Table of Contents
1. Present: 8.0km; 12.0km Remaining
That which you think is right and that which you think is wrong are both things you learn throughout your life from your education and experiences. You are praised for your good deeds and scolded for your bad ones. It’s through this that you start drawing the distinctions between right and wrong. On the other hand, what you end up liking and not liking isn’t simply something that someone teaches you. If you were to go as far as call it innate, you would be implying that something like a baby disliking cheese in the future would have been decided from the very start, something like a small treatise on destiny. Rather, might something like someone’s preferences be akin to the various impulses that boil up from inside one’s self as they grow older? In the end, it’s inexorably linked with the ultimate question of what one treasures the most.
On that rainy day, Satoshi had told me this on the way home. He then started to smile in a seemingly condescending manner as he continued.
“Inside of you Houtarou—you who has a wholly insufficient number of things you either like or dislike—is an impulse that you refuse to talk about. That’s what Makaya would say. I wouldn’t go that far, though.”
“If it were Ibara, she would probably say something like, ‘That’s what Fuku-chan would say. I wouldn’t go that far, though.’”
“Nope, Mayaka doesn’t talk like that at all. She says everything bluntly. Her choice of words would be much meaner.”
That was exactly the case. I was wrong.
When Satoshi and I would go home together, we would usually end up having ridiculous conversations like this while we walked. Sometimes, we would talk about even more ridiculous things like “the ultimate fate of the world,” and in even rarer moments, we might even bring up something mildly practical for a change, like “is B5 or A4 sized paper easier to use for notes.” What made that day unusual, however, was the audience listening in on our conversation, namely Ohinata.
The rain was neither violent nor light as it continued to drip down endlessly. We had walked inside a shopping arcade, so our umbrellas were closed. Holding hers with both hands joined behind her back, Ohinata peered into my face with a lovely gesture that didn’t suit her tomboyish appearance and smiled.
“Is Ibara-senpai really that sharp-tongued?”
It wasn’t like we had waited for her specifically, but rather, when Satoshi and I had left from the school’s front gate, we just happened to see her leaving as well. She had on a bitter smile, saying, “I haven’t really made any friends yet,” so the three of us ended up walking together. As one might expect from the fact that we all went to the same middle school, our routes home were basically the same.
To Ohinata’s question I replied, “She is.” However Satoshi tilted his head in thought.
“It’s not like she’ll lash out at anyone. As a matter of fact, I haven’t seen her act harshly towards Chitanda-san even once.”
Thinking about it, that much was certainly true, but I felt like the comparison was a little unfair.
Ohinata then spoke in a soft voice that sounded as if she had just figured out some terrible secret.
“Maybe that has something to do with the fact that Chitanda-senpai knows a whole lot of people.”
“Um, so are you basically saying that Chitanda-san knows all of Mayaka’s weaknesses and is able to keep her on a leash as a result?”
Satoshi couldn’t help but smile in disbelief. It was such a ridiculous idea that I lost all willpower to even respond. Ohinata was quick to change the subject, as usual. She quickly smiled and said, “Well, I suppose now I understand that Oreki-senpai is someone that doesn’t treasure anything.”
“Now hold on…”
“What about you, Fukube-senpai? What do you treasure?”
I had voiced an exceedingly dissatisfied statement, but my plea for reassessment went unheard. Satoshi shrugged and readily responded.
“That which makes me unique, I guess.”
Ohinata let out a disappointed “Is that so,” and this time Satoshi posed the question.
“Well, because you keep asking others, what about you?”
She had an impish look about her as she started to speak more loosely.
“Well as a girl, I’d have to say to say I treasure love above all else.”
As this underclassman went on about love in front of me, I started feeling like I had just witnessed a koala in the flesh, in that it was an extremely well-known animal, one that I could easily identify by its appearance, but I had never actually seen one in real life.
“Is that so…”
Satoshi responded in the exact same way that Ohinata had done so to his previous answer. Almost as if motivated entirely by obligation, he then asked, “Oh, so there’s someone like that in your life?”
As she heard this, Ohinata suddenly broke out into a huge grin.
“Nope, not at the moment. I guess because that’s the case, what’s really important to me would be…”
She suddenly dropped her gaze to stare at her feet and continued, only her voice still containing the enthusiasm she just had.
I clearly understood why Satoshi had previously let out his disappointed “Is that so…” Although it wasn’t a very pleasant subject, I was still expecting her to respond with a more elaborate answer. “Love” wasn’t exactly a terrible one, but it was so clichéd.
On the other hand, I could also understand why Ohinata had responded similarly as well. Although she had just entered high school, had a student heard something like, “That which I treasure most is my own unique nature,” they would most likely not be very moved.
I understood the vague meaning behind his words, however. Even though his face constantly looked as if he had never faced a single hardship in the world, he had many problems in his own way, and he tried to correct these to produce a better version of himself. There were many times when I could only think about how incredibly carefree I was compared to him. Even though his statement might have made an entirely ordinary impression, there was a determination in that answer that really defined who Satoshi was.
I started thinking from there.
First came love, but because there were no prospects there, her answer became her friends. This was what Ohinata had said. That kind of answer was certainly uninteresting by itself, however, just as Satoshi had a unique determination that only he could have, the same had to be the case for Ohinata. Had she simply said those words out of longing? Probably not.
After all, when Ohinata had offered up “love” as her answer, she had been smiling, and yet, when she switched her answer to “friends,” her eyes were cast down.
I knew the answer rested in that behavior, but I couldn’t figure out the exact meaning behind it.
The reason I felt like I could understand at least a small portion of Satoshi’s inner workings was because of a certain incident. Last winter, after a series of complicated happenings, Satoshi opened up to a minuscule degree that which rested behind his façade and shared it with me.
Compared to that, I hadn’t experienced anything similar with this underclassman girl, Ohinata. After all, it hadn’t even been two months since I had met her. Could I even hope to understand her given the circumstances?
It might’ve been possible. The fact remained, however, that I hadn’t even tried.
While I ran, I tried to think of a way to reclaim that which I had lost by not looking at those in front of me head-on. It was idiotic of me. For example, if I didn’t listen to a lecture during class, I would have to buy a reference book before the test came around. It was like making the rope only after seeing the thief.1 At any rate, it was difficult for the energy-saver in me to say it, but I had only one option open to me. If a person resembled a bodhisattva on the outside, then they were like a yakṣa on the inside. A yakṣa. In other words, a demon.
There were three ways to interpret this.
The first way was to assume that Ibara’s memory was incorrect and that Ohinata had actually said something entirely different. In the end, though, that was more along the lines of wishful thinking. Exactly what kind of misunderstanding would have had to take place for her to incorrectly hear the sentence, “She really does look like a bodhisattva, doesn’t she.”
The second way was to assume that Ohinata had indeed said that exact line, but had meant it purely as a simple feeling or observation, without any hint of an ulterior meaning. This was also difficult to justify. Up until this point, I had never heard anyone use the phrase “That person is like a bodhisattva” to compliment someone else. Of course, you couldn’t say that there wasn’t anyone in this world that used strange phrases like that to praise others. Still overall, I had exchanged words with Ohinata numerous times by this point, so I thought that it was safe for me to say that she didn’t fit that description.
This meant that I had to concede to the third possibility after all: Ohinata had referred to Chitanda in a roundabout manner as being like a demon. It was a peculiar use of the language, but I could understand why she would do it. She wanted to criticize Chitanda, but naturally she couldn’t say anything like that out loud in front of Ibara, who was such good friends with her. She probably didn’t expect Ibara to catch onto that meaning alone.
