In Hakusan-cho, the maple leaves turned red and orange and yellow. Hiro Tanaguchi thought of many places other than where he was and of many people whom he’d left or who had left him. He was a man who struggled with the present and with being aware in the moment, in any given moment. This had nothing to do with his age, seventy-one. He’d been like this since he was a boy. He recalled always missing something just past or always longing for something yet to happen.
When Hiro thought about the course of his life, it seemed a great accident. Every turn he took had been a surprise, and looking back, it all fit piece after crooked piece, as lotus flowers linked and blanketed a pond.
Hiro knew the history of his town. He knew landmarks: statues, temples and shrines, natural springs and all sorts of other things. He knew the stories behind them and sometimes he made up stories for them—a legend, a myth, a mystery. He knew about nature and the land he’d been living on for the past seventy-one years in Mie Prefecture. He even talked in town once about how to keep the air and water and soil clean. He’d been a teacher, and a principal, and on the town board of education. As people go, Hiro Tanaguchi was famous in Hakusan-cho, and well respected.
But lately, Hiro had to remind himself to pay attention and live in the present. His parents were long dead, his wife dead, and his only daughter, Haruka, lived in Tokyo with her husband and two children. On the bullet train, Tokyo was four hours away, but it was far enough from his small town life in Mie-ken. He saw Haruka only when they came for New Year’s for four days. He was proud of his daughter and wanted nothing more than her happiness, but he was ashamed he could not keep his family close by, or in his family home.
He was ashamed to be old and alone, because it was family that kept people alive, he thought, from beginning to end. What had he done to be neglected like this? He would not dare ask Haruka, he would not beg for her attention, but he felt sad some days, and far away from anyone he loved.
Hiro had a pair of shoes for everything he did. He wore a pair of brown leather loafers when he was outside and in public places; he had a pair of blue and white puffy checkered slippers to wear inside his house; he had a thick pair of red slippers for the toilet; he had a pair of green knee-high rubber boots for his vegetable gardens and rice fields; and a pair of white canvas shoes he slid on for driving. Hiro had many more shoes too. He lived in a one hundred year old dark house, and because this was the house in which he was born and had inherited, he rarely threw anything away. He had shoes stuffed in his closets and some in cabinet drawers. He had dusty rocks on shelves and outdoor specimens in glass jars—beetles, dragonflies, locusts—with faded paper name markers on them. He had chipping plaster busts his brother had made thirty-five years ago sitting on a window sill. One was of Hiro and the nose was missing. The plaster was dirty but where the nose was gone it looked like a fresh white piece of broken chalk. Hiro had poster-sized calendars with photos of Japan hanging in his sitting room. He had four posters. One with Mount Fuji in the center from 1987. Another was from 1992, the year his wife died. One calendar was current for 2004/2005 and had photos of the four seasons: red and orange Japanese maple trees, snow on a red bridge over a koi pond, cherry blossoms in bloom along the banks of a river in Kyoto and a pair of wooden sandals by the entrance of a cedar temple door, and a red tori in the sea of Japan in green summer. The fourth was from 2000, the year he fell in love with Yuki Yasuko on the town bus. It was one of the best years of his life.
He once told Yuki about his daughter, of her being far away and not coming home. Yuki was a fair-skinned, pensive beauty. She was a widow with three children of her own, two of whom lived on her street. The third had drowned in the river many years ago, so she, too, knew of loss and longing. She listened to Hiro while she watched the passing rice fields. Autumn harvests of tied grasses hung out to dry over wooden racks or sometimes stood on their own throughout a field like teepees. As the rice bundles turned from green to tan they looked like the skirts of brooms in the stubbly-cut fields. They reminded Hiro of women in long skirts waiting for their husbands to return from a war. When he finished talking about his daughter, Yuki looked up at the bus ceiling, then at him, her hands resting on her thigh. “This is very simple,” she said. She nodded and turned her dark eyes back to the window, to the mist rising from the green mountains. “This is your destiny.”
