Getting Oriented: A Novel About Japan
Day 1: We arrive at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport and transfer to a domestic flight to Osaka. Our tour leader will be waiting in the lobby of Itami Airport. We proceed directly to our hotel, the Maruyama Koen, conveniently located near Kyoto’s transportation and sights.
—Itinerary, “Japan Old & New,” The Zarin World of Travel Agency
The phone’s strident chirp was so unexpected, Phil almost knocked his can of beer onto his laptop’s keyboard as he reached for it. Expecting the front desk, he answered in Japanese. “Moshi moshi.”
“Mr. Fletcher?” A woman’s tentative voice.
Of course. Someone from his group. “Oh. Yes. Hello. This is Philip Fletcher.”
“This is Audrey…Audrey Cramer. On your tour.”
“Yes. Audrey. How can I help you?” Phil tried to connect the voice to a face. It wasn’t the sick lady; that was Sharleen. And this voice didn’t have the Southern syrup; that was the pretty one. The nervous woman in the tight flowered dress? The one who found herself in a squat toilet in the Itami air terminal lady’s room and couldn’t figure out which way to face the porcelain fixture in the floor? The one who complained, “Of course there was no one to answer a simple question in English.”
“I’m sorry, really sorry, to bother you so late,” said Audrey breathlessly, “but you said it was all right to call you, so I…” Her voice trailed off.
“It’s fine. That’s what I’m here for.” Phil’s thoughts darted ahead: Their room smelled…and we requested non-smoking...the bed’s too small....
“It’s Freddie. You know. My sister.” She hesitated. “Winifred Korch?”
It was the nervous woman in the flowered dress. “Yes?” Phil tried to sound patient and concerned. Had the Maruyama Koen Hotel put Audrey and Freddie into a single? That would be a challenge—one narrow bed and, with Audrey’s heft, one would have to sleep on the floor. Welcome to Japan.
Audrey almost shrieked. “She’s not here! There’s no sign of her. There’s no luggage. No nothing!”
Phil closed his eyes and pressed the sweating can of beer to his forehead. The cold pressure overwhelmed the acid fear forming at the back of his throat. He wanted to sound soothing and said, “No? She came in this evening. I left a note for her at the front desk.”
That was Phil’s understanding. Winifred Korch had come to Japan a week early to travel on her own. She was joining the group this Friday evening in Kyoto. This afternoon, before Phil had left the hotel to meet the flight from Tokyo, he’d printed a polite note for her on Maruyama letterhead at this very desk:
Welcome to the Zarin World of Travel’s “Japan Old & New” tour. I will be your guide for the next two weeks. I enclose your breakfast coupons with this note; you can use them in either the Western-style restaurant on the lobby level, Bobby’s Place, or in the Japanese restaurant on the lower level. We will meet in the lobby at 7:45 tomorrow after breakfast. I look forward to greeting you in person and showing you the Japan that I know and love. —Sincerely, Philip Fletcher
For a moment, Phil did not see Audrey’s problem. If he’d written Freddie a note, Freddie would have picked up the note when she checked in. She’d be in the room because the Maruyama Koen’s efficient front desk would have given her the room key and his note. “But she’s not here! I’m worried.” Phil could hear a note of hysteria in her tone.
Audrey had to be exhausted after a twenty-hour trip, dropped into a country where toilets were on the floor and no one spoke English and now this. He felt his own fear skulking in the room’s shadows, waiting to jump him.
Be calm and reassuring, he advised himself. It won’t help if we’re both out of control, and he was supposed to be in charge. He consciously formed the thought: You’re in charge. That helped, but he took a sip of beer before he answered. “I’m sure she’s fine.” He tried to sound like Dan Rather at his most reassuring. “Japan is a very safe country.” At least that was true.
He was tempted to tell Audrey to go to sleep; Freddie would show up any time now. His watch said it was a little after 11:00, however. What time did the trains stop running? If Freddie wasn’t in the Maruyama Koen by now, the odds were she wasn’t coming tonight. But wouldn’t she call to say she was held up? If she could call. What if something had happened to her?
Probably if Audrey did sleep—if her exhaustion knocked her out—she wouldn’t rest. She’d be back on the phone in a couple hours, or banging on his door, waking the whole floor, more frantic than ever, demanding he do something…anything.
He repressed the urge to tell Audrey that her sister was not his problem. Freddie was a big girl—they were both big girls. If Freddie had come to Japan by herself and spent a week traveling by herself, then she could damn well get to the hotel in Kyoto by herself.
But Freddie was his problem. Taking this job, he’d taken on certain responsibilities, and Audrey and her missing sister were two of them. He tried to think. What would Dan Rather do? Dan would get more information. “Do you know what she was doing in Japan?”
