It was only in mid-February when Yoshihiro was finally able to walk without crutches.
His cast had been taken off more than two months ago, but the journey to recovery was still not complete. While his bones had healed well within six weeks, the tendons and ligaments around the site of injury had yet to heal and strengthen—this was why walking seemed very painful in previous weeks as well as the several weeks following cast removal. To aid their healing, Yoshihiro’s physician advised him to perform some simple exercises for short periods of time. Once he was comfortable with the pressure applied on his ankle, he could slowly begin walking with support and much later, without it.
Another reason to celebrate was that he had finally been awarded his Ph.D three days ago. The panel was very considerate of his recovery period and had allowed a rescheduling of his presentation. Things had gone quite smoothly and he had his wife to thank for that.
Presently, Yoshihiro was strolling in his neighbourhood park, with Masami beside him and Sakura a few yards ahead on her bicycle. Though they were bundled up against the cold winter air, it still managed to nip at every bit of exposed skin, such as their cheeks.
“You know, I’ve been thinking…” Yoshihiro said to his wife.
“About?” She looked at him after his voice trailed away.
“Ah, Shirakawa-go…isn’t it that dreamy winter wonderland we visited long ago?” Masami said, a wistful look in her eyes. “I’d love to go back.”
“Me too.” He paused for a long while, silence enveloping them, only interrupted by children babbling or birds chirping in the background.
“Hey, boy, aren’t you going to watch the fireworks with us?” Mr. Tadao had asked the night before he left.
“Sorry, Tadao-san. I don’t think I can make it tonight.”
“But this is the last one before you leave for the city!”
“I know, I know. It’s just…I have a lot of packing to do. I’ve got an early bus to catch tomorrow. And then a train too. Got to be prepared.”
“Well, if you must…I won’t force you. But you should know that you will be missing out on something extraordinary!”
“Yeah, I sure will miss the fireworks when I’m away.”
“No, silly—I meant my extra-special, limited edition Gohei Mochis! Only being served tonight!
“Really?” he’d crossed his arms playfully. “I’ve eaten every single type you’ve made so far. What’s so special about this one?”
“You’ll have to come and see!”
Yoshihiro chuckled softly. He watched the breath from his mouth form a white cloud in front of his face.
“Think of something funny?” asked an amused Masami, who was observing him all the while.
“Sort of,” he replied, not saying everything on his mind. Funny, yes—because I was in such a stupid rush that I never remembered to go and see him. Inhaling sharply, he realised it was time. “Are you up for a trip?“
“Mummy, look—we’re above the clouds!” Sakura was peering out of the window of their flight bound for Toyama, from where they would take a bus to the village.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Masami leaned in and smiled at the sight.
The journey seemed to last an eternity for Yoshihiro as he pictured all scenarios that could possibly play out when he set foot in Shirakawa-go—would he get to see his old friends? Or would they have moved away too? What would be his parents’ reactions? Would he be able to meet his favourite rice skewer vendor again? There was no definite answer to any of them.
Dusk was fast approaching as the family of three got off the bus which was mostly filled with local tourists. The wintry scene, decorated by strings of warm orange lights in each house’s garden, almost took their breath away. Yoshihiro smiled; it was as if time had stopped still here the moment he’d left for Tokyo nearly a decade ago. Its charm had not faded one bit.
“This is where I grew up, Sakura,” he said, kneeling down to tie one of her shoelaces that had come undone. “What do you think about it?”
The little girl’s eyes shone with wonder as she drank in her surroundings. She had never seen this much snow in one place before. “It’s so beautiful, Daddy! I wish I could play here all day! Then next time, I could bring my friends too…can I, Daddy?”
“Sure,” he said, standing up, “we can do that. But first, let’s meet your Grandma and Grandpa, OK?”
Yoshihiro’s memory was instantly refreshed as his feet retraced the paths he once used to take so often. As he walked through the fresh snow, he noticed a few old hand-painted shop signs replaced with new printed ones, and even some new stores altogether. However, he was most eager to visit only one of the shops that lay near his elementary school.
Just as he started up the path leading to his parents’ house, he heard a loud shout from ahead.
“Yoshihiro? No way!”
As the man neared, his features became more pronounced and Yoshihiro quickly recognised him to be one of his good friends from high school.
“Kenji!” he exclaimed, giving his classmate a quick hug.
“Never did I expect you out of all people to return to Shirakawa-go,” laughed Kenji, thumping Yoshihiro’s back.
“Well, here I am,” he replied.
“With your family too—lovely!” He greeted Masami and Sakura enthusiastically. “And guess what, I was just heading to your parents’ place. My son loves playing with your mother’s cat, so I left him there for a while…let’s head there together, shall we?”
Yoshihiro agreed, and the four of them walked to the front door, where Kenji politely called for Yoshihiro’s mother, a common way of announcing one’s entrance. Soon, a middle-aged woman appeared behind the door, a shawl draped across her shoulders. She gave a small gasp at the sight of the additional guests outside, then beamed.
“What a surprise!” she said, placing her palms on her cheeks. “Why didn’t you call before coming, son? I could’ve made arrangements for all three of you…”
“Mum, it’s alright, please don’t strain yourself. I’m sure it’ll be more than enough for us,” said Yoshihiro, taking her warm hands in his cold ones.
