door. She walked straight to the counter, put down her bags, and finally caught her breath before taking off her coat. At this bar, she was known as Mama. She had been doing this every day for nearly sixty years.

It was three o’clock in the afternoon. The winter sun was still bright, so she decided not to turn on the lights yet. She put a vase on a small round table by the south-facing window, and, on the table, spread out the flowers she had just bought at a local florist. She picked up one flower, checked the length, and snipped it. The metallic sound of sharp scissors echoed. She tossed it into the vase effortlessly. The fast, staccato beat continued until the last remaining flower — a big, bright, red anthurium. She determined to cut it short. When she added it to the centre of the arrangement, it transformed the soft tone of the flowers into something definitive. The leathery red flower caught the diminishing sunlight from the window. She paused to evaluate. Finally, a smile appeared on her face. She reached into the front pocket of her apron and got out a cigarette. Looking at her creation, she took a long contemplative puff. She stepped back a little and checked the flowers again from a distance. With her wrinkled hands, she dusted off her apron, and quickly cleared the rejected leaves and stems.

Mama changed the flowers every Monday. More than fifty years ago, one of her customers offered to teach her the art of flower arranging. So she took them. She enjoyed it more than she had expected, learning the names of plants and their blooming seasons. She loved finding four seasons in the flowers while working deep into the night. Her favourite flower was baby’s-breath — a cluster of small white flowers — most ordinary, but appropriate for all seasons. They were often used to bring out the centrepiece, good with any flowers. They lasted long, too. Under the dim light, the faint flowers looked as if floating. On a slow night, from behind the bar counter, she would gaze at them and allow herself to drift in thought.

Behind the bar counter, Mama was busy in preparation, efficiently maneuvering within the small cramped space, familiar after so many years. She stopped suddenly, feeling like she had forgotten to do something. She put her hands in to her apron pockets, fiddling with the coins and rubber bands in there while trying to remember what it was. Eventually, it came back to her.

Mr. Monday — her nickname for one of her longest regulars— was stopping by today. Mama opened one of the shopping bags to make sure she had bought his favourite snack. She opened the wall cabinet and checked his whisky bottle. She also grabbed a small box from the cabinet and opened it. It was a cut-crystal glass that she bought at a nearby department store on her day off. A few weeks ago, he lamented the disappearance of proper whisky glasses from many drinking establishments. She remembered and bought this glass for him. She washed it, running the sponge along the grooves of the intricate cuts which mimicked a 60s style. Mr. Monday’s glass, though, had no rim. Mama disliked the flair.

At five thirty, Mr. Monday showed up and said “Hey yo” to Mama. By the door, he took his phone out from his breast pocket and aimed it at the flowers that Mama had just arranged. He struggled positioning the camera, holding it awkwardly. Then he finally pressed the button. After confirming that the picture quality was satisfying, he put the phone back in the same pocket. He said, “This looks like Christmas.”

“What do you mean?” Mama said.

“Well, it’s got a red flower, lots of green, and speckles of white. That’s Christmas.”

“Christmas was over a month ago. I hope you aren’t getting dementia.” Mama joked.

“Speaking of dementia, remember I’m your customer. I’ve come all the way from Kasai to check on you.”

Mama sensed that he was lonely in Kasai, in the east end of Tokyo. From there to Ookayama, it would take an hour by train. During his working years he lived in Ookayama but, a couple of years ago, he decided to move and live closer to his daughter and her family. Mama wasn’t sure if that was really his choice. Nonetheless, he kept coming back to Un Chat Errant every Monday. He could have found a bar near his current place if he had tried. After all, there were plenty of bars in Tokyo. But at Un Chat Errant, he knew almost everyone. He would surely run into his old drinking buddies or younger men and women working for companies, or even younger university students. Here, he can have real conversations and bypass stale ones with people of his age about their failing health and funerals. Even if he didn’t find anyone to talk to, he could just chat with Mama and girls she hired.

Mama took out his whiskey bottle and his new glass.


“You remembered it.” Mr. Monday put a big smile on his face. “This is exactly what I had in mind. My whiskey will taste ten times better in this. Thank you, thank you.” He put his hands together in front of his nose like a Buddhist monk as he watched Mama pour whiskey.

“And this one is for you.” He handed a small black notebook to her. “2014” he said.

“I was waiting for this. Thank you very much.” Mama held it in front of her face and bowed. She immediately began to look through the pages. It was a photo album. “Not bad, not bad. I mean, your photography skills are OK, but my arrangements were excellent.”

