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Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest II

All Along This Road

Kenji saw her, or at least, he thought he saw her shoes cross East Second Street. They were silver Oxfords that looked like they had been spray-painted metallic silver. It wasn’t the oddest article of clothing he saw around the Japanese Village Plaza though, which was packed with tourists and women dressed in out-of-season kimonos, twirling neon pink paper parasols, and wearing rainbow shades of eye shadow. It was also full of Cosplay people that looked like androgynous anime characters and video game protagonists—pink hair, hand sewn outfits, and plenty of spandex—posing for pictures. To top it all off, there were also Trekkies in uniform. All-in-all it was bit like comic-con, which was odd, considering it was the opening day of Nisei Week, a celebration of all things Japanese.

Kenji followed the flow of people and the silver Oxfords to the plaza, but he had lost her. He stepped aside between the Chase ATM and the pink sign of Little Tokyo Cosmetics and stood underneath an awning of indigo roof tiles. The rice paper lamps overhead and neon shop lights were coming on as dusk approached. There were also multicolored kazari streamers that danced off the top of people’s heads, origami cranes strung together in long chains, and paper kimonos attached to beams and drifting in the breeze like kites. These were the usual decorations for a Tanabata festival.

Kenji glanced over the notice on the wall and then took his phone out. Tanabata and Nisei Week coincided in 2016 for an even grander celebration than normal. Kenji leaned against the notice on the wall and pretended like he was swiping through contacts when he was really focusing on all the passing shoes—white sneakers with velcro snaps, Teva sandals, black and white Converse, flip-flops, Italian leather ankle boots, neon pink two inch pumps, and wooden geta. Hundreds of people streamed by him, but he was fixated on finding the silver Oxfords.

He had first met her at Cafe Dulce while sitting at a square table underneath a banana yellow umbrella. He placed his bag on the table and took out Jane Eyre while he waited for his Hario Japanese-style hand drip coffee. Is it time consuming and maddening to wait for fresh coffee to brew and watch it develop drop after drop? Perhaps, but he did not mind waiting. In fact, he kind of enjoyed it. He savored the aroma and the way the color subtly changed from a translucent brown to chocolate black. Nevertheless, while he waited, he had the book in front of his face. He looked like Ninomiya Sontoku, but the novel had finally interested him. In the book, Jane stands before a man who had fallen from his horse. He is not ugly, but he is also not handsome. He’s unlike the gentlemen she believes men to be and despite his protests, she refuses to leave him alone in the night. It was at that point that Kenji heard someone say, “I really like your shoes.” He lowered his book and looked across at the next table. She sat staring at him with her hazel eyes. She had been referring to Kenji’s beige loafers, which he had left his apartment wearing without any thought that the moth holes might have made them less than presentable. He was now embarrassingly aware of his shoes.

“Thanks,” Kenji said. He looked down at his book, but he didn’t continue reading. He looked at the words, but they were stripped of meaning. They were now neat rows of organized printed lines that ran row after row down the page. He felt as if the pot of coffee should have been full, but really it had just started to drip and collect into a steady pool. He closed his book. She was the kind of girl that made you put down Jane Eyre. Kenji said, across the distance of the two tables, “You know, they’re Gucci.” She smiled and there was a prolonged silence and he knew he should have gallantly asked her, “Would you care to join me?” but the words wouldn’t come out. She stood up and went to grab a napkin. That’s when he noticed the glint of her silver Oxfords. The shoes had a half-inch heel and it gave her small calves some muscle definition. When she returned, she took a seat at Kenji’s table. He was relieved, even though it was presumptuous of her. She held out her petite hand and said, “I’m Marissa.” She was fair skinned and had sandy brown hair, but she had the characteristic lilt and rolling of her r’s that tipped him off that she was Hispanic.

“I’m Kenji, but you can call me Ken.”

“You should go by Kenji. Own up to your awesome heritage, man,” Marissa said.

“I should, huh,” Kenji said, with a laugh.

“So, how do you like the book?” Marissa asked, with a sly smile. She was cute and bookish, but feisty at the same time.

“It’s alright.”

“You don’t sound convinced.”

“I honestly just got into it.”

Marissa laughed and said, “That’s typical.”

