Chapter One of “Voice of the Jewel”, the explosive finale to the “Sword, Mirror, Jewel” trilogy!
I’ve saved the world once and Tokyo twice. Well, when I say twice, one of them was an alternative world Tokyo and doesn’t really count. I’ve had my ex-boyfriend possessed by a living shadow, I’ve been split into two people by a time machine, I’ve even had a marriage proposal from a Tengu. But the toughest challenge in my short teenage life has got to be this; the prospect of spending one more minute listening to Chiaki Yamamoto drivelling on about K-pop.
“And then there was an interlude for lunch and everyone got their lunchboxes, and my sister and me had made rice balls and decorated them to look like the faces of O-My Boyz members, and the girls around us were soooooo jealous! Then after lunch the O-My Boyz carried futons onto the stage, and they said “We all need a nap after lunch, right?” Then the lights went out and the big screen went on and we could see all their cute faces pretending to sleep while they played Dream Baby Candy over the speakers.”
“Chiaki, I am so going to the O-My Boyz Waku Waku Winter camp next year!”
“Chiaki, I am so totally jealous!”
I tried to tune out the boy band crap and glared at the Yokai in front of me. Schoolgirls aren’t supposed to have arch-enemies. Schoolgirls are supposed to obsess about pop music and crepes and school uniforms and homework. But surrounding me and my idiot companions were rows of creatures that I had encountered in the recent past. Some had helped me. Some had threatened me. Some of them had almost killed me. Today they glowered, silent and gleaming white in the cold sunshine, a rogue’s gallery made out of ice.
We were standing in the Sapporo Snow Festival Shigeru Mizuki Memorial Plaza. He was the creator of the manga series GeGeGe no Kitaro, the long-running adventures of a ghost boy and his friends and foes among the Yokai – the spirit-monsters inhabiting the world of Japanese mythology and folklore (or that’s what the public called them, the reality was kind of … complicated).
I gazed in admiration at the exaggerated and deformed figures before me. Kitaro, Medama-oyaji, Nezumi Otoko, Ittan Momen, Nurikabe, Nurarlhyon, Back Beard … Some dreamed up by the artist’s fertile imagination, but others had been inspired by ancient myths and folktales – like the Tengu, the Kappa, and the Kitsune statues, who stood one row behind the GeGeGe no Kitaro main characters. I smiled secretly as I ticked off the answers to the questions on the school worksheet we’d been given. Little did the teachers know I had crossed swords with all three of these Yokai in the past few months. In a manner of speaking.
I should have been happy. We were on a school trip! We were in the center of Sapporo, for heaven’s sake! We were at the world-famous Snow Festival in Odori Park, surrounded by giant replicas of pyramids, palaces, towers, Statues of Liberty, Star Wars characters, all sculpted from snow and ice – but I was stuck with Chiaki, the class alpha bitch!
I rubbed my gloved hands together and watched my breath silver the air in front of my face. The temperature difference with Tokyo was approximately 10 degrees C, but it felt much colder. Me, Chiaki, and her two hangers-on Nodaka and Mirei were all bundled up in layers of Uniqlo heat-tech underwear, hooded down jackets with a fleece-lined inner layer, thick knit caps, scarf, backpack, thick gloves, and corduroy jeans. We wore studded slip-stoppers on our boots, which we’d bought at Chitose airport, to keep our footing on our icy ground. We looked anonymous in the winter gear. The only difference was that Chiaki’s glossy black hair, much longer than mine, spilt out of her hood and down her shoulders. She was pretty as well, I’ll give her that, but you wouldn’t think so if you listened to her bitching. She was always ragging me about being a hafu – half Japanese, half American. She went around school telling everyone I looked cute because I had mixed parents, and I was just born like it, but for girls like her she had to work with skin cleanser and cosmetics and diets to look cute.
Which was the most important thing for girls like her. What you looked like.
We’d been here for one night – Sapporo, capital of Hokkaido, the large northern island that lay just above the Japanese mainland. Last night we’d got into Chitose airport quite late, taken a coach to the hotel in the city center just a few streets from here, and had some of the local seafood specialities for dinner.
This was our first view of the city proper, and it was the peak of the Festival, all very bustling and frenetic and very very Japanese. Japan’s fifth largest city, home to one point eight million people, Sapporo was a refreshing place to visit after years of living in Tokyo. The roads were wider and less congested, the pedestrians and cyclists were actually polite, and the streets followed a grid system that people could actually understand.
Our breath hung in the still cold air and our boots clacked on the ice-covered concrete path. Peering at the statues, my attention was distracted by Chiaki’s blabber, but also by the constant recorded announcements from a perky-voiced woman about the Festival attractions, and the occasional rasp of an electric saw used by an artist still putting the finishing touches to their crystal-colored work.
Piercing shrieks of laughter from behind me broke the frosty air.
“No, really, the album title is Popcorn, right? So their blog said tonight’s Winter Dream Live is going to have a popcorn and snack theme.”
