The Street of a Thousand Blossoms

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9781250000668: The Street of a Thousand Blossoms
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It is Tokyo in 1939. On the Street of a Thousand Blossoms, two orphaned brothers dream of a future firmly rooted in tradition. The older boy, Hiroshi, shows early signs of promise at the national obsession of sumo wrestling, while Kenji is fascinated by the art of Noh theater masks. 

But as the ripples of war spread to their quiet neighborhood, the brothers must put their dreams on hold—and forge their own paths in a new Japan. Meanwhile, the two young daughters of a renowned sumo master find their lives increasingly intertwined with the fortunes of their father’s star pupil, Hiroshi.

The Street of a Thousand Blossoms is a powerfully moving masterpiece about tradition and change, loss and renewal, and love and family from a glorious storyteller at the height of her powers.

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About the Author:

Gail Tsukiyama is the bestselling author of ?ve previous novels, including Women of the Silk and The Samurai’s Garden, as well as the recipient of the Academy of American Poets Award and the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award. She divides her time between El Cerrito and Napa Valley, California.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Excerpt
Late again, Hiroshi weaved in and out of the crowds near the Momiji teahouse. Sweat trickled down his neck and he pulled at the undershirt that was sticky against his back as he squeezed through the swarm of pedestrians clogging the labyrinth of narrow alleyways. They stopped to admire the deep blue and bright pink flowers blooming in the flower boxes—a heady fragrance drifting through the warm air. Eleven-year-old Hiroshi was already late to meet his grandfather and younger brother, Kenji, at the Keio-ji temple on the other side of Yanaka. He had dashed from the open, grassy field of the park where he and his classmates spent their afternoons practicing the wrestling techniques they learned in school—the oshi, hand push; the tsuki, thrust; and the yori, body push. “These are the fundamental moves of sumo wrestling,” his coach at school, Masuda-san stressed, “the foundation on which we will build.”
Once again, Hiroshi had lost track of time.
In the Yanaka district of northeastern Tokyo, the sloping streets were lined with traditional one- and two-story wooden houses. Despite the crowds, Hiroshi loved Yanaka for its familiar and quiet way of life, for the tantalizing smells of grilled fish kushiyaki and the sweet chicken yakitori sold from wooden carts. When he wasn’t in a hurry, he even loved the maze of winding alleyways with blooming gardens that hid the old wood houses and the small, unassuming shops with their cloth banners hanging outside, selling hanakago, or bamboo flower baskets, handmade washi paper, and the soft silken tofu his grandmother loved to eat cold during the summer. The narrow streets offered a wealth of escape routes for the chase games he and the neighborhood children played—places you could get lost or hide in until you wanted to be found, or not found.
But now, it was impossible for him to navigate them quickly. Men his grandfather’s age sat at battered wooden tables and played shoji, oblivious to the crowds as they pondered each chess move. Hiroshi squeezed by a woman in a kimono, a baby tied to her back; the round-faced girl with dark eyes followed his every move.
Once he neared the ginza, vendors lined the streets, selling everything from grilled corn and sweet potatoes, to roasted sembei rice crackers and baked squid. The enticing aroma of the spicy shoyu crackers reminded Hiroshi of his empty stomach, but he didn’t dare stop. The muscles pulled in his sore calves as he hurried up the hill. He wrinkled his nose at the pungent vinegary smell of tsukudani, a kind of Japanese chutney his grandparents ate over their rice, which came from a nearby store and hung heavy in the air. He was short of breath by the time he reached the Keio-ji temple to find his grandfather and Kenji waiting outside.
“Ah, the young master arrives,” his grandfather teased. He sat on a stone bench in the shade of a ginkgo tree sucking on his pipe, his cane resting against his knee.
Hiroshi bowed low. “I’m sorry to be late, ojichan,” he said, pausing to catch his breath.
“Sumo, eh?”
Hiroshi nodded. At eleven, he was already the top wrestler in his class, perhaps the entire school. He’d grown taller and stronger in the year since he began taking the sport seriously.
Kenji pouted. “Why else would he be late?”
“I lost track of the time,” Hiroshi confessed, trying to appease his brother. He’d already been late several times this month.
“Did you at least win the match?” His ojichan leaned forward on his cane and stood.
Hiroshi straightened up and answered, “Hai,” though it was just practice, not real competition.
His ojichan stepped toward the stone path and smiled. “Good, good. Hiroshi will be a champion one day. And you, Kenji, will find your place soon enough,” he said gently. “Now, shall we take our walk?”

