The International Writers Magazine: Lifestories: Japan

An adventure to Kobe Tower
David Tavernier

John and I had just returned to our room back at the Nagai Youth Hostel in Osaka when we ran into a new traveler who was just unpacking his bags. The fellow looked Japanese, so I stuck out my hand saying, "Are you Japanese?" in Japanese.

"No, I'm Korean."
"But you speak Japanese," I said, smiling.
"Yes, I'm a student of Japanese. I'm actually in Osaka on a school vacation. We get the final week off."
"So you've already been in Japan for a while?"
"Yeah, about three months."
"Where've you been?"
"Mostly around Tokyo."
"Cool. I've always wanted to go. Hey, hey John, get over here! This here, is John. We grew up in the same neighborhood and have been friends since the age of three. Here, come introduce yourself John."
"I'm sorry," Pe said, stopping me. "I can't actually speak English. Just Japanese and Korean."
"And John can't speak Japanese... so that makes you two a good couple! Anyway... sorry John," I said turning to John, who was busy pulling off his jacket and tossing it on the top bunk. "This is an all Japanese conversation we've got going here."
"That's okay," he said in his usual fashion tough guy voice. "I'm off to take a shower now anyway. See you later"
"See you," I said, as he closed the door and his footsteps trailed down the hallway.

"So," I said, "got any plans for tomorrow?"
"I'm going to Kobe," said Pe.
"That sounds pretty cool, mind if I tag along? I've already been, but, I want to see all of Kobe, so I may as well go twice right?"
"Don't you think that's a bit boring though, going two times to the same place?" Pe answered, a worried look across his face.
"That's okay," I answered back. "We'll just have to go different places than I went last time. It'll be an adventure?"
"An adventure?" Pe answers with an uncertain note in his voice.
"That's right," I said, "I didn't make any plans for our entire trip to Japan because I wanted every day to be an adventure."
Pe laughed in disbelief. "I can't believe you didn't make any plans."
"Believe it. An adventurer has many goals and wishes and dreams, but he doesn't know exactly how he'll find them. He just follows his heart and forges his way."

Pe smiled, and from then on I knew we were fellow adventurers, and our journey to explore Kobe would begin the next day. We woke up early, at about six o'clock in the morning, and before we knew it we were walking out the great doors of San No Miya station and out into the brisk winter air of Kobe.

We started headed straight off to Kourakuen, one of Japan's fanciest botanical gardens, but my stomach started growling half-way down one of its woody trails. So we dashed out for a bite to eat, and stepped into a fancy hotel restaurant and motioned to the waiter for a table for two. Then we sat down. It was a long wait. Pe pulled out his phone and began text messaging, and I sat drumming my fingers, looking around at all the customers, the kitchen, and the scenery outside and the passing cars. Finally our orders arrived and we began to eat.
"So Pe, do you have any brothers or sisters?"
"Yeah. But they're all back in Korea."
"My brother's in Taiwan right now."
"Oh, what's he doing there?"
"Teaching English."
"How long has he been there?"
"About a year. "
"With everyone teaching overseas and with the rise of international business, more and more families are splitting up. It's the modern era."
"Yep... " I paused, thinking about my brother driving his motor scooter down the dusty road from Pou Li to Da Jia. "So what are you going to do with Japanese, huh? After you graduate." I said finally.
"I was always thinking of a trading company."
"No one knows where they'll end up after this crazy maze is done. We all play it by ear and that's the way it should be."
"After I graduate, I could get a job in trade from Korea to Japan."
"Well I'll tell you what I really want."
"To work on one of those crazy Japanese video game projects. You know, like Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear, or Shigeru Miyamoto's Mario Brothers. Knowing the language would come in handy, or so I figured."
"You wanted to make a game?"
"That's pretty cool."
"I had all these ideas floating around for a long time but nothing ever came of it."
"Why? Did you ever want to make a game?"
"No. I just played a lot for a while, that's all."
"But don't you think that's kind of make believe?"
"I don't see why not. I have some friends in the video games industry. A guy teaching and a video game writer. I'll make more connections. I always figure if my idea's good, and I keep trying and trying, eventually I'll get in."
"So you really think you can do it... things aren't going to be so easy when I get back home."
"What? Why not?"
"Don't you know. Every guy my age has to serve a year in Korea. When I get home from Japan, from this vacation, I'm going to have to serve in the Korean military for an entire year."
"Damn..." I let the silence sit in the air. "That's tough. I'm glad they got rid of the draft in the States..."
"Heh. I know I'll get to work in trade some day. But it won't be like any pipe dream," Pe shot me a piercing look over the table, and I dropped my gaze to look at my unfinished food.
"Anyway," I say, putting down my glass. "That was breakfast. Now all of Kobe awaits."
"Let's go."

