As expected, K was late.
“Why didn’t you go inside?” she asked, seeing me sitting on the stairs of the dining house.
“I was waiting for you.”
“Mh-mmm.” Her gaze remained on me. “Well, I’m here, so let’s go in. I’m starving.”
At the entrance, we took off our shoes. I put on the slippers for the guests while K was still untying her boots, black ones instead of the usual red ones, which, I assumed, got wet when I threw her in the pond.
I began noticing things about her. Apart from her inclination toward heavy boots, she had an obvious preference for black, tight pants and T-shirts with prints on them, the current one being blue with a grinning face of a manga character. I also noticed she always wore the same necklace around her neck - a small, silver pendant in a shape of a flower, which when caught by the light at certain angles reflected a blue shine.
“Isn’t it too warm for such boots?”
She shook her head and placed them on the rack next to my snickers. “Not at all. I love them. They are useful if I need to kick somebody’s ass.”
I chuckled. The fighting atmosphere of the compound must have rubbed off on her.
Heads turned as we entered the relatively full dining hall. A brief moment of quietness was followed by murmur, which spread among the guests. Although not obvious it was undeniable that our entrance provoked a certain reaction. K showed no signs of being aware or bothered by it and walked straight to the self-service counter. After a short chat with one of the cooks, she chose a bowl of ramen, while I took a bento with mixed meat, knowing already I would return for more.
We headed toward one of the tables that was half-empty. Some of the fighters that sat at it were already familiar, some were new to me. K paused by a man in a black suit, whom I saw the first time in the dining room, and bowed slightly with the tray in her hands. The man immediately stood up and made a deep bow towards her. K seemed to be embarrassed by his gesture and bowed a few times herself. They exchanged words, both sounding very apologetic.
The man was tall, thin, and looked like an executive of a company. Black, thick frame glasses made his face authoritative and strict. His stare shifted to me and when he addressed me in Japanese it sounded like a reprimand of some sort.
I leaned toward K. “What does he want from me?”
K forced an apologetic grin, her eyes trying to tell me something. Not entirely sure what she meant by that, I decided to act on my own and extended my hand to him. “Nik Torsten, Sir, pleased to meet you.”
The man didn’t react at all. K pushed my arm down and bowed again.
“Please, forgive him. He’s not used to our formalities yet,” she said to the man, in English this time.
The explanation didn’t soften him. His stern look lingered on me as he addressed me in English as well: “You should show your proxy more respect.”
K was smiling through her teeth. “It’s my fault, Yamada san, he joined us very recently and I didn’t have a chance to teach him yet.”
With that, the conversation pretty much concluded and we continued towards the other end of the table, far enough from the man in the suit and his fighters.
“What was that all about?” I asked as soon as I put the tray on the table.
K sat across me and rolled up her eyes at my question. “That’s Yamada Shoji, you punk. He is one of the proxies of the Fujiwara clan.” Her cheeks puffed up as she blew the air from her mouth. “He’s a bit heavy, I’ll admit that. Nonetheless, I should teach you how to behave properly.”
“What did I do wrong now?”
Before responding K made a loud slurp from her bowl of ramen. “When we’re alone, I don’t care much about formalities. But when in public, it would be good that you know some basics of proper behaviour. Because you’re a foreigner your indiscretions will be forgiven in the beginning, but it’s expected that with time you know the proper etiquette. And it’s my responsibility to make sure you know it.”
I had a hard time eating my bento while listening to her loud eating noises.
“So how was I supposed to behave?”
“Well, for one, you should have carried my tray. You should make sure you always bring food to me when we’re eating here.”
I sat back and crossed my hands, giving her a complacent look. “Really…”
“Yes, really. The proxies are your superiors and you should treat them accordingly. You should make yourself humble in front of them, us…. like no staring directly in the eyes, not talking unless addressed, always bowing deeper of course… stuff like that. “
She grinned and slurped some more noodles. “Shoji, I mean Yamada san, he’s very traditionalist about that, that’s why he made such a fuss. Not all proxies are like that, however, it’s always better to be formal. One can’t go wrong with that.”
“He bowed as deep as he could to you, though. Are you his superior?”
She laughed it off, waving her hand. “No, no, he’s proxy longer than I am…he’s just…he thought…” She stopped herself in the middle. “Well, never mind, just do as I say.”
“I don’t have the slightest idea who is who here,” I said and continued eating my meal.
“Eventually you’ll know. The proxies stand out from the fighters, you’ve probably noticed that. With other fighters, you can socialize freely.”
K picked out all the pieces of meat from her bowl, devouring them one by one. I had to smile at how immersed she was in her food.
“Is James in Yamada’s group? I saw him sitting with some of these guys last time.”
“Yes, he is. I think Yamada san has the most foreigners in his group.”
“Who are the other proxies?”
“From our clan? There’s one more and then there’s me. But you might meet proxies from other clans too. Sometimes they bring their fighters here, if they need a specific trainer, or if other compounds are too crowded.”
“Wait, so there are other such training compounds, here in Tokyo?”
She nodded. “Yes, there’s one in the south of Tokyo, it belongs to Minamoto clan…the president’s clan, and it’s the biggest. The Taira clan has also one, but it’s on a rental basis as mostly they train down south. If I think about it…“ She tilted her head sideways and looked up, contemplating. “I’ve never seen any of the Tachibana members training here in Tokyo. They are very private.”
“So there are other places like this to train all over Japan?”
“No, not all over, mainly in the home prefectures of each clan. But Tokyo is the place of the fighting events, so there are more compounds here, and it’s also the home of Minamoto clan.”
“So Fujiwara isn’t from Tokyo?”
“Fujiwara sama is from Kyoto.”
“Mh-mmm…” It was all new information to me. “So how come we didn’t go to Kyoto?”
“Well, Fujiwara sama is in Tokyo a lot, and most of his fighters train here. This compound has some very good trainers too. Kyoto is… different.”
I found myself enjoying the conversation. Finally, we were discussing things as two normal people would do at lunch. “And what if I meet Fujiwara or any other ..what was it…oyobun…how should I behave then?”
“It’s Oyabun and don’t worry, you won’t meet them. They don’t just stroll around. And if you do see them, avoid them…you don’t want the situation from the club repeating again, do you?”
“Seriously? Even now, that I’m officially a Yamato Damashi fighter?”
“Even now. If you need something, you always come to me first. Is that clear?”
“Yeah, sure,” I dropped my stare to the plate.
K took the bowl in her hands and drank the remaining soup of the ramen. She finished it with satisfactory mmm mmm and began looking towards the counter. A female cook eventually waved towards our table and K signalled to her with thumbs up.
“Come on, go…” she said to me.
I frowned with uncertainty. “What?”
“My dish, go and bring it to me. Redeem yourself in front of Yamada san.” She nudged her head in the direction of the counter.
I rolled my eyes, put down the chopsticks, and dragged myself toward the counter.