By SARENA KUHN
(The youth winner of the third annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest, sponsored by the Little Tokyo Historical Society, was Sarena Kuhn of Los Alamitos for “Kumiko with Hidden Worlds,” which involves an eerie search for kamaboko that leads to a mysterious, subterranean Little Tokyo.)
He strolled leisurely through the Japanese Village Plaza, squinting slightly in the light of a five-till-noon sun. Gone were the hustle and bustle of the weekend, replaced by the tranquil aura known only by a Tuesday morning in Little Tokyo. At the smell of fresh imagawayaki, his fingers danced around his wallet with indecisiveness.
No, I came here for one reason.
Reassured, he confidently strode through the doors of the market, making a beeline to a familiar shelf with the efficiency of a shopping pro. His eyes searched the area to no avail. It had to be here; it always was. He blinked in disbelief.
Could they be out?
“Excuse me, Miss,” he called out to the employee organizing packages of frozen gyoza, “There seems to be a mistake. Surely you haven’t run out of kamaboko, have you? You have some in the back, right?”
“Well … for what purpose would you need it for, sir?” she asked nervously, smoothing her evenly chopped black hair behind her ear.
“Can’t a man purchase a package of kamaboko with no questions asked in this day and age?”
She nodded rapidly with a forced smile. With beady eyes and smooth, pale skin, the woman appeared to be about 25; at least that was his consensus. Her slender fingers fidgeted with a mind of their own as she looked in all directions before lowering her voice. “You seem intent on obtaining it. Would you be willing to surrender the rest of your day toward getting this package?”
She paused, continuing only when the man nodded. “You see, this kamaboko might just be involved with the balancing of reality as we know it; it’s some very risky business. Are you still in?”
“As long as it’s not illegal,” the man replied. “Fish cake won’t help me in prison.”
Her lip twitched upward in response. “I can find a way to get off work in about 30 minutes. We meet in the alleyway near the Buddhist temple — you know the one. Be prompt, and stay quiet now.”
With that, the woman returned to her task, as if the conversation had been a mere daydream. Perplexed, he exited the market and purchased two imagawayaki.
12:30 p.m. Sure enough, the woman was there waiting along with a man of short stature and large, round glasses, perhaps five to eight years her senior, hauling a small, grey dog crate. Odd.
“Hello,” she began. “Thank you for coming. My name is Kumiko, by the way, and this is my husband.” She gestured to her companion. “Rob Imoto,” he elaborated.
“Nice to meet you,” the man replied, though he was not quite sure if it was nice at all. “About the kamabo—”
“I suppose we have some explaining to do,” Kumiko interrupted with her shrill voice, looking toward her husband for reassurance. “It’s really quite a complicated manner. Suppose this: you’re living with a very picky eater. Have you been in that situation?” The man nodded.
“Yes, see … then that’s a good place to start, I suppose. Well, our current situation involves an eater like that. An individual with a taste exclusive to kamaboko, and not only that, but it’s a ravenous eater. Easy to understand, right?”
“You’re avoiding the point,” Rob Imoto criticized. “The man’s lost already. Start from the beginning again.” She gulped and nodded.
“Well, sir,” she began, “are you prepared for this explanation? It might alter your very perception of the world, and there’s no real turning back once you’ve heard it. Will you risk it?”
“Well if you put it like that, then it seems that I have to know,” he replied.
“Assuming you’re from around here as you seem accustomed to our market, you’re probably familiar with the New Year’s Day festivities, aren’t you?”
“Familiar?” he scoffed, “Couldn’t leave the apartment the whole day for all the crowds.”
“Good,” she continued, “Then you know. Well, anyways, the beginning of each year marks the beginning of a new cycle: a change to every life. It naturally results in slight alterations to our world; in streams the powers of luck good and bad all around us, especially here —Little Tokyo. Omikuji, and all that stuff. Well anyways, in this world void of magic, these powers cannot exist without consequence. And they cannot simply dissipate into thin air. My husband here has a special … talent.”
At this Rob Imoto (it felt odd to address him as anything less) nodded. “And so we are in charge of returning this luck and energy back into the world in which it belongs. Do you follow?”