They went on chatting and sharing Kenji’s pot of coffee. She wasn’t willing to let him go without learning to appreciate the finer points of Jane Eyre. The whole while she didn’t try to practice elementary Japanese on him or ask him to say something in Japanese which set Kenji at ease. He felt comfortable and light-hearted enough to talk to her freely, but before they both knew it the coffee had run out and the sun was setting. Marissa wrote down her email on a slip of paper. As she walked past him, a shimmer of sunlight hit her eyes and they turned a greenish hue. That was the last image he had of her.

Since she had given Kenji her email, he couldn’t find her on Facebook, send her a random text message, or even call her. He had only one option and he hadn’t been able to use it. He agonized over draft after draft of emails trying to write her until he finally gave up last month—to his own disappointment.

Kenji pulled himself away from the wall and followed the streams of people into the heart of Japanese Plaza Village. He was barely able to step without nipping at the heels of the person in front of him. He felt as if he was shambling forward with everyone’s momentum. People who wanted to stop and look at a shop front were almost knocked down. The girls behind Kenji, in heavily inflected and high pitched English, kept pointing out all the sweet desserts like Taro churros and green tea donuts. A plethora of Hello Kitty merchandise was delicately placed in the storefront window—t-shirts, over-sized and undersized plush dolls, Pocky, iPhone covers, and backpacks.

At the center of the plaza, across from Yamazaki Bakery, people gathered and were walking around a temporary grove of potted bamboo trees. Paper slips dangled from the branches. They were wishes, written in Japanese and English, that people hoped would come true. Kenji stopped for a moment and a woman handed him a slip of bright red paper with a loop of string punched through the top of it. He held it in his hand for a moment, but when he couldn’t bring himself to write his wish on it, Kenji slipped the blank paper on to a bamboo branch. Afterwards, he continued onward towards the vermillion Yagura tower cutting ahead of people and passing Cafe Dulce without a glance over towards it.

As he got closer to the tower, the noise level grew. There was the measured rumble of taiko drums and cheers. Everyone emptied out of the Plaza underneath the tower and spread out along First Street, wrapping around the corner of Central Avenue. Both sides of the street were filled with onlookers and a large congregation was crowded around the Japanese American National Museum. Kenji filtered his way around the corner and down Central Avenue surveying people of all ages and all nationalities—babies cradled in their parent’s arms, children riding atop shoulders, flippant teenagers taking pictures and videos together, and adults dividing their attention between their children and elderly parents. Kenji was shocked by the turn out. It hadn’t occurred to him that the allure of Japanese culture was so widespread. He stopped beneath a colorful mural that contained a painted street sign with the white words, “Home is Little Tokyo.”

A float approached down the street. On an elevated platform, a man in a tailored black suit stood in a spotlight waving. Some Trekkies in yellow uniforms stopped.

“Look it’s George Takei!” One of them shouted. They cheered together and whistled. It became clear to Kenji why the Trekkies had flooded the Nisei celebration. It was an opportunity to see a Star Trek icon. He was apparently the Grand Marshal leading the festivities of the 76th Annual Parade. Supped-up cars followed behind Takei. Custom and vintage Hondas, Subarus, Mitsubishis, and Toyotas roared their way down the street. From atop the building, a spotlight swept across the road to the delicate white and red float approaching. The Nisei Queens had arrived, smiling, and waving to the crowd.

The procession continued and Kenji felt restless. The parade was flashy. There were bright lights and music blaring, but while his eyes were entertained, he felt as if he wasn’t engaged and that made his loneliness more apparent to him. He took out his phone, but stared at the dark screen. A shrill melancholy sound came from the speakers. Kenji recognized it as a shakuhachi playing Tsuru no Sugomori. It was a song meant to imitate the sound of nesting cranes. It was Kenji’s favorite as a child and because he enjoyed it so much, his grandmother often played the CD recording for him. Accompanying this song were stoic samurai re-actors, dressed in full battle armor, marching down the street. They brought a seriousness, a gravity, to the parade. In formation, they stopped in the middle of the street. They cheered three times and a holographic Toshiro Mifune dressed as a samurai from his 1983 Grand Marshal performance appeared. Flashes of cameras went off in every direction. Kenji smiled. It was a nice touch of past and future, old and new. Then, from the flash of a camera, Kenji saw the glimmer of silver shoes out of the corner of his eye.

