Tuesday, January 23rd, 2007
by Elizabeth Koch
Part travelogue and part convoluted love story, The World Tour Compatibility Test is a series of true stories set in exotic locales, as two American writers decide whether to break up or move in together. Click to catch up on Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo and a little more Tokyo.
We wake up early in our separate twin beds that we never bothered to push together, and exit the Claska Hotel at 9 a.m. to catch our train to Nara. Armando, devoted concierge that he is, rushes ahead of us to hail a cab. He waves as we pull away.
“Goodbye, Miss Elizabeth and Todd!” he shouts, running after us, waving and smiling like Tony Robbins.
“What a freak,” Todd says.
“Yeah, but is he going to stand there all day?” I glance back to find a tiny Armando still on the sidewalk, waving a full arm wave.
“My mother used to do that,” I say. “Every morning she’d stand in the driveway in her pink robe shouting goodbye to my brother and me as the school bus took us away from her. God, that used to make me so sad.”
Todd puts his hand over mine, but the chill from the day before, when we split ways and wandered around in the rain, is still between us.
The cab drops us off at the Shinagawa Station, where we board the Tokaido bullet train—the first step in getting to Nara. Hard to believe that at a population of 360,000, Nara was Japan’s original capital, but I’m happy for the size. I’m thrilled for the promise of quiet and calm and whatever spiritual detox 1,300-year-old Shinto shrines might provide. Back in 700 A.D., the people of Nara built seven Buddhist temples as a bribe to the gods to please stop infecting everyone with flesh-eating diseases. The structures managed to survive WWII—Nara and Kyoto were the only two Japanese cities that the U.S. military didn’t blow up. Todd looks forward to the sacred deer there, national treasures that supposedly roam freely and comfortably as cats on furniture. I intend to have an out of body experience.
We change trains in Kyoto, and board a slow-moving commuter train that’s jammed with people on their way to work and school. Todd insists I take a seat while he holds onto a pole. I squeeze across from a little girl in pigtails and striped kneesocks who pushes back against her seat so her legs won’t touch mine.
When we arrive, I ask the train station attendant how to get to the Nara Hotel. He points. “Straight up that hill,” he says.
“Good, then we can walk,” I say to Todd.
Todd’s bag is a problem. For one, it was made for a teenager—he received it free in 2000, at a Major League Baseball All-Star game in Atlanta, for being a video game critic. The handle is so short he has to bend down to reach it, and extend his arm fully to drag it, otherwise it bangs the heels of his sneaker and flips over. The fabric is denim and covered in patches. It has so many sidepockets that, when laid flat and stuffed with clothing, it looks like a grubby, five-tiered birthday cake. I feel like Todd’s mother, watching him with that bag.
He follows me up a concrete hill lined with coffee shops and soup places and tacky boutiques that appear to be made of cardboard. We pass a glass fast food joint called Mos Burger. “Ben and I ate there last summer, in Tokyo,” Todd shouts from half a block back.
“Good, cause we’re not eating there in Nara.”
The road curves, and off in the chalky distance, wooden temples are visible. They look distressingly similar to Merry-Go-Rounds. We circle a murky pond twice before stopping at what appears to be a treasure map. A Japanese man in a business suit is also peering at it quizzically—which doesn’t stop me from asking him where our hotel is.
He walks us to a nearby alley. “Other side,” he says. I nod, and start to move, but he stops me and says, “Then—this way,” and arcs his hand to the left. “Then, up,” he says, and makes his fingers walk up a hill. “There,” he says, and jumps to point to a spot way above his head.
“Real close,” Todd mutters, and rubs his right rotator cuff. “There goes my golf arm.”
Todd does not play golf, hates it, in fact. But picturing him in a pom pom hat and paisley pants cracks me up.
We end up at the bottom of a very long staircase that zigzags straight into the sky. “Goddammit!” Todd shouts to the heavens. He kicks over his bag and sits on the top tier. Todd may be hyper and stringy and walk on his tippy toes, but he tires very easily. Sometimes I think his hard-hitting exhaustion is a rebellion against me and my manic energy, which makes me angry at him. Sometimes I think his mother smoked too much when he was little, which makes me angry at her.
“I’ll run up and see if this is it.”
Up the staircase and 100 yards down a gravel driveway is indeed the Nara Hotel. A mini-Frankenstein of a man in a shoulder-padded suit stands behind the concierge desk. I bow and say “suimasen” and motion for him to follow me back to the staircase.
Todd is still sitting at the bottom, throwing grass at a few scraggly deer eating bugs off one another.
The concierge raises his eyebrows and points to Todd. Before I can answer, he’s racing stiffly down the stairs, jerking like he might have arthritis or osteoporosis.
“Todd!” I shout to warn him.
“Dammit!” I shout at Todd for letting the nice pint-sized concierge run up the hill with both our bags. I tried to grab mine as he passes, but he tightens his grip and keeps running.
“What did you want me to do,” Todd gasps when he catches up with me. “Tackle him?”
“I don’t know,” I moan.
The concierge has already reached the front door. He throws it open, clocks his right kneecap and doubles over in pain.
