There are few monsters left to face in the world today. There are no more uncharted seas, or overlooked islands. The serpent of Loch Ness has been rendered cute, Wales has made plashes of its dragon, and all the horrors of ogres, trolls and goblins now firmly reside between the pages of children’s picture books. But although rare, they still yet exist among us. I discovered one such creature, a devil if you will, of such clear evil and ill intent, that I associate myself in league with the survivors of the holocaust, volcanic eruptions, and atomic bombs. It’s simply a miracle I am here to warn you, that I retain enough sanity left to describe the doom before us. On a brief trip to Kyoto one ominous winter, I found a devil walks the earth. And naturally she’s French.
I was in a bind. I’d promised to visit Amber in Kyoto during the winter holidays, but my bank account was not quite as eager as I was. The cheapest option was to buy the juhachi-kippu, a train ticket that would allow five days worth of unlimited journeys on local trains throughout the country. It’d take eight hours by local trains to reach Kyoto, but not everyone gets to ride the shinkansen. Even this was a little steep for my liking (and as someone who has starved for a prolonged amount of time, I can tell you, hollow cheeks are not sexy), so I sought a companion. Someone to split the cost and join me on my trip to Kyoto. Most had plans for the New Year, all except Elodie, the four foot ten inch (to hell with your damn metric system) French girl with razor teeth (ample conditions for unsuspected ankle gnawing). She seemed perfectly friendly enough to accompany me at the time.
The Journey There:
Eight hours on trains is longer than you know. Unlike on a flight, you’re unable to drift to sleep when you have no less than twelve changes to make, all on unfamiliar routes. Sleep was no salvation for me, and that fact became immediately present as soon as the train rocked away from the station and Elodie bounced excitedly on the seat beside me, like Sheldon Cooper on a steam engine (yes, I can make contemporary references too). The train rolled on until we reached the coast, and suddenly Elodie leapt out of her seat, slammed her hamster hands at the window, and cried out at full volume in spite of mine, or other passenger’s shock.
“Sea! Sea!”. And indeed it was from our meagre window view, that I cannot deny. The edge of the Pacific ocean, if we’re getting technical about it., although I wasn’t sure how that justified such joy as this.
“Yes?” I asked uncertainly.
“Sea! It’s the sea, Poncho!”
“Yes, I can see that. Why?”
“Ohla, I don’t know. ‘Cause of big bang or something?”
“No. Not why there’s a sea. Why are you excited?”
“Because it’s the sea!”. Apparently this was explanation enough because she then started to sing, the same way mermaids lure sailors to their deaths. I safely stowed myself back into my seat away from the torrent of madness scratching at the frail pane of glass. “It’s blue!”. Yes, Elodie, it’s the sea. “And it’s big!”.
When I was five years old, I once vomited cornflakes across the bathroom floor that my parents and to clean up. Maybe karma is finally catching up to me?
“It’s the sea, Poncho!”
“Yes, I gathered”
“Oh, I love the sea. I’ve never see it”
“You’ve never seen the sea before?”. At last this makes sense.
“Mais, non. Actually, I see it before”. Ah, never mind. Just madness then.
The chaos only worsened the closer we approached. In that time, Elodie decided to communicate not in English, French or even Japanese (just widely acknowledged forms of language, those tiresome things), but in growls and hand gestures. Take this example, when I asked her opinion on one of our assignments at university and its impending deadline. She answered with “my god, it’s so bad. It’s so….”, at which point she began drawing a shape mid air with both fingers.
“It’s so…box?” I ventured. This was, as it turns out, a fairly accurate translation. (Although not the kind of translation university study had prepared me for).
At one stop we got off to change lines, and decided to spend our ten minute wait trying to spot Mt Fuji (supposedly it was close. Not to our hearts though. Elodie utterly despises any object or land mass possessing an angle steeper than 180 degrees). I was content to stare out of a window but alas, this was not what she had had in mind. Despite my warnings about the time, she decided we’d fare a better chance of spotting Mt Fuji, the closer to it we got. This meant leaving the station. In under ten minutes I found myself sprinting back, luggage rattling angrily behind me hoping I wouldn’t get stranded in the middle of nowhere.