“Traveling. She left San Francisco last week.”
“You know where she was going?”
“Well, Japan, of course.”
Phil pressed the beer can against his temple. “No. Specifically in Japan.”
Audrey had to think. “No. She wanted to see things that aren’t on the tour.”
Great. That meant most of Japan.
Phil had the comforting thought that if something had happened to her, The Japan Times and the television news would have covered it. He’d already been in Japan a week, reading the paper daily. A female American tourist meeting with foul play would be a big story and the Japanese press would have covered it. He’d have seen it. So Freddie was probably fine. Unless no one had yet discovered her body.
Think like that, he warned himself, and your panic monster will be all over you. He took a drink to wet his mouth.
Audrey had a thought. “Don’t you have her schedule? Your office wanted her schedule.”
“My office? In Chicago?” Phil could not recall a separate itinerary for Winifred Korch in all the material Zarin had shipped him, but if it existed he’d find it. “I’ll see what I can do. I’m sure she’s all right.” He spoke slowly, with far more confidence than he felt. “When I find her, I’ll call you.”
“Oh, yes! Please! I won’t be able to sleep.”
He told her to take a nice relaxing bath in the room’s deep Japanese tub and he’d get back to her.
Phil brought the folder with the tour documents from the second bed to the desk and began to leaf through it slowly under the reading light. No separate itinerary for Winifred Korch. He finished the beer. He again went through the folder more slowly. Still no itinerary.
He found her fact sheet. Freddie was 57, lived in Los Altos Hills, California, would eat raw fish but not peanuts (good luck to her on the plane), and would be rooming with Audrey Cramer, her sister and emergency contact. The copy of the copy of the copy of her passport photo was a black smudge. The Zarin account manager who’d prepared the paperwork had scribbled a Post-It note and stuck it to the fact sheet. Korch would be traveling independently for a week and joining the tour at the Maruyama Koen.
Phil sat for a time looking at the clutter on the room’s second bed, his daypack, a guidebook, water bottle, camera, electronic dictionary, a pair of socks, three back issues of The Japan Times. Nice of the Maruyama Koen to assign him a double even though he was alone. A perk for bringing ten guests to the hotel for five nights.
Not even the tour’s first official day and Phil felt drained. What could have happened to Freddie? And what could he do about it at eleven o’clock at night? He suddenly felt as exhausted as the people in the group must feel. Worse. He wanted to lie on the other bed, face the wall, and stop thinking. Escape into sleep. The tour guide idea had been a mistake; he should never have allowed Jake talk him into it. He could barely care for himself; what was he doing with ten tourists? Nine if this Korch woman didn’t turn up. Babysit them around Japan? Be their keeper? He needed a keeper.
Perhaps the hotel had assigned her to another room. He called the front desk to ask if Korch-san, Winifred Korch, had checked in. The clerk was polite and disappointed that he could not respond positively. Phil thanked him and said it was fine.
So she wasn’t in the hotel. Another hotel? Where was she last night? Maybe he could work backward, check the hotels she stayed at for someone who knew what happened to her. If the Chicago office wanted Freddie’s itinerary, maybe the office still had it and maybe it would have hotel names.
He checked his watch. Chicago was twelve hours behind, so it was almost noon. Phil had to find one of his brand new Zarin World of Travel business cards to tap out all the numbers: outside line, country code, area code, and local number. “Marge, it’s Phil.”
“Phil who?” She sounded suspicious.
How many Phils call you? “Phil Fletcher. Your man in Japan.”
“Oh! Phil! We wasn’t expecting you. Where are you?” He told her he was right where he was supposed to be on Day 1, in Kyoto. “You sound like you’re right across the street.”
“Look, I’ve got a problem. Do you have Winifred Korch’s itinerary in the file? Her roommate says we requested one.”
“What d’ya need her itinerary for?”
He told her. Marge said she’d look in the file. Zarin’s low fidelity Customer Holding music played in Phil’s ear, the Everly Brothers trying to wake little Suzie. Two minutes later Marge cut them off to say she had it.
Phil asked, “Where was she supposed to be last night?”
For a long moment, he was afraid the hotel wouldn’t be listed. But then Marge said, “In…Takayama. The Yamakyu. 4-1 Ee-bee-su—”
“I don’t need the address. Just the phone number.” As Marge read it to him, he wrote it carefully on the little pad the hotel supplied, then read it back. “How about the night before last?”
Marge gave him the hotels and phone numbers for all seven days, all the way back to Freddie’s first night in Japan at the Ajisai in Nagasaki. He thanked her. “Wait a sec. Jake wants to talk.” From her tone, Phil suspected Jake was standing over her.
