It’s 6:50 a.m. when Kasper, Himari, and I step off the plane into Kansai International Airport. My carry-on, a gray messenger bag, bounces against my hip as Himari leads us toward the baggage claim.
A surge of adrenaline electrifies my body. The atmosphere is chaotic and everything moves past so quickly – adults on business, screaming children, muddled conversations I can’t understand. I look to Kasper, wide-eyed. He smiles at me and laughs.
Himari Ametsuchi is Kasper’s girlfriend of three and 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.
“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 the conveyor. He hands Himari her bag, then holds 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.
Yet, a tiny 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 traffic-ridden streets and concrete jungles dotted with trees. Restlessness has already sprouted. It has rooted itself in my bones, tightening its hold on me. Kasper’s incessant drumming of his fingers against his leg waters my blossoming anxiety. He chews on his lip as he stares out the window.
Himari sits in the passenger seat, conversing with the driver in rapid-fire Japanese.
“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 toward an oblivious Himari. Kasper hesitates, glancing at me.
Halfway through the ride, the trees rapidly increase in number. Fog rolls off the hills surrounding the taxi, concealing the view. I catch glimpses of what looks like pink. The sun rose a mere two hours ago.
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 with 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 adorable,” she says. “You look like a little kid in a candy store — excited to try everything.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?”
“It makes me excited too” she says, still smiling. We enjoy another long period of silence before I say anything.
“Hey, Himari?” I ask.
I look down at the surface of the water. It ripples as I exhale.
I pause, pondering my question. “Do you love my brother?”
Himari stops midway through splashing her face. She looks surprised. “Yes, I love Kasper. Why? 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. I dress in hot pink tights, a pencil skirt, a sleeveless fuchsia top with rectangular designs around the neckline, and electric blue high-tops. A baby pink haori with a butterfly pattern – a birthday present from Kasper and Himari – finishes off the look. Himari ties my wavy, dark brown hair into an intricate bun.
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.
“Ready?” he asks. 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 into the sunlight.
A sakura tree in the front parking lot dots the asphalt with pink petals. Swaying in the breeze, it looks as if it were saying, “Dewamata! See you later!” It looks almost happy to see us.
The vines are inching closer to my throat. They 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 is sure to be a nightmare. Instead, we opt to take the scenic route: a 20-minute climb up Mount Yoshinoyama. Himari informs us that her family is going to grab a picnic spot and will 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 …” I stop, gripping the strap of my bag and chewing on my bottom lip.
“What if 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 also 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-related everything.
“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 buy hanami bento, hanami dango, strawberries, hanami-zake, onigiri, among other things. All are traditional foods at a hanami picnic.
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 up 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 types of trees.
“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 find Himari’s family in a secluded, quiet picnic spot.
“Woah, look at that view!” I say, looking out into the valley.
For as far as the eye can see there’s pink. A lullaby pink. A pink that’s soft and gentle but demands your attention. Each tree seems to sing a slightly different shade. It is 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. The wind catches in my haori like a boat’s sail, the fabric billowing and flowing. The petals catch in my hair and brush past my legs and arms. I can’t stop smiling.
The vine that had thrived in my anxiety and worry has completely withered away. The strong breeze blows it away, leaving only the seed of hope in its wake.
I turn around to find Himari and Kasper talking to Himari’s family. Himari is hugging a young woman, similar in appearance. It must be her sister, Tsubaki. Kasper is shaking the hand of Himari’s father, a stocky man with graying hair. I join them.
“Hi. 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 bite into 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?” she asks. Kasper scratches the back of his neck.
“Could you come over here with me for a second?” She nods and Kasper leads her away from the leisure sheet, toward the beautiful view. I smile. Himari’s parents give me a questioning look.
He gets down on one knee. Before Kasper can even pop the question, Himari gasps, “Yes!” He laughs and stands, slipping a 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 bag. Kasper pours a glass for Himari and me. Then Himari pours a glass for Kasper and her parents.
We cheers. The liquid is sweet and dry with a hint of saltiness as it travels down my throat.
We sit in peace, sprawled on the blue plastic, Himari’s head resting on Kasper’s shoulder. Himari’s sister gushes to the newly engaged couple about future wedding plans. I munch on sweet hanami-dango. Everyone intermittently picks from the spread’s remains.
It’s almost two in the afternoon. Everybody is stuffed, but we keep pouring each other glasses of bubbly liquid. The single shirokeshi has grown into a field of white blossoms. My heart is singing. I feel tears prick my eyes.
“I’m so happy,” I say to Kasper.
“I’m glad,” Kasper says, smiling as he gently wipes a tear from my cheek.
“You were right,” I say, looking at Himari. “This is better than anything I could’ve 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.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.