In a small town in Japan, the Chinese Dragon caught the people that lived there. It invisibly guided them this way and that, pushing and pulling them along with its gentle breath. Its enormous mouth carried them to a part of the town where several old wooden buildings still stood. These sturdy architectural relics were filled with dragon posters, dragon calendars, and dragon merchandise of every kind. And in most homes of that town you would find dragon figurines, dragon mugs, or New Year’s cards with cute little dragon pictures. In January of 2012, people in Japan were celebrating the new year of the Dragon, which came every 12 years.

This town had become the new home for two families who had lost everything the year before. Different life-threatening disasters, brought about by the Great East Japan Earthquake, forced them to abandon everything they owned. A single mother and her two children, Rikuto and Hikaru, lost their home to a flood of poisonous radiation from a nearby power-plant meltdown; a widower and his two children, Hana and Jo, had lost theirs—along with their family’s mother and grandmother—to a flood of seawater.

Rikuto and Hikaru became best friends with Jo as soon as they met him at their new school (Jo’s sister was older, so she studied at a junior high school and didn’t meet the brothers until later). The three boys connected with each other much more easily than they did with the other children; some of the other kids gave them a hard time for being new. Thankfully, the bullies didn’t bother them as much when they were together.

The brothers  regularly visited Jo because he lived near their school. They often played together in a park next to his house, and it  was at Jo’s place where they had first met Hana. She sometimes joined them when her club activities didn’t keep her so late.

The abundance of dragon images brought up the topic of age among the children. Rikuto and Jo were both twelve years old, born in the year of the Dragon. The youngest, Hikaru, born in the year of the Horse, thought Rikuto and Jo were lucky, because he was very interested in dragons. The oldest, Hana, preferred her own animal year, the Rabbit, because she liked cute and cuddly things.

Since the beginning of January, time seemed to move faster. The end of the school year was approaching (Japanese school years start and end in the spring), so their schedules were busier than usual. Of the four children, Rikuto and Jo had the biggest step to take—in a few months they were to enter junior high school. Hana had already taken that step, so moving into the next school year wasn’t as new or exciting. It wasn’t a big deal for Hikaru either. He was only moving into the fifth grade.

To usher in the spring, Rikuto’s and Hikaru’s grandfather, Mr. Fukumoto, told them to invite Jo and Hana for a special Bean-Throwing tradition (or “Mamemaki”, as it’s called in Japan). Mamemaki is done at the start of February, and when the day came, Hana and Jo arrived a bit earlier than expected. They entered through Mr. Fukumoto’s garden where they found Rikuto and Hikaru sitting quietly with drooping faces.

“What’s wrong? Where’s your grandpa?” asked Jo. “Are we gonna start Mamemaki?”

“He’s inside with okā-san,” answered Rikuto. “She’s sad again.”

After Rikuto’s and Hikaru’s father left the family and moved to Tokyo, they noticed a change in their okā-san. (What? “Okā-san”?Ah! This is how many people in Japan say “mother”. Now don’t interrupt.) She (their mother) had lost her passion for life. And the disaster in Fukushima had only poured salt on her wounded heart.

“Are we gonna still do Mamemaki?” asked Hana. “Maybe we should go back home.”

“But we need to eat dinner with Rikuto and Hikaru!” objected Jo. “Otō-san will be working late tonight.”

(“Otō-san” is what most Japanese call their fathers.)

“You must stay,” came a deep, slightly scratchy voice. “We have plenty of food prepared. And if you two don’t help us, we will have too much left over.”

An elderly man entered the garden from the adjacent house. The children thought that he and the house fit well together: they both had an air of simple elegance, beautifully traditional in the Japanese or Chinese sense.

“Thank you, Fukumoto-san. I’m sorry about my brother,” apologized Hana.

“It’s no trouble, Hana. I hope our laughter will raise their mother’s spirit.”

“Jīji, did you bring the beans?” asked Hikaru.