The frantic hours continued, which is impressive as it’s difficult to feel frantic while sitting inside a train for extended hours. Elodie helps build a unique atmosphere. I was feeling a little worn out, especially after three or four mad dashes to catch her before she wondered off the train at the wrong stop (because the platform looked pretty. Who in hell knows). But this was not the worst moment of the journey there. That was reserved for the last twenty minutes before our final stop. Elodie was called up by her then boyfriend, and then broken up with over the phone without explanation (you might be thinking that waiting to break up with someone when they’re far away, without any amount of compassion, isn’t a great move. But the truth is he didn’t have time for dating; he was busy working toward representing Japan in the world, as the national shit-head everyone instinctively wants to punch).
By the time we arrived in Kyoto, Amber was waiting for us in the station, and watched in shock as I glumly came through the barriers, with what appeared to be, a small distraught child I had only recently kidnapped and managed to stop crying.
When I was seven years old, I misunderstood the difference between 3 cloves of garlic and 3 bulbs of garlic. So when I helped make dinner, the household was suddenly lacking a crucial ingredient and the food had a certain kick to it. Maybe karma is finally catching up to me?
Tearful introductions later, we’re on our way to Amber’s apartment.
“So” I said to break the silence, “what’s been up with you, Amber?”
“Oh I forgot to tell you. I wanted to talk all about it. I have a new Japanese boyfriend!”.
God hates me.
There were plenty of things to see in Kyoto, countless temples to distract Elodie with to help lift her spirits. It seemed to work which was great, but my sympathies were quickly exhausted, especially by the time souvenir shopping began. I’d found this amazing T-shirt with a geisha printed on the front. She looked as though she’d been painted with a brush, in brilliant golds and reds.
“What do you think of this?” I asked, holding it up.
“Oh it’s awesome!” Elodie cried back.
“I think I’ll get it, if it’s not too expensive”.
“Oui! For your girlfriend, right?”
“No, I wanted it for me” I confirmed.
Elodie did not play this off with grace, did not pretend not to judge or offer anything positive. She simply laughed so hard she drew the heads of all the staff and other customers around, to stare over at me holding this T-shirt to my chest.
We tried to find a geisha but were met with limited success. Was it because they just happened to be entirely absent from Kyoto those few days? Or was it because it’s impossible to dash after them to catch a photo when your companion refuses to run for any reason? Who can say.
Tamu tamu came to say hello. He was in the area visiting family, or he’s magical and wished himself with us. I couldn’t rule either possibility out at the time. He was not however, as useful as expected. We agreed to meet Amber later on for lunch and over the phone she gave me the address. I’m not familiar with the system Kyoto uses so I asked for a landmark to find instead and she simply instructed me to use Tamu. He’s Japanese you know. He knows how Japan works. So I turned to him, showed the address and asked for his assistance. Naturally, he failed. What did Elodie do to restore his confidence? Teasingly question his nationality, all the way to the cafe while I desperately tried to work it out the direction.
There are a lot of foreign tourists in Tokyo, and if you listen out, you can hear an array of different languages. In the cafe during lunch, it was no different. Not with a French family of four directly behind. They didn’t speak any English or Japanese by the sounds of it, and struggled with their menu. I lacked the French ability to properly aid them, as did Amber and Tamu. But Elodie seemed largely indifferent so we could only assume that, whatever she heard them say, they were doing ok behind us. When we finally got up to leave, Elodie shuffled out of the booth and looked at the family.
“Oh my God. Poncho! There are French people here!”
“Yes, I know. They’ve been sitting and chatting behind us for the last hour”
The next day we went to see a huge statue of Buddha and a bunch of deer who bow for biscuits (or maul, if the mood takes them). It was a cold day and none of us had gloves. Our fingers had turned pink and were starting to burn. Elodie went to buy hot chocolate, but not to drink. Instead she clasped it between her hands to warm them up, leaving me and Tamu, cold and penniless to one side. As soon as she put the can down (it’s Japan. Packaging is weird), Tamu and I leapt for it, greedily intertwining our fingers around the cozy, steaming metal so that we both could hold off frostbite precious minutes more. Elodie returned five minutes later, looked down at us clutching her hot chocolate can and pointed to it.
“I’ve decided I want to drink that now. Let go”.
When I was eight years old, I once told my little sister that she had hair growing on her arms because she was a werewolf. She believed me. My parents spent ages trying to convince her otherwise, try to find a way to get her to sleep at night. It was amazing. Maybe karma is finally catching up with me?
The Journey Back:
Neither of us had seen Osaka so we decided to pit stop there before heading back to Yokohama. We had an hour to see a site or two before we had to leave. Tamu made his own way back to his family (but God knows how he found his way. Streets in Kyoto were hard enough for this particular native speaker). In Osaka, plans drastically altered beyond what I intended. The night before I looked up several places to visit, checked how long it’d take to get to them, planned in detail the route we’d take to maximise our time. I suggested Elodie do the same. When I returned from brushing my teeth, I opened the door, and Elodie suddenly lunged her tiny fist at me.
