Short Story: Japan is a Wonderland of Closed Doors

Ella doesn’t know if Lewis Carroll ever set foot in Japan but, if he had, she likes to imagine that Alice would have had a very different start to her adventures.

White rabbits in waistcoats? How about shape-shifting foxes with nine tails?

Perhaps the latter wasn’t quite Carroll’s style, but Ella is certain that, had she found a nine-tailed fox, Alice would never have tumbled down the rabbit hole. Instead, she would have stepped through a door.

She shouldn’t be surprised to discover that small towns close early in Japan and that Nikko would be no exception. But it had been a worthy day of Wonderland adventures with lavish temples of colour and ceremony and forest trails watched over by ghostly deities. Like Alice, Ella had found that if she walked far enough, she always wound up Somewhere.

All those Somewheres, however, took up a great deal of time and it was 8:30pm on an ordinary Thursday night when she returned to her minshuku. By that time, her dining options had dwindled to the nearest convenience store, the stale packet of prawn senbei in her backpack, and Option Three.

The ever-reliable conbini looked pretty tempting compared to the others but, as much as she craved the umami comfort of hot oden, it would be a crime to choose it for the second day in a row, especially when Nikko has much to offer.

Tender chewy yuba… delicate handmade soba… rich yokan slices… picture-perfect Tochigi strawberries… dancing maitake mushrooms…

Ella had planned for her trip to be a week, two at tops. But she’d underestimated how much the land of the rising sun would tiptoe its way into her heart. There’s an enchanting mix of familiarity and strangeness to the country that Alice would have understood and it had taken no convincing to turn her two weeks into four, and then into months. With still no end in sight, there wasn’t much left to do but blame her dwindling bank account on the generous people she met, the dichotomous culture that captivated and confused her and the natural beauty that never failed to leave her in awe.

But, mostly, she blamed the food.

Ella had been no stranger to Japanese cuisine before her trip, but it was impossible to come to Japan and not develop a new relationship with food. Each dish, from the humble to the extravagant, had a season and a story to tell.

The simplicity of shojin ryori atop Mount Koya… the relief of kakigori in summer… the freshest nigiri from the Tsukiji Market… throwing fukumame to banish evil spirits… Osaka takoyaki so hot it burns your tongue… the quiet elegance of Kyoto matcha… heady bowls of Ramen in Sapporo, the perfect antidote to snow storms…

Her stomach rumbles loudly at the thought, a reminder that she can’t eat daydreams for dinner. Nor will she get any warmer by standing outside as the coming winter howls down the street.

She just had to choose Option Three…

The low-set building in front of her has no signs or windows, nor any indication that it’s the restaurant on the hand-drawn map in her pocket. Her minshuku hosts drew it for her when she asked about places to eat and she now wishes she’d asked about the nearest Family Mart as well. The only thing stopping her from turning on her heel is the large tanuki statue leering at her by the door. In most folktales, tanuki- Japanese racoon dogs- love to play tricks and their presence is meant to bring good fortune to businesses. Had Carroll known about them, Ella thinks that he would have included one at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, although this one doesn’t appear too interested in tea. With a sake bottle in each hand, it looks like a wandering drunkard.

But the tanuki is not her problem. The doors are.

They’re closed.

When confronted with a locked door, Alice had barely hesitated. The problem with being the main character in her own (less fantastical) life however- aside from the lack of a grinning Cheshire Cat- is that no one has written what happens next.

As far as Ella is concerned the possibilities for what could be on the other side of the door are infinite. Will she open it and walk into a Japanese game show? A garden of talking flowers? The chapter meeting of the local yakuza? In Japan, nothing seems impossible.

Cold, hunger and exhaustion are strong motivators though and they’ve turned her into someone less like Alice and more like a pauper begging at the Queen of Heart’s door. So, will it be beheadings or dinner? She’ll never find out standing here.

Ella takes a deep breath and, brushing the fabric noren aside, she slides the door open.

“Irasshaimase!”

