Chapter 1:

At The Cherry Grove

At The Cherry Grove


I am lost.

It was springtime, the 28th of March to be exact. I was on a journey to a certain place in Japan. It was a beautiful country with many wondrous sights to see.

And yet, I couldn’t enjoy any of them.

I’m pretty sure this place was in Kyoto prefecture, though I forgot the actual name. It wasn’t the urban areas though, that’s for sure. I didn’t exactly do a lot of planning for this journey. I just sold all my belongings, closed off all my accounts and took a “vacation” to Japan.

I had started in Fukuoka, which was honestly quite stupid of me. My destination was across the damn country! I had hitchhiked to save my limited funds, but it just brought me to the middle of nowhere. I don’t understand Japanese in the slightest, so being in such a rural area was super scary.

I had been travelling for about a month and a half now. My funds were dwindling and I still had about three prefectures left to cross. I didn’t know what I was going to do if I went broke, but I was ready to just leave my fate to whatever force was out there.

It wasn’t like I had anything to go back to anyways.

There was a festival or something going on here. Something about the cherry blossoms. I took a peek, but it was too cheery for me. I got many strange looks, as I was the only tourist around.

Still, I wanted to get a look at the cherry blossoms, so I went out of the town to see them on my own. I suppose it was peak cherry blossom season, as there were lots of them blooming. The air was super fresh here, compared to the big cities I’ve passed through.

It had an almost tranquil feeling about it. The crisp smell of flowers permeated the air around me. The cold drizzles of rain ran down my arms. The sounds of a traditional Japanese instrument played a peaceful harmony, guiding my ears further out of the town.

Wait a second. Instrument?

I found myself on a path, leading up to a tidy grove of cherry blossom trees. And in the center of it all was a Japanese girl, playing some kind of flute thing.

The petals of the trees fell down and blew around her in the breeze as she played, as if moving of her own will. The song she played was slightly haunting, but also oddly soothing. And the girl herself had no visible stress at all. Not even an ounce.

I was moved by it.

She finished her song and all the petals fluttered to the ground. She caught sight of me gawking and walked towards me.

“こんにちは。だれですか?”

“Wha?”

She took a look at me and immediately lightened up, like she figured out that I cannot understand her in the slightest. She cleared her throat and tried again.

“Sorry, are you a tourist? I don’t really see a lot of them around here.”

“...” I just stared at her blankly. This girl was speaking perfect English without much of an accent. And she lives in the middle of nowhere! What use is knowing English out here? Whatever it was, I was thankful, as I finally had someone to talk to.

“Hello? Was English wrong too? I only know those languages…”

“Uh, no. I speak English, yes.”

“Oh, good! I don’t exactly have any study guides with me for additional languages. So, who are you?”

“...Lucas.”

“Oh, Lucas! Like the Star Wars guy!”

George Lucas? Of all the names to hear in this place.

I found myself gazing at the instrument she was playing earlier. It looked like a recorder I’d play in grade 2 if I was being honest.

“What is that?” I asked.

“Not even going to ask my name?”

“Oh, right…”

“...It’s Miharu! You’re not much of a talker, are you?”

“Sorry.”

“It’s fine. You wanted to know what this is? It’s called a shakuhachi! It was made using quality bamboo right from this very prefecture. I love it so much. It plays beautifully.”

“...Let me try.”

She looked super peaceful in those moments when she was playing. That was a feeling I was always looking for in my life. And I’d like to feel it at least once before I reach my destination. She seemed surprised that I would just ask to try without hesitation, but right now, I didn’t care about my image.

She handed it to me, the “shakuhachi”. I played the recorder, so this should be no problem. I brought it to my lips and gathered my resolve, ready to play the haunting notes of this instrument.

“Hahahaha! You are so bad! That isn’t how you do it.”

I sheepishly handed the shakuhachi back to her as I kept my gaze away from her. Yeah, obviously it sucked. Dunno why I thought I’d just play it flawlessly without any practice.

“Did you want to try after seeing me play perhaps?”

“You looked super peaceful, and I wanted the same thing.”

“I see! You’d like to meld with the spirits too, huh?”

“Meld with the… what?”

“The spirits of this cherry blossom grove! They keep the trees healthy spiritually and I keep them healthy physically. But everyday, I like to also meld with them, becoming a singular being with a plethora of emotions and memories.”

“Is that why you looked that way?”

“Yup! It’s super relaxing, like a weight off my shoulders. Like they all understand me.”

“And that thing is the only way?”

“Hm? Oh, no, I just like how the shakuhachi sounds. It’s not the sound that matters, but the feeling of letting yourself go. If you want to try, how about… this!”

She pulled out a smaller instrument, made from the same material as her shakuhachi. Actually, I recognized this one. It was an ocarina. She placed it into my hands with an energetic smile.

“Tadaa! I had this made from the leftover materials of my shakuhachi. It’s a bit of an odd choice, but it’s also got some kind of vibe to it. Like you are Link playing the Song of Time!”

“An ocarina? I suppose this is simple enough for even a rat to learn.”

