It was a snowy night in Kokura.
Two men met in Shinuomachi at the residence of Ono Yutaka. One was a man with graying hair named Togawa, who served as the president of the court. The other man was Tomita, president of the municipal hospital, who had been saving money to travel abroad since he came to this region after graduating from Tokyo University. He had already saved up most of the money needed, so he was expressing his desire to leave the hospital in the hands of a young doctor named Kitagawa and be on his way soon. Tomita had already passed his fortieth year, yet there was no white mixed in his short-cropped hair. From a single look at his plump, ruddy face one knew he was a man who loves his sake.1
The master of the house, who led a very simple single life, sent his maid Take to buy raw udon to prepare in the kitchen, and had sake brought out for his two guests.2 When he entertained, the master had yakiimo bought, claiming that they were tastier than the famed tsuru no ko.3 On the corner leading toward Kyōmachi from the crossing at Tokiwa Bridge there was a great pot set up, and an old man wearing a hand towel upon his head calls “hot and fresh, hot and fresh, straight from the oven.” Though the master didn’t drink himself, he had his favorite udon bought when he had close friends over to drink. For this he also sent his help to a shop two or three buildings from the yakiimo seller, a shop with faded navy blue noren, on which the name “Bunroku” was left undyed.4
The master only partook of the udon, watching the two drink with a carefree smile on his face. Their talk was quiet. But from time to time Tomita’s laughing would get out of hand, rending the gentle atmosphere. Since the pleasure district of Asahimachi were nearby, one could hear the sound of samisen strings and taiko drums, but they were quite faint so as not to be a nuisance.
Take came from the kitchen and offered more udon, but Tomita waved his hand, saying “No thanks. I’ve had enough udon. If there were a wife in this house I wouldn’t have to sit here with just udon to go with my sake.”
This was the fuse that lit a debate about marriage and bachelorhood. It was certainly not the first time these men had discussed this topic here in this very room.
Two years had passed since the master came to Kokura as Chief Director of the Imperial Coal Mining Corporation. In that time Mr. Ono’s bachelorhood had become common knowledge and therefore it was frequently a topic of debate.
It seems the master of the house has no woman whatsoever— Tomita was one of the people who racked his brain trying to solve this problem.
That night he said, “It seems there are no women in Kokura who catch the master’s eye, so I thought maybe there was someone in Bakan and went inquiring there in great earnest.5 But it bore no fruits.”
“You really went to great lengths, didn’t you,” said the reserved Togawa, looking at the master.
The master merely continued grinning.
Tomita was somewhat drunk, so the force of his arguments was aimed more and more toward the master. “The master of this house simply cannot continue this kind of lifestyle. It’s a danger to the local girls.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because something’s bound to happen between you and one of the girls eventually.”
“You’re making me out to be a real Don Juan.”
Togawa, who was rather taciturn by nature, taking pity on the master and half-unconsciously changing the subject, thereupon began a strange tale.
1) Japanese rice wine.
2) Udon are thick (and delicious) Japanese noodles.
3) Yakiimo are baked sweet potatoes. Tsuru no ko seems to be a famed local procuct.
4) Noren are the short curtain flaps hung outside shops in Japan. These noren are dyed in a way that leaves only the desired design undyed (the restaurant name “Bunroku”).
5) Bakan is an old name for Shimonoseki, a city north of Kokura in Yamaguchi Prefecture.