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by Sean Hower
Ryo boarded the train just as the doors were sliding shut and the electronic bell that announced yet another departure sounded. The train was packed and people were crammed against one another. Ryo thought about cutting his way through the thick of things to find a comfortable spot to sit for the long ride to Hakone, but decided against it. He didn't even make an effort to toss his bag up onto the overhead racks. If he had, he probably would have taken out a few people in the process. He just stood there, pressed against the door, wedged between a salary man and a cute girl about his own age.
The train lurched forward, sending a subtle shudder through each car. The movement caused a few people to grab at the overhead hand holds that dangled from the ceiling. As the train began to move away from the station, the familiar patter of wheels passing over joints in the track steadily rose to a high-paced rhythm.
9:03 AM. Just on time.
Ryo sighed with relief as Shinjuku Station, at the heart of Tokyo's business district, vanished beneath a maze of skyscrapers that rose up in sheer glass cliffs and blocked out even the sun. The vacation he had been looking forward to was beginning. He had spent most of the last year in a never-ending cycle of school, study and minimal sleep. Next year was his last in high school, and that meant exam hell was just around the corner. He was painfully aware of the difficulty of university entrance exams. His teachers kept reminding him every time he showed up late for class. The instructors at the juku (cram school) kept reminding him every time he failed to memorize yet another fact about geography, history, or some other topic that was bound to be of incredible importance on the exam. It was the first thing his mother reminded him of every time she found him in his room listening to CDs instead of being bent over yet another book that promised to raise his exam score with a week of devoted attention and a little gambaru (persistence).
Not for me, he kept thinking with every fact that was pressed into memory. He just wanted it to end. The pressure was getting to be too much for him, and he felt as though he was on the point of popping. He could feel it. His teachers could definitely see it. His mother knew it.
"I know that things are hard right now," she would say, with every bit of good intention. "Just be persistent. Once you're in college, you'll be able to take it easy."
But he didn't want to wait that long. He couldn't. He knew college was the only time that he would be allowed a break. After all, the hard work he did now was devoted to getting into a good university. What sort of student he became once he got in didn't really matter. He knew the old joke that teachers graded papers based on how far away they fell when stacked up next to a fan.
His brother was already in college, and that guy rarely went to class. His time was spent going out with friends, traveling, and drinking. Ryo saw the freedom his brother had, and needed it just for a little while. The only consolation was in knowing that after graduation, his brother would be locked into a job: another salary man doing his bit for CEO and company. With the way the economy was going, even the largest companies couldn't promise life-long employment any more. That just left you with hard work.
That's the way Ryo saw things. You worked hard in grade school, got a break in college, and then worked hard the rest of your life. It was written in stone, and there was no breaking away from it. But it wasn't the end that bothered Ryo as much as the path he had to take to get there.
When he had left this morning, he hadn't expected to get out of the house easily. The "conversation" he had with his mom before he left for the station this morning went pretty much as he had expected.
"What about your studies?" That was the first thing his mom always said.
"A weekend won't hurt any."
"Still, you can't let yourself get behind." That was the second thing she always said.
"I won't. Look, mom, I . . ."
He could never finish that sentence. He knew that she only wanted what was best for him. His parents owned a ramen shop along the Naka-Meguro ginza (shopping street). The shop was on the ground floor, and their home on the second. They weren't rich, but they got by. His parents wanted better for his brother and him, and they were sinking everything they had into getting their children a good education.
That harassed his thoughts every time he caught himself slacking off.
"All right," he said softly, trying to hide his irritation. "How about, when I get back, I go to the juku a few extra times so I can get caught up?" He smiled to let his mom know it was something he wanted to do despite the fact that deep inside he dreaded the idea.
"I wonder if that will be enough?"
"I'll take the study guide with me too," Ryo said. He grabbed the book off his desk and stuffed it into his bag, feeling as though he was committing a crime.
His mom smiled. "You're a good kid, Ryo-kun," she said, patting him on his head.
The train Ryo rode now was an express and made only a few stops. The first was Ofuna, then Hiratsuka, and lastly near Hakone. Ryo watched as Tokyo zipped by him, an unbroken labyrinth of buildings that rose up into a jagged horizon. The only thing that marked the boundary between one city and the next was the barely audible, nasal voice of the conductor announcing the arrival in and departure from each station.
At Ofuna, the skyscrapers had given way to high-rise apartments surrounding smaller pockets of office buildings. It was here that the crowd on board began to thin a little, giving Ryo a chance to finally sit. He found a place near the center of the car. After Hiratsuka, the terrain was covered in a suburban range broken only by the occasional ginza or newly constructed department store and parking garage.
This was perhaps the quietest leg of the trip. It was the off-season, and hardly anyone was going up to Hakone this time of year. In fact, most everyone had already gotten off of the train and Ryo found himself nearly alone. A girl, probably about his own age, sat a few seats away on the other side of the car. She had her nose stuck in an idol magazine and was oblivious to what was going on around her. A little boy sat on the far side, skillfully trapped between the girl and the end of the car. The boy couldn't have been more than eight years old. He was playing a hand-held computer game, a firm conviction on his face. Ryo watched as the boy frantically worked the buttons to a series of explosions and gunfire that rumbled up from the game's little speaker.
