I’ve always hated being called pretty. Anyone who says it looks at me as if what’s inside doesn’t matter at all. None of them really see me. I end up feeling like they only think of me as a doll with a nice face, and that’s how they treat me, too.
I tried telling someone I hated it once. And the response was, “Huh? Is that a brag?” I was kind of shocked. It happened in high school. Since then I haven’t told anyone about my feelings. I couldn’t.
So when I got invited to become an old woman, I was happy.
Despite what she said, Yuri sounded somewhat subdued as we were looking out over the Tadami River from where we had stopped off at an observation point. The trees on the mountain were coated in snow, and the entire landscape was a field of white. A train ran over the No. 1 Tadami River Bridge crossing the valley. I heard a flurry of shutter clicks around us at the quiet viewpoint. A lot of people visited this town to capture the beauty of the mountains, the river, and the train in a photograph. Sometimes fog drifted between the mountains, making the scenery even more otherworldly.
Though I was captivated by the landscape, Yuri’s cold tone bothered me. I was on my way out of Mishima, where I had grown up. I had been transferred to Tokyo for work, and Yuri was giving me a ride to Fukushima Station.
Yuri and I had been together in Mishima all this time. The town is in western Fukushima Prefecture along the Tadami River. I was born there, but Yuri moved from Shizuoka during elementary school. Apparently she had been feeling left out because she didn’t speak the Fukushima dialect. I was the first friend she made. You could count the number of kids our age in the town on your fingers, so Yuri and I often participated in Mishima’s annual events together. If I closed my eyes for even an instant, all different scenes of time I’d spent with her came to mind.
Yuri cracking herself up—This always happens—because she ate too many buckwheat noodles and got a stomach ache during the new soba festival in November. Yuri so excited about the towering flames for Sainokami, the January fire festival to pray for good health and safety, that she would jump up and down even after we weren’t kids anymore. The moments during the spring Katakuri Sakura Festival where the colors of the different but equally breathtaking flowers—fawnlilies in bloom on the ground, cherry blossoms blocking out the sky—were guided by light both dappled and reflected to where they clung sparkling to Yuri’s cheeks. Once I left, I wouldn’t be able to see those things for a while. Yuri worked at Mishima’s town hall. She told me quite clearly one day that she would miss me while I was in Tokyo. I would miss her, too. But it was work, so there wasn’t anything I could do about it. Plus, I couldn’t say that I had never felt like giving life in Tokyo a shot.
In the car on the way to Fukushima Station, we hardly talked at all, which was unusual. The distance between Fukushima and Tokyo... It was only two hours by Shinkansen. I could be back in no time. It wasn’t as if we would be separated forever. Still, living in different places would be sad. I wanted to cherish this time together. As a way to hopefully fix the awkward atmosphere, I asked, “Do you want to stop at a hot spring?”
“Sure,” was all she said as she turned the wheel.
Tsuchiyu Onsen is a hot spring resort tucked into the Azuma Mountains. It has been struck by various disasters—not only the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, but the Arakawa River breaking its banks, and, further back, a major fire—but each time, the robust residents set about rebuilding, getting back on their feet. The signs featuring their famous kokeshi dolls, and the faces of the giant ones welcoming visitors next to Arakawa-Ohashi Bridge, seemed somehow courageous.
When Yuri got in the bath, she groaned with pleasure. Her limbs were tired from driving, and she stretched them hard. When I let an, “Oooh...” slip out, Yuri overlapped with an, “Mmm...” and we went on moaning comfortably like that for a while. I was happy. We both had natural smiles on.
“We can call each other,” Yuri said. “And we can send messages, and videochat. Right. It’s not like we’re being torn apart.”
“Huh?” I laughed.
I had sent my things ahead to my apartment in Tokyo. My parents said they wanted me to come back to Mishima at some point, but I knew they were secretly concerned that I was in my mid-twenties and still living with them. My only regret was leaving Yuri, but it seemed like that would be okay, too. The way things were going, we would be able to part with a smile. That’s what I thought, anyhow.
We still had time, so we decided to take advantage and go onsen hopping. With each bath, we relaxed more, and we were having so much fun it was as if we’d gone back to the freer days when we were still young students. As I was drowsily enjoying our great time in the hot water, I suddenly realized Yuri was staring at me.
“You really are so pretty, Kyoko. You’re so lucky. I’m sure you’ll be popular in Tokyo, too.”
Hatred welled up inside me, and my body grew cold.
I knew she meant well. But it seemed like she had forgotten, from high school, how I hated being told that kind of stuff. If I reminded her now, I knew it would ruin the atmosphere we had managed to recover, so I couldn’t say anything. I pretended to be overheated and left the bath.
Wondering where the hatred had come from, I wandered around the snowy onsen resort. When people—even Yuri—used words like “pretty” and “popular” on me, I felt like I was being consumed, like I was being pigeon-holed into what the world was demanding me to be, like the fact that I was me was being ignored.
For a while during my student days, I was scared of men who would talk to me because I felt like they only saw me as an object of romance or sex. Even now when I’m in an elevator or on a street at night alone with a man I don’t know, I brace myself.
