As Karen pushes through the revolving door the air begins to thicken with the tang of incense and soy sauce.
Sparkling neon lights flash blue and green and yellow messages against her white-shorts and t-shirt; in bold, red characters, a sign forbids a certain action, of which she is unsure—not to park, or spit, or linger too long in one place perhaps. She thrusts her ticket into her pocket and edges into the current of bodies.
The wave of suits and shopping bags sweeps her along the concrete; past vending machines and narrow shop windows, under low awnings, through clouds of perfume. Some of the people wear face masks, others hold their noses up to the sky, as if hoping for something to pluck them from the street and whisk them away. Karen keeps her elbows at her sides, shuffles when the others shuffle, pushes when she is pushed. Somebody elbows her, he shouts an apology, then wriggles off between a parked van and a tree trunk.
The world is humming, it is shouting, and at its centre, she floats like a petal on a deep lake.
Her coterie shuttles her to the other side of the main road, where she stumbles out onto the footpath. There is a shout, and she just manages to sidestep a squat woman riding a scooter. “Thank you!” the woman cries before vanishing around the curve of a gleaming pylon. Karen coughs in the wake of her exhaust fumes. A sign on the wall, covered in vines, tells her in modest blue calligraphy that she has made it to Shibuya Crossing. She takes out her camera phone and snaps a photo.
“Do you want me to take one?” A sinewy boy, probably no older than herself, beckons from behind an ice-cream cart. She has seen him before, though not in this area. “Hey, you,” he says and shows her his piano-key teeth. “Come, I’ll take a photo—for your wall.”
Karen hands the boy her phone. “It’s not a very good one.”
When the boy takes the phone he drops to his knees and a look of pain comes over his tanned face. “Too heavy,” he says and they both laugh.
After he takes the photo, Karen reaches into her pocket for a tip, but realises she is only carrying dollars. “I’m sorry, I don’t have any Yen.”
“Don’t worry,” the boy says smiling. “Either do I. First time in Tokyo?”
“What do you think? Here, it’s on me. Mochi. Green tea flavour.”
“I love it,” she says and takes a mouthful of the sweet cream.
“The ice-cream or the city?” The boy winks.
Karen shrugs. “Well, the city’s good…”
The boy waits for an answer. When none comes he blinks, then laughs so hard that Karen can see his tonsils.
“I like the ice-cream too, really I do. And the city. I mean, I like them both. My new favourites.”
“Why don’t you stay?” the boy says. “I finish my shift soon. I’ll take you shopping, show you around. All the people, they just cross the road once, look at the pretty lights, go to Starbucks, and they think they have seen everything, but they never stay long. Always busy to get to the next place, looking for the horizon, they never stop to look at what’s in front of their toes. Have you seen the Imperial Palace?”
“I’d like to, but my mum’s waiting.”
“That station is crazy full. All day long. Hey, I’ve seen you somewhere before. Over at Osaka, wasn’t it? Noda Station.”
“Maybe,” Karen says. She hands the rest of the ice-cream back to the boy. “Thanks, I have to go.”
“Awww, not so soon. You just arrived, there’s so much more to see…”
He grabs her arm. “Promise?”
Karen works her way back over the crossing and through the crowds, not really thinking where she is going. She looks back at the boy, who is still waving at her. She has promised him she would return, but they both know that she won’t. Not to here. Not to Tokyo. When she reaches the revolving door, she turns to shoot one last photo. She inhales deeply and holds her breath.
The man at the gate snatches her ticket and wishes her a good evening, but with the warm air of Tokyo still in her throat, she can only hum a ‘thanks’. She walks quickly from of the tent into the afternoon sun and exhales.
“Hey, honey.” A hand touches her shoulder. “I’ve been looking all over for you.”
“I was in Tokyo.”
Her mother shakes her head. “I can smell it. Honestly, I don’t know why you waste all your money on those rides. You’ve got the real world right here.”
“Is it really like that? In Japan?”
The older woman sighs and brushes down her daughter’s clothes with long sweeps of her hand. “Maybe, once… a long time ago. One day you’ll be able see for yourself.”
“When you’re older. When we can afford it. Who knows?”
Karen turns to regard where she’s recently exited, a young couple stumbles through the gate laughing.
“Come on.” Her mother holds out her hand. “Let’s go home. Dad’s bought vanilla ice-cream—it’s your favourite, isn’t it?”