(And you probably figured out that children there call their grandpas “jīji”, “ojī-san”, or “jī-chan”. Hmm? No, not “jiji”. The first “i” is long like this: “jiiiji”. Now let’s get on with the story.)

“Beans?” Mr. Fukumoto looked at the children, and his eyes enlarged, as if he came to realize something. “There are four of you.”

“Yeah,” answered Rikuto. “Are there enough beans?”

“Four children. Three boys and one girl”, said Mr. Fukumoto quietly to himself. Turning his attention to Hana, he said, “It’s been a while since I’ve seen you. Your hair is much longer.”

“I’ve been growing it out. I like it better this way,” replied Hana.

“Jīji, what’s wrong?” asked Rikuto.

“Just a coincidence?” muttered the old man. “No. Of course not.”

“Fukumoto-san?” said Hana.

“These beans won’t do.” He looked down at the cheap prepackaged cardboard box in his hands. “I have something better.” Mr. Fukumoto disappeared into the house.

“What’s he talking about?” asked Jo.

“I’m not sure,” answered Rikuto.

Mr. Fukumoto came back with a small hand-carved wooden box.

“Here they are.” Mr. Fukumoto handed the box to Hana. “Each of you take some.”

“Jī-chan, are you gonna be the oni[1]?” asked Hikaru.

“This year we’ll just throw them into the garden,” explained Mr. Fukumoto. “Let’s pretend the oni are out there.”

As it was just after 5pm, the sun began to set. Gathering in the “genkan”—the inside entrance of the house—the five of them removed their shoes and stepped up onto the floor. After finding slippers, the children and Mr. Fukumoto went to the “engawa”, an open porch-like ledge facing the garden. Rikuto’s and Hikaru’s grandmother, Mrs. Fukumoto, stepped out of the kitchen to join in the bean-throwing.

The house was fairly old and built in a traditional style. Just about every room had tatami flooring, and most of its surrounding walls could open to the outside. In order to get a picture of what the Fukumotos’ house looked like, you must imagine the inner rooms surrounded on all sides by sliding doors called “shoji”. The intricate frames of shoji doors could be seen from the inside. Special translucent sheets of paper called “washi” were glued on the outside of these doors to cover the large square holes of the lattice.

The engawa surrounded the inner rooms. It served as a buffer between the inner walls and the outer walls. The moveable outer walls, called “amado”, also opened like sliding doors, but they were more solid, not paper-covered latticework like the inner shoji doors. These outer door-like shutters functioned as a kind of shell of the house and were closed when the weather got bad.

Standing with everyone on the engawa, Hana slowly opened the box that was handed to her and grabbed a few of, what she assumed was, the Mamemaki beans. After taking her share, she handed the box over to the boys. After the children got as much as they wanted, Mr. and Mrs. Fukumoto took what was left. Before setting the empty box back in the house, Mrs. Fukumoto stared at it in amazement.

“Hajime, isn’t this. . .  I thought you wanted to keep these.”

“I was saving them for this occasion,” explained Mr. Fukumoto with a smile.

“These aren’t like the beans our family uses,” observed Hana. The objects in her hands were the size of beans, if not bigger, but they were too slender and had pointy tips. She thought that they looked like abnormally large seeds.

“Let’s start,” said Rikuto impatiently. “I’m getting cold.”

“Don’t throw them all at once,” warned Mrs. Fukumoto as she took one more long look at the objects in her hand. “We don’t want to end Mamemaki too quickly.” Gently touching her husband’s arm, she asked, “are you sure you don’t want to keep a few? You’ve held on to them for so long. Throwing them all away seems. . . .”

“No, we must throw them all,” said Mr. Fukumoto with a loud laugh. “Everyone, toward the garden! Oni wa soto! Fookoo wa oochi! Demons out! Blessings in!”

The children and Mrs. Fukumoto followed his lead and, throwing one or two at a time, yelled, “Demons out! Blessings in!”

