Dance Dance Dance

translated by Alfred BirnbaumAcclaim


"An entertaining mix of modern sci-fi, nail-biting suspense, and ancient myth ?a sometimes funny, sometimes sinister mystery spoof ?[that] also aims at contemporary human concerns." — Chicago Tribune
"The plot is addictive." — Detroit Free Press
"There are novelists who dare to imagine the future, but none is as scrupulously, amusingly up-to-the-minute as ?Murakami." — Newsday
"[Dance Dance Dance] has the fascination of a well-written detective story combined with a surreal dream narrative ?full of appealing, well-developed characters." — Philadelphia Inquirer
"A world-class writer who ?takes big risks?If Murakami is the voice of a generation, then it is the generation of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo." — Washington Post Book World
"All the hallmarks of Murakami's greatness are here: restless and sensitive characters, disturbing shifts into altered reality, silky smooth turns of phrase and a narrative with all the momentum of a roller-coaster?This is the sort of page-turner [Mishima] might have written." — Publishers Weekly
"[Murakami's] writing injects the rock 'n' roll of everyday language into the exquisite silences of Japanese literary prose." — Harper's Bazaar
"One of the most exciting new writers to appear on the international scene." — USA Today

About Haruki Murakami
Haruki Murakami was born in Kyoto in 1949 and grew up in Kobe. He is the author of A Wild Sheep Chase; Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World; and The Elephant Vanishes. He lives with his wife in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Books by Haruki Murakami:

South of the Border, West of the Sun
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Dance Dance Dance
The Elephant Vanishes
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
A Wild Sheep Chase

I often dream about the Dolphin Hotel.

In these dreams, I'm there, implicated in some kind of ongoing circumstance. All indications are that I belong to this dream continuity.

The Dolphin Hotel is distorted, much too narrow. It seems more like a long, covered bridge. A bridge stretching endlessly through time. And there I am, in the middle of it. Someone else is there too, crying.

The hotel envelops me. I can feel its pulse, its heat. In dreams, I am part of the hotel.

I wake up, but where? I don't just think this, I actually voice the question to myself: "Where am I?" As if I didn't know: I'm here. In my life. A feature of the world that is my existence. Not that I particularly recall ever having approved these matters, this condition, this state of affairs in which I feature. There might be a woman sleeping next to me. More often, I'm alone. Just me and the expressway that runs right next to my apartment and, bedside, a glass (five millimeters of whiskey still in it) and the malicious — no, make that indifferent — dusty morning light. Sometimes it's raining. If it is, I'll just stay in bed. And if there's whiskey still left in the glass, I'll drink it. And I'll look at the raindrops dripping from the eaves, and I'll think about the Dolphin Hotel. Maybe I'll stretch, nice and slow. Enough for me to be sure I'm myself and not part of something else. Yet I'll remember the feel of the dream. So much that I swear I can reach out and touch it, and the whole of that something that includes me will move. If I strain my ears, I can hear the slow, cautious sequence of play take place, like droplets in an intricate water puzzle falling, step upon step, one after the other. I listen carefully. That's when I hear someone softly, almost imperceptibly, weeping. A sobbing from somewhere in the darkness. Someone is crying for me.

The Dolphin Hotel is a real hotel. It actually exists in a so-so section of Sapporo. Once, a few years back, I spent a week there. No, let me get that straight. How many years ago was it? Four. Or more precisely, four and a half. I was still in my twenties. I checked into the Dolphin Hotel with a woman I was living with. She'd chosen the place. This is where we're staying, was what she said. If it hadn't been for her, I doubt I'd ever have set foot in the place.

It was a tiny dump of a hotel. In the whole time we were there, I don't know if we saw another paying customer. There were a couple of characters milling around the lobby, but who knows if they were staying there? A few keys were always missing from the board behind the front desk, so I guess there were other hotel guests. Though not too many. I mean, really, you hang out a hotel sign somewhere in a major city, put a phone number in the business listings, it stands to reason you're not going to go entirely without customers. But granting there were other customers besides ourselves, they were awfully quiet. We never heard a sound from them, hardly saw a sign of their presence — with the exception of the arrangement of the keys on the board that changed slightly each day. Were they like shadows creeping along the walls of the corridors, holding their breath? Occa- sionally we'd hear the dull rattling of the elevator, but when it stopped the oppressive silence bore down once more.

A mysterious hotel.

What it reminded me of was a biological dead end. A genetic retrogression. A freak accident of nature that stranded some organism up the wrong path without a way back. Evolutionary vector eliminated, orphaned life-form left cowering behind the curtain of history, in The Land That Time Forgot. And through no fault of anyone. No one to blame, no one to save it.

The hotel should never have been built where it was. That was the first mistake, and everything got worse from there. Like a button on a shirt buttoned wrong, every attempt to correct things led to yet another fine — not to say elegant — mess. No detail seemed right. Look at anything in the place and you'd find yourself tilting your head a few degrees. Not enough to cause you any real harm, nor enough to seem particularly odd. Who knows? You might get used to this slant on things (but if you did, you'd never be able to view the world again without holding your head out of true).

