Past The Pearl stood an eel shop named Isshin. The solid row of shops from the station came to an end at a traffic light where the street crossed a major thoroughfare. On the other side of this big road the street turned residential, but a liquor store and several eateries dotted the way. Isshin was one of these.
My apartment was in the neighbourhood beyond the light, and I routinely walked past Isshin on my way to and from the station, but since my student budget had no room for eel, the place didn’t register with me for a long time. The aromas that filled the air as I went by on an empty stomach in the evening would remind me of how hungry I was, but they didn’t make my mouth water for eel. I suppose I didn’t really even have a taste for the delicacy yet in those days.
When the place finally entered my consciousness, it wasn’t because I decided to stop in and try it out. Rather, my attention was drawn by loud, belligerent voices that spilled from inside as I was going by one evening. The season must have been either early or late summer: the latticed window had been slid open just a little, and some wind chimes hung in front of the gap.
It’s all because I fell for an arranged marriage! came the indignant male voice that initially halted me in my tracks. Except for getting set up, I couldn’t have met a woman like her if I tried!
Then you’d think he would have turned the proposal down, wouldn’t you? came a woman’s voice as if speaking to a third party. What in the world can he be talking about?
I got suckered – that’s what I’m talking about! Pisses me off!
My goodness, if he feels that strongly about it, it’s a wonder he doesn’t just pack up and leave, the woman said – still as if speaking to a third person.
I noticed that my heart had started to race, and it hit me what a thrill overhearing an argument is – especially one between a man and a woman. I stepped closer to peek inside. The only person I could see was a man in a dress shirt.
‘Now, now,’ he soothed, ‘There’s no sense in getting bent all out of shape.’
I thought I’d been listening to two patrons airing their differences, but I soon realized the adversaries were the owner and his wife, and this man was the third party caught in the crossfire.
Why the hell should I have to be the one to leave? Give me a break! Good grief, will you look at that? Do something about it, will you? It’s rude.
The unseen man’s voice rose to a new level.
‘No, no, that’s all right, it’s no problem,’ said the customer. ‘But could you warm me another one of these?’
Who’s the rude one, yelling your head off in front of customers? came the woman’s voice. I’m so sorry. I really don’t know what gets into him sometimes.
If only I could see them, I thought. If only I could see their faces. I ached to know what these two people looked like.
Noticing a man in a business suit giving me odd looks as he went by, I realized I probably shouldn’t keep standing there like that and moved away.
In the days that followed, I was acutely aware of Isshin every time I passed. I was eager to see the faces of this couple who so regretted their arranged marriage that they fought openly about it in front of their customers. When I went by during their business hours, after five, I would perk up my ears for any sounds emerging from within, wondering what sort of exchange I might hear. Would they be on happy terms, or at each other’s throats again? But they never appeared when I was going by, and even when the window was open, I could never hear anything distinct – only the general buzz of conversation punctuated by laughter.
Once I had begun paying more attention to the place, I started noticing a bucket. It wasn’t there every day – only now and then, and only in the daytime. The shutter would be halfway up, and on the pavement at its foot would be a blue plastic bucket of water with eels in it, quite a few of them, squirming about in a tangle of white bellies and black backs. It was the first time I’d ever seen eels alive and moving. There was something creepy about them. So creepy, in fact, that I would find myself staring at them transfixed, forgetting all about wanting to see the couple.
As time went on, Isshin receded from my consciousness. Later that same year, I fell in love for the first time, gave up my virginity, and completely lost my head over the guy, only to have him fly off on an open-ended trip to Southeast Asia – which is to say, he ran away. When I went chasing after him he gave me the slip again, this time leaving me without the slightest clue where I might find him.
As I buckled down to my studies back in Japan, I decided I would move as soon as I graduated. I wanted to make a fresh start in a place that was at least a little nicer than where I’d spent my four college years – better situated, more spacious, more sunshine, more insulated from noise. Most of all, I wanted to put the memories of my wretched love affair behind me.
After watching the movers’ truck drive away with my few belongings, I started back along my usual route to the station one last time. As I approached Isshin, I stopped short.
A woman was wiping down the front door of the eel shop with a wet cloth, and who else could it be but the owner’s wife I’d been so eager to see? At her feet was a bucket – not the one with eels, but an ordinary cleaning bucket filled with murky grey water.
