Chapter 2:

"Pilgrim at Yoshiaki Prefecture"

Vibrancy x Vibrancy

Much like a hot crossed bun, the first day of August starts off warm and sticky. My shirt is soaked through just from standing on the station platform, making me just as warm and sticky as the humid air. The bullet train itself is slightly less so.

I got a pair of seats to myself as the shinkansen pulls out of Tokyo Station. No need for the oversized luggage area in the back or even the carry-on area overhead - I got five days of clothing for a four week journey in a black backpack of mine. I got everything I need for such a journey in there - in addition to the clothes, I got my toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, cologne, razor, a fifth of sake, a six pack, water bottle, a copious amount of aspirin, oranges (the fruit) and Oranges (the cigarettes). I’m venturing into the heart of summer, back in time, so I’ll need all the help I can get.

The bullet train smoothly sails through the capital. The sleek blue and white machine slightly rumbles and shakes when a fellow shinkansen flies past in the opposite direction, but besides that you can’t feel a thing. The track’s elevated, so just beyond the fences I can see into the balconies of those endless apartment high-rises. In one of them, a man's smoking a cigarette on the stairwell. I like to think we made eye contact, even at 260 kilometers an hour.

I like to think about if we traded lives. Any apartment balcony I pass by, I can’t help but ruminate as I marinate on this train, wondering about the people in possession of a view unique to them and them alone. What do they do for work? What process of events lead that man to that very moment of sitting eight stories up on a dark stairwell, faint puffs of smoke drifting from chapped lips, the bullet train only a dozen meters away through a chain-link fence? And how can I get in on that action?

If lives were books, there’s over 8 billion being written right now, yet just like the cashier from yesterday, we generally appear as little more than passing sentences in them, if at all. At most, we’ll get a chapter or two. At best, we’ll be somebody’s deuteragonist. I’m still looking for a deuteragonist. But one thing at a time.

One sip at a time. I’m drinking Mitsurin beer, filled with a heavy nostalgia. My old friend Suga’s parents loved the stuff. Their fridge was loaded with it. I used to go over his apartment all the time after my high school club let out for the day, talking baseball and shooting the shit like you read about. He was an odd duck - not the brightest tool in the shed, but a great friend and an endless source of entertainment nonetheless.

“You know who else likes entertainment?” he’d tell me. “My mom!“

I didn't get it. It was a joke beyond my comprehension.

“You know who else doesn’t get it?” he’d say. “My mom!”

He ate paint as a kid, but I ate a loose screw once, so I guess we’re even. But in any case, after all those jokes about his own mother, if the night got late enough I’d crash in a sleeping bag I continually left there for such occasions. Suga, despite being a hulking wrestler, had only managed to graduate from a baby’s nightlight to a scented candle. He always chose cherry blossoms, no matter the season. Perhaps because of no matter the season.

The candle light still flickers in my dreams. I can still see it clearly amid the darkness. It represents Everything That Used to Be. Back then, just a few years ago, we all - or at least I did - felt invincible. Nothing mattered, but it was great - nothing mattered! Life was a joy ride, an endless merry-go-round, that candle light flickering, because we had passed the end of history and we were all just cruising along in the epilogue. The side of justice, the side of youthful vigor and the scene we were all part of, it had prevailed, would always prevail, and that fundamental feeling of we’re all alright seemed undeniably real and undeniably eternal.

In any case, Suga hasn’t left his room in three years now, and his parents like those Mitsurins just a bit, bit too much now. He’s lost that candle light, as most people have it, but I’m keeping it lit. Trying to, at least. It flickers often now, and unless I find that One Thing that’ll keep it lit, that feeling of confidence from the old days - that feeling that there is definitely, definitely a light at the end of the tunnel - might die out for good.

Shit. All the rambling can only mean one thing - I’m plastered, obliterated, and quite possibly drunk on this bullet train at 11 AM. I’m sweating even worse now and my handkerchief is soaked straight through. I look out the window for some relief, but we’re past Tokyo now, into the deadlands. Dozens of factories across the plain pour smoke into the sky, endless columns of gray and black. Replace the factories with volcanos and this must’ve been how primordial Earth looked, except there wasn’t a blanket of sickly yellow grass to go along with it. A primitive man could be forgiven for thinking that a gray sky originated from this field of mechanical pounding and the forgotten dreams of long-gone warriors. Death and decay and all that jazz in late summer.

Relief comes in the bullet train smoking room. Slow inhales and exhales of a dainty Orange. I have a companion now - a salaryman, only a few years older than me, dressed in a snazzy business suit. He constantly checks his watch and constantly puffs on a rotating chain of industrial cigarettes. He smokes a corporate brand, smooth and to the point, and vacuums up three of them before I finish mine. After one last, long inhale, he puts his mask back on to protect his lungs and scurries off into the corporate world. Godspeed.

As for me - much like Roethke and his waking, I take my smoking slowly. I settle down. The inevitable conclusion of cancer is just collateral damage. I promise to quit tomorrow, but I never find myself in tomorrow, just an endless series of today’s. Nevertheless, when I return to my seat, I scarf down a bento and a water bottle and an aspirin just in time for the transfer to a rural train.

Only a few cars long, the Yoshiaki train moves through the scenic countryside, taking me through the mountainous spine of Japan until we arrive in flat fields of rice paddies and a nature tamed and made domestic. The blue-green rivers, even when shaped by concrete, look beautiful in late summer. We arrive somewhere deep in the country, somewhere so deep you might think there’s no country, just tiny villages and old tractors and empty railroad crossings, until we hit industry again. I’ve arrived at the city of Mabuchi, the capital of Yoshiaki, in soaked clothes with a functional, if headache-rattled, mind.

I lumber off the train, shaking my head to full alertness. I’ve leaving my personal bubble for the professional, and certain aspects of life must be brushed aside when dealing with the corporate world. I check my watch, though I forgo scarfing down a trio of cigarettes.

The Yoshiaki government offices are right above Yoshiaki Station. It’s a tall skyscraper, a column of glass windows ringed by dark blue metal, an uninspired style spreading like a dull miasma that can be found in Tokyo, Osaka, any major city. The tower approaches the sky, jutting out into the summer blue, and I wonder if we’ll all be cursed to speak a different language once I enter. I immediately find a restroom and wash my face to make sure I really am good for this meeting.

The building’s receptionist points me to the elevator which brings me to the ninth floor which brings me to the Yoshiaki Prefectural Ministry of Culture. The department’s receptionist points me to a hallway which brings me to the seventh door on the right which after knocking and a female voice telling me to come in brings me face to face with Minister Akaza. Her white hair curls down to her ears and she displays a little figurine of the government building on her neat desk. There’s another figure next to her, one that’s life-size, one that’s actually alive and human and unexpected.

“Shun Shunsuke,” Akaza says. “Thanks for your help with the Yoshiaki Prefecture Rescue Project. I’ve arranged a tour guide to escort you around the province. This is my niece, Shizuko.”

And that’s when she appeared.

And that’s when she first entered my book of life.

And that’s when I met you.

Steward McOy