Mr. Monday had been taking photos of Mama’s flower arrangements ever since she began to display them at the bar. With all the pictures he took, he made an album for her every single year. By now there were about fifty.

Flipping the pages, Mama could see what the year had been like. In between the flower pictures, Mr. Monday always included some photos of seasons such as cherry blossoms at the university in Ookayama and Christmas illuminations in the Ginza shopping district. There were also a few photos of the regulars at the bar. One of the pictures was particularly memorable; everyone was smiling and each held a Japanese paper fan in their hand.

The picture was taken in mid-June in 2014. It was the beginning of the rainy season. One Friday, the humidity level couldn’t be more unbearable. The rain had stopped before the evening. So had the wind. The rotten smell of rain lingered. Mama was drenched in sweat inside Un Chat Errant because the air conditioner had suddenly died on her. She debated whether she should open the bar since the uncomfortable weather might keep away many of her customers. But there were a couple she could think of whom would come despite the bad weather. Besides, after sixty years of business, there weren’t many days she had closed the bar on such a short notice. In the end, she decided to open. Only a few came in and ordered cold beers. No one stayed long.

The next couple of days was a mess. On Saturday, normally her day off, she came to work on the broken air conditioner. She spent hours disassembling some parts and cleaning the filter. She could usually fix these appliances by herself, but not this one. She couldn’t make it alive again. It had probably reached its life cycle. The air inside the bar remained so stifling that she desperately needed a new working unit. On Sunday, also her day off, she phoned one of her customers who was in a construction business. “Leave it to me,” he assured her. He was one of those people who was able to squeeze people and tweak the rules. She knew some customers didn’t like his presence at Un Chat Errant. And he always came with his entourage, so the other customers never had a chance to talk to him. But she always liked him. She could see why he had followers. Anyhow, he immediately pulled some strings and arranged delivery of a new unit for her. But there was a catch; it wouldn’t get installed until Tuesday.

There was another piece of bad news. It was going to cost her a lot more than she had anticipated. The guy on the other end of the line sounded very sympathetic. It was just that the old unit was so old, installed the 1980s, that the installation of a new unit wouldn’t be straightforward. When she hung up, she worried about incurring such a big expense at this point in her life. She would be eighty this year. Her business wasn’t as strong as it used to be. A year from now, she could still picture herself running this bar. But five years from now? She only saw thick milky fog all around her.

She collapsed onto the bar stool and buried her face into the hands. The wall clock sounded so loud when she wasn’t able to work.

She had never thought about closing Un Chat Errant before. Now, she wondered if she should pick a day to retire. Boom, it’s over. Or, she could gradually phase out. Maybe from five days a week to three days… No, it wont work. She had to pay the same rent. She could ask one of the girls working for her if they were interested in taking on more responsibility and eventually taking over her business. But the idea of sharing her business with someone else gave her chills. This was her gig. She had always made decisions by herself whenever needed. After running through more scenarios in her mind, she gave up. Then weariness overtook her. She hadn’t slept well since Friday. She started dozing off on her stool. In the meantime, the news about the air conditioner fiasco spread from customer to customer, and finally to Mr. Monday.

On Monday, he showed up at Un Chat Errant with a dozen paper fans. They were a kind that you get for free from banks and local shops. On them were drawings of summer: swimming goldfish, fireworks in the night sky, and morning glory in bloom. After Mr. Monday, a few more regulars followed.

It was such a hot and humid day. The door and windows were left open for whatever breeze could be had. But it turned out to be a good night. Everyone loved the fans and used them to cool themselves. The cold beer tasted good. “This is like we are all going to a summer night festival,” Mama laughed as she fanned herself. Mr. Monday constantly wiped his face with a wet towel, looking flustered and embarrassed at the same time.

Mama looked up from the photo album. Mr. Monday was wiping his face and up toward the forehead. With his receding hairline, it was as though he was wiping his head too.

Parrots of Ookayama 3

Episode 2

Episode 3: Yukiko’s jobs

Yukiko Ohta juggled two jobs. One was a full-time job at a wine importer. She chose it because the company traded Italian wines. She was hardly a wine connoisseur, or even much of a wine drinker, but she loved hearing all the Italian words: Toscana, Nebbilo, Abboccato, Brunello di Montalcino. The sound of these words danced in her mind, reminding her of her boyfriend, Luka, and of their future reunion. She dreamed about being with him in an Italian villa somewhere in Sienna, narrow pointy trees lined in distance, full-bodied red wine in hand, speaking perfect Italian. But her job at this company was boring, reporting to a middle-aged Japanese man more suited to selling chicken than wine.

