Large, emerald mountains materialize through the haze as our ferry approaches Tokashiki. The landscape is a contrast to the flat terrain and the bustle of Okinawa. The ride becomes rough as we get closer, but the bumps are no problem. I’m on boats regularly for work. I can handle waves.
Due to lack of sleep, I barely made the ferry on time, boarding at exactly nine in the morning. The boat departed seconds later. A similar event happened yesterday when I nearly missed my flight from Kyushu to the Ryukyu Islands. The doors of the plane closed two minutes after I reached my seat.
I’m exhausted from traveling and the strain of communicating with limited Japanese. I’m exhausted from counting and collecting marine life, watching bodies fade, unable to reverse death.
Back in Tacoma, I felt foggy, alone, and helpless – unaware of what I wanted from life. Although well over a year had passed, I’m embarrassed to admit I was still heartsick about the break-up with my boyfriend – if you could call him that. He was already married. There was nothing I could do about that, and it seems, there’s nothing I can do to stop his presence from continuing to blow wildly through me.
I didn’t want to fill the void with kettle chips and one-night stands, so I started cycling to work, despite the endless Washington rain. On weekends, I forced myself to drive to Seattle to check out a show at Tractor Tavern or The Showbox.
I was also down about spending more days in the lab rather than on the water. I’d go on dives outside of work but felt dispirited by what I saw. The dark waters of the Pacific Northwest was a graveyard for lost fishing equipment and abandoned computers, tvs, lawn chairs, boats, and car batteries. When the opportunity came up to study sea life in southern Japan, I was eager for a change of scenery.
So far, it’s been a lonely journey. A shuttle takes me from Tokashiki port, down the narrow, bouncy road to the pension. We drive by homes with murals of porcupine fish, clown fish, and parrotfish. A breeze puffs through the tall grass in the valley. The golden eyes of a goat watch our vehicle pass. As we ascend, gray sky contrasts the verdant mountainsides and the trees highlight the blue-green cove below.
After check in, I wander the gravel roads dusted with sand from Aharen Beach. The eerie clang of a student band’s unhurried playing floats through the open windows of an elementary school. There are a few businesses in the four-block area where I’m staying, although most of them are closed for off-season, their facades outdated and tired. The entranceways are piled with small cats, curled together.
I visit the one restaurant in town that’s open and order a bowl of soki soba. There is a ten-seat bar counter and a large communal table with one other person, also eating the Okinawan specialty. He piles shredded red ginger into his bowl and mixes it with the noodles. I sit across from him at the table. “Nihonjin desu ka?”
He stops chewing and looks up at me through ash-coloured frames. His hair is like the fur of a black bear. He licks a droplet of soup from the corner of his mouth. “Sorry, don’t speak Japanese. English?”
“English is good. I hardly speak Japanese anyway.”
He rests his hands on the table. The v-neck of his white t-shirt emphasizes his slender neck. “I thought you were Japanese when you came in. You had no problems ordering.”
“Well, that’s about the extent of what I know.”
He cocks his head. “Are you…?”
“No. I’m Chinese. From America.”
“Do you speak Chinese?”
I shake my head.
“But you speak Japanese.”
“Chotto.” I hold my fingers apart an inch. I scan the restaurant and we are the only ones aside from the couple clinking pots in the open kitchen beside us. “Where are you from?”
He expertly lifts noodles to his lips. The chopsticks are like an extension of his slim fingers. His cheeks are pale despite the intake of hot noodles. “Taiwan.”
“I thought you might be. All the tourists on these islands are American, Japanese, or Taiwanese.”
“Taiwan is really close.”
I sit up and smile. “How long are you here for?”
“I’ve been in Okinawa for a week. I got to this island last night and am heading back to Naha tomorrow.”
“I’m going back tomorrow, too. 5:00pm ferry?”
He slurps and nods.
“And staying at Ocean Buddy, I presume?”
“There are other options?”
“I guess not.” I laugh. “By the way, my name is Danielle.”
“Oh my – forgive me for not asking your name previously!”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Nice to meet you, Danielle. My name is Chen.” He takes out a black notebook from his back pocket and makes a note.
“I have the same Moleskin notebook, but it’s in my room. Can you write your name down for me on this napkin? Chinese names are hard for me to remember.”
He does so, along with his email address, and gives me tips on pronunciation. I put the napkin in my purse and practice his full name a few times aloud, but am unable to match his pronunciation.
A man carries a steaming bowl towards me. The yellow noodles remind me a bit of the garden eels that live in these waters. Slices of fishcake and chunks of fatty meat rest on top, sprinkled with tiny-cut green onions. I inhale the savory steam of rich pork broth.
