Over Mount Fuji – Chapter 8 –

April 19 —
Byron bent forward in the cramped seat to massage his legs.  After more than ten hours on the Japan Airlines’ A380 flight through the long night, his muscles ached.

Across the aisle, Wulfstein turned toward him as the morning light glittered through the horizon. “How are you feeling?”

“My hip’s bothering me a bit, but I’m okay.”

“You should have that looked at in Tokyo. You groaned earlier.”

Byron stood to stretch his legs. “The doctors said there’s no problem with my hip, but my ankle’s going to take a week or so to recover.”

Wulfstein frowned. “I’m worried your injury mayprevent you from joining our expedition.”

“I’ve lived through Rockdale—now, I can face anything.”

Byron paced back and forth along the aisle, gritting his teeth against the throbbing ache. His mind drifted back to that shattering nightmare at Rockdale and the many relatives that swarmed around his hospital bed. Flowers, flowers and more flowers; it brought him unexpected comfort from those he’d never been close to. Carol had come first, followed by his cousins’ families, all surrounding him with red-rimmed eyes. Much to his surprise, even Wulfstein had flown in and attended Simon’s funeral while Byron was hospitalized.

Byron’s thoughts returned to his surroundings when they arrived ahead of schedule at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport.

Jostling around, a crowd waited at the arrival gate. Two young ladies in kimonos stood in front of a group of men, holding placards that read ‘Professor Wilhelm Wulfstein and Byron Lambert. Welcome to Japan.’

From behind the ladies, a man in three-piece suit with deep facial lines stepped forward and spoke softly. “Welcome. I am Hiroshi Yoshino.” About the same size as Wulfstein,  the Sensei bowed low, radiating an aura of calm assurance.

Byron smiled. He knew that under Japan’s system, the honorable title of a Sensei came with immense responsibility. Already briefed that Professor Yoshino had been working under stress, Byron expected him to look troubled. But today the Sensei greeted them with a cheerful countenance.

Wulfstein returned the bow. “It must be at least seven years since we last met, Yoshino-san.”

“A long time,” Yoshino said, gesturing to another an stepping forward from behind him. “This is Mr. Nishihara, a renowned oceanographer and a co-pilot of deep-sea submersibles.”

“Pleased to meet you.” Nishihara bowed.

In his mid-forties, the oceanographer had a large, round face. His almond-shaped eyes beamed from behind gold-rimmed spectacles that sat slightly askew on a lumpy nose. As he extended his plump three-fingered hand, Wulfstein hesitated before shaking it. Byron had an uncanny feeling, though he couldn’t place it. Nishihara murmured, but his smile remained broad as he rubbed his hand on his trousers.

The Sensei pointed to one of the girls. “This is my daughter Nobuko, and her friend Asuko.”

Byron’s eyes fixed on the ladies—their cheerful smiles with rouged cheeks—neither of them looked more than twenty. But it was their kimonos that stunned him. Bright green obis wrapped their midriffs, tied by long sashes. Byron gazed at Nobuko’s gown, the embroidered dragon winding from the hem of the robe upward.

WULFSTEIN TURNED TO face Yoshino. “I am honored and appreciate your coming all the way here to meet us.”

“It’s my pleasure, Professor Wulfstein,” Yoshino said. “It’s a privilege to meet a genius.”

Wulfstein’s face turned red.

“I have good news,” Yoshino continued. “We’ve nominated you to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for the Crifford Prize.”

Wulfstein shook his head. Now, he realized Japan wasn’t a sanctuary for him; he would have to take himself to the edge of science at its battleground. Yet, he hesitated. “You can nominate me for anything, but I’m an outcast.”

“Great men are those who are eager to explore uncharted waters.” Yoshino retreated with another bow and ushered his guests toward two waiting cars.

Wulfstein stiffened, feeling he was heading into a slaughterhouse as the chauffeur directed him and Yoshino to sit in the back of his car and Nishihara in front. Byron and the rest were escorted to the second car.

Silence loomed for a minute while the cars sped off, but the Sensei turned anxious. When his cell phone rang, he spoke tête-à-tête with a sense of urgency.

Wulfstein wondered if the conversation had anything to do with his research affecting the archipelago. “Any news on whether the Sinking Syndrome has worsened?” he asked when Yoshino finished.

“No,” Yoshino said with a dejected look. “It’s just a call to confirm that Kaiiko and Ito Maru haven’t been found.”