I retreated several metres and started slowly toward the shop again. Her hair was tied back in a ponytail, and I could see only one side of her face. She had no make-up on to hide the shadow under her eye. She was wearing a grey sweatshirt over light brown pants, with a blue-and-green-striped apron wrapped around her waist. The tired-looking shirt and pants made the apron look virtually brand new by comparison.
The exchange I’d chanced upon two years before was suddenly replaying in my ears, bringing back the powerful desire I felt then to know what the two antagonists looked like.
As I came up to her, the woman slid the door open a little to get at the edge.
‘Excuse me,’ I said.
She turned my way.
A perfectly ordinary woman – that was the only description that came to mind in the moment. The dark patches above her cheekbones stood out against her light complexion, and her thin lips and double-lidded eyes spaced rather far apart made her, without doubt, no one’s idea of a beauty.
‘Are you only open evenings?’ I asked, while attempting to peer inside through the narrow gap in the doorway. I wondered if I might catch a glimpse of the husband, but all I could see was a closed shoji screen reflecting the dim light from outside, and I heard no signs of anybody moving about.
With barely a grunt, she turned back to her cleaning. I mumbled a thanks and quickly walked on.
Annoyed by her brusqueness, I lashed out at her in my head as I proceeded toward the station. No wonder you had to have someone set you up! You pull the wool over the guy’s eyes and gull him into marrying you, and then you can’t get along, so no wonder he gets fed up with you! What do you expect?
Knowing she couldn’t have a clue about me but I had at least a few telling details on her – that she’d had an arranged marriage, which her husband had come to regret, and she didn’t think much of him either – gave me a certain perverse satisfaction.
Even so, by the time I’d gone through the ticket gate, changed trains at the connecting station, and arrived at my new home, the eel shop had faded from my mind again.
My first long-term relationship as a working woman was with a man who worked for one of my company’s vendors. He was five years older than me. We fell into a once-a-week routine of dinner and hotel, always making our separate ways home that same evening rather than staying over until morning. He insisted on meeting away from the city centre to avoid being spotted by someone we knew – a bistro in Shimo-Takaido, an izakaya in Akabane, a blowfish restaurant in Ōji. I gently probed to see if his fear of being seen wasn’t actually because he had a family, but he claimed he simply didn’t want his bosses to think he was taking advantage of an inexperienced client rep.
One day he asked me to meet him at the station where I’d lived during college. Images of the shopping streets extending in three directions immediately came to my mind, as well as of my apartment and the eel shop on the way. Four years had gone by since I’d moved away.
Walking by his side after meeting up, I chose not to tell him that I used to live there. I doubted he’d be the least bit impressed by the coincidence. Instead, I asked what sort of place we might be headed to in this town, and he said there was a great little eel shop. Even though we had started out in the direction of Isshin, I hardly imagined that could be where he meant. I assumed he was talking about someplace else, and my first thought, in fact, was that the Isshin couple’s bickering and the wife’s curt manner suddenly made more sense: business had to be tough if there was competition from a popular shop nearby, and it’s only natural to get grouchy and short with people when things aren’t going the way you’d like.
But it was indeed straight to Isshin that he led me. Or rather, to where Isshin used to be. The shop had now been transformed into a take-out yakitori business.
‘Huh? What the hell happened to the eel . . . ?’ he said, mostly to himself. Then he opened the sliding glass door and called out to the young man tending skewers at the charcoal grill. ‘This used to be an eel place, right?’
‘So I’ve heard,’ the fellow replied.
‘Where’d they go?’ my friend asked, though it seemed unlikely to me that the yakitori man would know.
‘No idea,’ he said, cocking his head a little.
As I listened to their exchange, something caught my eye, and I looked into the narrow gap between the shop and the next building over. ‘Oh!’ I exclaimed under my breath. It was the blue bucket I used to see the eels in – now turned upside down.
‘The place was famous. How could it just up and disappear like that?’ he said as we started back toward the station. His eyes were busily scanning both sides of the street, looking for a suitable alternative. We passed eateries and izakaya I’d sometimes patronized as a student, but I didn’t think any of them were the kind of place he was looking for, so I kept quiet. Walking among the throngs of workers and students and shoppers going this way and that as shopkeepers called out to them from fruit stores and meat shops and delicatessens brought back memories. Listening only vaguely to my friend’s repeated exclamations of I just can’t believe it. It doesn’t make any sense, I was mentally noting the appliance store that had become a dry cleaner and the bakery that had turned into an izakaya as if I were playing a game of spot the difference’.
