A Day of No Regrets
A white light seeped through the shoji windows and into the room, along with the morning chill. Except for the futon he slept on and a teakwood desk, the pale, spacious room was empty. Hiroshi Matsumoto breathed in the grassy fragrance of the tatami mats, the sweet and stirring February air, his thoughts wandering to the cherry blossoms that would soon be poised like flakes of snow upon their branches. The trees that lined the streets of Yanaka would be in full bloom, and the labyrinth of narrow alleyways would swarm with tourists stopping to admire the Japanese quince, daffodils, and blue triplet lilies blossoming in flower boxes that crowded the teeming walkways. As boys, he and his brother Kenji had pushed single file past the old wood and stone houses to the park. Now, there were few of the old buildings left, long since having been replaced by brick and concrete ones. Despite the sharp edge of memories that stabbed him just below his rib cage, he still loved this season best, just as Aki always had — the doorway to spring with each morning gleaming with new possibilities.
Almost twenty years ago, his youthful agility had rekindled a national passion for sumo wrestling. In a country devastated by atomic bombs that flattened cities and scarred their spirit, Hiroshi’s speed and strength had helped to revive the pride of his nation with every victory. He had barely been able to contain the joy he felt as he climbed the ranks. Not until he found courage enough to touch with two fingers the nape of his wife Aki’s neck did any thrill ever match it.
Hiroshi pushed off his covers and stretched his body the full length of his extra-large futon, his muscular girth still impressive at his age. He had always valued strength and speed more than some other rikishi, sumo wrestlers who gained inordinate amounts of weight to dominate a match by their size. At thirty-seven, he was a good deal older and, at six feet one, over a hundred pounds lighter than the heaviest wrestlers, who weighed in at four hundred pounds. Hiroshi sat up and fingered the faint rise of a scar that ran along his hairline and ended at his right temple, then rubbed his belly and pushed his rough feet to the edge of the futon, his calluses a souvenir of barefoot practice on dirt and wooden floors. So many years, he thought, and he touched for luck the soles of his feet, first the left, then the right, as he did every morning. As Hiroshi heaved himself up from the futon and reached for his kimono, he felt again that first step onto the dohyo. The smooth, sacred clay surface of the elevated straw ring was a blessing after years of discipline, training, and rituals. The scratching of his bare feet on the tatami mats made a sad insect sound, not unlike the swish of salt thrown down on the ring to drive out the evil spirits.
Competition had been a strong and potent drug. Everyone and everything disappeared as soon as he entered the ring, as if his life were narrowed to that very moment in time and nothing else mattered. Nothing and everything. He wondered once more if it had all been worthwhile — the sacrifice of family, friends, and lovers for a sport. And only now, too late, could he see the cost of it all as Aki’s accusing stare flashed through his mind.
A sharp knock on the shoji door brought him out of his reverie. He quickly tightened the sash of his yukata kimono, and grunted permission to enter.
The door slid open. It was Haru, dressed in a dark blue padded kimono with a pattern of white cranes. It looked new, yet strangely familiar to him, as if Aki had once worn one similar to it. It was Haru who had first introduced him to her sister, a lifetime ago. Aki was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen — her clear, milky-white skin, the smooth, sharp curve of her chin, her hidden fragility. Haru’s movements were quick and sure, her dark eyes as intense and intelligent as they always were. Every morning, no matter the weather, she was out walking in the garden with his six-year-old daughter. And though Takara shared her mother’s classic beauty, he saw Haru’s strength emerging more and more in her each day.
Haru bowed. “We’ll be leaving for the stadium soon,” she said. “Kenji-san is coming for us after he picks up your obachan.”
He watched Haru’s poised figure and the same straight nose and thin, crescent-moon eyebrows that had also graced her sister, Aki. They would all be there at his retirement ceremony, his grandmother, brother, Haru, and Takara. “Hai,” he said, swallowing.
She moved across the room to slide open the shoji windows, admitting a cool breeze from the west. It filled the room with a sudden breath of promise. He cleared his throat but said nothing.
Instead, it was Haru who spoke, as she looked out at his acre of blossoming sakura trees. “A day of no regrets,” she said, as if reading his thoughts.
And suddenly, something tender and inconsolable gripped his chest, an entire life boiled down to these last hours. He rubbed his eyes and nodded, always amazed at her astuteness. “What do you see?” he asked.
Haru turned to him again. “Such beauty…” she began, without finishing her sentence.
When spring comes, this world once more calls to me-in what other world could I see such blossoms? - Fujiwara No Shunzei
A Child of Good Fortune
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, the 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?”
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 towards 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. Towards 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, lop-sided 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 for his master carving of Noh masks used in the theatre. 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.
Excerpted from THE STREET OF A THOUSAND BLOSSOMS © Copyright 2011 by Gail Tsukiyama. Reprinted with permission by St. Martin's Griffin. All rights reserved.
The Street of a Thousand Blossoms