Her first impression is that the space is smaller than she expected and it appears as though someone has tried to build a living room next to a bar. On the right side a raised platform is home to tatami mats, a handful of low kotatsu and cushions, none of which match. Somehow, it works anyway. Tattered baseball posters cling to the walls along with framed signatures and newspaper articles, but Ella doesn’t linger on them. On the other side is the kitchen and behind the timber bar a middle-aged Japanese man is sizing her up.

A foreign girl walks into an empty Japanese izakaya. No one knows what to do. It could be the start of a joke.

Because Ella is really hoping it’s not, she puts on her best hesitant smile. The man- who she can only presume is the owner and chef- smiles back and there’s a whole conversation that goes on between their smiles. He’s obviously not expecting her, and she doesn’t know how to ask if they’re still serving food. He doesn’t want to be rude by revealing his surprise, or unease, and she wonders if she’ll be welcome in spite of it.

They are both asking, “Can this work?”

Before things get too awkward, the owner breaks the silent exchange with a smile that crinkles his eyes.

“Come. Come. Kocchi.” He motions Ella over to take a seat at the counter.

As she sheds her winter layers and folds them on an empty stool, she sees that, up close, the man looks more like someone that should be backstage at a rock concert, not in a kitchen. There’s more than a few strands of grey in his hair and it stands up in all directions, which does nothing to hide several metal piercings.

Ella takes a seat on a stool and without a word, the owner hands her a cup of hojicha. Grateful for its warmth, she cradles the thick ceramic in her number fingers.

“Where from?” the owner asks after she’s taken her first sip, his hands chopping something behind the counter.

“Australia.”

That seems to please him and she’s rewarded with the biggest eye-crinkling smile yet. Just as she is wondering whether to comment on the shirt under his apron, which has something that looks suspiciously like an ACDC logo on it, his brow furrows.

“Why… why stay Nikko?”

Ella is careful to speak simply and not at her normal blitzing pace. “I wanted to see the onsen and momiji.”

Hot springs and autumn colours: two things Nikko is famous for.

“Ahh. Chuzenji onsen very good. Momiji… ano… bad luck-u.”

She laughs. She knows she got her timing wrong, but she spent too long in other places, eating other foods. In autumn, Nikko is a jewel box of colours and, whilst there are still rare flashes of that vibrant world around the lake, most of it has turned to brown.

When the owner moves on to some other task, Ella focuses her attention on the laminated card lodged between the bottles the soy sauce and chilli powder. It looks promising but as she slides it free her stomach drops to her feet. If it is the menu she can’t read a word.

A few years of primary school Japanese and her time following the tourist trails have seen her navigate some turbulent translation waters. None of that, however, has prepared her for handwritten scrawl in a language with practically three alphabets. The names of dishes she knew and might have recognised elsewhere were completely illegible.

Yet, if she adhered to the vague rules of international menu design, then that would mean entrees were on the left, with mains following and dessert or drinks on the right. Except… traditional Japanese was written top to bottom, right to left.

Rules were going to be no help here.

“Irasshaimase!”

As Ella is mulling over her choices and trying to discern one character from another, the door to izakaya opens for a second time and two Japanese men walk in.

They greet the owner like old friends and have already kicked off their shoes and settled in at a kotatsu when they notice the room’s fourth occupant. Ella keeps her eyes fixed on the menu but there’s no hiding in the sudden silence.

It doesn’t last and soon there is a baseball match playing on the TV and conversation floating about the room. Although she hears no orders, it takes only a minute before two beers are sweating on their table.

The banter between the three men carries back and forth, familiar and unhurried; the kind the comes with regular gatherings, shared jokes and many years of friendship. It’s a stark contrast to Ella’s stiff posture and nervous restlessness.

She should have stuck with the oden…

Ella can’t imagine that any food critic worth their Himalayan rock salt would walk into an unnamed restaurant, shut their eyes and point to an array of menu items. But that was her only choice.

The last time she tried this she ended up ordering a bowl of udon noodles, topped with shallots, an egg yolk and a glutinous white mess that looked like someone had put porridge through the blender. Whatever it was it had clung to her chopsticks like a slimy science experiment and she’d spent the meal trying to eat around it.