‘I don’t actually know anywhere else around here, so apologies in advance if the food turns out to be a disappointment, but let’s try this place,’ he finally said, opening the door to a small Chinese eatery. Four of the five tables were already occupied. We sat down across from each other at the remaining table for two. He spread open the menu and began ordering with scarcely a pause: beer, jellyfish, char siu pork, prawns and vegetables in XO sauce, sea cucumber with freshwater shrimp eggs, hot pot with pork and seasonal vegetables.
‘It was still there six months ago when I came,’ he said, leaning into the table after the waitress had gone.
‘I suppose six months is long enough for a shop or two to change or close,’ I said, rather than asking who he’d come with.
‘But like I said, the place was famous. People would make pilgrimages from all over, no matter how many transfers it took them.’
Our beer arrived. He poured, and we raised our glasses in an offhanded toast. If it was that much of a draw, I was thinking, he’d be too worried about someone seeing us to bring me, so the place couldn’t really have been so incredibly well-known, maybe just a little bit well-known. Something in me resisted the idea that Isshin could have been all that special.
We had finished about half of the Shi aoxing wine we ordered after the beer, when our elderly waitress came bearing the hotpot.
‘Did you know the eel place called Isshin down the street?’ my friend asked abruptly.
‘Yes, yes, of course.’ Something a little unusual about her intonation made me wonder if she was Chinese, or maybe grew up in a region of the country with a strong dialect. ‘But it’s gone now. The owner ran off.’
‘Ran off?’ my friend’s voice rose in surprise. ‘You mean like skipping town in the dark of night?’
‘I don’t know if it was in the dark of night or broad daylight, but he ran off with another woman.’
‘Oh, so it wasn’t debts. He eloped with a lover?’
After saying it, a look of realization crossed his face and he stole a glance my way – as if he was worried the word eloped might give me ideas.
‘So it seems. The man disappeared with his sweetheart. That’s the talk around here, anyway.’
After solemnly nodding her head several times, she turned to go back to the kitchen.
So they really were on the outs, I thought, as my friend dished me up some of the hotpot, and I started eating. And that’s how bad things ultimately got between them. But what happened to the wife then, I wonder? I recalled how I’d mentally vilified her after seeing her on my moving day, and cringed a little inside. Now I felt sorry for her. And for my gender in general. I regretted in retrospect that I’d never gotten to see her husband’s face. I looked up and fixed my gaze on my friend.
‘Wh-what?’ he said.
‘Wherever he ran off to, do you suppose he’s still roasting eel somewhere?’
‘I’d be willing to bet on it. They say in the trade, “Skewer three years, fillet eight years.” If it’s true it takes that long to master the business, you’re not going to give it up at the drop of a hat.’
‘So if you were determined to find him, you could start going to every eel shop in the country, and he’d eventually turn up somewhere,’ I said, thinking of the wife.
‘I’m not about to go that far,’ he said, mistaking it as a suggestion for him. ‘You can get great eel plenty of other places in Tokyo.’
‘I was talking about the wife he ran out on,’ I said, and he stared at me as if he were looking at something that made his spine creep. It felt as if I’d become the blue bucket I used to see in front of the shop, and he was peering at me the same way I had peered at the slithering eels. Only then did it hit me that I hadn’t thought of the bucket with the tangle of sinuous white and black bodies in a very long time.
Two years later, he married a woman who worked for another client. I realized that he had been dating us both all along, and had in the end decided on the other woman. Although there couldn’t very likely have been any connection, I sometimes wondered whether things might have turned out differently if he hadn’t tried to take me to Isshin that day, and if I hadn’t said what I did about finding the missing husband. But like the bucket of eels, it all soon faded from my memory.
