I was woken by someone pounding at my front door. I fumbled for my alarm clock. It read 3.15. I struggled up.
‘Who the hell-’
It was Tomoe. Beautiful, immaculate Tomoe - now dishevelled, her hair tumbling down, mascara led by a stream of tears down her face.
‘Tomoe, what’s wrong?’
She collapsed in my arms. I led her to the sofa.
‘What’s the matter? Are you hurt?’
‘Just hold me.’
I held her. After an hour she cried herself to sleep. It must have been another before I dropped off as I remember the birds starting to sing at first light.
I woke with a start, sprawled across the sofa, alone. Anxiety started to rise in me but then the bathroom door opened and Tomoe glided out, swathed in the luxury white towels she insisted I kept. She greeted me a sweet smile and a cheery ‘ohaiyō gozaimasu’.
I’ve never been much of a morning person but there was more to this than being confused by slow wits.
I waited for an explanation that didn’t come. Tomoe glanced over as she readied herself.
‘You can use the bathroom now Ray-chan. I’ll put on my make-up out here.’
I decided to dispense with the subtle approach.
‘Tomoe, what’s going on? You turned up in the middle of the night crying your eyes out. You can’t just act like nothing happened.’
She paused and turned toward me.
‘I’m sorry Rei-chan,’ she said, managing to lend Japanese pronunciation to a one-syllable word, as she did when playful or trying to win me around. ‘I didn’t mean to worry you. I just had a horrible day - I needed to be with you.’
She unfolded her legs, leant over and gave me the tenderest kiss. The matter apparently settled she returned to her lipstick.
‘But I am worried. What made you so upset?’
‘It was nothing, really,’ she said looking back up. ‘But I can’t talk while I’m doing my make-up. Have a shower and we can speak over breakfast when I’m done.’
When I came out of the shower she was gone.
“Sorry, late, had to go. Will be away a few days. Reception bad so can’t call. Talk when back. Don’t worry! xoxo”
I re-read the text. There was nothing I could do but wait.
She re-appeared a few days later, planting a huge kiss on my lips as she kicked off her shoes.
‘I missed you babe!’
Thirty immensely enjoyable minutes later she lay curled around me, her head snuggled into my chest.
‘Rei-chan, I need to ask you a favour.’
‘Anything,’ I murmured. ‘What is it?’
‘I need you to go to soapland.’
Japanese ‘soaplands’ provide continuity to a specific type of bathhouse, popular since Edo times, where bathing was only a precursor to the main event. They do so by exploiting a convenient loophole in Japan’s prostitution laws. Historically, the provision of sexual services was accepted in much the same way other leisure activities were. But in the aftermath of American occupation post-war, a more puritanical approach was half-heartedly adopted. Perhaps intentionally vague, workarounds were quickly found for all forms of sexual activity other than intercourse.
Soaplands managed to find a way around even this. They offered stimulating baths followed by exotic massages, but critically the establishment’s services ended there. Just as crucially, any of the inevitable activities then agreed by employee and customer were considered private arrangements between individuals and therefore not bound by the prostitution laws.
I knew of men in relationships who had indulged in soapland’s offerings. I’d never heard of any who had visited at their partner’s request.
I turned to Tomoe trying to work out this test.
‘I need you to go to soapland,’ she repeated.
I couldn’t think of any plausible reason for the request.
‘Why would you want me to go to soapland? Girls normally don’t want their boyfriends to go there.’
‘This is different. I need you to go to a place called Matsubaya and see a girl called Sakura.’
I was completely confused.
‘But why? I’ve never even been to a pink salon when I was single.’
She turned and narrowed her eyes.
‘I don’t believe you.’
‘It’s true,’ I insisted. ‘There are some places back home but it’s not like here. I don’t know, maybe we’re a bit more prudish about these things.’
She seemed unable to comprehend this.
‘Not even a blow job bar?’
‘Not even a massage with a happy ending.’
She shook her head briefly, as though to clear the unfathomable concept from clouding her thoughts.
‘Well, this is your chance to start.’
She turned her head up toward me and gave a broad smile followed by a kiss.
‘It’s a chance to enjoy a new Japanese experience ne?’
I was now convinced this wasn’t a test.
‘Tomoe, what’s this all about?’
She turned away and nested her head back in my chest. When she looked up there were tears rolling down her face.
‘They killed my father.’