“Is everything alright?” she asked softly, assessing his facial expression as she used to do whenever he seemed worried as a young boy.
“I missed you and Dad,” he whispered, “Everything about home.”
She gently pulled him into her arms. “We’re always here for you, dear boy. Come whenever you like.”
“But…aren’t you upset I never came home all these years?”
His mother pulled away and looked him in the eye. “I’m aware of the nature of your work and Masami’s too…I know it’s not easy keeping pace with a bustling city like Tokyo. So, as much as I would’ve loved for you to be with us, I know it’s not always possible. What matters is you’re here now, and I’m happy with that.”
Yoshihiro smiled. “I’ll make sure we visit you more often, Mum. And now that I’ve got my Ph.D, I think I can spare at least a week to celebrate.”
Upon hearing this, she laughed joyfully, Kenji congratulating him on the side. Then she ushered them all inside, saying, “Let’s get you all warmed up for a good meal. Come on, come on…oh, how tall you’ve grown already, Sakura!”
After spending a relaxing few hours eating, talking and playing board games in his old home, Yoshihiro decided to take a walk; Masami and Sakura joined him.
“Where are we going?” his wife inquired, pushing a lock of hair out of her eyes.
“A place I frequently used to visit,” he said. “It sells very tasty Gohei Mochis.” He took a familiar shortcut, leading them in the direction of the comforting fragrance of Mr Tadao’s shop.
“Hmm, sounds exciting. I don’t think I’ve ever had one of those before.”
When they got there, Yoshihiro stole a few looks into the shop; there was no sign of the shopkeeper. He heard Masami step back to call for Sakura, who was busy petting a cat by the road. Just then, a gust of wind blew their way, causing the wind chimes suspended from the awning to tinkle. He turned his face upwards to look at it. It seemed new, judging from the sheen. But there was something else tethered to it…
My origami fox.
He recognised it instantly because he saw his name scrawled onto its orange tail. He’d totally forgotten about it. Though the paper’s colour had dulled over time, he was astonished by how it had managed to retain its structure. Even the eyes and nose he’d drawn with a black marker had somehow survived.
“Hello, what would you like to have?”
The sound of shuffling feet from inside caused Yoshihiro’s gaze to quickly shift back. His heart was filled to the brim with happiness as soon as Mr Tadao’s form came into view; he hadn’t changed too much, except for the lines of age on his face and a slight hunch in his back.
“I’ll have the usual, Tadao-san,” he said, his voice quivering slightly.
The old man stood still for a moment, taking in what he’d just heard and seen. Laughing heartily, he said, “Indeed, the usual. Coming right up, dear boy of mine.”
With her hands resting on her daughter’s shoulders, Masami watched as the two men talked, their faces shining. It was a reunion of sorts, she could tell. She was happy to see her husband so lively and happy, much like the person she had first met at university.
“Come, little one,” Mr Tadao invited Sakura. “Won’t you try some?”
Sakura looked at her mother timidly, the latter nodding with an encouraging smile, before graciously accepting a skewer from him.
“This is my wife, Masami. I met her at university,” said Yoshihiro. He beckoned her over by extending an arm. Masami hesitated; did he really want her to be a part of something so private? As though sensing her doubt, Yoshihiro gave a subtle nod. So she obliged.
“My, now I know where your daughter’s beauty comes from!” remarked Mr Tadao, making Masami blush. “Here, eat up, young lady. You must be hungry after all that travel.”
They spent a few minutes chatting before a sudden high-pitched whistle and crack in the distance caught their attention.
“Oh, in all this excitement I forgot about the fireworks!” exclaimed Mr Tadao. “Come, come, you mustn’t miss it.”
He wiped his hands on a towel and made his way around the counter. “Look there,” he said, pointing directly upwards, where they were greeted with a fantastic display of the village’s distinct snow fireworks. The dark sky formed the perfect canvas for the streaks of coloured light that morphed in and out of beautiful patterns. More people soon gathered to feast on this sight, some holding umbrellas as a light snowfall had started again. Among them were Yoshihiro’s parents, who joined him at Mr Tadao’s shop a few minutes later.
In this moment, Yoshihiro felt complete. It felt as though he’d come full circle, the fireworks somehow playing a silent role in it all. But suddenly, he was reminded of a question whose answer he’d always wanted to know.
“Tadao-san,” he turned around and said, raising his voice so that he could be heard over the din. “What’s that special edition Gohei-Mochi you once told me about?”
The old man smiled, the skin near his eyes wrinkling. “It’s all the same, boy, except for one extra ingredient,” he replied.
He paused for a few seconds, seeming to search his memory for the right word. “Love. Hope. Everything I could fit in it before you were on your way the next morning.”
Yoshihiro nodded slowly, looking up at the illuminated sky. He wasn’t sure if he was tearing up because of the bright lights. But he was sure that he did owe Mr Tadao this.
“Sorry and thank you for everything, Tadao-san,” he said loud enough so only they could hear and wrapped his arms around the shopkeeper’s frail shoulders.
Mr Tadao patted his back. “Well, who says I can’t make them again, eh?”
Somehow, this skewer tasted extra magical now that he knew what was in it. And just like that, he felt once more like that six-year-old boy on a hot summer day, in his beloved Shirakawa-go.
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