I didn’t have to wait long at Tokyo Station before boarding the Joetsu bullet train headed north out of the city.
Takobayashi, what’s up? Get your butt over here! Mimura-sensei’s coming too.
The words were crammed into the empty space around the printed text. I felt a smile spread across my face as I remembered the stub from the tear-off reply postcard that I carefully carried with me. In my mind, fact that the reunion invitation even showed up was a miracle.
I moved around a lot as a kid, following my parents’ repeated job transfers. After high school, I enrolled in a Tokyo university and afterwards just stayed in the city for work. I had completely lost touch with my old friends from elementary school. Those guys probably hooked up with the adults who knew us back then to find me.
I was honestly shocked when my parents, having finally settled down a bit after retirement, forwarded the postcard to me, saying it had arrived at the house.
We’re gonna call you Takobayashi from now on! After twenty years that voice in my head—permanently that of a child—could still take me back.
Was I really going to get to see them again? I gently closed my eyes.
“What’re y’all doin’? Quit it! Poor thang!” I cried out. The other kids were laughing so hard, I thought they’d burst.
“Quit it!” came the sing-songy reply. They were mocking me. “Poor thaaaaang!” I clenched my jaw hard. They were forcing me to speak, just so they could laugh at my accent. When I turned around to look, the cat I had been trying to protect had vanished.
I knew there was no way a feral cat spooked by a bunch of kids throwing pebbles at it would stay the same spot, but somehow I still felt betrayed by even the poor creature I was trying to help. I balled my rising white-hot rage into my fist and dug it into my stomach.
I was born in the outskirts of Sanjo, Niigata Prefecture. A place with rice fields stretching out as far as the eye could see. The amount of farmland so dwarfed our yards at home that we grew up playing with the swordtails and crayfish that lived in the irrigation channels, running around on narrow gravel roads and the ridges between rice fields. Nothing was paved, and we could play outside until the stars came out without a single adult worrying about whether we were safe.
Those freedom-filled days came to an abrupt halt my third year of elementary school. That was when we moved into Niigata City for my dad’s job. My first change of schools.
For me at the time, Niigata City seemed so urban it might as well have been Tokyo. Even as a kid, I somehow knew that nothing would ever be the same for me again. And sure enough, there I was sitting all by myself in the classroom.
I got some sympathy from some of the kids, but the relentless teasing of my Sanjo accent had caused me to shut down completely. I didn’t see how I was going to make friends in a town that didn’t have a lick of grass in it—much less rice fields.
Then one day, Mimura-sensei, our homeroom teacher, wrote “cultural exchange” on the board. He called me to come up front and stand next to him.
“Even within Niigata Prefecture,” he said, “different cities have different cultures. Today, we’re going to have a cultural exchange session between Sanjo and Niigata City. Does anyone know what Sanjo Takobayashi is? It’s a song you’ll hear at every festival in the city.”
Surprised, I looked up at him. He returned a smile.
“Since we have our very own Sanjo Takobayashi celebrity here, let’s have him treat us to a performance.” A large hand fell on either shoulder as my classmates started murmuring. Paying no attention to them, Mimura-sensei handed me a drumstick and brought in a small Japanese taiko drum—seemingly out of nowhere.
“Can you use this?” he asked me in a low voice. I knew exactly where he was going with this.
He must have asked my teacher at my old school about me. My entire body started to heat up, my blood pumping energetically through my veins.
If there was one thing I knew I was good at, it was the Takobayashi song.
I was even in the Takobayashi club at my old school. I may have been the smallest kid there, but I was also the best. I guess Mimura-sensei had figured that out.
Silently, I took the drumsticks and got into position. These kids were in for a treat.
I snapped my face forward.
HA YA-RE YA-RE YA-RE YA-RE
The famous song of Sanjo, takoage-bayashi
was born the fifth day, month of May, sixteen ninety-two
A poor boy, the blacksmith’s son, looked up in the sky
There he saw the kites flown by children of rich samurai,
yet fiercely chased his victory, his kite a tattered mess
The boy’s dad came out calling, Hey! Hey! Hey!
Dragging out an empty cask, he banged it till it splintered,
cheering to the rhythm of… SO-RE!
I danced as I called out the tune, banging the taiko drum in time. I was giving it everything I had, moving and belting out the words while the accompanying flutes played in my head.
Fiercely chased his victory… fiercely chased his victory…
The song ended. I couldn’t believe how much lighter I felt.
“WHOA!!!” the kids shouted. “AMAZING!!” “SO COOL!!” Excitement had brought them to their feet clapping.
So cool. Hearing those words on the lips of my classmates felt like a dream.
“We’re gonna call you Takobayashi from now on!” It was the boy who had teased me the most for my accent. Between shouts of delight, he had just given me my nickname.
I was Takobayashi from that day forward, and no matter how many times I changed schools, I was always able to hold my head high.
The train was pulling into Niigata Station. Streetlights were flickering on in the twilight.
I looked around the station building with interest, marveling at everything that had changed over the years.
Out of nowhere, I heard the booming, familiar old voice shout my name.
Well you sure picked me out quick. I decided not to say that out loud.
“Well how ya been, ol’ buddy? It’s been near a coon’s age!”