To kill time before my bus I walked through Namba, passing streets and neighborhoods that I had never seen before. Even within Umeda I saw streets I'd never been down, which was surprising and depressing. What did I do with my year in Osaka? Did I never venture beyond the same three blocks? Did I never wonder, "Where does that lead?"

Oh well. That was then. Now I explore everything I can find. I have learned curiosity in eight years.

From Namba I walked to Nihonbashi, where I talked to a doctor on the sidewalk. I met him because I asked if we were walking towards Den-Den Town. He assured me we were, then asked how long I had been in Japan. We started talking.

He was an influenza doctor who worked in the area. He was kind and spoke very polite Japanese, and I in turn tried to be polite as possible. He said that Den-Den Town, which used to be Osaka's electronics district, was much quieter than it used to be eight years ago. Now it's all manga, anime and DVDs; many of its quaint, shabby electronics stores have been driven away. Eventually we parted ways. He continued on to his influenza clinic while I went wandering through the back alleys, back to the Midosuji Line to Umeda.

There were still some electronics stores on the side streets. A store with perhaps a thousand different cameras meticulously labelled and facing the same direction. A dimly-lit store packed with stereos on rusted steel racks. "Store" may be a misnomer. It was like a garage with a cashbox hidden among the clutter. A man sat on a lawn chair in front, drinking a beer.

I got to Umeda about forty minutes before I was supposed to meet Naoko. What the hell; I went into a narrow bar I had seen in the Hankyu warrens. Glasses rattled when trains thundered overhead. The bartop was battered yellow plastic. I loved it. I ordered cheap Japanese whiskey on the rocks and immediately became involved in a conversation with the entire bar, which never happens in Tokyo. It began with obligatory compliments about my Japanese. Strictly smalltalk: I've been complimented on my Japanese before saying a single word.

Osaka people love gaijin who love Osaka and the denizens of this bar, mostly middle-aged laborers, were no exception. I trotted out my Osaka dialect to approving laugher and we made the obligatory Osaka jokes, accompanied by the appropriate hand gestures. I'm familiar with this routine. I've had so many conversations about my height, Minneapolis, Osaka, Japanese food and Japanese girls that I have a full clip of ammunition by now. On any other subject my vocabulary is limited but keep it simple and I'll pontificate like the Prime Minister.

When I got up to go, a wizened, toothless man who hadn't said a word took me by the arm and gave me a pamphlet in an envelope. It was a sightseeing map of Osaka marked with trips to take and places to see. I didn't have the heart to tell him I was about to leave, so I thanked him warmly. The entire bar practically sang out me out the door.

I met Naoko at Big Man. We ended up sitting at the bar of a restaurant called Zen, eating shrimp and mushrooms, kimcheed fish stomach, konnyaku steak, soy-and-lemon scallops and gorgonzola onion rings. We talked more easily than the previous night. We hardly stopped. She told me about her motorcycle-riding great-aunt who could text-message almost as fast as she could. I told her about going to Chinatown like we all did eight years ago.

"I still wear that china dress you bought me," she said. I had forgotten. Several of the girls had bought china dresses but she couldn't afford one, so I bought it for her as a surprise. How could I forget that night?

"I still have the scarf you made me for Valentine's Day."

"And Totoro? Do you still have Totoro?" A huge stuffed Totoro I had slept with every night until she finally came to Minneapolis.

"Of course. I still have everything." Letters, pictures, a black ringlet of her hair, a music box.

Her dimple flashed. Her sweater kept slipping off her shoulder.

She asked the owner where she could buy cigarettes but he wouldn't hear of it. Instead he ran to a vending machine to buy cigarettes for her, returning breathless in seconds. I liked him. When I told him his konnyaku was the best in the world he laughed uproariously and gave himself a round of applause. We started talking and got onto Prince and Bob Dylan, and suddenly Naoko pointed out that I had ten minutes until my bus.

Frantic bill paying. I gathered my things and we hurried through Umeda. Naoko realized she didn't know where we were headed after all, so we rushed off in the general direction my map indicated. It was a frenzied, exhilarating dash. We found the bus stop and were quiet for a moment.

"We'll meet again, right?" she said. Not quite a question.

"Of course," I said, hoping it was true and soon. She gave me the first hug I've had in three months.

I stowed my luggage and asked the driver how much time we had. Five minutes. We walked to a bank of vending machines across the street. I bought two bottles of water for the trip. and we walked back to the bus. I took the opportunity to get another hug, longer this time, and I could feel her hands clutching the sides of my jacket.

"You smell good." she said.

" Like cigarettes?"

" Like eight years ago."

"I'm glad I could see you again."

"I am too. It feels like a movie."

I knew what she meant. It felt like we were teenagers again. If it was a movie, this would be the part where we swear never to be apart again. In movies, "Love" is always capitalized, it's always True and it's always meant to last Forever. There's no mistaking it.

