Late again, Hiroshi weaved in and out of the crowds near the Momiji teahouse. Sweat trickled down his neck and he pulled at the undershirt that was sticky against his back as he squeezed through the swarm of pedestrians clogging the labyrinth of narrow alleyways. They stopped to admire the deep blue and bright pink flowers blooming in the flower boxes—a heady fragrance drifting through the warm air. Eleven-year-old Hiroshi was already late to meet his grandfather and younger brother, Kenji, at the Keio-ji temple on the other side of Yanaka. He had dashed from the open, grassy field of the park where he and his classmates spent their afternoons practicing the wrestling techniques they learned in school—the oshi, hand push; the tsuki, thrust; and the yori, body push. “These are the fundamental moves of sumo wrestling,” his coach at school, Masuda-san stressed, “the foundation on which we will build.”
Once again, Hiroshi had lost track of time.
In the Yanaka district of northeastern Tokyo, the sloping streets were lined with traditional one- and two-story wooden houses. Despite the crowds, Hiroshi loved Yanaka for its familiar and quiet way of life, for the tantalizing smells of grilled fish kushiyaki and the sweet chicken yakitori sold from wooden carts. When he wasn’t in a hurry, he even loved the maze of winding alleyways with blooming gardens that hid the old wood houses and the small, unassuming shops with their cloth banners hanging outside, selling hanakago, or bamboo flower baskets, handmade washi paper, and the soft silken tofu his grandmother loved to eat cold during the summer. The narrow streets offered a wealth of escape routes for the chase games he and the neighborhood children played—places you could get lost or hide in until you wanted to be found, or not found.
But now, it was impossible for him to navigate them quickly. Men his grandfather’s age sat at battered wooden tables and played shoji, oblivious to the crowds as they pondered each chess move. Hiroshi squeezed by a woman in a kimono, a baby tied to her back; the round-faced girl with dark eyes followed his every move.
Once he neared the ginza, vendors lined the streets, selling everything from grilled corn and sweet potatoes, to roasted sembei rice crackers and baked squid. The enticing aroma of the spicy shoyu crackers reminded Hiroshi of his empty stomach, but he didn’t dare stop. The muscles pulled in his sore calves as he hurried up the hill. He wrinkled his nose at the pungent vinegary smell of tsukudani, a kind of Japanese chutney his grandparents ate over their rice, which came from a nearby store and hung heavy in the air. He was short of breath by the time he reached the Keio-ji temple to find his grandfather and Kenji waiting outside.
“Ah, the young master arrives,” his grandfather teased. He sat on a stone bench in the shade of a ginkgo tree sucking on his pipe, his cane resting against his knee.
Hiroshi bowed low. “I’m sorry to be late, ojichan,” he said, pausing to catch his breath.
Hiroshi nodded. At eleven, he was already the top wrestler in his class, perhaps the entire school. He’d grown taller and stronger in the year since he began taking the sport seriously.
Kenji pouted. “Why else would he be late?”
“I lost track of the time,” Hiroshi confessed, trying to appease his brother. He’d already been late several times this month.
“Did you at least win the match?” His ojichan leaned forward on his cane and stood.
Hiroshi straightened up and answered, “Hai,” though it was just practice, not real competition.
His ojichan stepped toward the stone path and smiled. “Good, good. Hiroshi will be a champion one day. And you, Kenji, will find your place soon enough,” he said gently. “Now, shall we take our walk?”
Yanaka was one of the few areas of Tokyo not devastated by the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, a distinction their ojichan proudly repeated to Hiroshi and Kenji. He pointed his cane toward the same old temples that had once surrounded the Edo castle and had been moved to Yanaka after surviving a big fire, almost three hundred years ago.
“The temples withstood both disasters virtually unscathed,” his ojichan said—the miracle of it emphasized in the rise of his voice. “And look there,” he continued, directing their gaze to the lone smokestack of what was once the Okira bathhouse. “Not everything was spared. Okira-san never rebuilt after the quake, but he left the smokestack as a symbol of Yanaka’s resilience. You boys must never forget.”
