Fiction Fridays is a new online series from Stone Bridge Press devoted to bringing readers short stories from and about Japan. This piece is from Ophelia Leong and tells a story of self-discovery and an American woman's unexpected spiritual connection with nature amidst the mountains of Japan.
The Mountains of Minoh
The mountains of Minoh were covered in a thick bottle-green carpet of trees. The air was humid and fuzzy against Melissa’s skin, like wet cotton balls.Clouds rolled over the sky and she wondered if it was going to rain before they reached the temple.
“There are monkeys in these mountains,” Satoshi said as he drove, dewdrops of sweat collecting on his wide forehead. He was a coworker who taught music at the international school where Melissa had gotten a job. With his infectious grin and adventurous spirit, he had so far proven to be the gentlest of guides, easing her into a world so vastly different from the one she was accustomed to in California. After she had graduated college in the spring, she’d felt disconnected from herself and the life she’d known for four years, so she’d decided to take up a teaching post in Osaka at an international school. She’d studied Japanese in high school and was now immersing herself in a culture that fascinated her.
Melissa raised an eyebrow; she was surprised at his words. She’d never thought she would be so close to monkeys during her time in Japan. Hoping for a glimpse of a curling tail or shining eyes, she tried looking past the wall of trees. However, none appeared and they were quickly approaching the temple.
Katsuo-ji Temple was hidden past a grove of trees and when they drove up it unfurled before them like a silken fan. As they stepped out of the car, Melissa could hear droplets of water falling into the fountains like the chiming notes of Ravel’s “Jeaux D’eau.” Satoshi led her into the temple grounds and Melissa marveled at the hundreds of red, circular Daruma dolls burrowed into stone lanterns or nestled in trees.
“These are so charming,” Melissa said, reaching out to finger a little Daruma, it’s coal-black eyes staring ahead.
“They represent goals and, what’s that word, perseverance? You color in one eye when you have a goal, and then once that goal is completed, you color in the other one.”
“This temple is for ‘winner’s luck,’” Satoshi continued, pointing out the many wooden prayer boards covered in handwritten Japanese characters hanging together just down the tree-lined path. “People come here to pray for good exam scores or work promotions – you know, stuff like that. What would you pray for?”
He grinned as he asked that last part and Melissa liked the way he smiled, teeth bright and acorn-brown eyes merry. She didn’t answer, but had an idea.
They moved through the temple like two koi fish swimming languidly in a pond, losing themselves amongst the vibrant flowers, bushes, and plentiful Daruma dolls. Tall orange gates sheltered them along the paths and guided them through until they reached the gift shop.
After purchasing a few souvenirs, Melissa and Satoshi started walking back towards the car when Melissa noticed a heavily wooded path across the street leading up into the mountain.
“Where does that lead?” she asked, feeling a pull deep within her. Steep stone steps led up into the mountain and the trees were so high and bunched together that they formed a canopy overhead, shutting out the white, whipped cream sky.
“I’m not sure. I’ve never walked up there before,” Satoshi answered, peering curiously at the path.
Before she knew what she was doing, Melissa was across the street, walking up those steps, still holding the bags of souvenirs. The sounds of the temple behind her faded. Now all she could hear was the crinkling of crisp leaves underfoot and the sighing of branches above as they moved against one another in the faint breeze.
“Are you okay, Satoshi-san?” she called out to him, turning to make sure he was behind her. He grinned and waved, and Melissa smiled. She stopped and decided to wait for him, hoping he would catch up to her soon. She was beginning to really enjoy his company.
Just then, a movement up in a high tree, like the ruffling of a bird’s feathers before it takes flight, caught her eye. Wonder unfolded within her as feral eyes peered down and a toothy monkey grin prompted her own lips to stretch and grin back. Then, the monkey was gone in a wave of branches and Melissa realized that the world was a much larger and wonderful place than she’d ever thought before.
Ophelia Leong is a wife and mother who loves to write and Irish Dance in her spare time. She has been published by Mothers Always Write, Mamalode, Tribe Magazine, Vine Leaves Literary Magazine, Allegro Poetry, Beyond Science Fiction, Unbroken Journal, Eunoia Review, and others. She recently won Mothers Always Write’s 2015 Holiday Poetry Contest with her poem “Christmas With Little Ones.” Follow her on Twitter @OpheliaLeong and check out her blog ophelialeong.blogspot.com .
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