Amy In Japanland: Tobata Taxi Adventure

Amy and April are back in Canada, but that won’t stop me from telling tales of their adventures in Japan. In honour of the younger-looking-but-older one’s birthday, here’s a fictionalized account of the last leg of her journey from Korea to our apartment.

The old guy’s family home had been destroyed during the war, and after Japan’s surrender, he hadn’t had a chance to go to school. Instead, he’d helped his parents with chores, and then started working in the family noodle shop. Once he was old enough, he started doing errands on foot, then worked up to bicycle and motor scooter deliveries. But then his parents had died and with them the family harmony. His siblings had fought over the estate and since no one wanted to take over the business, everything got split up.

He found a cheap apartment but spent more time alternating between visits to the local watering hole and pachinko parlours than at home. He eventually found himself working for a taxi company. It was pretty easy work for him, since he was familiar with the city streets from his days as a delivery boy. The most difficult part of getting the job was the written part of the driver’s test, but his friends had coached him on that. After he’d failed it for the third time, the manager at the cab company made a couple of phone calls. He was reputed to know “things” about an official or two at the licensing office. A couple of days later, all of the necessary papers appeared at the dispatch office accompanied by a brown envelope bursting with 10,000 yen bills. The cash disappeared into the manager’s suit jacket, and no one ever asked him to prove that he knew how to drive.

But that had been a long time ago.

More recently, his wife had convinced him to take some of those adult education classes where they taught people who’d been kids during the war how to read. But he’d gotten bored and slept through most of them. After he’d learned some basics, he got into the habit of going to the pachinko parlour instead of the classes, and ignoring his wife whenever she asked about his progress.

The memories of his reading lessons came back to him on a Friday evening at Tobata Station, shortly after two foreign women who looked like movie stars had into his life. He’d noticed them in his rearview mirror as they walked out of the station, and had been trying to take a picture of them with his camera phone as they walked closer. Then they did the impossible and sat down in the back seat of his cab.

They said something—he wasn’t sure what language it was but guessed that it was English, since that’s what all foreigners spoke—and when he asked them to repeat themselves, one of them handed him a little notebook with some scribbling on one of the pages. His mind froze as what little reading he’d acquired those many years ago seeped out of his brain and appeard on his forehead as tiny beads of sweat. He puzzled over the notebook for a few minutes, and eventually realized that there was a mix of Japanese and English. One of the women interrupted his concentration, saying something about a jutaku.

He figured that he wasn’t going to get any better directions that that, so he took them to a jutaku—a kind of company housing project—in Tenjin. They seemed disoriented so he got out and knocked on the building door then called out a few times. There was no answer so he got back into the car and started driving again, without restarting the meter. One of the girls started looking in a little red book. She pointed at some words but it was all written in gibberish. It was obvious to her that he couldn’t read it so she started talking again. Something about a denwa. Denwa? What was that English for? Then he realized that she was saying the Japanese word for phone.

So he took out his cell phone—the one he hadn’t had a chance to snap a picture of them with—and she dictated some numbers. After a few wrong attempts, he got a ring tone. But the woman who picked up couldn’t speak Japanese either so he gave the phone to the girl with the book, who started to speak in her high-speed nonsense language. The person on the other end must have understood because less than a minute later, the girl handed the phone back, and the driver got to talk to some guy who at least understood a little bit of Japanese. It was touch-and-go at first, but he eventually got a proper address. And drove.

When they arrived at the jutaku in Kannonji-machi, there was a guy who looked a bit Japanese waiting for them. The girls got out of the car and babbled to the guy in their foreigner language as they disappeared up the stairs with him.

The driver never did get a photo, but he had a story that would grow as it was told and retold over the years.