Chapter 25:

"Soga Syndrome"

Vibrancy x Vibrancy

Fortunately, by the next morning, I’ve recovered my strength. I’m going to need it - we’re heading even deeper into Yoshiaki, all the way to the major city of Soga and its renowned Obon festival. August is at its peak - the humidity’s picked back up again and autumn is looking for any gaps in the front but summer’s holding the line. Sitting on the bus next to Shizuko, I take one last look at the shining water of Lake Chikuma before we head into a shady mountain pass.

When we emerge on the other side, the air seems to turn still. Five centuries ago, the samurai warlord Yoshiaki Nobuhide won a major battle here against his rivals in the region near the tail-end of the Sengoku period - the grassy valley we’ve entered was once stained in blood and iron. Nowadays, it’s stained by the smog and sand spewing out of the massive industrial complex that dominates the area outside of Soga. The rows of smokestacks and chimneys resemble thick forests; manufacturing buildings creep along below them like bushes and shrubs. Summer can defend itself from fall, but the summer sun fights a repeating battle with the thick clouds of smoke, shining light onto the valley through the rare gaps in the smog before another chimney blasts a dark cloud to plug the hole. Cement trucks regularly merge onto the highway, their barrels in constant slow motion, as they take their hauls to construction sites in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Sapporo, Fukuoka, Okinawa (well, onto barges and ships heading for the island).

That’s not the only nearby industrial activity. Soga straddles three rivers; it was once hooked up to the rest of the country by canals. The city’s closer to the Sea of Japan than the Pacific Ocean; it’s only linked up to the railroads that run on that side of the country. That creates an obvious missing link - a railroad between Soga and Mabuchi, the two biggest cities in the prefecture. One possible explanation is the bad blood between the two cities caused by Nobuhide’s aforementioned battle. Him burning down Soga afterwards also probably didn’t help.

But in any case, Governor Eguchi succeeded in creating a highway connection between the two cities, but his scandalous fall from power and the Bubble’s burst resulted in the half-finished railroad lying silently amid the grasses of the valley for a long decade. It got picked up again when Governor Daisuke the First was in charge, but his scandalous fall from power and then the (American housing market) bubble’s burst resulted in the three-fourths-finished railroad lying silently amid the grasses of the valley for a long decade.

It’s silent no longer. The current governor, Daisuke (the second of his name, son of the first), got the project moving again. Just across from the highway, I see the project unfold in real time. Yellow construction hardhats bob and sway within the thick cloud of diesel clouds and sand kicked up by both the construction and the highway. Sparks flash and crash - buzzsaws, jackhammers, sledgehammers. Bobcats and bulldozers rumble along long dirt paths like tanks barreling through no man’s land. And the sound - a constant metallic screeching, a constant banging of metal against metal. It’s methodical, mechanical, regular like an inhuman heart beat. News helicopters flew overhead, their rotors adding to the dissonance, and cement trucks beep at cars and cars beep at the trucks. I have a bad taste in my mouth by the time we get to the city, and it’s not just because of all the gravel flying around.

Shizuko has a similar look of dismay and unease as we make it past Soga’s outskirts. Fortunately, the actual city itself isn’t all that bad. It’s your usual Japanese urban area - spotless streets with not a single pothole nor cigarette butt in sight, heavily-crowded shopping districts, rows of izakayas and bars. But, when it’s all under the cloak of heavy industry, the standard fare kind of loses its appeal. I miss the golden fields of Tsukamoto, the singular Field of Kenji, even the rain and quiet vibes at Hoshinomori. And I didn’t even like that town - it’s crazy how time and space makes things grow on you.

After getting to Soga’s main station, we normally would’ve taken another train or bus to our hotel, but something special is brewing today. When we make it off the platform with our things, a taxi - free of charge - is waiting for us. Our belongings go in the trunk, Shizuko and I go in the backseat, and the taxi driver merges into traffic.

He jaws at a toothpick in his mouth and speaks slowly. “So, you’re the hotshot Tokyo writer and the tour guide?”

I’m not really sure how to answer when somebody starts a conversation like that. “...yeah, that’s us.”

“How do you feel, being in Nobuhide’s territory?”

I share a glance with Shizuko, who also has a raised eyebrow. She opens her mouth, but ends up closing it; I’ll be taking the lead here in this unsettling city with this unsettling driver. “I’m not sure what you mean. I got told the same thing once, but it was about an abandoned village.”

“Nobuhide wouldn’t confine himself just to abandoned villages,” the taxi driver drawls. “But he can’t help himself, I suppose. He’s got a big appetite. Ha ha. Boys will be boys.”

“...right.” This isn’t the first time I’ve navel-gazed about Nobuhide. If his constant presence is really just a metaphor for the inevitable passage of time, then there are silver linings to it. “I guess we just gotta learn how to live with him.”

The taxi driver chortles. “My great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather had his home burned down by Nobuhide’s samurai.”

“...oh, sorry.”

“It’s alright. You know how it is with those samurai type. Ha ha. Boys will be boys.”


“You two are out-of-towners, isn’t that right?” The taxi driver drums his fingers along the steering wheel. “Hotshot Tokyo writer and his tour guide. I’ll offer you some advice. Us in Soga, we can smell the tourist on you, ‘specially this time of year with the festival. This is Nobuhide’s festival. He can smell it too. I wouldn’t go too far off the beaten path. In dark alleys and in dark valleys, Nobuhide gets hungry. Ha ha. Boys will be boys.”


We make it to our destination - a giant concrete building, adorned with Western-style pillars, carved letters proudly proclaiming SOGA CITY HALL. When we step out of the taxi, the driver takes off his cap and gives us a knowing smile. I kind of mutter a thanks to him while Shizuko and I escape. The men on the city’s hall steps gesture at the driver, who waves farewell and takes our luggage to the ryokan.

Oh, the men on the city hall steps? Well, there’s actually a teenage girl among them, but the other two? I recognize one from a newspaper - Mayor Takeuchi of Soga. As for the other-

“Shun Shunsuke, glad you could make it,” Governor Daisuke says in his best smile.

Steward McOy