It’s 6:50 a.m. when Kasper, Himari, and I step off the plane into Kansai International Airport. My carry-on, a grey messenger bag, bounces against my hip as Himari leads us towards the baggage claim.
A buzzing energy electrifies my body in a surge of adrenaline. The atmosphere is chaotic and everything moves past so quickly— adults in on business, screaming children, muddled conversations I can’t understand, the occasional pet yapping. I look to Kasper, wide-eyed. He smiles at me and laughs.
Himari Ametsuchi is Kasper’s girlfriend of three an a half years. She’s soft-spoken, polite, and dainty. Her hair is long, dark, straight, and beautiful. She’s kind— acting more like my mother than a friend or a sister. I don’t mind. My mother isn’t around much anyways— neither is my dad, for that matter.
“We’re here,” I say in disbelief, taking my duffel bag from the carousel.
“We’re here,” Kasper affirms with a bright smile, grabbing both his and Himari’s bags off of the conveyor. He hands Himari her bag. He shifts his grip on his bag to hold her hand.
I can’t stop smiling. Giggles bubble from my lips as we walk through the airport. I feel almost like crying or melting into a puddle of joy. I’ve been dreaming about today since I was six.
A seed of anxiety plants itself in the pit of my stomach.
In the hour and a half it takes to get to the onsen by taxi, we pass by busy, traffic-ridden streets and concrete jungles dotted with trees. Restlessness has already sprouted. Its rooted itself into my bones, tightening its hold on me. Kasper’s incessant drumming of his fingers against his leg calls Okami to water it. To help the cursed plant grow. He’s chewing on his lip as he stares out the window. Himari is sitting up front, in the passenger seat. She’s having a polite conversation with the driver in rapid-fire Japanese— nothing my very limited knowledge can comprehend.
“You okay?” I ask, looking concerned. His anxiety is rolling off him in waves.
“Yeah, just nervous I guess. You?” He shrugs, pursing his lips and turning back to the window.
“Does this have anything to do with,” I ask, jerking my head towards an oblivious Himari. Kasper hesitates, glancing at me.
Halfway through the ride the trees outside the window rapidly increase in number. Fog rolls off the hills surrounding the taxi, concealing the view. I catch glimpses of what looks like pink. It’s hard to know for sure. The sun had risen not too long ago, two hours at most.
The plant has sprouted small vines that stealthily work their way around my thumping heart. My hands won’t stop shaking. I want everything to be perfect.
Once we’ve checked into the onsen, Himari and I head to the hot springs for a much-needed steep. I sigh, easing myself into the warm water, steam billowing from the surface. Shivers jolt up my spine. Himari watches me, a smug smile on her face. I raise an eyebrow. “What is it?”
Himari bursts into giggles. I feel more confused than before. “What’s so funny?” I ask.
Himari shakes her head, still smiling. “You’re so adorable,” she says. “You look just like a little kid in a candy store— excited to try everything.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nani mo. It’s nothing.” she says dismissively waving her hand.
We enjoy another long period of silence before I say anything.
“Hey, Himari?” I ask.
“Are you nervous? About seeing your parents and sister, I mean?” I look down at the surface of the water. It ripples as I exhale.
“Of course! Why?”
“I dunno. Just Wondering, I guess.”
I pause again, pondering my next question. “Do you love my brother?”
Himari stops midway through splashing her face. She looks surprised. “Yes, I love Kasper. Why wouldn’t I? Is something wrong?” she asks, eyebrows knitting together. I shake my head, smiling a little.
Himari and I walk back to our room to change. Hot pink tights, a pencil skirt with a blue and olive zig-zag pattern, a sleeveless fuchsia top with rectangular designs around the neckline that I tuck into the skirt, and electric blue high-tops. A baby pink haori with a butterfly pattern— a birthday present from Kasper and Himari— finishes off the look. My wavy, dark brown hair is tied up into an intricate bun— the work of Himari.
Himari is dressed in a pretty sky blue yukata with blossom print and her hair is decorated with a beautiful hair accessory from Tsubaki, her sister. Kasper pokes his head into the bathroom as Himari pins the last few strands of my hair into place, stepping away to look at her work.
“Ready?” he asks, hopeful but nervous. I sigh, looking at myself in the mirror, then at him.
“As I’ll ever be,” I reply.
“Wait!” Himari says, grabbing my wrist as I’m about to leave the room. “I forgot to add the final touch.” She takes the accessory out of her hair and clips it into mine.
