Today, the rain is falling in slow motion. The crushed flowers in front of the hotel should have been swept up long ago, I have to take care of everything here. I sit up straight. My back bears the stigma of old age. I groan. I have been up since the first light of the day. I woke up with a start, again the same noise. A creaking in my room. There must be birds’ nests in the hotel roof. I need to call a company, professionals will come and get rid of the nests. I sigh and massage my cheekbones.
Honshû was called the island of dragonflies in ancient times. It is the eighth largest island in the world. It is often subject to earthquakes. Tourists are always surprised when this happens. I, who am on the slope that leads to eternal rest, have to reassure them like children. I remember this English woman who was shaking like a leaf. I made her a cup of tea, offered her some pastries and took her hand laughing, and she finally calmed down.
I only cook since my husband’s death, always simple things. For a few extra yen, I serve them my specialty, ramen with honey sauce. I add some meat and an egg to the broth to satisfy them. I am often asked for takoyaki, I don’t know why foreign tourists are so fond of the octopus bites that Honshu is famous for. The kitchen is brand new, it was redone with the money of the summer season.
No, I can’t complain, I earn a very good living and I meet people. My husband and I have been very lucky. To buy a house at the foot of Mount Fuji and turn it into a hotel, at this price…
Everyone knows Mount Fuji, from travel guides or what they have read in illustrated books. But it is only by living in its shadow that one really realizes its legendary power. Samurai used to train at its foot. I believe that the mountain can exorcise any pain. When my husband died, I used to walk in the Aokigahara forest which borders it. I touched the trees and told them about my daily life in the hotel. This saved me, I think.
I used to sit by Kawaguchi Lake, one of the five lakes that border the mountain, with a picnic. The clouds were often low, I could almost touch them with my chin. Birds came to keep me company for the afternoon. Sometimes a family with children would sit near the tablecloth I had spread out to protect me from the grass, and we would chat. It’s always nice to make small talk, isn’t it?
It’s not just tourists who come to stay with me. Buddhist monks regularly make their pilgrimage here. The mountain has a symbolism for them. The first ascent of the mountain in 663 was made by a monk, Otsuno. He was the founder of the Shugendô sect, a mysticism inspired by Vajrayana Buddhism for which the relationship between man and nature is essential. I always wonder what Fujisan meant to him.
Fujisan… The Japanese have been creative in finding nicknames for the mountain. Here, they call it Fujiyama, Fujisan (san is a diminutive to mark the respect), or Fuyô-hô (lotus peak). That said, specialists debate without issue on the etymology of its name. Some think that the origin of Mount Fuji comes from the kanji « without equal ». Others think that its name comes from an Ainu word for « fire ». And it is true that getting lost in the contemplation of the mountain burns the soul.
Thanks to the shinkansen, the fastest train in Japan, we are easily connected to Tokyo and other metropolises. I have only taken the shinkansen once myself, to visit my only daughter in Osaka. The Shinkansen trains are very comfortable. There is space to stretch your legs and put your things down, the orientation of the seats can be adjusted manually to the passenger’s convenience and a large choice of meals can be ordered in the bar car.
This morning I feel older than ever. Neither the summer light nor the supernatural presence of Fuji, which I can see from my window, can invigorate me. My employees will take care of the tourists today, I’m going to take my first day off in months. I walk down the stairs slowly, holding onto the railing, and make my way to the coffee pot in the private apartments. I can already hear voices in the kitchen.
The hotel is rented for more than 400 euros a night. We are considered a luxury establishment, which we have not always been. I had to make many adjustments. Some rooms on the second floor have their own onsen (bath) with a view on the mountain. Others, a little less expensive, have a view of the lake. All rooms have a large screen TV with LCD and high quality Dolby digital sound. I insisted that each room be equipped not with the necessities, but with luxurious amenities. We didn’t skimp on our suppliers to get batches of salon quality soaps and shampoos.
The hotel has air conditioning of course, which is nice in the summer. I recently hired a bartender to man the bar, he is a specialist in foreign cocktails. He is a bit casual with me, but he is a punctual employee. Families who want to go to the Fuji-Q Highland amusement park, we willingly order them a cab. Others come in the winter, and enjoy the two ski resorts nearby. There is no doubt that my husband and I have been very lucky. We were able to raise our daughter in comfort. Today, she is married and doesn’t need me anymore.
God, I feel old. I feel I could die within the hour.
I take my coffee on the terrace of my room, after having warned Anya, an employee of Russian origin, that I will not come down today to inspect the rooms. The sun occupies a large part of the sky, as if it was trying to spill over to earth gradually. A few black birds catch my eye. The trees make a slight noise moving under the wind. I stand up, then look at myself in a mirror. My features are drawn, I look like a centenarian. Yet I am barely seventy. I press my lips together. I have given everything to this hotel, but have I enjoyed it for a moment?
A photograph of my husband lies on the varnished marble table. I look at it for a moment. Have I ever been in love? I married young, with the consent of my family. Thinking that I may have missed out on a feeling that I have always enjoyed reading about in adventure novels, I close the curtains. With the darkness, sleep begins to creep up on me. I woke up several times last night. I lie down on the bed and close my eyes.