“What do you do in Taiwan?”
Chen swirls the ginger remainders in his bowl. “You know LED lights? I work at a company that manufactures a part used to make them. And you?”
“Biologist.” I grab an elastic from my pocket and tie my hair back so that it stops falling into the soup. “Right now, I’m stationed in a small fishing town on Kyushu studying the mass die-offs of sea creatures.”
“There have been all kinds: different types of fish, shellfish, other invertebrates. This sort of thing happens in nature, but my team is trying to determine whether it’s happening more often. I mean, we know it’s happening more, we just need to prove it.”
“Do you know why it happens?”
“There are many factors. Biotoxins, pathogens – and humans, of course. Things would be a lot better if we didn’t exist.” I poke my noodles with my chopsticks. “I’m trying to talk to the local fishermen to get their take on what’s happening in their area, but most say they haven’t noticed. How can you not notice when hundreds of starfish wash ashore?”
“Is that why you’re on Tokashiki?”
“No.” I sigh. “I’m taking a mini vacation. I was hoping for sun, but…” I look out the window. Beside it is a cuckoo clock that features characters from My Neighbour Totoro. Plush soot sprites hang on each wall of the restaurant alongside hand written menus.
“Sun would be nice, but there’s supposed to be a storm either today or tomorrow.”
“I read that. Good timing for a vacation!”
“I’ve got a book. I’m just happy to have the time off. You’re only here for two days? That’s a pretty quick break.”
“Yeah, but I really needed to get away from my place.”
I clear my throat. “The place I’m renting – it’s a whole house. I have it to myself. It’s furnished. It’s old. It belongs to a family – it used to be their grandmother’s, but she died sometime ago. There’s a shrine in one of the rooms and every now and again I come home to find the family in that room, paying their respects. I don’t mind that but…”
Chen lays his chopsticks across the bowl. “But?”
“You’ll think I’m weird.”
“Maybe I already think that.” He grins.
“Fine.” I sit back in my chair and take a deep breath. “It’s just that the grandmother still lives there. Lives is the wrong word. All her stuff is still there: her clothes, her knick-knacks. I sleep in her old bed. And she’s there. I hear her. Sometimes, I feel her.”
Chen raises his eyebrows. “Feel her?”
“Yeah – like she passes through my body.”
He blinks. “Whoa.”
“It’s okay – most of the time. Obasan is a nice ghost. She doesn’t do anything scary. She seems to appreciate me taking care of her house. She leaves me good luck tokens and persimmons.”
Chen shakes his head.
“She means well. It’s just really uncomfortable and makes it hard for me to relax.” I exhale. “And that, my friend, is why I’ve come to Tokashiki for two days.”
Chen remains still, staring at me, his lips straight. “How do you know she didn’t follow you?”
“What do you mean?”
He lays an arm on each side of his empty bowl. “People make the assumption that ghosts are restricted to physical locations, but, I mean, if she can bring you a persimmon, she could probably come to Tokashiki, too.”
I spend the rest of the day snorkeling the crystal waters of Aharen beach with Chen. We eat dinner at the same restaurant we ate lunch at. After, we return to the pension and sit outside the lobby that is closing up for the night.
Chen tells me that he has been to Japan so many times he can’t count. Thanks to competitive airline rates, it’s a cheap trip for him, unlike my journey from the States. We talk about movies and Wong Kar Wai. I mention the Taiwanese documentary I watched on the plane ride to Japan, Rock Me To The Moon.
We make plans for the next day to check out the other beach on Tokashiki. Since there are no cabs or buses, we’ll have to walk up the mountain, then down, to get there. Hopefully, the storm holds off. I tell Chen that I’ll meet him at the lobby at ten the next morning and say goodnight.
Back in my room, I want to journal about my day but I can’t find my notebook. It has all my data and notes from this trip. I spend an hour tearing apart the sheets of my little bed, searching underneath repeatedly. I empty the contents of my backpack without any luck. I clench my fists to contain my urge to scream. How could I lose it? I hold in my tears and decide to retrace my steps to the restaurant.
Chen is sitting on the steps of the lobby, drinking a bottle of green tea and reading his book under the fluorescent light. “Danielle, I thought you were going to bed?”
“I was going to, but then I realized I’ve lost my notebook. It has all my records in it. I’m going back to the restaurant and see if I left it there.”
Chen stands up. “I’ll go with you.” He pulls out a mini flashlight and shines it onto the road in front of us. We follow the same route we took earlier in the evening. When we reach the restaurant the same to people who worked both lunch and dinner are cleaning up. They haven’t seen my book.
On the walk home, light rain falls in front of the beam of Chen’s flashlight.