If it did become a problem, Ohinata could simply pretend that she didn’t know anything about lesser-known idioms, like “A person who resembles a bodhisattva on the outside is a yakṣa on the inside.” However, not only had Satoshi known the meaning behind the word, but I also clearly remembered some incriminating points as well. On the day of the New Recruit Festival, she had mentioned, “classical Chinese literature seems difficult, but I love Japanese studies,” and she was also able to quickly discern that the joke I told on my birthday was a line from one of Sakutarō Hagiwara’s poems. As I saw it, Ohinata was quite skilled in this discipline.
And yet, in the end, I still wasn’t satisfied.
I couldn’t think of anything that might have gone poorly between Chitanda and Ohinata.
I didn’t doubt that whatever had happened yesterday after school ended up being the deciding moment. I simply thought it was impossible for there to be absolutely nothing leading up to that moment. I suppose there was something I thought was strange. It happened on a Saturday if I remember correctly.
I ended up running a bit too much. I didn’t raise my head. So far, I hadn’t been sweating all too much.
I approached another hill in the road up ahead. The line of students around me was beginning to slow down, and all of a sudden, I felt like running alone.
2. Past: 13 Days Ago
Ohinata’s request had come very abruptly, but she had likely been thinking about it for a while, biding her time and waiting for a chance to ask it.
That Friday, I hadn’t intended on going to the clubroom. Because the inside of my wallet was barren and I had to consequently make do with a single butter roll and small milk carton for lunch, by the time after-school activities rolled around, I had become extremely hungry. Although I wasn’t normally one to snack in-between meals, I wanted to go home as fast as I could to grab a bite.
As I headed for the entrance however, something like a huge group of girls suddenly began to crowd the entire width of the hallway and prevented anything aside from a snail-paced departure. Trying to push my way through them would only prove to be a pain, so I turned back. Before I realized it, I was in the connecting corridor leading to the Classics Club’s classroom, so I headed over there, figuring I mind as well show my face.
Speaking out of consideration for my ravaged stomach, that was the correct decision. When I entered the clubroom, I saw three girls standing around a table looking in on something. These girls, Chitanda, Ibara, and Ohinata, all turned to look at me. Ibara started to speak.
“It’s almost like you came here targeting this.”
To that, Ohinata played around and answered.
“We’re about to open a box full of snacks.”
What an incredible emotion it was that raced through my head at that very moment. I spoke, blindly driven by my lust for food.
“I feel like I’m about to collapse I’m so hungry. Please share some with me.”
I ignored Ibara as she muttered, “it’s almost like he’s up to something, that was so straightforward,” and added myself to the circle around the table.
The snacks inside the box were potato chips. “Chips Satsuma” was written on the side, so I figured they must have been made from sweet potatoes rather than regular ones.2 It wasn’t the first time that snacks had been laid out like this in the Earth Sciences lecture room. Chitanda had often brought snacks left over from gifts given to her family over the course of the year. The potato chips this time, however, were clearly something unrelated.
“Who brought these?”
“I did,” said Ohinata as she sheepishly raised her hand. “What? You can’t eat them if I was the one that brought them?”
Why on earth had she said something like that I wonder.
“It doesn’t matter whether a cat is white or black, if it brings you snacks it is a good cat.”3
Ohinata stared back with a puzzled face.
“Um, was that Zhou Enlai?”
“It was Lee Teng-hui, right?”
Ibara piped in from the side.
“Wasn’t it Chiang Kai-shek?”
As she listened to our back-and-forth, Chitanda showed an uneasy smile on her conflicted face.
“Umm, well, maybe it was Ho Chi Minh.”4
It felt like she was playing dumb on purpose. I had started something terrible. On the other hand, while it was true that I had actually forgotten the person behind the quote, I ended up remembering it during a discussion I had later on. It was Deng Xiaoping.
“Anyways, let’s just sit down.”
It was a sound suggestion. I went to grab a chair. Ohinata took a cellphone out from her pocket and placed it on the table in front of her. I suppose if you were to leave it in your pocket while you sat down, it might get in the way.
The cover was removed from the box. And now, we feast.
Even though the chips were thick and had a consistency vaguely resembling polyethylene foam, it almost felt like eating a capsule fruit.5 There was a faint sweetness to it as well.
“It really permeates throughout the body, doesn’t it?”
As I said this, Ohinata couldn’t help but comment.
“You look like an old man drinking alcohol after getting out of the bath when you say that.”
I really wanted to ask her whether or not she had actually seen a middle-aged man say something like that while drinking alcohol after a bath.
“Wow, this is good.”
Ibara had muttered this almost as if without thinking. After hearing that, Ohinata let out a huge smile.
“That’s great. My family loves these, so we picked up some.”
“Really? From where?”
Chitanda was focused on the box’s cover as she asked this.
“It says ‘Kagoshima Artisan Sweets’ on the box. JA Kagoshima… Even though it’s not in season, it certainly is very delicious. I guess you can sell it like this too, huh?”
Chitanda looked at the package with appraising eyes. I didn’t know whether or not Chitanda’s family was growing sweet potatoes as well, but she might’ve been sizing up JA Kagoshima as a business rival.
“You said you got it from Kagoshima? Do you have a relative living over there?”
I also thought it was strange that Ohinata had known about a regional confection from Kagoshima, but if she did have a relative there, it would’ve made sense if she had gone there once before. As I jumped to this hasty conclusion however, Ohinata immediately began to shake her head.
“No, no. I went to a concert over there.”
“A concert? In Kagoshima?”
Looking embarrassed, she responded, “It was in Fukuoka. These snacks were at a shop in Fukuoka.”
For a Kagoshima regional specialty to be sold in Fukuoka, just how far were they reaching out? I had a feeling that for Chitanda, a market of that size would be an enviable thing indeed. As Ibara continued to stack several chips on top of each other and bring them to her mouth, she started to talk.
“What concert did you go to in Fukuoka?”
Ohinata winked and held up her index finger to her mouth.
“That’s a secret.”
“Oh really now?”
No matter who she had gone to see, even if it was someone zealously singing about devil worship or something like that, I doubt any of us would have viewed her any differently. But if she wanted to keep it a secret, then there was no reason to pursue it.
“But Fukuoka’s pretty far. Was that the only option?”
“No, it was a nationwide tour. I followed the band, although as expected, going to every event was impossible.”
“It was nationwide?”
Chitanda was the one who asked this.
“From Hokkaido to Okinawa?”
Ohinata responded in a confused manner, “Umm, from Sendai to Fukuoka.” She then added in a frustrated tone, “The only one I couldn’t go to was their important Tokyo performance because the tickets were sold out.”
It wasn’t like I didn’t listen to music, but there was no way I could do something like follow a band on their nationwide tour. I was honestly moved by her determination.
“You really did a good job following them, didn’t you?”
For some reason, as I said this, Ohinata seemed to become a little docile.
“This is just something a friend told me, but love gives generously.”
“It never runs out?”
As she heard this, she tilted her head in thought and showed me a bitter smile.
“After I listened to their newest album this time around, I feel like the stockpiles might be starting to run low.”
Even while we were talking, the four of us continued to reach out for more sweet potato chips. Perhaps it was because of the light yet pervasive sweetness and the exquisite feel in your mouth when you ate it, but it was impossible to stop after one. Meanwhile, I completely forgot about my empty stomach.
When I came to my senses, I noticed there was only one chip left. Ibara and I moved at exactly the same time. Our fingers suddenly stopped above the chip. It was a situation that could’ve been seen as being romantic by some, but there wasn’t an ounce of warmth in the gazes that we exchanged at that moment, only cold hostility.