When I wake up with a start, I wonder how long I have been asleep. With the greatest astonishment, I realize that the evening is about to fall. How could it be! Was I so tired today that I would have slept all day? I turn on the lights and jump. Again, the cracking sound is heard. Pest of birds. I decide to go and get something to eat, but just as I am about to turn the handle of the room, an icy wind rushes into the room. The light bulbs suddenly start to flicker. Suddenly, the light turns red. I’m not easily impressed, and I’m certainly dreaming, so what the hell, I sit down to regain my senses.
But the night has decided to play a trick on me. The window opens violently and the shape of a monk enters the room, carried by the wind. I let out a small scream, and addressed the spectre:
— What right do you have to enter my house?
The shape in front of me took more and more colors and reality. It was a monk in his prime, with a walking stick.
— I have come to help you. You have dreamed of your youth. I have come to give it back to you. For one day only.
— I don’t need your help, Specter. I’ve run this hotel alone for fifty years. It is not you who will give me back my youth.
But he was already gone. I rushed to the mirror. My features had become several decades younger. I was a young woman, beautiful as I had been. But instead of being filled with joy, I wondered what the price would be for this curse.
Then I fell asleep and woke up at first light. The first thing I did was to check my appearance in the mirror. I was still the beautiful young woman of the day before. Then I opened the window. A light rain was shaking the trees outside my window. But the ghost had gone back to the eternal snows. No more traces of the monk. Had I been dreaming? Certainly not, my skin was smooth and my hands had regained their former whiteness.
I put on a blouse and a straw hat and left the hotel. Nobody recognized me, of course, and I took advantage of this beautiful day to go walking in the forest of Aokigahara. The wood smelled of blackberries, smoke and mushrooms. My youth was back for a moment, I could have realized a thousand things. But the charm of a simple life for years weighed too much on my shoulders. I longed only to find the inner peace that the spectre had somewhat disturbed.
The sun made the mosses and lichen laugh. I had already walked a good part of the way, when I passed a man alone, walking in Aokigahara. He was of good height, with thicker eyebrows than my husband. The wind rushed under my light dress and made it tremble. I pretended not to notice the stranger, and continued on my way.
It is important to know that the forest is the preferred place for people who want to end their lives. While walking in the forest, it is customary to come across the remains of a rope that was used by a suicide. This Japanese tradition dates back hundreds of years, and unfortunately it is not going to stop. The site is also popular with murderers, who easily dispose of the bodies in one of the five lakes adjacent to the forest.
Remembering this macabre fact, I had a doubt. The face of the stranger I had seen a few minutes earlier had seemed upset, sorrowful. What if he had come to end his life? My newfound youth did not leave me indifferent. I only wanted to make sure that this man was alive. If I had to do just one thing in my young woman’s body, let me save his life, I thought. My heart was on fire, the man’s gaze had crossed my chest like a ray of sunlight. I realized that he reminded me of a boy I had known fifty years earlier, with whom I had formed a great friendship that had faded after my marriage. Yes, in the end, life had not disappointed me, I had indeed experienced the feeling of love. Lost in the contemplation of this love that had never materialized, I passed an old shiny metal torii (Japanese portico).
Near the portico, the man was crouching and holding reseda branches in his hand. He was crying his eyes out. I did not hesitate for a moment, and rushed to meet him. A little surprised by my audacity, he asked me to excuse him for this expansion of feelings. I saw that he had brought a bag and glancing inside, I realized that there was a rope inside. So I had seen right. This man had come to end his life at the foot of Mount Fuji.
The light was already beginning to fade, and the spell that the specter had cast on me was over. I thought for a moment, then took the young man’s arm.What happened to you? Tell me.
— I am alone, desperately alone.
The moon began to shine over both our necks. I felt as if I heard flute music. Between the curtain of trees, a red shape sparkled for a moment. I almost yelled at the specter to leave us alone, but I quickly calmed down, remembering how crucial it was that I put this young man out of his misery.Don’t you have a girlfriend?
— Who would want me? Look.
He turned his face toward me and I saw a long gash. I, who had only seen his face in profile, recoiled.
— Come, » I said, and led him through the woods.
When we reached the gigantic red torii at the eastern gate, the wind began to blow noisily. Summer flowers dotted the dirt paths. The flute music had stopped, but the night had almost fallen.
— What was the point of this journey through the forest? I made my resolution. I want to leave this life.
His scar sparkled in the moonlight. A boar passed in front of our slow steps. It did not see us and continued its way through Aokigahara. Suddenly, in front of the torii, I took his arm and stopped him abruptly.I could love you.
— You? Is that so?
For a moment he was lost in the contemplation of the night that was falling like a cleaver on the wood. I realized that I had very little time left to save his life, so I raised my right hand and caressed his face. We kissed in the moonlight for many minutes. Then feeling that my time had come, I made him promise not to kill himself.
— You won’t.
— On what?
—Will I see you again?
— Love can take new forms. You’ll see me again, I promised, and I ran away from the torii.
When I reached the shores of Lake Kawaguchi, I realized that I was more breathless than ever. But of course, » I murmured to myself, « I’ve taken on the form of an old lady. And throwing off my dress, I entered the icy water. The moon poured a brilliant light on me. I thought that the specter had given me a fabulous gift by giving me back for one day the aspect of my youth. I knew at last that I had known love, and I took this certainty with me to the bottom of the cold water.