“I saw their Live last month on Youtube, and the stage looked like like a popcorn factory and all the fans had popcorn box-shaped penlights.”
“Oh, shut up! Unless you can tell me where I can get a popcorn-box shaped penlight right now.”
“They come onto stage dressed as Popcorn Men, with popcorn-shaped helmets and red and white striped vests and pants, and they were all flying above the stage on wires, riding balloons shaped like popcorn and jellybeans and lollipops.”
“That is so cute!”
I snorted with laughter. I couldn’t help it – and she heard.
“What are you laughing at, Bergman?”
“Yeah, nothing. That suits you, Bergman.”
I swung round, trying to keep my voice calm. “Chiaki, can you manage to actually finish the assignments we’re supposed to do this morning? Or shall I write all the answers for you?”
“Yeah, answer the questions, Queen Geek,” she snapped back. “We’re busy.”
I knew exactly why I’d been paired with Chiaki for this morning’s assignment. The homeroom teacher wanted for the usual school kids and the Global Studies kids to GET ON with each other. To study together in an atmosphere of mutual respect. The only problem with that is, you don’t come to an understanding with someone if you’ve already decided to permanently ignore them.
And that’s what had happened. When all the kids had been paired up and sent off with a clipboard and a list of photos to be taken and questions to be answered, Chiaki had sent a message on LINE for her friends to come and get her, and they did.
So maybe I should do the same thing …
If she was going to play dirty, then so was I. Without Chiaki noticing, which was pretty easy because she was ignoring me, I slipped out my own phone and sent a LINE message to Tomoe, Hideaki and Shunsuke. I need help, I said, I’m going to kill Chiaki. Come and find me at Izumo-taisha.
I slipped my phone back in my parka pocket, feeling a little better. They would find me, all right. They were all my BFF. My nakama. Or to use even trendier slang, my itsumen, as Chiaki would have said, if she ever bothered to speak to me in a full sentence that didn’t contain an insult.
I trudged off in the direction of the next school assignment, and the three girls followed a few yards behind, sniggering and snarking all the way.
I watched my breath puff out into ice crystals as I walked. Over the winter vacation, I’d been practicing a lot with Chiyoko. Training with the naginata staff she had given me, and learning more about the Ki, the spirit energy that flowed within and without every living being. We had meditated, as well, under a spell of concealment in the private gardens of Tokyo’s Imperial Palace itself, the grounds that the public are never permitted to enter. Count your breaths, Chiyoko had said, count your breaths, and feel at home in the empty space between them.
Here in the park, I tried to calm down and enter the same space, watching my misty breath. It was a place as pure as the stinging cold air, pure and clean and completely my own, where nothing could touch me.
Snow had been on the ground here in Sapporo for weeks, the teachers had said. It was thick and settled, but paths had been cleared to each of the statue attractions, with the excess snow piled up into drifts as high as my shoulder, lining the edges of the park.
In the city center, the white carpet had been mashed to slush and frozen, then snowed on, slushed and frozen again, and store keepers must have been out with shovels every morning to clear the dangerous layers of ice. At the other end of the park the Sapporo TV Tower dominated the skyline, with its warm digital display showing the time 09:43 just above the main observation lounge.
“Okay, Chiaki,” I called back over my shoulder. “That’s Izumo-Taisha, up ahead.”
“Yeah, we know all about that Shinto stuff, whatever. You have to study that because you’re hafu. Me, it’s in my blood, it’s in my DNA, geddit?”
Jeez. Anyone who spent five minutes in the room with Chiaki would need the patience of the ancient Zen master Eihei Dogen to keep from slapping her in the face.
But I had bigger things to think about. We had walked past the gallery of Edo period samurai, and were almost at the replica of Izumo-Taisha … possibly the oldest Shinto shrine in all Japan.
Izumo was a region in Shimane prefecture on the southern tip of the Japanese mainland, an incredibly old area known as the legendary home of the Kami – Japan’s pantheon of Shinto Gods. Trudging against a keen wind, I blinked snow out of my eyes and took in the majesty of the Shrine exterior. Beyond the pure white Torii gate lay the massive pillars and arched roof of the Main Worship Hall, with a snow reproduction of the giant one-ton sacred straw rope hung across half its length, and the nineteen doors allowing the entry and exit of the Kami stretching away on both east and west. The sunlight filtered through the thick translucent walls, and intricate carvings adorned white pedestals. Lamps placed at gound level cleverly used the ice to reflect a multitude of colors burning at the shrine’s heart.
I caught my breath. I’d seen the original on a school trip many years ago, but this copy made out of ice, this fake pressed out of the simplest natural material, looked somehow just as haunting and mysterious as the real thing.
“Yeah, Takahiro’s gonna be there at the O-My Boyz live in the park tonight … ’cause I said if he doesn’t see it with me I’m gonna kill him …”
As a rekijo – as a history geek – I was in my element, but there was something missing …
“Hi, losers! Are we cold enough yet?”
I looked up. And grinned.