That was the Dolphin Hotel. Normalness, it lacked. Confusion piled on confusion until the saturation point was reached, destined in the not-too-distant future to be swallowed in the vortex of time. Anyone could recognize that at a glance. A pathetic place, woebegone as a three-legged black dog drenched in December rain. Sad hotels existed everywhere, to be sure, but the Dolphin was in a class of its own. The Dolphin Hotel was conceptually sorry. The Dolphin Hotel was tragic.

It goes without saying, then, that aside from those poor, unsuspecting souls who happened upon it, no one would willingly choose to stay there.

A far cry from its name (to me, the "Dolphin" sobriquet suggested a pristine white-sugar candy of a resort hotel on the Aegean Sea), if not for the sign hung out front, you'd never have known the building was a hotel. Even with the sign and the brass plaque at the entrance, it scarcely looked the part. What it really resembled was a museum. A peculiar kind of museum where persons with peculiar curiosities might steal away to see peculiar items on display.

Which actually was not far from the truth. The hotel was indeed part museum. But I ask, would anyone want to stay in such a hotel? In a lodge-cum-reliquary, its dark corridors blocked with stuffed sheep and musty fleeces and mold-covered documents and discolored photographs? Its corners caked with unfulfilled dreams?

The furniture was faded, the tables wobbled, the locks were useless. The floorboards were scuffed, the light bulbs dim; the washstand, with ill-fitting plug, couldn't hold water. A fat maid walked the halls with elephant strides, ponderously, ominously coughing. And the sad-eyed, middle-aged owner, stationed permanently behind the front desk, had two fingers missing. The kind of a guy, by the looks of him, for whom nothing goes right. A veritable specimen of the type — dredged up from an overnight soak in thin blue ink, soul stained by misfortune, failure, defeat. You'd want to put him in a glass case and cart him to your science class: Homo nihilsuccessus. Almost anyone who saw the guy would, to a greater or lesser degree, feel their spirits dampen. Not a few would be angered (some folks get upset seeing miserable examples of humanity). So who would stay in that hotel?

Well, we stayed there. This is where we're staying, she'd said. And then later she disappeared. She upped and vanished. It was the Sheep Man who told me so. Thewomanleftalonethisafternoon, the Sheep Man said. Somehow, the Sheep Man knew. He'd known that she had to get out. Just as I know now. Her purpose had been to lead me there. As if it were her fate. Like the Moldau flowing to the sea. Like rain.

When I started having these dreams about the Dolphin Hotel, she was the first thing that came to mind. She was seeking me out. Why else would I keep having the same dream, over and over again? She. What was her name? The months we'd spent together, and yet I never knew. What did I actually know about her? She'd been in the employ of an exclusive call girl club. A club for members only; persons of less-than-impeccable standing not welcome. So she was a high-class hooker. She'd had a couple other jobs on the side. During regular business hours she was a part-time proofreader at a small publishing house; she was also an ear model. In other words, she kept busy. Naturally, she wasn't nameless. In fact I'm sure she went by a number of names. At the same time, practically speaking, she didn't have a name. Whatever she carried — which was next to nothing — bore no name. She had no train pass, no driver's license, no credit cards. She did carry a little notebook, but that was scrawled in an indecipherable code. Apparently she wanted no handle on her identity. Hookers may have names, but they inhabit a world that doesn't need to know.

I hardly knew a thing about her. Her birthplace, her real age, her birthday, her schooling and family background — zip. Precipitate as weather, she appeared from somewhere, then evaporated, leaving only memory.

But now, the memory of her is taking on renewed reality. A palpable reality. She has been calling me via that circumstance known as the Dolphin Hotel. Yes, she is seeking me once more. And only by becoming part of the Dolphin Hotel will I ever see her again. Yes, there is no doubt: it is she who is crying for me.

Gazing at the rain, I consider what it means to belong, to become part of something. To have someone cry for me. From someplace distant, so very distant. From, ultimately, a dream. No matter how far I reach out, no matter how fast I run, I'll never make it.

Why would anyone want to cry for me?

She is definitely calling me. From somewhere in the Dolphin Hotel. And apparently, somewhere in my own mind, the Dolphin Hotel is what I seek as well. To be taken into that scene, to become part of that weirdly fateful venue.

It is no easy matter to return to the Dolphin Hotel, not a simple question of ringing up for a reservation, hopping on a plane, flying to Sapporo, and mission accomplished. For the hotel is, as I've suggested, as much circumstance as place, a state of being in the guise of a hotel. To return to the Dolphin Hotel means facing up to a shadow of the past. The prospect alone depresses. It has been all I could do these four years to rid myself of that chill, dim shadow. To return to the Dolphin Hotel is to give up all I'd quietly set aside during this time. Not that what I'd achieved is anything great, mind you. However you look at it, it's pretty much the stuff of tentative convenience. Okay, I'd done my best. Through some clever juggling I'd managed to forge a connection to reality, to build a new life based on token values. Was I now supposed to give it up?

But the whole thing started there. That much was undeniable. So the story had to start back there.

I rolled over in bed, stared at the ceiling, and let out a deep sigh. Oh give in, I thought. But the idea of giving in didn't take hold. It's out of your hands, kid. Whatever you may be thinking, you can't resist. The story's already decided.