The seed-like objects bounced everywhere, disturbing the leaves and branches of the garden. After a few minutes of laughter, and between shouts of “Oni wa soto! Fookoo wa oochi!”, the last of the strange beans found their final resting places in the garden.

“Okay, let’s go eat before the food gets cold,” said Mrs. Fukumoto as she led everyone to the common room.

All five of them, shivering and rubbing their hands, filed into the house. They left their slippers out on the engawa and stepped up into the inner rooms of the house, entering in just their socks. (If you plan to visit Japan, you should know that slippers are not usually used on tatami mats.) Once the last foot passed over the threshold, Mr. Fukumoto closed the latticed shoji doors and clicked on the kerosene heater. In just a few minutes, ears and cheeks regained their colors.

The low dining table sat in the center of the tatami room. The children and the Fukumotos sat around it on the floor, either with legs crossed or on their knees. The table was loaded with lidded bowls, small and large. Chopsticks and chawan rice bowls were set out on the outside.

“Where’s okā-san?” asked Hikaru.

“I’ll go get her,” said Mrs. Fukumoto. “Everyone, please start without us. The food is getting cold.”

As Rikuto’s and Hikaru’s grandmother disappeared through a set of sliding doors, Mr. Fukumoto removed the lids of the bowls. The aroma of cooked fish, meat, and vegetables filled the room. Almost in unison, they all picked up their chopsticks and said in a loud voice, “itadakimasu!”[2] After everyone ate a few mouthfuls, they heard feet slowly creaking down the stairs just outside. The shoji separating the stairs and the common room slid open, and Mrs. Fukumoto stepped inside.

“Okā-san wa?” said Rikuto, as he met his grandmother’s gaze.

The elderly lady shook her head and frowned.

Without warning, the shoji walls around them wildly vibrated, and the air outside whistled and howled.

Everyone looked around the room, and Mrs. Fukumoto asked the question on everyone’s mind. “An earthquake?”

“No,” answered her husband. “Listen.”

Hana tried to yell over the howling. “Wow, it’s really windy.”

“Is it tatsumaki[3]?” asked Jo in a loud voice.

“It might be,” replied Mr. Fukumoto. “Rikuto. Hikaru. Help me close the amado!”

The boys hurried with their grandpa to the engawa. They slid out the heavy wall-sized storm shutters that were hiding in the outer walls of the house. Hikaru’s old home in Fukushima was more modern, so its storm shutters were much smaller and lighter. His grandparents’ amado reminded him of the segments of a centipede or of the fishy, hard scales of a Chinese dragon. Having closed the shutters, the engawa porch transformed into a narrow hallway.

The group waited in the common room for the weather to change. Thanks to the amado, the inner shoji panels stopped rattling. The amado, shuddering between their wooden rails, absorbed all of the turmoil. The common room had somehow felt smaller and more crowded to the children.

Mrs. Fukumoto turned on the radio to check for weather reports. While everyone listened, the panels between the stairway and the common room slid open. Rikuto’s and Hikaru’s mother had decided to join them.

“Okā-san! Did you hear the wind?” asked Hikaru.

“Yes, I hear it. What’s going on out there?”

“It might be tatsumaki, but the news isn’t reporting anything. I’m going to see for myself,” said Mr. Fukumoto.

“Are you sure that’s safe?” asked his wife. “Please be careful.”

Just as Mr. Fukumoto stepped out of the tatami room and into his slippers, both the wind’s howling and the amado’s rattling stopped.

“I’ll be right back,” said Mr. Fukumoto confidently. He shut the shoji panels behind him and headed toward the genkan entrance.

“It sounds like it stopped,” said Jo. “I wanna go see what happened.”

“Yeah, me too!” joined Rikuto.

“Mrs. Fukumoto, can we have a look?” Hana smiled at the elderly lady expectantly.

Rikuto’s and Hikaru’s mother and grandmother raised their eyebrows and glanced at each other.