Todd and I laugh, we can’t help it. “We’re going to hell,” I say.
We run after him.
The inside of our hotel is a cross between my grandmother’s house and The Shining. The hallways are long and wide with burgundy carpeting that smells of mildew and diapers. Groups of aging businessmen in blue suits stare menacingly at one another in the tea room.
Most of our accommodations came recommended, but this one we picked blind. By “we,” I really mean “Todd,” since he booked all of our hotels. He also took care of the flights, the train schedules, and most of the research—by his insistence, since I paid for most of the trip with funds from the proverbial family nest egg. His planning was a way to even the score, to lessen his anxiety that he’d given up a PR job he hated to fulfill one of his life goals—zooming around the world with the girl of his dreams (or someone close). I don’t want to hold the purse strings. Having money upsets and confuses me into feeling crappy and spoiled and quivering with self-loathing. I expend a lot of energy pretending I don’t have it. Todd finds ways of making money a non-issue, at least on the surface.
We follow the manager down a long hallway lined with narrow wooden doors that emanate a strange chill in the otherwise sticky-hot air, like icy spots in a swimming pool. In movies, these are precisely the doors that open to sand dunes infested with tarantulas and giant man-eating worms.
“We’re locking our door tonight,” Todd whispers.
Our room is the size of a breakfast nook, only with less light. Carved into the wall across from the bed is a fake fireplace, which a mouse appears to have crawled inside of and died. Todd climbs over the mattress to turn on the TV to see if the World Cup station works. I check out the bathroom to see if toilets come heated in Nara, too. Sawdust coats the floor. There are bootprints in our bathtub.
“No, come see this first!” Todd shouts.
He’s lying on the bed, and his feet are dangling over the edge by a good six inches.
“You are too cute,” I say, and straddle him, suddenly giddy from the ghosts in this place, from the creepy earthquake energy beneath the pebbled trails, the murky ponds and the fake temples on the other side of the hill. The air is crackling with heat, and I want to feel Todd inside me, bursting through the cynicism and worry that I line up like guards in the small space around my heart. I tear through his button fly jeans with my teeth so we can hurry and take advantage of this flurry of freedom inside me, this readiness to meet him with the whole presentness of myself.
The darkness outside is heavy and without stars, but the street lights are bright, and we find a place for dinner that advertises its noodle dishes on photographs that hang from a clothesline above the doorway. The ceiling is so low we have to duck beneath the rafters. A waitress with Hello Kitty eyes and pudgy lips waves hello. She giggles, and points at Todd’s feet.
“She’s laughing at your extra-large toe box,” I say to Todd.
He looks confused.
“Just take off your shoes, dummy.”
Once seated, we ask her a few questions, and it turns out she doesn’t speak a word of English. Which is how much English is on the menu.
“English menus?” I ask.
Todd opens his translation book, Making Out in Japanese, which he bought as entertainment before we left. “Eigo de hanaso?” Todd asks.
“What did you ask her?” I accuse.
“If she could speak English. Relax.”
“I love when you tell me to relax,” I say. Then to the waitress “Water?” I sip from an invisible cup.
“Water?” she repeats, coming down on the “R” with precisely my Kansas twang.
“Wow,” Todd says. “Fast learner.”
There are a few pictures on the menu, but they’re as discolored and scratched as an old family album. We point to this and that. She reads aloud everything we order in Japanese, only with a slight drawl. Nara: Japan’s Old West.
“Ask her name,” I say to Todd.
“O-namae wa nan desu ka?” he asks her.
“Beatrice,” she says, which seems strange to me. “Otaku?”
“Elizabeth,” I say, “and that’s my gigolo.”
“Ha,” Todd says.
She smiles and bows. “Hello, Gigoro,” she says.
On our way out I crawl into the bathroom, a cave-like space with glistening wet walls, and can’t resist taking pictures of the heated toilet. I take picture after picture, model close-ups and full length shots, lid up and lid down.
“What are you doing in there, making Xerox copies?” Todd asks.
“You can see?”
“The door is made of paper, Elizabeth. Please hurry up—it’s almost midnight and the game’s about to start.”
I show him the pictures on the way out the door, scroll through them quickly so the lid opens and closes like Pac-Man. “Heated toilets are the incentive women need to not pee on the seats,” I say. I’m very excited about this discovery.
“You should write an article,” he says, which immediately makes me anxious.
By the time we leave, the streets are empty. Long shadows drag behind wooden bulletins tacked with old movie posters. We find a stairwell that leads to a tavern where, to Todd’s supreme joy, a television is playing the Ghana vs. Brazil game. Three men are sitting at the bar. One has a white beard and wears a Hawaiian shirt with a fishing hat. Another has on black leather pants and a matching vest. The third is wearing a Brazilian soccer jersey. The three glance over their shoulders at us in unison.
“We’re going to be killed by the Village People,” Todd mutters.
“I could get a job here,” I say.
“I will not allow you to live in Nara, with or without me.”
I scan all the classifieds. When I look up, Todd is sleeping with his head against the wall.
I take a picture.