The only down side is that the owner’s so unfriendly. In fact, unfriendly isn’t even the word, apparently – more like he’s actually angry at you somehow. Reservations are required, and if you reserve for twelve o’clock, your whole party better be there by twelve, because he gets prickly if you’re even a minute or two late. That’s what Maehata had said when he described the place. This was after he’d already told me that whether you went for lunch or dinner, there were only two choices on the menu – the grilled eel bowl and the grilled eel meal – and pointedly added, But in either case they say the eel’s so good you’ll think you’ve died and gone to heaven.
Taking care not to be late, I arrived at 12.55 for our reservation at 1.00, and Maehata was already there. But the owner seemed to be in a foul mood anyway, not even calling out the traditional welcome as I entered. Diners at the other tables were mutely tucking into their grilled eel bowls as if undertaking some kind of penance. Maehata had ditched his usual business suit for a polo shirt and slacks, but even so he looked stiff and uncomfortable. Except for the hum of the air conditioner in the background, a heavy silence hung over the room.
A woman wearing a kitchen smock came with our tea, and I had to stifle a gasp. It was the wife from Isshin.
Or could I be wrong? It had been thirteen years since I’d seen her, and even then I’d had barely the briefest glimpse. My memory of her wasn’t all that clear. This place might be famous among eel lovers, but it was called Shimura, not Isshin, and it was in the heart of downtown Tokyo, a full hour by train from the suburb where I used to live. Plus the owner of Isshin had supposedly run off with another woman. How likely was it that his wife had married another eel chef after that?
‘Two eel bowls, please,’ Maehata said.
Without even acknowledging us she shouted ‘Two bowls!’ over her shoulder toward the counter and disappeared into the back room.
‘Huunh?’ the owner at the grill scowled, then spat out, ‘What the hell?’ – though it was anybody’s guess what he was reacting to. With a click of his tongue loud enough for everyone to hear, he turned his attention back to his eel fillets.
It took no more than five minutes for the food to arrive. Still wearing that same sour look on her face, the woman practically threw the two trays down in front of us. The fresh cup of tea on my tray spilled a little, as did Maehata’s soup. She paid no attention, and disappeared into the back again without a word.
Although no words were being exchanged, the owner and his wife were obviously upset with each other about something, and the poisonous mood between them was making everybody in the restaurant feel awkward. We set to our food in silence. Would it ease the tension a bit if I smiled and told Maehata the eel was delicious, I wondered? But I was too annoyed by the unpleasantness to say anything. Besides which, the tension in the air was killing my taste buds. I couldn’t tell how this eel was different from any other eel. Maehata also said nothing.
Less than ten minutes later, I was gazing into my empty bowl and realizing how little time it takes to eat when you’re not carrying on a conversation. Maehata was finished, too. I had come in the door at 12.55 and we were done eating by 1.12. The other diners were all getting up and leaving as soon as they had eaten. Nobody wanted to linger.
The eel might be great, but at that rate it’s practically an eat-and-run noodle stand.
Thinking of a sarcastic remark I could make once we were outside, I was eager to leave, too. But the idea of being in and out in barely more than ten minutes apparently didn’t sit well with Maehata.
‘Could we have some more tea, please?’ he said.
Again without acknowledging us, the owner shouted ‘Hey!’ toward the back room.
‘“Hey” isn’t very informative,’ came a distant female voice.
The woman emerged with two cups on a tray and set one down in front of Maehata. I was just starting to wonder if she might manage mine, too, without spilling, when I felt a burn and let out a yelp. Looking down, I saw that my dress was wet.
‘Oh dear,’ the woman said.
Something had made her lurch, and she’d tipped the contents of the cup into my lap.
‘Hold on a second,’ she said, hurrying away into the back room. Moments later she re-emerged with the teacup, appearing to have refilled it. I glanced toward the owner, but he quickly looked away and flipped a skewered fillet.
‘Uh . . .’ I was about to tell her that I thought an apology might have been in order before a fresh cup of tea, but she never gave me the chance.
‘Your dress, I’ll take it to the cleaners right away, if you’ll just come upstairs and change. They’ll have it done in no time.’
‘I’ll tell them it’s an extra rush. But first we need to get you out of that and into something else.’
I glanced at Maehata and he gave me a helpless nod.
I followed the woman into the back. Removing my shoes at the step-up, I pushed through the half-curtain hanging in the doorway and climbed a dark, narrow, creaking staircase. At the top was a short hall lined with sliding fusuma panels on either side and a fading wooden door at the far end – the facilities, no doubt.
