A Woman's Tale (I)


 Written by Mira Galvin (based on Yoko's story)


Let Me Love Again (Chapter 2)

Tokyo. 1970.


For a long time after the priest left Tokyo, she grieved. Not a day passed by that she didn’t think of him at least once, or of her fatal error in running away without saying goodbye. She faulted herself for that moment of fear and regretted it with all her heart. Every time Yuko was reminded of her heartache, she felt a sickness come over her. Until now, she couldn’t understand the physical effects of a broken heart. Loss of appetite, sleepless nights, a hollow and empty feeling in her chest. Many days she wished she never had a heart, never fallen in love. She pleaded and made bargains with the devil; to give up her heart so that she never had to go through pain like this again. They say time heals all wounds, so she waited patiently for time to take its course. 


Months passed slowly and dutifully. Her focus returned to her studies and her work, reminding herself of what all of this was for in the first place. It was her one silver lining on her hardest days, that the world was still out there waiting for her. It helped that Yuko had met another man. A gentle and mild-mannered man from her company, older and patient in his nature. He was trusted and well respected within the office; smart and career focused too. She had very little expectations when he asked her on a date, but she was glad she decided to give him a chance. Gradually, being around him made her feel alive again. There was an ease with him, she felt lighter and more hopeful by his side. It was he who helped her forget those foolish pleas to the devil, for she found that it may be possible to fall in love again. 



As her new relationship blossomed, she continued to search for meaning in her life and in the world. Yuko had always been a curious person, pushing herself to learn more in every way that she could. What is the point of being here if not to develop new skills, take in information and allow it all to transform you? With the opportunity to participate in a church retreat in Kamakura, she leapt at the chance to expand her knowledge and faith by hearing from the visiting speakers. She attended a lecture by a priest from Montreal, his name was Father Rogé. He was a Canadian man who had been living in Japan for over a decade, he was fluent in their language and quite familiar with their culture. Rogé was engaging, well spoken and clearly an intelligent man. Perhaps it was because he knew his words would leave a deep impact on the young retreat audience, but he managed to very impressively hold the attention of everyone in the room. They listened eagerly and intently, waiting on his every word. The topic of his lecture appeared to Yuko to be another sign from God. He spoke of humanity, of living life fully, of the choices and individual freedoms we all have to mould and shape for the life we want to live. To this day, the way that Father Rogé ended his lecture is stuck in her mind. The priest said,


“You are still young, and the future is something you make for yourself. Go and see the world.”


And in that moment, she knew he was speaking as a prophet, directly from God to her. Like a flame had been ignited inside of her, she made a choice right then and there that she would book her first trip outside of Japan; an extended trip to Europe, all by herself. Yuko had grown impatient and restless, and listening to Father Rogé in Kamakura was the final push she needed to begin planning. Though she was aware that this behaviour was extreme and troubling to some of those around her, she couldn’t help but feel that this was her calling, that she would find all the answers to her endless existential questions at last. Both her parents and her newfound love expressed disapproval of her embarking on this spontaneous and solo adventure, however they also knew that once Yuko’s mind was made up there would be very little that had the power to change it. The man told her, “If this is what you really want to do, you should go.” Just those simple words of encouragement from him, made her fall for him even harder. She promised that she would marry him when she returned to Japan. 


With the help of a travel agent and half of her earnings saved from the last two years of full-time work, she elected to start her journey with a week long group tour via Siberia the following summer. It was a popular trip among other young Japanese tourists, it included a cruise portion, a train ride and a couple of flights that would cover the distance between Japan and Sweden. She felt more comfortable starting her adventure with other like-minded travellers, familiarising herself with all of the exciting and terrifying travel procedures alongside them before going off completely on her own. Once the tour ticket was confirmed, she also purchased a Eurail pass and a budgeting book ($5 a day in Europe); two indispensable and invaluable tools to aid her.