He walked down Central Avenue looking at shoes. Without paying attention, he walked into a person with bleached white hair and black angel wings attached to his back. With the collision, some black feathers glided to the floor. As he bowed to apologize, Kenji saw the silver Oxfords walk past him going the other direction. He turned to look, but was interrupted when the cosplayer addressed him.

“Watch it, I stayed up all night making this.”

“I’m really sorry,” Kenji said. He turned around and went back up Central Avenue. He stared at all the shoes and tried to be more careful so he wouldn’t lose her again. It was difficult in the dim light so Kenji took out his phone and turned it on. He cast the light around and walked. There were performances happening and people cheering, but Kenji didn’t care. He searched the shadows and went past black heels, loafers, sandals, and pumps, but no Oxfords. He stopped himself. There were simply too many people. Meanwhile, a swarm of fan-wielding haneto dancers came bouncing down the street. Behind them, young men with red and white ropes pulled an illuminated nebuta float depicting a larger than life samurai poised for battle with a snarling white dragon. It was the showcase piece of the parade. Something about it invigorated Kenji and he panned his cell phone around him one more time. He saw the tips of the silver Oxfords on the other side of a group of people. He hurried around them and edged his way through. His light shined an arc of blue light on the heels of the silver shoes. Kenji did not look up as the light quivered a bit. The shoes turned and pointed towards him. He felt his cheeks grow pale as he looked up into the gaunt face of a blond-haired woman.

“Did you lose something?” she asked.

Kenji stared at her a moment and then said, “Yes, but I guess it’s not here.”

“Oh well,” the woman said, “Good luck!”

She turned around and Kenji was about to switch off his phone when he got the idea to tap the camera. He took a quick picture of the silver Oxfords and opened his email. The nebuta float went by as he composed a quick email:

Looks like someone stole your shoes.

Cheers,

Kenji

He sent the email. Though the parade had passed, people were still on the streets. There was a lively energy that seemed to infuse everyone. Little Tokyo was alive. Kenji felt reassured by the feeling that he had been a part of something grand. Even though he was Yonsei, it didn’t matter. This was a celebration that his grandmother and father attended. It wasn’t a proprietary celebration for Japanese, it was for everyone. It was a celebration to bring people to Little Tokyo—to bring all people together. It was to showcase a new generation with new ideas that differed from their parents, but in their hearts honor their roots, their upbringing, and the bright future ahead of them all.

Kenji’s phone vibrated and he opened his email. He had a new message and he smiled as he read it:

I’ve been looking for those! Where are you? I want to get my hands on those shoes!

—Marissa

Kenji looked up at the cloudless sky. There was a glimmer of two pale blue stars that emerged from the light pollution. They shimmered across from one another, but they were still in the same sky. Kenji closed his eyes and felt as if there was bridge between him and those stars—he could now cross anytime, kick off his slip-ons, and with the wind beneath his feet, fly to meet her.

 

*This story was one of the finalists in the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest II.

 

© 2015 Don Fenton

cafe dulce Cosplay festivals fiction george takei japanese village plaza little tokyo Nisei Week Nisei Week Parade parade short story star trek

About this series

The Little Tokyo Historical Society conducted its second annual short story (fiction) writing contest which concluded on April 22, 2015 at a reception in Little Tokyo in which the winners and finalists were announced. Last year's contest was entirely in English whereas this year's contest also had a youth category and a Japanese-language category, with cash prizes awarded for each category. The only requirement (other than the story could not exceed 2,500 words or 5,000 Japanese characters) was that the story had to involve Little Tokyo in some creative manner.

  • First Place English: “Fish Market in Little Tokyo” by Nathaniel J. Campbell from Fairfield, Iowa
  • First Place Japanese: “Mitate Club” by Miyuki Sato from Muroran, Hokkaido, Japan (Japanese only)
  • First Place Youth: “Kazuo Alone” by Linda Toch from Corona, California

Some of the Finalists to be featured are:

      English:

      Japanese (Japanese only)

      Youth:

 

*Read stories from the first Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>