“I’m glad you guys liked it so much.”
Neither of us paying any attention to Ohinata, Ibara and I slowly started to retract out hands at the same time. Thinking that the other person was conceding the fight, both of us, once again at the same time, shot our arms forward and met in the middle. It wasn’t like I wanted the last chip so much that I was planning on holding my ground as a result, but…
The silence around us was awkward. I hesitated to do anything with my outstretched arm, nor could find the resolve in me to look at what kind of face Ibara was making. Chitanda, who had been watching the situation unfold, was about to mutter a nervous “umm” when we all heard a sound come to her rescue. Someone opened the door to the Earth Sciences lecture room.
All four of us turned to look at him at once. Satoshi stood there with a relaxed smile that looked as if it might’ve been humming. Ibara then spoke.
“It’s almost like you came here targeting this.”
Of course, Satoshi should have had absolutely no idea what was going on. Confused, he asked, “Targeting what?”
“We’re about to finish off a box full of snacks.”
And with that, the entire Classics Club had unexpectedly gathered in one spot. As Satoshi finished off the final chip, Ohinata gazed around at everyone and finally got around to the heart of the matter.
“Now then, because you ate the snacks, there’s something that I’d like my beloved upperclassmen to do for me.”
By the time I realized that this was all planned from the start to bribe us, it was already too late. In doing this, all of us had traded our Saturday plans for Ohinata’s sweet potato chips.
The weather reports weren’t looking very good, so I constantly worried about the impending rain. Fortunately, when I left the house the clouds were still while, and it looked like they would stay that way for a while. I didn’t know what time I’d be returning, however, so I put a compact umbrella in my tote bag just in case, although normally, I didn’t even have a bag with me; I would only carry a wallet in my pocket.
We were told to wait in front of Kaburaya Middle School’s front gate. Certainly enough, it was a location that all of us knew. On the school grounds were the soccer and track clubs, and additionally what was probably the tennis club, as they practiced. I took a cursory glance around, but I didn’t see anyone I recognized.
I had predicted that if anyone was going to show up late to our 3:00 appointment, it would be Satoshi, however my guess was off. Five minutes before that time, everyone, both Satoshi and I and well as Ibara and Ohinata, had gathered. Although it was denim, just the fact that Ibara wore a skirt was alone entirely unexpected. Because it was rapidly becoming summer, Ohinata wore a short-sleeved shirt.
“Sorry about this, for asking something so strange.”
Considering she was apologizing, she looked unexpectedly happy. Ibara and Satoshi also looked as if they were having fun while they said things like:
“This kind of thing is really rare. I’m looking forward to it.”
“I’m a bit excited. Don’t expect too much out of this, okay?”
…and so on and so on as they smiled back and forth. I didn’t say anything, but even my interest was somewhat aroused.
“It’s close by. I’ll show you the way.”
Ohinata walked in front.
Our destination was a coffee shop, and it hadn’t yet opened. It wasn’t that the store hadn’t opened for the day, but rather that the store hadn’t even had its opening day yet.
“So your uncle works over there?”
As Satoshi said this, Ohinata shook her head with a bitter smile.
“Didn’t I explain it to you? He’s my cousin. Even though our ages are pretty far apart.”
I had also thought he was her uncle. I guess he’s an old cousin. I’ll have to remember that.
At any rate, according to yesterday’s story, one of Ohinata’s relatives was opening up a new coffee shop, so we were asked if we could go in before they officially opened as test-guests. Just like Satoshi had mentioned, being able to enter a shop before it opened was a rare opportunity indeed. As we were essentially the first customers, it felt like some sort of honor.
Had Chitanda been here, it would have probably exposed her curiosity even more, however she wasn’t. She had some inescapable business to attend to, and because she didn’t know how long it would take, she couldn’t make any promises. Yesterday, she had said, “I really want to go too, but… it’d probably be too late if we did it in the evening,” clearly displaying her lingering attachment.
Personally, I was really looking forward to the opening of a new coffee shop. The shop that I had frequented somewhat, Pineapple Sand, had ended up relocating, so as a result, there weren’t any shops nearby that a first-year in high school could really enter. Seeing that this shop looked like one that would be easy to walk in whenever really made me thankful.
“So what kind of shop is it?”
I said this while we were walking, but Ohinata looked like she was deep in conversation with Ibara, so most likely she didn’t hear me. Oh well, I’ll be able to see it for myself in due time.
I ended up walking next to Satoshi.
He suddenly mentioned what had just been on my mind.
“This is pretty nostalgic, isn’t it?”
This was the route we had always taken to go to and from school. Because I had been essentially forced onto the Health Committee, there were times that I ended up leaving school late, and it was at times like those that we occasionally walked home together. It felt strangely unsettling to walk this path as a high school student in normal, weekend clothes.
“It almost feels like I’m doing something bad.”
As I said this, Satoshi quietly nodded.
“You’re right. I almost feel guilty.”
We had walked this route for three years, and in reality, this was the entire extent of our reach. Good things and bad things, our relationships with others and almost everything else has ended right here on this path. Kaburaya Middle School was a place that should’ve been filled with such warm familiarity, and yet, it felt strangely cold and distant. I felt out of place nearing the school I graduated from; I couldn’t help but feel like I was doing something taboo.
“Thinking back on it, I also remember not being able to get close to my elementary school after entering middle school.”
“Wasn’t it because of the uniforms?”
I wasn’t being serious of course. Satoshi also showed a bitter smile.
“Should we go pull out our middle school uniforms?”
I couldn’t even try to imagine doing that in an attempt to become reacquainted with the area. In the end, we no longer had a place in Kaburaya Middle School. If I absolutely wanted to be able to return, there was probably no other way than to get a job there.
As we seemingly became further and further separated from the school, and the voices from the school grounds could no longer reach us, Ohinata finally stopped.
“Here we are.”
It was located in-between a soba shop and a private residence, and it faced a busy street.6 The building wasn’t a new one; rather, I could tell it was actually quite old when looking up at all of the rust and discoloration on the sheet-iron roof. In saying that, however, the glass door didn’t have a single blemish, and the doorknob was polished to a shine.
“Wow, it looks pretty nice,” said Ibara as she faced the cream-colored walls. I, on the other hand, was paying more attention to the windows. When judging whether or not a shop is easy for someone to casually enter for the first time, windows are of key importance. If the windows were too small or don’t even exist in the first place, the shop might seem something like a relaxing secret base, but it would be much too imposing for a random passerby to enter. On the other hand, if the windows were too big, you would feel exposed while in the shop to the people outside, and it might be unnerving. This one, however, appeared to deftly avoid both of those possible problems. The windows were perfectly sized and had some small flower pots in them, containing blossoming red flowers. They were the kind you see often, but I couldn’t remember the name. I saw Satoshi facing them as well, so I asked him.
“Satoshi, what are those?”
I only received this condescending answer. I lightly glared at him and he shrugged his shoulders.
“I don’t know much about plants. Though Chitanda-san would probably know.”
“Oh, that’s right!”
Ibara was the one who raised her voice. She pulled a cellphone from her pocket.
“I suddenly remembered when you mentioned Chi-chan’s name. She might already be done with her business today.”
“Is that so? I really do want her to come,” muttered Ohinata as she turned the doorknob. “At any rate, let’s just go in for now.”
There was no sound when the glass door was pushed open. I guess they hadn’t put something like a customer bell on it yet.