In the late spring of 1970, the World Expo was being held a few hours away in Osaka, the first world fair to be held in Asia. Because Yuko’s lover knew that she was to depart on her trip soon, he suggested they make a weekend trip out to the festival and spend quality time with each other. What she didn’t know at the time, is that his true intention of their weekend getaway was to find out just how serious she was about their relationship. At the expo, Yuko found herself surrounded by a vast number of interesting people, art, and cuisines that she’d never seen before. With pavilions and exhibitions from seventy-seven different countries, she felt completely immersed in the foreign music, art installations and food, all the while surrounded by millions of other tourists. This felt like the cultural appetiser to her impending main course, getting her prepared for the journey of a lifetime ahead.


In the late afternoon of their first day, after soaking everything in, the man and Yuko arrived at the famous Tower of the Sun. It had become the symbol of the expo; standing erect and prominent in the middle of the park, the seventy-metre-tall white sculpture was truly a sight to behold. It had beautiful red accented patterns that swirled along each side of its white body, and two long arms stretched out like wings. There were three faces represented on the tower, one facing the back that symbolised the past, one in the middle of the arms to symbolise the present, and one large golden face at the top of the tower that was meant to signify the future. Yuko looked at the face of the future and smiled. 


Just below the tower was an outdoor stage set, where they gathered to watch a show. At the end of the performance, a dozen tall women dressed in magnificent colourful costumes came out in a uniform line to dance. Some of these women had blond hair and blue eyes, others brown hair and delicate fair skin, Yuko felt herself entirely captivated by their presence. She thought of them as great Las Vegas entertainers, with their perfect figures and well manicured costumes, they danced in unison and began to sing in Japanese in a gorgeous harmony…

“Goodbye, goodbye, it's so good to see you.

Goodbye, goodbye, it's so good to see you.

Goodbye, goodbye, good luck to you forever and ever

Goodbye, goodbye, good luck to you forever and ever.”

The refrain was simple but so beautiful to Yuko, and she couldn’t help but feel as though they were singing to her. These foreign entertainers had come all this way just to perform a farewell song for her, as if they knew she was preparing to say goodbye herself. 


A few weeks after the expo, Yuko put in her resignation at work, moved out of her apartment, and shipped off her larger belongings to her parents’ house. The belongings that remained, the necessary items that she would be bringing with her, all went into a massive backpack. It was nearly half her size, full to the brim of everything she thought she may need in the next few months while on her journey. She finally felt ready for the trip of a lifetime. On the day of her departure, she met with her love, and they went together to send her off at the Yokohama Harbour. He stood with her, cracking jokes and talking about silly and lighthearted things, an attempt to keep them both distracted from the anxiety they were feeling. Though she promised to come back to him, without a return ticket or a concrete date in sight it was hard for them both to feel certain. 


The Baikal, the enormously impressive Russian cruise ship that Yuko was moments away from boarding, sat still and noble in front of the summer evening skies. They walked hand in hand slowly towards it, approaching the part of the dock where her family and close friends were waiting for her. She nervously asked her love if she could introduce him to them before he left the port. There was a long pause, he stopped in his tracks to really think about his response. He decided that now was not the time, that it would be better for that moment to come upon her return. Yuko felt a sting of disappointment but before she could think about it further, he had pulled her into a tight embrace. Holding her close in his arms, she felt the same feeling come over her again, the familiar tightness and pain of a goodbye. 

“I will wait for you…”

He whispered delicately in her ear. Then she watched him turn around and walk away without looking back once. It was as if he knew that this was his last time seeing her. 


She watched him longingly but within seconds, she was swarmed and surrounded by her loved ones. They talked enthusiastically about her adventure, exchanging a few last words of encouragement and advice. Allowing herself a moment to enjoy and take in their presence and warm smiling faces, it finally began to sink in; she was getting on a ship, final destination uncertain, and it would be a long time before she was face to face with these people again. Excitement and panic washed over her, the two emotions competing in tandem and driving her with force to board the ship. She stored her luggage in a small quadruple cabin near the bottom of the ship, then walked nervously down narrow steps to the back deck where she could view the dock. In her hands were a dozen colourful paper streamers that she tossed in the direction of her family and friends. They trailed lazily in the air as a farewell song began to play in the distance, the Baikal then blew a few loud whistles as it slowly left the port of Yokohama. Yuko thought they sounded sombre in nature, like the ship was longing to stay… She realised then that she may have just been listening to her own heart. 