“Exactly! Normally, it takes a lot of skill to meld with the spirits, as you need to either meditate perfectly or lose yourself in something, but I find it’s easy to lose yourself in music. And the ocarina is quite easy to play simple melodies, so you should be able to meld with the spirits with a bit of work.”

“I see. And how long would that take?”

“About a month at least. Speaking of, where are you staying?”

“The town that way.”

I pointed towards the way I came. Though I had a room, I wasn’t really planning on staying for long. I originally wanted to just stay until I found someone heading the same way and would pick up a stranger.

“Oh, Ayabe! Quite far out from the big cities, huh? Also, did you just call them a town? It’s called Ayabe City! City! Say it with me, Ayabe City!”

I spun the ocarina around in my hand, getting a feel for it. It was light and felt like good quality. Not any of that plastic crap from gift shops. I think it was bamboo? I blew into it, and it made an annoying sound.

“I assume you’re paying for a room? That’ll eat up your funds if you wanna stay a month! Why don’t you stay with me for the time being? I can even offer you work to top up on your money as well! What do you say?”

I suppose it was better than running out of money here. If she was a murderer, then I’d just have to accept it.

“Very well then.”

“Yay! By the way, where were you headed, Lucas?”

“Yamanashi prefecture. More specifically, Aokigahara Forest.”

“Wow, really?! I’ve never been! I hear it’s got quite the landscape. And Aokigahara? Such a specific location… Oh…”

“...Yeah.”

“...Well, uhh, I’m not going to tell you how to live your life, but I hope you can find peace here at least. For now, chin up and work towards your new goal of melding with the spirits. Can you promise me? I’d like to hear you play before spring is over.”

“I’ll do what I can.”

And thus, I decided to postpone my trip to Aokigahara Forest in search of inner peace.

***

It’s been a bit since then. As I had no belongings and no income, I took Miharu up on her offer. She gave me a job as her errand boy. Thanks to that, I had food and shelter while I stayed in this remote region. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to work, as a “tourist”, but we’ll just keep that to ourselves.

All she ever did was regularly tend to the spirits and trees in that grove. I honestly had no idea where she got the money she paid me.

The peak blossom season had passed, and all the flower petals started to fall from all the trees. All of them except that grove. It was still in bloom, and the petals were lively as ever.

I brought the ocarina I was given to my mouth as I stood in the center of all the trees. I didn’t have anything to do in my free time, so all I ever did was Miharu’s chores and play this thing. I think I got enough notes down to figure something out.

I started with a low note, holding it to stir up the spirits in the area. They started to respond to my playing recently, and I was getting better at losing myself in my playing. Perhaps this could be the day?

The trick was to not really think about what you were playing. I found rambling helped me forget my notes. I was playing random stuff even now. And then, after that, I had no idea. I was supposed to forget myself entirely. Guess I should stop rambling.

As I played, the spirits started to swirl around me. The petals of the trees started to create a gentle cyclone. I could feel all the spirits. Not just their presence, but their very being. I felt them all around me, and even inside me.

They all had various emotions. Unique stories. They all had names of their own. Each and every one of them had their own memories, and I could feel them all. They all came from different times, but what all of us shared in common was this very grove.

As I played and accepted the spirits into myself, I heard all of their instruments from their time here. Instruments I recognized, some lost to time.

All of us were lost, but in this moment, we were all as one. A symphony of instruments, new and old, collided in this very moment, creating an orchestra of players from throughout history.

We were all feeling different emotions, but we all felt the same things. We understood each other. We all felt sympathy for our hardships. They even felt mine.

I was empty and lost in life. I only came here intending on making my leave of this world. I’d heard of Aokigahara Forest once, and figured it was a good place to do it.

My soul was laid bare to all the spirits, but they didn’t condemn me for my decision. In fact, some of them even went through the same stuff. All of the spirits understood me, something I thought was impossible.

I played, losing myself in more of their stories. A majority of them only spoke Japanese, but I understood regardless.

I don’t know how long it was before I stopped. I just stood there and stared off into the forest as the spirits started to dissipate. I was still in a state of bliss as tears poured down my blank face.

“I recognize that feeling! Euphoria! So you’ve finally melded with them, Lucas?”

Noticing Miharu, who was yelling energetically as usual, I came back to my senses. And just as I did, all of my stress came back to me, hitting me like a truck. I hadn’t realized until now just how much I hurt in my daily life. I felt like crap.

“That’s enough for one day. Come on! Let’s make dinner! I’m starving!”

From that day on, I came back to that place, chasing that feeling of inner peace. I had no purpose in this world, but when I melded with the spirits I felt at ease. I also learned Japanese after a few times, which is how I suppose Miharu knew English.

Eventually, spring ended and my time in Japan came to a close without ever reaching my destination. How odd. Only by chance did I make it here, and only by chance did I hear Miharu playing that day. If not for that, I probably wouldn’t have been here today.

Thanks to having worked a bit under Miharu, I was able to get back to my home country. I still felt lost, but I also had a couple new goals to work towards.

Finding a new job, saving up some money and visiting that cherry grove once again.

I played my ocarina every day, looking forward to next spring.

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Steward McOy
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At The Cherry Grove


Florahiko
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