I got sent to Hokkaido on assignment. As work goes, it wasn't terribly exciting, but I wasn't in a position to choose. And anyway, with the jobs that come my way, there's generally very little difference. For better or worse, the further from the midrange of things you go, the less relative qualities matter. The same holds for wavelengths: Pass a certain point and you can hardly tell which of two adjacent notes is higher in pitch, until finally you not only can't distinguish them, you can't hear them at all.

The assignment was a piece called "Good Eating in Hakodate" for a women's magazine. A photographer and I were to visit a few restaurants. I'd write the story up, he'd supply the photos, for a total of five pages. Well, somebody's got to write these things. And the same can be said for collecting garbage and shoveling snow. It doesn't matter whether you like it or not — a job's a job.

For three and a half years, I'd been making this kind of contribution to society. Shoveling snow. You know, cultural snow.

Due to some unavoidable circumstances, I had quit an office that a friend and I were running, and for half a year I did almost nothing. I didn't feel like doing anything. The previous autumn all sorts of things had happened in my life. I got divorced. A friend died, very mysteriously. A woman ran out on me, without a word. I met a strange man, found myself caught up in some extraordinary developments. And by the time everything was over, I was overwhelmed by a stillness deeper than anything I'd known. A devastating absence hovered about my apartment. I stayed shut-in for six months. I never went out during the day, except to make the absolute minimum purchases necessary to survive. I'd venture into the city with the first gray of dawn and walk the deserted streets, and when the streets started to fill with people, I holed up back indoors to sleep.

Toward evening, I'd rise, fix something to eat, feed the cat. Then I'd sit on the floor and methodically go over the things that had happened to me, trying to make sense of them. Rearrange the order of events, list up all possible alternatives, consider the right or wrong of what I'd done. This went on until the dawn, when I'd go out and wander the streets again.

For half a year that was my daily routine. From January through June 1979. I didn't read one book. I didn't open one newspaper. I didn't watch TV, didn't listen to the radio. Never saw anyone, never talked to anyone. I hardly even drank; I wasn't in a drinking frame of mind. I had no idea what was going on in the world, who'd become famous, who'd died, nothing. It wasn't that I stubbornly resisted information, I simply had no desire to know anything. Even so, I knew things were happening. The world didn't stop. I could feel it in my skin, even sitting alone in my apartment. Though little did it compel me to show interest. It was like a silent breath of air, breezing past me.

Sitting on the floor, I'd replay the past in my head. Funny, that's all I did, day after day after day for half a year, and I never tired of it. What I'd been through seemed so vast, with so many facets. Vast but real, very real, which was why the experience persisted in towering before me, like a monument lit up at night. And the thing was, it was a monument to me. I inspected the events from every possible angle. I'd been damaged, badly, I suppose. The damage was not petty. Blood had flowed, quietly. After a while some of the anguish went away, some surfaced only later. And yet my half year indoors was not spent in convalescence. Nor in autistic denial of the external world. I simply needed time to get back on my feet. Once on my feet, I tried not to think about where I was heading. That was another question entirely, to be thought out at a later date. The main thing was to recover my equilibrium.

I scarcely talked to the cat. The telephone rang. I let it ring. If someone knocked on the door, I wasn't there. There were a few letters. A couple from my former partner, who didn't know where I was or what I was up to and was concerned. Was there anything he could do to help? His new business was going smoothly, old acquaintances had asked about me.

My ex-wife wrote, needing some practical affairs taken care of, very matter-of-fact. Then she mentioned she was getting married — to someone I didn't know, and probably never would. Which meant she'd split up with that friend of mine she'd gone off with when we divorced. Not surprising, them splitting up. The guy wasn't so great a jazz guitarist and he wasn't so great a person either. Never could understand what she saw in him — but none of my business, eh? About me, she said she wasn't worried. She was sure I'd be fine whatever it was I chose to do. She reserved her worries for the people I'd get involved with.

I read these letters over a few times, then filed them away. And so the months passed.

Money wasn't a problem. I had saved plenty enough to live on, and I wasn't thinking about what came later. Winter was past.

And spring took hold. The scent of the wind changed. Even the darkness of night was different.

At the end of May, Kipper, my cat, died. Suddenly, without warning. I woke up one day and found him curled up on the kitchen floor, dead. He himself probably hadn't known it was happening. His body was cold and hard, like yesterday's roast chicken, sheen gone from the fur. He could hardly have claimed he had the best life. Never really loved by anyone, never seeming really to love anyone either. His eyes always had this uneasy look, like, what now? You don't see that look in a cat too often. But anyway, he was dead. Nothing more. Maybe that's the best thing about death.

I put his body in a Seiyu supermarket bag, placed him on the backseat of the car, and drove to the hardware store for a shovel. I turned off the highway a good ways up in the hills and found an appropriate grove of trees. A fair distance back from the road I dug a hole one meter deep and laid Kipper in his shopping bag to rest. Then I shoveled dirt on top of him. Sorry, I told the little guy, that's just how it goes. Birds were singing the whole time I was burying him. The upper registers of a flute recital.

Once the hole was filled in, I tossed the shovel into the trunk of the car, and got back on the highway. I turned the radio on as I drove home to Tokyo.

Which is when the DJ had to put on Ray Charles moaning about being born to lose .?and now I'm losing you.

I felt like crying. Sometimes one little thing will do the trick. I turned the radio off and pulled into a service area. First, I washed the dirt from my hands, then went into the restaurant. I could only manage a third of a sandwich, but I put down two cups of coffee.