“Aquarium!!!” she yelled.
I’ve never been threatened with an invisible tank of fish before, and wasn’t sure how to react.
“Is this like the box thing again? Are you trying to say hello or something?”
“Ah, non. I mean the aquarium” she said, spinning her phone to show me. “In Osaka!”
Any suggestion not yelled ferociously will not be considered valid.
When we arrived the next day, we did not get off the inter-city trains because Elodie, it seems, has a fascination with train lines that loop. Whenever I suggested we disembark, that was when that round-trip (ugh, pun) suddenly got that little bit more invigorating and she had to wait a little longer. When we finally got off, we only had thirty minutes left to explore. In that time, three things were accomplished. I waited patiently while Elodie poured over music books inside the train station instrument shop. I marvelled at the building that read ‘wow’ for one minute while Elodie gazed at it for ten. (And no, it seems it wasn’t boring for her to repeat ‘wow’ over and over throughout the entire day).
This is the wow building:
And at last, Elodie managed to get multiple stunning photos of…pigeons. Not famous sites, or buildings, or people. Pigeons. Let me say that again. Please imagine me saying this with the highest amount of disdain and disbelief. We were in Osaka for the first time, and Elodie took photos. Of pigeons.
This is the photo she took:
We had another an additional hour to get back, nine in total from Osaka. I was already dreading it but I could make it slightly comfortable. So I bought food to have for lunch later.
“What are you getting for lunch?” I asked.
“Bah, I’m not hungry”
“I don’t mean now. For later”
“Mais, I’m fine!”
“Later! Later you will be hungry!”
“Pourquoi? What’s happening later?”
“It’ll be lunchtime”
“It’s not lunchtime”
“Yes, I know! But later it will be!”
“But this is breakfast”
“This is not breakfast! We ate breakfast! This is lunch!”
“But it’s only 10am”
“Elodie, this isn’t hard. I am buying food now. But I will eat it later. I will eat it later because I’m not hungry now. But I will be later”
“You’ll be what?”
“I’m not hungry! Why do you keep telling me what to do? Rah, you’re not my mother!!!”
When I was nine years old, I was in a play in front of the whole school that I had to help develop. Aside from my lines, it was my job to place all the props. I forgot to. The action sequence was due to start when my companions suddenly discovered all prop weapons were not at hand for them to grab. Red faced, they improvised guns out of their fingers. It was a play about the Romans, and they were meant to carry swords. Maybe karma is finally catching up to me?
“Ok, Elodie. I’ll try one more time. Please just go buy something to eat. You don’t have to eat it now”. Elodie frowned at me.
“But I won’t be hungry later, I think”
“Right. Fine! Get on the damn train”
Two hours we reached Gifu station. The train is sitting still but it’ll leave in five minutes. I know, because I checked. That’s what adults do when they take trips, you see. But Elodie started to get anxious. The train has stopped and we have to get off she exclaimed and I gently explained that the time for departure was a little later. Not adequate enough of an explanation, Elodie paced between the bags and the door of the train. Shouldn’t we check she suggests. It might be good to check. There’s nothing here. Not even a convenience store, just mountains and trees everywhere. We should check. So to my shame, I relented. We grabbed our bags, and I intended to take a few steps off onto the platform just long enough to point out the departure times on the sign. The moment we stepped off, the train doors shut, and carried on back home without us. The next train wasn’t for another thirty five minutes, leaving us stranded in the middle of nowhere. Not even with a convenience store.
On the platform I’m munching into my sandwich, gazing out into the countryside and trying to find something positive. There was this beautiful valley off in the distance, with rows of trees sloped across each mountain. It looked like a scene from a film. So I put my sandwich down to go take a photo. I returned, put my camera away and went back for my sandwich. except it had disappeared. I glance about the floor but it hadn’t dropped. I found it in-between a pair of razor teeth.
“Wow. This is good! Like ‘wow’ building, you know!” she mumbled through the bread.
“What are you doing!? That’s my lunch!”
“I’m hungry” she whined.
“No! No!” I yelled, trying to tear the sandwich back. “I told you to buy food! You said no! This is my food! I’m not gonna starve because you refused to buy lunch! You don’t get to eat mine, not after that!”
“You’re so mean to me! I can’t buy lunch”
“Yes you could! You have money, more than me!”