Hiroshi wouldn’t forget, not just because he couldn’t walk thirty feet down any road without seeing an ancient temple, but also because his ojichan was the embodiment of that same fortitude. He looked into his grandfather’s eyes. A cloudy film covered his dark pupils. Hiroshi wondered how much his grandfather could really see, and how much he saw from memory. He tried to imagine what it must feel like to slowly lose one’s sight behind a thick, dense fog that left everything in blurry shadow. Hiroshi often wanted to take hold of his ojichan’s arm, afraid that he might stumble on an uneven path, or on the stone steps leading down to the Sumida River, but he once again refrained as his ojichan moved briskly down the road, not missing a step.
That night after dinner as Hiroshi sat bent over his schoolwork, his grandmother came into the dining room and sat on the tatami mat across from him, pouring each of them a cup of green tea. It was his grandparents, Yoshio and Fumiko Wada, who kept the spirit of his parents alive, long after three-year-old Hiroshi and his eighteen-month-old brother, Kenji, were orphaned. His obachan often stopped whatever she was doing, washing clothes or preparing his grandfather’s favorite sticky rice, to tell Hiroshi stories of his parents and how they had saved his life. “You are a child of good fortune,” his obachan whispered, so that the gods wouldn’t hear her and return to take him away, too. “They loved you and your little brother more than life.” She always sighed as if the ache of their deaths could be expelled.
When she began to speak, he looked up from his books, drank down his tea, and listened to his obachan’s story. “Your mother and father were so happy to get away to Kyoto for their first overnight trip since you were born,” she began, her voice clear but calm in the small dining room. “And still, they wanted to take you with them. You were just three years old. Kenji was eighteen months and I insisted that he stay with your ojichan and me. It was the last evening of the Lantern Festival at Miyazu Bay. They wanted to show you the red lanterns glimmering on the dark water like fireflies, where the spirit ships welcomed ancestors back to the human world. It was a warm and still summer night and your mother wore her red-flowered summer kimono. Who could have known that the spirits would take your mother and father back into their world with them?” His obachan swallowed. Her pause was like a sorrow she could never voice. “Everyone felt festive in the calm, unusually dark night. The water gleamed the color of black pearl. Some men with a fishing boat offered to take spectators out into the bay to float among the lanterns. What possesses people to do what they do? Your mother and father stepped onto that boat, with you squirming in your father’s arms. Too late they realized that the men steering the boat were drunk, that they’d been drinking sake all afternoon and should never have taken people out on that dark night. They went out too far, away from the shore, away from the lighted lanterns, away from all that was safe. In the blindness of that night, the boat struck rocks. The wood snapped and cracked. The boat ripped apart like shoji beneath their feet, separating your parents onto opposite halves of the deck. The boat sank in minutes—just enough time for your quick-thinking father to place you in an empty fish barrel. You floated on the waves, crying after him, while he dived into the dark waters in search of your mother, who had never been a strong swimmer. Just beyond them, a wall of floating lanterns blocked the view of what was happening; your screams were lost in the revelry. When the other boats came to the rescue, all eight passengers were found drowned that night in Miyazu Bay, all except you, Hiroshi, floating in your fish barrel, and the young captain of the boat. They told us that water had just begun to seep into the barrel.”
“What happened to the captain?” Hiroshi asked. He pushed his books aside and looked down at his grandmother’s thin, blue-veined hands that never seemed to stop moving.
“His body was never found,” his obachan answered. She sat for a moment in silence; Hiroshi felt bitterness cut through the air between them. “I prayed the spirits of the dead had taken him that night, forgetting to leave his body behind.”