I took a step inside, and before I realized it, I couldn’t speak. It wasn’t that the interior decoration was bad or anything. It was the smell of new wood, the smell of some disinfectant, and to add onto that, the smell of freshly-ground coffee beans. I was instantly assaulted by all of these at once, and it felt like my breathing might suddenly cease. Wouldn’t something like this be generally considered a terrible smell? I wondered if it was really okay for the place to smell like this, but considering it was just renovated, I suppose it couldn’t be helped. As I rationalized it to myself like this, I resumed my shallow breathing.
“So you guys came. Welcome.”
I finally noticed the man standing behind the counter as he said this.
Although he was supposedly a relative, he didn’t look like Ohinata in the slightest. I guess stuff like that happens though. When I compare my sister to myself, there certainly are aspects that are similar, but there’re also aspects that are entirely different. Anyways, that aside, he was surprisingly mellow. In addition to his voice being quiet, whenever our eyes met, he would end up looking away somewhat unnaturally. I wondered if that was any way to run a shop, but I suppose the owner of Pineapple Sand was also fairly emotionally distant. Thinking about it more, it was also possibly due to the fact that we were high school students and, as a result, not part of his intended targeted customer base that he skipped the warm reception.
“It has a bright atmosphere. I like it.”
As Ibara said this looking around at the also cream-colored shop interior, Satoshi spotted a painting on the wall and muttered to himself, “Oh hey, it’s Lautrec.”
I also turned to look at it.
There were seven seats at the counter and four tables. It was nice that there was a lot of room at them, but I couldn’t help but be disappointed at the fact that they were circular. When a table is round, I always end up feeling like everything will fall off from the very get-go.
The wall behind the shop owner at the counter was decorated with a relief. It looked like a heart lying flat on its side, but judging by the vine patterns surrounding it, it might have actually been a turnip instead. Inside that design were two rabbits facing each other. Although the owner seemed to be fairly emotionless, the relief was almost excessively sweet.
“Sorry there’s no music playing, it must make it feel kind of lonely around here. At any rate, please just relax for now and have a nice time.”
As he said this in a somewhat muffled voice, I couldn’t help but wonder if that was really necessary. I suppose that when this shop eventually opens, he plans on playing some kind of radio station or something. I prefer the quiet, although I feel like my opinion rests in the minority. I should’ve probably just been happy that a shop like this opened up near me in the first place.
“It’s almost ready, isn’t it? Just a little longer to go!”
Ohinata spoke in a much more familial manner than I had heard her talk at school. Even if two people were relatives, that doesn’t say anything about how close they actually were. Not only were there siblings who were raised apart like strangers, but I’m sure there were also cases of cousins growing up together as well. Even though two of them looked quite far apart in terms of age, she seemed extremely attached to the shop owner. Ohinata stood on her tiptoes and tried to look inside the kitchen.
“Ayumi-san isn’t here today? I was thinking it’d be good practice for you.”
When the show owner responded to Ohinata, his expression didn’t change one bit. Rather than being particularly cold to us, I suppose that’s just what he was always like.
“We had business to take care of at the public office, so Ayumi is headed there at the moment. You can mention that next time you come.”
“The practice is important! It’d be bad if you called Ayumi-san something like Po-chan in front of the customers.”
Considering what Ohinata said about us coming making for good practice, I could only assume that this “Ayumi-san” was to be the floor manager after the place opened. Was she the owner’s wife? Maybe a girlfriend at least. If she was just a waitress that he hired, I doubt he would have sent her to fill out paperwork at the public office.
Ohinata turned around and then asked us a question that sounded like she was the waitress herself.
“What would you guys like? A table, or perhaps…”
Satoshi looked around the shop’s interior once more and then responded.
“It looks like all the tables are meant to fit four people. That might seem perfect right now, but we still don’t know if Chitanda is going to be coming later.”
“Oh, that’s right.”
Ohinata nodded and then pulled out a stool from next to the counter before everyone else. We all followed in procession: Ohinata, Ibara, Satoshi, then me, in that order. The stools were tall and weren’t fastened to the floor. They didn’t swivel however, so it didn’t feel unstable at all, and to add to that, there was something about the stool that just made it feel comfortable to sit on. Ibara began to stoke the brand-new counter with what resembled deep affection and then started to say rather uncharacteristically:
“I think this might be the first time I’ve ever sat at a counter like this. It’s almost like I’ve taken another step into adulthood.”
That adult must have had quite the low standards if something like that was a step to reach it. The owner lined up cups with water in them on the counter and started speaking to Ohinata.
“I still can’t get rid of the paint thinner smell. I’m sure it will disappear in due time, though.”
“You better hope it does. The second I entered I knew there was a problem.”
Just like I had thought, I wasn’t the only one who was taken aback by the terrible stench. Strangely enough, however, I ended up already getting used to the smell. I didn’t really mind it at all.
“Apparently it’s because of the wallpaper adhesive… I give up. Oh, that’s right. I haven’t finished taking care of printing the menus yet.”
“That’s terrible though!”
As Ohinata laughed while saying this, the shop owner finally broke out into a grin.
“It’s fine, I’ll just go over each thing one-by-one. I’d like for you guys to test the house blend though.”
“Is everyone okay with that?”
All of us lightly nodded in response to Ohinata’s question, so she continued.
“Then we’ll have that and…”
Ohinata leaned across the counter.
“Is there anything to eat?”
“Four house blends. If you’re looking for something light, I think I’d be able put out a couple different types of sandwiches.”
“Then I’ll sample them for you.”
That’s probably impossible, Ohinata. Without thinking, I ended up muttering something in response.
“He probably doesn’t have any of the ingredients.”
“…Oh, maybe. Is that the case?”
The owner replied with a small “Pretty much” and then looked over towards me and did something like a compact nod. It might’ve been out of appreciation.
“I do have scones though. If you guys would like, I could get you some of those.”
Because he went out of his way, we took him up on that offer.
Perhaps he already had experience with this line of work or perhaps he was simply being deliberate with his actions this time around, but there wasn’t a single ounce of tension in his movements. Not only did he not appear restless in the slightest, but his every single action was performed carefully and without the slightest bit of unwarranted excess.
However, Ohinata seemed to have a different impression.
“Come on, isn’t Ayumi-san’s belly going to get big before long? When that happens, will you really be able to do all of this by yourself?”
With this, I became certain that “Ayumi-san” was female. Thinking about it, I just realized the name could have potentially been a guy’s name as well.
As he lined up the saucers, the owner responded.
“It should be fine if we don’t have many customers, not that I’m hoping that that’ll be the case though…”
“Obviously. You shouldn’t stop until there are hordes of customers clawing at each other’s throats to get in.”
“I’ve never seen a café like that.”
That was to be expected.
“I guess you’re right. It’d be nice if you could work part-time here, Tomoko-chan.”
“I’m not even sure I’d be able to. I’ve never worked a part-time job before.”
“Everyone starts somewhere.”
“That’s not what I mean. You know what my dad’s like. He doesn’t allow it, even though he slashed my allowance.”
“Loans are rough. You should try to be more understanding.”
“He stupidly bought an expensive car and even affected me with his decision. And yet, he refuses to let me earn money on my own. It doesn’t make any sense at all.”
As she complained by herself, she suddenly looked like she realized that not only her cousin but her school seniors were present as well. She began to smile with embarrassment.
“You know how it is. There’s a lot going on.”
As the conversation came to a lull, I could hear the sound of a passing car outside. As she stared at a corner of the shop, Ibara slowly started to speak.
“The wooden shelving is nice. It doesn’t look cheap at all.”
