Chapter 1:

When the Rose Blooms Among the Cherry Blossoms, The Thorns Aren’t As Dangerous As the Petals in the Breeze

When the Rose Blooms Among the Cherry Blossoms, The Thorns Aren’t As Dangerous As the Petals in the Breeze

Japan. Japan. Japan! I’m finally going to Japan! Land of the rising sun, where people still live their lives with honor. The nation that invented katanas, instant noodles, and most importantly, anime.

As the wheels touch down, I bounce in my seat, not from the jostling of the plane, but from my own excitement. The woman sitting next to me frowns for the millionth time on the eleven-hour flight, but I ignore her. She’s not going to ruin this moment for me.

When the seatbelt light turns off, I jump up and grab my backpack from the overhead bin. I’m not one of those fools who travels with a huge suitcase. Besides, I can buy all the clothes I need here. I’m psyched that I can wear kimonos in public and not get bullied.

There’s a short line in the airport, and as I approach the customs officer, he takes my passport with a stern expression on his face. He looks me up and down, comparing me to my passport photo, betraying no hint of emotion. Yes, this is how a professional should act. I’m so glad to be in a country where people actually care about doing things right.

“Business or pleasure?” Before handing my passport back to me, he asks me this one question. Luckily, I prepared for it well in advance.

“My good sir, I have come to cleanse myself of the decadence of Western society and immerse myself in traditional Japanese culture. Upon my life, I swear to forevermore—”

I stop as he squints at me. Perhaps my eloquent English words are too difficult for him to understand. This is Japan, after all. Naturally, I studied the language for seven months before making my pilgrimage.

“Watashi wa Nihon daisuki desu.” I pause to look up a word on my phone. “Meiyo—”

“Pleasure.” He pushes my passport into my hand and waves me onward. “Next.”

So unflappable. So stoic in the face of my impassioned vow. I bow deeply to him to show my respect, allowing my fingertips to almost touch, just like I learned from watching anime.

Eager though I am to head straight into the heart of Tokyo, my stomach demands filling, so I order a bowl of udon at the food court. Never before have I tasted such umami. Even the best noodle shops in America can’t compete with this airport stall. My life until now has been wasted eating inferior cuisine. That changes, starting now. I finish the bowl with a satisfying slurp, and, wiping the tears from my eyes, order another.

It’s already dark when I board the train into the city. A real train! I’m so taken by the novelty of it that I momentarily forget my duty. The travel agent ordered me to be on the lookout for molesters. As a foreigner, I can more easily expose their crimes without bringing shame upon myself.

But there are no molesters. That’s good. People should treat each other with respect and dignity.

It’s just that it makes the train ride kind of boring. No matter. Groping incidents are commonplace in anime. I’m sure I’ll have plenty of opportunities to distinguish myself for heroism.

By the time I reach the city, it’s nearly midnight. Once again, I came prepared. I’ve scouted out a net cafe where I can sleep for the night. I also reserved a room at a ryokan, which I can check into tomorrow evening.

Along the way to the net cafe, I pass a surprising number of salarymen walking in the opposite direction. One of them suddenly veers off path and stumbles into me. Returning home this late at night, the poor man must be exhausted after a long days’ work. His companions rush over and take him from me. Out of respect for their diligent work ethic, I bow to them, not quite as deeply as I bowed to the customs officer.

Strangely, they do not return the gesture.

Being in such a large city for the first time is a strange experience. There is evidence of people all around me, making me feel hemmed in and claustrophobic. My nostrils are also taking in a symphony of unfamiliar scents. Not unpleasant smells, but the experience is… unsettling. I’m sure I’ll get used to them before long.

They are soon overpowered by the mouthwatering aroma of udon. I follow it into an izakaya. I ate mere hours ago, but I’m already hungry again. Besides, I can’t pass up an opportunity to visit an izakaya. It’s just like in anime!


I can’t properly describe how hearing that word cleanses my soul. I can do nothing but smile like a goof as the waitress leads me to a seat at the counter. There are more unfamiliar smells inside, but they’re all delicious.

It doesn’t last long though. A salaryman takes a seat next to me, smelling heavily of tobacco. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve smoked a few cigs in my life—all the coolest anime characters do it—but I’ve never come across anyone who reeked of the smell more than this man.

Glancing at me out of the corner of his eye, he smirks. “First-time tourist?”

Despite knowing not to judge people by their covers, I’m shocked by his flawless English. “How could you tell?”

“You just have that look about you. They say Japanese are the most susceptible to Paris Syndrome, but in my opinion, it’s guys like you who get hit the hardest.”

I shrug. “I wouldn’t know. I’ve never been to Paris.”

The waitress arrives to take our order, and we spend a short meal together making small talk.

“I was surprised to see so many people returning home late at night. Japanese businessmen must work long hours.”