Each piece of coloured paper tape began to rip and tear as the ship set sail, swaying in the breeze before slowly falling to the sea. As the distance between Yuko and her loved ones grew larger by the second, the surface of the sea was swelling with paper trails, a physical representation of Yuko’s straining connection. Yuko turned her attention to her parents. Her father stood tall and strong, staring at her intently, while beside him her mother was wiping tears from her eyes with a handkerchief from the bosom of her kimono. Watching that final scene made her throat tighten instinctively as she fought back her own tears. She feigned a smile and continued to wave her arms until her parents and friends eventually faded from her sight, like little dots on the sea's horizon. 


The departure from Yokohama was smooth as the ship sailed along the Hokuriku to Nakhodka. Its path across the Tsugaru Strait would take them all the way to Russia. Yuko began to get settled in for the trip, she met the other three girls in her cabin and much to her contentment, she got along well with her fellow passengers. However, the first 24 hours on board would be more challenging than she expected, as the calm sea they departed in became rough and choppy, making the large ship sway from side to side. Having never been on a cruise ship before, all four girls spent their first night at sea combatting seasickness. Yuko prayed that this feeling would pass as she struggled not only with the seasickness but with a growing homesickness as well. But by late afternoon of the following day, the high waves had calmed down and the girls decided they were ready to try to leave the cabin. That night was a formal dinner in one of the ship's restaurants; an occasion for the girls to shed their sickness and put on their best. Yuko exchanged her jeans for a navy blue lace mini dress with a matching lace ribbon for her long hair. After applying makeup and finishing touches to her look, the girls excitedly went down to the restaurant. 


The host met them in formal attire, escorting them to their table. The casual dining room they had seen on their first day aboard had magically transformed into an elegant event hall, the change in atmosphere was completely palpable. Crystal wine glasses sat on pristine white tablecloths; silver polished cutlery illuminated by the shining luxurious chandelier; everything in the room had a sparkle to it. They were greeted by a young Russian waitress. She introduced herself as Nadja, a beautiful blonde woman who resembled the outer layer of a matryoshka doll. She tactfully poured water and wine into the crystal glasses, bringing Russian dark sour bread and rolls arranged elegantly in their basket. They were served caviar and borscht soup, salad and main dishes that consisted of fish and beef stew. The young passengers ate and drank and laughed, filling their plates and mouths with every decadent item presented to them. Yuko had never experienced a dinner like this, she was careful to take in every detail, hoping to remember what a feast this was. They ate until they could not possibly stomach any more, talking to each other and sharing stories over dinner, even managing to communicate with Nadja in gestures and broken English. She recognized that she was now far away from home, but that maybe she would be okay; that she could find pieces of home in her newfound friends.


After dinner, a large farewell party was being held in the hall, with a dance floor cleared and a bright disco ball hanging from the ceiling. The girls were having so much fun they decided to stay for the party, as the hall began to fill with all the formally dressed cruise guests. Yuko had a hard time believing that these were all the same people she saw on the deck just a day before; everyone had the look of a movie star stepping on a red carpet. Feeling shy and out of their element at first, the girls watched as the beautiful foreigners crowded the dance floor, moving to the rhythm of the music underneath scattered colourful lights. Maybe it was the Russian wine, or the thrill of this experience after hours of being stuck in bed, but the Japanese girls could feel themselves relaxing enough to join the dance. The energy in the room was contagious, the laughter of guests melting into the loud swinging music. It felt as though Yuko had entered a dream; she had never felt something like this. 


The party died down and Yuko and her friends needed a moment to cool off and catch their breaths. They went outside to the deck, feeling the cool sea breeze against their cheeks, raising goosebumps on their bare arms. When she looked over the rails at the swirling ocean beneath, the waves that had created all sorts of problems the previous night were nowhere to be found. Instead, the water was gentle and still, the moonlight reflected perfectly on its shimmering surface. She then looked up at the sky, it was strewn with bright and sparkling stars. Yuko had never seen so many so clearly before, but out in the ocean without light pollution, she felt entranced by their jewel-like qualities. The girls stood in silent contentment, gazing above and feeling both grateful and excited for what was to come. 


