31 December 2020


Toyama. How do I even begin. When I think of Toyama my mind drifts to the sight of snowcapped mountains, settled like a magnificent backdrop to a quiet, suburban city. The fog that clouds up the bus window. The rain. The terribly wonderful cold. The 12 am trips to the nearby Family Mart, smoking under the fluorescent light of the store sign. Hands numb from the cold. Standing there I would watch the deserted street, the empty 24-hour American bar across the road, and the night buses arriving and leaving from different parts of Japan. The moon shone right above us one night, and looking up I took a deep breath and exhaled to watch a cloud of breath escape from between my lips. Bliss.

I asked Alex if we could stay out a little while longer, even though I was freezing. It’s nights like that one that I wish I can stretch out for as long as I can. To keep for a little while longer. It’s always those little moments of stillness that I cherish the most. That keeps me high.

I am in love. I am so high on love. I’m not even embarrassed to say it. In love with a moment, a place, a person. For a second, I was even in love with life. I was a tiny fish swimming in a big pond of dreams. And I was happy. 

As always, flipping through memories, it’s those slivers of stillness I remember the most. The intimate, fragile moments in between that I love tucking in my pockets for safekeeping. To carry with me wherever I go. Little reminders that my heart feels at its best when it’s tender.

Little did I know that Toyama would be exactly that. A moment of an in-between. The place separating the before and after. 

What brought us to Toyama started more than two years ago, when I first started dating Alex. I remember the time and place. He asked me, “What’s your spirit animal?” A random question from this guy I barely knew, but which pleasantly surprised me. “A wolf,” I told him. I’ve always known that. He told me his is a fox and showed me his tattoo of a fox on his left arm. I told him about one of my most favorite movies that I adore and that holds a sacred space in my heart — the Japanese anime film, Wolf Children. We watched it together a month after that. He fell in love with it, too. 

Last year I discovered that the house the family lived in in the movie was based on an actual house, sitting quietly on some mountain surrounded by trees somewhere in rural Japan. I cried and told Alex we had to go there. It was in Toyama.

January 14th, 2020. We were on our way. We were standing in the information center at Kamiichi Station, a small town at the foothills of Japan’s northern, snowcapped mountains. Halfway to the Wolf Children house. I saw a poster of the movie on the wall and some brochures on the counter the moment we walked in, and my heart fluttered with glee. We asked the people in the office how to get there. We were close. Where? They asked again. I point to the picture. “Ah! Hananoie!” I smile and nod. Hanaoie. Meaning flower house. Hana’s house. My Wolf Children house.

How do you plan to get there? They asked us. Alex and I, the planless, clueless tourists that we were, looked at each other and shrugged. Bike? Alex said. And I swear to God they found this so amusing they all burst out in laughter. Two of them moved closer and looked over the counter to check our footwear. Alex was wearing some sturdy boots at least, but me, a pair of white Adidas sneakers. They looked at each other, discussing in Japanese, in a conversation that I can only assume went something like this: “What are we gonna do with these foolish tourists?” (Lol kidding. They were absolutely nice and friendly, and helped us out immensely.)

I understand their concern though—the uphill road going to the house, as it’s the middle of winter, was wet and slippery. Not to mention bears are common in this part of Japan, so maybe walking or biking (as some blogs would suggest) were not the best ideas. But we were determined to make that trip happen, no matter what. I brought a pepper spray with me though, in case of any bear encounter. To which friends, when I tell this story afterward, usually react with “Would that have helped???” and to which I always respond with: “It’s better than not trying to defend my life at all!” Telling this part of the story is always a good laugh.

Taxi, they told us finally. Your best bet is to rent a taxi. We knew it was the most expensive option, but our only feasible option at that time. The people at the information center were so wonderfully helpful that they even hailed a ride for us, and discussed a fixed price with the driver for a round trip to the house and back to the station. We were immensely grateful. Even this memory in that tiny office somewhere off-grid in Japan is one of my fondest memories from that trip. I swear—it’s those little moments in-betweens that I really love the most. The ones so easily overlooked if you’re not paying attention.

In the cab on the way to the house, I was captivated by the scenery. We are definitely not in Tokyo or Osaka anymore, I thought. It felt as if we were so far away—wherever away is—and my suitcase heart was reveling. Light and open and empty, it was ready to be filled with new memories with my person by my side. I remember driving down this wide street with the view of majestic white mountains just towering at the end of the road. I have never seen anything so beautiful. So surreal.