“Ohta san, it seems to me that you have a date tonight.”

Yukiko was ruthlessly shaken up from her sweet daydream. There was her boss in front of her, examining her outfit over his smudged reading glasses. He grinned at her as if he said something funny. His voice carried, and her coworkers stopped whatever they were doing midway and spectated that Yukiko would fight back as usual.


It was loud enough to kill the conversation. Yukiko stood up immediately, sending her chair farther away than she would normally. But she was wearing a nicer dress today. The other people held their breath.

“I have plans today after work, so I have to leave right at five. Whether I have a date or not is none of your business. Your comment could be interpreted as sexual harassment.”

She walked out while the eyes of everyone there followed her. There were two other women at the office, but they never talked back, instead only responding with nervous giggles. To Yukiko, the giggling was almost as bad as the boss’ comments.

She went to the bathroom and closed the door. She didn’t have a date, she had a job interview. She glanced at her watch, and seeing it was four forty-five, decided to spend the last fifteen minutes of the day in the bathroom getting ready.

A week before, Yukiko had had a second job at Himmel Bakery, which sold German breads and pastries. She got up at four o’clock in the morning and worked two hours before the wine job. On the job, she had to wear a baker’s apron and hat even though she wasn’t baking anything. It was just for show. She was a cashier. She was also in charged with replenishing the baked goods in the display baskets. All of them had German names written in Japanese. At first, these names were hard to remember, let alone what they were and how much they cost. But once she memorized them, the work itself became repetitive. There was a deep-fried round bread covered with sugar, but it wasn’t a ‘donut.’ When customers asked her what they were, which happened quite often, she didn’t bother to pronounce its German name. She just said, “they’re just like donuts.” She liked to get to the point whenever she could.

Every single day, as soon as the bakery opened, customers in the neighbourhood flocked to the shop. These early morning birds were housewife types, some of them no older than her — mid-twenties. One of them would often make an announcement; “Maybe I’ll break away from my usual and try something new.” But Yukiko knew they would pick exactly the same bread as before. It’s hard to break away from a habit. Especially in the morning. While waiting for her to make a decision, Yukiko would steal a glance at her wallet, a big one with monogram, and her hands with their meticulously polished finger nails and shiny diamond rings. Lady, stay in your comfort zone. Many customers of this bakery were well-to-do like this lady with a big wallet.

Yukiko used to know this type of women back in high school. It was right before the summer recess. In the classroom, some popular girls leaned back against the chairs and crossed their legs. The sunlight made them bright. They were talking about the vacation plans with their parents. The exotic sounding places were popped up against the voices of the teenage girls. Yukiko tried to imagine where these places were on the globe. Suddenly, one of them directed a question at her.

“What’s your plan?”

Yukiko wasn’t even in that circle. And she didn’t have any vacation plans. She was caught off guard and flinched.

“Not much.” Yukiko snapped at them. She hated the ignorant girl for including her in the conversation.

Suddenly, this lady buying German pastries became Yukiko’s enemy.

The bakery job didn’t pay very well. Her goal was to be with Luka in Italy, but with her poor wages the job didn’t contribute much. There was one small perk with this job though. One free German sandwich to take away. After working two hours in the morning, she would snatch a sandwich and head to the wine job at nine o’clock.

Some coworkers noticed Yukiko’s lunch was always the same. She told them she liked these sandwiches. But she didn’t tell them about her second job at the bakery. Biting down the sandwich, she tried to convince herself to keep this second job. If she had to buy lunch at a restaurant, she would fall even further behind in her goal. She was always thinking about ways to save money, even if only a few dollars.

One night she was on video-chat with Luka and got into an argument. He was complaining how he had been unable to find a good job in Italy. In fact, since he had left Canada, he hadn’t been able to find a job at all. He claimed that Tokyo was a better job market and implied she was lucky. But she had noticed his incessant refusal to take any job, always blaming the economy.

“Just accept a job. It doesn’t have to be a good one. I don’t like mine, but it pays my bills.”

Luka always looked uncomfortable when she brought up the job search. “I don’t know what I want,” he said. “But I do know what I don’t like. Why should I waste my time on something I don’t like?”