Jacob Zarin’s deep voice rumbled in Phil’s ear. “How’s it going?”
“So far, so good. Gloria’s tour notes are invaluable.”
“That’s what I told you.” He asked in rough Japanese, “How’s your Japanese?”
“I am remembering it.” Phil slipped automatically into a polite form used by an inferior talking to a superior.
“Good.” Jake went back to English: “Piece of cake. With your Japanese, you can handle anything.”
“I don’t know. I’ve already lost someone.” He told Jake about Freddie.
“Okay, that’s a problem.”
“I’m going check out where she was staying. This ever happen to Gloria?”
“No…but if she’s been there a week, she should know her way around a little. Maybe she missed a train. Maybe she’s shacked up somewhere. If you don’t get anywhere tonight, talk to Yamagishi at the hotel tomorrow morning. He’s an old friend. And call me tomorrow. Let me know what happens.”
The phone book in a desk drawer gave Phil the Takayama area code, and he called the Yamakyu. When a male voice answered, Phil said in Japanese, “I’m sorry to disturb you, but I’m calling an American woman guest. Miss Korch? Winifred Korch.” He tried to make “Korch-san” sound Japanese so the clerk could understand him.
It did not help. Korch was not at the hotel. She’d had a reservation, but had not checked in. The clerk apologized as if it were the hotel’s fault. Phil tried Korch’s hotel in Kanazawa. Same result; she had a reservation, but had never checked in. Same in Hiroshima. Phil was seriously anxious when he pressed the numbers for the Ajisai Hotel in Nagasaki. “Is a Miss Winifred Korch staying with you?”
“Yes, I understand,” said the clerk with alacrity, and added in polite, formal Japanese. “Please wait a moment.”
As the extension began to ring, Phil thought: You never left Nagasaki?
The voice that answered was muzzy with sleep and suspicion, “Yea?”
“Miss Korch? Winifred Korch?”
“This is Phil Fletcher.” When there was no response, he added, “From your tour—Japan Old and New.”
“Yea? What do you want at…” Pause. “…eleven fucking thirty at night?” She sounded like someone who came out of sleep swinging.
“I expected to see you here in Kyoto.”
“Tomorrow. I’ll be there tomorrow…Friday. I got plenty of time to get to Kyoto by tomorrow night. If I decide to come.”
“Tomorrow’s Saturday,” said Phil.
“No it’s not.”
She was so confident, Phil doubted himself for an instant, but then said, “Ah…yes, I’m afraid it is.”
She said flatly, “I’ve been here a week.”
Try a different approach. “Look, I just met your sister at Itami Airport in Osaka…Audrey Cramer. She’s worried sick about you.”
“She doesn’t get in ‘til Friday.”
“That’s right.” Phil paused between each sentence to give Freddie a chance to absorb the information. “She did.” Pause. “Today.” Pause. “Friday.”
“No shit?” A tremor of doubt had entered her voice and Phil thought he could hear another sound. A second voice in the room?
“I met her at the airport in Osaka. A…uh…substantial woman…short brown hair.”
“How the fuck….?”
Phil pushed the advantage. “You know…you cross the International Date Line when you fly to Tokyo from San Francisco. You lose a day coming this way.”
“No shit?” Her mouth was still filthy, but her tone was several degrees less confrontational. Phil wondered what kind of woman swore so enthusiastically. Who did Freddie associate with that such language came so easily to her?
Time to play tour guide: “If you take off at noon on Thursday from San Francisco and fly west for thirteen hours, you don’t land at midnight in Tokyo. You land around one o’clock on Friday afternoon. You lose a day.”
“Why didn’t anybody tell me?”
Phil would have bet real money the flight attendants on Freddie’s flight had announced the time, the date, and the day when the plane arrived at Narita; it was something they learned in Flight Attendant School 101. He tried to make his tone entirely neutral. “It happens.”
“Well, that explains the calendars.” He did not ask what, but Freddie wanted to tell him anyway. “I thought it was funny—days and dates being different from us. Like yesterday was Wednesday, which would be the thirty-first back home, but everything here said it was the first.”
“Because yesterday was Thursday.”
“And today’s Friday.” Her tone said she still wasn’t entirely convinced.
“Friday the second.”
“Well I’ll be fucked.” Her mood had changed so dramatically, Phil expected her to giggle at the confession.
“I’ll tell your sister you’ll be here tomorrow evening.”
“Wait a sec.” A rustle, then silence as Freddie covered the receiver. To think? To confer with someone in the room? Then, “Yeah, okay, I’ll be there.” For no good reason—something in her voice?—Phil was certain she was lying.