In December in Hakusan-cho, the narcissus bloomed white and yellow in every garden and field and the town smelled fresh and clean. By mid-December, the air turned cold overnight, and winter came.
Hiro Tanaguchi went to the onsen bathing house five nights a week in winter and three nights a week during the rest of the year, where among the hot water and steam he would think about destiny, and wonder if he’d chosen all that had happened in his life or if the same events and people would have found him one way or another. He wondered if he had a lesson to learn in this life and what, after all this time, that lesson was. He sat in the cedar bath feeling cleansed of so many things from the day, the week, the month. He moved to the waterfall in the corner and sat on a small flat rock so his neck and shoulders were under the weight of the falling water. He shut his eyes. The water sounded like the static of white noise as it poured onto him and over him, warm all over. In these moments, he was cleansed of having a brief affair with Nanami Sakai when he was twenty-six. He was cleansed from telling his neighbor he wasn’t lonely at all and that he liked his time alone. He was cleansed from feeling resentful toward his daughter for hardly visiting and acting distant and independent like an American.
After his onsen he went home for dinner and sake. He loved sake, hot and cold, its dry smoothness and how his face went red and his shoulders eased and fell after a few sips. His good friends called him Sake, he told them to, and he liked it. Hiro also smoked four cigarettes every night in his sitting room. He sat on the worn green couch and looked around the room. He drank his sake out of a tall clear glass and looked at objects and dates that marked his life. Sometimes he could hear his own mother or father, and recall his father sitting in the very same spot with sake and a cigarette, while his mother cleaned the kitchen after dinner and made onigiri for breakfast with leftover rice. Hiro liked to think of this room as a memory museum. A place where he could sit and know all of who he was, all of what had been.
He’d proposed to his wife in this room and his father had died in this room. He died sitting upright, his head leaned back against the wall, a smile on his face. It was such a rare thing, his father smiling, that Hiro wanted to remember him like that. Hiro was seventeen and not afraid of his dead father, who had not been well. His mother was in the bath after dinner and so Hiro found his camera and took pictures of his father, who rarely smiled for a photo, but there was his father, smiling, finally a happy man.
Haruka had been an avid photographer. His wife encouraged Haruka and gave her a manual Nikon with three lenses when she was twelve. Haruka documented the whole town of Hakusan, and Hiro remembered her following him around for what seemed like a year. A shu-click shu-click as common as the beat of crickets. Hiro was quiet with his daughter; they needed few words between them. He took copies of some of her photos: one of his wife in her yukata, one of their house from behind the rice fields, and one of her self-portraits in which she was in the forefront and he was in the background, not far away but unaware of the camera. He and Haruka looked in the same direction, toward the setting sun, dragonflies buzzing and diving above their heads.
Now, Haruka, her husband, Kodai, and their two children were coming for New Year’s. Hiro cleaned the house by wiping down the tatami mats with a damp cloth and straightening the kitchen and bathroom. Haruka did most of the cooking but he bought fresh ingredients for tempura, nabe, sushi, miso, and the traditional kagami-mochi for desert. They would arrive to Nagoya on the Shinkansen and then take the Limited Express train the hour and a half to Hakusan-cho. The children, two girls named Satsuki and Seina, were well-behaved and smart. They hoped for snow each year so they could play outside and build snow forts and snow animals like they had seen pictures of from the Sapporo Ice Festival in Hokkaido. Satsuki was ten and liked to make paper cranes. Seina was six and favored beetles.
It had snowed very little the winter before and so Hiro prayed for snow. He went to the onsen at 4 p.m., then he came home and smoked one cigarette in the back room in the quiet. At five o’clock he drove to the train station and waited for his family to arrive.
At 5:10 p.m. the bell rang as the Limited Express approached the platform. Hiro stepped out of his truck to greet Haruka, Kodai and his granddaughters. It was a clear night and the stars set in the sky above Hakusan-cho and a thumbnail moon tilted low over the station. Mist clung to the lips of the hills. Hiro saw little Seina first—short black hair and big eyes, the happiest child. Then Satsuki, a delicate and fragile child full of grace. They ran past the ticket-taker to grab and squeal at their grandfather.
