I hear the warning chime before I’ve reached the top of the escalator. Damn it. It took me forever to find this platform, and because it’s a long-distance trip, there won’t be another train to Hakuba for several hours. The rail system in Japan can be very confusing to those who can’t read or speak the language—especially in Shinjuku, which has the busiest station in the world. I don’t have the energy—or money—to try again later.
I awkwardly pull my two suitcases behind me as I race down the platform looking for my carriage. The other passengers have already boarded, and a conductor is giving the signal to indicate departure is imminent.
I’m not going to make it to my door on time, so I quickly veer towards the nearest one, almost taking out a guy in a baseball cap and dark glasses as he walks in the other direction.
“Sorry!” I call, not waiting for a reply as I jump inside the carriage. The doors close a second later, and I breathe a sigh of relief.
The train glides out of the station, picking up speed without the slightest jolt. The interior is crisp and clean, and the air temperature is pleasantly warm in comparison to the almost freezing weather outside.
I make my way through the carriages until I come to my seat. After stowing my suitcases in an overhead compartment, I flop down next to the window.
My fellow travellers are all absorbed in their phones or laptops, but being on a bullet train is still enough of a novelty to me that I don’t want to distract myself from the experience.
I have visited Japan three times for a cumulative total of four and a half weeks; six by the time I complete this trip. Each year, I visit my friend Jess and her partner Zac while they work as ski instructors in Hakuba. They normally live in Osaka but escape to the slopes for a bit of extra cash during winter.
Each trip, I spend three days in Tokyo on my own, five days at the snow, and then I choose one or two other places to explore depending on my mood. Next week, I’m off to Kyoto and Kōya-san.
I love how different this country is from where I live in Australia. The food is amazing, the people are friendly, and it’s safe. The safety thing is a big deal since my house was robbed a week before I came here. Someone broke in to my second story apartment via the balcony while I was sleeping and stole my laptop and smartwatch. They also took my purse, which contained my phone, keys, and wallet. (It was a nightmare trying to get new cards issued the week before flying out.) To make matters worse, I wasn’t aware my home insurance had lapsed, so I wasn’t able to make a claim for any of my possessions.
Right now, I’m using a second-hand phone my mother had in her cupboard (which has a cracked screen) and I’m going to have to save up for a new laptop and watch. My job as a waitress doesn’t pay enough to allow me to buy expensive items whenever I feel like it, especially since I spent all my recent savings coming here.
Still, I’m determined to not let that memory affect my enjoyment of my time away. I locate the button to recline my chair slightly, first checking to make sure there’s no one seated behind me. I push against the back, stopping at a comfortable angle.
After a quick inspection to see what happened, I find a small black notebook on the floor. It must have been jammed between the seat and the window until now. I pick it up and inspect the cover. It’s made of a soft black material with stitching along the spine. It’s in good shape but has obviously been well used. I flip open to the first page and see that its lines are spaced for writing music. The book is crammed full of notes and lyrics.
I never learned to read music, so I can’t imagine what any of these tunes sound like in a literal sense. Still, the composer is clearly passionate about their work. The simple combination of paper and ink transfers a wave of emotions directly to my soul.
The titles of the songs aren’t any that I recognise but the words resonate with me. There are stories of love, despair, and hope spanning the length of the pages. The last song is clearly about the writer’s gratitude for someone who came into their life after a dark period.
I can’t find a name written anywhere, but there is a pocket at the back filled with a bunch of receipts and other scraps of paper. I pull each one out, feeling equally invasive and justified in my attempt to learn more about the notebook’s owner.
Amongst the receipts from convenience stores and supermarkets, there is an account for a luxury ski lodge. Their contact details are printed in the header.
With the train’s atmosphere so quiet, I choose to wait until I reach my stop before contacting them.
We pull into Nagano Station just after 5pm, and Jess is already waiting for me in the van she uses to transport people to and from the ski fields.
I embrace my old friend, not realising how much I’ve missed her until she’s standing in front of me. “It’s so good to see you.”
“You too, babe. I love that you come all this way every year to visit us.”
“It’s not exactly a chore. Plus, you know I’m secretly just using you for free accommodation.”
She laughs and helps me load my bags into the van. “It’s not much of a deal when you insist on cooking and cleaning for us while you’re here.”
I climb into the front passenger seat and tell her about the notebook I found.
She wiggles her eyebrows. “Ooh. I wonder if it belongs to anyone famous.”
“I don’t recognise the music. But it’s possible.”
“Do you want to take a detour via the lodge? It might be easier to communicate in person.”