His words unhinged Yukiko.

“I’m juggling two jobs I don’t like. Are you telling me I’m wasting my time?”

Then their conversation turned into a quarrel. She said he was selfish. He accused her being too practical. And then she said that she was practical for good reasons and that she had a goal.

“What goal?”

“I wanna go to Italy to be with you.”

It puzzled her why he couldn’t see that. She couldn’t remember what he had said after. All she remembered was they continued their argument for the next thirty minutes. Then he finally said he was looking forward to seeing her in Italy. She felt happy to hear that all the same. After he signed off from the video chat, she thought he should have said that much earlier in their conversation. She should have cornered him before he went off-line. But it was too late now. She stared at the blank display for a long time. Normally, she would feel happy and sad at the same time when they signed off. But this time, she was left with a bad feeling about this. She rubbed her face and smoothed it out with her hands. The next day, she told the bakery she was quitting.

Soon after that, Yukiko saw a hand-written sign on the wall of a building — Help Wanted, Un Chat Errant, and a phone number. She walked by this place every day to go to work and back, but never paid attention to it. She vaguely remembered that this place was a bar. It was a non-descript building with an entrance on the mezzanine floor. She stepped forward to take a picture of the sign with her smartphone for later.

Parrots of Ookayama 2

Episode 1

Episode 2: Shoko in Ookayama

Alan could not allow Shoko to do nothing. So he asked her to beautify their apartment in Ookayama. She wasn’t particularly good or bad at it. But it wasn’t enough to fill her days. The problem was that their apartment was already furnished and she wasn’t bothered by the mismatched shapes and colours. She saw it as an excuse for her to feel hopeless. When she told him that there wasn’t much that she could do about it, she was met with his cold stare, to which she was so accustomed. She could suck it up without any effort. So she was taking an afternoon nap on a Friday. 

Suddenly, a loud song started blasting outside. The alarming volume woke her up. But she stayed and listened in bed. It was a traditional Japanese nursery rhyme, quite familiar to her. 

Somebody — she forgot who — had told her that the same song was played throughout Tokyo at exactly 5:00 p.m. every weekday, to check the alert system designed to be used for emergencies such as earthquakes. In the small Japanese town where Shoko grew up, it was a siren, like the one to signal an air raid, which was used for the same test, also every weekday. Although she was born decades after the Pacific War, that siren reminded her of the wartime that she had never experienced.

During her childhood, kids had been taught, as soon as the siren went off, to leave their playgrounds and head home before it got dark. On their way home, the kids started singing this nursery rhyme together. The tune was sentimental.

The sky is glowing, and the sun is setting. 

I hear a long gong from a temple in the mountains.

Let’s go home, everyone, hand in hand. 

Let’s go home. Crows are also flying back to their nest.

When the recorded tune ended, Shoko expected silence. Instead, a mix of screaming voices ensued. They were constant, and sounded like kids. She got up from her bed and slid the window open. The apartment unit was on the second floor facing southwest. The January sky was a mottled orange. She finally felt a pinch of guilt for not being productive all day.

There were some trees and houses in view. She stared into the twilight, but no one was there. When she was about to close the window, some flying creatures caught her eye. 

They passed rapidly. She couldn’t tell what they were, and followed the flapping sound. There, on the branches of bare ginkgo trees at the far end of her apartment complex, she discovered them perching, in the hundreds. They were silhouetted against the sunset. They were about the size of a crow, but their tails were longer and narrower. As her eyes adjusted to the afterglow, she could make out the green and yellow of their feathers. 

Meanwhile, the flapping sound continued. The flock grew bigger and louder. There was clamour, as if the birds were telling each other how their day went. They jumped from branch to branch. The trees seemed to thicken and shift. Shoko shivered. Then there was a chime. It was a text message from Alan.

“Hey, I have a dinner with clients tonight. Can’t eat with you. Sorry.”

Dinner with clients on a Friday? Shoko’s mind raced back to the recent encounter with a woman named Sally. 

Sally was an attractive Asian Canadian who worked with Alan in Toronto. At the staff Christmas party, she spotted Alan and approached Shoko, smiling. She was probably Shoko’s age or younger, wearing a sleek black dress and a confidence that Shoko had never possessed.  

“I’ve heard a lot about you. My name is Sally.” 

Her teeth were whitened. Her eyelashes were extended to bold, frightening lengths. Her biceps were well-defined. Her confidence and proffered hand felt like a provocation.