“Supposing it’s not all nonsense, I suppose I follow,” the man retorted. “But I still cannot see how this relates to my not having my kamaboko right now.”
“We’re getting there, don’t worry, sir,” she explained. “So we have this responsibility every year, and it’s a bit of a complicated process. We were bound to make mistakes eventually. Before returning to their world, these lucky energy-magic things fuse into a tangible, living entity; to save us time and confusion, we just refer to them as zippies.
“Well, one zippy managed to break free from the process and has been living in our home ever since. And it just so happens that this zippy has an exclusive taste for kamaboko. A taste so insatiable that our market’s supply has been depleted. And I suppose that takes us right back to our present situation.”
Turning to her husband, she asked, “Did I do well?” He answered with a grunt and nod.
“Well, that’s certainly a nice premise for a fantasy novel. But just how does it involve me?” the man prompted.
“We need to get rid of the zippy, you see. But in order to do that, the zippy needs an escort. That’s where you come in. It’s much too dangerous for me to enter the other world on my own — almost suicide. I need you to come with me,” she pleaded. “And it’s necessary; I promise. My husband refuses to come with me because he’s apathetic!”
“Shikata ga nai,” Rob Imoto offered, his stoic expression unchanged from the entire ordeal.
“Oh! How could you say that?” she squealed. “You have no respect for the balance of this universe!” She stomped her foot and turned toward the man once more. “So you’ll come, right? You’ll help me?”
Under the control of some power far stronger than his sense of logic, he reluctantly nodded his head. With a nervous smile she took the crate from her husband’s coarse hand, unlatching the lock to reveal a most peculiar creature. The “zippy” appeared to be a small white dog, differing only in its catlike, yellow eyes. Here was the root of all problems; the fiend with an appetite for kamaboko.
“Shall we be off then?” Kumiko asked. The couple never waited for the man’s reply.
Against the wall, Rob Imoto smoothed his hands, reaching for a doorknob that surely had not been there before. Rob Imoto opened the door to reveal a blackness unlike any the man had witnessed before. “This way,” Rob Imoto stated.
Kumiko, zippy leashed in her right hand, descended into the lightless depths. Uneasy, the man followed, absorbed by the ebony abyss. To seal the decision, Rob Imoto slammed the door without one parting word. “There’s no turning back now.” Kumiko voiced the man’s exact thoughts.
Despite the absence of light, the man never faltered in steps; it was almost as if light was an unnecessary luxury within this passageway — this passageway between two worlds.
It could have been an hour, or maybe just two minutes when Kumiko finally halted. The first things to come to view were her slender fingers as she opened a great door to release burning light. Beyond the door was a familiar alleyway: the one by the Buddhist temple — you know the one. He shut the door behind them, shielding his eyes from the glaring light. The sun appeared harsher — not necessarily brighter — but more intense than the one with which he was accustomed.
“Where are we?” he asked.
“To save us time and confusion, we call this place little Little Tokyo,” she supplied. “A world where magic exists and everything we know is warped just a little.” At the yanking of the leash, Kumiko responded, “I suppose we can let her go now,” and released the zippy to run freely into the street.
“The zippy will be fine,” she interjected, “Much better off than it was in our world. It’s us who we need to worry about now. The passageway could close any minute, and that’s our only ticket home. It’s dangerous here; follow me.”
In a daze, the man followed Kumiko, keeping in step while surveying his surroundings. Little Little Tokyo was an exact replica of the real deal; every street and every sign was impeccable. Yet the aura was strange, as if a familiar song had been altered half a key.
“It’s tricky here; that’s why we need two of us,” Kumiko started. “Don’t start talking to the people here; that’s where you make the worst mistakes. Every component of this world is different from the one we know: kind shopkeepers are cross, shoe displays are a shade or two darker, coffee is more bitter — all minute details. If you become accustomed to these details, you may become stuck in the wrong world forever.”
She quickened her pace. “Don’t look around too much; it might begin to appear normal to you. The passageways are open for only the first two weeks of the new year; I just hope we don’t run out of time.”
“How could we run out of time? It’s Tuesday, so we have until Friday, don’t we?” The man asked, ignoring all of Kumiko’s warnings as he continued to study the street. She was right; the yellow sign of his favorite ramen shop was just a slightly more faded variation.
