Zack Hara is dead inside, devoid of passion, hate, love, any sustained emotion. Twenty-something technical writer trudges through each day in LA like a zombie, until he leaves his job, part-time lover, and antique Chevy pickup truck to travel to Japan. There, searching for an emotional life, Zack becomes entwined with a tragic poet, a sensual but disillusioned woman, and young people who form suicide clubs — all propelling him down a dangerous path.
When spring arrives in Japan, Kumiko invites me to a traditional cherry blossom viewing party. She is one of the Japanese instructors at the English conversation school where I picked up a part-time gig after traveling around Japan for a couple of months checking out the scenery and brushing up my Japanese. I first learned a little of the language from my grandfather — counting to ten, names of plants, and some useful phrases like “Choke down the carburetor a little.” When I needed a foreign language to satisfy a BA requirement, I studied Japanese all the way through advanced levels. After graduation, I surprised my grandfather with a conversation in his first language. He laughed at my formal diction and pronunciation. “Tokyo Japanese” he called it. As it turned out, he spoke a rough provincial dialect. Still I could tell he was impressed. None of his three sons and one daughter speak any Japanese, formal or not.
My teaching gig is undocumented as I don’t have a proper work visa. I get paid under the table. Literally. The school owner slips me cash in an unmarked envelope under his desk. Ironic, isn’t it?
So I accepted Kumiko’s invitation, had to really, although I look on any planned event sponsored by our school with a lack of eagerness. Not because I’m antisocial; it’s just that these gatherings are scripted to the minute. Our end-of-term party was an odd mix of games, stand-up comedy, and sing-along Beatles tunes, all choreographed by a professional host.
Kumiko meets me at the train station in Numazu, where I found my job and an apartment. Numazu, famous for its horse mackerel, is a smallish city on the Izu Peninsula, in the shadow of Mt. Fuji and on Suruga Bay. Kumiko is twenty-six and lived in Southern California for three years after college. She speaks fluent English with only a trace of an accent. She’s dressed in a kimono for the occasion. It looks good on her although she shifts and adjusts it every few moments as we ride to Mishima, a town only a few minutes away.
“Do you have a girlfriend?” she asks me.
“Here or back home?”
“Either.” She adds with a laugh, “Both?”
“Kind of one in LA.”
Carine and I keep in touch with a weekly email, a monthly call. I guess she’s still a girlfriend. “It’s a long story. We’re mostly just friends.”
“No girlfriend here?”
I sigh and shake my head in an exaggerated show of disappointment. “How about you? Do you have a boyfriend here or there?”
“I had a boyfriend in LA, of course. But I was only staying for three years so I couldn’t fall in love with him.”
I wasn’t sure I heard that right. Couldn’t fall in love? “Why is that?”
“I wanted to go to California, it was my dream. My mother gave me the money to stay there for three years if I promised to come home after that.”
“I mean how could you stop yourself from falling in love with your boyfriend? Don’t you either fall in love or you don’t?”
With a shrug she says, “You tell yourself not to fall in love.”
“Could you also tell yourself to fall in love with someone?”
“I’ve never tried but I suppose you could.”
We pass a small rice paddy. A man wrestles a power machine and two women bending at the waist push seedlings in the watery soil.
I ask Kumiko, “Have you ever been to the Aokigahara Forest?”
Concern crosses her face. “Why do you want to know about Aokigahara?”
“I’ve heard it’s an interesting place.”
“Every year like fifty or sixty people come from all over Japan to kill themselves in Aokigahara.”
Kumiko bites her lower lip. “There’s a famous book, a mystery, about two lovers who committed suicide there. You don’t want to go there. People get lost very easily. Many are found dead.”
Kumiko and I get out at the Mishima station and walk toward the large, old shrine named Mishima Taisha, the town’s main attraction. At the shrine a row of fully blossomed cherry trees runs along the perimeter of the grounds. When I stop and stare at the eruption of soft white blossoms, Kumiko says, “Pretty.” She tugs on my sleeve and we hurry away. Apparently, we aren’t supposed to be looking at the blossoms yet.
A hundred or more people mill around the shrine. Those closest to the shrine ring clusters of clunky bells by pulling on thick, braided cords. After summoning the gods, the bell ringers clap their hands together three times, bow in silent prayer, then toss coins into the collection box. Kumiko finds an open spot and performs the ritual. I hang back until she finishes, then I step up to the bells and copy the ringing, praying, and tossing. My prayer is for an unstructured afternoon.
Kumiko leads me back across the grounds to the cherry trees where several knots of blossom viewers are claiming space. Mr. Kono, a middle manager whose hobbies are golf and playing violin (Conversational English Lesson 1: What is Your Hobby?), waves us over. He tells me that he arrived in the early morning to save our group a spot, delimited with a grass-green plastic tarp. When he was a junior employee, his boss sent him out to reserve a good spot for their flower-viewing parties. He was good at it, he let me know, although he believes in the Japanese saying: hana yori dango. He laughs after he translates: “I’d rather eat lunch than view flowers.”
And eat lunch we do, from lacquered boxes neatly packed with raw fish, grilled fish, barbecued chicken, pickled vegetables, and rice sprinkled with black sesame seeds. We drink fizzy lemon soda, chilled sake, and cold beer. We sing songs and, to the titters of the rest of us, Mr. Kono and another student perform a traditional dance with symbolic hand movements that resembles a hula but without the aloha.
During the time we eat and entertain ourselves, no one comments on the cherry blossoms. No one even looks at them, at least not that I notice. Perhaps Mr. Kono’s saying is true to a fault.
The cherry blossom viewing party lasts until dusk when, without a word of warning, everyone gets up and puts away the picnic supplies. Our departure seems timed, although I hadn’t seen anyone look at a watch or heard anyone ask the time. We walk a few blocks to our “second party,” a dinner at a local seafood restaurant where we eat crab and other shellfish and drink more beer and chilled sake. Exactly an hour and a half later, we get up and walk a block to our “third party” at a karaoke bar. I am coerced into singing an off-key version of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” We sing and dance and drink for exactly an hour when we bow at each other, say good-byes, then disperse for the night.
A breeze picks up and swirls around Kumiko and me as we walk through the streets. She wobbles in her tightly wrapped kimono. I wobble too but from the combination of alcoholic beverages. We take a shortcut to the station through the grounds of the shrine. When we reach the middle of the cherry trees, the breeze becomes a wind.
A few of the delicate cherry blossoms float around us; I catch a couple of petals on my palm and show them to Kumiko. She smiles appreciatively, almost in wonder, as if it’s the first time she’s seen cherry blossoms. The wind gusts and the limbs of the cherry trees dance in fury. We are in a blizzard of pinkish-white blossoms. She looks at me wide-eyed through the fragrant snowflakes and cries out, “Wow!”
In only a few moments, the blossoms are torn from the trees and scattered across the grounds of the shrine. Kumiko grabs my hand and we walk to the station, stepping on blossoms already wilting.