Yanaka was one of the few areas of Tokyo not devastated by the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, a distinction their ojichan proudly repeated to Hiroshi and Kenji. He pointed his cane toward the same old temples that had once surrounded the Edo castle and had been moved to Yanaka after surviving a big fire, almost three hundred years ago.
“The temples withstood both disasters virtually unscathed,” his ojichan said—the miracle of it emphasized in the rise of his voice. “And look there,” he continued, directing their gaze to the lone smokestack of what was once the Okira bathhouse. “Not everything was spared. Okira-san never rebuilt after the quake, but he left the smokestack as a symbol of Yanaka’s resilience. You boys must never forget.”
Hiroshi wouldn’t forget, not just because he couldn’t walk thirty feet down any road without seeing an ancient temple, but also because his ojichan was the embodiment of that same fortitude. He looked into his grandfather’s eyes. A cloudy film covered his dark pupils. Hiroshi wondered how much his grandfather could really see, and how much he saw from memory. He tried to imagine what it must feel like to slowly lose one’s sight behind a thick, dense fog that left everything in blurry shadow. Hiroshi often wanted to take hold of his ojichan’s arm, afraid that he might stumble on an uneven path, or on the stone steps leading down to the Sumida River, but he once again refrained as his ojichan moved briskly down the road, not missing a step.

That night after dinner as Hiroshi sat bent over his schoolwork, his grandmother came into the dining room and sat on the tatami mat across from him, pouring each of them a cup of green tea. It was his grandparents, Yoshio and Fumiko Wada, who kept the spirit of his parents alive, long after three-year-old Hiroshi and his eighteen-month-old brother, Kenji, were orphaned. His obachan often stopped whatever she was doing, washing clothes or preparing his grandfather’s favorite sticky rice, to tell Hiroshi stories of his parents and how they had saved his life. “You are a child of good fortune,” his obachan whispered, so that the gods wouldn’t hear her and return to take him away, too. “They loved you and your little brother more than life.” She always sighed as if the ache of their deaths could be expelled.
When she began to speak, he looked up from his books, drank down his tea, and listened to his obachan’s story. “Your mother and father were so happy to get away to Kyoto for their first overnight trip since you were born,” she began, her voice clear but calm in the small dining room. “And still, they wanted to take you with them. You were just three years old. Kenji was eighteen months and I insisted that he stay with your ojichan and me. It was the last evening of the Lantern Festival at Miyazu Bay. They wanted to show you the red lanterns glimmering on the dark water like fireflies, where the spirit ships welcomed ancestors back to the human world. It was a warm and still summer night and your mother wore her red-flowered summer kimono. Who could have known that the spirits would take your mother and father back into their world with them?” His obachan swallowed. Her pause was like a sorrow she could never voice. “Everyone felt festive in the calm, unusually dark night. The water gleamed the color of black pearl. Some men with a fishing boat offered to take spectators out into the bay to float among the lanterns. What possesses people to do what they do? Your mother and father stepped onto that boat, with you squirming in your father’s arms. Too late they realized that the men steering the boat were drunk, that they’d been drinking sake all afternoon and should never have taken people out on that dark night. They went out too far, away from the shore, away from the lighted lanterns, away from all that was safe. In the blindness of that night, the boat struck rocks. The wood snapped and cracked. The boat ripped apart like shoji beneath their feet, separating your parents onto opposite halves of the deck. The boat sank in minutes—just enough time for your quick-thinking father to place you in an empty fish barrel. You floated on the waves, crying after him, while he dived into the dark waters in search of your mother, who had never been a strong swimmer. Just beyond them, a wall of floating lanterns blocked the view of what was happening; your screams were lost in the revelry. When the other boats came to the rescue, all eight passengers were found drowned that night in Miyazu Bay, all except you, Hiroshi, floating in your fish barrel, and the young captain of the boat. They told us that water had just begun to seep into the barrel.”
“What happened to the captain?” Hiroshi asked. He pushed his books aside and looked down at his grandmother’s thin, blue-veined hands that never seemed to stop moving.
“His body was never found,” his obachan answered. She sat for a moment in silence; Hiroshi felt bitterness cut through the air between them. “I prayed the spirits of the dead had taken him that night, forgetting to leave his body behind.”

At the end of his grandmother’s story, Hiroshi stood and stretched. He took a deep breath, and went to study the black-and-white photograph of his parents, Kazuo and Misako, that sat on the tokonoma, the recessed shelf in his grandparents’ living room. Misako had been their only daughter. He saw himself in his father’s tall, heavyset build, his dark, almost brooding features, while Kenji was a daily reminder of his delicate mother with her liquid, faraway gaze. He wondered whether his parents might have lived if he hadn’t been with them that night. T...

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