What was Kipper doing now? I wondered. Down there in the dark. The sound of the dirt hitting the Seiyu bag echoed in my brain. That's just how it goes, pal, for me the same as you.

I sat staring at my unfinished sandwich for an hour. Until a violet-uniformed waitress came by and nervously asked if she could clear the plate away.

That's that, I thought. So now, back to society.

It takes no great effort to find work in the giant anthill of an advanced capitalist society. That is, of course, so long as you're not asking the impossible. When I still had my office, I did my share of editing and writing, and I'd gotten to know a few professionals in the field. So as I embarked on a free-lance career, there was no major retooling required. I didn't need much to live on anyway.

I pulled out my address book and made some calls. I asked if there was work available. I said I'd been laying back but was ready to take stuff on. Almost immediately jobs came my way. Though not particularly interesting jobs, mostly filler for PR newsletters and company brochures. Speaking conservatively, I'd say half the material I wrote was meaningless, of no conceivable use to anyone. A waste of pulp and ink. But I did the work, mechanically, without thinking. At first, the load wasn't much, maybe a couple hours a day. The rest of the time I'd be out walking or seeing a movie. I saw a lot of movies. For three months, I had an easy time of it. I was slowly getting back in touch.

Then, in early autumn, things began to change. Work orders increased dramatically. The phone rang nonstop, my mailbox was overflowing. I met people in the business and had lunch with them. They promised me more work. The reason was simple. I was never choosy about the jobs I did. I was willing to do anything, I met my deadlines, I never complained, I wrote legibly. And I was thorough. Where others slacked off, I did an honest write. I was never snide, even when the pay was low. If I got a call at two-thirty in the morning asking for twenty pages of text (about, say, the advantages of non-digital clocks or the appeal of women in their forties or the most beautiful spots in Helsinki, where, needless to say, I'd never been) by six A.M., I'd have it done by five-thirty. And if they called back for a rewrite, I had it to them by six. You bet I had a good reputation.

The same as for shoveling snow.

Let it snow and I'd show you a thing or two about efficient roadwork.

And with not one speck of ambition, not one iota of expectation. My only concern was to do things systematically, from one end to the other. I sometimes wonder if this might not prove to be the bane of my life. After wasting so much pulp and ink myself, who was I to complain about waste? We live in an advanced capitalist society, after all. Waste is the name of the game, its greatest virtue. Politicians call it "refinements in domestic consumption." I call it meaningless waste. A difference of opinion. Which doesn't change the way we live. If I don't like it, I can move to Bangladesh or Sudan.

I for one am not eager to live in Bangladesh or Sudan.

So I kept working.

And soon enough, it wasn't just PR work. I got called to do bits and pieces for regular magazines. For some reason, mostly women's magazines. I started doing interviews, minor legwork reportage. But really, the work wasn't much of an improvement over PR newsletters. Due to the nature of these magazines, most of the people I had to interview were in show business. No matter what you asked them, they had only stock replies. You could predict what they'd answer before you asked the question. In the worst cases, the man- ager would insist on seeing the questions in advance. So I always came with everything written out. Once I asked a seventeen-year-old singer something that wasn't on the list, which caused her manager to pipe up: "That wasn't what we agreed on — she doesn't have to answer that." That was a kick. I wondered if the girl couldn't answer what month followed October without this manager by her side. Still, I did my best. Before each interview I did my homework, surveyed available sources, tried to come up with questions others wouldn't think to ask. I took pains structuring the article. Not that these efforts received any special recognition. They never got me an appreciative word. I went the extra step because, for me, it was the simplest way. Self-discipline. Giving my disused fingers and head a practical — and if at all possible, harmless — dose of overwork.

Social rehabilitation.

After that, my days were busier than ever. Not only with double or triple my regular load, but with a lot of rush jobs too. Without fail, jobs that had no takers found their way to me. My role in those circles was the junkyard at the edge of town. Anything, particularly if complicated or a pain, would get hauled to me for disposal.

By way of thanks, my savings account swelled to figures I'd never seen the likes of, though I was too busy to spend much of it. So when a guy I knew offered me a good deal, I got rid of my nothing-but-headaches car and bought his year-old Subaru Leone. Hardly any miles on it, stereo and air-conditioning. A real first for me. And I moved to an apartment in Shibuya, closer to the center of town. It was a bit noisy — the expressway passing right outside my window — but you got used to it.

I slept with a few women I met through work.

Social rehabilitation.

I had a sense about which women I ought to sleep with. And which women I'd be able to sleep with, which not. Maybe even which I shouldn't sleep with. It's an intelligence that comes with age. I also knew when to call it quits, all very nice and easy so no one got hurt. The only thing missing was those tugs on the heartstrings.

The deepest I got involved was with a woman who worked at the phone company. I met her at a New Year's party. Both of us were tipsy, we joked with each other, liked each other, and ended up back at my place. She had a good head on her shoulders and terrific legs. We went for rides in my new-used Subaru. She'd call, whenever the mood struck, and come over and spend the night. She was the only relationship with one foot in the door like that. Though both of us knew there was no place this thing could go. Still, we quietly shared something approaching a pardon from life. I knew days of peace for the first time in ages. We exchanged tenderness, talked in whispers. I cooked for her, gave her birthday presents. We'd go to jazz clubs and have cocktails. We never argued, not once. We knew exactly what we wanted in each other. And even so, it ended. One day it stopped, as if the film simply slipped off the reel.