“If you don’t mind. I feel like whoever owns this will be upset about it being missing.”
The scenery outside is a winter wonderland. My hometown never gets snow, so to see it covering the ground and surrounding mountains is always a thrill.
The drive to Hakuba takes just under an hour, and the ski lodge is located off the main road. Jess accompanies me inside.
Thankfully, the receptionist speaks English and immediately recognises the reservation. “That guest was a musician,” she confirms.
“What kind of musician?” I ask. “Someone famous? Like a rockstar?”
She smiles enigmatically. “Maybe.”
“What was their name?”
She presses her lips together. “I’m afraid I’m not able to disclose that information.”
“Can you tell me what they looked like?”
“They were very attractive, with brown hair and dark eyes.”
Jess is getting impatient. “Can you please call the number from the booking and tell them we have their notebook?”
“Yes, of course.”
She dials a number before turning away from us, talking so quietly that we can’t hear what she’s saying. After a moment, she faces us again and hands me the phone.
I nervously put the receiver to my ear. “Hello?”
“Who is this?” a male voice demands.
“Oh, hi. Sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if you lost a notebook?”
The voice is quiet for a moment. “What kind of notebook?” he asks suspiciously.
“One with music in it?”
I notice that Jess and the receptionist are staring at me.
“What’s happening?” Jess whispers.
“I don’t know,” I mouth.
After a moment, the voice comes back. “You’re obviously at the lodge right now?”
“Would you be amenable to returning to Tokyo tonight?”
“Uh, I only just arrived…”
“We’ll make it worth your while. That book is important for sentimental reasons, and the owner doesn’t want it to potentially go missing in the mail.”
“I suppose I could…”
“Excellent. A car will pick you up in half an hour. All your costs will be covered.”
“Thank you. We will forever be in your debt.”
He hangs up, and I stare at Jess. “Apparently, I’m going back to Tokyo tonight.”
Her mouth falls open. “You’re what?”
“I’m sorry. They said they’d cover my costs, and the book is really important to them. I kind of understand the urgency.”
She sighs. “If this person isn’t Ed Sheeran level famous, I don’t think I like their attitude.”
“I guess I’ll find out soon enough.”
“Call me the second you arrive.”
Jess heads off, leaving me waiting for the car to take me back to Tokyo. It will be after 11pm by the time I get there.
A black sedan pulls up out the front of the lodge, and a driver dressed in a dark suit and white gloves takes my suitcases. I collapse in the back seat, noting a small basket of drinks and sandwiches in the middle. It contains a note indicating the contents are for me. I haven’t eaten since before I got on the bullet train, so I unwrap one of the sandwiches.
The night flies by outside, with scenes of large flat fields followed by built-up areas of identical-looking buildings. As we get closer to Tokyo, the neon signage and city lighting cast a reddish-purple tint onto the sky.
The car slows outside a five-star hotel in Shibuya. A man in his fifties yanks open the door before we’ve come to a complete stop.
“Thanks for coming all this way. Do you have the notebook?”
“Who does it belong to?”
He smiles dryly. “I’m not at liberty to say. But please know we are immensely grateful for your assistance.” He hands me an envelope. “This should cover your expenses, and the car will return you to Hakuba whenever you’re ready.”
“Uh, thank you.” I reluctantly hand over the notebook and accept the envelope. I want to press him for further information, but his demeanour doesn’t allow it.
He quickly flicks through the pages, as if to check I haven’t removed any of them, and then disappears.
“Will you be getting out here, ma’am?” the driver asks.
“I’m…I’m not sure.” I suppose I could stay at this hotel tonight. I open the envelope and peer at its contents.
It’s twenty thousand yen.
I frown. That converts to roughly two hundred dollars. Probably not enough to cover a room at this establishment.
“Actually, can you please take me to the nearest capsule hotel?” I ask.
He nods and pulls back out onto the main road.
I sit in my tiny hotel room, staring out the window overlooking a construction site.
I suppose no good deed goes unpunished.
At least I’ll be back in Hakuba tomorrow, and I can put this whole bizarre ordeal behind me. I hope the owner of the notebook sleeps well tonight, knowing their prized possession is safe and sound.
My phone rings. I figure it’s Jess checking in since I haven’t contacted her yet.
It’s not. It’s my mother back home.
“Hey, honey. I’m sorry to call so late, but I wanted to let you know that your Great Aunt Doris passed away yesterday. I know you never got a chance to meet her because she lived in London, but she was quite well off, and she’s left all her nieces and nephews and their children some money. Your share is twenty thousand dollars.”
I wonder if this place has a presidential suite.