Shoko couldn’t bear being on display, and looked down. But she took the hand. She had to. The shake was light and short. And Alan hugged Sally with the ease of someone who had held her before. 

“Chat with you later.” Sally walked away with one hand still touching him.

Shoko waited until Sally was far enough away. “Who is that?” 

“We used to be on the same team.” 


“I don’t remember.” He then excused himself to use the bathroom.

That was why Shoko quit her job and came to Japan. Now in Ookayama, she was tempted to ask who else would attend the dinner with the clients on Friday night. She wiped the nervous sweat from her forehead and typed “OK” instead.

A reply came immediately. “Don’t forget we’re in JAPAN.”

She did not know what to make of his response, with the all-caps Japan. Did he mean that in Japan, fidelity should mean something different? Fidelity to whom? To the company? To the clients? To Sally? To all but Shoko? 

When she looked at the phone again, he was already gone. She buried her face in her hands.

By the time Shoko left the apartment, the sun had already set completely. The birds had quieted down. She couldn’t tell if they were still on the same trees. She adjusted her knit scarf to keep herself warm. 

There was no one else in the alley, despite it being Friday evening. The alley was lined with small houses and old shops selling tobacco, liquor, stationery, meat, used books. No one was shopping. A very old woman sitting motionlessly at the register in one of the shops glanced at her, as if she had bet that Shoko was not going to stop at her store, as if Shoko was responsible for the decline in business in all these stores. 

In between were newer concrete buildings and some hollow patches of land awaiting development. Shoko thought: when that old woman dies, her shop will also be replaced with something new. Everything in this alley was so much smaller and closer together than in Toronto. She could almost smell people’s dinner from the outside. Then she came upon a brightly-lit vending machine humming electrical sounds. The machine’s glare forced her to squint. She stood upon a crossroad.

Near the intersection, she saw a soft-white illuminated sign. It had a drawing of a black cat, and a French phrase below it: “Un Chat Errant.” 

The place was dimly lit, and the window reflected the silhouette of several people. There was a stairway leading up to the door. Before realizing it, she had started her ascent. When she pushed the door open, the smell of cigarettes hit her nostrils.

Two female voices greeted her pausing at the door. The older voice was husky. The bar counter nearly filled the entire room. Four people sat at the counter, perched on stools, busy in conversation and smoking.

“Have a seat. Anywhere you like.” The old woman motioned the hesitating Shoko to an empty stool. “If you like, please leave your coat on the couch by the window.” The couch was squeezed into a tiny space. A man’s trench coat and a black leather laptop case were placed on it. There was a flower arrangement on a small table in the same cramped corner. The elegant flowers looked somewhat out of place in this place, reminding Shoko of someone’s old family room with dark wood panels. She took a seat at the bar. 

“Your first time here?” The same old woman asked in a disarmingly friendly tone.

“Yes.” Shoko was still unsure of the smell of tobacco. She could see white smoke against the dark wall.

“Welcome to Un Chat Errant. Do you live nearby?”

Shoko answered yes. “Fifteen minutes on foot,” she added.

“That’s very close,” the woman smiled. “This place is not so easy to find. We don’t advertise on the internet. No one posts a review online either. So whenever a new customer comes, I have to ask how they found us. It could be that one of our regulars invited a new customer here, you know. What would you like to drink?” The woman handed Shoko a warm wet hand-towel.

Wiping her hands, Shoko looked around to see what they had. No beer taps. She saw a bunch of whiskey bottles in the bar rail. 

“Whiskey and soda, please.” But it was met with a brief silence. 

“You mean, highball?” 

Shoko said yes, and remembered that in Japan, people normally didn’t call the drink “whiskey and soda.”  

“Is there any whiskey you prefer?” Then the woman suggested a Japanese whiskey.

Shoko nodded in reply. It was another reminder that she was in Japan; the woman’s pick wasn’t Canadian, American, or Irish.

Everyone at this bar knew each other’s names. While making the highball, the woman chatted with two men. One was an old man wearing an Ascot cap, and the other was a much younger man of seemingly barely drinking age. They were discussing a movie called Big Hero 6, claiming the university in the movie was the technical university in this neighbourhood. Only his youthful face glowed bright in the dim light. 

Right next to Shoko, there was a middle-aged couple who appeared to be meeting for a drink after work before heading home. The couple was talking to the young girl working at the counter. She had jet black, straight, semi-long hair. The girl turned to Shoko and asked how she had heard about this place.