Her departure left me emptier than I would have suspected. For a while, I stayed in again.

The problem was that I hadn't wanted her, really wanted her. I'd liked her, liked being with her. She brought me back to gentle feelings. But what it came down to was, I never felt a need for her. Not three days after she got out of my life, the realization hit home. That ultimately, all the time I'd been next to her, I might as well have been on the moon. The whole while I'd felt her breasts against me, I'd really wanted something else.

It took four years to get my life back on steady ground. I carefully dispatched each piece of work that came my way, and people came to feel they could depend on me. Not many, but a few, even became friendly. Though, it goes without saying, that wasn't enough. Not enough at all. Here I'd spent all this time trying to get up to speed, and I was back to where I started.

Okay, I thought, age thirty-four, square one. What do you do now? I didn't have to think much about that one. I knew already. The answer had been floating over my head like a dark, dense cloud. All I had to do was take action, instead of putting it off and putting it off. / had to go to the Dolphin Hotel. That's where it all started.

I also had to find her. The woman who'd first guided me to the Dolphin Hotel, she who'd been a high-class call girl in her own covert world of night. (Under astonishing circumstances, I was to learn this nameless woman's name sometime later, but, for reasons of convenience, unorthodox as it will seem, I'll tell it to you now. Pardon me, please. It was Kiki.) Yes, Kiki held the key. I had to call her back to me. To a life with me she'd left never to return. Was it possible? Who knew, but I had to try. From then would begin a new cycle.

I packed my bags, did double time to finish up outstanding work, then canceled all the jobs I'd penciled in for the next month. I said I was leaving Tokyo on family business. A couple of editors made noises, but what could they do? I'd never let them down before, and besides I was giving them plenty of advance notice to find other ways and means. In the end, it was fine. I'd be back in a month, I told them.

Then I took a flight to Hokkaido. This was the beginning of March 1983.

Of course, the family business wasn't over in anything near a month.

I booked a taxi for two days, and the photographer and I raced around Hakodate in the snow checking out eateries in the city.

I'm good at researching, very systematic, very efficient. The most important thing about this sort of job is to do your homework and set up a schedule. That's the key. When it comes to gathering materials beforehand, you can't beat organizations that compile information for people in the field. Become a member and pay your dues; they'll look up almost anything for you. So if by chance you're researching eating places in Hakodate, they can dig up quite a bit. They use mainframe computer retrieval, arrange the facts in file format, print out hard copy, even deliver to your doorstep. Granted, it's not cheap, but plenty worth the time it buys.

In addition to that, I do a little walking for information myself. There are reading rooms specializing in travel materials, libraries that collect local newspapers and regional publications. From all of these sources, I pick out the promising spots, then call them up to check their business hours. This much done, I've saved a lot of trouble on site. Then I draw lines in a notebook and plan out each day's itinerary. I look at maps and mark in the routes we'll travel. Trying to reduce uncertainties to a minimum.

Once we arrive in Hakodate, the photographer and I go around to the restaurants in order. There are about thirty. We take a couple of bites — just enough to get the taste — then casually leave the rest of the meal uneaten. Refinements in consumption. We're still undercover at this stage, so no picture taking. Only after leaving the premises do the photographer and I discuss the food and evaluate it on a scale of one to ten. If it passes, it stays on the list; if not, it's out. We generally figure on dropping at least half. Taking a parallel tack, we also check the local papers for listings of places we've missed, selecting maybe five. We go to these too, and weed out the not-so-good. Then we've got our finalists. I call them up, give the name of the magazine, tell them we'd like to do a feature on them — text with photos. All that in two days. Nights, I stay in my hotel room, laying down the basic copy.

The next day, while the photographer does quick shots of the food and table settings, I talk to the restaurant owners. Saves on time. So we can call it a wrap in three days. True, there are those in our league who take even less time. But they don't do any research. They do a handful of the more well-known spots, cruise through without eating a thing, write brief comments. It's their business, not mine. If I may be perfectly frank, I doubt that many writers take as many pains as I do at this level of reportage. It's the kind of work that can break you if you're too serious about it, or you can kick back and do almost nothing. The worst of it is, whether you're earnest or you loaf, the difference will hardly show in the finished piece. On the surface. Only in the finer points can you find any hint of the distinction.

I'm not explaining this out of pride or anything.

I just wanted you to have a rough idea of the job, the sort of expendables I deal with.

On the third night, I finish writing.

The fourth day is left free, just in case.

But since the work has been completed and we don't have anything else in the tube, we rent a car and head off for a day of cross-country skiing. That evening, the two of us settle down to drinks over a nice, simmering hot pot. One day's relaxation. I turn over my manuscript to the photographer, and that's it. My job's done, the work's in someone else's hands.

But before turning in that evening, I rang up Sapporo directory assistance for the number of the Dolphin Hotel. I didn't have to wait long. I sat up in bed and sighed. Well, at least the Dolphin Hotel hadn't gone under. Relief, I guess. Because I wouldn't have been surprised if it had, a mysterious place like that. I took a deep breath, dialed the number — and someone answered immediately. As if they'd been just waiting for it to ring. So immediately, in fact, I was taken aback.

