For my father
I still remember that night at Okishi Ozawa, the way time seemed to ebb and flow with the light. I was a young man then, or at least, much younger than I am now, but I do not think the added years would have changed anything. Human compulsion knows no age, and in the face of an inhuman will, one can do nothing but feel the full force of their ineptitude. Nothing but wait, as the surroundings morph and merge around them. And as they sit there, unthinking, they slowly come to the realisation that this is the most enlightened they will ever be, that no words are necessary to describe their reality, and indeed, that no words can. After all, words have the power to make anything seem base.
This is a story of pride and shame. Of madness and repression. But ultimately, it is none of these. It is a story of an evening, of a hidden valley and of false winds. It is a story of two men, and two lives. Of human compulsion and an inhuman will. Above all, it is a story of autumn, and the beauty of falling leaves.
Perhaps I should start at the beginning. As a wise man once said, that is how most good stories go...
At the time I was a student at the University of Yamagata, completing my doctorate studies at the Department of Experimental Physics. I had a post secured in the laboratory for when I graduated, and had just moved in with Miyuki, my girlfriend of six years. Our apartment was much larger than any rooms I had rented before, ranging over the equivalent of twelve tatami mats, and even after cramming it to the brim with books, we still had enough space for two large rooms. In short, I felt more secure than ever before. The struggles of constantly competing in public examinations were over, and given that Miyuki had just been made lecturer in the Department of History, we could both settle down for the foreseeable future, and take the time to delve into our work. We could finally plan a family, and start feeling as though we were adults in more than just name.
It was in this state of mind that I met Takagaki, a first-year doctoral student in the same stream as me. He was tall and lean, and had the exceedingly irritating habit of constantly sniffing his nose, even when offered a perfectly clean handkerchief. His hair was unkempt, and the shirts he wore oversized for his shoulders, yet still short on his arms. All in all, he resembled a scarecrow, and kept an according number of friends. Miyuki took an instant dislike to him, and pestered me whenever I brought him home for tea. ‘I can’t stand it Dazai. There’s something about his eyes. He can’t look you in the face when you speak, and I can’t stand that. I just can’t.’ She would plead, but I would brush it aside as superstition. ‘He’s just shy,’ I would tell her, ‘he’ll warm up to us, you’ll see,’ avoiding the deprecating gaze that said it was precisely this which she wanted to avoid.
We first met at the inaugural ceremony of the new academic year, hosted in part to familiarise the new students with the community. Being relatively far from the centre, any student who lived in the university accommodation, as Takagaki did at the time, had little reason to visit the city during the week, and was essentially secluded from all external contact. As such, there were great efforts from the staff to foster a feeling of companionship, and make sure that everyone felt at ease. Having already been at the university for over six years, I knew the difficulties of entering into a new system. I took it upon myself to integrate with unfamiliar faces, exchanging greetings, snippets of advice regarding the city, and numerous running jokes prevalent across the faculties. One favourite was that the bus to the city was so empty on weekdays (since few had the time or reason to leave campus), that if the driver decided to give himself a day off, none would be the wiser.
We milled about like this for the better part of an hour, until Miyuki broke off to discuss some classes with her tutor. It was then that I noticed Takagaki, sitting alone in a corner, staring at an empty paper plate in his lap.
‘Dazai,’ I bowed in his direction, as he jumped up with a start.
‘T, Takagaki. A pleasure to meet you.’
‘Are you new here?’ I inquired, pulling up a chair beside him.
‘Y, Yes’ he stammered, looking back down at his plate, ‘I just entered the Experimental Physics programme for a doctorate, but I’m not exactly sure on my topic yet.’
‘That’s great,’ I beamed at him, ‘I’m finishing this year, but will probably stay on as a researcher after. Do you have any idea in what direction you want to focus?’
‘Radios.’ He answered. ‘I want to make smaller transistor chips. That way production costs will be reduced, and more people will be able to have their own devices…’
I smiled reassuringly, ‘I see. It sounds like an ambitious plan.’
We spoke like this for some time, expanding on our interests and dreams. It was only towards the end of the ceremony, when most people were starting to head home, and Miyuki was throwing impatient glances in my direction, that he started telling me about himself. He was an only child, just as I had been, growing up in a small village in Kyushu. Having completed his undergraduate studies, he decided he had spent long enough on the island, and applied for a scholarship to Yamagata, which he subsequently received. The interest in radios had developed when he was still a child, motivated primarily by his father who was a car mechanic and constantly tinkering with electronics. This, paired with the lack of other children in his village meant that Takagaki spent a large part of his childhood familiarising himself with switches and circuit boards, learning the intricacies of electrical systems.