I didn’t even notice it was there until Ibara had mentioned that.
The low-rising shelf wasn’t anything like a cheap, unpolished self-project. It was fashionable, for sure, but it didn’t look like it could carry much. All of the books on it were fairly small.7 There were several volumes, domestic works and international works being mixed together.
“I wonder if he reads a lot,” said Satoshi to Ohinata instead of asking the owner himself. Ohinata seemed to struggle with the answer, but the owner raised his hand to stop her and answered.
“Not that much. The books over there are just ones I chose because I thought they looked cool.”
“You mean you didn’t put them over there because you wanted your customers to rea…”
“That didn’t really cross my mind at all.”
Although it was simply decoration according to him, I felt like he was just being humble. There was a magazine rack on the edge of the counter, but it only had a single stack of normal-looking magazines and newspapers. Satoshi followed my line of sight and started to stare at the rack as well.
“Oh hey, they have Shinsou.”8
He pointed out the weekly publication sitting in front. Even I had heard of Shinsou, but it wasn’t like it had particularly amazing journalism, nor was it even one of those tabloids that only covered sex and scandals. I imagined it as some half-assed attempt at a magazine. I thought it was strange that Satoshi would be so interested in the kind of magazine that you could find anywhere.
“Ohinata-san, could you do me a favor and grab that for me?”
Ohinata was the closest to the rack at the end of the counter. She tried to yank it out, eventually needing to hold the rack down with one hand because everything was so tightly packed in it, and eventually pulled out the copy of Shinsou. As she handed it over to Satoshi and he flipped through the pages, Ibara asked him a question.
“What is it? Was there an article that caught your eye?”
“Yeah, something like that. It’s rare for this kind of magazine to cover something from this city.”
“Oh yeah? What’s it about?”
“The Suitou Co. incident, of course.”
Ibara responded with an “I see,” and Ohinata didn’t act like anything particularly strange had happened. Everyone seemed to accept what Satoshi had said with some sort of mutual understanding and comprehension.
Essentially, I was the only one out of the loop.
As I said this, Satoshi stared at me blankly, almost as if on purpose.
“What are you talking about, Houtarou. You’re joking, right?”
“I think I’ve heard the name before. If I remember correct, Suitou has something to do with picnics, right?”
Without even listening, Satoshi opened up the magazine to a certain page and showed it to me.
It was a small article. At around half a page, it resembled something like a small corner section devoted to random tidbits of domestic news. The headline, however, stood out quite a bit. This is what it said. “Big-name Corporate Extoritonist Runs Out of Luck Earning Easy Pocket Money” I would have been fine reading it, but we were still waiting for the coffee, so Satoshi just summed it up for me.
“There’s a company in this city called Suitou Co., and they recently started recruiting a lot of new employees. Anyways, a lot of these recruits were sent notifications of appointment and given training, and then after they were told to show up at the office in four months for their new job. When the four months had passed and they showed up at the office, however, no one at the company knew who the new employees were and why they were there. Essentially, no one had actually employed them.”
It all seemed pretty straightforward.
“Wait, let me try to guess the ending. I bet all the new recruits had to pay something like a uniform fee and materials fee when they were first employed, right?”
“Exactly. Although I guess that’s really the only possible explanation for it.”
Ibara looked at me in amazement.
“It was a pretty big deal in the news, and yet you still didn’t know about it? Are you sure you’re properly paying attention to what happens in the world?”
Just because I didn’t know about a single incident didn’t mean there was a need to say that. As I was about to say that, however, I figured there was no reason to escalate things like that, so I stayed silent.
“That’s a pretty simple case of fraud. Did they catch the perpetrator?”
“It wasn’t really something you could pull off without a list of the test-takers. It appears they caught the culprit surprisingly easily. Interestingly enough, the perpetrator’s father was apparently an infamous corporate extortionist as well. Maybe them finding out about it led to the father’s arrest. It might be written in the article.”
That was probably false.
“Has a parent ever been arrested because the child was?”
However, it seemed like Satoshi knew all about that as well. He shrugged.
“Maybe that’s why it only has a small corner section in Shinsou.
Satoshi pulled the copy of Shinsou away from my reach and started to stare at the open page.
“When I think of fraud, I can only imagine it a being something that only affects old people in companies. Let’s think of something similar. Let’s say last year, we got a notice saying, “You passed the Kamiyama High School entrance exam. Please pay the new student entrance fee.” You probably wouldn’t assume you were being duped.”
“I could understand that,” said Ibara. “If you got a message saying your bid won at some on-site sale, you wouldn’t really doubt it.”
“On-site sale? You mean like a flea market?”
As I interjected with this, Ibara suddenly became quiet.
The owner then brought out the house blend coffees at the perfect time. Satoshi handed the copy of Shinsou back to Ohinata and all of us turned to our coffee.
I suddenly felt like I somewhat understood the reason behind the rabbits on the decorative relief. On both the coffee cup’s handle and the spoon’s grip were little decorations of rabbits with pressed ears. Perhaps this meant that the shop owner or “Ayumi-san” liked them a lot. Maybe they were just born in the year of the rabbit.
Unfortunately, no matter how much I liked coffee, my sense of taste and smell were nowhere near capable of appreciating the exquisite intricacies of the house blend from a single cup. Saying “This is really good” was the most I could do; when I tried to think of a way to elaborate on that with some sort of comparison or detail, the words couldn’t come out. Almost as if he wasn’t even seeking those details in the first place, he changed the subject to something with seemingly more priority after hearing our praises.
“You add jam and cream to scones, but I have a couple kinds. There’s strawberry jam and marmalade, and as for cream, you can have either the straight kind or mascarpone. What would you like?”
All of us gave our honest preferences, and yet it turned out to be something quite bothersome.
I chose strawberry jam and plain cream.
Satoshi chose marmalade and mascarpone.
Ibara chose marmalade and plain cream.
Ohinata chose strawberry jam and mascarpone.
We were perfectly divided. For a split-second, I noticed shop owner’s previously collected expression turn conflicted.
The jam and cream arrived before us, as well as two scones per person. Satoshi looked at all of us with a serious expression.
“Houtarou, I have quite a lot of pride in my intimate knowledge of boring, random things.”
“You don’t have to tell me that. I’ll say it for you. You have intimate knowledge of many a boring, random thing.”
“It feels weird to hear someone else say it like that. Wait, that’s not the point. What I’m saying is that I know the correct method by which one eats scones in England. Jam first…”
“So you cover the scone with jam before the cream?”
“Wait, cream first…”
“Well? Which is it?”
Satoshi stared at the scone plate and didn’t respond. I guess he knew one of them was supposed to be used first, but he forgot which one that was.
Without waiting for the troubled Satoshi’s answer, the shop owner casually told us instead.
“You put the jam on first. If you put the cream first on a warm scone, it’ll easily melt. But in the end, it’s completely up to how you like it.”
I see. It certainly did make a lot of sense. Even though he told us we could do whatever we wanted, none of us started with the cream after hearing that. As all of us started to eat, I suddenly heard a low noise ringing from somewhere. A cellphone was vibrating.
“Oh, it’s Chi-chan.”
Ibara stood up with the phone in her hand and immediately left the shop. I didn’t know this because I didn’t have a cellphone, but apparently talking on one in a face-to-face environment like this was really considered bad manners. It seemed like quite a hassle to use one.
Ibara quickly returned.
“She said she’s coming right now.”
“Does Chitanda-san know how to get here?”