At the end of his grandmother’s story, Hiroshi stood and stretched. He took a deep breath, and went to study the black-and-white photograph of his parents, Kazuo and Misako, that sat on the tokonoma, the recessed shelf in his grandparents’ living room. Misako had been their only daughter. He saw himself in his father’s tall, heavyset build, his dark, almost brooding features, while Kenji was a daily reminder of his delicate mother with her liquid, faraway gaze. He wondered whether his parents might have lived if he hadn’t been with them that night. Those precious moments given to him might have saved their lives. The thought stabbed at the side of his brain until his head ached. Which was worse, he asked himself—having them taken from him, or not remembering them at all, like Kenji? The answer tilted one way, then the other, never finding balance.
Where are they now? Hiroshi sometimes wondered, though he never said the words aloud. Were they watching from the heavens? Did they know when he and Kenji were bad? When he was a little boy, it all seemed too large and confusing. What he remembered felt less and less tangible.
As Hiroshi grew older, his own memories of that night blurred with the distance of a dream. He began to hear slight discrepancies in each version of his obachan’s story. He never asked how she could know so much. He never questioned any of the differences—the change in time, the shade of darkness in the night, the color of his mother’s kimono or his father’s shoes. He liked the way she reinvented his parents, brought them back to life. Bits and pieces of their existence returned to him, his father’s arms holding him tightly, his mother’s lovely, smiling eyes upon his face, the darkness of that night, the red lights, the slapping of water all around him as he floated light and ethereal. His obachan always began the story with a great burst of energy, her voice rising and falling like waves, lapping slowly to shore almost in a whisper as she came to the end. He sat back transfixed, wanting only to hear it again, while his younger brother, Kenji, covered his ears or left the room, preferring to be as far away as possible. But his obachan, tired and spent, always needed to lie down afterward.
Every August, during the Obon festival, when they went to the crowded Yanaka cemetery to honor the spirits of the dead, Hiroshi looked at the two stone slabs with his parents’ names written in bold, black characters, but he refused to believe they could be there, buried in the hard, cold ground. They were floating, he thought, if not in water then in the air, all around them. The drifting fog of burning incense made his eyes water. His obachan placed bowls of rice, vegetables, fruits, and sweet cakes in front of the graves for the spirits to eat. At the sight of the gravestones, Kenji pursed his lips, jabbed at the dark earth with his foot, and remained silent throughout their obachan’s chanting prayers. It was the only time Kenji ever held Hiroshi’s hand, squeezed tight in a sweaty grip. He never let go until they were back home.
The Street of a Thousand Blossoms
They lived on the street of a thousand blossoms, one of the narrow lanes not far from the Kyo-ou-ji temple, in a row of similar two-story wooden houses with a courtyard in front, a square of land in the backyard, slanting roofs, and jutting eaves. Though the houses were right next to each other, their wooden fences and blooming walls of thick bamboo provided each house with a separate intimacy. A string of wind chimes hung by Hiroshi’s front gate next to a faded red metal mailbox, and when a brisk wind stirred the chimes, a chorus of tinkling filled the air like hurried voices.
What did set his grandparents’ house apart from the rest in Yanaka was the soaring addition his ojichan had built after Hiroshi’s parents drowned. The tenshukaku was added onto the back of the house, off the kitchen, a wooden watchtower with a staircase that wound twelve feet above the surrounding rooftops to a deck at the top. It was covered with an identical slanting roof and jutting eaves.
As a little boy, Hiroshi remembered his ojichan, before he retired, returning from work as the toji, the brewery master at the Hanku Sake Factory. He changed his clothes and worked at building the tower board by board, fitting the wooden pegs in place—the rhythmic pounding a part of Hiroshi’s childhood. He watched wide-eyed, as if it were a game his ojichan was playing, just like the building blocks he and Kenji stacked one atop another. But at the end of the day, their blocks came crashing down, while his ojichan slowly added to the tower’s height like a child growing taller.
“Why?” he remembered his grandmother asking one night when his ojichan finally came in. It was dark and chilly and his grandfather’s skin looked gray from the cold, his eyes half-closed as he sat in the warmth of the kitchen.
“It’s to observe the life around us,” he answered at last, and sipped from his hot tea.
“What life? What do you suppose you’ll see up there, old man?” she muttered, a tenderness slipping in at the edge of her words.