“I’ll check,” answered Mrs. Fukumoto finally. “Wait here.”

Stepping out into the engawa, the older woman called out to her husband. They heard him calling back from outside, telling them to open the amado.

“It’s gone already!” Rikuto flew to the engawa and, with Hikaru’s, Hana’s, and Jo’s help, started to undo their wooden latches.

“Hajime, we might as well keep them closed for the night. Are you sure it’s still safe?” called Mrs. Fukumoto.

“Absolutely!” he replied. “Quickly! Open them and let the light shine on the garden.”

The children finished unlatching the shutters and pushed them open.

Everyone in the house saw the light of Mr. Fukumoto’s flashlight darting back and forth in the dark garden.

“The seeds! The seeds!” said the old man. The children’s eyes dimly caught him jumping and skipping around in the dark garden.

“Jī-chan,” replied Rikuto, “what seeds? You mean the Mamemaki beans?”

“They were special seeds he’s been saving since he was a child,” explained Mrs. Fukumoto. “I thought he was going to plant them properly one day, not throw them away for Setsubun[4].”

“’Special’? They’re not mere trinkets. They’re magical,” snapped her husband. “I told you several times already, if you remember. Since you know me for a sane and honest man—you wouldn’t have married me if I weren’t—you should’ve been expecting this.”

“And I know you for a playful man,” replied his wife. “What should I have been expecting? Hajime, you were just a boy when. . . .” Mrs. Fukumoto was unable to finish her thought. While carefully gazing at the dimly-lit garden, her eyebrows gradually rose as her jaw slowly dropped.

The children also spotted the strange sight in the garden, and it made their faces take on the expression of curious koi fish: bulging eyes and o-shaped mouths.

Poking out of several places in the garden bed were very large cone-shaped objects. They looked like the noses of fish or enormous triangular drill bits pushing out of the soil. Thorn-like leaves grew out of the sides of these ever-growing cones, especially around their tips. The cones kept growing taller and wider until their bases were as thick as large pillars—two or three grown-ups would not be able to wrap their arms around them. They had soon looked like a couple dozen long fish reaching out of the ground into the night sky. Two of the thorn-like growths on the tips of all the trunks grew longer than the rest. They were symmetrical and angular like a pair of deer antlers. No one knew whether the antler-like growths got any bigger because the trunks of these strange cones grew too far into the dark sky.

“Those were bamboo seeds!” realized Hana.

“Wow! Aren’t they gonna fall over?” exclaimed Jo.

“Yeah,” joined Rikuto. “They’re not growing straight up.”

The wide bamboo trunks bent eastward at an almost 45-degree angle, and all of the two-dozen or so trees grew toward the same point above the horizon. As the trees got higher, they came close together and lined up in a row. They formed what looked like a platform, but instead of being flat, like a raft, its sides slightly curved upward. It looked like a bamboo canal flowing into the sky.

“A floating bridge!” gasped Mr. Fukumoto.

“Hajime,” said Mrs. Fukumoto shakily, “what’s happening? Is this a dream?”

“This is no dream,” said Mr. Fukumoto with a laugh. “Quite the opposite. You’re starting to wake up.”

“The seeds really were magical,” Hikaru said in nearly a whisper.

“Jīji, how did you do this?” Rikuto moved to his grandfather’s side. “This is impossible.”

Rikuto’s and Hikaru’s mother sat at the edge of the engawa and, without bothering about her shoes, pushed herself off onto the springy dragon’s-beard mondo grass. She placed herself between her two boys and wrapped her arms around them, squeezing them tightly. Tears streamed down her face.

“Since high school I’d been angry at papa for making me believe all of his fairy tales,” croaked their mother. “Of course I believed. I was little. But I grew up and decided that he was just a crazy old man.” Looking with wonder at the bamboo bridge, she rested her tear-soaked cheek on Rikuto’s head. “Papa, I’m so sorry I doubted you. I’m so sorry. . . .”