"Hello, Dolphin Hotel!" went a cheerful voice.

It was a young woman. A woman? What's going on? I don't remember a woman being there.

It didn't figure, so I checked if the address was the same. Yes, it was exactly where the Dolphin Hotel I knew used to be. Maybe the hotel had hired someone new, the owner's niece or something. Nothing so odd about that. I told her I wanted to make a reservation.

"Thank you very much, sir," she chirped. "Please wait a moment while I transfer you to our reservations desk."

Our reservations desk? Now I was really confused. I couldn't begin to digest that one. What the hell happened to the old joint?

"Sorry to keep you waiting. This is the reservations desk. How may I help you?" This time, a young man's voice. The brisk, friendly pitch of the professional hotel man. Curiouser and curiouser.

I asked for a single room for three nights. I gave him my name and my Tokyo phone number.

"Very well, sir. That's three nights, starting from tomorrow. Your single room will be waiting for you."

I couldn't think of anything to say to that, so I thanked him and hung up, completely disoriented. Shouldn't I have asked for an explanation? Oh well, it'd all become clear once I got there. And anyway, I couldn't not go. I didn't have an alternative.

I asked the concierge to check the schedule for trains to Sapporo. After that, I got room service to send up a bottle of whiskey and some ice, and I stayed up watching a late-night movie on TV. A Clint Eastwood western. Clint didn't smile once, didn't sneer. I tried laughing at him, but he never broke his deadpan. The movie ended and I'd had my fill of whiskey, so I turned out the light and slept straight through the night. If I dreamed, I don't remember.

All I could see outside the window of the early morning express train was snow. It was a bright, clear day, so the glare soon got to be too much. I didn't see another passenger looking out the windows. They all knew what snow looks like.

I'd skipped breakfast, so a little before noon I made my way to the dining car. Beer and an omelet. Across from me sat a fiftyish man in a suit and tie, having beer with a ham sandwich. He looked like a mechanical engineer, and that's just what he was. He spoke to me first, telling me he serviced jets for the Self-Defense Forces. Then he filled me in on how Soviet fighters and bombers invaded our airspace, though he didn't seem particularly upset about it. He was more concerned about the economics of F4 Phantoms. How much fuel they guzzled in one scramble, a terrible waste. "If the Japanese had made them, you can bet they'd be more efficient. And at no loss to performance either! There's no reason why we couldn't build a low-cost fighter if we wanted to."

That's when I proffered my words of wisdom, that waste is the highest virtue one can achieve in advanced capitalist society. The fact that Japan bought Phantom jets from America and wasted vast quantities of fuel on scrambles put an extra spin in the global economy, and that extra spin lifted capitalism to yet greater heights. If you put an end to all the waste, mass panic would ensue and the global economy would go haywire. Waste is the fuel of contradiction, and contradiction activates the economy, and an active economy creates more waste.

Well, maybe so, the engineer admitted, but having been a wartime child who had to live under deprived conditions, he couldn't grasp what this new social structure meant. "Our generation, we're not like you young folks," he said, straining a smile. "We don't understand these complex workings of yours."

I couldn't say I exactly understood things either, but as I wasn't eager for the conversation to drag on, I kept quiet. No, I'm not used to things; I just recognize them for what they are. There's a decisive difference between those two propositions. Which is just as well, I supposed, as I finished my omelet and excused myself.

I slept for thirty minutes, and the rest of the trip I read a biography of Jack London I'd bought near the Hakodate station. Compared to the grand sweep and romance of Jack London's life, my existence seemed like a squirrel with its head against a walnut, dozing until spring. For the time being, that is. But that's how biographies are. I mean, who's going to read about the peaceful life and times of a nobody employed at the Kawasaki Municipal Library? In other words, what we seek is some kind of compensation for what we put up with.

Arriving at Sapporo, I decided to take a leisurely stroll to the hotel. It was a pleasant enough afternoon, and I was carrying only a shoulder bag.

The streets were covered in a thin layer of slush, and people trained their eyes carefully at their feet. The air was exhilarating. High school girls came bustling along, their rosy red cheeks puffing white breaths you could have written cartoon captions in. I continued my amble, taking in the sights of the town. It had been four and a half years since I was in Sapporo. It seemed like much longer. Along the way I stopped into a coffee shop. All around me normal, everyday city types were going about their normal, everyday affairs. Lovers were whispering to each other, businessmen were poring over spread sheets, college kids were planning their next ski trip and discussing the new Police album. We could have been in any city in Japan. Transplant this coffee shop scene to Yokohama or Fukuoka and nothing would seem out of place. In spite of which — or, rather, all the more because — here I was, sitting in this coffee shop, drinking my coffee, feeling a desperate loneliness. I alone was the outsider. I had no place here.

Of course, by the same token, I couldn't really say I belonged to Tokyo and its coffee shops. But I had never felt this loneliness there. I could drink my coffee, read my book, pass the time of day without any special thought, all because I was part of the regular scenery. Here I had no ties to anyone. Fact is, I'd come to reclaim myself.

I paid the check and left. Then, without further thought, I headed for the hotel.