The two of us started walking up a steep incline leaning up into the forest clad hills. Then, as we passed a schoolyard filled with kids running around playing baseball, I broke the silence by saying, "Is it just me, or does it seem like Japan has more baseball fields than anywhere else in the world."
"It seems like Korea has just as many," Pe answered tonelessly.
"I swear they play a lot of baseball here."
"Maybe you're right."
As soon as we rounded the top of the hill, Pe pulled out a map and stopped the both of us.
"Would you quit fiddling with that thing dude?" I tried getting him to put it away. "My hunch is the shrine's this way, and when I follow my hunches I'm usually right."
"Well I trust the map," Pe finished the conversation, turning away toward the street. "What do you know... you're right."
"Of course I'm right. I trust my hunches."
"Trust your hunches..." Pe repeats.
"That's right," I poke him in the chest, and we continue the climb up the hill.

"I remember before I got here all my friends telling me that Japan would be all high tech. But then, when I got here, I really wasn't impressed," Pe said as we marched up the hill, huffing and panting.
"I don't know," I said back, feeling a difference of opinion coming on. "Personally I think it's an amazing country and people. They made a language from everyone else's language. They borrowed art forms from China, and from technology from the West, and then they made them their own. Think about the war and what was left afterward, and then look," I said finally, pointing out at the grand view over Kobe.
We could see the San No Miya station, where we'd disembarked only hours ago after riding all the way from Osaka. Looking out, I focused on the red Kobe tower. I'd wanted to climb it since coming to Kobe for the first time with John.
"You ever been up that thing?" I asked.
"No. But I be the view is great."
"That's next," I said with finality.

On the climb down from the look out atop of the hill, I saw an odd couple of a Japanese senior citizen being escorted by a young English woman. They were both chattering away in Japanese as we walked by.
"Now that seemed odd, didn't it?"
"I don't think so," said Pe.
"Why not?" I replied.
"Look at us. A Korean and an American talking away in Japanese together."
"Oh. Duh," I slapped myself on the head.

We walked slowly down the winding spiral staircase that hung from the edge of Kobe's towering hills. On the way back down we stopped at a shrine and then began walking toward the settlements left by foreigners on Japanese soil during the 19th century. All over Kobe, there are settlements left by the Dutch, by the English, French, and even Americans.
We must have been dazed from the view, because we didn't start talking again until we reached a narrow street paved in cobblestones.
"So... trading, right? That's the only reason you're studying Japanese."
"Not the only reason. I like the language, the culture, the food, the animation..."
"A friend of mine once told me the only reason for studying Japanese was the girls. And everything else anyone said was one big lie."

"Well your friend was wrong."
"Sometimes I think I'm not so sure."
"So your reason is the girls?"
"I didn't say that," I said defensively, trying to think of what I was trying to say. "Sometimes you meet a girl that makes you feel like she's the only reason."
"That's a little bit too deep for me," Pe protested.
"Love is what everyone is searching for."
"Not me."
"No way, I got better things to be doing in Japan than chasing after girls."
"Not me."
"You mean you've got a girl here?"
"Maybe, maybe not..." I say, looking toward a large pair of foreign settlements peering over a wall. "You wanna go in the Austrian place over there? We've been going by places getting hollered at for a while now. It's time to actually go in one of these places."
"Hey, wait up!" Pe called after me as I dashed up to the ticket counter.