For whatever reason, my statement causes my companion to choke on his drink.

“We work long hours, alright,” he says after recovering, “but not all work is useful. Sure, you won’t find harder workers anywhere else in the world, but most of us are just trying to hang on through the day. Same as anywhere else, really.”

Before I can ask what he means by that, there is a small commotion by the entrance. I don’t understand what he’s saying, but a man is yelling at a waitress.

“Looks like they’re on to me.” After flagging down the bartender and handing him a wad of cash, my companion grabs his backpack and hurries out the back door. Odd. Even odder, he didn’t say goodbye. I thought Japanese people were supposed to be polite.

Deciding not to let it spoil my meal, I take my time finishing, then properly ask for the receipt and pay at the cash register. In some ways, I guess I’m more Japanese than some Japanese people.

After lugging my own backpack to the net cafe, I settle into a chair and immediately fall asleep. The trip tired me out more than I thought.

Nine hours later, I awake, once again hungry. I reach into my backpack for a snack and pull out a stack of papers. What the heck? This isn’t my backpack! It looks exactly like it, but we must have accidentally swapped backpacks last night.

Hold on, these aren’t just papers, there’s also photographs. I don’t know any of these people, but given the angles of the pictures, these were taken surreptitiously. Most of them are of men and women together. Some of them are of men together. Is this blackmail?

Wanting nothing to do with something so sordid, I shove everything back in the backpack, and my hand brushes against something hard, something cold.

Carefully, ever so carefully, I lift a pistol out of the bag.

It’s not an airsoft.

I need to go to the police. Guns are a big deal in Japan. If I’m caught with one…

No, even if I bring the gun to the police, they’ll think it’s mine. I’m an American after all. Our love of guns is legendary.

Maybe I can chuck it into a river. Too risky. My best bet is to find the guy and return it to him. He didn’t seem like a villain. Maybe he has a good reason for possessing this stuff. I can at least hear him out.

But first, breakfast.

A short walk to the 7-Eleven, and I am once again greeted by a dulcet “Irasshaimase.” It fails to have the same effect on me though, probably because I’m nervous about carrying around an illegal weapon.

Even the inside of the 7-Eleven, which I’ve so looked forward to, seems dull. Sure, it’s bigger, cleaner, and has more stuff than an American 7-Eleven, but it’s still ultimately a convenience store.

There’s now a dread in the pit of my stomach, not just because of my predicament, but also because I feel like I’m not showing Japan the proper appreciation. This country has done so much for me, and here I am, obsessing over my own problems. Why can’t I be more like a main character and bravely overcome any obstacle?

Even after packing my stomach full of fried goodness, I can still feel the dread rattling around in there.

Gotta think positive. Gotta be the shounen. One step at a time. I’ll walk around outside the office buildings. Finding a particular salaryman in Tokyo is like trying to find a specific grain of sand on the beach, but maybe he’s also looking for me. I should stand out in this crowd.

Or maybe not. Nobody is wearing kimonos. Why is everyone wearing Western clothing? It’s almost like I traveled halfway around the world and it’s not any different. Sure, there are superficial dissimilarities, but it’s not different in ways that matter.

It’s not…

I slap my cheeks to snap myself out of it. How could I of all people judge others based on appearances? I should take my time and really learn about Japan.

I’m sure then, it will meet my expectations.

“Excuse me.” Two men approach me. They look like college students, but one of them is wearing a hachimaki.

I instinctively bow to him for his boldness. “Ohayou gozaimasu.”

“Uh yeah,” the college student without the hachimaki says. His face is familiar to me, but I don’t remember from where. Maybe he’s an idol? I don’t pay much attention to male idols. “Listen, my friend told me you spoke with a man last night at an izakaya.”

“Indeed I did. A strange fellow. He left without paying at the register.”

“Did he say where he was going?”

Placing my hand on my chin, I thought back to the conversation. “No, he didn’t.” I decided not to tell them I was also looking for this man. If they knew who he was, perhaps they knew what he had in his backpack. Glancing around for an excuse to change the subject, my eyes land on a group of students carrying signs. “What’s going on? Some kind of protest?”

“Against corruption.” The hachimaki-wearing student’s accent is thick, but understandable. “Japanese company took bribes to move jobs to America.”

I can’t help but gasp. “But Japanese are such hard workers. That’s terrible!”

The other college student presses a slip of paper into my hand. “If you see him again, call me. It’s important.” With only the slightest of nods, they return to the protest group.

Is it me? Am I doing something wrong, causing Japanese people to be discourteous towards me?

For several hours, I wander around the district. The weather is nice, and the sakura trees are starting to blossom, but I’m no closer to finding that man. Around noon, the crowd grows thicker as employees break for lunch. This might be my best chance.