“We have until Friday in our Little Tokyo, but, as I said, everything in little Little Tokyo is altered; who’s to say they follow the same linear units of time as the real world? We don’t want to risk it. Trust me, little Little Tokyo is not the place for us.”
“What makes you say that?” he asked, slowing his pace. “It looks the same. If we were to stay here — hypothetically speaking of course — would we notice the difference?”
She looked at him quizzically, pausing her hasty walk for the first time. She wandered towards a building’s wall and placed her right hand upon it. “This is the second time I’ve ventured into little Little Tokyo, and it’s only confirming my suspicions. No matter where you try to look for it, there’s no love here. I can’t feel it anywhere. Colors are harsher, people more bitter, and there’s no art to be found. In Little Tokyo, the real one, it’s everywhere; I can even grab it from the wind. This world possesses the supernatural magic at the expense of the natural ones: comfort, familiarity, and emotion. Don’t ask me how I know it; just take my word for it.”
She broke away from the wall and continued to walk. “Let’s go; my husband is waiting for me.”
The journey ended at the base of an apartment building. The man followed Kumiko up the stairs and waited as she fumbled with the key in her right hand.
“This is the only passageway whose existence I can guarantee,” she explained, as the door creaked open eerily. In the center of the flat was a Rob Imoto, reading what the man assumed to be a version of The Rafu Shimpo, though the words were typed in a cryptic code of letters and numbers.
“That’s not my husband,” she warned, “You mustn’t speak to him. He’s only a guard between the passageways, and he’s dangerous. Follow me now,” she said as she carefully stepped around the unbothered guard and moved a maroon loveseat.
Despite their being on the fourth floor of the complex, below was a wooden trap door. “Help me open it,” she commanded. So he lifted the heavy handle, revealing the same engulfing darkness of before. “Follow me,” she yelled, immediately diving head-first into the opening. The man gulped and prepared to do the same, before pausing at the sound of rustling newspaper.
Sensing the man’s gaze, not-Rob-Imoto offered a monotone. “What is it that you need to know before you may return?”
“W-what is this place?” The man asked.
“It’s Little Tokyo. Our Little Tokyo, at least. Not so different from your own,” not-Rob-Imoto answered.
“That’s a lie; this place surely is different. And it’s not Little Tokyo for sure; I know Little Tokyo.” But did he?
“I am not one for arguments,” the guard answered, “So I will not urge you to stay or leave here. Just as the zippy, your life will remain unchanged either way. But you need to make your decision soon, for it seems I’ve succeeded in stalling you.”
The man looked down through the passageway to see the blackness’ intensity quickly decreasing. It was closing! It was closing! He leaped into the entrance as the guard carelessly returned to flipping pages.
The man fell or rose through a whirlwind of colors and scenes, the blackness diminishing, overtaken slowly by a stream of light. He restlessly wondered if he was too late, sentenced to an eternity of drifting between two realities.
It was impossible to determine from where he fell, but it was his shoulder that landed on the tile first with a thud. Kumiko and Rob Imoto were drinking tea.
“Thursday, 11:22 p.m.” Rob Imoto commented, blowing on his cup to cool the scalding liquid. “A couple more seconds of dilly-dallying and you’d be fried.”
Kumiko was a bit more friendly with her welcome and offered him a cup of tea. He declined.
“I’ve seen enough today,” the man said, to which she nodded solemnly. As he headed for the door, she rushed to the refrigerator and grabbed a familiar package.
“The only one left,” she said, smiling softly. He nodded, grabbing the kamaboko gratefully.
Down the stairwell and out the front door, he examined the package’s shades of pink and white, dazed by the events of a most unusual day — or three, that is. He stepped through the familiar streets, drinking in his surroundings, comfortable and sure. Cars were moving through steadily; the line for a bowl of ramen in a shop with a sign the perfect shade of yellow was rightfully outrageous, and warm lights filled the windows of the Miyako Hotel. Unlike Kumiko, he could not just grab the love between his fingertips, but somehow he believed her; it had to be here.
And so gone was the tranquil aura of a Tuesday morning, replaced by the warmth and light and life known only by an evening in Little Tokyo, this Little Tokyo.