Chapter 1:

Chasing Sakura

Chasing Sakura


“They’re not here.”

The words escaped James’ mouth without warning as he stared out across the rippling waters of the Meguro River, a spot of serenity hidden deep within the bustling Tokyo cityscape.

James was a portly American fellow with brown hair and a fairly casual sense of style. He took hygiene seriously enough, but his beard was unkempt and his clothes cheap. In stark contrast to many of the folk he had seen in Tokyo in their business attire, and stylish woolen coats.

“Hmm? What’s not here?”

His friend and traveling companion, David–a half-Japanese young man who lived in Hawaii–glanced over at James before he had a chance to play off his statement. The trip thus far had been rife with excitement and new experiences for them both. Far from their respective homes in the United States, each day was its own adventure.

Despite this, David could see right through James’ painted-on smile as he took in the scenery. Something was clearly amiss with his typically chipper friend. Like any decent investigator, he decided to get to the heart of the matter, subtlety be damned.

“Why the long face, Jim-boy?” David leaned over the railing of the bridge they stood on, eyes firmly on his solemn companion. “You were just going on and on about how Japan is all you’ve ever dreamed of, and more. It’s unlike you to clam up all of a sudden. Don’t tell me you’re getting homesick already…”

“No, it’s not that, it’s just…” James sighed deeply, reflecting on his own words.

“The sakura, right? Hmm hmm…” David nodded his head up and down, rubbing his smooth chin as if he knew exactly what was ailing James. Soft spoken and cool as a cucumber, he had a strange way of reading the minds of those around him.

Or, at least, it would certainly have seemed that way from the outside. However, the truth was that—in his quiet nature—he paid exceedingly close attention to the feelings of those closest to him.

“But how did—?“ James began but then shook his head. “I should have known that I couldn’t hide it from you. Alright then, I’m pretty bummed out about missing the bloom. But what do we do now?”

“I know you wanted to see them, but these things happen, man.” David offered a firm hand on James’ shoulder. “Just bad timing.”

James had seen reports of an earlier-than-average bloom in the hanami (cherry blossom viewing) forecast that had concerned him some weeks back. However, their plane and hotel fare had been reserved well in advance and he saw no reason to take drastic measures to change vacation days on a whim.

“There’s still three weeks to go, and plenty of Japan to explore. No use in fretting over what we can’t change, eh?”

“Right…”

It would have been grossly unfair to the two gentlemen who joined him on this trip to continue to sulk, regardless of what came to pass. Thinking this, James suddenly remembered his other traveling companion and glanced around inquisitively.

“Uhhhh, where did Tanner go?”

“Tanner–Oh, he’s right here, he’s… He’s gone.

. . .

“Tanner! Oye!” James called out, startling a young Japanese woman who strode by on a jog.

“Theeere he is.” David chuckled.

After repeating his carefully practiced ‘sumimasen’ to the exercising local, James also saw the baseball cap of his other friend emerge from over the horizon. A nonsensical English phrase was plastered on the front of the hat, a memento from the last local shop they visited.

“Sorry guys, I was testing out my new camera!” Tanner flashed a bright smile as he made a show of the camera around his neck. “You wouldn’t believe the shots I’ve been able to take around here…”

The trio of friends had fairly different reasons for traveling abroad. While David had somewhat of a vested interest in anime and Japanese culture because of his heritage, James’ interest bordered on an obsession stemming initially from his love of cherry blossoms, of all things. Tanner, on the other hand…

“Hope I didn’t make you wait too long. So, where to next!?”

He just really loved adventure.

“We haven’t made any solid plans for the rest of the day just yet.” James stepped back from the railing and pulled out his cellphone. “David did mention something about a shrine around here somewhere, do you remember the name of it?”

“Saruga–something-or-other.” David replied without looking up.

“Saruga, Saruga…” James scanned the map application on his cellphone for a landmark that matched the name.

It was a small wonder his phone plan had international roaming that worked well enough without a sim card, which he would have had to buy when he arrived at the airport otherwise. Having heard the horror stories of people getting hopelessly lost in Haneda International Airport, he thought to double and triple-check that he’d have coverage, just to be safe.

“I think I’ve got it.” James declared. “There’s a historical landmark called Sarugakuzuka with a small shrine. It’s a bit of a trek past the music college though, if you guys still wanted to head over that–”

“Count me in!” Tanner raised his hand without a second thought, almost toppling over from his oversized travel backpack.

It didn’t take much convincing for either of James’ friends, both of whom were in much better physical shape for a long walk than he was. Even so, he was the one who suggested the activity so he gave the signal to leave and they were off.