We ran together up to the ticket sales counter, paid, and entered inside. Those Austrian buildings were two story, green hulks that extended up into the sky and had gilded hemispheres for roofs. They were completely different from any of the Japanese buildings that stood around them.
"Anyway, want to get some lunch?" I say as we enter the grounds of the foreign settlement and I spot the nearby Cafe.
"That kind of place is much more expensive than anything back in town, let's skip it," says Pe.
"Well then, if lunch is out, should we go in?" I answered, deciding to run up the steps and head inside the weird Austrian building, but before I could go inside, Pe yelled after me. "Wait up! Let's take some photographs first."
So we ended up taking a few shots before we got inside. I struck a pose at the stop of the steps. Then Pe ran up the steps and struck a pose, and then we entered.

When we got inside, the first thing I noticed were all the paintings hanging on the walls. Unfortunately, the descriptions below the paintings were written in Japanese. However, with the help of a Japanese fellow browsing around nearby, I found out that one was the portrait of the Virgin Mary.
"Hey Pe, guess who this is?" I called out to Pe who was across the room browsing around some of the paintings.
But he called back across, "I wonder what's up on the second floor!" and dashed up the steps.

There were all sorts of paintings lining the walls of the second floor as well, but, as soon as I reached the top of the steps, it struck me. The star of the second floor was a huge glass window that looked out across the panoramic view of Kobe. From that second floor window you could see all of the ocean and all the boats on the harbor, all of which were bathed in red by the setting sun. And from the speakers mounted around the room wafted classical music. Pe walked around the room snapping photographs, but I just wanted to look outside the glass at the view, for what seemed like forever.

As we exited the museum, we were both completely silent. And as we started making our way back toward the port, I finally decided to say what had been on my mind the whole trip.
"So, do you want to go up to Kobe tower now?"
"Sorry, David," Pe answered doubtfully. "I'm getting pretty tired. Why do you want to go up that thing so badly anyway?"
"Well, to tell the truth, I always like going up towers and things like that."
"Always? Why?"
"Well, I guess you could say I'm facing my fears."
"Facing your fears?"
"Yeah. I guess, since I was a kid I was always afraid of going up towers, on amusement rides, dancing, things like that. Now every time there's a tall tower, instead of walking by, I go up it. I guess it's a principle or something. It helps me understand what's important."
"Hmmm... I'm not sure I ever felt that way," answered Pe thoughtfully. "Anyway, it's gonna be night soon, so I kinda want to get back home."
"But wait, there's another reason!" I press onward toward the tower.
"What? Another reason?"
"Tomorrow, I'm going down to the Umeda station to meet a girl, Rei san."
"Where did you meet her?"
"In Berkeley. She was studying at the Kaplan language school right over by the University campus. It was fourth of July and she said she wanted to see the fireworks from the top of the hill, so I showed her around. Afterward, we emailed back and forth, and she offered to show me around Osaka."
"So you've got your date?"
"And now you need to get yours."
"Me, get a date? I've never been much of a ladies man. 23, and I've never even seen one date."
"Why's that?"
"Computers, games. I guess I always had hopes, but then I never paid attention."
"I was the same way," I said back knowingly. "But you've really just gotta say something, do something, do anything, just to let the girl know you care."
"Would you introduce me to Rei?"
"Sorry, I can't. I gotta go this mission solo. You understand, right?"
"Yeah," Pe says after a long time.
"Just wait! We'll find ourselves some girls at the top of the tower. Race ya!"

We bolt for the gigantic red cylinder extending into the heavens.
"Thank you for visiting Kobe tower, please enjoy the short ride to the very top," said the cute attendant standing at the side of the elevator as the two doors slid open. Pe and I stood there dumbstruck, trying to think of what to say. Hirai Ken's Pop Star started playing on the muzak over the elevator speakers as the elevator lifted into the air, and I started singing with the music, trying to get her to smile. But she kept a perfectly calm face all the way through the ride up to the top.
"You idiot!" Pe elbowed me as we got off the elevator.
"Idiot? Singing is the stuff of love."
"Well leave me out of it!" Pe stomped off and went up a flight of stairs. I looked out the window at the ocean, the ships, and a ferris wheel jutting out from everything. I wandered around and bought a pin from one of those plastic ball dispensers. It said Kobe Tower. I stuffed it into my pocket as a souvenir, then ran up after Pe.
"You know, there might be some lucky Japanese girl who wants to practice language in this very tower. You just gotta look around."

