Chapter 1:

[ONE SHOT] 桜を見ると、心がさくらくらくになるね

When you look at cherry blossoms, your heart feels light and easy

The AI wakes Kazuo as it had been programmed to do a week before. His most presentable casual clothes are hung up as the day's outfit, and his suitcase is ready for the week-and-a-half trip he booked through a tourism website, different from last year's, to go on the Hanami tour with international tourists. His goal this year is to pin the Latin American area on the world map, hoping that his fleeting annual adventure will be with a woman of South American origin, to mark that space on the paper that lazily reads: Owattarax2.

The young man lazily gets up, washes his face with cold water, trims his beard with an electric razor to leave a slight shadow because he hates cutting his skin, brushes his teeth, and combs his hair with fingers soaked in leave-in conditioner to avoid bathing. For the same reason, he sprays his clothes with the same fragrance as his body to deceive foreign noses. He styles his hair as best as he can with that volume while his voice echoes in his head: "it's too much effort in the morning."

He leaves his house prepared to take his train to Narita Airport, locks his home, and barely walks a few meters to the subway to catch the one-hour Express. He stops at the entrance of the station to check if he brought his wallet and to set the alarm on his phone so he doesn’t miss his stop in case he falls asleep... which happens, and he runs to get through the closing doors and not be taken to the other end of Japan. However, the story repeats itself when he runs out of the bus upon hearing the vehicle's announcement. Then he trips over a woman's suitcase, who is also in a hurry and distracted, just like him.

"Are you okay?" asked the mature female voice, with a timid stammer in Japanese, afraid of mispronouncing a word.

Kazuo looks at the hand extended to help him and the first thing he notices is the clear space on her ring finger, causing him to get up on his own without looking at the person who still had her hand extended. As he brushes the dirt off his clothes, he analyzes the woman he rejected: slightly shorter than him (+1), thick-bodied (-1) and voluptuous (+2), natural makeup (+1) and fallen glasses (-0.5), covered by bangs that are too long (-1), complemented by her flattened hair from sleeping on the incoming flight (...justifiable). The woman took her suitcases and hand luggage, retreating while apologizing. He paid no more attention to her, but he found that attitude regrettable.

"Members of the J2W Hanami Tour! Please come over! We will leave in 15 minutes after confirming that everyone has arrived!" shouted the tour coordinator with a banner adorned with pink details, a bit excessive for Kazuo's taste, but it seemed to work with the people who had signed up for the tour, which also helped him identify who would be joining him on the bus to the first stop of the itinerary.

He noticed that the woman he had bumped into earlier had also signed up for the same travel experience, but unlike all the other tourists, she, like him, was alone. Being supportive might open a door, but she quickly engrossed herself in a notebook that she filled with meticulous detail and tiny handwriting. His curiosity was halted by that same detachment he was familiar with, and his brain took it as a warning to return to what he was seeking: an escape from that very attitude. So, as soon as he found the smallest group, composed exclusively of girls, he likewise ignored the melancholy woman throughout the entire journey until they reached the first ryokan in Hokkaido.

After settling in and relaxing in the open-air hot springs offered by the lodging, they spent their first day at the Matsumae Park Festival, enjoying a lamb barbecue while admiring the 10,000 cherry blossoms. She sat at the corner of the mat, as if not wanting to bother anyone, taking notes in her little notebook, sipping small gulps of the typical Sapporo beer, and pink petals rained down on her, getting entangled in her hair. While the other tour members were more focused on drinking and eating to live the Japanese experience, the native had a fleeting thought, which vanished the moment he blinked, unable to process it as the girls he had previously met caught him to go have fun elsewhere. And it was then that he turned to look at her again, and she was already gone.

The stops between restaurants, festivals, and hostels were something Kazuo was already accustomed to, and it served as an experience to gain the trust of the attendees. On his phone, he noted details of each of his potential conquests: likes, dislikes, routines, and weaknesses. He had devised the plan years ago, and it had yielded positive results, with his best streak being one girl per week, and Kazuo aimed to achieve it again. But his advances were tainted by the effect that woman had, stealing his attention.

And like Latinos, his presumed targets began encouraging the Japanese man to approach her. His plans had failed at the very beginning; he cursed his luck for bumping into her at the airport. If he hadn't seen her on that occasion, he surely would never have noticed her due to the aura she possessed. But now, those who were supposed to be additional points on his scoreboard had become his cheerleaders, encouraging him from afar and creating situations for conversation. Kazuo couldn't remember the last time he felt so much warmth from a stranger. They gained nothing from this situation—obviously ignoring that Latinos love drama and gossip—but still, they pushed him into a typical rom-com scenario.