Chen and I check out at the lobby. Turns out, one of the staff members found my notebook last night. I had left on the plastic table outside. I clutch the book in my hand. My finger traces the faux-leather cover and smooth cream-coloured pages. I slip it my purse, check that I have my wallet, passport and camera, and then snap closure shut.
The weather is drab, but doesn’t seem storm-like. Just in case, we borrow umbrellas from the hotel and leave our backpacks at the front desk. I keep my purse with me.
The walk is steep; it’s probably good that it’s not sunny. My shirt is already moist from sweat and humidity. Thirty minutes pass before we reach the top of the mountain. On the side of the road there is a monument with a block of text written in Japanese.
“I think I know what this is for,” Chen says.
“The group suicides.”
Group suicides? I shake my head.
“As the Americans landed on the Okinawan Islands in World War II, nearly 800 people on Tokashiki gathered in the middle of the night – I think to one of the cliffs. It’s probably here, and that’s why there’s this plaque. There, the Japanese military told the people to commit suicide. People were given grenades. The men of families were to kill their mothers and younger siblings. They were regular people. I guess the Japanese didn’t want to lose their honour to the Americans, or maybe they were scared of what the Americans would do to them. Perhaps they thought it was better to die than to become prisoners of war.” Chen wipes the sweat off his forehead with the back of his wrist.
Heaviness descends in my chest and in my hands and feet. I crouch and hold my knees. I think about Obasan, about what her life may have been like. What was her experience during the World War? Her house isn’t far from Nagasaki.
Chen clasps his hands together and bows his head. I stand and follow his lead. “By the way, has Obasan visited you while you’ve been here?”
“Funny you ask – I was just thinking about her.” I look upward to see there are still signs of blue in the sky. “Well, I haven’t received any persimmons.” I run my fingers along the metal text of the monument. “I tried to get away from a ghost and now I’m on an island that’s probably full of them.”
“I keep almost having bad luck. Like now, we’re on top of this mountain, and there’s supposed to be a storm, but there isn’t.” I walk around the monument and look out to the transparent bay below. “It’s like there’s someone with me, making sure that I make it onto the plane, make it onto the ferry, find my notebook – a guardian. Maybe it’s Obasan? Maybe she’s here. Maybe I shouldn’t try to get away from her. Besides, I love persimmons.”
“That sounds like good luck to me.”
“Maybe it is.”
Chen and I stand side by side, staring at the monument that neither of us can read. A breeze cuts through moist air. To my right, I notice a cluster of tiny, multicoloured objects behind the bushes. I and walk over to find a large clear canister containing hundreds of origami cranes.
We make it to the beach and are the only ones here. The pristine sand gives under my steps. The sea is intensely turquoise, giving way to sapphire waters further out. Ragged rock faces bookend the shore. I take a few pictures of the seashore, amazed that a place so beautiful can be so deserted. Chen wades in the water.
Flat stones are scattered along the white sand – perfect for skipping. I toss one that skips eight times along the surface. Chen throws one of the stones and it plunks into the water a few feet away. I place my hand along his to show him how to curve his finger around the edge of the rock, how to throw it nearly parallel with the surface. We spend the next half hour skipping stones. Chen manages six skips by the time we’re done.
At the other end of the beach, we crouch down and look for the frustules of diatoms – hoshi zuna, or star-shaped sand. The Ryukyu Islands are known to have these remains on some of their beaches. After a few minutes of searching, I find a sample of the tiny star formation and nudge the particle from my fingertip to Chen’s.
The clouds darken as we hike up the mountain. The Ocean Buddy shuttle passes us numerous times, but no ride is offered. “Some buddy,” I joke.
It starts to rain, but neither of us uses our umbrellas. We walk close to the edge of the road, parallel to a dry ditch scattered with the withered bodies of salamanders.
“I’ve seen about a dozen so far.”
Each time we pass a salamander in the concrete ditch, Chen pokes them gently with the end of his umbrella.
And then there is one that looks less parched than the others. He moves slowly. I pull out my camera. Chen opens an umbrella and holds it above me as I take a photo.
“I wonder what’s killing them.”
“You know better than I.”
“I wish I did. I heard that there’s a bacteria that’s makes the salamander’s skin so painful, that they don’t move to get food or water. It’s a problem everywhere else in the world, but so far, it’s not supposed to be present in Asia. Amphibians are outside of my marine expertise, but I feel like I should take samples or something.”
“I think we should try to get back. The storm looks like it’s almost here.”
With the hotel in view, a hard drop of rain hits my scalp. We manage to duck under the lobby awning without getting drenched. The rain is heavy, heavier than I’ve seen, even during my time in the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. It only takes a minute before the roads are flooded.