The shrine in question was just over the city line into Shibuya, and they couldn’t have asked for better weather for a shrine visit. Warm sunlight poured down from the aquamarine sky, shining off the car windows that passed by.

“Feels like we’re on track to visit every shrine and temple in Tokyo at this rate,” James muttered while trying to catch his breath. They had been walking uphill for around twenty minutes up to this point, and unlike his friends who strode out confidently in front of him, James was getting winded. “How many is this now?”

“Quite a few.” Tanner replied.

It was true that they had visited a full trip’s worth of shrines in the few days since they had arrived in the big city, and that was with the Kyoto leg of their trip–the epicenter of Japanese historical monuments–still a few days away. They had also, as it turns out, donated a lion’s share of yen to said shrines…

“I wonder if you can stack shrine wishes.” David mused. “It would suck if every wish we’ve made so far got immediately canceled out by the very next shrine we visited.”

“Yeah, I guess that would suck.” James agreed with a nod. “Though, I can’t say I’ve made any wishes at the shrines we have visited. Just being here in Japan is like a dream come true for me.”

David and Tanner both chuckled at James’ statement like it was something they had heard a dozen times throughout their trip. And by all accounts, they had.

A cyclist passed by and nodded at the group of friends as they cut through the Tokyo music college campus to reach a separate trail. A musician himself, James briefly thought about what it would be like to study in such a beautiful area. He met his traveling companions at an Oregon college they all attended several years prior.

“You mean to tell me that there’s nothing you’d want to wish for?” Tanner slowed his walking pace until he was next to James. “Nothing at all?”

“I didn’t say that…” James crossed his arms in reflection.

His mind flashed back to the green trees lining the river, and the sakura petals that floated downstream. He reminisced about his childlike excitement on the sixteen-hour plane ride over, and how he had wanted to see a true Japanese spring, clad in pink.

“I guess there is one thing, after all.”

Tanner raised his eyebrows, but before he could probe further, David stopped dead in his tracks. The quiet fellow glanced around until his eyes came to rest on a weathered wooden torii gate shrouded by greenery. A satisfied grunt escaped his throat, all but indicating to the others that they had arrived at their destination.

“I take it, we’re here,” James said, checking his phone to be sure. “Sarugakuzuka. It’s just up these stone steps to Sarugaku Shrine.”

“That’s a tongue-twister and a half.” Tanner noted, taking the initiative in ascending the steps first.

Stepping through the torii gate felt like passing over into another world as the suburban street behind them seemed to melt away in the presence of green ivy and moss. Such a lush area felt strangely out of place in a city like Tokyo, even on the farthest edge of Shibuya ward. It was this contrast between the historical and urban that fascinated James to no end.

At last, they reached the uppermost point of the site where a small shrine beckoned to them, the donation box situated right in front. David performed the traditional prayer, followed by Tanner who imitated his movements. James was the last to step up and toss his hundred yen coin between the metal slats.

Clapping his hands together with a bow, he closed his eyes tight.

“You mean to tell me that there’s nothing you’d want to wish for?”

If I had to choose something…

“I wish to see the sakura in bloom.” James whispered this quietly to himself so the others couldn’t hear, and smiled to himself. It wasn’t as if he expected this dream to come true for the duration of the trip, but verbalizing his wish gave him a boost of sorts.

With that, the group’s latest adventure came to a close, and just in time for a hearty meal at a family restaurant chain in the area. The endless walking could build quite the appetite, they had come to learn.

“Remind me to pack more snacks in that big backpack of yours next time, Tanner.” David–the most famished looking of the group–said before popping a french fry into his mouth.

“And leave no room for my camera equipment?” Tanner wagged his finger. “Not likely, sir.”

As James began to dig into his own meal, a Hamburg Steak dinner combo, he saw a news report about cherry blossom viewing in the northern areas of Japan. The Aomori region along with Hirosaki were close to full sakura bloom, and families along with their children were enjoying fair weather for the hanami festivals under the myriad pink trees.

The north…

“That's it!”

– ✿ ✿ ✿ ✿ ✿ –

The world passed by at nearly three hundred miles per hour, each rolling hill coming into focus for a moment before being replaced by yet another. James stared out the window of the shinkansen as the speedy bullet train carried him north of Tokyo, and into unknown territory for him and his friends.

With more legroom than any airplane he had been on, and far less crowded than the commuter trains of inner-city Tokyo, James had found what was quite possibly his favorite mode of commercial transportation.

He peeked into the aisleway where he could see the figures of his two friends near the front of the train car. They were having an animated discussion of some kind, but he couldn’t quite make it out. Unable to secure seats in the same row, James had agreed to this minor compromise. After all, it was he who suggested this impromptu trip by train.

