The morning sun peeked over the pink mountains illuminating the entire valley.
It was going to be another scorcher. The Yuki Valley could get that way for about six weeks out of the year, and it was eight days into it. One hundred degrees is hot anyway, but throw in seventy-five percent humidity, and it can get unbearable. Joto wiped his forehead of the first sweat of the day, and saw nothing but promise ahead.
Today was his fifteenth birthday, and he was making the journey to his grandparents’ farm all by himself. He had been waiting for this day his entire life, but the last two years in earnest. It was a rite of passage; one he was determined to prove to himself and his family that he was a most worthy son and grandson.
Joto checked the list he had carefully made and began pulling out each item from his tattered knapsack. Three rice cakes, two carefully-wrapped portions of dried fish, three green apples from the garden and a map that his father had taken much time and effort preparing were all he would need for The Journey.
There was a small silk pillow which his mother made for him against his father’s wishes, and it made Joto smile. He carefully removed it and gently placed it at the head of his futon.
It was only twelve miles, as the crow flies, over the mountain and into the valley, from their front porch to his most honorable grandparents’ house, and he was growing impatient to get started.
“Joto-san come here. Let me take a look at my little man,” his mom beckoned.
Joto approached his mother, all four-foot ten of her, and lovingly draped his arms around her tiny shoulders. She always smelled like the little pink cherry blossoms, sakura, from the garden that framed their courtyard. The familiar scent warmed his heart and he hugged her tightly.
“Ah, I see you are checking with the boss before you go. Smart boy, Joto.” His approaching father was Joto’s hero.
“Man,” his mother corrected.
“Man,” his father acknowledged.
“You will be expected at your most honorable grandparents’ farm by mid-day; it should take no longer than that…His mother did not finish her train of thought.
Joto’s hero gently took his arm and said in a very tranquil tone of voice, “Follow me to the garden, son.”
The pair made their way to the edge of the courtyard.
The young summer flowers were all open, reaching skyward, and the fat, luminescent koi were enjoying the early morning sun as they performed their perpetual water ballet. A few stubborn droplets of dew still clung to the moss-covered rocks which bordered the clear, water pond.
Joto and his father sat in a beautiful, appreciative silence and sipped the tea which his mother had provided.
His father was first to break the silence.
“Son, you know that you are the absolute light of our lives. You know that, don’t you?”
“Yes, father, I have known nothing but love in my lifetime.” It always made Joto feel a little uneasy when his father talked in such a manner. Absolutely no one loved and respected their parents more than Joto.
“Today you will traverse the Mountain, and sleep outside under the stars. Remember the Gods will guide you, but your heart must lead you.” Joto’s father took his small porcelain teacup and set it down. Joto sensed the serious posture his father was taking and straightened in the oversized bamboo chair.
“We as a family, have made the trip to honorable Yuki-sama’s farm for many years. It is truly a beautiful thing, to travel in Nature’s domain, and I know you will respect your place in the world as you move through it.”
“There is one thing you must never forget: when you pass the Apple Creek, you MUST turn RIGHT and take the path up the mountain; it is the only path which will lead to your destination. Do you have the map I made for you?” Joto noticed his father’s voice was breaking.
“Yes sir, here it is.” He unfolded the map and carefully handed it to his father.
Hachi-sama scrutinized the map as if were the first time he laid eyes on it, and fixed his gaze on Joto.
“Here,” he pointed to the large red “X” on the map, “it is here where you must take the tight turn past the creek and take the path up the mountain.
“You do understand this, yes?”
Do you understand?
His father was staring down his son to stress the importance of his instructions.
“Yes sir, I understand, Joto replied, “but what is the big deal about right or left? Won’t either way get me around the mountain?” Jot’s eyes were large in their query.
His father was normally the most tranquil soul he knew (maybe just behind his mother) and it startled him when he jumped from his chair, his face burning a dangerous crimson.
“BECAUSE I TOLD YOU SO! I AM YOUR FATHER!”
Joto could see his father actually tremble under the weight of his own words.
“I am truly sorry father. I will obey and take the right turn and path, and not the left one.”
Then, without speaking, Hachi-sama reached for his son’s hand and Joto stood and bowed to his hero.
Joto strolled slowly past the miniature bonsai garden and found himself getting excited to begin his sojourn. He went to his room, gathered his things, and approached his parents.
“Go with the Gods young man,” his father bowed dutifully.
Take care my son. Be smart.” His mother prompted. Joto hugged her tightly and replied.
“I will do you great honor. I will return six days hence at mid-morning.”
