A small group of students had managed to quickly befriend the brand new president of the Shiga Dai study abroad program. Dr. Kennedy, having come from America, was a new neighbor in this town just like the students who had arrived with him for the spring semester. Thankful for the immediate connection with some of the students, he promised them a private tour of Kyoto- filled with history and cultural information along with the new sites and sounds of the ancient city. The first Saturday after their arrival, the group assembled early in the morning and rode their school-owned bicycles the almost mile long trip through the rice paddies to the Hikone JR train station.
It was a frightening experience for all of them, as the open gutters yawned dangerously close to the edge of the road where they pedaled. Every passing car was uncomfortably close, and the ditch was even closer. Overhead, the sky was gray with winter clouds bursting at the seams. The nearby lake Biwa generated its own weather patterns. A constant wind buffeted them, numbed their fingers and faces with its subzero chill, and threatened to push them into harms way. Geoff was very happy to arrive at the outskirts of the city-- the storm drains were blessedly covered there, although the cars came more frequently and with lesser patience for the cyclists than before.
They locked their bikes in the public bike parking lots, paid the fee and took their claim tickets. Finding their way back into the train station, they each took turns buying their tickets to Kyoto Eki. Geoff's two years of prior Japanese instruction felt limp and useless. His first trip to the local konbini (/cone - bee - nee/, Japanese for 'convenience store') earlier in the week had showed him that he wasn't even able to understand the person manning the till as his change was quickly counted out loud. "Roppyakunijugoenniokaeshimasu. Arigatou gozaimasu!" Useless. Thankfully, he never had to worry about being cheated for money, as most Japanese people wouldn't have ever thought of taking something that wasn't theirs, and besides that, the register almost always had a readout with the total on it.
The travellers now had their tickets, and they ran down the stairs to the platform just as the train pulled to a meticulously measured position at the platform. The doors all opened precisely at the demarcated locations as indicated on the platform, and the alighting passengers rushed out of the portals with such efficiency and grace, Goeff had the impression of a flock of birds as it takes off from a field. The students crowded around the door and haphazardly made their way into the front carriage, which was nearly empty.
"Why isn't anyone sitting up here?" Geoff asked Dr. Kennedy.
"Because, in a train crash, everyone in the first cabin usually dies," came his ominous reply.
"Are you serious??"
"Not really. That's the local lore, anyway. I obviously take no stock in it or I wouldn't have directed you here. It's nice to have the extra room though, isn't it?"
"You just rode your bike with me to the train station, Geoff. Are you telling me that this is making you nervous after that death trap?" Diana said with more than a little snark.
Ego bruised, Geoff sheepishly admitted to Diana and Dr. Kennedy that he hadn't travelled by train before coming to Japan.
"This is the about the best it gets," said Dr. Kennedy, sagely.
"You can set your watches by them. People whip out their keitai and call the train company with complaints if the trains arrive more than a minute or two late during rush hour."
"You're kidding," Geoff replied.
Outside the bamboo forest, the wind moaned and beat the trees about as a Summer storm began to make its way into the city. Claire had found a side path that ran away from the Fushimi Inari Taisha, her soul purified by an endless procession of thousands of vermilion wooden gates which lined the trails up the mountainside to the temple. The path had meandered for 100 paces before plunging into a ancient bamboo grove. Inside here, the wind's wrath was silenced. The air here moved slowly and little else gave any indication of the approaching storm.
Claire tried and failed to wrap her hands around a single stalk of bamboo- looking up, the pillars of bamboo bore the weight of a canopy of midnight high above her. The sun had several hours yet to go before giving up its fight with the clouds to go sleep behind the mountains, but in here, the world was bathed with perpetual twilight. Claire listened intently for sounds of monstrous creatures crashing through the bamboo forest. She was certain a great Jabberwock waited in the darkness to gobble up wandering tourists. Instead, all she heard was the distant melancholy call of the ugurisu, the Japanese Nightingale. A second time, from further away, the call filtered softly through the green bamboo leaves.
"The first time I heard the call of the ugurisu, I was frightened," said Geoff, appearing out of the darkness of the path in front of Claire, "its song was so foreign to me. A symbol of everything I didn't understand about Japan when I first arrived here."
"Did you make a wish when you lift the stone, Claire?"
"Yes. I wished you were here with me."
"You could have had eternal life in the Eastern Paradise. But you wished to see me instead? Stupid."
"You told me to come here to this temple, and you wouldn't tell me why," Claire pleaded, "It's all too beautiful to experience this by myself."
"I asked you to come here because this is where I felt I needed you the most. Not when I got lost in the city. Not when I broke up with Diana. I found this bamboo forest the first weekend I was in Japan, and I sat down on the ground alone, and I sobbed... I would never share this place with anyone I loved. My family and my friends were thousands of miles from here and I was alone. But, then I knew if I sent you to this temple, you would find me here. And you did."
Geoff turned around to leave. As he walked away from Claire, he turned his head to the side a final time,
"I wished on the stone too."
"What did you wish for?"
"For your happiness."