Ahead of me, I saw a huge number of faces. Kokeshi. The dolls were lined up at a souvenir shop, all looking my way. Tsuchiyu kokeshi are known for their simplicity. Their long, thin bodies are not overly ornamented but feature parallel lines called rokurosen. A few kokeshi were on display at my parents’ house, in the entryway and tatami room. When I was little, they creeped me out. Their smiling eyes seemed to see right through whatever they were looking at. I was convinced that if I did something bad, the kokeshi would come at night to deliver horrible punishments. But at this moment, their gaze seemed somehow trustworthy. The kokeshi made me feel like my appearance didn’t matter at all. I bought the first one I met eyes with.
Yuri seemed to be taking her time in the bath. I messaged her, but she didn’t answer, so I put the kokeshi in my bag and kept walking.
At the top of a long set of stairs was Shotoku Taishi-Do. The sign standing there said that about 1,400 years ago, Prince Shotoku sent ambassadors all over the country with principle images of himself in order to spread Buddhism. One of these ambassadors fell ill, and the image of the prince appeared in his dream and told him, “In Tsuchiyu of Shinobu-gun, there is a hot spring; go there to be cured. You will most certainly be healed.” After digging a hot spring bath in this place and soaking in it to cure himself, he again followed instructions from his dreams and built this hall to enshrine the image. Huh, I thought. When I looked it up on my phone, there seemed to be Shotoku Taishi-Do all over the country. But the one at Tsuchiyu Onsen was different because it was made of wood and it enshrined an image of Prince Shotoku at age 16.
Yakushi Kokeshi-Do is on the grounds of the Taishi-Do. Until a few years ago, they had held a festival to memorialize kokeshi. Kokeshi whose owners who had died and had no one else to take them were gathered there. It’s probably their human faces that make them so impossible to get rid of.
I had been to visit this place once as a kid. My grandmother had passed away, and I went with my dad to deliver her cherished kokeshi. At the very end of her life, she often called the kokeshi by my name. You’re such a pretty girl, such a pretty girl, she had said. You’re a pretty girl, so you’re going to get caught and meet a horrible fate... When I visited her at the hospital, she was talking like her memory was all over the place, but I think she must have been worried about me. When I left the Kokeshi-Do feeling a bit sentimental, there was an old woman standing before the prayer bell.
She was bent over, and she didn’t move a muscle—to the point that it seemed strange to me.
Worried, I asked, “Umm, are you all right?” It’s possible to get heat stroke or become dehydrated even in winter.
She turned to me without saying anything. Smiling, she stood up straight as a kokeshi. She looked at me slightly amused, with eyes that seemed to see everything. Then she said, Would you like to become an old woman?
When I opened the door to the archive, it smelled like dust inside. You would have needed dozens of air conditioners to ventilate the place, it was so stuffy. Rows of shelves stretched up to the ceiling, like the stacks in a library, and they were all crammed full of files. I tried opening a few and was already over it. Just as my boss had said with a wan smile, all the papers really were just stuffed into the shelves without any regard for chronology or anything else. Ah-ha-ha, I chuckled back at him, wondering why the heck everything had been left as such a mess.
I had been transferred to the in-house newsletter section, which only existed at the Tokyo headquarters. We were supposed to create a booklet to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the company’s founding. Really, some senior employees from headquarters were going to make it, but one of them had thrown his back out and ended up in the hospital the previous week. While some other people were organizing his locker, they apparently found reason to suspect him of embezzlement. Fujisaki, an HQ employee who I had worked with back when I was still in Fukushima, told me the rumor that the president had tasked the senior members of the in-house newsletter section with a clandestine investigation. This guy was the same age as me, smiled a lot, and was fairly straightforward, despite his gossiping, so I didn’t feel the need to brace myself around him.
Fujisaki had told me the story as an ice-breaker. It happened after I had tidied up the archive, sorted the files to make them easier to organize, and eaten lunch, while I was interviewing him.
Since everyone in my section was so busy, I had also been tasked with working on the newsletter. I got stuck conducting the interview with an employee from somewhere outside of Tokyo for the “This Month’s Countryside Coworker” bit. The first person I talked to was Fujisaki.
“What’s with this column, anyway?”
“Yeah, calling us ‘countryside coworkers’ kinda irks me.”
“By the way, do you know why all the in-house newsletter people seem so busy right now?”
When I said, “No, why?” Fujisaki started talking about the guy who threw his back out.
After a little chit-chat, I asked him what he liked about his hometown, what he liked about Tokyo, how it was working at HQ, what his department was like, how he felt about the company at his current age, what he wanted the next ten years to be like, and so on, following the list of prepared questions.
After the interview, I went back to the archive. Thinking with slight apprehension what a pain it would be if I had to transcribe it, too, I was still able to get pretty comfortable holed up in the basement, far from everyone else, doing simple work. We had used an empty meeting room for the interview, but when I poked my head into the sales department to find Fujisaki, I could hear guys talking about guy stuff like how a group date the other night went, how many points the face of so ’n so from such ‘n such department got, and what they’d tap. That was enough to wear me out. Compared to that, being in the basement was almost as relaxing as an onsen. The regular rhythm of the papers rubbing against each other almost started to sound like a stream of hot water.
