It was Maki who found out about it first. Right in the middle of her fourth glass of beer, she hands her phone over to a slightly more sober Sho with Google opened.
“You might like to take your next vacation here,” she says, slightly stumbling on certain syllables. Then, she smiles, giggling. “My friends are friends with a guy who's friend is an owner of a lodging place. It’s a really good area, beaches n’ local markets.”
He's not sure how valid an opinion can be through several strings of friends, but he's drunk enough not to care. Sho squints at the screen, trying to make sense of the kanji through the screen. For whatever reason, Maki’s font size is set to nearly unreadable, so Sho only manages to read the English letters: Tempest Guesthouse.
Sho pulls back, wary. “How am I sure your friends aren't murderers? That this isn't some place off the beaten track that'll get me murdered with no evidence?”
“Toma and Shun call me Horikitty!” Maki responds eagerly, like that's the one answer that'll make Sho one-hundred per cent believe that they won't introduce him to a potential serial killer.
It works, because Sho's just spent an hour straight researching on Tempest Guesthouse, and another few hours somewhat cyber-stalking their social media across Facebook to a semi-inactive YouTube channel. By the time he stops himself, he's finished watching the mini vlog series operated by one of the staff named Ninomiya, and has sent a thorough, polite e-mail about his reservation.
The air in this area of Japan is subsequently cleaner and fresher than the smog of Tokyo. The moment he gets out of the airport, he stretches his arms over his head so far that all his joints pop and squeezes his eyes tight to make sure he wasn't hallucinating all the greenery and lack of crowds.
When Sho opens his eyes to a man barely six inches away from him, he jumps back from shock.
“Oh, sorry about that,” the guy says sheepishly, taking a tanned hand through his reddish brown hair. He's in nothing but an undershirt, swim shorts and sliders, which makes Sho feel slightly uncomfortable in his Pumas, sport clothes and windbreaker. “I'm Aiba Masaki, staff member at Tempest. I'm your driver, my car's the pickup over there!”
Aiba salutes and smiles so wide his eyes turn to creases, and Sho realises that perhaps the man in front of him is the sunlight of this island, rather than the behemoth yellow beaming above him.
Aiba is chatty, often asking questions about Sho's life or mentioning random trivia about the town and its residents.
“The obaa-chans at the end of our street likes giving out watermelon and mangoes every now and then—just pretend you understand their dialect and they'll be satisfied,” Aiba says cheerily as he locks the car door, slings an arm around Sho's shoulder and drags him towards the guesthouse.
Tempest Guesthouse is nothing but cozy, rustic and full of warmth; the outer paint is a mismatch of cobalt blue at the front door with a bright orange for the balcony, the potted plants lining up by the entrance with a watering can right next to it, and a big-boned cat curled up next to a family of chipped garden gnomes.
Sho’s entire body swings around when Aiba points at the cat. “That’s Holmes!” he exclaims. “He gets moody around people, but if you carry him around everywhere he gets pleased with you. Dunno why.”
“I see,” Sho says, and his attention is redirected to another person hunched over another batch of potted plants that he hadn't seen at first. He asks, “Hey, who's that?”
“That's—oh!” Aiba waves his free arm frantically, giggling. The guy turns his head at the noise, showcasing a nice jawline and a mop of black hair, but his expression remains disinterested. “Nino! Nino, meet Sho-chan!”
Instead of waiting for Nino to come over, Aiba drags him with full force towards Nino instead and Sho nearly stumbles forwards with an embarrassing noise, only to be caught by both of Aiba's arms. “Sorry!” Aiba squeaks, and Nino smiles.
“Ah, klutz,” Nino says, looking back at his unripe tomatoes fondly. “You’d be great for Oh-chan and Aiba-shi. They’re just like you.”
Sho’s face flushes a bright red, and he's sure it's not from the summer sun or Aiba's smile.
He meets Matsujun, or Jun as he insisted, first when the three of them enter the guesthouse. The interior is rustic and reminds Sho of Western television sets, but it never clashes against every little detail of the room; the record player, the polaroids pinned to a corkboard, the mahogany bookshelves consisting of worn-out shounen manga and mystery novels. Instead, it brings it all together, makes it feel like it's been lived-in well, a stark difference from one of his apartments back in Tokyo.
“You're going to suffer if you dress like that here,” Jun says matter-of-factly, setting down a plate of sandwiches cut into bite-sized pieces into the coffee table. He smiles as he takes a seat opposite of Sho. “I learnt that the hard way, you know. The more layers, the more you'll feel like a dishrag instead of a human being. Forget about dressing modest or fashionable.”
“You’re not a native?” Sho asks, surprised as he reaches for a piece of the sandwiches. He's not sure how Jun can make cheese, ham and toasted bread taste so much better than when Sho makes them himself.
Jun leans back. “None of us are,” he says, eyes drifting to the portion of the wall with polaroids of scrawny young men all smiling and having fun. “We just grew up here together. Nothing much.”