“Himari! You don’t have to do that.” I say. Himari shakes her head.
“No, I want you to wear it,” she says, smiling. “Today is all about you since this is your birthday present.”
As Himari and I leave, Kasper stops and grabs something before sliding the door shut behind him and following us out the onsen’s front doors and into the sunlight.
A sakura tree in the front parking lot dots the asphalt with pink petals, swaying in the breeze as I walk by. It looks as if it were saying, “Dewamata!” “See you later!” It looks almost happy to see us.
The vines are inching closer towards my throat after managing to finally have a hold on my heart. They’re begging to strangle and smother me, wanting me to wither away like a flower when weeds take its sun. It has started budding. Its panic wants to bloom.
Kasper and Himari decide against catching another taxi, as traffic was sure to be a nightmare. Instead, we opt to take the scenic route-- a twenty-minute try up Mount Yoshinoyama. Himari informs Kasper and I that her family is going to grab a picnic spot and wait for our arrival.
“I’m scared," I say, loud enough for Kasper and Himari to hear. We’ve only been walking for a few minutes, but I feel out of breath. It’s hard to tell if it’s nerves or because I’m worried about Kasper.
“Why would you be scared? This is what you’ve always wanted.” Kasper’s eyebrows scrunch together.
“I’ve looked at pictures online and seen videos and read endless articles about other’s hanami experience. What to do. What no to do. What if it isn’t what I’d imagined it’d be? What if it’s raining and muddy and awful? What if…What if—” I stop, gripping the strap of my bag and chewing on my bottom lip.
“—it's even better than anything you could’ve ever thought up?” Himari asks, her eyes soft. She’s trying to make me feel better even though she’s anxious to see her family again. I feel a little guilty for keeping Kasper’s reason for this trip a secret, aside from it being my birthday gift from the two of them. I smile weakly and shrug.
Our conversation seems to hinder the plant’s growth— allowing for a seed of hope to be planted. A few of the buds along the vines have begun to bloom. The rest will follow soon.
After a while, we come upon a few stores and restaurants selling hanami everything. The seed of hope has sprouted, but its struggling to see the sun. The vines have stopped creeping towards my throat, but just for a moment.
“You want to get something to bring to the picnic?” Kasper asks.
“Sure, why not?” I say, pausing to look around at the different shops before looking to Himari. “Where should we start?”
Himari thinks for a moment. “Let’s start there.” Kasper smiles as she points to a shop selling sakura-themed food.
We go to a few other stores and stalls, leaving the last shop, having bought everything that we’ll need for our picnic: hanami bento, hanami dango, strawberries, hanami-zake, onigiri, among other things. All are traditional foods at a hanami picnic, their color’s with a sakura theme.
Kasper stares longingly at the takoyaki stand as we’re about to continue walking.
“It’s okay Kasper, go get some takoyaki.” I say, sighing.
“Huh? No, I’ll be fine, we’d better get going.” I cross my arms over my chest and roll my eyes, grabbing Kasper’s wrist and dragging him towards the takoyaki stand, Himari close behind— giggling.
When we get to the stand, Himari orders while I curse my limited Japanese and watch as the cooks turn the cooking octopus-filled snack. The man Himari was ordering from hands him a pack of half a dozen of the spherical food. Himari thanks the man, coming over to stand next to Kasper and I.
“Smells delicious,” I say and Kasper nods. Himari places the fresh and warm takoyaki in my bag. We continue our walk up the mountain. Most of the buds on the vines have bloomed now.
The view is still partially masked by the billowing steam from the hills, but it's easier to see now. Himari guides us onto a narrow dirt path surrounded by a dense forest of trees that seem only to turn pinker the farther we go down the path.
“Do you think we’ll find our reserved spot?” Kasper asks.
The vines tremble, feeling threatened by the tiny flower of hope beginning to bud. It snakes around my neck with urgency. The anxiety is choking me. I feel my heartbeat thumping loudly in my ears— drowning out all the noises around me.
“Are you still nervous?” I ask Kasper with mild concern.
He nods, chewing his bottom lip.
“I’m so scared that it’s hard to think. It’s hard to breathe.” he says, voice quiet. I nod in understanding.
“It’s okay.,” I say, “everything’s going to be fine.”
We make the rest of the journey in relative silence with Himari occasionally pointing out how this sakura was of the Somei Yoshino variety or that tree was a Kawazu-zakura variety.
All the buds along the vine have bloomed now. Their flowers are an angry red color. The seed of hope that had sprouted at the street-side shops had gained a friend, though it’s just barely alive.