Suddenly I wondered how Yuri was doing.
I opened a chat app and sent her a stamp of a horror movie she liked.
Then I got back to work, but later in the afternoon, my phone pinged.
It was a message from Fujisaki. Would you like to go to dinner? I thought a bit and then answered, Sorry, I still have to finish unpacking from the move.
After work, I went back to my studio apartment in Kichijoji. I was happy to have a big park nearby. I had chosen a room with a view of Inokashira Park, but even with my company’s rent assistance, Tokyo apartments were expensive. I couldn’t help but sigh.
In my new room, my kokeshi and the old-woman skin were waiting for me. The skin was from the woman I met outside Yakushi Kokeshi-Do as I was leaving Fukushima.
“This skin will protect you,” she had told me.
“Huh? Skin? You’re saying I should wear this skin?”
“Nda, nda,” she murmured in our dialect as she nodded her head, and after handing me the wrinkly beige lump, she scurried off somewhere with surprising speed. Just then, I heard Yuri calling me as she walked over, so I stuffed the skin into my bag.
I still hadn’t put it on—because the first thing I did when I got to my place in Tokyo was give it a wash and hang it up to dry.
Now, in my bedroom on a hanger, the skin didn’t seem to be wet anymore. It was more supple than I expected, and so nice and clean that it was really as if a person’s skin had been taken right off.
After a moment’s hesitation, I decided that, eh, it would be like wearing full-body tights, and put it on.
Looking in the mirror, I was shocked—because it wasn’t that weird to see myself in the old-woman skin. It was nothing like full-body tights. Rather, it seemed like I had just aged bit by bit and ended up that way. Despite the fact that I had received the skin from someone else, when I saw the old woman in the mirror, I thought, It’s me. The looseness of the skin; the age spots speckling my face; the firework-like bursts of wrinkles around my eyes; the thinner, grayer body hair—they all struck me as mine.
As if absorbing my own skin, the old-woman skin assimilated to fit my body perfectly. I tried moving the muscles in my limbs and face. After a little while of that, I started to feel some pains. How realistic, I marveled. It was pain that made me think, I’m sure this is exactly how my joints will hurt when I grow old.
I got excited and took a few pictures. I splashed on a bunch of toner and tried putting some makeup on over the skin. I couldn’t deny that my 24-year-old look didn’t seem to match an old woman’s face, but there was nothing wrong with that, and it also gave me a self-esteem boost. Though I didn’t think it was a good idea to wear the skin too long, given how creaky my joints were feeling, I tried on different makeup styles and took selfies in all kinds poses from all kinds of angles. Maybe if I started a social media account posting selfies of me as an old lady, it would be popular.
My phone pinged.
What are you doing on your day off tomorrow? Would you like to meet up? said the message from Fujisaki.
Is he asking me out on a date?
I went out wearing the old-woman skin.
It was a half hour after the time we had agreed on, but there he was, waiting for me where we had decided to meet at Inokashira Park. But the me he knew wouldn’t be coming. I would appear as my elderly self.
I approached slowly, pretended to stumble right in front of him, and fell.
“Ma’am, are you all right?” he said, helping me up.
This was all according to plan.
I didn’t hate Fujisaki. It was precisely because I didn’t hate him that if he were looking at me as if the only thing that mattered was my face and appearance, the damage I’d take would be considerable. I wanted to figure him out, so I got close to him as an old woman by feigning coincidence.
I was an old woman, so there was no beauty, no ugliness. Many people would let down their guard to a little old lady. Since I’m old, maybe he’ll look at the real me and show me the real him. That was my thought.
“Sorry to trouble you,” I said in my hoarse voice. Even my throat had aged.
Phew, I exhaled. Despite it being the perfect temperature out, I was sweating nervously.
Fujisaki asked again if I was all right.
“Are you waiting for someone? You don’t have to worry about me...”
“No, no. I’ll stay with you for a little while. Are you hurt? If need be, I can take you to a clinic.”
“How kind of you.”
“Nah, anyone should do that much.”
“How old are you?”
“Oh! The same age as my granddaughter.”
After shouting excitedly, I told him a made-up story.
I had a granddaughter, and she hated it when I told her how pretty she was. I told him how I, the grandma, couldn’t understand why it bothered her.
“Well, it’s because, you know...” Fujisaki chose his words carefully so the elderly lady would understand. “I’m sure you mean well when you say it, but there are so many painful things in the world... Calling someone pretty or whatnot is like putting a label on them, so it might be that when your granddaughter hears it, she feels like people think she’s only alive in order to be attractive or get married. I mean, I don’t know for sure. I’m not your granddaughter, and everyone dislikes things for their own reasons.”
Fujisaki always talked so briskly, like people in sales tend to, but this time he really mulled over his words, taking care not to hurt anyone’s feelings.
“Ahh...” I said with the weight of realization. Beneath the skin, I felt better about Fujisaki. Maybe he isn’t toxic. That alone made me very happy.