“I told her to follow the path from Kaburaya Middle School until she hits the soba shop next door. I didn’t tell her the name of the shop but it should be fine.”
The banner outside the shop really stood out, so there was probably no need for concern.
After that, we started talking about the weather to kill some time.
“They said it was going to start raining in the evening.”
Although I said this without thinking much of it, Satoshi and Ibara were quick to counter me.
“That’s tomorrow isn’t it?”
“They said that the date changed.”
Ohinata grinned broadly from the sidelines without taking a side.
“I wonder which report is older.”
I wasn’t confident in my report being the most recent one, however I stuck by it because it was the report I had seen.
“That’s what it said in the morning news…”
“I also watched the morning news.”
Two versus one. The arbiter, Ohinata, then handed down her ruling.
“By majority rule, Oreki-senpai’s memory has been deemed to be incorrect.”
To think I would be forced to accept the opposition. I thought it might be nice to see them drenched in the rain, tears streaming down their faces as they thought with self-reflection, “Ah, Houtarou Oreki was truly right that time.”
While unintended, all of us took turns going to the restroom, and as I returned as the last one to do so, I saw Chitanda standing near the counter. Not even ten minutes had passed since she had talked with Ibara on the phone. She arrived pretty quickly. As I dried my hands with my handkerchief, I called over to her.
“You’re already here?”
She responded with a happy grin.
“I was closeby.”
Because Ohinata sat at the furthest end of the counter, the only place Chitanda could sit was in the seat next to mine. We had decided to sit at the counter because the tables only had four seats, but having five people sit in a line was probably too long, and it was a somewhat uncomfortable situation to be in. I had just realized it, but because there were no other customers, we could have easily just taken a seat from a nearby table and sat with all five of us around the circle.
“So what were you doing today?” asked Ibara.
“It was one of my relative’s kiju celebration.9 I say relative, but I don’t really know them too well. Anyways, I just had to give them my congratulations. After we greeted each other, they brought out the alcohol and I went to the kitchen to not cause any problems, but it ended up happening anyways.”
“Kind of. It wasn’t really much, but something did.”
Chitada showed a slightly troubled smile on her face.
“When I went to go borrow their phone, it suddenly started to ring. Because there was no one around, I decided to take their message, but it ended up being terrible. It was an old lady with a strong accent and quiet voice so couldn’t understand anything she was telling me. I didn’t know if I should try to take the message or see if I could transfer it somehow… Just getting her to tell me her name was a challenge in itself. Had I not had to deal with that, I would have been able to come much more quickly.”
The one who raised her voice was Ohinata. Even though there were three people in-between her and Chitanda, she leaned over the counter to get as close as she could to ask a question anyways.
“You said you were borrowing their phone? You mean at the house you were celebrating the birthday at, right? Is there really a place around here that doesn’t get any signals?”
Chitanda looked confused. She likely had no idea what Ohinata had meant by that. I decided to butt in before things became more complicated.
“Chitanda doesn’t have a cellphone.”
As she was at a loss for words, I suddenly felt like I had awakened some terrible beast. Ohinata leaned even further forwards.
“Wait, but then… How can you get by? Like when you need to contact your friends. Isn’t it bad when you can’t contact them?”
Chitanda had a soft grin on her face.
“I deal with it somehow.”
I also didn’t have a cellphone, but for some reason I could feel the societal pressure start to creep around us this time. Between me and Chitanda, I wonder which of us would end up getting one first.
“That aside, a kiju celebration, huh? I suppose Chitanda-san really does have it tough.”
As if to tease her, Satoshi began to talk.
“Really? This kind of thing happens to me once a year.”
“I have never been to a distant relative’s place to celebrate their birthday once in my entire life,” muttered Ohinata to herself as she sat at the edge of the counter.
Anyways, how old was someone when they had their kiju again? I felt like it had something to do with the number seven, but I wasn’t sure. As I gave up on remembering, Chitanda began to speak with the shop owner.
“Would you also like the blend? If you’d like, I can heat up a scone for you as well.”
“I’m actually not very good with caffeine; I’m sorry you went out of your way to call me over like this. It’s a very wonderful shop, however.”
Now that I think about it, I suppose that was the case, wasn’t it. Whenever Chitanda drank anything with a lot of caffeine in it, she’d always become something else. For now, she was probably just referring to it messing up her ability to sleep. Certainly.
“Thank you very much, but I see.”
After he mulled it over in his head for a little bit, he continued.
“Maybe it’d be best to have a non-caffeinated menu as well.”
No matter how you look at it, Chitanda was a rare case so there probably wasn’t any need to delve into that any further.
“At any rate, if that’s the case, I’m afraid to say there’s nothing I have that you could eat.”
“Don’t mind me. I’m sorry I arrived late in the first place anyways.”
And with that, Chitanda made do with a cup of water. As she started to drink it, however, she abruptly raised her head.
“This is… This isn’t tap water.”
She took another sip.
“Nor is it from a well or anything around that. It tastes like something from further upstream, most likely medium-hard water drawn from a spring higher up in the mountains. Am I right?”
The owner broke out into a smile and gave the tiniest of nods.
“It really is a shame I couldn’t have a customer like you try the blend.”
I also took some water and brought the cup to my lips.
“I see, it really is mellow.”
“Oh, I added lemon to that one, but it’s just tap water.”
What a world we live in.
As Chitanda held the cup with both hands, she peered around the shop.
“I’d be nice if I could drink the coffee as well. I’m glad that everything is going well at least.”
“Thank you very much.”
“What’s this café called?”
It was an obvious question.
And yet it opened the floodgates. Thinking about it now, it hadn’t been brought up even once in all of our discussions. I looked at Satoshi, he looked at Ohinata, and she finally asked the owner in turn.
“What’s the name?”
However, even the shop owner clammed up with a “That’s, well…” Ohinata pressed the question even further.
“No way. You can’t be telling me that you haven’t decided on it yet.”
“That’s not it. It’s just, well…”
The owner looked at Ohinata with a pained expression.
“You’re going to laugh if I say it, Tomoko-chan, so I’m still keeping it secret.”
“It’s something that would make me laugh?”
He thought about it for a bit and then said, “I personally think it’s a good name. The second you see it, you’d know it belonged to a coffee shop.”
You’d think that in the time leading up to the shop’s opening, he would want to have the shop name already out there to publicize it. It felt a little strange to me that he was hiding it.
And, of course, Chitanda wouldn’t let that “strange feeling” pass her by.
“Um… Then is the reason this shop doesn’t have a signboard yet because you didn’t want Ohinata-san to see it?”
Now that she had mentioned it, I suppose there really wasn’t a signboard in front of the shop, was there. If there was, we would have almost certainly noticed it. That said, it seemed highly unlikely that he put off the construction simply because he didn’t want his cousin to laugh at him. As expected, he shook his head.
“The font is pretty elaborate so it’s taking a long time to finish.”
“When you say font, do you mean you’re using the alphabet?”
“No, only kanji.”10
As she heard this, Ohinata let out a howl of delight.
“Kanji, huh! You’re right, I might actually laugh. After all, you have a laughable sense for kanji!”
She then turned to face us with an expression full of happiness.
“This is the same guy that took the ai (love) from aizen-myouou (Rāgarāja) and ra (silk) from akki-rasetsu (Rakshasa), among others, to make ai ra-bu yuu (I love you).”11
Rāgarāja, huh? At any rate, the words she chose to demonstrate her point were beyond terrible. Ibara looked like she was torn between laughing and staying silent.
“What the heck’s up with those examples? Were you born to a Buddhist temple or something, Hina-chan?”
