Lost in Japan
Any peace that would have normally befallen that town’s Wednesday mornings had been eradicated by my incessant talking from the moment we stepped out the door for at long last we had been reunited after he had slept in an hour longer than me. I was relating to him the story of my morning, though less eloquently. “And then, while I was eating breakfast, there was this knock at the door--”
“Wait, breakfast? You got breakfast?”
“Oh, uh, yeah. Why?”
“She told me not to bother her with that.”
“You’re kidding.” Sean shook his head. “You mean I forced her?” Sean shrugged and continued walking, somewhat smugly. “Shoot. It was an accident! I swear I didn’t know what she was saying. I didn’t realize she didn’t want to. I feel like now I need to apologize. I don’t want to be a bother.”
‘Nah, it’s all good. If you apologize she’ll start to feel bad.” It felt more like he was speaking about himself than his grandmother like it was a disclaimer that any mention of yesterday’s troubles would be more a hindrance to an already granted absolution.
“Tomorrow, I definitely won’t make her make me anything.”
Sean chuckled. “So you were eating breakfast.”
“Right, yeah, and there was this knock at the door then I heard your grandmother talking to someone. I swear they were talking about me. Like, I had just tried to break into her neighbor’s home and there they were snooping around for witnesses. It’s only a matter of time before it gets back to me.”
“I don’t think so.”
“But how can you know? Think about it, Sean.”
“My grandma mentioned that her neighbors--”
“Ah-ha! So it was her neighbors. I might as well say goodbye to you now.”
“--were getting their roof repaired, but they're gonna be out of the house for the day. She’s watching their house for them.”
“Oh,” I said, feeling quite ridiculous. “That’s nice of her. Very neighborly.” Sean laughed and fell against the steel railing as I lamented with curled fingers beside him. The river beneath us too shallow and full of gravel to drown oneself.
“Wait, why’d you go outside in the first place?” Sean asked, composing himself. “You said you were reading.”
It wasn’t the wisest decision to wander about alone in a foreign nation and I understood it then, but those few morning hours it felt as natural as rolling off the futon. “This is gonna sound dumb, so don’t make fun of me, but I just wanted to see what was around. Like, I guess, I wanted to, I don’t know, be a part of the landscape or something like that. It sounds dumb saying it aloud, but, I mean, the mountains are cool, I guess.”
“I don’t think that’s stupid,” Sean said, smiling. “They’re beautiful.'' In his eyes were the surrounding mountains that had fought their way to daylight. He chuckled to himself. “Makes you want to write a haiku.”
The road curved through a neighborhood of compact houses. The guardrail at some parts flanked second-story windows. Descending the slope, mandarins dotted the sides of the road as their mother trees stood proudly on the yards.
We boys are creatures of benign habit, no matter how recently developed or inconsequential. If left without an objective we find ourselves little more than mice with wallets. If we enter a convenience store, Sean will purchase fried chicken and venture one other snack and I’ll settle for the good brand of milk tea, nothing less. If our laissez-faire itinerary has led us to the mildest level of enjoyment, we will continue that mindless wander as before, rife with equally momentous and forgettable conversation, even if it leads us to such banal spaces like a parking lot or to a middle school. Not that we stepped inside. We passed it along the sidewalk then circled back around through its rear along the river.
“It’s kind of weird to think, but the last time we saw each other in person would’ve been somewhere like this,” I said as we marched through damp uncut grass behind the school, still working on my bottle of milk tea. “But then it’s like, yeah, who else would I be trespassing with other than Sean?”
He chuckled. “Honored to be your accomplice.”
“We should do a high school next.”
“I don’t think there’s one close by.”
“There goes that idea.”
The town had reached as far as it could before turning into a highway and, from the river, we could see the faint mirage of continued civilization. A building. Another bridge. Rail tracks. Although the village houses were side by side, one need only look out to the vast undeveloped geography to realize that its space had been maximized to leave what little could to be pleasing to the eyes. We followed the road back to his grandmother’s inn but did not return. We steadied on its path across that morning bridge, through a sliced mountain that nature was slowly reclaiming as its own through a web of ivy, and deeper into the valley encased by apartment balconies or small tea farms behind every few houses. In the center of the town was another hill. On that hill stood a small wooden watchtower, more like a children’s play fort. “What’s that?” I asked, pointing to it.
“It’s a park. Wanna check it out?”
“Sure,” I said, not that I had any particular preference for or against it. Though, if I couldn’t skip class on the school rooftop, walking through the country streets I would do nicely.
It wasn’t like I had imagined, granted my imagination had been tainted by the fog of my own neighborhood. There were no stray kittens left in boxes for me to miraculously save. There were no bowing kappas in need of hydration. It was quaint. There was a small park with smiling statues of different animals and plants. There was an auto shop with their garage door left open, though we didn’t see any occupants. We passed a group of four daycare children and their teachers, exchanging greetings, as they marched in their yellow rain boots. We came to the hill. It looked ordinary at the summit, not unlike the hill my house was built on, but I knew from having seen it the journey up would be quite the time waster.
A small path circled around it. Along the way, there was the classic red gate before a shrine. Statues of foxes stood guard beside ropes draped before the offering box. Towards the top, there was another with no gate and a single rope, decorated with bowls and flowers.
Ascending more, we came to a flattened area with patchy yellowish grass. Two lion statues guarded a large hedge-like black stone, carved with white kanji that was hoisted up by a series of other rocks. Two larger plaques were at either of his sides, with writing that seemed to be fading as though written in chalk. Before it were offerings of various bottled teas and beer.
“Sean, what’s it say?”
“I don’t know.” He shrugged. “A lot of these boulders are engraved with classical Japanese which I can't read.”
“Oh, so that’s why…” I thought of the ruins we visited yesterday, specifically how I had read his dismissal as a point of contention. I felt all the more to blame for the awkwardness of yesterday which I wasn’t supposed to be thinking about anymore anyways.
“That’s why what?”
“What?” I said, with a guilty crack in my voice. “Oh, um, it was nothing. I forgot. Anyways, let’s keep on going. We’re right there.”
The path leading to the top was traced with Christmas decorations. Not just plain lights, but candy canes, trees, and even a few reindeer all set in place as though it were December. At the top of the hill was the watchtower. Climbing its stairs, I was invited to, borrowing the phrase, very interesting panoramics. There was a large pond tinted green from the still reflection. A few estates sat on top of the mountains with their own Terrance tea farms. This was a place like any other where people lived their lives like any other. Yet, it filled me with that exciting sense of wonder one has opening a new world in Minecraft and wanting to hop up a mountain and decide where to build my first settlement. I found it hard to believe that if any of the people living there, regardless of their own opinions of their town, for whatever reason happened upon that glorified rest stop I called home, that they too would be welcomed to this feeling. They’d pump their gas and leave. No need to mingle for directions.
“Hey, I don’t know if we're allowed…” Sean said as he climbed up behind me.
“Sean!” I said, gesturing for him to come. “Isn’t this the coolest place ever? It’s like The Magic Tree House. Did you read those?
“I think so. Wasn’t there one about dinosaurs?”
“That was the first one. There’s a billion. Anyways, I feel like I just opened some manga, and boom. Here I am. Good old Japan.” As though saying it aloud had undone some hypnotic spell, I began to notice the cobwebs and cardboard boxes.