“I just saw the sign outside when I was walking.” 

“Most of our customers live in this neighbourhood. Are you new to this town?”

“Yes. I’m from Canada — I mean, I was born in Japan, but I live there now. No, I meant… I’m back in Japan just temporarily, but my main residence is in Canada.” Shoko still felt inadequate after explaining. But she could see excitement in the girl’s eyes rather than confusion. 

“I can’t believe I’m talking to someone from Canada!”

The girl said she used to live in Vancouver. But she had never lived in Toronto.

“What took you to Toronto?”

“Got married to a Canadian.” Shoko said this as if delivering bad news. But the girl was more excited now, and looked straight into Shoko’s eyes.

“And what brought you to Tokyo?”

Shoko traced the grooves on her whiskey glass with her finger. She felt everyone’s ears tuned to her in anticipation. She replied that Alan was transferred to Tokyo for three months.

“How nice!” the girl clasped her hands. “I want to have a life like yours, spend some time in Japan and some time overseas. I don’t want to be stuck on this tiny island forever.”

As it turned out, the girl had an Italian boyfriend whom she had met in Canada while both were on a working holiday. She had worked at a Japanese restaurant, he at an Italian restaurant on the same street. Shoko was just glad to have someone who talked a lot. 

“How did you like being in Canada?”

“I loved it. I only lived in Vancouver though. My English wasn’t good at the beginning. But I picked up some restaurant English fairly quickly. You know, taking orders and stuff. But small talk was tougher. It doesn’t come easy for me even in Japanese.” The girl laughed, completely oblivious to her other duties.

Shoko realized that she saw many young Japanese like this girl, working at restaurants and cafes in Toronto, but never knew them personally. 

“I’m still learning to chat with customers here. I started this job just a couple of months ago. Mama hired me.” 

“Is she the owner?” Shoko darted a look in the old woman’s direction.

“Yes.” The girl replied as if she was waiting for this moment. “Mama owns this bar. Her name is Kayoko. Some old regulars call her by her first name. Not many customers are entitled to call her that. Only her longtime fans. Everybody else calls her Mama. She’s been doing this for a long time. She does what she loves. Isn’t that cool? This is her place. She’s the boss.” 

The couple next to Shoko signalled to the girl for the bill. She went over to Mama. Shoko was glad to divert the conversation away from Canada.

The girl came back and resumed the conversation. “I envy Mama. I wish I could find something I love. You know, something I could pursue for a lifetime. Oh, maybe I should open a bar like this in Italy with my boyfriend. He’s struggling to find a job right now.”

“Do you speak Italian?”

“Hell no. But I can probably hack it with a few words I know.” The girl chuckled. 

Mama came over to inform the couple of the bill amount. They paid in cash. The girl said good-bye to them. Mama escorted them down to the alley. 

“How old is Mama?” Shoko lowered her voice.

“I heard she was eighty.” The girl whispered back. “But she’s very sharp. She reads tons of books and tells me to read too.” She gestured to the window sill, filled with books. “She always says she needs to quit smoking. She’s just saying that, I think. She must know smoking is bad for her. I never smoke, but in my opinion, she should just keep smoking. My grandfather smoked like a chimney his entire life. Cigarettes don’t always kill people.” And she laughed.

Sipping her whiskey, Shoko threw a quick glance at Mama, who was now with a cigarette in her hand, talking to the two men at the back again. 

“What’s your name?” Shoko asked.

“My name is Yukiko.”

Parrots of Ookayama 1

Episode 1 : Going to Tokyo

Shoko was flying from Toronto to Tokyo, waking up to the muffled engine. The airplane was bouncing a little. Somewhere in the cabin, a baby was crying. Her entire body ached. The stale air amplified her discomfort. She was desperate for fresh air.

One eye opened, and met the dull grey of the airline seat. After a few blinks, the other eye saw the word glowing on the screen: “EnRoute.”

The woman next to her started putting on makeup. Restlessness spread like a disease in the cabin. One after another, passengers stood up, stretched their limbs, opened the overhead compartments, and reorganized their bags. 

December 31st 2014 was when Shoko boarded the plane in Toronto. The flight took off and travelled westward against time. When she woke up, 2014 was already gone. The screen in front of her showed the origin time and the destination time, both showing the time was New Year’s Day.  She wondered when the new year started on this plane. She had no idea. She slept over it. Flight attendants were now handing out immigration cards to the passengers. 

