It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was midnight in Kyoto, and I was pedaling in a nameless dark with hunger smouldering in the pit of my belly, not homeward-bound for there was no one waiting for me yet, but instead towards a place Minoru-san claimed had the best takoyaki in town. It was spring but it felt like winter, and it felt like I was both the happiest and the loneliest of them all, with the spinning of my bicycle wheels echoing through the streets of Ichijoji.
I often wish I could see myself as others do – perhaps as a bright orange patch in a row of black-shirted men at a counter, conspicious at a place like Tako Tora, or indeed even Japan, where the girl who dines alone at these joints is a rare breed. No one minds, I don’t think, but I have always wondered at the absence of others like me. In any case it was midnight, and there was only the hum of some J-pop as the three behind the counter worked with furrowed brows and little speaking. There was a father and son, picking away at a plate of octopus. Several other salarymen and a bespectacled college boy, all chewing their takoyaki.
My legs were aching from a full day of cycling around the city, and I wanted to head home for sleep. I also wanted to linger over my takoyaki. However, when you’re dining solo, Tako Tora at midnight is the kind of place where you eat and fuck off, but in the nicest way possible. It is fluorescent-white and so are your styrofoam plates, along with your wooden chopsticks for simplicity and disposability. Ten points for brightness. I’m less sure about the atmosphere.
You’ll still enjoy the takoyaki, though, which is excellent and in no way a superlative. They’re slightly monstrous-looking globes of batter, crunchy without, generous with the tenkasu, red-pickled ginger and a lump of octopus within, painted – with an actual brush, the type you colour houses with – with their special sweetish sauce, bonito flakes dancing atop. It was good. It was so good that I ordered another plate to take back to Masterchef Kent’s place. I returned and he wasn’t home from work yet, so I left it on top of the kotatsu and promptly collapsed under its covers, and woke up at 2.30 to the sound of crunching. I remember him saying to me, this is great, thank you. Oh really? That’s good… Yeah, go to sleep, it’s okay.
As delicious as the takoyaki in Kyoto was, the one I want to eat again is in Osaka, and you won’t find it in a store anywhere. You won’t even find it in the same place again, because the boy who made it is moving elsewhere. He greeted me on my first evening in that city at the station with a wide smile and a beautiful, musical Osaka accent, and while he was an almost-stranger it still felt like I was coming home even though all I knew of him wasn’t enough to fill a page in my notebook yet. We stayed up late that night, talking about the December elections, solo travel, languages, and listening to Nujabes, Maroon 5, Sakanaction, Uyama Hiroto and I remember feeling alive again, alive in a throat-catching, heart-thumping sort of way for the first time in a long, long time.
When someone leaves for work at 6.30 in the morning and comes home at 8 in the evening and still makes you takoyaki for dinner because you spent a day walking from Tamogawa to Nanba, you can’t help but like him, you can’t help but like him a lot. I couldn’t help but light up, both inside and out, when he poked his head into the room and said, takoyaki’s ready, and I protested a little because I’d wanted to watch him make it but at the same time it was so nice to have someone cook for me.
It wasn’t the best I’d ever had, not by a long shot. Still, it was delicious, especially because they’d been made for me. He’s made them for other travellers, of course, but I was his last guest staying over and I’m allowed to feel just a little special sometimes. We watched a comedy talk show I didn’t understand and flipped balls of batter as they crisped up in his pan. He let me feed him a few times with my chopsticks. Later that second night, and on subsequent nights, we stayed up talking, trying not to let the cold get to us, talking till dawn about life and love and all the people who had ever touched our hearts and souls. On my last night in Osaka I wept a little, fearful at the prospect of the hole in my heart that would once again open should I leave this city for the next. I have not cried since, I am stronger than that, but now I can look back towards that mid-point from which my nows are running away from, and smile, I can smile just a little.
In this boy I saw all the things that I had forgotten I was craving, kindness, generosity, passion, affection. I saw a traveler’s sanctuary, a cradle on which the weary could rest their head and hearts, far more than I deserved with all my youth and naivety. Still, it is far, far better that I should have tasted this takoyaki once than not at all; for this, my time in Osaka was far lovelier, and far more bittersweet than the times I have ever known in recent memory.