-

“So… What do you think?”

“I’m on board, and you know Tanner wouldn’t turn down the opportunity to get some more photos in,” David said. “But, you know... We’d be cutting it kind of close if we go all the way up to Aomori on a day trip. Especially since we’re going to Kyoto the day after tomorrow, and our train leaves early.”

“I thought of that too, and that’s why I suggest we head somewhere up north that isn’t quite as far as Aomori.”

“Oh?” David crossed his arms. “And where might that be?”

-

*JR passengers bound for Morioka Station, please prepare to disembark.*

Accompanied by a pleasant tune, the loudspeaker in the train car alerted a dozing David who–in turn–alerted Tanner of their arrival with a few friendly elbow jabs to the ribs.

“Five–no–ten more minutes, pretty please…...” Tanner yawned.

“I wouldn’t suggest that, unless you wanted to stow away to Akita.” James came walking up to his friends after stretching his back. After a quick two hour train ride, they had arrived safely in Morioka as James planned. “The line continues west from here unless you transfer to the Hokkaido shinkansen.”

The prospect of waking up alone at the wrong station relieved Tanner of any remaining desire to linger around, and they followed the rest of the passengers onto the platform after gathering their things. After a quick break for coffee and commemorative photos, the young men stepped out into the cold air, eyes pointed upwards.

“Ah.” David studied the gray sky.

“It would seem our weather luck has run its course.” James forced a smile. “Did either of you bring umbrellas?”

David and Tanner shook their heads rapidly. Like James, they had expected the fair conditions to continue into the latter part of the week. However, spring showers are to be expected just as the sun shines.

“You know what this calls for.” Tanner smiled to himself. “A conbini run!”

And ‘ran’ they did, as one drop of rain turned into a hundred, and then into countless more. Before long, the three of them were in the midst of a downpour as they slogged into the nearest 7-Eleven. Tanner and David were both a little quiet as they glanced over at James. There was something they saw a surprising lack of on the way to their temporary place of refuge from the rain, and it happened to be the very thing James instigated this quest to seek out.

James sighed with a defeated smile as he gazed out the window.

“Well… Maybe we'll see some at the castle park!” Tanner broke the silence, insisting on this to James. “Isn’t that right, David?”

“Yeah! It’s too early for–”

“I’m really sorry, guys.” James turned to look at his friends. “If it wasn’t for this idea of mine, we’d have a whole other day to explore Tokyo before we leave. Not to mention wasting some of your trip budgets on the train fare… ”

David said nothing but wandered off somewhere while Tanner did his best to console James with a quick change of topic. They chatted about the selection of manga magazines on display by the window, and the relatively cheap prices of some of the snacks the store offered compared to its American counterpart. Surprise filled James’ face as an umbrella was suddenly thrust into his open palm, and by none other than his more soft-spoken friend.

“What are you–?”

“We came all this way, didn’t we?” David had a stern look in his eyes as he handed another umbrella to Tanner. “Let’s go see some cherry blossoms, Jim-boy.”

A man of few words, David knew the right ones to choose when it counted. James didn’t have any room to argue with his friend upon seeing the serious expression he wore. After all, neither David nor Tanner had spoken one word of regret about this trip. It was all his own self-doubt creeping into the equation. After taking a moment to collect his thoughts, James put on his own determined grin.

“Let’s do it!”

Into the crisp air did the trio walk in the direction of the Morioka Castle Site Park, home to a variety of sakura James had read about in his pocket guide. The Weeping Cherry. With long blossom-covered branches that stretched out towards the ground below, it was the last cherry tree variety in the area in full bloom.

Gradually, the rain had begun to relent upon the cheap plastic umbrellas of the travelers. A welcome development, considering how little the devices had actually shielded them from getting wet. They soon found the path that led to where Morioka Castle once stood, and something extraordinary filled their vision.

Color.

Swaths of pink, inviting them to the end of the path, the end of their journey. The very antithesis to the gray skies above. It was Tanner who ran out ahead first, wielding his camera like a tool of great import. David walked briskly behind him, turning back slightly towards James who was still frozen at the sight.

Tears emerged at the corners of James’ eyes as he stepped towards the weeping cherries, majestic where they lay in the park. It hadn’t been easy getting there, but it certainly hadn’t been for naught. Finding comfort in that fact, James picked up the pace to rejoin his friends.

The sun broke the clouds in time, and Japanese locals trickled in from the surrounding area to join in on the spectacle. In what would truly be a hanami to remember for the traveling trio of gaijin. 

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Chasing Sakura


Kitsune
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