The card asked her for her personal infomation. 

Edwards was Shoko’s family name. When married, she had a choice to keep her Japanese family name but took this one instead. Very happily. Her maiden name Suzuki was the most common in Japan, and she hated its banality. She thought Edwards sounded more distinguishable, doors open in all directions, if paired with her first name Shoko

She couldn’t remember if her husband, Alan, was involved in this name choosing. They probably talked about it. Most likely, she had asked him what he would prefer. There should have been other options such as hyphenating their last names or keeping Suzuki as the middle name. Probably Alan didn’t care and told her off that it should be up to her. That might be why she couldn’t remember how the other options were eliminated. 

Shoko Edwards. But after living in Canada more than two decades, her name wasn’t so unique after all. As it turned out, Toronto had a myriad of peoples from all over the world, and she was just one tiny drop in the ocean. Another banality.

Her mind drifted to her coming days in Tokyo. Alan had taken an offer to work there for the next three months. Shoko decided to tag along. So she quit her job in Toronto. There was nothing that she would miss about that administrative job.

At the arrival lobby of Haneda International Airport, a sea of black hair waited in anticipation, which made it easy for her to spot Alan, tall and blond. They hugged and kissed. The other people there greeted each other with Japanese words and patting their shoulders, not so much with hugs and kisses. Alan snatched the handle of Shoko’s bigger suitcase out of her hand and started swimming in the crowd as if he had lived in Tokyo all his life. 

Left with her smaller suitcase, she slowly followed his confident strides while allowing herself to look around. Japanese writing on every billboard. Her eyes jumped awake by all these letters that were square and bigger and bolder. Her ears were inundated with the Japanese sounds — beeps, ringtones, and constant recorded or live announcements — that came from everywhere. She let them fill a part of her that was long gone missing. She cast her eyes to Japanese women passing by, particularly of her own age, for their hairstyles, makeup, and clothes. Without thinking, she slowed down in front of a glass window to look herself in the reflection; her hair tied up, geeky eyeglasses, khaki cargo pants and slate blue fleece that she couldn’t remember when she had bought. 

“Can you pick up speed?” said Alan. “Let’s get to our apartment first, drop off these bags and go out somewhere for dinner. OK?”

Shoko picked up her pace. The two were about to live in Ookayama, the south end of Tokyo. As he rolled her suitcase, he told her different routes from Haneda to Ookayama; Line 1 to Line 2, Line 1 to Line 3 and transfer to Line 2, Bus to Line 2, and so on. There seemed to be an infinite number of ways to get there. She listened to him in amusement and wondered how long this conversation could last. She noticed the way Alan pronounced the word Ookayama. He stressed the first Oh and paused a tiny bit and said the rest okayama. There was another city called Okayama, 600km away from Tokyo. And it was a well-known tourist destination. But Ookayama was just 30 minutes away and only known to people living in Tokyo. Shoko wondered if mispronunciation of this extra ‘o’ had sent some foreigners who intended to visit Ookayama to Okayama. 

“Did you confuse Ookayama with Okayama when you first arrived here?”

“Nope. I’ve got my smartphone. Just asked it.” Alan held his phone up. He didn’t even try to turn around to face her.

Shoko rolled her eyes only halfway. Then Alan made an abrupt stop. 

“Here, you’re gonna need this.” He handed her a pre-charge card. “I’ve already put some money on it.” 

They were at the gate of a train station at the airport. Shoko examined both sides of the card.

“Machines will tell you the amount remaining on your card,” said Alan. “Tokyo has PASMO, London has Oyster, and Hong Kong has Octopus. Toronto should have something like this very soon. It makes people move faster.” 

“There aren’t that many people in Toronto, compared with these cities.” She paused. “But you’re right. It’s easier for sure. You act like someone who’s been here for a long time.” She became a master of cheer leading skills over the years that she’d been with him.

“I’ve been here for two weeks. And I’ve lived in Tokyo many years before. I know certain things by now. And it’s incredibly easy to understand the Tokyo subway system. Everything is colour–coded. You’ll get used to it too,” he said. “Put the card in your wallet so that you won’t lose it. By the way, you don’t need to take it out to hold over.” 

Before finishing his sentence, Alan held his entire wallet over the machine at the gate and stepped to the other side. It looked easy. The gate immediately shut down before she followed suit.

To Episode 2