“But there are no convenience stores here”
“There were convenience stores everywhere in Osaka, Elodie! Every-Goddamn-where! We were outside one just before we caught the train!”
I rummaged inside my bag for my coke and found it lighter.
“My donuts are gone. Did I drop them? Man, I wanted them fort desert”
“Non, you didn’t drop them. I ate them”
“What do you mean you ate them!? When did you eat them!?”
“On the train. When you were playing with your phone stickers. But I’m hungry now. Onegai?” she squeaked.
I looked up at the clock and there was still another twenty minutes to go until the train came in. Time moves differently in hell.
Some hours later we stopped off at a larger station, one with sane people in it. We had fifteen minutes before the next train left; more than enough time to use the bathroom and pick up some food from the convenience store. From the platform I marched Elodie up the stairs and into the nearest ‘Seven Eleven’.
“Buy food. Anything. Quickly. Before one of us dies”.
I stocked up on some pastries to tide me over for the evening, rechecked the schedule and was ready to find a seat on the train with seven minutes to spare. Elodie was still in ‘Seven Eleven’.
“Come on, the train will leave soon”
Three minutes roll by.
“Elodie, seriously, we’re cutting it close”
Two minutes roll by.
“Elodie, it’s about to leave the station! We have to go”
“Should I get snickers bar? Or onigiri?”
“What? Onigiri! Chocolate won’t be enough, come on!”
One minute flashes by. One left.
“Come on, hurry up!” I cry out, dashing to the window and back to check our train hasn’t left.
Elodie put the snickers bar calmly onto the table. She then casually searched her bag for her purse. She lifts out a water bottle. Then a notebook. Then a phone. The seconds are ticking by. She opens her purse. She dips inside and plucks a single coin out. She dips inside and plucks another coin. It’s the wrong one. She places it back. By this point I’ve had enough. I open my wallet and slap 150 yen onto the counter. I grab the snickers bar in one hand, Elodie’s arm in the other, and charge down the stairs. The train is still there. And then, just as our feet touch the platform, the doors close. The train shunts forward and then fades out into the horizon never to be seen again. I looked up for the next train, and it says the next one won’t be for an hour and a half. 90 minutes. I thrusted the snickers bar at her and yelled.
“You owe me 150 yen!!!!”
When I was 12 years old, I was in a contest in a judo class. The aim was to pin your opponent to the floor. I was partnered to a ten year old who was much smaller than me and I couldn’t trip him up. He struggled too much, clung onto me too tightly. So instead of using a judo technique, I let him cling tighter and then threw myself onto the floor, like a chair falling onto one side. He became a human pillow. While he struggled to breathe I pinned him back and won. Maybe karma is finally catching up to me?
The night is almost over, only one hour left to get to Yokohama, and I have not murdered Elodie yet. This is a feat. She says she’s hungry again and it takes all my willpower not to bring up the snickers bar vs the onigiri suggestion again. That’s when it happened.
“Excuse me?” a small voice pipes. The owner is a boy in school uniform, with a bag larger than himself. Perhaps he climbs inside it when he gets cold.
“Yes?” I asked nervously. It’s late, dark, and nobody else in the train. It’s not the time for making friends.
“I practice English with you?” he requested. I smiled weakly and nodded.
“Umm sure. You don’t mind, do you Elodie?” I said, turning to her.
Except she’s not beside me anymore. She’d moved down three or four seats away from the stranger and abandoned me to him.
“Do you like…rowboats?” he started eagerly.
At home at last:
I got off the train close to ten at night in Yokohama, the last of my stubborn will to live pushing me home. My mind was full of missing donuts, timetables and rowboats, everything about rowboats (he was one weird kid. Not even for fishing or racing. He just liked rowboats). When we get home, I explain how I need to get some sleep and pray my soul remains intact somehow.
“I liked Kyoto. And Osaka too! Wow building!, Poncho!”.
She’s still bouncing. If I swung my bag fast enough, I could stop the bouncing forever.
“Let’s go on more trips! Like university! We can get on the train everyday together for lectures!”
What? Oh God. There’s more to come? What did I do to deserve this? This isn’t karma, surely? I must have paid my dues by now. Unless I’m paying for previous life. Good God, what sort of monster was I before to get this now? I can only hope my soul is still salvageable, even with a devil haunting my every step. If there’s anything I learned from that trip to Kyoto, it’s that real monsters don’t always come big and menacing. Sometimes they’re just cute and terrifyingly oblivious.