But Forever is simply the absence of After, in movies. Time freezes when the actors' real names rise to the ceiling, so no one changes and no one makes terrible decisions later, when the thing has run its course.

For a moment I let myself think that things could be so stupidly simple. For more than a moment.

Then I got on the bus back to Tokyo and waited for the credits to roll.





Earlier today I wandered Umeda's cramped hallways looking for breakfast. Many stores were still closed, but finally I found a place serving kushi katsu, skewers of fried stuff.   I had a bad feeling as soon as I ducked under the short curtain across the entrance. The place was dirty and the proprietor, clearly drunk at ten in the morning, took an instant dislike to me. He gave me such a startled, resentful look that I thought he might still be setting up.

" Uh, are you open?" I asked uncertainly.

"What do you mean, 'Are you open?'" he said derisively. "There are customers, aren't there?" He indicated two men drinking beers at the other end of the bar. They looked embarrassed.

"He's open," one said mildly.

"'Are you open...'" the proprietor muttered to himself. "Of all the... Well, whatever. What do you want to drink? Beer?"

"Water's fine, thanks."

"Water?" He spit something white in the direction of his kitchen equipment. "Can't you at least get an iced tea or something?"

"Ah," I said, and ducked back out of his store. Laughter followed me through the halls.

I walked through Umeda this morning with my eyes half-full, thinking about Naoko. Turmoil and confusion. It's not that I want to get back together with her. She's one in a million, though, and that old magnetism is still there, at least for my part. Hell, maybe I do want her back. We called things off because of distance, and now that distance is all but eliminated.

But there is another distance between us, born of six years' passage. Many things felt the same: comfortable, fun, sexy. Yet we're not the high school students we once were. We've both done some living in six years. I don't know her anymore. She doesn't know me. We are different people now.

She wants to have kids soon. She wants to quit her job and raise her adorable children. She'd be a wonderful mother. If I were to try to win her back somehow it would have to be for the long haul. There's too much history to be casual. But I doubt our goals in life are compatible. 

For these and other reasons it's best to accept things and move on. Yet it's tempting to have other ideas.

I went to Kobe, which improved my mood considerably.

This city is too sad for me. Tokyo was the right choice; Osaka may forever be Naoko's city. She's everywhere I go. There is no place for me in her life, nor for her in mine, but in Osaka I still belong to Naoko.

So I went to Kobe, which I did with twenty rowdy exchange students almost exactly eight years ago. I had just met Naoko and she came with us. We all shared a bottle of Finnish vodka at eleven in the morning and hopped a train to Kobe, aiming for Chinatown. I went to remember, to try to feel that again.

All I've been doing, since I got here, is remember things. I've chased memories, visited old haunts, communed with old ghosts. I've seen faces I barely remembered. I've wandered cities I no longer know.

Like Kobe. I got lost and went in the opposite direction for ten minutes. There are worse things than being lost in Kobe on a lively Saturday afternoon. A few inquiries corrected my course and soon I was hip-to-hip with shoppers in a covered arcade lined with stores. I knew Chinatown was close but I wasn't sure exactly where. I don't usually realize my height but here I noticed it as I looked over a sea of black hair. I glanced to the left and saw a line of yellow lanterns at the end of an alley. There. I changed course and waded through people. After some more maneuvering I found myself under the huge stone gate at the entrance to Chinatown.

The narrow stone road was even more packed, human traffic moving five steps a minute. All the signs were red with gold kanji. Vendors sold noodles, dumplings, buns and skewers. I ate a steamed bun with a thick slice of bacon in the center. It's considered boorish to walk while eating but in this festival atmosphere everyone had abandoned that stricture.

One pass was enough. I was full of food on skewers and didn't feel like dealing with the crowds again. So I headed back to the train station and got a good seat on a train back to Osaka. Tiny houses, clinging to the side of mountains, flashed past the window for forty minutes.

I'm in Cafe Yamamoto, in the Umeda warrens. It feels inexplicably Cino-Russo-Turkic, all yellow lamps, low ceilings and dark, carved wood. I like to drink coffee in coffee-colored surroundings.

My departure is a few hours away, but I find myself wishing I could stay here with Naoko. We will have dinner again tonight and then I will I will board a dark bus back to Tokyo, where nothing will have changed. My rotten guesthouse and my dreary job will slap me back to real life. This cozy cafe and its yellow lamps that match the leaves on the trees outside, these are a dream I will long for some day.

I wish I had some damn friends in Tokyo. I'm growing weary of this constant solitude: work, study, sleep. It's depressing to realize that even though I'm going back, it's still not home. Minneapolis isn't home either, anymore. Nothing is, or maybe Osaka still is. I'd like to feel about Tokyo the way I once felt about Osaka. It would be nice to be comfortably settled somewhere, with some good friends and maybe a good woman. Eyes half-full again.