Pe silenced me with a finger. He was busy text messaging with his phone. I walked off in the opposite direction, determined to find us a pair of Japanese ladies to share the scenery with. The sun was already setting, and all the lights of the buildings were twinkling in the sky. And just then, as I was rounding the corner of the tower, I spotted two honeys with our names on them. Whoa momma.
"I know the famous Kobe lights are spectacular from over here man," I said, walking back over to where Pe was sitting. "But I'm afraid the view over here," I pointed toward the other side of the tower, "is far better."
"You know what I mean. Now come on."
"Where to?"
"Language practice," I said very plainly, pulling his elbow. "Common, it's for your own good."
"Who says?"
"Me. Now let's go."
"No? God man! Comon!"
"I told you I'm just not that kind of guy to go after girls just like that!"
"Well it's time to become one! Now let's go. At least check out the view of the hills from the other side. It couldn't hurt."

The night was stunning. And we walked over to the side rail and leaned out, into the glass protecting us from the cold night air. But standing about five or six feet away from us, luring us from the view were those two cute Japanese girls giggling and whispering in hushed voices. And I, with my wild imagination, can't help but think that their topic of discussion was the two of us.
"Common man. Just a few sentences," I said, pulling Pe over toward the girls.
"Would you just stop?" Pe struggled to break free.
"How are you ever gonna learn to go with your instincts if you always stop yourself! Now let's go!" I shouted in a whisper, trying to make the final push.
"I told you," Pe said, tugging in the opposite direction, "I'm just... not... that kind of guy!"
Pe broke free of my grip and we both went spinning in opposite directions. Huffing and puffing, I turned toward the girls and thought about apologizing. But seeing them still giggling and seemingly paying no attention, I headed for the way back down.
"I'm going back down," I said gruffly to Pe and headed down the stairs.
"Me too." he said sharply back.
This time the elevator was completely silent on the way back down. We got out and walked aimlessly about the pier for a while.
Finally, Pe blurted out, "It's getting awfully late. Wanna head back to the Youth Hostel?"
"Look at that!" I pointed up into the hills, distracting him. "It's us six hours ago! Can you see the two of them up there? They're watching the right here, right now us." I beckon toward the lookout on the hill where we'd been just this afternoon. "Time travel..." I waved my hands spookily.
"Knock it off."
"Wait. Just a minute. I've got an idea."
"Oh no, what's next?"
"There's a movie I've been itching to see. You know Resident Evil, right? Here they call it Biohazard."
"Yeah, yeah. Biohazard's famous over in Korea too you know."
"Wanna see it life-sized?"
"Life sized?"
"Hahaha. This is what guys do when they can't get the nerve up to ask girls out. They scare themselves to death by watching three-dimensional zombie movies. Now comon!" I pulled Pe by the arm.
"Hey! Hey, just a minute. I'm kind of feeling like heading back to the youth hostel right now."
"The youth hostel's a long ways away right now dude. You've gotta be kidding me."
"Let go!"
"I know it's tough but we've all gotta learn some way or another to follow our instincts!" I let go of his arm. The two of us were breathless in the middle of a Japanese shopping mall. The Japanese passing by pretended not to see us. "You coming?"
"That's right!" I smiled. "I always wanted to do this anyway."
"So this isn't even about girls!"
"Maybe there's some girls in the movie, comon!"