Alex is a good traveler, always having with him on that trip a small Japanese language book and some phrases already memorized. I remember him having conversations with our taxi driver. Watching him then, even though I couldn’t understand a word they were saying, made me feel happy.

And then we made it. We pulled up in front of the property, and I was speechless—the short pathway leading up to the house looks just as it does in the movie. I stayed behind as everyone else started to walk up, just reveling at the sight of the Wolf Children house. Some people would tell me that my life seems so poetic sometimes. Like I live in a movie. At that moment, it certainly felt that way. 

The house was open, albeit empty. No one was there. I read that the caretaker of the house usually moves back into town during winters as it gets terribly cold up there but leaves the house open for anyone who wants to visit. The front rooms of the house were like shrines for the movie. Movie merch was everywhere—posters, souvenirs, and a big map where visitors around the world could pin their home cities and write their names. The little shop works on an honesty system. You take what you want and leave your payment. On a coffee table was a thick book, which, to my surprise when I opened it, turned out to be the storyboard of the entire movie. My heart melted for the hundredth time that day.

But the best parts of the house were the quiet, darker rooms at the back, where instead of movie merchandise, you would instead find little details from the movie that made it feel like it was all real. Hana's gardening hat hanging in the dining room. Yuki's secret box of wild things she collected from the backyard. The bathroom looked exactly the same. The kitchen.

I walked into a room and found Yuki and Ame’s desks there, with their school backpacks hanging from the chairs and their wolf plush toys sitting on their desks. I teared up and called Alex. “It’s like they were really here,” I told him. At the back of the room was a sliding door looking out at the damp, dark green trees outside. I knelt on the floor and stayed there for a while, taking everything in. Thanking the universe for my being there. Fog escaped from my mouth as I sighed in awe. That room, surrounded by wilderness was very cold, but my wolf heart was home and it was happy.

Looking around the house with me and Alex were our cab driver and his kohai (trainee). They had no idea about that place. It seems this house is like a precious little secret, discovered only by those who sought it. I can't even remember how I found out about it—honestly—but I'm so thankful that I did. 

Our cab driver approached me, holding up his phone with a translation app open and that read: "Why this house?" I took out my phone as well. "I am a big fan of the movie," I typed on Google Translate. He read it and smiled. He then insisted that he'd take a photo of me and Alex behind the huge cardboard cutout of the Wolf Children family, with holes to stick our faces in. 

Soon, it was time to go. I was the last one out of the house. I didn't want to leave yet, but we had a taxi waiting for us. Outside the house, Alex handed me a postcard. Since the beginning of our relationship, he and I would write each other postcard letters, usually on special occasions. It made me smile because we hadn't given each other those in a while, so I gave him my thanks and said I would read it in the cab. Our driver was waiting. But he said, no, read it now.

So I did.

What happened next was pretty much a blur for both of us, as my head started spinning and I realized (or was trying to comprehend) what was happening. I had to read some paragraphs twice because nothing was registering. In my mind it was all—"Oh my god what is happening," "Wait, is what I'm thinking really what's happening?" and "That's not what's happening, Nicole. You're being ridiculous." But, oh, it really was. 

The letter ended with something like this. ''And so it is here that I wanted to ask..."

My heart stopped.

I wish I could remember all that had happened at that moment, but the truth is I really can't. All I can recall was Alex's opening for the little speech he had prepared after I read his postcard letter: "I know it's cold but..." And that I was fanning myself with the postcard I was holding even though it was 1-degree Celsius that day. For the life of us, both Alex and I can't remember any words that followed. 

But here's what I can remember. Very clearly in my head to this day. An image as crisp as when it happened—Alex getting down on one knee, opening in his hands a small silver box, his face red and his eyes wet with tears. An image so pure I couldn't help but cry myself. It's a picture of him I'll have tucked in my pocket for safekeeping, forever.

And there, standing on the soil of the garden where the wolf children roamed, Alex told me he wanted to build a home with me, and asked me to be his wife.

There was no other response I ever would have said. From the very beginning, it has always been yes.


"My mother knew the world was full of mysteries. But his heart wasn't one of them."

- Wolf Children, 2012


  1. I love you forever �� ��

  2. Congratulations, Nicole and Alex! What a memorable way and place to propose!