Stunned, Wulfstein waited to hear more about the submersible and its mother ship.

“They disappeared while tracking changes on the seabed yesterday.”

“What were their last bearings?”

“Twenty-eight degrees North and a hundred thirty-six degrees East. That’s about six hundred miles southeast of Kyushu Island.”

Wulfstein tensed through the awkward silence. Just before taking off from the Los Angeles airport, EQ-Lun had recorded the blo-o-op sound make a U-turn to the north. That was where the disappearance occurred. The mystery had deepened, now widening his challenge.

The cars stopped and Wulfstein alighted in front of a single-story villa. Capped with a roof that curved upward at both ends, it exuded an ancient charm. A rush of excitement filled his heart. This would be his and Byron’s home for the duration of their stay.

“Magnificent!” Wulfstein said to Yoshino.

“The villa is named Sakura.”

Wulfstein bowed. “You’re honoring me with such a splendid accommodation.”

Along the sidewalk, large stones conveyed a weighty feeling, and low-lying plants provided a balance, making the garden serene and peaceful. Further away, maple trees radiated rich hues of russet, gold, yellow and carmine along the path. A yukimi-gata lantern, framed by a Japanese cypress and a camellia bush, enhanced the ambiance.

While Yoshino chatted with the rest of the entourage, Wulfstein strolled ahead. When he emerged between two  columns of the villa, an immense sea of pebbles appeared before him. On its northern side stood large irregular rocks, bold as sentinels, breaking the garden’s spaciousness.

With such tranquility, Wulfstein sensed something alive along the wavy stretch of raked sand and smaller strange-looking rocks and stones. “Is this a Zen garden?”

“This is a Seki Tei Garden,” Yoshino said. “The wavy field represents the ocean.”

Enthralled, Wulfstein visualized a waterless Pacific.

“According to art historian Yoshinaga,” Yoshino said, “such a garden attempts to represent the most profound essence of the ocean—by not having any water.”

Wulfstein studied the landscape, contemplating Japan’s unique philosophy. He turned to the right and marveled at the sculptured groupings of rocks and stones. “And what does that symbolize?”

“The tall cluster of rocks represents power and authority,” Yoshino said, gesturing. “It depicts a dragon. And the low-lying stones portray helpless men with their sinking ships in battle against the sea monster.”

Wulfstein nodded, pleased he could see that nature, manipulated as art, appeared more awesome than he could imagine the real thing. The towering rock and stone bastions, juxtaposed against waves of pebbles, resembled an impenetrable fortification for a mythical world of power, secrets, and mystery.

“Our art comes from ancient days,” Yoshino said, pointing. “Isolated rocks are used to symbolize warriors and

“You’re not only practicing the art of gardening,” Wulfstein said. “You’re practicing  philosophy to its limits.”

Yoshino smiled and led the visitors to another path.

After a short walk into a miniature nature reserve, they reached the edge of a cliff, and Wulfstein realized that Sakura sat on high ground. The land on the south side continued rising. The bluff provided a glittering view of the Pacific Ocean under the late afternoon sun.

Wulfstein turned to the southwest and gazed at lavender-red clouds. On the horizon, mauve-tinted snow covered the slopes of Mount Fuji against a setting sky, cloaking the ethereal scene with the unnatural clarity of a giant tapestry.

He stood still and inhaled, marveling at the subtle shifts of hue. The sacred volcano seemed to defy gravity and floated free in mid-heaven, causing his nerves to tingle. He relaxed, comforted by the boundless beauty of it all: the play of light, shade and illusion of indigo.

Focusing inward, Wulfstein closed his eyes. And when he opened them for another look, he felt as if he were riding on a beast over Mount Fuji. Images of his long-forgotten dream flooded back, colliding with the shimmering peak of the volcano that spun through his field of vision. He pressed two fingers against his eyes and massaged them, and the reflection of Mount Fuji came rushing back, so bright and powerful that, for a long moment, he couldn’t tell whether his sensations were real or imagined.

He shook his head, refocused and peered more closely at the clouds obscuring the mountain’s base. Suspended between heaven and earth, the perfect pyramid rose against a variety of pinkish orange, so luminescent that it seemed to pulse within his veins, prompting him to whisper, “Fujisan, Fujisan. Are you real or an illusion?”