She slid open one of the panels on the right and showed me into a six-mat tatami room. I didn’t know what to make of it at first glance – it seemed too bare to be living quarters and too shabby to be a private room for diners. The tatami was worn and faded and felt spongy beneath my feet.
The woman went to a chest of drawers against the wall and took out a couple of things, hurriedly pushing the drawers shut again as if to keep me from seeing inside. She pressed the clothes into my hands.
‘If you’ll change into these, I’ll run your dress over to the cleaners right away.’
I spread the clothes to see what she’d given me: a sweatshirt with a stretched-out neck, and a clean but tired pair of old beige pants.
‘I’ll wait right out here. Just let me know when you’re done.’ She stepped back into the hallway and slid the door shut behind her. I took another look at the clothes she wanted me to put on. The sweatshirt said ‘NICE GIRL’ in English across the chest. Then my eyes fell to the white dress I’d bought specially for today – a bit of an off-white rather than pure white. Starting a little below the waist, a faint brown stain spread out in the shape of a V. As I stared at the stain, I found myself wondering again if this woman could really be the woman from Isshin. The daggers in the air downstairs reminded me of the argument between the Isshin couple. Had the husband not run out on her after all? Had she somehow managed to track him down again by visiting every eel shop in the country?
‘Did you ever go on a date for an arranged marriage?’ I asked through the closed panel as I began untying the ribbon on my dress.
‘Excuse me?’ she responded uncertainly.
‘I’m curious about arranged marriages. Was your marriage an arranged marriage, by any chance?’
She did not answer – bewildered, I suppose, at why I’d be asking such a thing.
‘My date here today was for an arranged marriage,’ I lied, as I reached behind me to lower the zipper. ‘That’s the only reason I was wearing this dress. Most of the time I dress much more casually.’
‘I’m sure the cleaners can get the stain – ’
‘Oh, no, I didn’t mean that. It’s just, this is my first time on a date like this, and it’s making me wonder. Can arranged marriages really be happy?’
As I asked it, it struck me as exactly the sort of question the college girl who pricked up her ears in thrill at a marital spat all those years ago would have asked. That was how I looked at the world back then. You were either happy, or you weren’t. If you weren’t happy, you were unhappy, and if you weren’t unhappy, you were happy. Couples who fought were unhappy, and those who didn’t were happy. In that girl’s view of things, I presumably had to count myself among the unhappy now. The man I dated in my mid-twenties chose his other lover, and the man I took up with in my thirties was married with children and, after squabbling about it a number of times, had ultimately opted not to get divorced.
Now here I was, out on one last date with him after we’d agreed to break up – the first time in five years of seeing each other that we’d met on a weekend – and I was preparing to change into a pair of faded pants and a sweatshirt that said ‘NICE GIRL’ on the front. In the eyes of that twenty-year-old girl at the eel shop window, what could I be but the very epitome of unhappiness? If I were to tell her, This is you fifteen years from now, she would be aghast – perhaps even break down in tears. But as a matter of fact, I hadn’t leapt from thrilling at an argument between strangers and dividing the world into black and white, to where I stood now, in a single bound; I had made my way here through an endless series of twists and turns and ups and downs, thinking, wavering, agonizing over my choices at every step along the way, and even if in retrospect I thought they were the wrong choices, I had always felt at the time that I had no other alternative, so what else could I have done? And besides, I didn’t actually feel all that unhappy . . .
Carrying on this conversation in my head as I stepped out of my dress, I started to be uncertain whether I was speaking to my twenty-year-old self or to the woman in the hallway on the other side of the door.
‘I’m afraid I couldn’t say, since my marriage wasn’t arranged.’
The woman’s voice suddenly broke through my thoughts, and I panicked for a moment that I might have said something aloud. Then I realized she was answering my previous question.
‘Oh. You weren’t an arranged match?’
Removing my chemise, I pulled on the woman’s sweatshirt and pants. The sweet, clean smell of detergent seemed somehow incongruous with the garments’ washed-out appearance. The sleeves and legs were a little short, but otherwise the fit was neither tight nor loose.
‘Did you have an eel shop somewhere else before?’ I asked, as I folded my dress. I was beginning to think they must be a completely different couple after all.