It was a romantic story to be sure: the lone child without any company, striving to succeed when the odds were against him, and finally attaining a position of such merit. It was hard not to sympathise, and from then on, I slowly started to treat him as a younger brother. Every few days we would have lunch in the cafeteria, updating each other on our respective research, and discussing difficult problems. In many ways, it was over these lunches that I truly met Takagaki. The quiet, reclusive young man I had greeted at the party would now grow animated at the whiff of a challenge, his eyes shining with such a lustre it was hard not to share the excitement. Scribbling down ideas and rough calculations on work-pads, we would often find ourselves surrounded by colleagues settling down for an early dinner, while our lunch remained cold and untouched on our trays.
I was sure he was destined for greatness, that he was capable of truly innovative work, and it was perhaps this which shocked me when he first mentioned he was considering leaving. He had had enough of studying, he told me, and was ready to put his education to a more ‘practical’ use. It was the first time in a long while that he did not look me in the eyes as he spoke, and I felt a certain dread hidden behind his words. Of course, I did my best to convince him otherwise. To argue that the research he was doing was crucial for his development as a scientist, and that he would be much more prepared to tackle the corporate world, if he so wished, when his studies were completed. But Takagaki was resolute in his decision. ‘I have already found a job in Tokyo,’ he told me, ‘and I’ve told the dean that I’ll accept.’
I stared dumbfounded in response. ‘And you didn’t think to tell me earlier? To at least ask my opinion? Is this the sort of friends we are?’
‘I was certain you would disapprove… there was no need,’ he said, his voice barely audible.
‘Disapprove? You can do whatever you want with your life,’ I retorted angrily, ‘it’s not up to me to decide. What will you be doing anyway?’
‘I’m going to work for a battery producer, selling their devices to stores and investors.’
‘I see,’ I said icily, ‘I’m sure that will satisfy your creative desires.’
Takagaki appeared crestfallen with my reaction, but at the time I was too furious to reconsider. Perhaps if I had made an effort to reconcile, or at least avoided distancing myself so greatly, things would not have gone the way they did. Looking back with hindsight, I can’t help but feel that I was being selfish, that I was being overly resolute. But there was no way I could have known...
At the end of the year I graduated from my program, and Miyuki and I were engaged. I had not spoken to Takagaki for over six months, cramming his conciliatory letter from Tokyo at the back of my mail drawer, without deigning to reply. ‘Please trust me in that I did not wish to disrespect our friendship with my actions. Yours ever, Takagaki’ he had ended, but as I mentioned earlier, I was young and irascible then, and the grudges I held were hard to forget.
The next letter arrived while I was at the university, but I knew something was wrong from the moment I stepped foot home. Miyuki didn’t even greet me as I went to soak in the bath before dinner, and barely said a word as I helped her set the table. ‘Come on,’ I snapped out suddenly, irritated by the silence, ‘What’s wrong? Tell me.’ Miyuki instantly teared up, and I rushed to console her. ‘I’m sorry,’ I hushed, ‘I’ve had a long day.’
‘It’s not that,’ she sobbed in my shoulder, ‘It’s about Takagaki,’ and I felt my blood run cold.
‘What about him?’
‘There was a letter,’ she managed, between sobs, ‘from his parents…’
‘A letter? What letter?’
‘He, he killed himself Dazai… I’m so sorry…’ I stood there holding her, but my arms suddenly felt as though they were made from lead. I could no longer feel her skin upon mine. ‘I’m so sorry…’ she repeated, and I hushed her again. There was nothing to say.
Takagaki had spoken often and highly of me, his parents wrote, and was deeply saddened by our lack of contact after he went to Tokyo, although he had never told them precisely why we fell out. His father’s business had steadily declined the past few years, and his parents had found themselves in much greater debt than they could afford to repay. As such, the bank had given them a deadline before it would seize their house. Takagaki, shattered by the news, had promised to repay the money his father owed by the end of the year, and despite his parents’ objections had dropped out of university to find work. However, the company he joined crashed soon thereafter, and Takagaki was now without job. By the end of the year, he had yet to find employment, and his parents were scrounging for labour while living off friends. Blaming himself for what had happened, he wrote a letter asking for forgiveness, and gassed himself to death.
The funeral had been on the morning we received the letter, so I had been unable to attend, but I felt the obligation, at least to Takagaki, to send some consolation to his parents. I composed a long response expressing my respect and admiration for his determination, and reassured them as formally as I could that they were not in any way to blame for what he had done. After much consideration, I decided to remove the latter part, and wrote instead that Miyuki and I would always cherish the moments we had spent with him. How can one ask a parent to not blame themselves for the death of their child? With what right?
