|It started on Christmas Eve, or rather kurisumasu, and now I’m stuck in a time loop. Or maybe I’m just in Tokyo.|
My grandmother was happy when I told her about the Teach-English-in-Japan job. Finally, I was visiting the land of our ancestors. My first night in Tokyo, I stood beneath the blinding lights of Shinjuku station, lost in a trance while a surge of people moved by. It looked like a scene out of the Matrix.
Dinner was a hamburger and soggy fries from a hot food vending machine because I didn’t need to speak to anyone to get it. I don’t think this is exactly the land our ancestors lived in, Baba.
Very quickly, I learned to say kudasai and arigatō and spent a lot time pointing to things I’d searched up on my cell phone. Or I just spoke English. I was here to teach English to a bunch of people who already spoke English.
“We want to talk like native English speaker,” my host explained.
A few months went by. Even though I was getting the hang of Tokyo with all of its quirks and routines, I didn’t anticipate how homesick I would be during the holidays. I was told the Tokyo Christmas Market was a big thing, so I went to get hot chocolate and a bratwurst among the glittering trees. Young girls dressed as elves were passing out candy canes while greeting everyone with a cheerful, “Merīkurisumasu!”
This is what Christmas looks like to the Japanese based on pictures and movies, and I can’t say they’re entirely wrong.
I had just finished my Christmas bratwurst when I spied movement in front of an alleyway. It looked like one of those plump, lucky cats you see in sushi places, but it was a real white cat. It was actually smiling. And waving.
I went to get a closer look and ended up following the creature into the alleyway and then…time loop. No matter what I do, it’s Christmas Eve and I end up back in the alleyway chasing after that cat. Was it a cat I saw?
Maneki-neko, explained a man selling reindeer ornaments the first time I emerged from the alleyway. The cat isn’t waving, it’s apparently beckoning. Like “come hither”. That might have been useful to know before I ran after it. Every time around I inevitably go through a series of adventures trying to find that cat, but always end up in the alley, back at the beginning.
Just turn around, you say. Head out the same way you’ve came into the alley. Don’t you think I’ve thought of that? Don’t you think THEY’VE thought of that?
Once I’m in the alley, it doesn’t matter which way I go. I end up back in Christmas town. There are weird Santas everywhere. One of them does a Mission Impossible thing cabling down into the crowd.
I want to go home. And I have to find that maneki-neko to do it.
The man at the ornament stand who told me about maneki-neko always points me to a tea room. I’ve tried not going to the tea room. I’ve tried shoving the vendor into his heavily ornamented Christmas tree in a rage. That gets security chasing me until at some point I duck between two buildings to get away and then…You get how this goes, right?
My cell phone doesn’t work either. Well, it works as a cell phone should. I’ve tried calling my host family. My Tokyo friends. I called home to Wisconsin, begging them to send someone from the embassy, the CIA, the United Nations. Nothing anyone does can get to me before everything resets.
I’ve Googled time loops. The results were not helpful.
This time around, I decide to go to the tea house. It’s green tea, which I didn’t used to like because I thought it tasted like drinking grass, but the stuff is growing on me.
The tea house is very traditional and they whip up a bowl of tea until it’s frothy before bringing to you on a lacquer tray. It’s the only place in the village where I can’t hear “All I Want for Christmas is You” on repeat.
After I finish my tea, there’s an old man with thick glasses and long crickety arms that challenges me to a game of Go. It’s a strategy game with white and black stones and the only rule is that you place one of your stones on one of the open corners on the grid that’s carved on the board.
At first, I had no idea how to play, and just tried to make interesting patterns, but after a hundred loops or so, I started getting the hang of it. It’s a strategy game where you try to capture territory by surrounding the other players stones with your own. At the end, the old, crickety man always tells me, “Anata wa ushinatta.”
I looked up the meaning after the first couple times. He’s telling me, “You have lost.”
Today our game goes on for longer than usual. At the end, he bows and his words have changed.
“Watashi makemashitawa.” I have lost.
I understand him without using the translation app on my phone. I must have been stuck in here longer than I thought. When I look down, I can almost make out the shape of a feline face in the white stones.
I step outside into the cold, walking through the lane and events that at first seemed so strange to me and finding an odd familiarity in them now. I pass a snack counter where I’ve tried ordering everything on the menu, even the fried octopus balls.
“Don’t take my fish cake!” an irate girl in a green felt hat cries to her companion. A ridiculous argument is about to ensue which will somehow lead to me being chased into an alley if I stick around. As I hurry away, I’m compelled to repeat the girl’s words out loud: “Naruto o toru na.”
Something feels curious about the sound of it, but I’m pulled away from my thoughts by the sudden flash of a snow-white tail.
I break into a run, weaving through the crowd. The maneki-neko is sauntering toward another alleyway.
“Stop!” I cry. And then I try it in Japanese, with extra politeness: “Chotto matte kudasai!”
The cat stops and turns around to face me. He is smiling.
And that is when I remember a drawing from a children’s book Baba gave me. One of another smiling cat. A cat that was all smile. On the same page, there had been a letter puzzle drawn into the shape of a diamond.
Was it a cat I saw?
I think I have it then, like a pattern of white stones falling into place.
“The world is a warm place,” I tell the maneki-neko, but in his language, the language of my ancestors, and one that is becoming mine too. I speak each syllable carefully.
“Yo-no-na-ka, ho-ka-ho-ka na-no-yo.”
The cat grins, eyes closed and content, and beckons me forward.
How does Alice get out of the time loop? (SPOILERS)
A clue to the problem is in Alice’s repeated refrain: “Was it a cat I saw?” which is a palindrome.
The story is a nod to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland as Tokyo feels like a strange and sometimes absurd place to Alice despite her family having come from there. Ironically, she has come there to teach English only to find that the people she encounters speak English pretty well, despite being non-native speakers, while Alice understands little Japanese even though it was the tongue of her ancestors.
The manecki-neko beckons her into a strange vortex within Tokyo where there is a never-ending celebration of Christmas — or rather the Japanese interpretation of the Western holiday. Though I have not experienced Christmas in Tokyo myself, I hear it’s a special and unique phenomenon involving strawberry shortcake and KFC and spectacles such as the Mission Impossible stunt Santa.
It is in this surreal space that Alice finds the time, through loop after loop, to learn Japanese and appreciate both the cultural history as well as the modern quirks of Tokyo. She learns by making mistakes over and over, like how she is finally able to learn the rules of the Go game by losing over and over.
Upon winning, she is presented with her first Japanese palindrome which is based on the syllable sounds rather than letters:
The following adventure with the fish cake argument presents another palindrome. And when she finally sees the manecki-neko again, she speaks to the cat in Japanese and presents a palindrome in order to unlock the time loop.
It is Alice’s hope that this time the manecki is beckoning her out of the time loop much like he beckoned her into it in the beginning.