“My eyes may be failing,” he answered, “but Hiroshi and Kenji have so much to see. Misako would have wanted that for them.” His voice rose in strength at the mention of his only daughter’s name.
Hiroshi thought about his mother every time he climbed the stairs up to the tower. Not only did it become a place for the boys to observe the world around them, but a space where they built imaginary worlds. The tower became the Himeji Castle, nicknamed the White Heron Castle, that soared into the sky. Other times it was a sailing vessel in the middle of an endless sea, but always it was a place of comfort and dreams. Perched high among the clouds, Hiroshi and Kenji could be gods or samurais, each finding his own kind of solace.
One night, when Hiroshi was eight years old, long after the boys were supposed to be asleep, he heard low murmurs and a girlish laughter coming from up in the tower. He might have mistaken the laughter for that of a stranger, if he hadn’t heard it before, far away in the back of his memory. He stole out of bed and made his way quietly up the stairs, only to spy his grandparents together, watching the night sky, his ojichan leaning over and whispering something that made his obachan laugh again—high and girlish—a sound he suddenly recognized as his mother’s laugh. She was there with them. And for a moment, Hiroshi felt a tingling sensation, his mother close by, hovering in the air just above them.
When neighbors complained or made a disparaging remark about the height of the tower and the obstruction of sunlight in their courtyards, his ojichan met their disapproving gaze with a smile and a bow of his head as if in apology. Then he leaned over and whispered to his grandsons, “Yes, but we are that much closer to the heavens.”
Kenji had been a frail and quiet baby. His grandparents always took great care to keep him from catching a cold or becoming too hot under the quilted comforters. He lay in his basket and always seemed to be searching for something with his dark, distant gaze. Neko-no-me, Cat-eyes, his obachan called him. “You are the small cat that will survive the fire,” she whispered to him lovingly. “While your big brother, Hiroshi, will live by his head, you will live by your heart.” It was something Kenji heard his grandmother say many times when he was growing up. But he wanted to know why he was the one who lived by his heart. Why couldn’t he be more like Hiroshi? He put his hand over the left side of his chest, felt the dull thumping through his shirt, and smiled.
Whenever Kenji heard the low murmur of his obachan beginning another story about his parents, he would disappear into his room, or wait outside for his ojichan to return, or wander through the labyrinths of alleyways. At the age of nine, he couldn’t bear to hear her story one more time. He used to make up his own stories, imagining his parents were secretly alive, living somewhere close by—memories of their earlier lives lost after swimming safely to shore. He felt this every time he saw a man or woman walking down the road who resembled the photo his obachan kept of his parents, and he was sure that like magic or wishful desire, they would recognize the baby they’d left behind. Eventually both his and his obachan’s stories began to hurt his stomach, giving him cramps that left his skin clammy and his head spinning. He couldn’t breathe for the sorrow that hung on every word.
Sometimes, if it was still early, Kenji would walk toward the Yanaka ginza, lingering at the threshold of the small shops where repairmen patched bicycle tires, or craftsmen carved out kime kome dolls, covering their wood forms with red and purple brocaded cloth, painting their glistening white faces with a powdered seashell called gofun. Kenji stayed perfectly still and watched mesmerized as the inanimate object began taking on a life of its own. Soon the spinning motion of the bicycle tires would take people from one place to another, while a block of wood would be transformed into a graceful doll resembling a member of the imperial court. Knowing this gave Kenji a feeling of endless possibilities.
