Chapter 42:

"Wake Me Up When August Ends"

Vibrancy x Vibrancy

The riverside ryokan is located deep in another valley, far beyond the reach of the bus network. I have to walk the last ten kilometers on foot. The bus dropped me off at the edge of civilization - an ancient village with a current population of three. The elderly trio watched me from a bench, their bronzed faces hiding much of their curiosity, because I was probably the first and last visitor this village ever had and will have in the modern era. I shifted my backpack across my shoulders and marched on, out of this village, down dirt roads, deep into the prefecture, deeper into the mountains.

The ryokan was still open, the travel guides said. A lone man from Tokyo, having made his pile there, moved to Yoshiaki in the Eighties and took over a riverside inn. The writer of the travel guide personally visited the inn, but couldn’t go upriver due to the rain. I hear rolling thunder in the distance, so I hurry.

The dirt road and ten kilometers take me through two dead villages. An abandoned schoolhouse, lying flat in the valley like a withered snake, stares at me as I pass by. The houses do the same, their lights forever turned off, their gardens returned to nature. This is truly Nobuhide’s territory, beyond the grasp of man’s devices, where nature and time and fate rules. Nature’s dominion comforts me, at least a little bit, since I know that when we’re all dead and gone, at least the world will be in good hands. But the overall lack of a living humanity unnerves me.

The still silence adds to the ominous feeling. When I walked by my lonesome in Tokyo, at least the sounds of the city provided me with nice background noise. And here, in Yoshiaki, I always had somebody with me. Somebody to see, somebody to talk to, somebody to listen to. Sometimes it was Ume; sometimes it was Kentaro or Ayako; sometimes it was that old man. And most of the time, it was Shizuko. The fact that she’s not walking beside me right now is an absence I can’t ignore.

But I had some friends from high school who left me, and I want to deal with it here and now. As long as I keep pushing it away, my mind will always be slightly somewhere else when I’m with Shizuko, slightly somewhere else when I’m with myself. I want to do it for her; I want to do it for me. She’s moved on, so it’s time I did as well.

I’m definitely feeling weary from a month of traveling. My calves burn, my feet ache, my shoulders are heavy. The thunder’s picking up, so I soldier on, moving past a collapsed home on the outskirts of the last village. The road then takes me through patches of meadows ringed by forests; I arrive in the forest; I make it out on the other side.

And there, I see it. The road is on the edge of a riverbank; it’s slow-moving, sussurating, the waters dark and murky. Perhaps the river is wound up because of the storm, too. I follow it for another kilometer and finally make it to my destination. The riverside shack is a one-story building, slightly dilapidated, a dirt road leading down to a small dock, a boat tied up to the pier. Firewood has been chopped and stored against the side of the building. A forest extends past the building - this is it. To go any further, you either have to chop your way through thick brush or take the boat.

I step inside the ryokan. The lights are off. “Anyone here?” I call out.

Footsteps plod down the hallway. A wiry man in a bathrobe appears, a cup of his coffee in his hand. He’s tall, unshaven, his hair graying. He speaks in an animated tone; steam rises from his mug.

“Ah, a visitor, a visitor! I haven’t had one in…how long? Can fish for all my needs, you see. Yessir, go down this river, you come across Lake Chikuma. There, I can fish for food, I can fish for leisure, I can see the fish for company. Once a year, man, I stop by Chikuma, get some supplies, and pick up the local news. How much changes in a year!”

He suddenly bends over and stares into my eyes. “Ah, yes, I can tell. You don’t want to go downriver, do you? You want to go up. I’ve seen that look before. You want to see the Temple of the Eternal Flame.”

I feel the ryokan walls closing in on me. The guy’s coffee breath isn’t really helping, either. “How’d you know?”

“I had the same look on my face once,” the owner explains. He ushers me inside, into a living room area, where he seats me while he remains standing. Every single word of his is accentuated by an erratic movement of arms; sometimes the coffee slips over the lip of the mug and falls to the floor, but he pays it no mind (or doesn’t even realize).

“You see, you see, I was once a Tokyoite, same as yourself.” He takes a long sip of coffee. “But then I read a book that changed my whole life. Into the Heart of Yoshiaki. That Eguchi, what a great, great man. I know him. I’ve met him. Just…he gets things, you know what I mean? People nowadays, you got social media, you got television, everything’s recorded, jotted down, filmed, noted. You can’t be genuine no more. Because there might be blowblack, backlash, backwash. Everything has to be ironic. But Eguchi, he’s an honest guy in a dishonest time period. He’s not afraid to be himself. That’s an admirable quality. He’s unapologetically himself in a time when everybody’s trying to be someone else. He's the one-eyed king in the land of phonies.”

I raise an eyebrow. “It sounds like you just saw him. But he disappeared decades ago.”

The owner wags a finger. “Aw, just ‘cuz somebody’s disappeared, don’t mean they’re dead. Nah, nah, I met him…when was it? Is Koizumi still the prime minister? Time’s arbitrary, man. Don’t need dates. By the noonflower, a rice-pounder cools himself, a sight so moving. That’s Basho, man. But I learned it from Eguchi. Don’t need time, boss. The future’s a myth. The future ain’t real. The present ain’t real, either, because look.”

Coffee slushes around his mug. “See? The present is only a second long. Less than a second. A blip on the edge of everything. Nah. The past is all there is. The past is the only undeniably real thing there is. Gnaws at the future, man.”

I remain quiet, examining the sprawled, yellowed business cards mixed into the mess on the table. They give away the owner’s name as Miyagawa. Why does that name seem familiar? And then I realize - the foreword to Eguchi’s book was written by a Professor Miyagawa. I take a deep breath - just what exactly have I gotten myself into?

“Well, if we wanna go upriver, we better go fast,” Miyagawa declares. He remains in his bathrobe and slippers, instead just tossing on a naval cap and sticks a corncob pipe in his mouth as he leads me down the dock. Much to my surprise, the boat is actually in decent shape, freshly scrubbed, cared for and beloved. It rocks gently along the river, sending ripples through the water, as I step inside, followed by Miyagawa.

“I’ll take you kid, but there’s a catch,” he tells me as he slips behind the controls. “Storm’s brewing. I’m only staying at the temple for five minutes, then heading back down the river. Want to be safe and snug at home during the storm, you see. So, if we go up there, and you want to explore and such, I ain’t coming back to get you until the storm subsides. You might have to stay overnight.”

I weigh my options. “By myself? Are there beds?”

Miyagawa laughs. “Nah, there’s an old coot up there who can keep you company. You see, the last priest of the temple passed away years ago, so it’s been abandoned ever since. Yet the flame keeps going. An old man comes by once in a while to make sure it says lit. Nice guy. You’ll like what he’s done with the place. There's spare bedding, even. Might smell a little, but it’ll be there.”

Up ahead, the river snakes its way around a bend and disappears into darkness. The waters are already getting choppy. “I’ll decide when I’m up there.”

“Far out, man.” He tosses me a tiny bottle; I bobble it in my hands for a moment.

“What is this?”

“Sake, my friend. Homemade. Homebrewed.”

“Isn’t that illegal?”

Miyagawa spreads his arms wide, gesturing at the mountains. “You think ‘Japan’ is a real thing here? Nah, my friend, this is Nobuhiude’s territory, and his only rule is that we all gotta turn back into dust and oblivion sooner or later.”

I stare at the murky bottle.

“Let’s do it,” I declare.

I uncap the bottle, Miyagawa plays rock music out of a speaker, and we’re heading upriver, into the heart of Yoshiaki.

Steward McOy