Gazing skyward up the mountain, Joto mentally plotted his course. The morning fog had lifted off the first thousand feet of the mountain, leaving all that awaited him enshrouded. Joto looked back on his home and his parents waving as he turned and began his ascent.
He didn’t know exactly when the thought entered into his consciousness, but as he hopped the small clear streams and danced across the blue-green mountain grasses, he began to wonder. Why must I turn right at Apple Creek? Why can’t I turn left?
Both paths appeared to end on the other side of the mountain, near his destination, neither seeming more advantageous than the other. Truth be known, the left path looked to be the shorter route. Joto thought of his beloved parents and their admonitions and the wonder dissipated.
The time was passing quickly as Joto kept a young man’s pace up the mountainside and soon he began to look for a suitable area to rest. He emerged from a thicket of trees containing every shade of green imaginable. As he reached a small clearing, he looked back and was humbled by the beauty and solitude.
He bowed reverently to no one in particular.
Joto fell to earth and laid back, his gaze fixed on a single puff of a cloud remaining in the sky. He figured he had at best, another hour of sunlight left.
This would be his resting place for the night.
He opened his knapsack and pulled from it a portion of shiny smoked fish and a rice cake. The nori seaweed had kept his dinner moist and he unwrapped it with great anticipation. He ate with much more abandon than was allowed at his family dinner table, and when he was finished, he walked over to the sparkling water of the brook to have a long, cool drink. As he knelt down, he saw his own reflection; that of a man, no longer a boy.
He saw his lips mouth the words Why? Why right? Why NOT left? If I am to be a man, am I not free to make my own decisions?
Joto was full now and very tired.. The sky had changed from an orange sherbet to a light purple as Mother Nature’s eyelids began to droop. Even the single cloud had called it a day and disappeared beneath the horizon.
Joto awoke with a jolt.
He sat upright and gathered his senses. When his eyes adjusted, he saw that the earth around him was awakening too. There was a fine dew which clung to everything and Joto could not see fifty feet in front of him through the morning fog. It lent his surroundings an ephemeral visage.
Joto arose and resumed his journey.
The fog had him disoriented, and Joto began to stray from his plotted course. He squinted to see3 through the mist, but it was no use.
Joto was lost.
I’ll just sit here and wait for the fog to lift. Then I will be able to see where I am going and everything will be alright.” Joto found himself talking out loud to fill the now eerie silence.
He put his head in his hands and tried to think.
Joto was startled as he saw something move by his feet. He peeled back the thick grass and saw a tiny yellow frog looking up at him. The frog had a brilliant lime-green streak across his lips and Joto swore that it looked like the frog was talking to him!
“Hello Joto-san. You appear to have lost your way. I can help you across the mountain. This is my home. I know every inch of this mountain.” The frog looked up at Joto and smiled.
“Yes! Yes!” Joto squealed. I am most certainly lost. I am on my way to…”
“You are on your way to the Honorable Yuki-sama’s farm in the next valley. I can show you a much faster way than the route you are travelling.” The frog seemed very wise to Joto.
Joto began poring out every detail of his journey; how he was instructed to turn right at the Apple Creek; he even showed his map to the sage little frog. After listening to Joto’s tale, the frog held up three tiny fingers.
He had heard enough.
“You can have your safe little map and head through those trees over there; that will lead you to the right path at Apple Creek. Or, you can follow me. We will hop and play and sing songs on our way to Yuki-sama’s farm and I will introduce you to all my friends. We will have great fun!”
Joto froze. He so wanted to do his parents bidding, to keep his promise, but this frog seemed wise and honorable, and besides he was Joto’s very first friend.
“Follow me!” his new friend chortled. Joto obeyed.
They turned left.
They sang and played games and hopped around in the afternoon sun for hours, before approaching a river. It was much wider and deeper than the little gurgling streams and brooks he had encountered.
“Just over the river and past the trees is Yuki Valley; you are almost there!” the frog exclaimed.
“There! The six big stones sticking out of the river. Do you see them?” The little frog smiled broadly as he pointed.
“Yes, I see them!” Joto skipped and landed on each stone and soon was standing on the other side of the river.
His little friend did, likewise, deftly jumping from stone to stone, finally landing right by Joto’s side on the shore of the river.
The little frog inserted two tiny fingers in his mouth and let out a shrill whistle.
Joto watched in amazement as the six “stones” he hopped over began to rise out of the water. They were the biggest frogs he had ever seen, nearly eight feet tall!
“Joto-san, these are my friends I was telling you about.”
From behind the trees, Joto could see hundreds of these grotesque creatures. The largest of them hopped right up to Joto, eyeing him carefully.
He licked his lips.
“It’s a pleasure to eat you,” he belched.