“Ojisan, Ojisan,” they said.
He loved them. For the first time in months he smiled without faking it. When he looked up, Haruka stood in front of him and they bowed.
Hiro took them back to the house on small hilly roads. Seina and Satsuki whispered in the back about the dark night sky, the darkness of the country, and they pointed to stars.
“There are no stars in Yokohama,” Satsuki said.
“Yes, there are,” Haruka said. “They’re everywhere.”
“Well, you can’t see them at home,” Seina said. “They hide.”
“It’s easy to get lost in cities,” Hiro said. “Always bright and noisy and no space to see.”
“Yokohama is very nice, father, and nothing is lost but a few stars.”
Hiro shook his head. More was lost than stars. Was he the only one who thought so? Was he a pessimist or too nostalgic? Was he a sad, silly man feeling sorry for himself? He wished Haruka and her family could stay longer and that they could know each other in small, familiar, intimate ways again. He’d never paid attention to those things until she went away: evening tea, baths, having her ride in the car on errands, gardening. Of course children grow up, leave, and get busy with their own lives. He didn’t want children again. He wanted to know his daughter as an adult. He wanted to know how they were different and alike. He wanted to know what part of him was a part of her.
On New Year’s Eve day the children played in the falling snow. Their cheeks were blotchy and red, their eyes bright and shiny. The children had a bath, and they all ate nabe, sushi, tempura, drank hot sake and Sapporo beer. Haruka said she was tired. “We’ll be asleep before the temple bells ring in the new year,” she said.
“It’s tradition to go to the temple,” Hiro said.
“We’re not used to being outside and up late,” she said.
Hours passed. The house was quiet. Hiro watched people in other countries celebrating on the television—New York City, Rio de Janiero, Singapore. At seven minutes to midnight he heard the start of the temple bells in his own town. Haruka and her family slept and he didn’t wake them. He put on his coat, hat, gloves and boots and walked down under the bridge toward Sada Temple. There was another bell on the other side of town going off; deep, resonant gongs echoing in the night from the heavy, brass temple bells. It was lovely. He said aloud to himself, “It is almost 2005 and I will walk into it with my head held high.”
At Sada Temple children and their parents pulled back a large brass handle and pushed it to sound the bell. It was loud up close. He stood behind a hedge in the shadows and looked up at the sky. The snow had stopped and the bright thumbnail moon was high and white as bone. There was Orion, the Pleiades, the Big Dipper and so many planets and shining things above them. So much in this world.
He held his hands together in prayer against his chest and told himself everything he was grateful for. He was grateful for a new start, and for his house, and to go to sleep tonight under his down comforter after a hot bath. He was grateful for plum sake and plain sake, for hot and cold sake. He was grateful for Haruka, Kodai, Satsuki, and Seina. He was grateful to have loved.
He walked home on crunchy, icy roads. It was a windy night. Cold air blew into his house and rattled the windows. The wind whistled and rushed and whipped the laundry lines against the sliding glass door. His futon was hard, his back hurt, his shoulders hurt from laying on his side, his neck didn’t feel right when he tried to lie on his stomach. He thought about his teeth, his receding gums, the heart and lungs in his chest, the hair graying on the crown of his head, the wrinkles around his eyes and mouth. He feared the Tokai earthquake that Japan was waiting for. He wondered where he would go after he died, and then chastised himself for worrying and thinking such foolish thoughts. He laid on his futon on the floor and listened to the swirling night air trying to push through, knocking. He was wide awake at 2 a.m., 4 a.m., 6 a.m. He was aware of the thin walls and how little there was between him and the night world. He wanted company and he wanted to be taken care of and watched over. He wanted someone to love him.