As I’m walking along, I feel a hand grab my backpack and pull me into a narrow alleyway. Unfortunately for my would-be assailant, I’m a fifth kyu in judo. With one practiced motion, I turn my body and prepare to throw them.

Only to find it’s the man I’ve been looking for. He raises a finger to his lips. “They’re following you. Come with me.”

“Who is?” My whispered question seemingly falls on deaf ears as he motions me further into the alley, so I repeat it, louder this time.

“The Seiren Renmei.” I didn’t recognize the name, and it must have shown on my face, because he clarified, “The student protestors.”

“So what? Their cause is righteous.”

“Ahh, right. You’re one of those.” Leaning against the wall, he taps out a cigarette and lights it. “We accidentally swapped bags.” He points at the backpack I’m still wearing. “Did you look inside?”

“No.” It hurts to lie, but what choice do I have? It’s for my own protection. “I reached in, felt some papers, and realized it wasn’t mine.”

The cig lights up our surroundings as he takes a drag. “You’re a bad liar. Here’s some free advice: If they catch you, stick to the truth.”

“If the student protesters catch me? What’s this about?” Then it clicks. “They were going to blackmail that company, and you stole those photos back.”

“You’ve got it all wrong.” Somehow, when he exhales his breath reeks even more deeply of tobacco than the rest of him. “Sure, a few execs at Tenku Industries got caught taking bribes, but they’ve already been arrested. The ones who made the nightly news, at least. The scheme’s been exposed, and the jobs won’t be shipped overseas.”

“Then what do the protesters want?”

“An independent investigation into the company.”

“Seems reasonable to me.”

He takes one last drag, flicks the cig away, and lights another. Amazing how quickly he went through the first. “Tenku’s too close to the current government. An investigation would likely implicate cabinet ministers. It would send the stock—no, the currency—tumbling further. Worst case, we’re looking at a double whammy of political and economic instability.”

Something doesn’t add up. Reaching into the bag, I pull out the photos and examine them again. I shuffle through face after unfamiliar face, finally pausing on one I recognize. It’s the student I spoke to earlier. I hold the photo out to the man. “You’re blackmailing the protesters.”

“Not most of them, just the troublemakers. The other man in that photo is the CEO of Ginga Heavy Industries, Tenku’s biggest competitor. They’re the real organization behind the protests. There’s no justice here, just an underhanded fight over government contracts.”

“And you work for Tenku?”

He laughs, choking on the smoke before throwing away his second cig. “No, I work for the government.” Reaching into his pocket, he pulls out a badge and holds it up.

“You’re a cop?”

“Something like that.”

I shake my head, not wanting to believe any of this. “You’re lying. No one is on the side of justice here? I should have gone directly to the police.”

The man shrugs. “Go right ahead. They’ll just lock you up and turn the bag over to me. You’ll be looking at up to ten years for illegal possession of a firearm. Figured I’d try to do you a favor and offer you a way out. How about it? We swap bags, everything’s back to how it should be, and you walk away.”

That’s what I wanted to begin with, but now, it would mean accepting his story. It would mean accepting Japan isn’t the place I thought it was. It isn’t simple and straightforward.

It isn’t a place where people will accept my earnestness unconditionally.

A shout from behind me alerts me to the presence of others. I turn my head to see student protestors entering the alley.

“Last chance, kid. You can deal with me, or you can deal with them, but it won’t end well for you.”

Screwing my eyes shut, I hold out the backpack. The man snatches it from my hands and I hear his footsteps as he flees down the alley. He’s surprisingly fast for someone who smokes so much. The students push me against the wall as they pass, and I almost trip over my backpack.

My life is over. Or at least, my dream vacation is. For a long while, I stay there, sobbing over my loss.

But not for too long. I haven’t had lunch, after all.

As I stumble through the city, I see it properly for the first time. People are going about their lives without much regard for others. The salarymen’s shoulders slump in exhaustion. A group of teenagers are bullying a lone boy, and nobody says anything. Advertisements are everywhere, preying on base insecurities.

But it’s not all bad. Parents play with their child at a nearby park. A young woman helps an elderly citizen cross the street.

And the cherry blossoms are blooming beautifully.

The people here are real. Their lives are real. It’s not magical, because it’s real.

Maybe my vacation isn’t over at all. Maybe it’s just beginning. Now that I’ve been stripped of my preconceptions, I can learn about the real Japan, first hand. Maybe I can meet new people. Maybe if I treat them as actual humans, not simplistic caricatures, accepting the bad with the good, I’ll finally be able to form real connections for the first time in my life.

Spring hasn't just come to Japan. It's come to me as well.

And who knows? Maybe I’ll find something that makes Japan really special.


Mario Nakano 64
Pope Evaristus
Dhamas Tri (dmz)