When they finally decided to go back to their cabin, they heard footsteps from inside the hallway. They looked toward the door and saw a beautiful and familiar face. It was Nadja who had just finished working at the restaurant, and she was heading back towards her sleeping quarter. The girls were delighted to see her as if reuniting with an old friend. After chatting for a while on the deck, they invited her to visit their cabin. Though it was tight, the five girls occupied the small space and began to talk into the early hours of the morning. Yuko was hit with a stunning realisation; human beings are such interesting creatures. Even though they did not speak the same language, though they sometimes struggled to understand each other, they still trusted each other. There was a bond, a universal connection they shared that crossed all cultural and linguistic barriers. After spending the night chatting, the girls gave Nadja small Japanese gifts to show their appreciation. With excitement, Nadja gave every girl a sincere hug. When it came to Yuko’s turn to be embraced by Nadja, she felt as if she could just melt into her large bosom. 


However, that warm and inviting feeling did not last for long. They arrived in Nakhodka the next afternoon, the Baikal pulling into the port for Russian officers to board. The entry procedures for Russia were conducted on board rather than off the ship. With loud footsteps, a few inspectors wearing long dark green coats and hats rushed into the girls’ cabin. On their shoulders they carried rifles, heavy and intimidating they sat with the power to kill. With a stern expression and voice, they demanded passports and other travel documents. Last night at the party may have felt like straight out of a romantic movie, but this moment felt like a horror – two guards with rifles hauling prisoners to the stand just before their execution. The girls froze, worried that they would say the wrong thing or not be accepted. They obeyed orders meekly as the inspectors rudely examined each girl’s documents, suspiciously eyeing them up and down. But just as quickly and forcefully as the men with rifles had entered, they handed back the papers and hastily disappeared into the next cabin. The last few days had certainly been full of firsts. 


That night, the tour group boarded the Nakhodka night train. Again, sumptuous Russian food on a white tablecloth was served for dinner. Yuko looked out from the window of the train and saw a gorgeous colourful sunset stretching across the sky and covering the endless horizon, no signs of civilization. A sight she had never seen in Japan. The next morning, the train arrived at Khabarovsk. Without any sightseeing there, they got on a plane which took them to Moscow. In a crowded plane from Khabarovsk to Moscow, she met two young Russian soldiers who sat right beside her. Again, not understanding each other’s language, she had to use hand signals to communicate with them. In some cases, they called a flight attendant to interpret their conversations. As they spent more than eight hours together on the flight, they eventually managed to communicate without an interpreter. They even began to sing Russian songs such as “Katyusha” and “Working Song” which she was familiar with in Japan. The people around them were delighted and joined them in singing in their own languages.


Eight hours passed sooner than expected, and the plane was about to land in Moscow. As Yuko and the soldiers had such a wonderful time together, they decided to exchange each other’s addresses in hopes to keep in touch in the future. She wrote her home address on the soldier’s notebook, and the soldier did the same to hers. Suddenly, the face of another soldier who was sitting two seats away from her became very serious and stern as he leaned over to reach her. He snatched her notebook away and tore off the page where the soldier next to her had just written his address. Then he ripped it into small pieces and stuffed them into his pocket without a word. When he returned her notebook with the page missing, she was stunned and felt fear creeping up into her chest. She did not know what to say or how to react. Had she done something wrong? Something illegal? No one had ever done such a thing to her before. Then she remembered the travel agent's advice before she got on the Russian cruise ship; according to him, there were cases in the past in which a tourist’s film, and sometimes his camera was confiscated when he took photos of marching soldiers or the military bases. Russian soldiers are meant to be private and highly confidential. By him giving his address, he had surely broken some convention. She realised that the address the soldier had written down on her notebook might have been for a secret military base, not information for the average citizen, let alone a foreign tourist to have at their disposal. Everything made sense, then. Soon the plane arrived safely in Moscow despite the incident. When it was time for them to leave, the same soldiers smiled and shook her hand cordially and said good-bye as if nothing had happened.