During their visit to Hirosaki, the group split up for the boat rides, where the ropes were pulled at the expense of the distracted woman, whom the coordinator and other tour members called Sumire, seating Kazuo beside her. He didn't know whether to be nervous because of the expectant looks from his travel companions or because of his notable social anxiety about having an unpracticed conversation. The woman continued to admire the scenery while her hand wrote as if possessed by a demon, filling the notebook with notes that, with an innocent glance, he read over: it was a travel diary talking about how amazed she was and that she had yet to find 'that perfect place to rest' because she still couldn't decide which place was the most beautiful. His curious presence alerted her, and her hands immediately closed the little notebook, pulling it against her robust chest. Her contraction caused some of the petals in her hair to fall onto the boat's floor, making her feel self-conscious and embarrassed as she tried to remove them, combing her hair roughly with her fingers. This, in turn, sparked a bit of joy in the young man who, touched by the woman's nervous attitude, helped her remove them. That moment was immortalized by one of their companions and won the photography contest of the regional festival.

It could be that the Latin American energy was contagious, but it took Kazuo a while to realize that this year was now a lost cause for the primary goal of his trip. After 20 days of travel, lying on his futon in the shared room, he meditated on how he had spent his time: he stayed alone with Sumire after the wine tasting at the restaurant in Sendai, was seated in front of her during the nighttime tea ceremony, and they shared a fire during the lighting of lanterns in Tokyo. They were caught in the middle of the group photo when they visited the night festival around the Sougakudo Gazebo, and now he found himself sitting next to her at the Miyako Odori performance, the night before they traveled to Hiroshima. He had been swept away by the current of his companions and embarked on this journey without a return ticket, finding it impossible to say no.

"I had no idea how intimidating it could be to talk to a Latino," he thought, feeling his social anxiety while surrounded by so many people at the geisha show. However, he felt a warm hand over his and looked to his side; Sumire was asking him to keep quiet with a gesture to her lips, then signaled that they should escape from there. He didn't think twice, accepting almost immediately and leaving the theater hall.

"Are you okay?" she asked, just like the first time, but now a bit more informally.

"I'm better now," he replied with relief. "Sorry, we won't be able to re-enter the show."

"It doesn't matter, I understand," she said, trying to speak with more confidence, though her accent sounded somewhat strong. "Surely Rosa will tell me what we missed later. If you offer her a drink, she'll spill everything," she commented, laughing slightly.

Kazuo felt guilty for having taken her out of the show, and they were left alone while they had to wait for the rest of the group for the next 45 minutes. The young man glanced at the woman from the corner of his eye as she adjusted the rental kimono she had rented for the presentation, which was absurdly tight around her chest. Her glasses slipped down her nose, and she made a cute sound of annoyance when some of her bangs were pulled by the frame. He then looked up at the sky to distract himself; his mind certainly wandered at that moment, probably because he was suffering from withdrawal as if he were detoxing, his nerves making him move his feet slightly.

"Are you still feeling unwell? If you want, we can walk a bit," she offered with a shy but much more confident smile than when she forced herself to be polite in the early days.

"Oh, no. I'll be fine. I'll treat you to a coffee for the trouble," Kazuo said as he hurriedly crossed the street, fleeing from her and his thoughts.

Sumire was confused; she didn't know what was happening or why he seemed desperate to leave. She began to panic in that lonely space where she had been abandoned. Though her throat closed up, and she felt suffocated, her legs moved as she called out to him. Her voice made him quicken his pace, and her speed made her fear she wouldn't catch up to him. She pleaded for him to stop, but he didn't heed her words until he heard the clattering of wooden geta on the pavement, and then the voice pleading for his return fell silent. Thirty seconds passed, and Kazuo didn't move from his spot. A minute went by, and the atmosphere remained silent, after two minutes, he returned, fearing that Sumire had suffered an accident, but he stopped when he felt something crunch under his shoes.

He found her sitting on the embankment, her back resting against a wall, with her shoes ruined from not walking properly, her clothes damaged, and her hands and knees injured; everything fell apart when he noticed that although the woman was crying, she didn't make a sound louder than her sobs, covering her mouth as if she feared causing a scene with her crying. Sumire's glasses were shattered under the Japanese man's shoe, and the small bag matching the kimono was lying next to her. She looked at him but could barely make him out without her glasses, and she noticed that after being beside her, he ran away again. Squeezing her eyes shut to avoid focusing and trying to calm herself, she continued crying for a few more minutes, without rest, until she felt something cold on her face.