Hiro Tanaguchi planted three varieties of tarot root in his garden in March—each got a long row of dirt, and sixty bulbs of each variety went into the ground. They sprouted shoots of bright green above the earth in April and shaped into leafy dark green spades in the summer months. They would be pulled out of the ground in October—an autumn food for roasting or eating in miso soup. Hiro walked into the woods where a tree stump grew shitake mushrooms from its side. He pulled off four, cooked them on his portable gas grill, and sprinkled soy sauce on top. He sat sipping green tea and eating mushrooms in the sun. He looked forward to dinnertime when he could drink sake and it would lull him into a sound sleep. If you could drink a lot, you were strong and healthy. Hiro was very strong when it came to drinking sake. He was in top form.
In April, Hiro put on his green knee-high rubber boots to plant rice in his field. By late April, the warm set in fast. The seasons were true in Hakusan-cho, but changed quickly from one to the next—from a cool fall day to a cold winter, from a warm spring evening to a humid swell of heat in the span of a night.
Outside, people rode bicycles, farmers tilled fields and planted food for fall harvests, futons aired on balconies, and the cherry blossoms were close to peaking and would soon sail off into the air and cover the ground like snow. After planting, Hiro went to a park where trees bloomed along a river. People sat on grassy banks eating sushi and bento and drinking sake. They sat under trees full of pink and purple and white flowers, and pink and red paper lanterns that lit up at dusk like glowing hearts in the night.
On May 9th, his seventy-second birthday, Hiro walked up the hill behind his house to the shrine. The dirt path was wide and wound up through bamboo trees and five-hundred-year-old cedars. The willowy bamboo trees created a lightness in the forest with their delicate, feather-like leaves and smooth, notched stalks. He could sleep in a place like this, and he thought maybe one day he should. Even though he was seventy-two, and he knew he was seventy-two, Hiro felt like he was fifty years old, maybe forty-five on good days, and with his fit body and young face, he didn’t look much over sixty. He had good health, strong legs, and taut skin for a man his age. He stood still in the path and looked around. No one else was there. He walked off the path, into the wood, knelt down, sat on the moist ground, and slowly lowered himself onto his back until he looked straight up along the bamboo stalks reaching high into the blue. “What a miracle. All of this,” he said, and laid his palms flat on the dirt and patted the earth.
When he rose, Hiro climbed the 400 steps to the temple. He wasn’t a religious man, but he lit an incense stick. He believed in something bigger than himself, but he didn’t know what to call it. He stuck the incense in the pot of sand, clapped his hands together and bowed, then waved the incense smoke toward the top of his head for the smoke to purify him.
When the heat came in late June it was humid and heavy. Hiro Tanaguchi’s house was old and the walls were packed mud and straw that kept pockets of the house cool, but the heat was still dense. Hiro kept a bowl of ice cubes and a towel on the floor next to his futon to cool his face and neck and wrists.
He woke in his room at 4 a.m. and lowered the baby bamboo rolls outside over the windows of the house for shade. He drank two cups of cold brown tea and ate onigiri with a sour plum in the middle, and a pear which he cut into cubes and ate with a toothpick. He sat on the tatami mat at his low dining table in front of a fan with the lights off. When he was done eating, he rinsed his hands in the kitchen sink and splashed his face with water. In the foyer he put on a wide-brimmed straw hat and slipped from his blue checkered slippers into his green rubber boots. In the car he slipped into his white canvas shoes and drove to his rice field, where, before getting out, he put on his green rubber boots again.
The sky was dark and had not yet begun to lighten. He waded through one row of rice, his boots sinking and sucking in the mud. He ran his hands along the tops of the green plants. The rice shifted and swayed in the wind. There were fields all around, and no noise but the shay-shaying of rice grasses, and the bullfrogs and cicadas and crickets still making their night noise, as if the whole town were one big organism with a pulse.
By the time Hiro walked the length of one row, trees and mountains and rooftops became dark silhouettes against the sky, and across the river to the left of Ieki Mountain there was a crack of light. A swarm of dragonflies hovered and glowed above like small flying angels. As a child Hiro was told dragonflies were ancestors come to check in every summer, so he treated them with respect—those beautiful creatures, so many of them, so many dead and gone from him. He stood in the middle of his rice field in the rising light of early morning. The sky was like the delicate paper of a shoji screen being torn, and behind it was sun and blue and clouds. Behind it was the world.