I didn't know the way exactly and part of me worried that I might miss the place. I didn't. How could anyone have? It had been transformed into a gleaming twenty-six-story Bauhaus Modern-Art Deco symphony of glass and steel, with flags of various nations waving along the driveway, smartly uniformed doormen hailing taxis, a glass elevator shooting up to a penthouse restaurant. A bas-relief of a dolphin was set into one of the marble columns by the entrance, beneath which the inscription read:

l'Hotel Dauphin

I stood there a good twenty seconds, mouth agape, staring up at it. Then I let out a long, deep breath that might as easily have been beamed straight to the moon. Surprise was not the word.

I couldn't stand around gawking at the facade forever. Whatever this building was, the address was correct, as was the name — for the most part. And anyway, I had a reservation, right? There was nothing to do but go in.

I walked up the gently sloped driveway and pushed my way through the shiny brass revolving door. The lobby was large enough to be a gymnasium, the ceiling at least two stories high. A wall of glass rose the full height, and through it cascaded a brilliant shower of sunlight. The floor space was appointed with a fleet of luxurious designer sofas, between which were stationed planters of ornamental trees. Lots of them. The overall decor focused on an oil painting — three tatami mats large — of some Hokkaido marshland. Nothing outstanding artistically, but impressive, if only for its size. At the far end of the lobby a posh coffee bar beckoned. The sort of place where you order a sandwich and they bring you four deviled ham dainties arrayed like calling cards on a silver tray with an embellishment of potato crisps and cornichons. Throw in a cup of coffee and you're spending enough to buy a frugal family of four a midday meal.

The lobby was crowded. Apparently a function was in progress. A group of well-dressed, middle-aged men sat on facing sofas, nodding and smiling magnanimously. Jaws thrust out, legs crossed, identically. A professional organiza- tion? Doctors or university professors? On their periphery — perhaps they were part of the same gathering — cooed a clutch of young women in formal dress, some of them in kimono, some in floor-length dresses. There were a few Westerners as well, not to mention the requisite salarymen in dark suits and harmless ties, attache cases in hand.

In a word, business was booming at the new Dolphin Hotel.

What we had here was a hotel founded on a proper outlay of capital and now enjoying proper returns. But how the hell had this come about? Well, I could guess, of course. Having once put together a PR bulletin for a hotel chain, I knew the whole process. Before a hotel of this scale is built, someone first costs out every aspect of the venture in detail, then consultants are called in and every piece of information is input into their computers for a thorough simulation study. Everything including the wholesale price and usage volume of toilet paper is taken into account. Then students are hired to go around the city — Sapporo in this case — to do a market survey. They stop young men and women on the street and ask how many weddings they expect to attend each year. You get the picture. Little is left unchecked. All in an effort to reduce business risk.

So the Hotel Dauphin project team had gone to great lengths over many months to draw up as precise a plan as possible. They bought the property, they assembled the staff, they pinned down flash advertising space. If money was all it took — and they were convinced they'd make that money back — there'd be no end of funds pouring in. It's big business of a big order.

Now, the only enterprises that could embark on such a big business venture were the huge conglomerates. Because even after paring away the risks, there's bound to be some hidden factor of uncertainty lurking around, which only a major player can conceivably absorb. To be honest, this new Dolphin Hotel wasn't my kind of hotel.

Or at least, under normal circumstances, if I had to choose a place to stay, I wouldn't go for one that looked like this. The rates are too high; too much padding, too many frills. But this time the die had been cast.

I went to the front desk and gave my name, whereupon three light blue blazered young women with toothpaste-commercial smiles greeted me. This smile training surely figured into the capital outlay. With their virgin-snow white blouses and immaculate hairstyles, the receptionists were picture-perfect. Of the three, one wore glasses, which of course suited her nicely. When she stepped over to me, I actually felt a shot of relief. She was the prettiest and most immediately likable. There was something about her expression I responded to, some embodiment of hotel spirit. I half expected her to produce a tiny magic wand, like in a Disney movie, and tap out swirls of diamond dust.

But instead of a magic wand, she used a computer, swiftly typing in my name and credit card number, then verifying the details on the display screen. Then she handed me my card-key, room number 1523. I smiled as I accepted the hotel brochure from her. When had the hotel opened? I asked. Last October, she answered, almost in reflex. It was now in its fifth month of operation.

"You know," I began, donning my professional smile, "I seem to remember a small hotel with a similar name in this location a few years ago. Do you have any idea what became of it?"

A slight disturbance clouded her smile. Quiet ripples spread across her face, as if a beer bottle had been tossed into a sacred spring. By the time the ripples subsided, her reassumed smile was a shade less cheerful than before. I observed the changes with great interest. Would the sprite of the spring now appear to ask whether the item I disposed of had a gold or silver twist top?

"Well, now," she hedged, touching the bridge of her glasses with her index finger. "That was before we opened our doors, so I really couldn't — "

Her words cut off. I waited for her to continue, but she didn't.

"I'm terribly sorry," she said.

"Oh," I said. Seconds went by. I found myself liking her. I wanted to touch the bridge of my glasses as well, except that I wasn't wearing any glasses. "Well, then, is there anyone you can ask?"

She held her breath a second, thinking it over. The smile vanished. It's exceedingly difficult to hold your breath and keep smiling. Just try it if you don't believe me.