"I offered you coffee, but I think you'd better take this, or you'll get dehydrated from crying so much," he said with regret in his voice as he opened the sports drink for her. "Let me help you," he said as he knelt to tend to her wounds.

And again, he, trying to contain himself in such a scene, looked up at the sky and reminded himself that she was not his type. Repeating that phrase constantly in his mind, Kazuo focused on cleaning the wounds on her knees until a furtive thought invaded him: If she doesn't fit, why run away?

When both had calmed down, he asked the first question.

"Why were you holding back your tears?" he asked bluntly, though Sumire took longer to respond.

"It's a habit. At home, they hate it when I cry, they say I'm loud. I fear that if they see me like that there, how will they see me here? I didn't want to be a bigger nuisance," she replied, clutching the cold bottle.

"You're not. I'm the one who's been a nuisance. You came from so far for this trip, and I took you out of a show you won't be able to see again for a year. I'm the jerk here for leaving you in a city you don't know, in the dark, alone..." Kazuo spoke until he was interrupted.

"True, I called you several times, and you ignored me," she sobbed heavily again, her voice sounding tearful. "You're an asshole," she finished her response as she finished the blue drink, complaining entirely, even using her native language, which he didn't understand a word of, but it was obvious to him that she was hurt.

He watched her as she wiped her tears with the sleeve of her kimono, then became nervous, thinking she might be staining it even more, a behavior that surprised the young man so much that his astonishment could only be expressed as uncontrollable laughter, confusing the woman even more. They remained silent for a while, not looking at each other, intimidated by what expression the other might be making at that moment. However, they found themselves strangely together, shoulder to shoulder, resting their bodies against each other, feeling one tremble every time she sighed, and the other jump slightly whenever he moved to get comfortable. The noise of people walking through the streets caught both their attention until his phone rang. The others had already left the performance and hadn't found them in the crowd. That moment of peace didn't last long. When they returned, they were calmer but more anxious than before.

During their trip to Hiroshima, in their free time, she approached him to apologize during the tour of the floating shrine, but he didn't understand her reasons. He swallowed before daring to find out.

"The reality is that I came here with the idea of disappearing. At home, I have family, a job, friends, and a well-made life. I lack nothing, but I still feel it's not enough," she said, clutching her small diary in her left hand while the right one lightly touched Kazuo's pinky with her own. "I wanted to fulfill my dream of visiting Japan before I left."

She was everything society expected, yet she was not happy. Kazuo pondered for a second: Could it be something personal? Is it because she is a woman? Could it be the cultural difference? He couldn't help but interrupt his thoughts.

"I don't think you should leave," he released the confession from his chest, "You still have much to live for if, by fulfilling your duty, you are not fully satisfied. Don't you have a dream? Something to aspire to?" he asked, recalling the words his father once told him before shutting himself off from the world upon discovering his lack of aspirations.

Sumire clenched her fingers into a fist, "I just want to be happy, that's all."

"Then do the things that make you happy," he advised as if it were the simplest thing.

"Even if it means hurting others?" she asked fearfully.

"Why would your happiness harm others? Besides, looking at you, I don't think you're the type of person whose happiness would trample over others," he said bluntly, reacting only to the woman's face, which looked at him with relief.

Then she smiled with a tenderness she hadn't shown throughout the trip, which moved the young man beside her.

"Thank you. I hope that someday you find the same," she said as if understanding the reason behind his words.

They were interrupted by the coordinator, who called them to join the group picnic before returning to the hotel, as the next stop would be the last of the tour. Since they were already accustomed to sitting together, it was natural for them to find a space for two where she poured him a drink and asked to toast to their meeting, which had been the beginning of a new path to happiness. He raised his glass, and the others followed, although that moment was just for them.

The farewell dinner was warm and filled with dances and games. The hall was packed with tourists celebrating with food, sweets, and alcohol, enough fuel for a night they wouldn't forget... Or so most believed, as Kazuo woke up the next morning in the hotel room, and the bed he remembered sharing was empty on the other side. He found a small notebook he recognized and the plane ticket she had used to arrive in Japan, with no other trace of her in that room.

He opened the notebook and wrote a few words, vowing to find her again:

Tears of the flower, (花の涙、) 
sorrow hidden in beauty, (美に隠れた悲しみ、)
cherry trees embrace. (桜抱く。)

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