For the next few weeks I withdrew within myself completely, unable to focus on anything but work. I studied feverishly from early in the morning, and only returned home to eat dinner and fall to bed a weary wreck. I was trying to shield myself from reality, and while, for the time being, this distraction helped, I was also painfully aware that it could not last for much longer. It was with great relief, thus, that I found Miyuki had booked us a weekend retreat at an onsen in Ozawa, our first holiday in the past two years.
We took the train until Miyagi, and then boarded the country bus to Kurikoma, an old, rusty vehicle which shook and sputtered as it inched its way up the winding roads. As I rested my head against the window, Miyuki fast asleep on my shoulder, the valley splayed open before us. For a second, I thought the setting sun had painted the trees in its light.
The onsen was an old family-style inn: four-by-three tatami mat rooms separated by shoji, and a large wooden patio overlooking the garden. The nearest village was Hochikawa, a thirty-minute walk away, and had only two small taverns. We met the innkeeper, Takeru, as we entered through the garden, a kindly old man, whose gleaming eyes stood in sharp contrast against the rest of sunken and creased face. ‘You must be the new couple,’ he called out, smiling. ‘My wife Noriko is waiting for you inside.’ Bowing in thanks, we entered with our luggage, weary from the trip.
Noriko-san quickly took control of the situation. I add the honorific because even the memory of her is enough to instil the sense of control such wizened old women command. With the smile of a professional grandmother, she managed to greet us, lead us to our rooms, unfold our futon and give us towels for the springs, all without taking a single breath between her chatter. When we protested that there was no need for her to delay the dinner on account of our late arrival, she all but shooed us out of our room, telling us to take as much time as we needed. Grinning at each other, we decided to comply.
The onsen were situated right behind a crop of trees near the garden, looking across at the neighbouring mountains. Faint wisps of smoke could be seen rising from the distance, from what we assumed were the chimneys in Hochikawa. The water was wonderful, but after soaking for half an hour we remembered that Noriko-san was awaiting with our dinner, so we dried off hastily, and rushed back to our room. The meal was light and filling, a mixture of steamed vegetables and lightly grilled iwame trout, which we were proudly informed had been captured by Takeru that very morning.
We spent the rest of the evening gossiping, talking about Miyuki’s sister Azusa, who had gotten married the previous fall, and was already expecting a baby. She had confided in Miyuki that she hoped it was a girl, going as far as to visit a nearby shrine and pray in ceremonial kimono. Without of course informing her husband. In the end the baby was indeed a girl, but it seems the gods needed their recompense, for Azusa’s next three children were all boys. Miyuki and I both laughed at her irrational perseverance, silently taking comfort in the fact that we could discuss such topics so lightly. It gave us reassurance that we too would be in their place in the years to come.
It was the first time in weeks that thoughts of Takagaki had not plagued my mind, and as I sat there, laughing with Miyuki’s impersonation of Azusa’s prayers, I became aware that what had recently grown in a stultifying obsession, was now just another chapter of my past. His face was still clear in my mind’s eye: the fervour of his eyes when he got excited, the deflective embarrassment when he realised he had made a mistake... but the grasp his soul held over my heart had weakened, his voice no more than an echo. I leaned over and kissed Miyuki on the forehead. ‘What was that for?’ she laughed, stopping mid-impersonation. ‘It’s just been a long time since we’ve been this carefree,’ I replied, smiling back.
Neither of us could sleep after the meal, and after tossing around for an hour, we decided to don our yukata and take a walk outside to stretch our legs. The night-air was much clearer than in the city, and the stars pieced the sky with a strength I had not seen before. ‘There are so many of them,’ Miyuki whispered in wonder, and I nodded my assent. It was the first time I had felt their light overpower me.
We walked along the gravel path into the forest in silence, hearing only the crunch of stones under our feet, and the occasional gusts of the evening breeze, lightly tugging the yukata from our skin.
The path snaked along the peak of the mountain, marked every few hundred metres or so with wooden signs for hikers, ‘Turn right for Hochikawa’, ‘200m for peak Oroshi’, and so on. ‘Let’s go’ Miyuki pointing her finger at the last sign. ‘Noriko-san said the view is incredible from Oroshi.’ I agreed, and we took the turn on the left. The trees were growing sparser now, and their branches cast shadowy tendrils, swaying softly on the ground. As I focused on their curling and unfolding, I felt Miyuki freeze beside me, her grip tightening around my wrist. ‘What is it?’ I asked, surprised. ‘Look,’ she whispered, pointing at the outcrop in the distance, ‘There’s a man there…’ I squinted in the moonlight, and spotted a human-like figure sitting on top of a rock. ‘Who do you think it is?’ she said again, clearly unnerved. ‘Probably just some villager,’ I reassured her, having adopted a whisper myself. ‘There’s nothing to worry about, come on.’ And we set off again, albeit at a slower pace.