Was there really a first-year in high school that knew about things like Rāgarāja and Rakshasa? As I thought this, Ohinata’s tanned cheeks started to turn red.
“No, I was just born to a lowly salaryman. I couldn’t think of any other words, so it doesn’t matter, does it?! I mean, what would you say if it were you, senpai?”
Ibara immediately responded.
“The ai from aichi-ken (Aichi Prefecture) and the ra from koura (shell).”
Wow. That was a pretty impression selection. All of us spoke up in admiration.
On the other hand, I could have sworn I heard the shop owner stealthily mutter something like, “You’re close.”
“So the shop’s name is still a secret? Hehehe, I’m curious!”
As least she was having fun.
As he said this, Satoshi folded his arms.
“If we’re talking about kanji used in coffee shops you often see ‘to wait’ (tai) and ‘dream’ (mu) used in conjunction to make ‘Coffee Time’ (tai + mu).”
“I know what you mean.”
Ohinata nodded, and the owner also said, “It’s along those lines.”
By saying his shop name was along the lines of that “tai+mu” wordplay, was he saying he used the same characters? I assumed that was the case, but Ibara had a different idea.
“When you say ‘used a lot’, do you mean like the jewel radical in ‘coffee shop’?”
“Jewel radical? Isn’t it the king radical?”
“Although it looks like king, it’s called a jewel radical,” replied Ohinata to my question.12 Where did she even learn something like that. Without thinking, I turned to Satoshi, but he shook his head in the same confused manner, as if he were saying, “I had no idea either.”
Ibara’s knowledge might have been correct in that one instance, but the rest of her answer was off.
“That’s not it.”
Then, as if in amusement, the owner also added, “You’re correct about it being three characters though.”
As Satoshi said this however, Ohinata quickly stopped him with her out stretched hand.
“That won’t do, senpai. Let me try to figure it out.”
“Well then, let’s make a competition out of it.”
However, Ohinata was unexpectedly serious.
“This is just something a friend told ma, but you only get three tries to guess a name as has been the case since ancient times.”
Was that so. If it was decided in ancient times, I guess there was nothing we could do about that. Satoshi started to tilt his head and wonder, “I would be able to understand if it was three days, but…” however he quickly gave up seeing Ohinata’s resolve.
“So give us a hint! A hint!”
For the briefest of moments, I saw the owner look at the noisy Ohinata with an incredibly kind expression on his face. It might’ve been a hasty deduction on my part, but I started to wonder if he had always played with Ohinata in this pure, childlike manner ever since she was a small girl. Then, almost as if he wasn’t serious about wanting to keep the shop’s name a secret in the first place, he gave a hint.
“The name on the signboard is just like it is.”
“Signboard… What? Isn’t that obvious though?”
“Since you only get three tries, you should think carefully about it. If you end up getting it right, I’ll give you something nice.”
Ohinata’s expression immediately exploded into brilliance.
“I’ll definitely get it right. Just you wait.”
She then ferociously pointed her index finger towards all of us.
“You heard me. I’ll definitely get it right, so none of you need to say anything from here on.”
For the first time since meeting her, I thought that this lively first-year in front of me was pretty childlike. I didn’t mean that like I suddenly saw some annoyingly juvenile side of her. If I had to choose, I would probably say that it was endearing. I might’ve even been smiling.
A clock was mounted on the wall, and even that had a rabbit on it. At some point, the hour hand had already reached five o’clock. We had been here for a surprisingly lengthy amount of time.
Perhaps because she was thinking, Ohinata rarely opened her mouth as we talked. I had already finished off the coffee and didn’t even have the cup in front of me anymore. I assumed it was going to rain in the evening, so I wanted to leave before that happened. As everyone was slowly running out of things to say, I decided to take the opportunity to say it then.
“Well then, I think it’s about time.”
As I said that single line however, Ohinata seemed to suddenly look nervous. She looked up at the clock and had an expression that seemed to ask where all the time had gone. She quickly reverted to her usual smile.
“Oh, by the way!” she exclaimed. “Do you guys have a sec? There was something I wanted to ask.”
Most likely this was just a ploy to give her more time to try and figure out the shop’s name. It appeared that I was the only one who noticed her earlier moment of panic. The other three didn’t seem to think that she had just pulled something quickly out of thin air to distract them.
“What is it?”
Ohinata didn’t look at Ibara, the one who asked this, but rather at Chitanda.
“Chitanda-senpai, your face is big, isn’t it.”13
“My face is…”
As Chitanda muttered this to herself, Ibara quickly interjected.
“It’s okay, that’s not what it means. You have a thin face, Chi-chan.”
“No, I understood what it meant. I was just really surprised.”
She rested her hand on her chest.
“Umm, I wouldn’t say I know that many people, but I do meet a lot of people through my family’s official business.”
“Then,” Ohinata gulped and then nervously continued in a manner very unlike her, “would you know someone, like say, Agawa?”
Chitanda lowered her head slightly.
“Are you talking about the first-year, Sachi Agawa-san?”
Ohinata’s body sank back like it was sapped of all its strength. Satoshi and Ibara sat between us so I couldn’t see what kind of expression she was making.
“Did something happen to Agawa-san?”
“No… I just wanted to know if you knew her.”
Chitanda, who sat on the other side of me, had a blatantly puzzled expression as well. But I thought that there might have been something off about her appearance; she didn’t say “Did something happen to Agawa-san? I’m curious.” Ohinata remained silent, so the atmosphere became strained around us.
“Umm, well then,” I said once more as I saw what was happening to everyone around me at the counter, “shall we get going?”
Everything was on the house, apparently. I felt bad leaving it at that because business was just starting for him, but the owner told me that the register wasn’t working yet anyways, so the first customers would be able to enjoy tax free food because it was a pain to calculate it manually. I’m fairly certain it was all a façade, however. Satoshi and Ibara, as well as Ohinata, were all close to the door. I was next to the cash register with the owner, and Chitanda stood next to me.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t drink the coffee even though you went through all this trouble to let us come in early.”
The owner only smiled as Chitanda lowered her head. I had thought he was an emotionless man, but I guess I was completely wrong about that. Maybe he was somewhat nervous because we were his first customers.
“Don’t worry. Coffee isn’t something you absolutely need to drink.”
As she started to speak, Chitanda suddenly tripped over her words. It appeared she was about to say the name of the shop. However, the name wasn’t known to us, of course. She ended up saying, “Th… this shop… I hope it does well,” as well as other things of that nature.
Chitanda then suddenly turned to face me.
“Um, Oreki-san. I know we’ll be able to see it when the shop eventually opens, but I… well, you see… just a little, well… um… I’m curious.”
Ohinata didn’t want us to solve the mystery behind the name for her, but that didn’t necessarily mean that I had to wait. I didn’t understand anything about the unnatural things she had said and done prior, but at least I had a chance of solving this different issue at hand.
Fortunately, there were a notepad and ballpoint pen near the register.
“Can I borrow those?”
“Thanks. If I do it alone, it won’t count against her three tries I’m sure.”
I then started to scribble on the notepad. Chitanda peeked over my hand.”
There were three kanji lined up next to each other.
The first one meant “to walk.”
The next one meant “alongside.”
And the final one meant “rabbit.”
This shop’s name had several conditions.
“If Ohinata heard it, she would laugh.”
“Anyone would be able to see it was a coffee shop just by looking at the name.”
“It was along the same line as ‘Coffee Time.’”
“It wasn’t ‘Coffee Shop.’”
“The shop name only consisted of three kanji.”