As he recalled his recurring dream, a silent voice grew louder and more vivid, taking him back to a pivotal moment in his childhood: If you search for me, you’ll find me. He froze, realizing how it’d inspired his unquenchable curiosity in the quest for what it all meant. But when a spindrift of snow brushed his cheeks, he shivered.

Wulfstein rejoined the entourage and turned northward. Rows of Yoshino and Kwansan cherry trees displayed their tender white and pink blossoms.

BYRON SMILED AS Nobuko plucked two twigs from the cherry trees, strolled over and handed him one.

“Yoshino blossoms—” Nobuko said.

“Yoshino?” Byron asked, surprised.

“Indeed. This species of cherry tree honors our family name.”

Byron inhaled its scent.

“A person without moods is as unnatural as a world without seasons,” Asuko said. “Cherry blossoms teach us that suffering is inevitable.”

“We cherish flowers more than evergreens,” Nobuko said, “precisely because they do not last.”

Beautiful indeed, Byron thought as a warm tingling sensation pierced through him. The bewitching clarity of Nobuko’s eyes and a purity in her voice woke a feeling within him which had long been dormant, now warming up. “Very poetic,” he said.

“Your eyes are blue,” Asuko said. “They’re like the countless tears of an ocean.”

“And your hairs are brown, Byron,” Nobuko added, giggling between words, “like . . . like the decaying leaves of a tree.”

A sudden gale blew over the bluff. A hundred birds fluttered from nearby gardens and took to the air, interrupting their conversation. The blossoms scattered like snowflakes while some floated into the sky in waves. Dark clouds had covered the sky. Lost in the ebb and flow of the waves, the blossoms and birds disappeared into the horizon. And then nothing more stirred in the evening air.

“Look!” Nobuko pointed toward the southern coastline. All eyes turned skyward and watched a formation in the making.

Nishihara squinted. “These must be our entire Super Hornets!”

“A chrysanthemum!” Asuko cried as a thunderous roar filled the air.

Byron narrowed his eyes and squirmed at the fighter planes in formation; why a flower shape? It looked like the Air Force in battle, yet its peaceful flower-shaped formation belied its warlike nature. Each circle was overlapped by another. Sixteen circles. Sixteen petals? A total of eighteen circles, including two in the middle. It would take a monstrous task to create such a display.

The planes headed north as the noise receded. But still, his heart pounded. It was a most nonsensical way to boost self-confidence.

The planes disappeared and silence returned. Soon, accompanied by bloated clouds moving with gathering speed, strong winds started blowing, bending trees. Minutes later, the sky released several flashes of lightning. An eerie grayness spread, staining the sky black. Crackles of thunder echoed and reverberated. In the next instant, torrential rain fell, drenching everyone as they scrambled back to Sakura.

After handing out towels, the Sensei showed his guests around the villa. More small talk followed before Yoshino bade the Americans farewell.

Silence returned.

For the evening, Byron sat on an armchair in his room, lost in thought. His first encounter with a strange culture had been both exciting and condescending, yet he remained nervous on the doorstep of a mystifying nation. As darkness fell, he switched on the lights. A picture hung on the wall, depicting fishermen with spindly limbs fishing from rocky crags off a rough seacoast. He turned, and a stack of English language Lifestyle magazines in a corner bookshelf caught his attention. He took one out to browse, then another. A familiar face—Nobuko on the cover. He turned a page and read the lead article. It turned out she was a graduate in fine arts and accomplished in the art of writing haiku.

The article described her thus—

     Leaving the willow covered bank, she strolls through the flowers. Her approach startles the birds in the trees and around the court as her shadow falls across the veranda.

     Now vexed, her fairy sleeves flutter, giving off a heady fragrance of musk and orchid. With each rustle of her lotus garment, her jade pendants jingle.

     She slips in and out of the flowers, now radiant, and floats upon the lake as if on wings.

     Her flawless complexion is as pure and smooth as ice. Magnificent, her costume is of splendid design. Sweet of face, rare of fragrance, she ascends like a phoenix in flight.
Byron’s heart jumped while he read. He’d stayed away from women since Cindy, but this striking lady had his pulse pumping again. Those fairy sleeves, those cheeky gestures—like a phoenix in flight.

He ruffled his hair. And what are those decaying leaves?

With a surge of adrenalin, he paced around the room. Finally, he cut the page out, and pasted it on the wall in front
of his desk.

©) Joel Huan, author of Over Mount Fuji (available from Amazon and Barnes&Noble)

~ by Joel Huan on January 4, 2010.

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