‘I think he’s a monk,’ Miyuki said, as we approached his figure. He was sat cross-legged on a large flat stone, his hands lying in his lap. Only his bald scalp was visible, gleaming in the moonlight, the rest of his body masked by the pitch black of his kimono. ‘Good evening,’ I greeted tentatively, ‘I hope we’re not disturbing you.’
The monk gave no reply, his head fixed ahead. I caught Miyuki’s eye and shrugged. As I was about to pose the question a second time, he bowed his head and spoke, his voice carrying deep and far, ‘Please, join me.’ He splayed his hand out to the left, and we settled down beside him, Miyuki taking care to position herself on the outer side. It was hard to discern his age from how he had spoken, but the gravity of his voice made it clear that at least he was much older than us.
I tried to focus on the view before me, but found myself unable to relax in the presence of a stranger, especially given it was on the peak of an unknown mountain, in the middle of the night. I cleared my voice nervously, trying to make some conversation, ‘I wasn’t aware there was a monastery nearby…’ and then trailed off into night. It was another tense minute before he finally spoke again.
‘We are a small order, at Izakaya-ji. We only have five monks residing.’
I tried to sneak another glance in his direction, but, given our proximity, it would have meant turning my whole head to the right, so I soon gave up my efforts. We had already disturbed his solitude, it seems, and I didn’t want to be any more intrusive. We sat like this in silence, our breaths slowly mingling with the dark, while the forest shifted below.
I was just about to enter into meditative trance, when the monk voice pulled me out of my thoughts. ‘Do you see that hill, down there in the distance?’ Miyuki and I followed his outstretched arm across the valley, to a dark mound at the opposite end. ‘Soseki Satoru first lived there… Do you know of the story?’ he continued, before we had time to reply. He chuckled when we said we hadn’t. ‘No, I suppose you wouldn’t have…’ he said, partly to himself. ‘The legend goes thus:’ and tilting his head up, he began.
‘There was once a young man called Satoru, who lived in the town of Miyagi, just as the Fujiwara family moved the capital to Heian. Friendless and destitute, he had no ties to his people, and so, one day, he decided to try his luck elsewhere. Packing all his belongings in a small sack, he set off from Miyagi, veering from the common roads, and finding shelter under shrubs and trees. He travelled for weeks on end, until he chanced upon this valley. He was taken by it instantly, the lush greenery, the wildlife and the rivers, the small havens of grass abundant in fertile soil. As far as he could tell, no man had set foot here before, and the whole kingdom was his to claim. Building a small hut from bamboo canes and timber, he started cultivating his own produce, and before long, had more than ever before to call his own.
But Satoru knew this could not last forever. That such unfallowed lands were bound to be discovered by others. And, surely enough, one day, Satoru spotted a large wagon of settlers approaching. Desperate to retain his hold over the valley, Satoru devised a devious story to tell the newcomers, warning them of the supposed perils ahead. ‘The valley is haunted,’ he told them, ‘haunted by spirits and ghosts. I have been stationed here by the previous inhabitants, to warn any travellers of the dangers that they face.’ Luckily for him, the settlers were superstitious people, and quickly heeded his advice.
After all, the last thing they needed alongside the hardships of building a new village were deathly omens and spirits hanging over their heads. Asking for guidance, Satoru led them on the road North, well past the valley and all it had to offer. Here, the settlers found adequate land, and soon set up their commune, thanking Satoru for his sage advice.
It was only on his return home, looking back over the land that was destined for him and him alone, that Satoru felt deep shame and remorse for his actions. ‘I have acted more selfishly than any man alive,’ he told himself, ‘depriving this paradise from other people,’ and sought divine guidance on how to atone. For a day and a night, he walked across the valley, taking no food, and drinking no water, until he reached the very peak we sit upon tonight. Collapsing from exhaustion, he cast his eyes on the land below, and as the beauty he beheld fed his weary body, so too did it ignite the guilt that had consumed him. ‘It is this,’ he decided, ‘that I must do to repent. Every night, I shall climb upon this mountain, and gaze down below, taking in all the sights that I stole.’ He lived like this for decades, reaching well into old age before a new group of settlers arrived. Satoru welcomed them with open arms, and soon divulged the secrets of his sins. The villagers embraced him, but decided the sins were not theirs to forgive. It was man’s greed which had been at the root of all this evil, they said, and it was man’s greed which ought to pay. With Satoru as head, they decided to erect a new temple, that of Izakaya-ji, and vowed to keep it filled for all eternity, with delegates coming out every evening, to stand vigil over the plentiful lands below.