We bounded down a flight of steps and bought a pair of tickets.
"In here," a Japanese teenager showed us into a pitch black theater lined with clunky plastic seats. It was completely empty.
"Well, there goes the girls," Pe elbows me in the ribs. "Nice one."
"Just wait till the movie starts."
We walked up to the third or fourth row and took a seat. I started checking around the edges. "Any robot zombie arms down here?" I said, peaking down low.
"Quiet, the movie's starting."
The both of us sat down, frozen, as the movie started. "Biohazard" flashed across the screen in bold white lettering.
"Holy Christ," I yelled out as a gigantic tentacle flied out of the screen toward us. "Why do people make such things? Why?"
"I don't know. Just be quiet and watch would you?"
"I'll tell you why! Because we're sick! People are sick! We don't force ourselves to do what we really want to do deep down inside until it's too late. And only by scaring ourselves to death do we understand that there are very important things out there that we want to do."
"Augh!" I cried out as the movie revealed it's most horrifying creature, a gigantic zombie monster whose head exploded, revealing a freaky, snake-like head with mandibles that pinced back and forth.
Pe looked over at me. His face was ghostly white.
"Augh!" we both screamed as all the chairs in the house tilted back suddenly and our faces point toward the ceiling. Air rushed out of the floor. On the screen, Marine troopers fired off barrages of rockets at the unstoppable beast, who ate them one by one. Somewhere in the background, Leon, the protagonist, finally found the antigen to the Biohazard menace and readied his gun to deliver the cure.
After the movie ended, we both stumbled out of the movie theater, our hair in a mess. Pe's glasses hung from one of his ears.
"And now, the House of Horrors," I said, pointing over to the creaky steps and cobwebs of the haunted house next to the Biohazard theater.
"We haven't scared ourselves to the very marrow of our bones yet. Besides, there may just be the girls of our dreams inside. We've gotta do the House of Horrors next. Can't avoid it."
"I don't believe it!"
"There's only one way to find your dream girl!" I cry, rushing up to the door and opening it.
"God you're dumb," Pe called after me and followed behind.
It's pitch black inside, and as we started making our way through the tunnel I searched the walls for any sign of ghosts, ghouls, or zombies that might pop out at us.
"Do you have a flashlight?" I whispered at Pe.
"Why on earth would I bring a flashlight?" Pe whispered back.
"I know! The cell phone! But my cell's out of batteries, you use yours."
"Fine, fine. But let me get in front."
"By all means," I replied, fully intending to use Pe as a shield against all boogiemen in the house.

He began casting the light all around as we wove our way through the corridors. Skeletons and zombies popped out as we walked past, and then a killer with a knife in hand and a glow in the dark mask over his face. My heart was thumping but, before you knew it we were out.
We burst out of the haunted house and dashed into the cold night air. Pe jogged over to the waterfront and dropped down on his haunches. Then he rolled back and lay there, flat on his back on the pavement. He started to laugh.
"You really are afraid," he gasped.
"Aren't you?"
"Hey I heard you screaming in that theater too you know," I shot back defensively.
"You were scaring me more than the movie with that screaming of yours."
"Well, I can't help it."
"Why not?"
"I'm not sure."
"Well you should figure it out."
"Hmmm..." I think to myself. "Maybe I just don't like sitting real stiff and keeping all my emotions to myself.
Pe paused, thinking.
"Well," I asked, "how come you weren't scared?"
"I don't know really," Pe breathed out, looking at the water. "I guess I just know it's all hocus pocus and nonsense. Just a screen and seats that rock back when a big biological freaky monster comes popping up at the end. People make this stuff to scare themselves, but I'm not gonna be afraid of anything people make."
"Huh," I sat there thinking. "You're a really smart dude. You know that Pe?"
"Hey, computer nerds are nerds for a reason. We know these things."
"Are you ready to go?"
"Why? Are you?"
"No, I gotta take some more photos."
"Mind if I follow you around?"
We spent the rest of the night wandering around Kobe, clicking off photos. Neither of us mentioned Rei again, or anything else that happened that day, all the way back to Osaka on the swift and silent train. By the time we got back, we were both well worn out. Pe fell asleep the moment his head hit the pillow. We had become good friends by the days end. But, looking back, I think we'd both had enough of each other for a long, long time.

© David Tavernier November 2006>

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