"I'm terribly sorry," she said again, "but would you mind waiting a bit?" Then she retreated through a door. Thirty seconds later, she returned with a fortyish man in a black suit. A real live hotelier by the looks of him. I'd met enough of them in my line of work. They are a dubious species, with twenty-five different smiles on call for every variety of circumstance. From the cool and cordial twinge of disinterest to the measured grin of satisfaction. They wield the entire arsenal by number, like golf clubs for particular shots.

"May I help you, please," he said, sending a midrange smile my way with a polite bow of the head. When he noted my attire, however, the smile was quickly adjusted down three notches. I was wearing my fur-lined hunting jacket with a Keith Haring button pinned to the chest, an Austrian Army-issue Alps Corps fur cap, a rough-and-ready pair of hiking trousers with lots of pockets, and snow-tire treaded work boots. All fine and practical items of dress, but just a tad unsuitable for this hotel lobby. No fault of mine, only a difference in life-style.

"You had a question concerning our hotel, I believe?" he voiced most properly.

I put both hands on the counter and repeated my query.

The man cast a glance at my Mickey Mouse watch with the same clinical unease a vet might direct at a cat's sprained paw. "Might I inquire," he regained his composure to speak, "why you wish to know about the previous hotel? If you don't mind my asking, that is?"

I explained as simply as I could: A good while back I had stayed at the old Dolphin Hotel and gotten to know the owner; now, years later, I visit and everything's completely changed. Which makes me wonder, what happened to the old guy?

The man nodded attentively.

"In all honesty, I'm not entirely clear on the details myself," he chose his words guardedly. "Nevertheless, my understanding of the history of this hotel is that our concerns purchased the property where the previous Dolphin Hotel stood and erected on the site what we now have before us. As you can see, the name was for all intents and purposes retained, but let me assure you that the management is altogether separate, with no relation whatsoever to its predecessor."

"Then why keep the name?"

"You must forgive me, I'm afraid I really don't?

"And I suppose you wouldn't have any idea where I could find the former owner?"

"I am sorry, but no, I do not," he answered, moving on to smile number 16.

"Is there anyone else I could ask? Someone who might know?"

"Since you insist," the man began, straining his neck slightly. "We are merely employees here, and accordingly we are strictly out of touch with any goings on prior to when the current premises opened for business. So unfortunately, if someone such as yourself desires to know anything more specific, there's really very little ?

Certainly what he said made sense, yet something caught in the back of my mind. Something artificial, manufactured really, about the responses from both the young woman and the stiff now fielding my questions. I couldn't put my finger on anything exactly, yet I couldn't swallow the line. Do your share of interviews and you get this professional sixth sense. That tone of voice when someone's hiding something, that knowing expression of someone who's lying. No real evidence to go on. Only a hunch, that there was more here than being said.

Still, it was clear that nothing more would come from pushing them further. I thanked the man; he excused himself and withdrew. After his black suit had vanished from view, I asked the young woman about meals and room service, and she went on at length. While she spoke, I peered straight into her eyes. Beautiful eyes. I swear I almost began to see things in them. But when she met my gaze, she blushed. Which made me like her even more. Why was that? Was it that hotel spirit in her? Whatever, I thanked her, turned away, and took the elevator up to my floor.

Room 1523 proved to be quite a room. Both the bed and the bath were far too big for a single. A full complement of shampoo, conditioner, and after-shave was provided, as was a bathrobe. The refrigerator was chock-full of snacks. There was an ample writing desk, with plenty of stationery and envelopes. The closet was large, the carpet deep-piled. I took off my coat and boots and picked up the hotel brochure. Quite a production. They hadn't spared any expense on this job.

L'Hotel Dauphin represents a wholly new development in quality city center lodgings, the brochure stated. Complete with the latest conveniences and full twenty-four-hour services. Our guest rooms are spacious and sumptuously styled. Featuring the finest selection of products, a restful atmosphere, and a warm at-home feeling. "Professional space with a human face."

In other words, they'd spent a lot of money, so the rates were high.

Indeed, this was a very well turned out hotel. A big shopping arcade in the basement, an indoor pool, sauna, and tanning salon. Tennis courts, a health club with training coaches and exercise equipment, conference rooms outfitted for simultaneous translation, five restaurants, three lounges, even a late-night cafe. Not to mention a limousine service, free work space, unlimited business supplies available to all guests. Anything you could want, they'd thought of — and then some. A rooftop heliport?

Intelligent facilities in an impeccable decor.

But what of the commercial group that owned and operated this hotel? I reread the brochure from cover to cover. Not one mention of the management. Odd, to say the least. It was unthinkable that any but the most experienced hotel chain could run a topflight operation like this, and any enterprise of such scale would be certain to stamp its name everywhere and take every opportunity to promote its full line of hotels. You stay at one Prince Hotel and the brochure lists every Prince Hotel in the whole of Japan. That's how it is.

And then there was still the question, why would a hotel of this class take on the name of a dump like the old Dolphin?

I couldn't come up with even a flake of an answer to that one.

I threw the brochure onto the table, fell back into the sofa with my feet kicked up, and looked out my fifteenth-story window. All I could see was blue sky. I felt like I was flying.

All this was fine, but I missed the old dive. There'd been a lot to see from those windows.