Naturally, Sho gives one more look towards the wall of polaroids. It's full of long-limbed teenagers, all with some sort of marker scribble at the blank space below; some on the beach, some in front of a store, some in a classroom. Just like the comparison between the guesthouse’s exterior and his own apartments back in Tokyo, it's a stark difference from the childhood Sho's held.
Then, he notices a certain picture, right between a picture of Nino holding up his diploma and a picture of Aiba, Jun, Nino and someone else eating ramen.
“Your leg hair was amazing,” Sho comments in wonder, turning to face a bright-red Jun. “I never even managed to reach that length as a kid.”
From the kitchen, Aiba and Nino guffaws loudly, just as Jun yells at them to shut up.
After showering and unpacking his essential items, Sho, now clad in an undershirt and shorts just like they'd suggested, finds himself on the eccentric orange balcony. Not too sunny and just perfectly windy, just the way Sho enjoys.
He snaps a few photos of the scenery and sends it over LINE to Maki, Keiko, Tsumabuki and his other co-workers, and sends some to his mother as well. The first to reply back is Ariyoshi, whose message simply says, You’re not allowed to become a country bumpkin! and Sho screenshots it and sends it to Ueda, who replies with an enthusiastic, I’LL FIGHT THAT GUY FOR YOU!!!!!!!!! LIVE YOUR BEST LIFE!!!! I’LL SUPPORT ANIKI EVEN IF HE’S A COUNTRY BUMPKIN!!!!!!!!!.
“Ah, you must be the new guy,” a clear voice says, and Sho nearly drops his phone in surprise.
The neighbouring room’s sliding door is open, and on the balcony a gap away from him is a shorter, well-tanned man with sleepy eyes and pouty lips. His hair's an absolute mess, almost like a bird nest, and it doesn't help at all with the wind making it stick up in certain areas.
Sho blinks once, twice, before finally gathering enough cohesiveness to construct a proper answer. “I am,” Sho confirms, exhaling deeply. “I'm Sakurai Sho, from Tokyo. Are you another guest as well?”
The guy shrugs. “I'm probs’ best known as the owner. Ohno.”
“Uh.” Sho suddenly feels very ashamed. “I. I didn't realise. Well. Ah. Sorry.”
“Mm, don't worry, you’re not the only one.” Ohno waves his hand in dismissal, then uses it to scratch his nose. He looks back at the lines of rural houses, at the ocean surrounding them. “Ah, is Matsujun awake? I wonder if he has any leftovers…”
You stupid idiot, the miniature-sized Sho in Sho's brain cusses once Ohno leaves to pick at the carrot cake in the Jun’s minifridge, How many times will you embarrass yourself in this place?
Normal-sized Sho has no idea.
Sho spends the rest of his afternoon exploring the island, and ends up at the local market—more specifically, the stalls of street food by the exit of it. There are kids, teenagers and adults surrounding various stalls, all waiting for their takoyaki, kakigōri and taiyaki, and Sho understands why when he tries them out.
When he gets back to the guesthouse a little before five, he's surprised to see Jun, Ohno, Nino and Aiba outside, playing with the town's kids.
“Ah, it’s the intruder! Charge!” one of the girls shout, pointing a stick in Sho's direction, and before Sho realises it, he has a gaggle of children running at him full throttle.
Sho hurries on his feet and squeaks in fear. “Wait, wait! No! Not an intruder!” He staggers as he nearly trips over a few rocks on the road. He cries out, “Help, Aiba-san! Matsumoto-san! Ninomiya-san—!” but the only answer he receives in reply is bellowing laughter, much to his dismay.
And then, Ohno strolls right in between him and the kids, and points a finger at the leader. “What did I say about harming my friends, Iori-chan?”
“It’s Kaibutsu-kun!” one of the younger boys says in shock, and they all scramble in various directions; Iori-chan, however, casts one last evil glare at Sho and sticks her tongue out before disappearing up the street.
He's only vaguely aware of what happened when he hears Nino wheezing and laughing from the guesthouse, and is even more confused when Jun just lowers his head in apology as Aiba runs over to wrap an arm around a dazed Sho. Ohno just walks right besides them, picking at his nose, as if Sho hadn’t been running off all the calories he gained from street food out of fear.
“What… was that about?” Sho asks, breathless, just as Jun hands him a bottle of water, which he downs all too happily. He hasn't ran that much since he last competed in the company's marathon sports day.
“I'm Prince Kaibutsutaro-kun of Kaibutsu Land,” Ohno supplies unhelpfully, helping himself to a can of Chip Star consomme-flavoured chips stolen from god-knows-where. “That's just it.”
Sho turns to Nino, hoping for a coherent answer about why the children attempted to attack him.
Nino smirks, cat-like. “He's just Prince Kaibutsutaro-kun of Kaibutsu Land.”
Dinner is a hearty, mouth-watering meal of fried fish, tempura and a wide range of pickled vegetables. Sho meets the other guests; a nice young man named Marius who’s here to experience life outside of Tokyo, and a guy who's adamant on obtaining Nino's number throughout the entire meal named Akito.
With his stomach satiated, his heart warm, Sho curls up in the appliqué-patterned quilt that smells like lavender, and falls asleep soundly, just as if he were back home in Gunma.