“We’re almost there.” I say, pointing at the thickening pink trees ahead of us. Kasper swallows audibly.
The seed of hope has suddenly started to open. The vines are furious, gripping my throat tighter and tighter. I want to claw at my neck and scream for the gods to help me. Himari turns around and nods, humming her affirmation.
Less than five minutes later, we reach the top of Mount Yoshinoyama— the end of the path— and are easily able to find Himari’s family in a secluded, quiet picnicking spot. Not to mention….
“Woah, look at that view!” I say, looking out into the valley.
For as far as the eye can see there's pink. Not an in-your-face kind of pink. A lullaby pink— a pink that's soft and gentle but demands your attention. Each tree seems to sing a slightly different shade of its lullaby. It looks like something straight out of a fairy tale, like a blessing from Ko-No-Hana herself.
A strong breeze blows, pulling fallen sakura petals off the ground into a whirlwind of pink— with me in the middle of it. The wind catches in my haori like a sailboat's sail, the fabric billowing and flowing. The petals catch in my hair and brush past my legs and arms. The wind goes as quickly as it came, leaving the airborne petals to fall to the earth. I giggle when the soft edges of the petals tickle the palms of my hands as they float into them. I can't stop smiling.
The vine that had thrived in my anxiety and worry quickly withers away. The strong breeze blows it away, leaving only the seed of hope in its wake.
I turn around, only to find that Himari and Kasper have started talking to Himari’s family. Himari is hugging a young woman that looks similar to her in appearance. It must be her sister, Tsubaki. Kasper is shaking the hand of Himari’s father— a stocky man with greying, thinning hair. I decide to go over and introduce myself.
“Where were you?” Kaspear asks, noticing me. He turns to Himari’s mother.
“Hi,” I say, waving, “I’m Evelyn, Kasper sister. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Himari translates, and her mother smiles, delicately shaking my hand.
The seed of hope has bloomed into a shirokeshi— a white poppy that rejoices.
With formalities out of the way, Himari’s family invites us to join them on the leisure sheet, telling us to help ourselves to the delicious spread of food Himari’s mother made. We add our own purchases to the banquet, all of us digging into the delicious spread. As I take a bite out of an onigiri, I give Kasper a look.
“What’s that look for?” he asks me, raising an eyebrow.
I just shake my head, “Nothing.” I say, grinning.
Kasper turns to Himari, their gazes meeting. “Hey, Himari?” he asks.
“Yeah? What is it?” she asks. Kasper scratches the back of his neck.
“Could you come over here with me for a second?” She nods and Kasper lead her away from the leisure sheet, towards the beautiful view. I smile, Himari’s parents give me a questioning look.
He gets down on one knee. Himari gasps. “Yes!” she says with enthuasium before Kasper could even pop the question. He laughs, standing up and slipping the simple ring onto her finger. They kiss.
They join us once again a little while later. “I think this calls for celebration,” I say, pulling the bottle of hanami-zake from my grey bag. Kasper pours Himari and I’s glass and Himari pours his. Himari pours her parent’s glasses. We raise our glasses. The joy is overwhelming.
We cheers, sipping from out glasses. The liquid is sweet and dry with a hint of saltiness as it travels down my throat.
We sit there in peace, sprawled out on the blue plastic, Himari resting her head on Kasper’s shoulder— enjoying the view. The sakura petals drift to the ground like pink snowflakes. Himari’s sister gushes to the newly engaged couple about future wedding plans. I munch on sweet hanami-dango, Kasper his takoyaki. Everyone intermittently picking off of the remains of the plentiful spread. The strawberries are like nothing. I’ve ever tasted before. They are bright red, with one bite sending sweet juices exploding like fireworks inside my mouth.
It’s almost tow in the afternoon. Everybody’s stuffed themselves full of delicious food but still pour each other’s glasses. The single shirokeshi has grown into a field of white blossoms. My heart is singing. I feels tears prick my eyes.
"I'm so happy," I turn to look Kasper in the eye.
"I'm glad." Kasper says, smiling as he gently wipes a tear from my cheek.
"You were right," I say, looking at Himari while sniffling and wiping the flow of tears from cheeks with the sleeve of my haori, "this is better than anything I could've ever dreamed of." Himari smiles, taking a sip of the light pink liquid.
Kasper laughs, pouring me more hanami-zake.
In the middle of the field of shirokeshi, stands a brilliant sakura tree in full bloom— a symbol of rebirth.