And finally was the hint given by the shop owner: “The name on the signboard is just like it is.”
What exactly was the signboard, then? So far, there was no physical representation of the signboard. So what was it? There were two possibilities.
The first was “the poster girl,” or in other words, “Ayumi-san.” It was possible to write her name using three kanji, but no matter which ones you used, no one would be able to tell it was a coffee shop.
The other option was for it to be a “menu sign.” If that were the case, it’d go without saying that the item he’d choose for it would be coffee. He didn’t seem very interested in the light meals, and it’s not like coffee shops tended to be famous for their scones or sandwiches in the first place. On top of that, it seems like he didn’t use the original kanji for coffee, either. In that case…
“You said the name of the shop was the name of the sign itself, didn’t you. And the poster item in this shop is the house blend, am I correct?”
“Oh, I see.”
Chitanda spoke up.
“I also noticed he said ‘it’s a shame you couldn’t try our blend’ instead of saying ‘our coffee.’”
I nodded. It seemed like he placed an unnatural emphasis on calling the coffee the house blend.
If that was the name of the shop, then how would you write it in kanji? The answer was similar to the earlier “Coffee Time” example. Just like I had thought when I heard it originally, there were specific characters used. When splitting up the word blend (burendo) into three parts, you can only really do so like this: bu-ren-do. It wouldn’t really work any other way.
My first thought was the kanji for rabbit, which can be read as do. There were pictures of rabbits everywhere in this shop, on the cups, on the spoons, and on the clock. Most importantly, there was even the large relief with the two rabbits on the wall behind the counter. I was almost certain there was a correlation between the amount of rabbits and the shop’s name having something to do with them.
My next guess was the kanji meaning “walking.” There weren’t many kanji that would be pronounced bu that also might have something to do with the coffee shop. He mostly likely wouldn’t have used the ones meaning “incorrect” or “to despise,” and the ones meaning “to stroke” and “absoluteness” were much too difficult to be in a name. I thought it might be the one meaning “to dance,” but even that seemed too splendid for a simple coffee shop. Thinking about it once more, I remembered “Ayumi-san.”
I was simply guessing at the characters in the apparently pregnant Ayumi-san’s name. Earlier, when talking to the owner, Ohinata had mentioned, “It’d be bad if you called Ayumi-san something like Po-chan in front of the customers.” If her name was “Ayumi-san” but her nickname was “Po-chan” then her name most likely contained the kanji for “walking.” Whether or not it was the only character in her name, I had no idea. At any rate, the character was commonly read as bu, so there was no problem putting it on the sign.
That left the ren. This was the most difficult one.
The shop owner said that Ohinata would laugh once she learned the name of the place. Would Ohinata really laugh about putting Ayumi-san’s character in the title, when she herself wasn’t in a relationship? She might, I suppose, but I personally didn’t think it was that embarrassing. This meant he was probably talking about the ren as being the embarrassing point.
On the relief on the wall, there were two rabbits inside the heart.
“Ayumi-san” (bu) “alongside” (ren) the “rabbit” (do). Burendo, or “Blend.” The shop owner thought silently about it.
He looked down at the notepad and up at me, and then cracked a smile.
“What do I get?”
However the shop owner simply laughed as he shook his head.
“You were close.”
I was off, huh?
It wasn’t a shock. I didn’t have a lot of confidence in it in the first place. I thought that the bu and the do were good choices, but I still felt unsure about the ren until the very end. Just as I expected, the owner took the ballpoint pen and underlined the ren.
I then looked at what he wrote next to it and suddenly realized what made it so embarrassing for him. The middle kanji in the new, upcoming coffee shop’s name was “to adore.” The rabbits adored by Ayumi. I had previously thought the owner was somewhat callous, but to think he was such a romantic. Had Ohinata heard this, she would have most certainly smiled. It would have been a smile so bright it could have pierced through any depth.
However, Chitanda alone remained confused.
“Um, why is it the kanji for ‘walking?’”
That’s right, she wasn’t here when we were talking about “Ayumi-san.” I didn’t want to keep the others waiting too long, so I kept it brief.
“I’ll explain it to you on the way back.”
Chitanda replied quietly, “Please do.”
I went to make sure we didn’t leave any belongings on the counter, and I saw that only the cups, plates, and spoons remained. Before I left the shop, I suddenly realized something. The newspaper sitting in the front of the magazine rack was the evening edition. I quickly rushed over to it and picked it out with my index and middle finger. I looked at the weather report and saw that it said it would start raining in the evening. I handed it over to Satoshi and flashed a triumphant look.
“See? Look at that. It says it’s going to rain in the evening.”
“Are you still hung up on that? I didn’t know you held grudges like this, Houtarou.”
That wasn’t what I had intended. Ibara, who had already been standing in front of the door, turned around.
“Even without that, you could tell just by looking outside. See?”
Looking outside the glass door, I could see rain drops beginning to fall.
Even though I had known the report ahead of time, I ended up not even being able to leave before I had to deal with it. At least the compact umbrella wasn’t going to be useless after all.
3. Present: 11.5km; 8.5km Remaining
As I reflected back on this, I cemented my belief that there was at least one strange thing with what had happened that day. Something that wasn’t the case when I walked into the shop for the first time but was the case after I left it. I couldn’t imagine that it was simply a coincidence. Someone did it on purpose. It was connected with the question about what to do with the lucky cat on my birthday, so to speak.
As I traced further back into my memories, a thought started to amass in my head. At this point, however, it still remained nothing more than an ambiguous idea. In the end, I needed to ask her for her side of the story.
The mountain-pass stopped rising. A small collection of houses started to fan out from below my vision. It was Jinde, the place where Chitanda’s house was located.
By this point, my approximation of the distance between me and Chitanda was already beyond salvation. As I ran and walked, my pace continued to change all over the place.
And yet, for some reason, I felt like I’d be able to talk with her once I reached the end of the decline and finally entered the area called Jinde.
- A Japanese proverb. (盗人を見て縄を綯う) It refers to someone desperately starting preparations after it is already too late.
- Sweet potato in Japanese is satsuma-imo.
- Referencing a famous line by Chinese statesman Deng Xiaoping in 1961, “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is white or black, if it catches mice it is a good cat.”
- She mentioned a Vietnamese statesman instead of a Chinese one. Never change, Chitanda.
- A type of dry fruit that splits open to release seeds.
- Soba is a type of Japanese noodle.
- Specifically 127mm x 188mm
- Literally translates to something like “the heart of the matter”
- This is a special birthday in Japan that happens when one is 77 years old.
- WARNING: From here on, there will be a lot of discussions involving kanji and its potential wordplay, so I’ll try to condense a quick crash course here for those who don’t know much about it. Kanji are characters in Japanese deriving from Chinese, and as a result, you can read them several ways, those ways usually stemming from traditional Japanese or Chinese readings. While each kanji usually has a distinct meaning associated with it, you can combine the Chinese readings to produce something that sounds like something else, while still maintaining the meaning associated with each individual kanji. The combination of kanji and unique readings associated with them form an important aspect of Japanese wordplay.
- Rāgarāja: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R%C4%81gar%C4%81ja, Rakshasa: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rakshasa
- Radicals refer to the various components that make up a kanji. ‘Coffee shop’ is written in kanji as such: 珈琲館 Notice the left parts of the first two characters. Ibara and Houtarou were debating if that radical was either jewel (玉) or king (王), when Ohinata mentioned that the king radical is actually confusingly called the jewel radical. See? Even Japanese people have trouble with kanji.
- An expression meaning to know a lot of people from different walks of life.