Chen and I spend the rest of our time on Tokashiki reading our books inside the lobby of Ocean Buddy. I’m reading the latest Murakami novel and he’s reading a book called Embrace the Chaos by Bob Miglani.
Chen puts down his book. “Danielle, if you hadn’t been to Japan before, but someone you knew was going, what would you ask them to bring back for you?”
I think for a moment. “Only one thing?”
“Probably a vial of the diatoms that we found on the beach today. What about you?”
“Yes. Japanese flashlights are the greatest. Before I came to Tokashiki, I bought a dozen flashlights on the main island. The craftsmanship in Japan is incredible.”
“Really? I’ll have to check them out.”
Chen reaches into the front pocket of his backpack. “This one is a favourite. Small and sleek, yet sturdy. Fantastic design.”
I take the flashlight and pass it between both hands.
Chen closes my fingers around the flashlight. “Keep it.”
I lose my balance boarding the ferry. The weather is extremely tumultuous and the ferry probably should’ve been cancelled or postponed.
It’s the last ferry off the island for the day. It’s half full of passengers. Chen and I sit near the front of the boat. The bow rises high and falls with a violent thud. The drop feels like the fall of a roller coaster. My skin feels sticky.
Chen’s hands rest flat on his thighs. “When I served in the Taiwanese military, I had my share of scary boat rides – often in boats a tenth the size of this. Some guys would get sick, but I usually slept through it.”
“It’s supposed to be a 35 minute ride. I don’t think I can sleep.” Out the window the waves are as tall as the boat. The colour of the sea matches the wild sky. I take deep breaths. The ferry crashes abruptly, my teeth smack together.
We strike the waves in a way that the boat tilts onto its side at a 45-degree angle. Chen picks at the remnants of a sticker on the seat in front of him. I shut my eyes and root my feet to the thin carpet. I take another deep breath and try not to take Chen’s hand.
The ride took ten minutes longer than scheduled – probably the only time I’ve witnessed a late arrival in Japan. The nausea bags remained empty.
On the main island, the rain is still heavy, but the wind is less strong. We walk off the boat ramp to the intersection where we will split up to go to our separate hotels.
“Thanks for making sure I made it back to Naha safely.”
“Yeah, sure.” Chen takes a pen out of his backpack. “Should I write down my email for you?”
“Don’t worry – I got it on that napkin.”
“Maybe I’ll see you in Taiwan someday.” Chen looks at the ground, then out at the street. His wet hair glistens like onyx. He backs away from the curb to avoid cars spraying him. “I want to say something – but I only know how to say it in Mandarin.” He shakes his head. “It’s really important to me that you have that flashlight.” He places a hand over his chest.
I clasp my hands. “Thank you.”
We stand apart, facing each other. The rain collects on my upper lip. Droplets form at the centre of my mouth. I’m compelled to give him a hug, but wait for him to make the first move. Chen lifts his hand goodbye.
I do the same, then turn around to walk towards my hotel in the downpour.
After a hot bath, I put on the white waffle pajamas provided by the hotel. I flip through the shots from my Tokashiki trip on my camera. There are only a few pictures. Turquoise water, turquoise water. There is the photo I took in the drizzle of the one salamander that was alive, and a photo of Chen standing in the ocean looking out. The watch on his left wrist glints silver, his hands on the back of his hips, his shoulders visible through his t-shirt. His lean body looks incredibly attractive – how did I not notice this before?
Obasan, how did you let me be so blind?
Is she with me right now? Will there be a persimmon on the kitchen table when I return tomorrow?
I imagine us on the shore, the two of us alone with the soft sand and surf. How our arms grazed as we walked along the water’s edge. How our fingertips touched lightly as we shared found shells with each other. How he rinsed my sandy feet with his bottle of drinking water, not touching them.
From my storm-dampened purse, I uncover my new flashlight. It’s black aluminum. The head has three led bulbs and a power button at the end. I slide open the curtain of the one window in my room but another building blocks most of my view. I shine the flashlight out the window but its beam doesn’t go far.
Down the narrow alley, countless lights twinkle in the night. Maybe one of them is from Chen’s hotel. My eyelids droop, turning the illuminations into a series of fiery stars.
It’s only been a few hours since we last saw each other but each time I think of Chen I am only able to conjure a form, a watery visage shifting in dimension and character, that doesn’t settle into a distinct profile. We must’ve been similar height, same hair colour. I can feel an essence that is his mouth and his eyes, but not picture it.
I empty my purse onto my bed. There’s my notebook, my wallet, my passport. I search for the napkin with Chen’s name written on it, but it’s gone.
* * *
(This piece was first presented in Kitaab magazine, and is republished with permission)