There was an old man at the other end of the car sitting in one of the green seats reserved for the elderly. His head was kinked at an odd angle as it rested against the window behind his seat. He wasn't a salary man; too old for that. He was probably retired. He looked a little like an old doll, worn out from years of faithful service to its owner. The calm on his face marked him as someone who had accepted the destiny that had been decided for him since before his birth. And now, with duty served, he was allowed to step down into retirement and do as he pleased. So, he slept, able to blissfully ignore every bump and jostle the train could muster to disturb that rest.
An ominous symphony chimed out from the game, followed by a frustrated groan from the boy. Ryo watched as the boy threw the game on the seat.
"What a stupid game!" the boy said, his eyes narrowing in irritation. He squeezed off the seat and began to march in little circles in front of his sister, flapping his arms with every stomp he made. "Stupid game," he chanted in a near whine, venting his frustration.
His guardian looked up at him with an indulgent smile, and turned back to her reading.
"Be persistent," Ryo offered.
The boy simply ignored him and continued on his rant.
Ryo shrugged and turned his thoughts towards his vacation. He had planned a number of things for his time at the inn. He shifted his weight to gaze through the nearest window. He caught sight of a juku as it sped by.
Ryo's thoughts were still on the inn when the train came to a stop at the foot of the mountains. This wasn't Hakone. That little town was built along the shore of Lake Ashino and was accessible only through a narrow pass. This place was Gora Station. It was sort of the welcoming point. From here, the mountain slope was too steep for a train to travel, so there were a bunch of hotels and things to keep people entertained while they waited for the next bus to take them through the pass and to Hakone itself.
Ryo would walk from this point even though Hakone was still a few kilometers away. He didn't mind. The long walk was part of the experience he was after. He grabbed his bag and left the station.
The streets were narrow and crammed with little tourist shops that had been wedged into the pass. They were the kind of shops that were designed to get foreigners to stop in and buy things because they "looked Japanese." The sidewalks were filled with your typical vacationers. Running from place to place, they tried to get as much of a vacation as possible in as little time as possible.
The place was total mayhem.
Ryo didn't get past all of the campgrounds, scenic overlooks, shops and tourists until well after noon. He turned off the main way onto an obscure road that cut almost straight up the side of the mountain. He always wondered how any car could make it up such a steep angle when he could barely manage on foot. Still, this was the only way to the inn, and even though this leg of the trip was the most exhausting, it wasn't until now that he felt his vacation was beginning. The sun was shining, and the temperature was just right for a hike. It only took a few minutes for the sounds of the main road to fade into a faint murmur. It took just a few more for the soft rustle of leaves as the wind skimmed across the tops of the trees to completely overpower the last gasps of civilization.
Ryo arrived at the inn shortly. It was nestled in the side of the mountain, completely isolated except for a little shrine devoted to some Shinto kami (god) whose name Ryo could never remember. All but hidden by the surrounding woods, the only mark of its existence was the wood-shingle roof that poked out from the treetops. A large boulder rested at its entrance, decorated with the name of the inn written in cursive characters.
Sasayaki-yama Ryokan. Whispering Mountain Inn.
Ryo knew that near the inn was an outdoor onsen (hot spring) that looked out over the valley. It wasn't surprising that hot springs were here. The fact was, the entire area was dotted with hot springs and was known for its onsen. There were grand hotels around Gora Station that saw visitors from all over Japan. The important thing about this place, however, was that other than the locals hardly anyone knew about the inn.
Ryo had spent a lot of time soaking in inn's onsen, staring out across the valley and talking with people about nothing in particular. He always got into the kinds of conversations that somehow manage to bring complete strangers a little closer together even if they had talked about nothing important. He had spent so much time at this inn that he was considered a regular and was well known by its other patrons.
"Irasshaimase!" Himiko, the inn's sole owner, welcomed him with excitement as she came out from a back room. She was dressed in traditional kimono decorated with bright red and orange designs. When Ryo stepped up into the office, she gave him a hug. "It's been a while, Ryo-kun," she said with a smile.
For Ryo, Himiko was more than the owner of this place. She was more like an aunt or stepmother. That's how she treated him, anyway. It had been like that from the first time he came to the inn. Over the course of his visits, they had grown close, and she had often said jokingly that he was her adopted son. She had told him once that having him around was like the old times. He had always wondered what that meant, but never asked. It was something she would have to tell him herself.
"Obasan," Ryo greeted her, calling her aunt rather than using her name. "You're right. I'm sorry. I've been busy."
"I guess that's true," Himiko said thoughtfully. She regarded him carefully. "You're growing so fast," she sighed. "You're about to graduate from high school, am I right?"
"Yeah, I have a year left. But, some times I wonder if I'll ever get out of there, you know?"
"Don't worry," she said, patting him on the hand. "You're a smart young man, and after a weekend in the onsen I'm sure you'll be ready to take on the world again. I'm sure a nice vacation is just what you need to set things right, isn't it?"