‘Huh?’ She seemed uncertain for a moment how this question related to the last. Finally she said, ‘I guess it’s been twenty years now, since we started in this business’
‘Twenty years in this one place?’
‘No, we moved here five years ago.’
She was facing the other way when I slid the door open, and she jumped a little. I thought I caught a slight smile when she turned around and saw me in her clothes – though it may have been my imagination. Before I even had a chance to hold the folded dress out to her, she grabbed it from my hand and started down the stairs, calling back over her shoulder.
‘Please wait while I go find out when it’ll be done.’
Downstairs, Maehata was the only customer left. When I returned to my seat across from him, he looked at me and let out a suppressed laugh, then immediately made an apologetic face.
‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘What do you think we should do?’
‘I don’t know yet how long it’ll take.’
‘Our appointment is for 2.30.’
‘So we have an hour.’
The owner stood facing the grill with his arms folded, never casting us the briefest glance.
The front door slid open, and the woman hurried back in, breathless.
‘Their absolute fastest is about an hour, so I’m sorry, but could you come back then?’
Her husband still didn’t look our way.
As we stepped outside, the long-sleeved sweatshirt felt hot. I glanced about the area in front of the shop but saw no bucket. Once again I realized I’d completely forgotten about the blue bucket with the slithering eels until that very moment.
‘They didn’t even give us anything off the check,’ I said, as we started walking.
‘No, but really, let me just say how sorry I am. I never imagined it could be this bad.’
‘It wasn’t your fault. You didn’t dump the tea in my lap,’ I said, and I felt a laugh bubbling up inside me. All of a sudden, it seemed impossibly hilarious that I was walking around downtown Tokyo in a sweatshirt and pants I wouldn’t have picked out for myself in a million years.
‘I guess we should call and reschedule for a little later,’ he said. ‘We can go for coffee or something in the meantime.’
Our appointment was at a photo studio. In five years plus of seeing each other, we’d somehow managed to never get a picture of the two of us together. When Maehata mentioned this and suggested we have one taken as a final memento, my first thought was, Wow, I didn’t realize he could be so romantic, but then it occurred to me that he might merely be trying to soothe my feelings after all the tears and hysterics and threats. Still, even if it was no more than that, the idea had made me happy.
‘That’s okay,’ I said, ‘I’ll be fine in these. Let’s just go like this.’
‘You want to have your picture taken in those things from the eel shop?’
‘Sure. I’m good with the eel lady’s clothes. We should keep the appointment.’
‘Ok-a-ay,’ he said with a bemused look, ‘if you’re sure.’
To be walking the streets in an outfit that not only wasn’t mine but that I’d never have chosen for myself made me feel surprisingly carefree. It even occurred to me that I could simply forget about the dress, and go on home in what I was wearing. I pictured the woman from the shop trying on a garment that she just as surely would never have picked out for herself. It was hard to imagine her looking very good in the off-white dress.
So, were the couple at Shimura the couple who had been at Isshin? Were the Isshin couple lying about their marriage being arranged? Had the husband really run off with another woman? Or had his wife somehow thwarted his escape? Or had she perhaps gone around visiting every eel shop in the country until she found him and won him back?
No matter which possibility I considered, I seemed to always arrive at the conclusion that the couple were (or if they were in fact two couples, both couples were) conducting this thing called marriage in their own particular way, and depending on my mood at the time, I would find myself variously envying them, scoffing at them, feeling sorry for them, or dismissing the whole business as being no concern of mine.
Now that we have the Internet, it’s easy to check on a restaurant ahead of time – whether it’s considered a hidden treasure, whether it’s still in business, and so on. I rarely look at the picture I took that day in the eel lady’s clothes any more, but I do look up Shimura every now and then. The place is indeed still in business as an eel shop, but the photo that accompanies the proprietor’s profile on the website is not of the grump from when Maehata and I visited. It shows a chunky, square-faced man and a similarly stout, round-faced woman, both middle-aged, standing side by side and beaming ear to ear.
The lingering effect of all this is that on those rare occasions when I get a hankering and slide open the door to an eel shop somewhere, I experience a moment of tension and expectation that I don’t feel upon entering any other kind of restaurant. And I instinctively find myself looking for a bucket of eels, realizing once again that I’ve forgotten about the bucket until that very moment.
Image by Ernst Mayer Library