“Okā-san, what fairy tales?” asked Hikaru. “You mean the dragon stories you told us about when we left Fukushima?”

“Yes. I made your grandfather promise not to tell them,” answered his mother. “I didn’t want you boys to get hurt. And I didn’t want you to be fooled like . . . like I thought I was.”

Mr. Fukumoto dabbed his eyes with his handkerchief and continued looking east as the bamboo bridge grew toward a point above the horizon. Squinting, he said, “is that the sunrise already?”

“It’s almost bright enough,” said Mrs. Fukumoto, as she dried her eyes with her scarf. “But I think there’s something on the bridge, and it’s coming closer.”

The light had the shape of a person. It wore a white glowing hakama, a garment usually worn over a kimono. There was a brighter light near the figure that had seemed to hover above.

“Wow!” exclaimed Jo. “There’s a star following that person!”

“It can’t be a star,” said Rikuto. “Stars don’t move. And this one is changing colors. See! Now it looks red. I think it’s a U.F.O.”

“No,” said Hana. “I think it’s just a lamp. He’s holding it.”

The bright light was attached to a long and slender object. It looked wooden, like a staff or a pole, and was a meter taller than the glowing person. There was a shiny halberd or spear blade on the top of the staff. As the figure got closer—and as everyone’s eyes adjusted to the brightness—they noticed that the light was just under the blade, fastened to the shaft. The light came from an assortment of white, clear, and red jewels. The jewels were arranged in such a way that they collectively flowed, like red and clear liquid.

“Is that a naginata spear?” asked Jo.

“Yeah!” answered Hana. “But I’ve never seen one like that before. The ones we use for naginata club don’t have blades. . . . Oh, those jewels are so beautiful!”

The ground trembled, and the wind stirred with each step of the glowing person’s approach. Its presence made one feel like he or she was shrinking. The figure got close enough for everyone to make out its face. It had a white thick beard, white bushy eyebrows, and long white hair gathered up into a topknot. His hair and hakama glowed more brightly than his skin. They thought that he must have been old to have hair that white, but he didn’t have any wrinkles. His large round eyes, long pointy nose, and pinkish skin made him look like a European to their eyes.

The jewels clearly caused the man’s clothes and hair to glow. Compared to the light of the spear, the man was dimmer, and he glowed more intensely on his right side, on the side he held the naginata.

“Hajime, I should take the children into the house,” said Mrs. Fukumoto, as she continued staring up at the bamboo bridge. Because the glowing man was almost an earshot from the garden, she had forced her trembling voice to shrink down to a whisper.

“No,” said Mr. Fukumoto. “Let’s all hear what he has to say.”

“Hajime, we should think about. . . .”

“Trust me, my wife. It’ll be okay.”

Forcing a smile, Mrs. Fukumoto said, “You’ve always been stubborn.”

“And you’ve always been a worrywart,” said Mr. Fukumoto with a smirk.

“I’m scared,” said Hikaru, holding tightly to his mother.

“Me too,” said his mother. “But I trust your grandfather. I think everything will be all right.”

There was a clip-clop sound of geta, Japanese wooden clogs, but no one could see them. The man’s feet were hidden in a warm mist that rolled down the bridge into the garden. He walked so gracefully and quickly that it looked like he was riding on the air. As he approached the group, he slowly turned his head scanning the four children and the three adults. The large bridge looked small next to the approaching figure. The glowing man stopped just before the point where the bridge split into separate trunks.

“Who summoned this Floating Bridge of the High Heavens?” boomed a deep voice.

Citation Information

D.R. Asperheim. “Armor of the Dragon, Chapter One: What Grew in the Garden.” An Unexpected Journal 2, no. 1. (Spring 2019): 117-134.

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[1] A Japanese ogre or demon.

[2] An expression of gratitude before meals, similar to “bon appétit.”

[3] Tornado.

[4] A name many Japanese give for their season of spring festivals and for the last day of winter.