“Hi, Hideaki. Hi, Tomoe. Fancy stripping off for a swim in the fountains?”
My nakama had arrived to save the day. Or most of them at least. Hideaki and Tomoe had responded to my LINE message, and turned up, with their respective school-project partners trailing behind them.
But where was Shunsuke?
Hideaki (my ex-boyfriend, but still BFF) was tall, lean, full of energy and far too handsome for his own good. Tomoe was cute in a Goth way, short and thin, burning constantly with more nervous energy than was good for her. She had black hair cut in a bob, and a smile that would have been cute if you didn’t look at her dark, intense eyes when she gazed at you.
They looked fresh and pure with the snow gently falling around them.
I noticed Chiaki turn to her friends and roll her eyes, as if to say, more weirdoes.
“How much longer are we gonna be standing around here freezing our butts off?” said Hideaki.
“That’s a charming way to say hello! I’d hit you if I could take my hands out of my pockets long enough,” I said with a smile.
He scowled fiercely. “I’m not an early morning person, and I’m not a winter person. I have to get up early every morning for baseball practice anyway. I wish once, just for once, I could stay in bed past seven o’clock.”
“So do we,” said Tomoe, “If only to get some peace and quiet. I’ve known Tengu that were less of a nuisance than you.”
Tomoe scrunched over to me and we hugged through the layers of clothing. “Whoa,” she said. “What’s up with you? You’re like we haven’t seen each other for weeks.”
“It feels like weeks since breakfast at the hotel. Don’t ask. Did you find anything for your Mom’s birthday?”
“Oh yeah! I bought one of the lucky owl charms from the Ainu stall back there.”
Chiaki had heard. “You bought your mom some of that cheap, tatty crap? She deserves better. They’re not even Ainu, anyway. They look like scrounging Filipinos and I think all that Ainu trinket crap was made in China.”
“Whoa,” scoffed Tomoe. “Thanks a lot, Miss Congeniality.”
I knew a lot about the Ainu. Sapporo was the capital city of the huge Japanese island of Hokkaido, and the Ainu were the island’s original, indigenous inhabitants. They had a rich culture and mythology of their own – but mainly, I know a lot about the Ainu because I kind of understood how they feel.
They know what it’s like to be outsiders.
“I’m going to buy her some Sapporo cakes and white chocolate as well,” Tomoe continued, until Chiaki cut in again.
“Hey, I’m so hungry! No food talk! Quit talking about food!”
Tomoe looked at me and winked. “I’ve got some white chocolate in my pocket right now. Wanna share it?”
“I can do better than that,” Hideaki said with a sly grin at Chiaki. “You wanna hit that Ramen Alley with all the prize-winning shops over in the city center? Mid-morning break? Teachers won’t find out.”
“I’m gonna kill you, loser!”
“Come on, Chiaki,” I said, relishing the moral support. “Maybe if you start noticing things around you, you’ll find plenty of attractions to take your mind off food.”
“Oh, you mean like I noticed that?”
She pointed at a column of greasy black smoke rising from a few blocks away.
“Is that meant to be part of the Snow Festival?” one of the other kids asked.
“It’s a BBQ or something?”
My mood plummeted again as I watched the smoke billow into the sky. The pit of my stomach felt hollow and my pulse rate began to rise.
“Something feels weird,” muttered Tomoe.
Then we heard the sirens. They were converging on the direction of the smoke. Around us, the other festival-goers started to notice and they held up their phones, capturing the smoky column with their cameras.
“I wonder what happened to Shunsuke?” I heard Hideaki say.
Before I spoke, I checked my phone again and sure enough, there was a LINE message.
Guys, come and meet me at the big metal signpost thing. There’s something weird that you need to see.
We walked back through the Edo Gallery, to the edge of the park. The crowds thinned out, because mid-morning most people would be gawking at the biggest sculptures around. Hideaki and Tomoe’s partners had fallen in with Chiaki’s clique, and they were giggling over something else on their smartphones. Whatever.
Shunsuke came to meet us. He was a few centimeters taller than Hideaki, but had a more open face that smiled easily, with pale, sensitive features, even paler because of the cold.
“What did you mean by weird?” I asked. So what’s so weird that we had to drag ourselves away from Izumo-taishi?”
“I think you’d better see for yourself,” he said, pointing behind him at a row of life-size ice statues on the side of the path.
As I got closer, I began to make out more detail in the figures. They were posed, unnaturally upright like the other ice statues we had seen today. But there was something familiar about them. Two female, two male.
Then it hit me like a jolt of electricity.
The rightmost figure was Tomoe. She had seen this herself and was standing beside me, her mouth open in surprise, On my other side Shunsuke nodded grimly.
At last I recognized the other three figures. One was myself, one was Hideaki, and the other was Shunsuke.
Our own faces; white, perfect, emotionless. They were ice statues of ourselves.
To read Book One, “Voice of the Sword”, go HERE.
To read Book Two, “Voice of the Mirror”, go HERE.