Since then, there have always been monks in Izakaya, and since then, there has always been a delegate spending his nights on this peak, as retribution for the greed which led to this gift. Or so the legend goes…’ He finished softly, the rising winds carrying off his final words.
Miyuki and I kept our silence, unsure of how we could respond.
The air was growing colder, and as yet another gust billowed through our sleeves, the spell was broken, and we decided to leave the monk in peace. Bowing in gratitude, we wished him good fortune with his watch, and started on the path back to the inn. We walked side by side but did not touch, each lost in our own thoughts, and only spoke once we finally reached the room. ‘I hadn’t heard of the story before,’ Miyuki said, loosening her obi, ‘Just think of it… For over eight-hundred years, there’s been a man sitting on that peak, just watching. It’s eerie…’ I agreed.
I didn’t sleep much that night. My mind kept turning back to Satoru and Takagaki. Both seemed like figments of my imagination. How foolish we are, I thought, forcing punishment upon ourselves for the whims of fate. Guilt, shame and pride, all requiring servitude for absolution. And what servitude at that… Poor Takagaki, who died friendless in some room in Tokyo, choking on the gas of his own stove. And Soseki Sotaru, prostrating himself for the sake of nature, as though the heavens would care that some travellers had been waylaid. And all those centuries, those generations of monks, spent watching the forest. What form of punishment is that? For the innocent ascetic to indulge? How senseless fate can be…
I slept briefly and restlessly, but when I awoke, my head was clearer than before. Miyuki had already risen before me, her futon rolled neatly in the corner. I peeled away my covers and got dressed. It was past nine, and breakfast had already ended, but Noriko-san was kind enough to make another exception. Miyuki had just gone for a soak in the springs she informed me, and as soon as I finished my meal of rice and miso I went to join her. The rest of the day passed amicably enough, and before we knew it, we were both in bed again. This time there was no talk of going out, and the exhaustion of the previous night’s escapades hit me. I awoke at dawn, having slept a full and dreamless sleep, while Miyuki still rested beside me.
This time it was I who left the room first, and went out in the gardens. Stretching my legs to shake of the drowsiness, I greeted Takeru, who was tending to the flowers. After exchanging some small-talk on the weather, I decided to ask about the monk.
‘Takeru-san,’ I began, ‘on our first night we walked up to Oroshi, as your wife had suggested.’
‘I see,’ he smiled knowingly, ‘I assume you’d like to ask about the monk.’
I must have looked startled at his guess, because he let out a friendly chuckle, his cheeks pulled taut at their edges. ‘Don’t worry, all our guests ask the same thing when they run into him. I don’t know why he does it.’
‘Does what?’ I replied, confused.
‘Why, sit at the peak every night, giving out those ridiculous stories…’
‘You mean what he said about Soseki Satoru is not true?’
‘Oh, it was the Satoru one this time,’ the old man stroked his chin. ‘No, the man is deranged. People had settled in the valley well before the Heian period, when the monk claims Satoru arrived. And Izakaya-ji was founded by Azuchi Momoyama in the early fourteenth-century, long after this Satoru is supposed to have lived. It’s all documented inside the temple, and the founding date engraved upon stone.’
I felt completely lost, ‘So why does he lie then?’
‘I don’t know,’ the old man laughed again, ‘there is little reason in madness. He’s harmless, to be sure, but utterly mad. Didn’t you see his eyes?’
‘His eyes?’ I questioned, even more confused, ‘What’s wrong with them?’
‘Well, he doesn’t have any! He gouged them out when he was ten, and wouldn’t stop struggling until his parents took him to the temple. They thought a jikininki had inhabited him… it was a terrible thing. Everyone in the village was talking about it.’
I thanked Takeru for the information, and found myself walking back along the mountain path in a daze. The gravel crunched mutely under my feet, and before long, I was back at Oroshi. The distance seemed much shorter by daylight. I sat on the stone the monk had claimed two nights ago, and looked down at the valley. Only the soft howl of the wind could be heard, curving its way around the mountains. I recalled an old line from an anonymous Meiji-era poet, and recited under my breath: ‘The wind rises from the waving branches of the trees…’
I wondered what kind of tree Takagaki was… and what kind the monk. What about Satoru? Was he even a tree at all? As I stretched my arms behind me, and set off, back towards the inn, the first leaves of autumn lay strewn on the path ahead.