Thankfully, the dishes coming out of this kitchen and making their way to the baseball fans looked distinctly more appetising and Ella’s shoulders relaxed as she caught sight of some familiar favourites.

Salted edamame… tamagoyaki… a side of grilled hokke… a variety of tsukemono… kaarage…

She doesn’t recognise the rest but the buttery savoury smells and overwhelming aroma of grilled meat coming from the kitchen make her head swim.

What was Japanese for, “I’ll have what they’re having?”

Would they get the reference?

When the next dish comes out- ikayaki- she stares a little too long and, catching her, the other two men grin.

One gives her the thumbs up.

The other proclaims, “Oishiiii! My best-o!”

Perhaps the hesitation and hunger is clear on her face or maybe her foreignness makes it obvious that she has no idea what she’s doing but the three men all look at her and come to a collective decision.

From behind the counter, the owner points to his friends’ meals. “You try? Eat?”

She hesitates for only a moment. “Um, okay?”

Too late to back out now.

At least, judging by the sake barrel labels plastered on the kitchen wall, she won’t go thirsty and, if the food is terrible, she won’t notice after the second glass.

When the first dish arrives she realises that she needn’t have worried. A safe choice: edamame.

She places her hands together as if in prayer. “Itadakimasu.”

Ella’s first lesson in Japanese food had been that edamame and snow peas were not the same thing. You never eat the pods. She’d come a long way since then though and nowadays, she could devour a bowl on her own, sucking the salt from the warmed shells and savouring the slightly creamy soybeans inside.

The next dish, following swiftly after the first, was a surprise and not something she’d seen served in an izakaya before.

Ochazuke.

A traditional Japanese dish of green tea or dashi poured over white rice, she’d never tasted it, but Ella knows it as the epitome of Japanese comfort food and after a few mouthfuls she decides that Alice can keep her cookies and dubious potions. Ella prefers the simple magic of food that nourishes and, with its salted salmon and nori pieces, the ochazuke does exactly that.

She forgets the ache of her tired muscles and she would have asked for another bowl if more dishes hadn’t begun appearing.

Mixed mushrooms wrapped in foil and cooked in soy butter… parcels of crispy agedashi tofu… assorted yakitori, the contents of which were better left unknown…

The men continue to order for her and the dishes get bolder as the beer glasses pile up. Comments in broken English and Japanese, punctuated with exuberant declarations of “oishii” flying between the four of them as dinner rapidly turns into a game. Some of it is so nonsensical and sounds so absurd that Ella’s cheeks ache from laughing.

It took Alice only a nibble of the EAT ME cookie to grow big but after half a dozen dishes, Ella calls a stop to the game before she goes the same way. The bench and tables are littered with plates and as the owner clears them away, Ella wracks her brain for a phrase she scribbled in a notebook weeks ago.

The words she wants aren’t in English.

With a last sip of her tea, she pays the bill and bows her head to the owner. “Gochisousama deshita.”

Not for the first time, she wishes she could leave a tip or give something towards the other’s meals. They would accept neither, of course, so she settles for the best she can do: a sincere and heart-felt thank you and a low bow to the three men as she leaves. They smile back and it’s a different conversation than the one she started with.

The door slides shut behind her and outside Ella finds the temperature has dropped further, but she barely notices.

Ichigo ichie.

That’s the phrase she wanted.

One time. One meeting.

Looking at back at the closed doors, Ella can still sense the endless possibilities. Anything could be behind them. But even if it was the same place, she couldn’t go back to the same moment. She couldn’t go back and have the same dish, or meeting, twice.

Ichigo ichie.

Ella doesn’t know if Lewis Carroll ever set foot in Japan but he somehow captured it in Wonderland anyway. The fantasy world is not just one place on the pages of one story. It’s the embodiment of stepping into the unknown. Sometimes Wonderland is a country. Sometimes it’s a restaurant. The point is, Wonderland exists. You just need to be brave enough to open the door.

All stories, images and designs © 2014–2020 to MK Photography (Sarah Pragnell). For more, go to https://www.flickr.com/gp/isis375/3nqg25

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