Ryo nodded. "Maybe I should stay here," he said. He had often thought of moving into the inn and helping Himiko run the place. It seemed like it would be a good idea.
"Ryo-kun," Himiko said calmly, "you shouldn't think like that. You are meant to be something greater than a worker at an old inn. Besides, it's not a good idea to hide from your problems. Eventually, they catch up to you."
"Maybe so," Ryo said.
Himiko smiled at him. "There, now you are talking like a responsible man. Even so," she added thoughtfully, "remember that you are always welcome here."
For a moment, they were silent. The very presence of the other was enough to make up for the time they had missed. It had been a long time since he'd come to the inn and he had forgotten just how much he enjoyed being here.
"Well," Himiko began, "you've had a long trip, and you did come here to relax after all. You shouldn't be wasting your time with an old woman like me. You're room is already made up. I moved the Western style bed in for you, just how you like. Are you going to head straight for the onsen, or are you going for a walk first?"
"A walk I think," Ryo said. "I need some time alone."
"All right," Himiko replied with a gentle smile. "I'll make you a late lunch to take along. Are you in the mood for gyoza and some inari?"
Ryo nodded and headed for his room. After emptying the things from his bag, and getting his room in order, he went outside. Himiko saw him off, giving him the small lunch she had prepared. There were a number of paths that criss-crossed the mountains in the area. Most were branches of trails built as part of a park. The one near the inn, however, was different. It started from the shrine, and made a big loop through the woods that eventually brought the hiker back to the shrine. Unlike the other paths, this one didn't have the feeling of having been planned by some engineer. Its meanders left one with the impression that it had been made simply by people wandering about.
The weather was still cool and the sun, despite the fact that it was getting close to setting, was still bright. There was a calm to the air too. It seemed that the entire forest was beginning to settle in for the night. The only noise was drummed up from Ryo walking, and even that had just an ephemeral presence.
This was why Ryo enjoyed coming here. There was a certain ethereal waking that would make itself known only briefly as you wandered about the woods. It was as though you had stepped from the shadows of life into the brightly lit freedom of a dream. Here, it was possible to mask yourself from the rest of the world.
A definite freedom.
Ryo had reached the ruins in short time. He had found them by accident when he had first come to the inn. He had asked Himiko about them once. She told him she didn't know. A foundation from an old house, she suggested. So, he found pleasure in guessing its origins.
Even though they were in a clearing, the ruins were easy to miss if you weren't looking for them. They were really just a faint collection of worn, rectangular stones. Arranged in a roughly square shape and partially hidden under tall grasses, they were completely unassuming. They looked like any other collection of stones, scattered about the ground in no real design. It had been a boy's imagination and curiosity that made them known in the first place. Ever since that discovery, he was drawn to this place with each visit to the inn. He made a point to come here the first thing.
Ryo kneeled and reached out hesitantly to one of the stones. It warmed the tips of his fingers as he ran them along its smooth face. He wondered about the history that these stones had seen, about the stories that had unfolded in their presence. He wondered what mark his brief encounter with them would leave behind for future wanderers to reflect upon.
He let out a sigh as he spread himself out in the grass, resting his head on the stone. The view from here was always a surprise. It seemed that all of Japan was spread out before him. The hills and mountains, unfurled and vast, stretched into the horizon. The forest that covered their slopes was just beginning to take on summer colors and a light green dominated the landscape. Directly in front of him, and some distance away, in a faint outline that cut into the sky, rose Fuji. White streaks of snow still painted its slopes. A cloud had snagged itself on the peak, and was being pulled into long strands of mist against the winds that blew across the mountain. Below was the valley. He could see the little town of Hakone sprawled out across the shore of the Lake Ashino. The replicas of European galleons that had been built for tourists were out on its surface, catching the wind. Across the way, and as though it were a toy, stood the large red torii (gates) that led to Hakone Temple, or maybe it was a shrine. He could never keep those straight.
As he lay in the grass, looking out across the valley, the sound of a flute was carried out of the forest on the wind. The melody it played was a somber one, its rhythm slow and deliberate. Its low notes carried themselves in a gentle diminuendo that cascaded about Ryo's mind. Yet, within that melody, there was almost a playful sense of hope. And it was in those notes, those brief peaks of limitless prospect, that he began to settle.
For the briefest moment, Ryo thought of turning over to try to look for the person playing the flute. But what would be the point in that? The enjoyment was in the mystery. So, he just continued to lie there, listening. The music fall around him, each note penetrating the fibers that made him who he was and awakening something long forgotten. The music reached into his being and gingerly led him to a place so serene, so utterly separate from the world he knew, that he felt himself falling into a pleasant dawn. He could feel himself slipping away, dissolving into his surroundings, until there was nothing save the very essence of who he was. The tension he had known for so long had fled, and only a renewed vigor and determination was left. He began to feel as though he was ready to take on the world again.
Sean Hower is a Sacramento technical writer, husband, and father with itch for fiction. He writes a biweekly column called "Notes from the Cubicle" for the WriteThinking eZine, and has published a few articles and short stories. He also maintains a Web site for writers, which doubles as his personal site, called Hokum Home (http://hokum.freehomepage.com). You can email Sean at email@example.com you like.