But nothing fascinated him more than the carved masks he discovered in a tiny shop, hidden away in one of the back alleyways. Kenji might have walked right by the shop if not for the sun’s reflection off the gold trim of a mask in the window—a rope of light pulling at him. Kenji gazed into the small showcase where three masks stared back at him, hollow-eyed and powerful—an old man with long trailing whiskers, a beautifully austere, white-faced woman, and a red-faced devil, trimmed with gold. The masks captivated Kenji like nothing else, sent a shiver through his body as if he had a fever. He pressed closer to the window and saw through dirty glass into a small, cluttered room with two chairs and a table covered with papers. A tall shelf lined one wall with still other masks propped up on it. Toward the back of the shop a curtained doorway led to another room. No one seemed to be around. Suddenly, Kenji wanted desperately to see the other masks, a sharp longing that gave him courage. But before he could move, strange voices coming down the alley grew louder and he stepped back, half-hidden, to watch. One by one, two lavishly dressed people in dark Western clothing, and a woman in a bright silk kimono entered the battered, lopsided doorway of the shop. Kenji peeked inside to see them bowing low to a slight, bearded man who emerged from the back room, his long, disheveled hair covered with a fine dust.
Kenji’s obachan later told him the shop belonged to a man named Akira Yoshiwara, who was well known throughout Japan as a master carver of Noh masks used in the theater. Rumors swirled around the eccentric artisan, who could pick and choose his clients, working for whom he wanted, when he wanted. Actors from all over vied for his masks, she said. Kenji daydreamed about being one of those clients, gliding into the tiny shop, holding each exquisite mask up to his face and breathing life into it.
When he heard his grandmother in the dining room telling Hiroshi yet another story, Kenji went outside through the courtyard to wait for his grandfather at the front gate. He heard stray voices echo through the alley, where oil lamps left an eerie yellowish glow. He turned when a gust of wind set the chimes tingling. Only when he heard the tap, tap, tap of his ojichan’s cane against the pavement did he feel the hard stone of sorrow melt inside of him, and an anxious, yet tender expectation take its place.
Even as his eyesight worsened, his ojichan insisted on keeping his daily routine, walking alone to the bar down several blocks to sit with his friends around the table and talk of their younger days, of the growing war in China, and of the ongoing string of victories by a young sumo named Futabayama. Sometimes, Kenji went with him, sitting on a sticky chair in the corner to drink cold, sweetened tea, while his ojichan drank beer with the other men, lost in the cloud of smoke and laughter. In the small, closed room, he watched the rough and thickened hands of the men move through the air like clumsy birds, listened to their deep voices, and felt comforted. Often he fell asleep to the static hum of live sumo tournaments or the war news from China broadcast over the radio, only to be awakened from faceless dreams by the voices of the old men calling out his name.
“Kenji-san, are we boring you?” they said, laughing.
Then slowly he’d awaken, bleary-eyed until the smoke-filled room came into focus and he saw his ojichan sitting among the other men, his vague gaze cast over him like a net.
Now, Kenji stood up as his grandfather approached.
“What are you doing out here?” his ojichan asked, when he was close enough to see that Kenji was there on the step right in front of him.
“Waiting for you,” he answered.
Kenji looked into the old man’s cloudy eyes. He loved the way the lines around them deepened and spread when his ojichan smiled, his cheekbones rising like the sun. As a young man, he was once known as the best dancer in Hakodate, his obachan told him, everyone watching his grandfather’s light, seamless moves at the Bon Odori during Obon.
“Well, your ojichan’s home now,” he said, rubbing his close-cropped gray hair and putting his arm around Kenji’s slight and serious shoulders. “You could have come and fetched me,” he added.
“Uncle Taiko asked me to give you this.” His ojichan held out his hand.
Kenji smiled and reached for the piece of rice candy in his grandfather’s palm, bowing quickly. “Domo arigato gozaimasu,” he said. “Please thank Uncle Taiko when you see him tomorrow.”
“Perhaps you’d like to come with me to the bar tomorrow and thank him yourself,” his ojichan said.
Kenji nodded his head, his black hair falling into his eyes. “Hai,” he answered, popping the rice candy into his mouth before his obachan found out.
He loved the weight of his ojichan’s arm on his shoulders and the smell of his bittersweet pipe smoke. The rich, deep flavors that rose and curled up into the air made Kenji feel safe and at ease. Suddenly, the old man stepped back and danced a few unexpected circles around his grandson, extracting a wild, unrestrained burst of laughter from Kenji.
Copyright © 2007 by Gail Tsukiyama. All rights reserved.